How Making Video Games Became a No-Win Situation

How Making Video Games Became a No-Win Situation

How Making Video Games Became a No-Win Situation

Jason Schreier’s Press Reset investigates how labor conditions in a booming industry became so volatile and precarious.

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In May 2012, the video game company headed up by former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling shut down. 38 Studios had only just relocated from Massachusetts to Rhode Island thanks to a $75 million loan brokered by then-Governor Don Carcieri, a Republican, who hoped to transform the state into an East Coast Silicon Valley. The company expanded rapidly to meet the terms of the deal, co-launching the fantasy role-playing game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning while lining up the release of its own ambitious online RPG, code-named Copernicus. But the money ran dry, and at the time of its demise, Schilling’s studio listed an eye-watering $150 million in debt, $22 million in assets, and $320 in petty cash. Its nearly 400 employees were fired abruptly over e-mail, unable to claim their last paycheck.

This story, a staggering example of corporate greed, government negligence, and misguided hubris, takes center stage in the most compelling chapter of journalist Jason Schreier’s Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry. Building on his 2017 book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, the former news editor of the video game site Kotaku, now a video game reporter at Bloomberg, tasks himself with understanding why the industry is subject to such precarious conditions, often at companies seemingly more competently run than Schilling’s.

Talking to the workers impacted by mass layoffs at defunct studios—including Visceral, maker of the acclaimed Dead Space horror series, and Ensemble, whose Age of Empires franchise captivated audiences in the late 1990s and early 2000s—Schreier shows how a cycle of boom and bust became a regular feature of mainstream game development. But in addition to financial mismanagement—often driven by capricious executives considering little more than company stock prices—he drills down into the industry’s working conditions. Schreier introduces us to workers who regularly work 80-hour weeks, often directed by egocentric creative directors liable to scrap months of work in an instant, as well as independent developers such as Dodge Roll grinding on their own passion projects. Writing before the pandemic (which has ballooned gaming’s popularity further), he notes the bitter irony of the industry’s seemingly “astronomical” success and the contingent and volatile conditions many of its workers continue to endure.

And yet Press Reset is an account limited by both time and space. Schreier is mostly concerned with America in the 2010s, a period that saw the major video game companies tighten their belts. Video Game Layoffs, a website set up by VFX artist John Emerson, keeps track of the situation: Since January 2021, an estimated 321 people have lost their jobs, mostly under the callous management-speak of “restructuring.” This includes 190 employees at Activision Blizzard, currently being sued by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing for “numerous complaints about unlawful harassment, discrimination, and retaliation” at the company. But the site, which lists recent major layoffs in China and the Philippines, makes clear that this is a global phenomenon. It is also an unsurprising state for an industry that has tended to prioritize profits over people, one established alongside the rise of commercial technology in the 1970s and ’80s. To solve this problem, which Schreier himself has some ideas for, the industry will almost certainly have to look beyond the logic of boom and bust.

A recurring image haunts Schreier’s book: tens, if not hundreds, of weary game developers gathered in large, impersonal spaces receiving news of layoffs, swiftly followed by panicked phone calls to loved ones. At the Boston development studio Irrational, for example, a trembling Ken Levine, famed lead designer of the acclaimed and multimillion-selling 2007 first-person-shooter game Bioshock (and its similarly successful 2013 sequel), tells nearly 75 people that they’re being laid off. Through scenes like this, Press Reset succeeds in detailing how prevalent and quickly studio layoffs have become an integral part of big-budget video game development.

These events aren’t disconnected but represent a consistent pattern of remarkable corporate groupthink. In 2009, John Riccitiello, the CEO of EA, warned investors that the company’s output in the coming year would be smaller than usual. Nearly a decade later, this turned out to be a strikingly conservative prediction: Having released more than 48 titles in 2010, EA released only 12 in 2018, a trend replicated across the industry’s major companies. During the same period, Sony’s yearly slate shrank from 46 to 20, Activision’s from 26 to 10, Microsoft’s from 21 to six, and Take Two’s from 19 to nine. However you approach it, the type of mainstream big-budget video games Schreier examines contracted and concentrated throughout the period; there are now far fewer large studios and many less big-budget video games than there were a decade ago.

What happened? Crudely put, video games got bigger, prettier, more expensive, and riskier to make. As one interviewee, game artist Chad LaClair, notes, video game roles became specialized as graphical fidelity improved, which was itself tethered to an insatiable appetite for new consumer technology.

So the companies trimmed and reorganized their workforce toward ostensibly less risky propositions: beefed-up sequels in already beloved hit franchises as well as online live-service titles such as the 2014 loot-driven space shooter Destiny. This kind of video game, intended to be played nearly in perpetuity or at least for many dozens of hours, represents the newly emerging creative and economic rationale of major game publishers: fewer titles that occupy more time in players’ lives, and which can be monetized further with additional in-game purchases. Schreier’s account, rooted in day-to-day office politics, doesn’t quite convey this narrative. The layoffs and studio shutdowns presented as shocking, the result sometimes of one “flop or sloppy business decision,” are perhaps a little more grimly predictable, a case of major publishers mutating in order to protect and expand their profit margins.

