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Game 'studio from hell' outed by whistle-blowers

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Notoriously, game development involves long hours, high-pressure deadlines and demanding, inexperienced bosses. But a new investigation by Kotaku has revealed allegations of bullying, sexism and mismanagement at one development-house.

The Kotaku report ‘Investigation: A Video Game Studio From Hell' details anonymous complaints and anecdotes from nine people associated with Trendy Entertainment, the company behind tower-defense/MOBA Dungeon Defenders 2, which currently employs around 45 people.

Stieglitz is reported as berating staff publicly and bizarre management techniques

The complaints include allegations of gender discrimination, in which female employers are said to be paid less than men with similar experience and skills. Many of the stories focus on company president Jeremy Stieglitz, who is reported as berating staff publicly as well as haphazard and bizarre management techniques and a creative style that fully embraces derivation.

A Skype log shows a conversation about an in-game character in which Stieglitz describes designs of a female robot in a way that many would deem inappropriate or creepy. In a design chat, he is quoted calling for "ass' and "boobs" to be made more "sexy". He adds, "Even better if the robots are aged under 18." He is also alleged to have released an in-office joke depiction of a seductive female character to the public.

Other allegations include severely long hours, late wage-payments and an ongoing campaign to copy as much from hit game League of Legends for Dungeon Defenders 2 as possible. An anonymous employee alleged, "Interesting, creative ideas [were] thrown by the wayside because 'we don't have time,' or 'Does League do it? No?' Then it's a waste of time, we need to do what League does."

Seeking comment, Polygon has contacted Jeremy Stieglitz via LinkedIn and Trendy Entertainment via its website and Twitter account, with no reply. Trendy did release a statement to Kotaku. "Trendy is a fairly young indie videogame developer experiencing some of the unfortunate issues associated with new companies finding their footing: long hours, quick growth, and on-going challenges stemming from working in a highly creative environment. Our management is focused on continuing to grow and develop a positive workplace despite these challenges. We are excited for our upcoming release of Dungeon Defenders 2 and hope that consumers appreciate the results of our efforts."

A boss who reportedly seems to treat people poorly is a story worth covering

In a 2010 interview with GameFan, Stieglitz talked about his company's philosophy. He said, "Everyone on the team fondly recalls the old-school days when games were packed with crazy innovative ideas. Nowadays, it seems in many cases that sense of risk-taking innovation and genre-mashup is lost by the major developers, while a lot of the indies are producing titles that are more like pretentious art pieces than practical entertainment. The Trendy team looks to develop original in-house games that are appealingly innovative while being obviously fun for a broad range of gamers."

Jason Schreier, the writer of Kotaku's article told Polygon. "Crunch time is a common thing in the industry but a situation like this where people are working long hours year-round and they have a boss who reportedly seems to treat people poorly, that's a story worth covering."

He added that employees of games companies "in an awful situation" should seek to resolve their problems, but that the press serves a useful purpose in "stopping companies from treating people this way."

In 2004, Erin Hoffman, aka ‘EA Spouse' wrote an anonymous post about working conditions at Electronic Arts, leading eventually to a class-action lawsuit against EA, and amendments to working conditions by that company.

Update 1: The International Game Developers Association's executive director Kate Edwards has issued a statement on the Trendy Entertainment allegations.

She said, "While we have no direct knowledge of the situation, if the media reports on the working conditions at Trendy Entertainment are accurate, the IGDA's stance on this is very clear. We know, as has been well documented, that extensive overtime is not only ineffective from the point of view of productivity, but it is also destructive to employee morale. Studios engaging in excessive overtime injure the reputation of the entire game industry, preventing top talent from entering and remaining in game development, and harming the goodwill of other studios that work rigorously to ensure quality of life for their developers.

"Further we believe that gender discrimination of any type has no place in the workplace and is completely unacceptable. As with excessive overtime, creating an environment that is hostile or discriminatory against anyone whether via race, gender, sexual orientation or other means only further reduces morale and creates an atmosphere that can hinder the successful retention of talent and creation of games that appeal to a wide variety of players.

"The IGDA provides resources, education and information to individual developers and their employers who wish to create a better working environment for their employees. From our 2004 whitepaper to our Code of Ethics adopted in 2009 to our current work coordinating our resources with academics studying and working to help bring light and solutions to this issue, we continue to be extremely concerned about addressing these types of issues for the developer community. We believe that when everyone from management down is educated and aware of the impact poor quality of life and a lack of diversity provides, they will make the choices that are in everyone's best interest."

Update 2: Erin Hoffman, who wrote the original EA Spouse blog post back in 2004, responded to questions from Polygon, via email.

Polygon: Have working conditions for developers worsened as the number of small start-ups has grown?

Hoffman: "What seems to be needed to prevent things like this is a contiguous culture. These little indies that grow from places other than the core industry are always going to be susceptible because they haven't gone through much if any of the cultural maturation process. Overall the main industry has improved, but unfortunately it often can have little bearing on new growth."

Polygon: What can / should employees like those at this company, do, to improve their situation?

Hoffman: "Mobility is key, as is saving money. A job that isn't growing you new skills that will make you more employable in the rest of the industry or give you the resources to save is probably one you shouldn't have (if you can avoid it). No industry job is absolutely better than a bad one. The game industry has a fantastic development community and developers do take care of each other when they can, but that work connecting with the culture has to be an ongoing process, even when things are good. The scary stuff happens when you get isolated."

Note: If you work for a games company and are experiencing difficult working conditions, you can contact Polygon anonymously via the Contact Us page.