We explore the volatile video game studio industry and what some of the solutions might be.
In this episode, we talk about Basecamp’s mass resignations, the European Union saying Apple breaks antitrust laws, and Facebook's decision to continue the ban on Donald Trump's account. Then we chat with Jason Schreier, reporter at Bloomberg and the author of Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, and now Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry, coming out May 11, 2021.
Saron Yitbarek is the founder of Disco, host of the CodeNewbie podcast, and co-host of the base.cs podcast.
Josh Puetz is Principal Software Engineer at Forem.
Jason Schreier is a video games at Bloomberg news, and the author of "Blood, Sweat, and Pixels," and "Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry."
[00:00:10] SY: Welcome to DevNews, the news show for developers by developers, where we cover the latest in the world of tech. I’m Saron Yitbarek, Founder of Disco.
[00:00:19] JP: And I’m Josh Puetz, Principal Engineer at Forem.
[00:00:21] SY: This week, we’re talking about Basecamp’s mass resignations, the European Union saying Apple breaks antitrust laws, and Facebook’s decision to continue the ban on Donald Trump’s account.
[00:00:33] JP: Then we chat with Jason Schreier, Reporter at Bloomberg, and the Author of Blood, Sweat, And Pixels, and now Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry, coming out next week.
[00:00:42] JS: The other through line I would say is that this volatility has led a lot of people to burnout of the video game industry, and that’s like a real problem, I think. It feels unsustainable.
[00:00:52] SY: We have a lot of updates on some news items we’ve covered in some past episodes. First off, an update on Facebook’s Donald Trump ban, which we talked about in Season 3, Episode 1. This week, the Facebook Oversight Board came together to decide whether Donald Trump may have his Facebook account re-enabled, which they had indefinitely suspended after the January 6th attack on the Capitol Building that led to the death of five people, in which many believe Trump incited. The Oversight Board ruled that the ban on Trump’s account can stay, but said the indefinite ban on Trump was inappropriate and not in line with Facebook’s policies. It’s called upon Facebook to review the ban within the next six months and “determine and justify a proportionate response that is consistent with the rules that are applied to other users of its platform”. Facebook has said the ban will remain in place while it considers the board’s decision. So let’s just review what the Facebook Oversight Board is. Okay. So it’s not technically Facebook’s board, right? Like technically, like it’s not internal.
[00:01:59] JP: I mean like Facebook is on it, but yes. No, it’s not internal.
[00:02:03] SY: It’s not internal. So it’s supposed to be independent, right?
[00:02:07] JP: It’s made up of 20 former political leaders, some human rights activists and journalists, but they were all picked by Facebook, however, and Facebook funds the board with a $130 million trust and top Facebook executives played a major role in selecting the board members and forming it, but it’s totally independent.
[00:02:30] SY: I don’t really have a lot of faith in this board. Okay. So on the one hand, they did pushback against the Facebook policy. Well, I’m not going to say that it’s good because that depends on how you feel about the pushback, but the fact that there was a pushback at all gives the board a little bit of credibility. So there’s that, but also is Facebook required to listen? What power do they actually have?
[00:02:54] JP: So I like to jokingly call this Facebook Court, but they have no legal power. So the Facebook Oversight Board is not a legal entity. It’s a very grandiose name. They’re even based in London, which like makes me think it’s some outshoot of the EU or something, but it’s not. It is not. It does not have any actual, real power over Facebook. Basically everything it does is a recommendation and the decisions that they have issued to date take the form of either a recommendation or a ruling. Their charter says the rulings Facebook should follow those, and the recommendations, it’s up to Facebook whether to follow them or not. And a lot of this was put in place after Facebook was hauled in front of the United States Congress and put to task for some of its decisions in the past. And this is Facebook’s way of basically creating a sort of third-party entity to kind of stamp some of its decisions or give input into the decisions. It seems like a lot of optics to me. I’m not sure how this is received by the world in general, but it’s kind of like an optics game for Facebook.
[00:04:12] SY: Yeah. It kind of sounds like they’re trying to show that they’re being held accountable by this thing that they created for themselves so that they can kind of avoid other types of accountability. That’s kind of the read that I’m getting from this.
[00:04:27] JP: Yeah. It’s either Facebook has a board to do some oversight and they pick the people and they’re funding it or the alternative would be the government or other governments create such a board.
[00:04:37] SY: Right. So it’s kind of in their best interest that they take the board seriously, right?
[00:04:42] JP: Yeah, I believe so. If they were to just like reject all of the findings from the board, I think there would be a lot of…
[00:04:47] SY: That wouldn’t work.
