June 14, 2024 3:05 AM   Subscribe

To get a sense of the scale here, video games are worth more than the film industry. And the music industry. In fact, the video game industry is bigger than both of those industries combined. That’s staggeringly big. The immense size and economic power of the industry, which is largely nonunionized, creates regulatory gaps, leading to inevitable dysfunction and exploitation. This makes life miserable for employees and consumers alike, both in the workplace and beyond. [Jacobin]
posted by HearHere (30 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
inspired by a detail from a link on a recent thread:
"As of this writing, the games industry is going through another convulsion. Despite a massive number of acclaimed releases in recent years, thousands are being laid off. Much like industry staff in 1983 and 1984, there will be projects they worked on that go unfinished or unpublished, and some will be unable or unwilling to continue working in the games field, delivering a blow that will reverberate for years, much as the aftermath of Crash did."
there are, of course, many more previously
posted by HearHere at 4:02 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]

The games industry has relied on young, talented, creative people willing to be exploited and endure backbreaking crunch time just to be part of that creative process and has for a long, long time. A lot of the big shops don’t know how to operate any other way.

One of the reasons gaming shops need unions is because they’re one of the worst-managed, worst-run parts of the tech sector.
posted by mhoye at 4:18 AM on June 14 [18 favorites]

My broad sense is that gaming culture is so off-putting to the very type of politician that would try to introduce legislation to this industry -- and certainly to the kind of activist who would try to bring a boots on the ground effort toward unionization in that industry -- that it's just unlikely that this ship would be righted any time soon. Imagine there were huge worker rights problems inside, say, NASCAR. Who would fix that?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:26 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]

I just found out that my RSS reader doesn't show emoji in subject lines. I was very confused by a post lacking a headline.

As a software engineer who mostly does contracting, I've known a double-digit number of colleagues who have left to work in the games industry over the last decade-plus. I can only think of one who lasted more than a year, and that one still burned out in less than three. This industry is brutal.
posted by mystyk at 4:34 AM on June 14 [6 favorites]

Imagine there were huge worker rights problems inside, say, NASCAR. Who would fix that?
Denny Hamlin [the daily downforce]
posted by HearHere at 4:57 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]

So, eighteen year veteran of AAA here, plus tons of contracting with over a dozen small to medium-sized teams, started my own co-op indie studio (and shut it down after my best friend and principal investor passed away): I have some thoughts on this.

First and foremost is that I do not see this changing partly because the industry is full of people who, like me, see themselves as artists rather than labor, and partly because in a sane society with universal basic income I would crawl over broken glass to do this job for free. I have almost never been asked to work an all-nighter, and if I had ever been counting I would've lost track at some point after the first hundred I opted to. During the eight years I worked on the Bioshock series I averaged 72.5 hours/week (there was a "timecard" spreadsheet), over 80% of that overtime went uncompensated, and nearly all of it was voluntary. I genuinely love the praxis of making games that much. I wake up every morning - unless I just pulled an all-nighter - looking forward to what I'm going to do for work that day. Almost always more than what comes after work, if there is an after.

It pays half as much as I could make with my skillset outside of games - and that is not hyperbole because I've turned down several recruiters from autonomous driving groups and one military drone sim team, though I did take a contract on NASA's VR trainer for Artemis - but... I still have a nice apartment in a new building in Cambridge. I'm looking to buy a new Prius. My needs and most of my wants are met: never rich but comfortable.

There is a line of fresh college graduates - and this past year a line of recently laid off former and future co-workers - backed up out the door and into the street desperate for a chance to take my seat for even less pay. Most of the ones who eventually get a seat will burn out in the first 1~3 years. The survivors after that are almost always for life. When people ask me about getting into the industry I always say the same two things: 1) Don't. Unless you're absolutely certain it's the one thing you were put on this planet to do, and 2) if you are that certain? Don't fucking worry about a degree, if you're talented enough and hard working enough to keep up then nobody here could possibly give less of a shit, and nothing you will learn in any degree program will prepare you for the reality.

