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The press is not your enemy, BioWare

Gaming’s latest overwork controversy deserved to be known

Anthem - woman in javelin with open helmet BioWare/Electronic Arts

Kotaku reporter Jason Schreier published a detailed, damning report about what went wrong with BioWare’s Anthem. The piece describes a work environment that has become so stressful that multiple developers have had to take weeks, and sometimes months, off for “stress leave.”

BioWare responded just 15 minutes after the report was published with a terse statement that doesn’t dispute the details in Kotaku’s report. However, the response does awkwardly conclude with a wag of the finger at the press for shining a light on the studio’s problems.

If the takeaway for BioWare’s leadership is that the press shouldn’t hold them accountable, then they perhaps haven’t learned from the game’s tumultuous development.

What BioWare got wrong

Over the past few years, the gaming industry has been rocked with reports about toxic working environments, extended crunch hours, and unexpected studio closures. In response to these mishandled development cycles, the collective will that’s necessary to unionize game developers may be forming. It’s a critical time in this business if we want the people who make our games to have healthy, happy lives.

As a result, BioWare’s response feels more odious than it would have even three years ago.

“As a studio and a team, we accept all criticisms that will come our way for the games we make, especially from our players,” BioWare’s statement said. “The creative process is often difficult. The struggles and challenges of making video games are very real. But the reward of putting something we created into the hands of our players is amazing. People in this industry put so much passion and energy into making something fun. We don’t see the value in tearing down one another, or one another’s work. We don’t believe articles that do that are making our industry and craft better.”

There’s a lot to unpack in this paragraph. The first sentence is baffling: Why does BioWare prioritize criticisms from players when the topic is the working conditions of its developers?

“People in this industry put so much passion and energy into making something fun,” the statement continues, and it’s here that BioWare brings in some of the standard dog whistles that are often used while defending overwork. My bullshit alarm goes off every time I see the word “passion” in one of these apologies or statements.

“[Developers] are expected to just dig deep into their passion for making games and overlook how their passion for their profession and their specific project is being exploited to cover poor management practices,” Kate Edwards, former executive director of the International Game Developers Association, said in a 2018 interview. “Sadly, for too long the industry has accepted a sort of fraternal ‘rite of passage’ attitude towards crunch, as if it’s necessary to prove that one is a ‘real’ game developer.”

It’s good to be passionate about your work. But passion should not be weaponized against employees to justify crunch and unhealthy work spaces.

The press isn’t the problem

BioWare is suggesting that reports on the challenges of development “tear down one another, or one another’s work.” Kotaku’s report does none of this. BioWare responded just 15 minutes after the report was published and, notably, the BioWare response doesn’t refute the piece, let alone any of its specific claims.

Here’s an excerpt from Kotaku’s article:

Some who have worked at BioWare’s longest-running office in Edmonton talk about depression and anxiety. Many say they or their co-workers had to take “stress leave”—a doctor-mandated period of weeks or even months worth of vacation for their mental health. One former BioWare developer told me they would frequently find a private room in the office, shut the door, and just cry. “People were so angry and sad all the time,” they said. Said another: “Depression and anxiety are an epidemic within Bioware.”

“I actually cannot count the amount of ‘stress casualties’ we had on Mass Effect: Andromeda or Anthem,” said a third former BioWare developer in an email. “A ‘stress casualty’ at BioWare means someone had such a mental breakdown from the stress they’re just gone for one to three months. Some come back, some don’t.”

If your workplace is so poorly run that your employees have doctors telling them to take weeks or months off due to stress, and it’s common practice, the problem isn’t that it’s noted in an investigated report. To put it concisely: The problem is the problem.

The benefit of a report like this is that it demands conversation. BioWare is talking about these issues, even if it’s doing so in a statement that’s so busy patting itself on the back that it never gets around to offering any concrete steps the company will take to improve the lives of its employees.

The studio needs to turn inward. BioWare is coming off the critical failures of its last two games — Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem — and the company has lost many veteran developers. And because of reports from Schreier, players know more about how BioWare makes games, and developers know more about what they might be getting into if they apply to work at BioWare. This may be frustrating for the studio, but it’s good for the people who populate it. Kotaku’s report isn’t trying to tear anyone down; it just presents the words of the people who work at BioWare as they share their experiences.

Management more or less has to do something to improve the conditions under which it makes games, or else talent will become even harder to find and retain. Who wants to work themselves to death making a game that doesn’t deliver on its original creative goals? A game that is met with disappointment?

Kotaku’s piece — and reporting like it — absolutely helps to make gaming a better place. It’s the reliance on crunch and dysfunctional management on the part of companies like BioWare that hinder the long-term success of the big budget games industry. And, as BioWare has shown, this development strategy doesn’t always lead to good games.

Which means everyone loses.

BioWare may try to wait out this controversy without changing much, and younger developers with more “passion” will probably still apply in hopes that they will get to work on BioWare’s well-known franchises. Or it can take on the problem with transparency and sincerity to make the studio a better place to work.

If BioWare doesn’t like it? The most effective retaliation would be to make real changes in how the studio is run, so that developers who share their thoughts in the future will say good things about the company — instead of recounting the experiences that ruined their mental or physical health.

If BioWare does so, it will be at least partially due to the reporting about these issues. Reporting that helps make gaming a better for everyone, whether they’re playing the games or creating them.

[Correction: This story originally stated, “BioWare responded before the report was published.” A publicist from BioWare reached out to say its statement was published 15 minutes after Kotaku’s report went live. It’s worth noting, however, that Kotaku’s report clocked in at a hefty 11,000 words which, at an average reading speed, would still take well over an hour to read. BioWare’s statement was a not-insignificant 400 words, which even a proficient writer or publicist would struggle to complete and edit in just 15 minutes. Kotaku’s Jason Schreier noted in an update to his piece that EA “did not have a chance to read the article before publishing their post” and had only seen “a bullet-pointed summary of what was in this piece.”]

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