[00:04:47] JP: Even more criticism to this board is just rubber stamping things.
[00:04:50] SY: Okay. So maybe they will take those recommendations, but six months seems like a… well, I don’t know, it’s a big company. So maybe six months isn’t a long time. But when I first heard that, I was like, “Wow! You got a lot of time to figure this out.”
[00:05:00] JP: Yeah. And it’s really surprising to me that the board basically punted it back to Facebook and said, “Sure, you ban Trump. We agree with that. It’s just the punishment that we have problems with. Go figure it out some more.” So it really does seem like it’s kind of kicking the can down the road a little bit.
[00:05:17] SY: Right.
[00:05:17] JP: I thought it was really interesting. The board did not try to put forward any punishments of their own. They didn’t say, “Hey!”
[00:05:22] SY: I thought that was interesting.
[00:05:23] JP: Right? We think he should be banned for six months or we think he should be banned permanently. They’re just like, “No, your indefinite ban is not in line with your policies. Do better.”
[00:05:31] SY: I’m very curious to see and hear what Facebook does in response to this. So I guess we’re going to have an update in six months.
[00:05:39] JP: I guess. At last everybody just decides in six months that we’re sick of it and they kind of hope it goes away. I don’t know. I guess we’ll see if anything actually comes from it.
[00:05:49] SY: All you guys will forget. There’ll be other more interesting things that will happen in six months.
[00:05:55] JP: Well, our next one has to do with some of the criticisms developers have had of the 30% Apple collects on subscription fees in order to be listed in their App Store. We went more in depth about this in Season 2, Episode 5, when we spoke with Sarah Maxwell, a spokesperson for the Coalition for App Fairness, whose mission is to create a level playing field for app businesses.
[00:06:14] SM: The first one is anti-competitiveness. So the behavior of Apple and other platforms in being anti-competitive and self-preferencing their own apps or services, the 30% app tax that is charged to app developers and passed on to consumers, and then the third one is really about consumer choice. So you really don’t have a lot of freedom when you purchase an iPhone or others in terms of what apps you want to interact with.
[00:06:45] JP: Now the European Union agrees that Apple has had an unfair advantage deciding that it has a monopoly, at least when it comes to the distribution of music streaming apps saying in a preliminary finding that Apple has “abused its dominant position”. This comes from an antitrust investigation that was launched in 2020 stemming from a complaint that Spotify made the year prior about Apple’s licensing agreements. The fact that Apple forces developers to use their own in-app purchasing mechanisms on their devices didn’t sit well with the commission, as well as not allowing app developers to inform people of alternative purchasing mechanisms. The preliminary finding is part of a statement of objections that the EU has delivered to Apple, who now is able to respond either via a written statement or oral hearing. The EU also have several other open investigations into Apple practices and ultimately could force Apple to open up its App Store or assign a fine to the company. So this seems like it might be looking good for small app developers, at least in the EU. And if the EU decides to force Apple to make changes, do you think they’ll do that?
[00:07:48] SY: I don’t know, like I’m thinking about the Apple tags, the little fine my key thing that came out.
[00:07:54] JP: Airtags.
[00:07:56] SY: Airtags. What do I call them? Appletags? Yeah, Airtags. And how Tile, which is one of the original company, but they’re one of the leaders of…
[00:08:04] JP: Yeah, one of the first companies.
[00:08:06] SY: Right. Yeah. Yeah. They threatened to sue Apple and basically said that given that Apple has this huge network of phones that can help track devices, Tile basically doesn’t stand a chance and they’re not able to compete and they had this whole antitrust, whatever thing with Apple. And then as a response, Apple then said, “Okay, fine. We’ll open up our entire ecosystem to anyone who wants to develop a location-tracking-like app on our platform.” And then Tile had no response because they kind of got what they wanted.
[00:08:39] JP: Kind of. Kind of. Their hardware still can’t use that network though.
[00:08:42] SY: Exactly. Well, they got what they asked for. Right?
[00:08:45] JP: Yes, be careful.
[00:08:45] SY: They got what they asked for and got what they wanted. And so they got access to the network that they were trying to sue Apple for. That’s not really their business model, so it didn’t really actually help them and now they can’t sue. You know what I mean? So similarly, it’s like is this enough of a threat for Apple to then go, “Okay, let me fix some things on my own”? Or will they need to kind of have their arm twisted and have the EU actually implement something very directly that forces them to change? I’m wondering if like the threat of it is enough for Apple to enforce a couple of policy changes.
