When EA_Spouse posted her now-famous open letter regarding working conditions at Electronic Arts, it wasn't as if no one had ever complained before about the quality-of-life issues plaguing the game development community.
But she brought the discussions into the open, notes Rusty Rueff, EA's executive vice president of human resources, and that, he says, is a good thing. "Maybe I'm old-fashioned," he told Game Developer, "but I think it's cathartic when people have a chance to get something off their chest. And obviously, in our industry, how we work is something that people need to talk about."
Indeed, EA_Spouse says her goal was to break the ice, to get developers talking. They are, however, talking about more than just convincing management that conditions need to improve. There's now a buzz in the industry about unionizing - and it's getting louder.
Many industry observers see close parallels between the gripes of today's game developers and those of workers in the movie industry in the 1930s and '40s, particularly in the animation segment. The difference is that Hollywood unionized, and the game industry is still only talking about it.
Hollywood does it - but should game developers organize, too?
Who Controls Hollywood?
"What you saw in Hollywood's studio era was a lot of independent producers who slowly consolidated into a few key players - we call them the Five Majors - who gained a monopolistic control over distribution," describes Tara McPherson, chair of the University of Southern California Cinema School, Critical Studies division.
"They pretty much set the policy within the industry, decided what kind of product would be made, the rates that would be paid, and whether you'd have the opportunity to get your movie distributed to theaters," she says. "I see that being replayed pretty dramatically in the game industry. In just the last few years, the number of small, independent game production companies in Los Angeles alone has plummeted. The possibility of distributing an independently-produced game without connection to some bigger player is almost nil."
As time went on, Hollywood workers found themselves powerless to bargain with managers on the amount of pay they received and the hours they worked, and turned to unions like the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America to represent them in negotiations. But it was a slow transition, says McPherson, because white-collar workers, like screen writers and editors - and game programmers and artists - see themselves as different from factory workers and are often reluctant to consider unionization.
"Oddly enough, the Hollywood managers and studio executives made very much the same arguments as the Electronic Arts executives are making right now: that unions are for people who do dirty work and that they result in a kind of group-think that destroys individual creativity and the ability to negotiate your own wages," McPherson says. "But I would argue that the Hollywood unions were absolutely essential to the workers having decent jobs."
McPherson believes the same is true of the game industry - that the big game publishers aren't going to "benevolently change today's abysmal work conditions without pressure. They will make small changes, but not much else, if the threat of unionization seems real."
And Microsoft Begat WashTech…
Unions are, in fact, eyeing the game development community, and the Seattle-based Washington Alliance of Technology Workers makes no bones about it. WashTech, as it is known, is a local of the Communications Workers of America, having been formed seven years ago by contract workers hired by Microsoft through temp agencies, who at the time comprised more than 50 percent of the software giant's local workforce.
One of those workers was Marcus Courtney, a contract test engineer, now president of WashTech.
"You could work for years without being converted to full-time employee status," says Courtney, "which meant you'd never have any job security or decent benefits. And, in the mid-'90s, Microsoft was pretty much the only game in town for tech workers."
When Microsoft lobbied for changes in overtime standards - employees who made at least $27.63 per hour were ineligible for time-and-a-half - it sparked a spontaneous email protest to the state government and, ultimately, the launch of WashTech.
Now, seven years later, Courtney claims that the big game companies are trying to limit their employees' conversations about wages and working conditions. He's reaching out to them via online forums and job boards "to tell them the advantages of joining a union and what we have to offer because not a lot of white-collar workers understand the union process." He claims that while his is the first union dedicated to representing high-tech employees, he wouldn't be surprised if other unions, like the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, started making similar efforts.
Complications and Consequences
But there are those who argue that unions may not achieve the goals of game developers, and one of those people is Adam Levin, an attorney who practices labor law at the Los Angeles-based firm of Mitchell, Silberberg, and Knupp. He most often represents employers in the movie industry.
"While there are perceived benefits to unionization, it's very important for employees to recognize the tangible consequences of bringing in a labor union," he warns. "They may include the rejection of union proposals by employers, the possibility of strikes, increased production costs that may lead to runaway production work - which could mean layoffs - plus the expense of union dues and initiation fees."
Levin calls EA_Spouse's open letter to the industry a wakeup call to employers to re-examine working conditions, particularly crunch times, "which used to be sporadic and more recently have extended to a kind of crunching throughout the year."
"It's always my advice to employers that they should have an open door with their employees to [let them air their] grievances and to always try to address those grievances," he recommends. "The wise manager will recognize that working out an amicable resolution with employees is the preferred route to either litigation or unionization."
