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Young developers on Starbound say Chucklefish exploited their free work

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Former developers say they worked hundreds of hours for no pay

A screenshot of Starbound full of eyeballs Chucklefish

Former developers who worked on Chucklefish’s 2014 indie hit Starbound say they worked on the game for free — sometimes logging hundreds of hours of labor. Some of these developer say they felt their inexperience was exploited by the company’s founder, Finn Brice.

Allegations of employee exploitation and difficult working conditions on Starbound have popped up in forums before. But the issue was highlighted recently by a widely shared tweet thread from designer Damon Reece, in which they outlined how they, starting at the age of 16, “worked hundreds of hours” on Starbound and “wasn’t paid a single cent.”

Other former workers came forward with similar stories of their own. Former worker Fetalstar, aka Christine, tweeted: “I put in at least a hundred hours of work, and didn’t see any sort of compensation. I was really naive and too afraid to ask to be paid, because anyone who did would be screamed at.

“I also witnessed a lot of inappropriate behavior.”

In a series of interviews with Polygon, Reece and other former developers on Starbound spoke of their time working with Brice in scathing terms, and included allegations of bullying and harassment.

Teenage contribution

Reece worked on Starbound for almost two years, between 2012 and 2014. Like many unpaid workers, their job title was “contributor.” Reece worked on the game’s lore and narrative while also managing forums, often late into the night. “I was a teenager with no game development experience, and I was taken advantage of by Finn Brice,” Reece said. “He very consciously manipulated and exploited not only myself, but almost everyone on and around the team.”

Reece recalled being asked by Brice if working for free would be a problem.

“This felt normal and fine and exciting because I didn’t value myself or my work,” said Reece. “I thought that the experience and exposure I gained from working on the game would be enough compensation. That is obviously not true, but it’s a very easy lie for an eager teenager to swallow. Additionally, there were already a number of other contributors, many of them teenagers like me, who weren’t getting paid.”

Later, Reece began to suspect exploitation especially when Starbound began to attract significant income through crowdfunding and pre-orders.

“When the game’s beta released in December 2013, it sold over a million copies in its first month,” Reece said. “And yet Chucklefish management still considered it wholly acceptable to continue using unpaid workers to complete their game.”

Reece now works as lead writer for Route 59 Games. “I have regrets over the whole thing, obviously,” they said. “I regret not quitting sooner, and not standing up for myself. But I refuse to blame myself for being exploited as a teenager.”

Reached for comment about claims from Reece and other Starbound developers, Chucklefish offered Polygon the following statement:

We’re aware and saddened by the current allegations against Chucklefish regarding Starbound’s early development. During this time both the core crew and community contributors were collaborating via a chat room and dedicated their time for free. Community contributors were under no obligation to create content, work to deadlines or put in any particular number of hours. Everyone was credited or remunerated as per their agreement.

It’s been almost a decade since Starbound’s development first began, and from then Chucklefish has grown considerably into an indie studio that has a strong emphasis on good working practices, providing a welcoming environment for all employees and freelancers. Our doors remain open to any related parties who wish to discuss their concerns with us directly.

Rho Watson is the founder of Igloosoft Games, and worked for Brice as an artist between 2011 and 2014. “I worked unpaid for a few months, but with great difficulty, I was able to negotiate a paid contract,” they told Polygon. “I’d say I was compensated very fairly, but I’m still not sure the cost was worth it. The whole experience severely disillusioned me and put me off the industry for four years.”

Watson says Chucklefish was “a horrible place to work.” They added, “Being bullied by [Brice] and subject to his cruel jokes was commonplace. I personally was the subject of one where he forced me to answer a humiliating question about being forced to sleep with a team member.”

Watson recalled “dozens” of contributors who worked for free.

“Finn was great at letting people assume things so he could pull the rug out from under them,” Watson said. “He’d play favorites. He’d be enamored with whoever was the newest contributor and they’d assume that meant they’d get an offer for a contract, but it’d just never come. And then after they got sick of it and they stopped producing assets he’d move on to the next person.

“His excuse was that he didn’t have enough money to pay people, which sounded reasonable enough. But as soon as the pre-order blew up and people could see how much the game was making, suddenly all of those people came to him wanting to be paid for their work. He more or less told all of them ‘I didn’t promise you anything and you signed contracts saying you wouldn’t expect payment, so I’m not obligated to do anything.’”