Side note: a lot of companies treat their QA like dogshit - sometimes QA are technically employees of a legally separate entity to further enable this, and that's why if you hear about a games industry union being formed 95% of the time it's QA only. The companies that treat QA well are also the ones most likely to promote the best QA workers to development jobs. If you are considering taking a QA job check around (glassdoor, etc) for a company that does this.

gaming culture is so off-putting to the very type of politician that would try to introduce legislation to this industry -- and certainly to the kind of activist who would try to bring a boots on the ground effort toward unionization in that industry

I try not to be confrontational on Metafilter but I am struggling not to spit nails at this. Gamer culture and game developer culture are two very, very separate things. Game development teams generally run from feverishly leftist crunchy-granola hippies in the art department to programming departments containing a mix of proto-marxists, "non-political" who genuinely mean it and Valley-style social brogressive quasi-libertarians (the latter are truthfully conservatives, but sufficiently scared of being perceived as such they will painstakingly respect pronouns). Audio is closer to the art department and Design is almost dead center between art and engineering, politically (which is still extremely left by US standards).

The day after Texas passed its recent anti-trans and anti-abortion laws, both mornings our CEO sent out a companywide email: if you or your family are potentially affected by this, we will offer our standard relocation package (typically $10~15K) to help you move to a safe state. That offer was for every employee from directors to junior QA.

To be clear: this is the furthest fucking thing from goddamn NASCAR. Further than most other media, even. There is no cultural problem in terms of politics, no failure to understand the importance of workers' rights or compensating people for their labor. There is only the reality of being in thrall to Capital, of knowing you could trivially be replaced but also being so in love with the work that you're extremely unlikely to rock the boat in the first place.

And I have no idea how to solve that short of "easy, just destroy capitalism!" or if it can be solved. If I even want it to be. What if they tried to take away my ability to work crunch when I felt like it? The very idea of that makes me feel sick.

"Okay, but, Ryvar you do realize you're something of an outlier, even for the games industry?"

No fucking duh. The problem is that even if I'm a bit towards the extreme side here, and I am, there's more than enough people, more than close enough to feeling the same way, to keep every seat filled and then some.

And that's why I don't see a lot of possibility for change. Despite knowing how deeply sick all of this is from a workers rights perspective. I don't want to work less: I just want to be fairly compensated for the work I will do unless I am forcibly stopped. The entire games publishing industry exists to prevent that compensation from ever happening.

There's a whole part two about the limits of ability to clearly communicate creative vision in the early stages of a project vs maximum sustainable team size at various production stages vs steady creep in consumer expectations and how crunch is just basically inevitable unless we completely demolish capitalism first, but writing the above has gotten me worked up enough that I want to stop typing this now and get to work.

None of this is healthy, not even remotely, but I don't think anybody should pity me.
posted by Ryvar at 5:49 AM on June 14 [66 favorites]

I feel like I've been reading this same article for 4 years now.

I don't know what kind of regulation is in the toolbox of our current political system that could curb the horrors. Last year Microsoft acquired Activision in the largest merger in industry history and the FTC wasn't even able to get an injunction in federal court.

My experience working in the gutter of the industry is that the workers are in fact aware of how much shit sucks, and of who is responsible, and there have been attempts at unionization which I'm surprised got no mention in the article, but the fight hasn't been easy, and as with class conflict in other industries, no one seriously expects the state to come save them.
posted by jy4m at 6:08 AM on June 14 [6 favorites]

There are hundreds of tiny indie studios trying to make it, making games you'd love but will never hear about. They're all serving too little of an audience. Too many players overrate the expensive parts of gamedev (especially photorealistic graphics for example) and too few the creative parts. When I think of how there's a stigma among some over pixel art I have to take my crankiness medication. I know that railing against cluelessness is a never-ending battle, but it's really bad among (I hate this very word) gamers.