[00:09:18] JP: I would be really shocked if Apple would let a situation progress that they’re forced to say drop the 30% commission fee only in the EU or something like that. I have a feeling. Maybe there’ll be some sort of…
[00:09:30] SY: That will have a domino effect, for sure.
[00:09:33] JP: Right. Right, in the US for sure. So I have a feeling they might either pay a fine or maybe do some like certain apps aren’t allowed in certain countries. I don’t know. I just cannot see Apple allowing an external party to set the percentage of the commission. Apple wants to control that story. They want to control that commission. On the other hand, the EU has no problem waging legislation against Apple or other tech companies. We saw in some of those hearings just Apple threatening Congress and threatening state legislatures and saying, “Oh, if you make us change the App Store rules and policies, the App Store is going to get worse for you and you might not have an iPhone.” And in the US at least, that makes lawmakers just crumble. They’re just like, “Nope, we take it back. We’re good.” Whatever. And lobbyists are in play and it’s a whole thing. But in the EU, none of that seems to matter. The EU is more than happy to slap regulations on companies. So I don’t know what’s going to happen with this.
[00:10:31] SY: Yeah. And I think that with Apple, 30% of the revenue is a big number. That’s a big number to potentially give up so I can totally see them fighting for it. Back to the Airtags example I gave you, I’m sure they’re making like pennies off of that product. You know what I mean? Like $29 Airtags, it’s like I’m sure are not really getting them that far. When you think about 30% of all revenue that’s coming through their apps, that’s a huge amount of money. I assume that’s a lot of money. And so I don’t think they’re going to give that up without a huge, huge fight.
[00:11:03] JP: Right. And I super suspect that even if they have to drop that percentage to one percent, they will do that rather than have some sort of alternate app store or like get rid of the App Store together. I just don’t see it happening.
[00:11:15] SY: Yeah, I'm with you on that one.
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[00:12:12] SY: So this final update comes from something we talked about at length last week, which is the problematic blog posts written up by Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and Heinemeier Hansson titled, “Changes at Basecamp”. The post discusses six directional changes the company is making, including a ban on political discourse at work and a ban of all committees, even for things like diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, which led to a huge backlash, both internally and externally of Basecamp. This decision by the Basecamp co-founders and the subsequent backlash has led to a surprising reckoning. So far, about a third of the company has resigned in the aftermath. Many being department leads. It is also expected that more will follow in the coming weeks. Casey Newton at Platformer has another really great piece about this Basecamp implosion that takes you inside the contentious all hands meeting that followed the uproar around the initial blog post. One very notable thing about the piece was how David Heinemeier Hansson stayed silent throughout the meeting and how Jason Fried refused to say anything other than thank you. After Head of Strategy Ryan Singer said, “I strongly disagree we live in a white supremacist culture.” Singer said, “I don’t believe in a lot of the framing around implicit bias. I think a lot of this is actually racist.” As well as, “Very often, if you express a dissenting view, you get called a Nazi. I have not felt this is open territory for discussion. If we were to try to get into it as a group discretion, it would be very painful and divisive.” The meeting left many angry and in tears, feeling unseen and unsupported. After the meeting, Fried announced that Singer has been suspended and placed under investigation following his remarks. And in the Platformer piece, Fried is quoted as saying, “I denounce white supremacy unconditionally.” Fried penned another blog post titled “An Update” that many are calling a half-hearted apology where Fried says, “Last week was terrible. We started with policy changes that felt simple, reasonable, and principled, and it blew things up internally in ways we never anticipated. David and I completely own the consequences and we’re sorry. We have a lot to learn and reflect on, and we will. The new policy stands, but we have some refining and clarifying to do.” A third is a lot. It’s not a big company to begin with so we kind of have to keep that perspective in mind. But still, a third of your company, that’s a sign. That’s a good chunk of people.
[00:14:41] JP: Yeah. Reports vary depending on their time with the company, whether they got three months or six months’ sufferance or somewhere in between.
[00:14:50] SY: If I had a third of my company leave, I would just freak out.
[00:14:53] JP: I mean, one or two people leave and I know at a company, at a smaller company, especially, and you start to get backlogged on work and maybe response to customers starts to suffer and it definitely takes a toll. So I have a feeling this will definitely impact the company and their ability to do business. Also, if you want to backfill those positions, how do you even begin to hire if you’re a company in this position?
[00:15:18] SY: Right. Because if you are at this point have a pretty crappy reputation in the tech community, I mean, recruiting is going to be super hard. Recruiting is already hard in general, but now it’s going to be a lot harder for them because I can’t imagine. Oh, maybe they’ll attract the wrong people.
