It Shouldn’t Take an Unethical Workplace to Make Great Games

This past weekend, Telltale Games shockingly announced that after 13 years of making games, the studio would be closing down.

A studio defined mostly by its group of constantly ambitious storytellers, it’s a loss in the industry will be felt for years, if not decades, to come. However, overshadowing that news was the fact that when Telltale originally laid off most of its employees last week, it did so without offering any of them any severance.

The story is unfortunately all too familiar in a creative industry. It’s a culture built upon the idea that the people who make games should also be passionate about them, forcing all who work in the field to constantly prove their devotion to their craft. For Telltale, a once relatively small studio before its breakout hit The Walking Dead, the decision to lay off over 200 employees without offering any assistance is incredibly dubious, and points towards that very culture’s inability to put people’s livelihoods before the products that they make.

The human impact of their decision, of course, is what many in the industry have pointed towards in the immediate aftermath. Telltale’s offices, which are located just outside of San Francisco, required most of its employees to live somewhere in the Bay Area – a location notorious for having one of the highest costs of living in the United States. For many former employees, they have found themselves in the middle of a storm they had no option of avoiding, forced to pick up the pieces of their lives in the uncertain aftermath of the studio’s closure.

Perhaps most condemning of all, however, is Telltale’s history of overworking its staff. Like many studios in the industry, Telltale was prone to forcing its employees to work under “crunch” conditions, or extended hours. These types of working conditions can often have devastating effects on employee’s mental and physical health, as employees can work an additional 10 to 30 hours a week, sometimes longer. As with many other developers in the industry, those who put in extra hours at Telltale did so without receiving any additional compensation.

It’s an unfortunate truth that crunch is sometimes an unavoidable aspect of game development. As deadlines close in and plans seem to go awry, crunch can sometimes be the only option. In instances like these, crunch is treated as a reaction to unforeseen circumstances. There are still, in some situations, studios that plan for crunch ahead of time, treating it like a normal phase of game development.

It speaks towards a much larger problem in the games industry that’s been quietly lurking in the shadows for nearly its entire existence. Over a decade ago, Erin Hoffman wrote the essay “EA: The Human Story” that, for the first time, confronted the games industry’s penchant for overworking developers in the public forum. Yet still, 14 years later, things haven’t changed much.

Allegations against development studios have run the gamut in recent years. Everything from unhealthy studio cultures to wide scale sexual harassment and discrimination, painting the picture of an industry in the middle of a crisis. Perhaps more accurately, however, is that this has been a systemic problem in the games industry since its inception. Studios created from the ground up in a culture where their work is seen an immense privilege rather than a practical career path, developers have routinely been forced into a submission because of how lucky they are to be working in games.

Take for instance that earlier this year, when ArenaNet chose to fire two of their writers who worked on the MMORPG Guild Wars 2 over a Twitter exchange with popular streamer Deroir. What began as writer Jessica Price created a lengthy and informative Twitter thread about the difficulties of writing character dialogues in MMOs eventually evolved as Price found Deroir’s comments on her thread condescending.

Although, this of course was merely a catalyst for something much larger at play. After ArenaNet had fired both Price and her co-worker Peter Fries, who had voiced his support of Price on Twitter, ArenaNet’s actions had empowered many bad-faith actors in gaming spheres who see their relationship with developers as directly antagonistic. It’s an event that not only is reflective of the often toxic nature of gaming culture at large, but is also the story of a studio, specifically its CEO in this case, failing to protect its employees and instead folding to the ire of the community.

It’s this through-line that connects so many of these stories in the industry together. Most game companies in one way or another take advantage of their workers – this alone, we can be sure of. Whether it be in the form of unpaid overtime, forcing employees to work through crunch conditions, or failing to protect employees from fan backlash.

In the case of Telltale, once the sword of Damocles had ultimately cut them down for good, its employees were left with nothing. In a single day, over 200 of its workers were suddenly jobless, without healthcare, without a stable income, all the while living in San Francisco, forced to endure an already difficult cost of living. Yet, even still, Telltale shows its inability to put priorities in line, as it chooses to pursue ways of completing the final season of The Walking Dead rather than find a way to pay their employees.

It’s important to remember that, despite how much we may love video games, that these games are made by people first and foremost. Our love often goes towards franchises, brands, companies, or individual lead developers long before it ever reaches the individual team members of a game’s development staff. It’s why it can be so difficult to rationalise people’s lives being affected negatively by games we love. After all, we don’t know the names or faces of those who had to sacrifice their mental and physical health to make these games better. All we have is the games themselves.

So, what can we do, as consumers? The adage “speak with your wallet” may be an easy stance to take, but as history shows, it’s rarely an effective measure against bad business practices. Thankfully, there are things we can do in the short term. Supporting the unionisation of the games industry, for instance, is an important first step to ensure that developers are protected from all sorts of unethical labour practices. That includes crunch, intended or unintended.

Like in all industries, passion cannot be the only motivator of work. Studies have proven that happy and healthy employees are able to work more proficient than overworked and overstressed ones. Even more simply, however, is the mere fact that a great game isn’t worth destroying anyone’s life over. It’s time we woke up to that fact.