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Indie studios are making workers’ rights trendy

Smaller developers are showing that crunch-free games are possible

In 2019, Cyberpunk 2077 developer CD Projekt Red — and, particularly, co-founder Marcin Iwiński — made the grand promise that its employees would not be forced to “crunch.” Crunch is a ubiquitous term in the video game industry, a stand-in word describing the weeks, months, or years when developers work for long, grueling hours to complete a game.

Iwiński said at the time, in an interview with Kotaku, that he wanted the company to “be known for treating developers with respect.” But there’s a dichotomy between that historic public perception (albeit, now lost) and how workers at the company are treated. As it turns out, that goodwill — which the company eventually lost — did not extend to its own employees after all.

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Iwiński may have said that crunch wasn’t mandatory, but developers on Cyberpunk 2077 said otherwise: that the culture ingrained in the company made Iwiński’s promise impossible.

The video game industry has a long history of this sort of practice. For some time, the grueling hours were considered normal — a perceived “necessary evil” for the launch of any successful game. Some studios have been revealed, over the past few years, to have been egregious in this regard: Rockstar Games, BioWare, and Naughty Dog, among plenty of others. But there is a different way, and smaller studios are quietly implementing policies and structures to prove that a new model is possible — one that focuses on worker rights and employee health.

“Indie developers are normally the trailblazers, showing what can be done and what should be done,” Kylan Coats, Crispy Creative co-founder, told Polygon. “And then AAA follows.”

With Crispy Creative, Coats has not been deterred from being open about its labor practices — even after seeing CD Projekt promise and fail at the same thing. The scale, of course, is much smaller than the hundreds of people working on Cyberpunk 2077, compared to that of Crispy Creative’s A Long Journey to an Uncertain End. Coats is the only full-time employee leading a team of around eight contract workers.

But it’s a start, a way for Coats and Crispy Creative to build the studio on a platform that’s different, one where labor and workers’ rights are considered and respected. In the A Long Journey to an Uncertain End press kit, Crispy Creative states that message outright: “Crispy Creative was founded to craft excellent games and experiences, as well as take creative risks other studios may shy away from. All the while enforcing a healthy work/life balance without crunch.”

“If you set things up right, initially, it becomes much easier to keep that going,” Coats said. “As opposed to turning the ship as some of the big studios are facing—changing company culture is really difficult.”

Coats pointed to policies that highlight these goals, including small things like paying potential employees or contract workers for design tests. That’s not always commonplace in the video game industry or elsewhere.

“Valuing people isn’t as scary as it seems,” Coats said, noting that companies are sometimes hesitant to “waste” precious dollars that could be essential elsewhere. “There was a hesitation on my end, because I was like, ‘We’re a tiny studio. We’re self-funded. How can we afford to pay? We had over 100 people apply.’ But all those worries I had, they didn’t manifest. The applicants felt more appreciated and valued for it.

“It’s going to come down to dollars and cents. People need to keep the lights on,” he continued. “There are ways to keep the lights on and still make great games and not burn people out left and right. It’s slowly, slowly, slowly happening.”

Zagreus in Hades
Zagreus from Supergiant Games’ Hades
Image: Supergiant Games

Hades and Bastion developer Supergiant Games is another company that’s taken this approach to development, though it doesn’t necessarily intend to scale up to a thousand-person studio. Staffers at the company, including studio director Amir Rao and designer Greg Kasavin, have been outspoken about work/life balance at Supergiant. In an interview with Kotaku, Kasavin said that Supergiant prioritizes “sustainability” for its employees — creating and tweaking policies as things grow and shift.

For example, Rao told Kotaku that Supergiant has an unlimited time-off policy. It’s an attractive policy, yes, but Rao said it created an “invisible pressure” on developers to constantly work. To adjust for that pressure, Supergiant implemented a mandatory days off policy: Employees are required to take a certain amount of time off, and to stop sending work emails starting at 5 p.m. on Fridays each week, Rao said.

Supergiant declined to be interviewed for this story.

Voltage Workers United logo with a heart in a fist Image: Voltage Workers United

Practices like these, implemented from the people in charge, are essential in changing the video game industry and how its people are treated at the workplace. Though this is happening voluntarily at some studios, unionization is another way for employees to hold their workplaces accountable, and to push for that change.

Workers at Paradox Interactive, the Stellaris developer, signed a collective bargaining agreement with 200 union members in 2020. (The union does not include global employees, just ones located in Sweden.)

“It feels to me like we’re starting to see some momentum in the wider games industry,” Paradox union rep Magne Skjæran told Polygon in June 2020. “For instance, that one panel at GDC a couple years ago about unionizing. We believe having unions to advocate for the workers’ health and rights will in the long term make the industry a better place for everyone.”

Even without unions, the video game industry has seen that collective action works: In 2020, a group of writers contracted to work on the Lovestruck: Choose Your Romance mobile app went on strike. Together, as Voltage Organized Workers, the group — made up of contract workers who didn’t have the protections of full-time employees — went on strike for 21 days to demand better pay.

And they won. The group worked with Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE), an initiative with the Communications Workers of American (CWA), to organize the pay increase and increased transparency between bosses and workers. It was the first successful game worker strike in the industry’s history, said CODE-CWA campaign lead Emma Kinema.

Support for unionization is up, according to numbers from a Game Developers Conference Survey. In 2019, 47% of developers supported unionization efforts, though 16% were against it. For an industry that’s been notoriously anti-union for much of its history, the forces leading the charge toward collective bargaining are encouraging. It’s an industry-spanning shift that will benefit marginalized employees.

But unionization is not the only way. Some small to mid-size game development studios are forgoing bosses altogether, opting instead to operate as worker-owned collectives. In recent years, a number of these studios have formed: Skullgirls developers Future Club is one. GNOG developer and Lara Croft GO: The Mirror of Spirits collaborator KO_OP in Canada is another. There’s the Dead Cells developer Motion Twin, too — though the game is now controlled by a different studio, Evil Empire. Another is The Glory Society, created by former Night in the Woods developers.

The Glory Society logo - a hand with flames for finger nails, palm facing the viewer, with the words “The Glory Society” written inside Image: The Glory Society

“We’d been a part of more standard workplace models and they didn’t seem just, for lack of better words,” The Glory Society’s Scott Benson told Polygon. “ Like we all have to have jobs, and they should be democratically controlled. The workers are doing the actual work, they should control the workplace instead of one or a few bosses owning and directing it all. Simple as that really.”

Operating as a co-op, at least for The Glory Society, means that traditional power structures don’t exist; all workers share that power. It’s not something that solves every problem, but it “lays a much better foundation and gives you a better toolset,” Benson said.

Wren Farren, another worker at The Glory Society, said the structure makes development feel organic: “There’s a lot more room to figure out creative solutions as a team rather than having to deal with a whole ladder of hierarchy to get approval on just some basic changes or ideas.”

A person with short hair and a blue veil over the eyes waves before getting onto a spaceship
A screenshot from the trailer of Crispy Creative’s A Long Journey to an Uncertain End
Image: Crispy Creative

Another worker at The Glory Society, Mint, posited an example: “As the programmer, this lets me weigh in more heavily on decisions that involve technical components, especially so when they require programming work.”

When structures are shifted to give workers power, they’re able to make decisions on the work they’re doing — and that leads to better work. The kinds of games these sorts of structures produce is different.

“Witnessing so many of my peers become more and more vocal gives me the confidence to think that things will just move forward from here on out,” John Wilinski, also of The Glory Society, told Polygon. “In my eyes, working toward a future of healthier working conditions and reasonable expectations of creatives will only lead to more quality art.”