[00:15:35] JP: See, I was going to say, I think for about half the people that apply, it’s super hard and for the other half of the people it’ll be super attractive.
[00:15:41] SY: Right. Right. Depending on who you are. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that part to me was just incredible. And then let’s talk about the update. So the update, technically they apologized. They said, “I’m sorry.” But then they said the policies will stand. So?
[00:15:59] JP: Yeah, they also wished the people leaving the company well, like, “We hope you do well on your new adventure.” Everybody had just decided to take a little break, not actually quitting or addressing the fact that these policies are why those people are leaving. It’s not a coincidence that a third of the company just happened to leave now.
[00:16:19] SY: Yeah. They definitely didn’t make that connection explicitly anyway.
[00:16:22] JP: Right. They kind of just punted on that. And then they’re just like, “Yep. This is the policy.” It doesn’t really strike me as an apology.
[00:16:31] SY: No, but were you expecting one? I’m curious. What were your expectations?
[00:16:35] JP: So that’s a really interesting question. There’s been this kind of thought exercise going around. If you were an APR consultant called in by Basecamp, what would you advise those founders to do? And there’s lots of things I’d advise them to do. But I mean, one would be just keep quiet. Let it settle down. I shouldn’t say, like, I don’t believe in any of those. I think what they have done is terrible. I didn’t actually think they were going to be quiet. And I think it gets the route that they don’t think they’ve really done anything wrong. They don’t think these policies are bad. They don’t think they have anything to be ashamed about. They’re framing this as some of our employees disagree with our rational policies and we just have a difference of opinion. If you believe that these policy changes are rational and maybe people are just misunderstanding or they’ve been blown out of proportion, there’s this human tendency to like if I could just explain myself, if I just explain myself right, maybe I’m just not explaining myself correctly, maybe you will understand why I did this.
[00:17:37] SY: I don’t even think they feel obligated to explain themselves, but obviously I’ve never met Jason Fried. I don’t know anything about DHH on a personal level, but my feeling from them just having watched them on Twitter and just kind of keeping an eye on them over the past few years, I guess, since I started coding is that they don’t really care what people think. That’s kind of the vibe I get. They have their opinion. They do the things they want to do. They announce the things that they want to do. And I feel like that’s kind of the end of it. I’ve never really felt that they were the kind of people who needed to publicly be in the right. I don’t know if that’s your take on them, but that’s kind of how I felt about them.
[00:18:15] JP: Yeah. I kind of feel like that. But on the other hand, these two have definitely cultivated a brand of personality around their company and around themselves that they are experts or at least people to model management behavior after. They’ve written several books, espousing the way their company works and the way that they lead, and this is a great way for companies to operate. And I think they very much care about their brand and reputation in that space. This whole episode completely blows that out of the water. I mean, who’s going to buy a management book from Basecamp now?
[00:19:00] SY: Their content marketing stream is going to dry up really quickly.
[00:19:03] JP: Yeah. If I had to guess, I would say they’re more concerned about the idea that their reputation has been damaged as thought leaders in the management space.
[00:19:14] SY: Which is why I’m very curious about this refining and clarifying because I do have a feeling they’re going to announce that. I have a feeling that they’re going to say, like, “Here are the things that we have done that’s a little bit different,” but I can’t imagine it’s going to be that different. Refining and clarifying feels like, “I’m going to do some copy edits.” That’s kind of what that sounds like to me.
[00:19:32] JP: Yeah, or I’m going to sit you down and explain it to you. It reads to me like you’re misunderstanding. I’m sorry you misunderstood. Let me try to explain it to you a little better.
[00:19:42] SY: Right.
[00:19:42] JP: But no, I did not expect any policy reversals from them. We should also like quickly note that no shade to anyone that has stayed at Basecamp or stayed at a company that announced one of these policies being able to just block away from a job in the best of times, let alone in the middle of a pandemic, is something that a lot of people can’t do. I know for myself, I’m terrified to leave a job. I’m always convinced, like, if I’ve ever I’m interviewing, I’m like, “Well, this was it. This was the last job. I’m never going to have another job ever again.”
[00:20:14] SY: Yeah.
[00:20:15] JP: So, I mean, I definitely sympathize with people that are feeling trapped there or don’t feel like they can leave. So we should acknowledge that as well.
[00:20:24] SY: I think it’s really smart. Yeah, absolutely. Especially being developers and making the generally high salary relatively that we make, I think it’s really a privilege that we’re able to move around and we’re able to go to a different company and we’re always in demand, but that’s not true for all developers either. So we have to be very mindful of that. Coming up next, we speak with Jason Schreier, Reporter at Bloomberg, formerly at Kotaku, and the Author of Blood, Sweat, And Pixels, and now Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry, coming out May 11th after this.