Levin cautions that unionization frequently means increased labor costs, which does no one any good. "If a publisher's labor costs go up in such a way that it can no longer make a profit, it will have great difficulties with its shareholders. If it needs to pass those costs along to, say, Wal-Mart [as a retail channel] and, in turn, to the consumer, I suggest that neither one will accept those increases. As a result, game makers may end up going out of business or moving work to Canada or Europe where unions are less of a factor, and then there will certainly be layoffs. So everyone needs to be aware that, with increased labor costs, which are inevitable when you have a union, there are going to be consequences."
But Tom Buscaglia, who calls himself "The Game Attorney," begs to differ. The only thing he believes is "inevitable" is the unionization of the games industry.
"I'm just not sure there's a way around it," admits Buscaglia, a principal at Miami-based T.H. Buscaglia and Associates, who once specialized in labor law but now represents independent game developers. "The problem is that the crunch scenario has been built into the equation; in a real sense, the publishers' backs are against the wall. If they currently need their people to work 60 or 80 or 100 hours a week in order to build a game that sells for X number of dollars, there's no way they can now tell everybody, 'It's okay, we're only going to have you work 40 hours a week,' because then their production costs will double. They can't be magnanimous because they ultimately have to answer to their shareholders. And so, in a way, having a union come in might take the heat off of them. It might be a win-win situation."
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when crunch "got built into the equation." Certainly, it hasn't always been so. At one time, the game industry consisted of small groups of game enthusiasts working together feverishly and endlessly to build a title they believed in. They worked long hours because they were driven by passion. But over the last 10 years, that model has pretty much changed to a commercially-driven industry inhabited by big, publicly-traded companies.
"What you've got now aren't games emerging from the passion of individual developers but repetitive products driven by economic considerations," notes Buscaglia. "We've got an assembly line of people working on the fifth iteration of a football game that comes out every year like clockwork and the passion is gone. They may like what they're doing, but it's culturally inappropriate to continue the same model."
One Spouse Has Her Say
That's what EA_Spouse was referring to when she posted her open letter regarding her fiance's working conditions. Speaking to Game Developer (anonymously still, at her request), she reiterated how game-building needs to be fixed from both process and management standpoints so that deadlines can be met without extended crunch periods.
Remember those old newsreels from the 1930s? Ford Motor Company goons with baseball bats chasing down auto workers in old Detroit? Most of the violence in our business takes place in our imaginations, but overturning the current work practices of studios and publishers will jolt us all, so get ready for reality - struggle and strife. In my conversations, I hear developers yearning for three things:
Unions may help, but they hardly guarantee a life of ease. A business that vaguely resembles our own - making movies - is heavily unionized, but that doesn't mean cushy jobs. Everyone in Hollywood works hard. Typically, craftsmen on a movie set sign up for 12-hour days. The difference is they get paid overtime for four of those hours and we don't.
Some of us believe that superior organization will contain the extra costs of fair compensation. Are we right? Unless employees are willing to duke it out, we'll never know.
-Hal Barwood, Finite Arts
"We've followed a Hollywood model and it's become a train wreck," she says. "When a publisher takes a proposal from a [development studio], there needs to be specifics - what that developer is going to do and how, and how [the developer] is going to meet a certain deadline because it has such-and-such resources. That's not what happens now, and I know that because I've written proposals. Now, a developer just says it wants to make such-and-such a game, and the publisher basically plays Russian roulette with whether that team can meet its commitments."
Since her letter was posted, EA_Spouse reports that there has been a change of tone at EA. When someone suggests that a design team needs to go to a six-day week, the idea is immediately dismissed with a comment like "No, we can't do that, not with all the publicity that's going on."
I don't think that will be very long-lived," she says. "In
my opinion, the only thing that will get publishers to budge is
unionization, which I believe to be the best solution."
EA_Spouse's immediate plans are to launch GameWatch.org, a web site where game developers can share information about their companies.
"There are some development houses, like BioWare and Cyberlore, that are the good guys, who work hard to do right by their people and still create good products," she notes. "I think other developers need to know that. And so we're creating GameWatch.org, which will be like a movie review site, only instead of critiquing movies, we'll critique game studios. Our goal is to have it up by June."
Purveyor Of Continuous Improvement
In Montreal, a man with the enviable title "VP of continuous improvement" says he agrees with EA_Spouse when informed that she is in favor of fixing the game-building process. He's Ubisoft's Michel Allard, and he says that, without a doubt, the solution to the quality-of-life issues is changing the way games are made.
"We've formed an internal committee that's going through every type of documentation on project management in all types of industries, trying to learn from them to see what can be done in our business," he explains.
As a result, Ubisoft has put into place a project management office that supplies project coordinators for every team and that has developed methods to better schedule and estimate tasks.
"We've gained ground, but that doesn't necessarily manage all the types of ambitions that are out there," he says. "Sometimes the impetus to work long hours comes more from a certain bravado or peer pressure than from management. So this is a multifaceted problem, and it's our biggest challenge - to protect creativity while gaining better control over our projects."