AAA titles should carry a much larger stigma than they do. If you've never bought an indie game before, or even if you have, might I suggest nipping over to itch.io and browsing for something you might enjoy?
posted by JHarris at 6:23 AM on June 14 [10 favorites]

Flagged as fantastic, Ryvar; I'd say that most people outside the industry have no idea what it's like on the inside--if I had to describe my mental image, it would probably be something like the dot-com bubble of the late nineties if it had never popped.

The only other thing that I'd add is that the game industry in general still seems to have a bad case of Great Man Syndrome, in which the designated "creator" is basically Willy Wonka and the entire rest of the team (with some exceptions, usually for really popular games such as Quake) are relegated to being Oompa Loompas.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:01 AM on June 14 [10 favorites]

That varies wildly between studios but yeah when you land at one of the auteur shops the ceiling on the general level of emotional abuse can go stratospheric. I’ve lived both sides of the massive YMMV factor on that one.
posted by Ryvar at 7:08 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]

My perspective on Ryvar's excellent comment:

Love makes people do crazy things.

That cuts both ways. Sometimes the things are crazy beautiful. Sometimes the things are crazy awful.

I'm in a different industry (HFT), which has some reputation for burnout as well, but at least the compensation is in line with the hours. When I was younger and had more energy, I'd put in the kinds of time that Ryvar talks about, because it was fun and I have never really had much of a life. But it burned me out nevertheless- I don't have that kind of fire in me anymore. It's a bit of a race between burnout and retirement at this point.
posted by notoriety public at 7:09 AM on June 14 [5 favorites]

Ryvar, more power to you; I don't know how you do it. I burned out in the (mostly TV, some web) animation biz nearly ten years in, but to be fair, it was mostly the lack of work, not the work itself, that did it. I did have an opportunity to try and get my foot in the door in games at one point-- a couple of friends/former colleagues are animation directors at AAA studios-- but didn't bother in the end, knowing what that industry was like. I didn't want to destroy my love of video games like I (involuntarily) did with Western animation. I did start to teach myself how to make games some years later; it's a fun but exhausting hobby, when I feel like indulging in it. Couldn't imagine trying to make a living from it, though.
posted by May Kasahara at 7:26 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]

26 years in this... I'll echo Ryvar's sentiment about crawling through broken glass to do it.

Will try to come back to post something more insightful no time to do it now.
posted by WaterAndPixels at 7:58 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]

Trying to keep this short, but my years as a game developer:

- Challenging, varied work... sometimes fun and something to be passionate about, sometimes just frustrating.
- Great, fun coworkers/friends who had a big impact on my life.
- Management who didn't understand planning, and didn't respect employees, and had a tendency to use people up and kill our passion.
- Boss who wasn't dumb, but was a spoiled rich kid, Tony Stark wannabe (before the MCU was a thing). Wanted to be seen as a cool, fun, playboy genius but superior to everyone else. Had broad ideas that weren't bad but left other people to do the actual work and then took credit for it -- he had an article published in a game design book about a system where I did most of the design and all of the implementation and my name isn't mentioned.
- Any time we entered a relationship with a publisher or a larger game studio, they were always worse than our management.
- I never felt like players appreciated what we did either. It was always adversarial.
- Dismally low pay even by game industry standards (with the excuse that our region had a low cost of living), followed by layoffs and pay cuts when the business was struggling.
- Constant crisis mode. More than one vacation cancelled by management at the last minute due to "emergencies" after having been approved months in advance. A stretch where I worked about 86 out of 90 days. One particular weekend that included an 11-hour Friday, a 19-hour Saturday and a 6 hour Sunday. Never any additional pay/perks for overtime.

After my department got laid off, then rehired when it was bought two days later by another company, for more respect and better (but not good) pay, then the upper management started getting flaky and paychecks started arriving late... I got out.