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[00:22:18] SY: Here with us is Jason Schreier, Reporter at Bloomberg, and the Author of Blood, Sweat, And Pixels, and now Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry, coming out May 11th. Thank you so much for joining us.
[00:22:31] JS: Yeah. Thank you, Josh and Saron. It’s good to be here. Thanks for having me.
[00:22:34] SY: So Jason, this book goes through a pattern of follies and wonders video game studios make leading many to shut down and their overworked developers are displaced. Can you talk about what the impetus was for you to tell these stories?
[00:22:46] JS: I published a book, as you mentioned, called Blood, Sweat, And Pixels back in 2017. And after that, I knew I wanted to do another book and I wound up landing on the idea of, “I want to cover what happens to people when game studios shut down,” because it happens so often and there’s so many wild stories involved from the people who made BioShock, like a Seminole game, losing their studio shortly afterwards to Curt Schilling, the former Red Sox pitcher, deciding he was going to start a game studio to take on World of Warcraft. So there are all sorts of wild stories. And I decided I was going to go out and interview a bunch of people who were connected to them or who were involved in those and kind of trace this problem in the industry and figure out why it happens and figure out how it can be fixed.
[00:23:32] JP: So can you tell just broadly, are there any themes or major issues that have led to the eventual shuttering of some of these studios? You cover things like Irrational, 38 Studios, Disney Interactive, a bushel of various 2K studios. Is there any through line or is it really case by case?
[00:23:52] JS: Yeah. Well, so I think the through line is that workers don’t have protection when this sort of thing happens. I think studio shutdown can happen for lots of different reasons. I mean, sometimes a studio releases a flop or runs out of money. Sometimes it’s just corporate shenanigans up above, like with Disney, launching a bunch of studios and then deciding a few years later, “Actually we don’t want to get into game. We don’t want to be in games anymore.” So really it can happen for all sorts of reasons. But the through line is that when it happens, workers are just screwed. And so it’s up to the kind of generosity of management whether those workers will get severance, whether they’ll get proper notice ahead of time, and all the other things that you might expect in a humane society. So that’s kind of the biggest thing is that there are no protections in place. The other through line I would say is that this volatility has led a lot of people to burnout of the video game industry, and that’s like a real problem, I think. It feels unsustainable. And I think the main reason for that is that if you lose your job in the games industry, you might have to move across the country or across the world for your next gig. Irrational Games, for example, I was in Boston and there aren’t a lot of game studios in Boston. So all the people who lost their jobs during that shutdown had to either come up with creative solutions, like going indie, which I explore in the book with some people who did that, move across the country for a new job, which some people also did that, or leave the video game industry entirely, which is what a lot of people choose to do and is one of the reasons you don’t see a lot of people who have 10 or 15 years of experience in games. A lot of them have just given up and gone into banking or more stable careers.
[00:25:28] SY: I’d love to dig a little bit deeper into some of the reasons why these studios close because as an industry, gaming is huge, right? Games are such a big part of our lives and our world. It’s kind of surprising that there’s this huge problem of studios closing all the time. So where does that come from? Why does that happen?
[00:25:48] JS: Yeah. I mean, I think that even though gaming makes a lot of money, $180 million in revenue a year, which is preposterous, it’s bigger than Hollywood, there are two things that happen, I think. One is that a lot of that money goes to the very, very top, to the executives, to the shareholders, to people who are making the business decisions rather than the people that are actually making the games. That’s typical of a lot of industries, but it’s worth noting that there’s a list of the highest paid CEOs in America at like the biggest companies a few years ago and both EA and Activision, two of the biggest game companies, their CEOs were on that list. So that’s one thing. The other thing is that game making is very risky. And even though some of these games can be very lucrative. The biggest games take three, four or five years to make and tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions of dollars to actually develop. So you can get to the point where even if you’re a successful game studio, if you’re spending five years on a game and you’re spending a hundred million dollars on a game, then suddenly it has to sell a lot of copies to break even. And your corporate managers probably don’t want it to just break even. They want it to grow exponentially and for the sequel to be even bigger and so on and so on. So the bar for what like success is, the definition of a successful game in the games industry can be a little out of whack.
[00:27:06] JP: You mentioned that the compensation for executives at a lot of these larger companies can be kind of crazy. Many of our listeners are developers, but not necessarily in the games industry. And I’m wondering if you talk about, like, what does the compensation usually look like for developers in game studios? And what’s the disparity like between developers and executives? As an industry, what does that usually look like?
