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Gone Home house art
Artwork from Gone Home (2013).
Image: Fullbright

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How the founder’s toxic culture tore apart Fullbright, the studio behind Gone Home

Co-founder Steve Gaynor has stepped down following complaints from employees

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor, known for his work on Gone Home and Tacoma, has stepped down from his role as creative lead on Open Roads following multiple allegations of mistreating Fullbright employees, particularly women.

Development on Open Roads, which was announced in December 2020 and expected to star Keri Russell (The Americans) and Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), is behind schedule. Fifteen employees have left the studio since development on Open Roads began in 2019; around six staff members remain. Speaking with Polygon, 12 former employees said their departure was at least in part due to Gaynor’s behavior toward workers, specifically women on the team. At least 10 of the employees who left since Open Roads production began were women.

Multiple former employees, who spoke with Polygon anonymously out of fear of retaliation, described the Fullbright work environment as “controlling,” a place in which staffers felt undermined and demeaned by Gaynor. Because of Gaynor’s status as the co-founder of a beloved indie darling, some former employees said they were worried about being blacklisted from the industry — though some ended up leaving the industry entirely, anyway. These former employees said they did not experience or witness sexual harassment or explicit sexism; instead, they said, the studio’s toxic culture hid behind the veneer of inclusivity, as women were allegedly repeatedly broken down by microaggressions.

A Fullbright representative confirmed to Polygon that Gaynor stepped down in March due to the “pattern of women leaving” the company. “Steve stepped down in March 2021 after it became clear that the steps that were already being taken to improve his interactions with the team were only yielding temporary results,” the representative said. “More drastic action was needed for the health of the team.”

The representative also said that Annapurna Interactive, the game’s publisher, “is aware of the situation at Fullbright and has been instrumental in helping the Open Roads team make changes to its structure.” An Annapurna spokesperson told Polygon that the company supports the Open Roads team. Following the publication of this story, Gaynor issued a statement to Polygon:

Hi all. I have a statement to share about my role at Fullbright.

Earlier this year, I stepped back from my role as creative lead on Open Roads. My leadership style was hurtful to people that worked at Fullbright, and for that I truly apologize.

Stepping back has given me space and perspective to see how my role needs to change and how I need to learn and improve as part of a team, including working with an expert management consultant, and rethinking my relationship to the work at Fullbright.

I care deeply about Open Roads and the Fullbright team. I’m sad to have stepped back from day-to-day development of Open Roads, but it’s been the right thing to do. The Open Roads team has my full faith and support as they bring the game to completion.

Fulbright has always been a small independent studio. Just four people — three of whom were co-founders of the company — created Gone Home, a BAFTA-winning narrative game released in 2013 that influenced the industry. For the studio’s next game, 2017’s Tacoma, the number of staffers increased by more than double. Following the success of these two games, Fullbright continued to grow, taking on more employees and contractors.

For the development of Open Roads, Fullbright partnered with Annapurna Interactive, which provided full funding and additional support staff. The number of core Fullbright employees remained under 20 at any given time. Former employees described the studio at that time as close-knit, with team members who supported each other. They took pride in creating games that resonated with marginalized people, like Gone Home, a coming-of-age story about a teenage lesbian. But at the same time, former employees said they also felt stifled by Gaynor’s “controlling” and “demeaning presence” — someone who allegedly saw Open Roads not as the team’s game, but as his game. That Gaynor, himself, was Fullbright.

On Twitter, at least, Gaynor “was” Fullbright for quite some time: He held the @Fullbright Twitter account as his personal handle for more than a decade. When he stepped down from his position as creative lead, sources said he was required to change his Twitter account to @SteveGaynorPDX. The @Fullbright account now serves as a placeholder, and the studio instead uses @FullbrightGames for official updates. A Fullbright representative confirmed to Polygon that “employees were uncomfortable with the official Fullbright account doubling as Steve’s personal Twitter account.”

Women in leadership positions at Fullbright told Polygon that they experienced constant micromanagement that made it difficult for them to do their jobs, having to get even the smallest details approved by Gaynor. This was compounded, they said, by Gaynor’s tendency to disparage and discredit the contributions of female staffers in particular, often directly to leadership. Some of the former female staffers said they often worried about how Gaynor characterized them to other employees.

“This is going to sound like a joke, but I’m completely serious: Working for him often felt like working for a high school mean girl,” one former employee in a leadership position told Polygon. “His go-to weapon was to laugh at people’s opinions and embarrass them in front of other people.”

Six other former employees corroborated this characterization.

Employees told Polygon that they had wanted to report Gaynor’s behavior but had no actual process to do so. The company had no dedicated human resources employees, other than the occasional third-party consultant. “There’s no infrastructure to escalate,” a former employee said. Several former employees said they confronted Gaynor directly while they were still employed at Fullbright, telling him their concerns about how they believed his behavior negatively impacted the staff.

One former employee said she approached Gaynor after reading a report regarding Season developer Scavengers Studio. She told Polygon she saw similarities between Scavengers Studio creative director Simon Darveau and Gaynor. (While the allegations regarding Darveau include sexual harassment and groping, no claims of physical misconduct have been made against Gaynor.) The former employee said she warned Gaynor that a similar report could eventually surface about him.