I went to a engineering company. The job is less "fun" in theory and I've never made any friends among coworkers. I actually hated the first few weeks, it was too quiet and formal -- nobody playing music in their cubicles, no loud swearing, nobody so much as wearing t-shirts -- and I didn't understand very much about what our products even did, much less the massive code base. But as I settled in I appreciated the sane, smart management and the stability, and the actual problem-solving is not all that different from before. I'm well paid, the raises keep coming, management loves me, and there is no overtime. Aside from some stubbornness at the onset of the pandemic, and occasional uncomfortable political discussions that I just stay the hell away from, it's been a much more pleasant career.

If I won the lottery I wouldn't do either of those things. I'd make music. Which is what I do already in my time off.
posted by Foosnark at 8:09 AM on June 14 [18 favorites]

If I won the lottery I would buy one of the smaller versions of Sailing La Vagabonde’s new boat, and pay off a couple marinas in the Caribbean / Eastern seaboard to upgrade their wifi. Keys, BVI, etc in the winter, Boston / Nova Scotia in the summer.

Otherwise exact same thing I do now just heavily interleaved with marina glamping.
posted by Ryvar at 8:45 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]

I will back up the other game developers in this thread, although my solution to the combination of burnout and desire to work in the industry means I am now a part time contractor and do some other stuff on the side. It definitely works out better for me personally.

It's very hard to organize labor in an industry where there are a lot of aspirational young workers. There have been some attempts to unionize, mostly in QA (quality assurance, who test the games and make important suggestions for improvement) where it absolutely makes sense as they tend to have pretty awful pay and working conditions. For the rest of the industry, I've often wondered if a better model might be some hybrid similar to the the Hollywood unions/guilds. I would absolutely join a "gameplay programmers guild" but I would be reluctant to join a company-specific union because that feels like it would tie me to a specific company which is the exact opposite of what I want right now. The IGDA is supposed to work like a guild/union for smaller developers but it seems kind of useless these days.
posted by JZig at 9:51 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]

The other thing I will mention about the game industry is that there are a very large number of new games being released right now. Last year 14,532 games were released on Steam which is one of the largest platforms but that doesn't include itch or console-only releases. In contrast, there were around 6000 films of any sort released last year, including noncommercial ones. There are so many games being made right now by so many different developers that it is pretty hard to stand out. The game industry is now similar to the music industry where it is not very expensive to make certain types of games, which also makes it harder to organize workers and come up with some sort of equitable plan. Yes, there are absolutely publishers who are exploiting developers but the number of games released is increasing much faster than the number of new customers.
posted by JZig at 10:06 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]

I make software, was never attracted to work making games because of the terrible reputation. It was only recently someone pointed out that "some people go to work with computers to avoid working with people" which I count as another strike against unionisation.
posted by k3ninho at 10:16 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]

The video game industry has surpassed movies for a long time, and it still surprises me how most people I mention that to don't know it. The bit about games>movies+music is new to me though, and that's definitely a problem in terms of the sheer scope of the exploitation discussed.

I think about the indie/AAA split a lot, both in terms of what they offer to players and workers. I think the last AAA game I enjoyed and played plenty of was Skyrim. And I'll get around to the new Zelda eventually. But the indie scene is just so amazing! And inexpensive! Much more creative and interesting than yet another open re-tread of the basic AAA formulae they've been grinding out for... 20 years probably.

And while these people also labor under harsh conditions, it's a little less galling when we're talking handfuls of people who are ultimately responsible for their own work/life balance, rather than fleets of artists and programmers and testers getting run through the grinder.

So when I go looking for new games (for me or my kid), I mainly hit up itch and humble bundle etc. I am perhaps too optimistic but I think we do vote with our dollars, and for the most part I'm going to spend those dollars on small studios.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:18 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]

Question about this large scope: is it fair to say now that the most common/likely way to get paid as an artist (say, in the US) is in the video game industry?
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:25 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]

JZig wrote:
Yes, there are absolutely publishers who are exploiting developers but the number of games released is increasing much faster than the number of new customers.