[00:27:28] JS: It’s interesting. Actually, a lot of people in games, especially people in tech-related fields in games like programming, have wound up leaving for tech companies and quadruple their salaries. So if you’re a programmer at a games company, I mean, yeah, it varies pretty drastically, depending on what city you’re in, depending on what company you’re in. But I don’t know, I'm just pulling this number kind of out of my butt here. But if you’re a programmer at a game company, you might make, I don’t know, 120,000 and you can go over to Facebook and make 250,000 plus stock bonuses. Right? So we’re talking about a very different world and a lot of people I’ve heard, the sentiment from a lot of people who work in games like, “Oh, yeah, I don’t do this for the paycheck.” People do it because they love making games. And they put up with the long hours and getting paid less than they’re worth because they love the idea of getting into work every day and working on video games. And that’s extremely satisfying and fun for a lot of people. So it makes sense. But yeah, the numbers are astronomical. Bobby Kotick, who’s the CEO of Activision Blizzard, makes I believe, last time I checked it was something like $30 million a year. And he also gets all these ridiculous stock bonuses worth tens of millions of dollars. I believe Andrew Wilson, who’s the CEO of EA, makes something similar, like $20 million a year. We’re really talking about obscene numbers. And then at the lower end of the totem pole, so if you’re not a programmer, if you’re in QA, for example, if you’re a tester on games, you might make $15 an hour. I spoke to one person for the book who told me they were a QA person on BioShock. So again, we’re talking about super high end, like critically acclaimed elite games. We’re not talking about some Bargain Bin Walmart thing that is like sent to die. We’re talking about the best of the best. This person, she told me she made about $12 an hour as a QA person on BioShock. She said she left the industry after that and she went to a software company. I believe an educational software company where she got a pay raise to $31 an hour. So I think that really says it all about gaming.
[00:29:32] SY: So you talked about how the industry affects game developers in terms of their career. You mentioned people just leave altogether. I’m wondering, can you speak to the psychological effects of these developers? How does it affect their enthusiasm, their interest? I’m wondering how it affects them on a mental health, kind of an emotional level.
[00:29:54] JS: Yeah. I mean, a lot of things, there are a lot of problems in the games industry that I’m sure are really, really hurting people’s mental health and leading to burnout. I mean, I think that’s ultimately the thing that like a lot of people have issues with mental health at work for a variety of different reasons. You might feel stressed. You might have a terrible boss. You might not get along with your coworkers, whatever it is, but like you combine that sort of like typical work issues and typical drama with some of the bigger issues in gaming, like knowing that you could lose your job at any time and have to move to some other city and uproot your family and also knowing you’re getting paid less, knowing you’re working crazy hours sometimes because there’s this trend in games called “crunch”, which is the video game lingo for excessive overtime over like weeks or months at a time. And it can all just add up, not to mention some of the issues that I’m sure tech workers are also dealing with sexism and racism and harassment there. You add all that up and it just leads to a lot of burnout. And one of the things that I found over the course of reporting on Press Reset is just a lot of people have burnt-out of the video game industry, which is really sad. One of the things they tried to do in the book was propose some ways that hopefully this volatility can be improved and fixed and try to find some solutions because it just seems like it’s not sustainable as it is right now.
[00:31:14] SY: I want to dig into a little bit about the stability of the game developer role. One thing you talked about in the book is that it just takes a long time to make a game. It takes many years, three to six years. And throughout that time, I can’t remember the way you put it in the book, but it was like making a movie while building the camera, right? The technologies can change over time, things in the economy can change over time. The games themselves change. There’s just so much inherent instability and just the process of making a game that it’s kind of no surprise that the job is also a little bit precarious and kind of unstable. But then we talk about other organizations, other entities like Steam and indie games that may be kind of helped in terms of finding a little bit of stability in their jobs.
[00:31:58] JS: Yeah. Well, so the biggest difference between now and maybe 10 years ago is that it’s much easier to make a game and release a game on your own. You no longer need the old gatekeepers of the past, the big publishers, because you no longer need to sell your game as a CD ROM at Walmart or Target or GameStop. Nowadays, you can just make a game. You can download a program. Anyone on this call right now could download a program, make a game, and release it and sell it on the internet without having to deal with any sort of publisher, any sort of big company. That sort of has pros and cons of course, but it’s democratized game development in a way that has made it much easier for people to recover from these studio shutdowns by going off and doing their own thing. And that’s something that I explore a lot in Press Reset is after a rational, a group of developers decided, “Hey, instead of going and writing the triple a treadmill, the big budget game treadmill, we are going to go off and make our own studio.” And so I followed them for a while and their journey. Same thing happened at EA, some people left and they went off and did their own thing and some of those people have found wild success, some people have found less success, but it can be invigorating, especially once you’ve been through the ringer of a studio shutdown to go off and kind of make your own destiny.
