Unions aren’t the answer for overworked video game makers: Peter Nowak

Just make it easy to start new companies


Proof that great games don’t require overtime: Drinkbox Studio’s Guacamelee was a hit with fans and critics.

Further to yesterday’s post on inequality, there was an interesting screed on labour issues in the video game industry this past weekend over at Jacobin. If you’re not familiar with the publication, it bills itself as “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture,” so yeah, it was obvious where the story was going to go.

The article takes aim at how big video game companies overwork and underpay their employees, at least as compared to other software jobs. Among its most egregious findings is that a “whopping 84 per cent of respondents work ‘crunch time,’ those notorious 41+ hour work weeks which line up with the end of big projects. Of those, 32 per cent worked 61-80 hours week (and usually goes on for months).” The game industry, it appears, readily takes advantage of young workers who have a passion for the medium.

The proposed solution, which really shouldn’t be surprising given Jacobin’s political bent, is unionization – that workers need to get organized and demand better treatment from management.

The labour issues certainly do exist and a good number of employees, if you talk to them, do complain about long hours and sometimes tedious work if they’re on the lower rungs of the company. But unionization is a terrible idea that ignores the naturally occurring, self-correcting solution already under way.

While reading the article, I was immediately reminded of a conversation I had with Raphael Van Lierop, who recently founded his own company, Hinterland Studios, in Victoria. His small team, which is working on a game called The Long Dark (due next year), is comprised of industry veterans who have collectively worked at a number of the big studios in Canada, including Ubisoft Montreal, BioWare and Relic Entertainment.

His reasons for forming Hinterland echoed the problems outlined in the Jacobin story – long hours and the temporary nature of the work, which often required relocation. Many employees work on a game for the duration of its development, after which they can be let go. Getting another job isn’t too difficult, but it can involve moving to another city.

That’s not so bad – and possibly even exciting – when the workers are young, but it’s a pain when they get older and try to build a life. “It carries an emotional cost along the way,” Van Lierop told me. “Every time I finish a game I think about what’s next. You go through a sort of post partum period where you evaluate everything and the sanity of this career path.”

The idea behind Hinterland is that the various team members get to stay where they live, with the game essentially being designed through telecommuting. If they succeed, they will have managed to blaze a new path while still being able to do what they love.

“There’s a thirst out there to be able to make quality games in a different way,” Van Lierop says. “There has to be a better way.”

It’s worth noting that Hinterland wouldn’t exist without government assistance. Most of the company’s money is coming from the Canadian Media Fund, which essentially doles out loans without demanding ownership of the product in return. In talking with numerous small companies for my feature on indie games in the next issue of Canadian Business, I found that entrepreneurial developers love this facet of creating in Canada.

Kris Piotrowski, co-founder of Toronto’s Capybara Games, says funding from the Ontario Media Development Corporation has been “extremely beneficial” to his company. “A game like Sworcery would flat out not exist without OMDC grants,” he says, referencing the award-winning 2011 game. The 25-person studio has used government assistance to get on its feet and is now weaning itself off assistance, with three of its own games under development.

Over at Drinkbox Studios, another successful Toronto indie company, employees don’t work crunch time. Co-founder Graham Smith is against it because, he says, it’s inefficient and a reflection of bad decisions being made at management levels. Employees work regular hours most of the time and if they do have to do overtime, they get it back in vacation time, which is not something he’s seen at bigger companies. “We have low turnover because we try to keep things realistic and employees’ wellness in mind,” he says. “We cut features instead.”

The Jacobin story pooh-poohs the idea of indies being the answer to the industry’s labour woes, but that’s an attitude that doesn’t acknowledge how business works in today’s world. When it’s incredibly easy for people to start their own businesses – especially in the Canadian games industry, where assistance is relatively easy to get – the potential for innovation in labour is huge. Hinterland, with its distributed work model, and Drinkbox with its no-crunch-time policy are just two ways in which companies are improving things for workers.

The Jacobin story ran with the tagline of “exploitation in the video game industry provides a glimpse at how many of us may be working in years to come.” That’s more correct than its authors know, except not in the way they intended. The nature of labour is indeed changing, but rather than unions being the solution, more and more people are discovering self-starting to be the answer. According to a recent report from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, half a million people were in the process of starting their own businesses as of June 2011. That’s more than ever before – and it looks to be just the beginning. As senior economist Benjamin Tal wrote:

Irreversible structural forces suggest that the next decade might see the strongest startup activity in the Canadian economy on record. The gradual shift to a strong culture of individualism and self-betterment, the role of technology in driving the transition from boardrooms to basements, the more global and interconnected markets that require greater specialization, flexibility and speed, as well as small-business friendly demographic trends are among those forces that are likely to support a net creation of 150,000 new businesses in Canada in the coming ten years.