“I tried advocating for them a few times and was simply told, ‘If you care so much, you pay them.’” Watson left the company.

One former worker, who asked that their identity be protected, said that they agreed to volunteer work “as a way to get my foot in the door” of a game development career.

“For the most part, the contributors weren’t compensated,” the person said. “I remember one person being given a computer and some software so they could do some work, but that’s about it. If anyone brought up compensation to Finn, he immediately shot them down and said that he wasn’t obligated to pay anyone.”

The source added, “Finn would start being inappropriate in the developer [IRC] channel, asking everyone for pictures, steering discussions about development into strange sexual tangents.”

Responding to allegations of inappropriate behavior, Brice told Polygon: “These allegations come from a number of years ago and do not reflect who I am now. I would like to apologize if my words or actions have ever caused any hurt or distress, as that was not my intention. I pride myself on running an inclusive and progressive company and continue my commitment to having equality and fairness as a cornerstone of Chucklefish.”

Tedious tasks

Many workers came and went, lasting only a few months or even weeks. Onetime Chucklefish artist Spookitty told Polygon, “I was supposed to help the lead artists work towards their own goals if they needed assistance as well as doing other tedious tasks ... Oftentimes Finn would randomly assign us tasks to make something he just wanted to see made.”

Spookitty said they were not paid for work on Starbound.

“I was there early on in the project,” Spookitty said. “I remember sitting in on the early discussions and offering various concepts and designs for the name of the game and the company as well as their logos as well. Finn seemed more than happy to heap on the praise for the work I would do, and for a while I thought I was making a lot of headway in the group. Later on I realized that this was a pattern for him.

“Whenever someone new would show up he would praise them and make them seem extremely important and indispensable to the company. As soon as you crossed him or someone newer showed up who was totally willing to go along with anything he wanted, you would find yourself being written off and given the cold shoulder.”

Spookitty recalled an example of bullying, saying, “Finn outed a coworker as being trans by asking them which bathroom they used. He thought it was hilarious. He thought it was even more hilarious when my coworker told him off.”

Spookitty, who now makes a living as a freelance artist, eventually had to take some time away after falling ill. “I was only away for about two or three weeks. When I jumped back in, Finn wouldn’t respond to me with anything more than a word or two, if at all. I had already been replaced. Any fan that was willing to provide free work was enough to replace me. I had no choice but to just fade away. I was unwanted and unneeded.”

Clark Powell is a musician whose work includes music for games like Battle Chasers. Powell recalls speaking with Brice about working on Starbound. On Wednesday, in response to Reese’ Twitter thread, Powell tweeted, “I almost did the audio and music for Starbound, until [Brice] told me that this was going to be unpaid. He revealed that none of the artists or coders were getting paid either, and I said that didn’t seem right to me.

“He just exploded at me after that. He launched into this foul-mouthed screed about how entitled I was, and that he would just do the music himself because I was probably bad at my job anyway.”

“I was definitely suspicious that few of the workers were on any kind of contract for revenue-share or deferred payment,” Powell told Polygon in an interview. “It was all just taking the charisma of the guys in charge on their word.” Powell said that Brice’s “tremendous clout” in the industry likely dissuaded many former workers from coming forward before. This week, however, has seen a number of men in senior game industry positions of power outed for bullying, sexual harassment, and abuse.

Samanthuel Louise Gillson worked on Starbound, creating various art assets for the game. She recalls her job interview with Brice and how he discussed compensation.

“He asked me if I wanted to be paid and I said that would be preferable,” Gillson told Polygon. “He started talking about how he’d made a lot of money taking a five percent cut [from Terraria] and he said this new game would be bigger than Terraria.

“So I saw that there wasn’t going to be any money on the table, but all that talk of five percent made me think there might be something later. I started creating art assets, but the only thing I signed was an NDA. There was no contract.”

“Finn seemed fairly friendly when I first met him and he was welcoming me onto the team. And then I didn’t really hear from him after that which is weird because he was getting hours of work out of me for free. I was so inexperienced back then. I didn’t see it for what it was; a power imbalance.”