Compounding this problem is publishers pushing everything to live service models because the accountants and shareholders both vastly prefer steady revenue streams to the boom/bust cycle of panning for the next big franchise / multi-year sequel release cadence. Live service model means you’re forced to optimize your player progression and metagame system designs for sustained engagement/KPI rather than, y’know, a fun combat system in an interesting world with a good-enough story.

And as much as I personally love Warframe, Destiny, etc or even the occasional seasonal game there is no denying that by optimizing for sustained hold of the user’s attention (in order to increase # of opportunities for cosmetics sales, etc) you are starving other, smaller titles of the single most important resource in the industry: attention.

I hate what the live service model has done to us, nearly as much as I hate the other dark pattern design behaviors we’ve slowly inherited from mobile game monetization.
posted by Ryvar at 10:31 AM on June 14 [7 favorites]

The Rise of the Video Game Union is an all-in-one explainer on why game workers are unionizing and the specific steps that future organizers may take. We encourage you to share the link, and we’ve also prepared a zine version that you can print and distribute in your community.
posted by Uncle Ira at 10:40 AM on June 14 [7 favorites]

Compounding this problem is publishers pushing everything to live service models because the accountants and shareholders both vastly prefer steady revenue streams to the boom/bust cycle of panning for the next big franchise / multi-year sequel release cadence.

Yes, and the too-many-games problem is even worse for live service games. Because live service games take so much time, most people only play one at a time (but some of my friends manage to maintain 3 by playing too much). There are a large number of people who basically ONLY play League of Legends/etc. Publishers are wasting a lot of money on subpar live service games that basically have 0 chance of success.
posted by JZig at 11:37 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]

is it fair to say now that the most common/likely way to get paid as an artist (say, in the US) is in the video game industry?

what is art?
posted by HearHere at 1:30 PM on June 14

I've been in the industry for about 20 years and everything said by other long-time developers is essentially accurate. One distinction I'd like to make is that while I am getting paid to make games and I too would make games even if it were not my job, what I am being paid for is to make their games.

Or maybe I'm being paid not to make the games I would make for free since they would be such transcendent works of art that the industry and indeed the world never be the same. That's probably it.
posted by subocoyne at 2:15 PM on June 14 [7 favorites]

Mod note: added a post stub, so RSS readers, etc., should get a title now
posted by taz (staff) at 11:22 PM on June 14

it's worth pointing out that Jason Schreier, mentioned in the piece, has a long and storied history in game journalism; his specialty is the video game postmortem, where he assembles a convincing, and frequently very embarrassing, breakdown of exactly why some beloved studio closed or highly-anticipated game released in a shaky state. He's been the strongest proponent, among game journalists, of the argument that bad games and delayed games happen because games staff are poorly treated.
posted by Merus at 7:26 AM on June 15 [4 favorites]

ars longa, vita brevis is a succinct and beautiful phrase [wiki] Ὁ βίος βραχύς, ἡ δὲ τέχνη μακρή

SaltySalticid, thank you for your question. transformation of the term of 'art' within recent centuries complicates matters somewhat (as i've now addressed elsewhere). being fair to medical professionals and taking Hippocrates into account, from a statistical standpoint there appears to be a greater number of people working in medicine than in the videogame industry.

note: the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not separately track videogames from the larger category of software development.

thank you to everyone involved in this conversation: keep up the good work & have fun!
posted by HearHere at 1:42 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]

Let's narrow it down then. If you got paid to make visual imagery in the US in 2023, think the highest odds are that you did it for a game. The vast majority of games have visual imagery, and some of them have staggering amounts of it. Someone had to make all that (up until very recently). It's maybe too hard to pin this down precisely due to the lack of resolution on BLS etc. But just based on the industry being so huge, and how much art they need, it seems like a decent guess.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:28 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]

43 years of game dev, 30 years pro, 23 years aaa, and I have no intention of stopping
posted by inpHilltr8r at 10:22 PM on June 20 [1 favorite]

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