[00:33:17] JP: So the book you talk about a company called Disbelief and how their model might be something other companies could emulate to solve some of these issues. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
[00:33:26] JS: Disbelief is a company that was founded by people who left Irrational Games, the BioShock makers, and they said, “Hey, we’re going to start a company that doesn’t make games, a game company that doesn’t make games, a game company that does programming to help other games and help other games come out.” And so far, the model has worked really well for them. And what’s really interesting about them is not only that they just work with a bunch of different clients and they’re essentially like a service house, but also they have a lot of almost radical practices at their studio. The biggest being their pay transparency. They have a whole database that has each title and then a pay. I don’t know if it’s a range or just a minimum. I don’t remember about it, but it’s like you know exactly how much you’re going to make if you have that title and you know exactly how to get to that title. You know exactly how to be promoted. You know exactly what criteria are expected of you to hit that title, whether it’s programmer one or senior programmer or whatever. And yeah, this is something that I think many, many industries and companies could benefit from, this idea of just radical transparency when it comes to salary, because we’ve all heard so many horror stories about how two people with the same exact title could just be making drastically different salaries, especially if one of them is part of a marginalized community, if one of them is a man and one of them is a woman. There’s just so much unfairness when it comes to salary. And so for this company to do that, essentially, they almost feel like a union and that they are this band of people kind of banding together and signing contracts with outside parties that they believe are fairest for all their people. Of course, it’s not a union because it’s still a company that’s owned by two people and run by two people and then the rest of them are just employees there. But a lot of this stuff, practices like the salary transparency, keep them happy and have made it feel like a really great place to work for a lot of those people. So yeah. I mean, I think that’s a really interesting model for a variety of reasons.
[00:35:16] SY: So where do unions fit into all of this? Would they have helped developers at all in some of the stories you tell in your book? Or are they kind of a nice idea but wouldn’t really have done very much?
[00:35:27] JS: Yeah. Okay. So you look at 38 Studios, right? That’s the studio where former Red Sox Pitcher Curt Schilling essentially launched this thing, put his own money from baseball into it, and it imploded in glorious fashion in 2012 to the point where like everybody came in one day and were told, “You didn’t get your paychecks today.” So those people, every single person, it was about 400 people who worked for the company at large and every single one of them was robbed of their final paycheck. So they did not get paid for weeks of work and also suddenly found themselves unemployed without any warning, without any severance, nothing. They were just stranded. Some of them got really screwed because the company had offered to buy their houses when they moved. They moved from Massachusetts to Rhode Island and the company essentially said, “If you can’t sell your house, we’ll take the mortgage over from you until it’s sold.” And then those employees found after the company exploded that, hey, actually, the mortgage responsibility just fell back to them. So they were really screwed over. I think what a union could have done, maybe not stop the company from running out of money. I don’t think that would have been possible, but a union could have ensured, made it illegal to let everybody go without severance and therefore forced Curt Schilling to wind down the company two months beforehand. I mean, instead of trying to like risk everything on some gamble that didn’t wind up working, he could have said in March, “Hey, okay, we’re running out of money. We got to shut things down,” and given everybody two months of severance, as you would expect in a case like this. Instead of just holding onto the very dear end, running out of money entirely and just screwing everybody over. So union could have made things a lot better for those people, prevented all those people from getting totally screwed. Even if a union couldn’t have stopped the company from exploding, it could have at least made people’s lives better.