This opportunistic strategy shift is just one part of an industry that treats its workers as little more than units of labor, and it also leads to the other forms of exploitation Schreier has done excellent work uncovering. He’s reported on numerous examples of “crunch” (industry slang for grueling, usually unpaid overtime) at some of the world’s most recognized studios, including Naughty Dog, the maker of 2020’s The Last of Us II. In many ways, Press Reset is an improvement on Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, which described crunch as merely “ubiquitous” and “controversial,” while also, perhaps inadvertently, valorizing it. The intervening years spent reporting on the industry seem to have engendered a shift in Schreier’s thinking—a more critical way of presenting overwork, which he now refers to in less equivocal terms. In Press Reset, crunch is described as both “insidious” and “brutal,” a more appropriate reflection of the genuine physical and mental health risks it poses.

Still, frustrating elements persist. In Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, there was a notable lack of focus on the debilitating emotional and physical effects of such working conditions. In Press Reset, we catch only occasional glimpses of its effects and those of studio closures and layoffs. As part of 38 Studios’ relocation package, the company offered to buy Massachusetts properties from employees required to move to Rhode Island, but when it filed for bankruptcy, responsibility fell back to the newly unemployed workers. In a cruel twist of fate, former art director Thom Ang discovered he would need to continue repaying a mortgage that was now worth more than the property itself. We also meet J.D. Straw, a veteran writer who, after the 2018 shutdown of his employer Telltale, took on piecemeal contract work while driving for Uber and Lyft. Such examples feel more like marginal details, and the book’s overwhelming focus is still on the fate of the video game companies themselves, whose problematic machinations are relayed in almost tabloid style.

Schreier ends Press Reset with a flurry of ideas to fix this dire situation. He focuses first on the possibilities presented by Disbelief, an outsourcing studio with a “flat, transparent salary policy” that provides support to larger companies on a contract-by-contract basis. But, as Schreier writes, the video game industry is already reliant on decentralized production, not only in the United States but also in emerging sectors like Malaysia and Indonesia with cheaper labor. These companies often do the time-consuming work of creating the three-dimensional models found in video games, and so they are often sites of similarly exploitative crunch. Even without accounting for unpaid overtime, their US counterparts can never hope to match their fees. At Virtuos, a Shanghai-based outsourcing company, the entry-level pay is 5,169 yuan, or a little over $800 per month. By contrast, the average salary for an entry-level artist in the video games industry in the United States is $50,643. This economic reality undermines Schreier’s model of sustainable game development.

Another idea doesn’t so much aim to make the industry less volatile as more viable. Rooted in the past 12 pandemic-inflected months, Schreier suggests that remote work might be a way to soften the tumultuous effect of job losses in the industry. This solution could make lives significantly easier, particularly for immigrant workers who can be left without visas following studio shutdowns. But as a closing argument in the book it feels flat, fixing few, if any, of the structural issues that steer studios toward booms and busts.

For alternative models of production, Schreier could have looked to the rising prominence of worker-owned cooperatives. Motion Twin, one of the longest-running co-ops and maker of the hit 2017 action platformer Dead Cells, is described by writer Vicky Osterweil as a “studio horizontally organized around anarcho-syndicalist principles.” She says it “points to a different way small games could be made.” What’s remarkable is that some senior staff at Motion Twin have called the company home for nearly the entire two decades it’s been in operation. This example of stable employment within the industry shows what can be achieved through shared stakes. It’s not the only one, either. Other recent examples include the Glory Society (whose two founders developed the cult 2017 hit Night in the Woods) and Canada’s Ko Op, a studio that has, against the commercial pressures of the industry, sustained livelihoods producing artful experimental titles.

The interest in worker co-ops reflects larger conversations around labor organization, and specifically that of unionization, but this subject, too, occupies only a handful of pages in Press Reset. Having appeared to lead the conversation among white-collar tech and media workers, American video game workers haven’t yet turned a widely held pro-union sentiment into tangible organization (compared with, for instance, the Alphabet Workers Union in the tech sector or those representing media workers). Like these efforts, unionization in the video game industry could make work more secure while also better protecting workers from businesses facing financial difficulties. Crucially, a union could give them more power over the production process, starting the necessary work of untangling crunch from development.

What readers of Press Reset won’t get is any sense that labor issues within the video game industry go beyond workers in America. We hear too little of those at external development studios in economies around the world earning a fraction of what their US colleagues make, and nothing of factory workers in Southeast Asia putting the hardware together that video games are played on. There’s no space given to the miners in Africa digging up minerals vital to computer parts, many under violent conditions. Top to bottom, video games are exploitative, so much so that writer and researcher Will Partin observed, “There is little need to imagine what the future of global capitalism will look like if unchecked. The game industry is fully capable of showing us now.” When Schreier suggests that we need to press reset, he’s absolutely right, but the transformation required goes far beyond what his book imagines.

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