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The Huntress, wearing a green dress, fights a large robot monster in Chromatic Games’ Dungeon Defenders: Going Rogue. Image: Chromatic Games

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The ‘video game studio from hell’ is still battling the blaze

Workers at Dungeon Defenders developer Chromatic Games detail the studio’s culture over the past few years

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.

Chromatic Games, once Trendy Entertainment, is the developer of the Dungeon Defenders franchise, the once successful tower-defense games that originated in 2010. But it’s also been labeled the “video game studio from hell,” maligned as an allegedly sexist, dysfunctional studio where workers are constantly in fear of losing their jobs, according to a 2013 Kotaku report. Then-president Jeremy Stieglitz, whom Kotaku credited for the allegedly sexist, mismanaged workplace, left the company in 2014 after being relegated to another part of the company in 2013. (Stieglitz, at the time of the 2013 investigation, declined to comment on the allegations, but a representative for Trendy Entertainment said the studio was “focused on continuing to grow and develop a positive workplace despite these challenges.”)

The Dungeon Defenders studio was called Trendy Entertainment for some time, but in 2019, the studio rebranded as Chromatic Games — perhaps a way to leave its Trendy history behind. Trendy became Chromatic when co-founder Augi Lye purchased the studio back from investment group Insight Venture Partners, which bought Trendy in 2012 for $18.2 million. One former employee, who left the studio earlier this year, told Polygon in a recent interview that while Chromatic is not the same studio today that Kotaku had called a “studio from hell” in 2013, it’s still a studio that allegedly wears people down and takes advantage of new game developers eager to work in the industry. Another worker, whose first industry job was with Chromatic, said the studio left “the worst” impression on them about the industry and game development; they now feel distrustful of most game studios.

A Dungeon Defenders character called the Huntress, wearing a green outfit and elf ears, points a bow at a purple dragon. The world crumbles around her. Image: Chromatic Games

Polygon spoke to 12 current and former employees, most of whom described a mismanaged game studio with a leader that four people described as a “man child.” These sources described a studio that they claim misleads employees on pay, raises, and bonuses and exploits new graduates who would do anything to make games. Things haven’t always been this bad over the years; four months after Kotaku’s exposé in 2013, workers said things had improved and that new management was trying. But many allege the culture changed once again when Lye took over in 2019, and Polygon’s sources for this story said it got worse this past year as he took a closer role in day-to-day management. Of course, that experience is reportedly not universal; following Polygon’s request for comment, Chromatic provided current staff this reporter’s email address to reach out and share a different perspective on the studio. Three more current employees reached out immediately; two of those employees later decided they no longer wanted to comment, and one provided a statement in which he described the workplace as “amazing” since the previous restructuring.

The studio employs a number of talented developers — people who, despite the chaotic environment, told Polygon they feel proud of a lot of material they’ve produced. But over the past few months, at least eight workers have left or been fired, with more looking for an exit, five people said. Lye and leadership reportedly removed production from the development pipeline. This means that currently, all departments are set up to work according to a “flat” structure led by no one person individually. Traditionally, a producer helps manage production processes and acts as a conduit between departments. According to the workers who spoke to Polygon, removing producers from the pipeline has made development more chaotic, and it’s resulted in less development actually getting done.

Reached for comment, a Chromatic Games representative issued a statement via a PR firm in which it answered a series of questions sent by Polygon. We’ve included the responses throughout the story.

“Chromatic Games has always strived to give everyone at every level the freedom to put forth new ideas and be rewarded for doing so,” the Chromatic representative said. “That includes employee feedback on ways we can continue to improve. We will continue to be the kind of company worthy of our amazing team members. We wish all former team members the very best and hope they find fulfillment in and success in their careers.”

However, Guille Chumpitaz, whose LinkedIn profile describes him as Chromatic’s engagement director responsible for company culture, told Polygon that he blamed a former employee who was “really good at manipulating others” for creating Chromatic’s culture problems, not leadership. Chumpitaz added that despite the number of sources Polygon spoke to, all of them were manipulated by this employee, whom Chumpitaz declined to name.