[00:37:18] JP: So one of the things I found really surprising was the focus on kind of a nomadic lifestyle a lot of game developers have moving from city to city, gig to gig as studios open and close. In the non-game development world, we’ve had remote work for a while and that’s just exploded since the COVID-19 pandemic happened. Has the same thing happened in the game industry? And if it has, do you see it continuing after people go back to offices? It’s interesting. I don’t know the answer to the second question and I’m very curious to see what happens. No, no, no, I’m actively like reporting for Bloomberg and writing, like trying to figure out what people are doing because I think people are still making decisions at these companies as to like what’s going to happen in the future. But yeah, it’s interesting. In software development, I think it’s a lot easier to be remote than it is in kind of creative pursuits when sometimes it can be really helpful for people to sit in the same room and be staring at a whiteboard. But that said, there are some indie studios that have been totally virtual this whole time. And it’s really the biggest companies, the bigger game companies that are kind of insistent that people work in the office. And so what we saw over the pandemic was productivity did go down in the video game industry. A lot of games got delayed. A lot of people got hampered by it. But it’s hard to isolate remote work as the only factor for that. I mean, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. So who knows? There could be all sorts of mental health reasons and childcare reasons. And there are a lot of reasons that people’s productivity has gone down over the past year. So I don’t know. I don’t know if companies are going to say, like, it seems impossible to me that companies wouldn’t be more flexible moving forward, especially because it could be such a useful solution to so many of these lows. Like if you were to say, “Okay, everybody can work remotely now,” we would just change everything for people in the industry, it would stop a lot of the burnout because people wouldn’t have to move every time they needed a new job. They wouldn’t have to uproot their lives and take their kids out of school and they would be able to stay in the industry long-term. Because even if you couldn’t prevent your studio from shutting down, it would still suck to lose your job, but just knowing that you could stay in the same place and like look for jobs all over the internet and have accessibility to as many places as possible, I mean, that would just change everything.
[00:39:31] SY: I imagine that would also give you a little bit more leverage and a little bit more power too in your role, if you’re able to say I don’t need this job as much as I may be used to because I can work remotely, I can jump to another studio. So you better treat me right. You know what I mean? You probably have just a little bit more power in that relationship too.
[00:39:50] JS: Oh yeah, a hundred percent. And also, I mean, on the flip side, like it’d be really good for companies in terms of finding the best talent. There’s a lot of talent out there from people, especially like if you’re coming from a family where maybe you don’t have a lot of money, maybe you’re in middle America somewhere, and you’re not near any game studios, you might really just not have the means to make it out to San Francisco or Seattle or something to go and try to meet people and have an internship and like do all the things that you need to do to build a career. And just like expanding opportunities to everybody would just allow for so much more talent to come in. And yeah, I mean, I think it would be beneficial for everyone ultimately, even though I do think you lose something for not being in an office, you lose something socially listening creatively, but the trade-off to me seems to be worth it for the accessibility there.
[00:40:42] SY: Yeah. And that’s one of the things that I wonder because I’ve heard that a lot. I’ve heard people say that working remotely, you lose some of that social element, that social aspect, you lose some of that creativity. And I always wonder, do you really or is it just a different way of being creative that you’re not used to? And I’m very biased because I’ve been working remotely for like six years. So I’m the OG self-quarantine. I’ve been doing this. And I’ve worked on a bunch of greater projects. I’m a podcast producer. You know what I mean? And a host. So I did tons of creative stuff and I’ve never personally felt limited by the fact that my colleagues were all over the countries and times all over the world, like that just never felt like a limiting factor to me. And so I kind of wonder, either my creativity isn’t that great or maybe the explanation I prefer is that we can be creative, we can be just as productive and social. Maybe it just looks different than what we’re used to.
[00:41:39] JS: Yeah. I mean, I think also game making is a very different kind of creativity than pretty much anything because you have to be able to pick up a controller and say, “Is this fun? Is this fun to play?” And that’s such a nebulous question. And it’s such a question that just has different answers all the time and it can be really tough to answer that question when you’re just sitting at home versus like standing around with someone and maybe you can tweak the settings in real time to see like, “Oh, shooting this monster feels fun now. Oh, but maybe if the control was a little bit to the left here, maybe if the monster’s head exploded a little bit more slowly,” and like being able to do that in person I think is a different vibe than remotely.
[00:42:20] SY: So after reading this book, I definitely left a little pessimistic. The industry seems so broken and just such a crappy place to work that I don’t really know how to guess what the future might look like or how I should feel about it. So I’m wondering, are you optimistic?
[00:42:41] JS: Yeah. I’m optimistic. I do think that there are things that can be done. And some of the things I mentioned, I mean the remote work, unionization, more support of people. And I think that, I guess I’m optimistic that the more that we talk about these things, the more they will be confronted and the more they will be solved because it just doesn’t feel like we can keep going the way that we’ve been going and I think that people are starting to realize that. So yeah, I guess I’m optimistic, but I’m kind of optimistic by nature. So maybe I’m foolish also.
[00:43:10] SY: Well, congrats on the book and thank you so much for joining us.
[00:43:13] JS: Yeah. Thanks guys.
[00:43:24] SY: Thank you for listening to DevNews. This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Editorial oversight is provided by Peter Frank, Ben Halpern, and Jess Lee. Our theme music is by Dan Powell. If you have any questions or comments, dial into our Google Voice at +1 (929) 500-1513 or email us at [email protected] Please rate and subscribe to this show on Apple Podcasts.