Specifically, Allard says Ubisoft is paying more attention to the concept and pre-production phases of the development process. There needs to be someone, he notes, who says that the game will be just as good without an expensive feature or a time-consuming addition.
"I think the marketing people would say that, yes, we need all the extras," he adds. "But whether we really need them is not an easy answer to come by. I think we have a lot of good minds getting together on this problem and, over time, we'll gain control of it."
Allard wants to believe that unionization won't take place at Ubisoft, adding that unions are very capable of hurting creativity. "Whether they will come is difficult to say," he concludes. "I don't think any industry is totally protected from it."
Symptoms of an Industry at Large
EA's industry leadership and the critical and commercial success of our games is a reflection on the high caliber of people we hire in every job. They are simply the best talent in the business, period. To keep our people motivated, we need to constantly ensure that their creativity, hard work and dedication is supported and rewarded.
To succeed at this, we are committed to working with teams and individuals to identify both strengths and weakness in our processes.
That said, we recognize there are legitimate concerns about work-life balance in this industry. The game industry is going through some significant growing pains, and as the industry leader, EA is in the forefront of addressing these issues.
We've got an ambitious goal: to set new industry standards for management and recognition. At EA, we're listening and communicating directly to our people and building a model for the best culture and work environment in the entertainment industry, a place where the best and most creative people can build and sustain long-term careers making the world's best games.
-Rusty Rueff, executive vice president of human resources for EA
At EA, there's no doubt whatsoever that unions represent the dark side.
According to Rusty Rueff, the executive VP of human resources, "There will always be people who want to step in and take a piece of the pie or get in the middle of things without contributing to the growth of the business. I personally don't believe that our people are the type who actually want to have a third party representing them and determining their wages, hours, or working conditions. And so it's my job and the job of the leaders inside the company to ensure that we're doing the right things so that those kinds of things aren't necessary."
Rueff believes that the working conditions and challenges at EA are symptomatic of the entire industry, not just his company.
"We're all trying to squeeze that last 10 percent out of the current technology, which is a little bit less exciting than it will be a year from now when we're working on the PlayStation 3," he says. "But I do believe that getting better at project management, scheduling, discipline, and pre-production - those are all things we all need to become smarter at. Those are the things we aren't doing as well as we want to."
To that end, EA says it has recommitted to what it calls its X Process, a production practice that has the team focus on the features of a game prior to going full-speed ahead on a project. The process also dictates that the team build one level of a game prior to the studio committing to the project entirely in order to make certain everyone understands what the game involves.
"We've taken every studio person in every EA location around the world through the process these last few months, and I think everyone is convinced that we're serious about it," says Rueff. "In my mind, it's like running a marathon. You want to make sure that you have a kick left in you at the end, and you don't mind having to kick if you don't have to start the kick too early. So we're being very open with everyone and discussing when we think the crunch is going to come, how we're minimizing the crunch, how we're working together to determine what that crunch will be. Everybody at EA has been communicated to and now understands this."
I Want To Make Games When I Grow Up
In a soon-to-be-published study by the University of Texas at Austin's Digital Media Collaboratory, 310 middle school students in Texas were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Of the 124 male respondents, the favorite occupation (out of 40 choices) was professional athlete; the runner-up was video game designer.
Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), wonders whether those students will change their minds when they catch wind of what a game designer's work schedule and wages are like.
"This is not just an EA thing," he says. "As word slowly gets out that regardless where you work, the conditions are all miserable, how easy do you think it's going to be for our industry to attract new talent? When people start avoiding us because they believe us to be a bunch of slave drivers, that's got long-term, industry-wide implications. That's why the IGDA sees this as a very serious issue."
Last year, the association did an informal survey of game designers which revealed that about 30 percent of the respondents didn't intend to be in the industry within five years; more than 50 percent said they will be gone in 10.
"That is a huge number," says Della Rocca. "Imagine if half the people in Hollywood left every 10 years. What kind of experience would remain? Where would the talent come from?"
In terms of solutions, Della Rocca believes the industry has to enlighten the rank and file as well as management. "Although they have the passion, developers need to put their own brakes on, and they want to have a life outside of the game industry because that will make them better game developers. We need to educate the middle managers, the project managers, and the producers - or bring in outside management [to] deal with the chaos and the fires and the pressures of managing large-scale, big-budget projects."
As for unionization, the IGDA is what Della Rocca calls "union neutral." He says it isn't the IGDA's role to condemn or condone the creation of a union. "It's really the choice of the workers to decide whether they want to unionize," he says.
Indeed, it's likely the discussions will continue, the unions will pursue educating about the benefits of organizing, and management will try to convince game developers that conditions will get better without unions. And some of those who are talking now credit EA_Spouse for accelerating the conversations.
just wants her man home at night," Buscaglia says, "and
I think there are a lot of people who feel the same way."