“[The team was] already in consultation training for communication for the team due to [another former employee] quitting because of him,” she said. “And I told him, I have these concerns. When I read this article, I saw a lot of parallels. Not one to one, but a lot of parallels.”

She said she told Gaynor that she was struggling to commit to Open Roads because she was worried the game would be canceled if an article came out about him. “I did expect it to be an emotional discussion,” she told Polygon. “I don’t think that’s something anyone ever wants to hear.”

Gaynor told her that publisher Annapurna had come to him to ask about Fullbright’s attrition problem — particularly, that women were leaving the company on what seemed like a monthly basis. The next day, the employee who had approached Gaynor said he sent her a link to a Wikipedia article on “availability heuristics.” On Wikipedia, availability heuristics is described as “a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision.”

“He sent me the link [...] to explain to me that when there’s a shark attack on the news, people start to get more scared that they might get attacked by a shark,” she said. “So I wasn’t actually valid in worrying that we could have an article about his behavior.” She reported this interaction to the consultant, who reportedly said that Steve’s impact did not match his intent.

a family portrait hanging on a wall in Gone Home
A scene from Gone Home.
Image: Fullbright

Employees found other ways to raise these concerns. Several of them left anonymous digital Post-it notes on the company server as part of a “team building exercise” in late 2020, helmed by a third-party consultant to help communication on the team. “This sprint marks the 4th woman to leave Fullbright in the last year,” one employee wrote. “How do we ensure we are creating an environment that results in women feeling respected. HR, accountability, training, something needs to change. We all have a part to play in creating a safe working environment, change doesn’t happen without discomfort.”

Other employees used exit interviews to report the studio culture that they said Gaynor perpetuated. (Exit interviews were conducted as a series of questions sent to departing staffers, reviewed by department leads.) At least two people reached out to Annapurna directly.

“My personal experience of having Steve as my manager was a toxic and unhealthy dynamic,” a former employee wrote in correspondence to Annapurna that was reviewed by Polygon. “I can confidently say that I do not want my career to be associated with him.”

Another employee, in a letter to Annapurna, described it as “the worst professional experience [she’d] had in games.”

a close-up of Steve Gaynor at the 2014 D.I.C.E Awards
Steve Gaynor, co-founder of Fullbright.
Photo: Gabe Ginsberg/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Other former employees spoke about how they felt the behavior at Fullbright was dangerous. With games like Gone Home and Tacoma that focus on female characters, Fullbright tends to attract women as prospective employees. It’s a studio that’s perceived to be inclusive and friendly to groups of people who have historically been marginalized. It’s a studio that amplifies these voices rather than stifling them — at least when it comes to its games and the stories they tell. People might expect a toxic culture at AAA studios, but not at a studio like Fullbright, former employees said. Yet these allegations were reported consistently, and, because of it, the studio has lost a large portion of its staff over the years, they said.

Following the mass exodus of Fullbright employees in 2020 and 2021, the leads remaining at the company were tasked with hiring new employees. Two sources told Polygon that they were hesitant to hire the qualified, talented women who applied for the roles out of fear of how they’d be treated by Gaynor. Former employees had seen what they perceived as a pattern of young women, early in their careers, being broken down by their time under Gaynor at Fullbright. Multiple sources told Polygon they feared that even more promising talent would be driven out of the industry, like the others.

Some former employees described themselves as “changed” following their time at Fullbright. Many have questioned their abilities, describing their experience with Gaynor as having been “gaslit,” and have sought out therapy to deal with the trauma associated with Fullbright’s company culture and development on Open Roads. Former employees in leadership described “intense guilt” in leaving the company, “leaving [the] team to fend for themselves.”

“[We] were constantly acting as a buffer between Steve and the rest of the team just so they could actually get any sort of work done without being pulled into hours of meetings where everything was nitpicked to death or ultimately reversed,” one former employee said.

With so few employees left at Fullbright, the state of Open Roads now looks challenged. In January, Gaynor told Polygon that Open Roads was expected to launch in 2021. Several former employees told Polygon they believe there’s no way that will happen, saying that production timelines had been disrupted by convoluted decision-making processes and the constant state of flux within Fullbright’s staff. A Fullbright representative told Polygon that the game will not be out in 2021.

Although Gaynor is no longer a creative lead on Open Roads, he is still working on the game as a writer. He currently has no day-to-day collaboration with the rest of the Fullbright team. Instead, Annapurna Interactive is operating as a mediator between the studio developers and Gaynor, as development continues with a fraction of the company. Multiple former employees expressed concern that Gaynor was even operating in this capacity — that it was weird for a man to be writing a story about a mother and daughter, particularly a man that has allegedly demeaned several female employees.

Despite the bad experiences that multiple former employees described to Polygon, many also said they still felt passionate about the stories Fullbright has been able to tell when other major studios weren’t doing so. But they often felt conflicted, given the low morale at the studio and the effect it had on the people who worked on these games.

“It turns my stomach to think that he still gets to write these games about women’s stories when this is how he treats them in real life, with presumably no sign of stopping,” one former employee said. “I want women in the industry and this studio to feel valued. I want vulnerable young women who are new to the industry to be supported, not preyed upon. I want women to not have to fear retaliation from a powerful ‘auteur’ figure for speaking up. I want women to feel safe here. I want women to know that this is not normal. More than anything, I just want him to stop. He shouldn’t be allowed to keep getting away with this.”

Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from Steve Gaynor.

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