Over 30 current and former employees at UK-based developer TT Games have told Polygon that the studio's last decade of works on games under the Lego license has allegedly been been marked with crunch, mismanagement, and sexism, all of which have culminated in a burned out workforce struggling to release Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga.
Stories from developers implicate poor decisions made by current and former management, with more recent criticism for the decision to use an in-house engine for The Skywalker Saga, as well as continued refusal to fix common issues that show up in game reviews while doubling down on systems that may not be appropriate for the family-friendly game series.
Reading about crunch, overwork, and bad management at any studio is heartbreaking enough, but there's something extra sour about reading these complaints at a studio making games primarily for children. TT Games' various licensed Lego titles have enjoyed commercial and critical success over the last decade mainly thanks to their charm and intuitive design, making them more accessible for new players of all ages.
Based on Jack Yarwood's reporting, it seems that different eras of poor leadership struggled to properly manage the challenges of game development. The result has been high turnover, frequent complaints, and now multiple delays for a game meant to combine nine Star Wars movies in one package.
Developers described the studio's crunch policy as "soft-spoken blackmail." Complaints about crunch date back all the way to the studio's founding, and apparently management chose to deliberately plan for crunch instead of working to minimize it.
New systems in place like an overtime exchange and "flexitime" were meant to help balance long workdays, but a 40-hour cap on the latter system meant employees who couldn't cash theirs in fast enough might not get any compensation for extra hours worked under certain circumstances. Any attempt to turn down requests to work extra hours would be met with varying levels of hostility, and developers apparently worked 80-100 hour workweeks, six days a week, during these crunch periods.
Other developers alleged that the studio was a "hostile environment for women," and that gender-based salary gaps and a glass ceiling were fixtures at the company. Some women were also subject to "bullying," comments about their appearance, and other forms of workplace harassment and retaliation.
TT Games co-founder Jon Burton (who left the United Kingdom in 2013) is also accused of frequently yelling at employees in Yarwood's piece.
While developers have turned over rapidly in TT Games' history, so has management, with a rotating door of studio directors and managers all implicated in different time periods of continuing to encourage a culture of overwork. This cascaded badly during the development of The Skywalker Saga, especially as management demanded the company use a new internally developed engine called NTT.
Employees protested this decision, even going so far as to build a Skywalker Saga demo in Unreal Engine to show how it would be much easier to work with. But a desire to limit licensing costs (TT Games' titles release on almost every platform, which would have driven up costs under Epic's pricing plans) prevented the company from making the jump.
This led to a development cycle where employees were both trying to make a video game with an unusually deep combat system (something new for the company) while also dealing with the same issues that come with using any early-in-development tool. Staff have also been removed from the project to work on other TT Games projects, leaving some departments shorthanded while trying to resolve a large number of bugs.
Polygon's full report includes other depressing anecdotes, including mistreatment of QA and management's refusal to acknowledge issues developers knew would arise in game reviews. It's another frustrating reminder that the fun and creativity of the game development business is often used to hide more insidious workplace issues.