Four Dungeon Defenders: Awaken characters, each with their own look and weapons, fighting monsters in a dark, cloudy world. The text on the screen reads “Dungeon Defenders Awakened.” Image: Chromatic Games

Chromatic Games is known for the Dungeon Defenders franchise, a tower-defense role-playing series, which sold more than “10 million units across all platforms” since the original game launched in 2010, according to the studio. The first game, Dungeon Defenders, was a surprise hit, and the studio’s been chasing that success with the franchise since. Chromatic has continued to release Dungeon Defenders games, and only Dungeon Defenders games: Dungeon Defenders 2, Dungeon Defenders: Awakened, and Dungeon Defenders: Going Rogue. Dungeon Defenders: Awakened was the studio’s first project after Lye acquired the company; Chromatic raised $464,201 on Kickstarter to fund the game.

Lye has called Chromatic an “employee-owned” studio in various media interviews, despite being its sole owner according to public records. Chromatic works under a profit-sharing model, which means employees get a percentage of revenue. However, workers told Polygon they’ve seen very little extra pay during their tenure, as subsequent Dungeon Defenders games failed to capture the success of the original title. For an employee to earn anything from the profit-sharing model, they must stick around until the end of the year, the Chromatic representative said.

Chromatic Studios is located in Gainesville, Florida; its current office is near the University of Florida’s campus in a university-affiliated building called “The Hub.” It’s small, and two workers said it’s only got room for 10 of the company’s 30 or so workers. According to the Chromatic representative, the company plans to move to a new, larger office in the same building, beginning Nov. 1, with the intention to start a “hybrid model” in 2023 whereby employees work three days in the office and two days from home. However, both current and former employees told Polygon that they feel the return-to-office plan is unfair and confusing; though the official hybrid return-to-office plan doesn’t begin until January, some employees say they were asked to return earlier, despite the close quarters that make them uncomfortable. (Polygon has viewed internal company messages that support this allegation.) Workers in the current, smaller office concerned about COVID-19 were offered a space in a small room with no windows, they said. Chromatic’s representative said an employee asked to work there due to safety and lighting concerns.

In response to Polygon’s inquiry regarding the office, Chumpitaz and Lye provided a filmed video showing the space. In that video, Lye described the space as “mucho grande” before adding that he “shouldn’t have said that.”

Several employees say they were hired with an expectation that they’d always be able to work from home. Some of those employees have been allowed to stay remote, while others have been questioned. One employee alleged publicly on LinkedIn that they were fired for refusing to come back to the office, despite being hired on the condition that they could work remotely. One former employee claimed to Polygon that Lye had told certain workers that they’d “earned” a work-from-home exception, while others hadn’t. Chumpitaz told Polygon that performance at Chromatic has decreased by at least 50% while working from home. “We’ve seen performance reduction problems during the whole pandemic situation,” he said. A Chromatic representative said all employees who asked for work-from-home permission had it granted.

For workers in the area, and those he wanted to move to Gainesville, Lye is said to have offered to rent local apartments that he owned to workers, both before and after the pandemic. Lye owns several properties, including a home he calls Hacker House, a “Victorian mansion” that was once used as a startup incubator, according to public records. (The Hacker House program appears to no longer be active at this time.) Polygon has viewed internal messages in which Lye advertised his rentals, but he’s also allegedly made verbal offers to employees, too. The properties are owned by Lye and not affiliated with the Chromatic business. At least one employee currently lives in an apartment owned by Lye, four people said. These workers expressed concern over Lye’s involvement in the company and the properties, given the allegedly turbulent nature of the studio, and that, to many involved, it seems like Lye is looking to profit off some employees.

Day to day, crunch time isn’t nearly as bad as the “studio from hell” days, workers said, but with the allegedly unrealistic expectations, crunch is inevitable. One former employee said crunch was “very hard” leading up to a game’s launch, with stressful, late nights. This sort of crunch was echoed across roles, with multiple workers suggesting it was a problem caused by mismanagement and a revolving door of talent. Crunch wasn’t explicitly required — one person described it as “passion hours.” To get the expected amount of work done during busy times, three people said nine-to-12-hour days were normal. The thought, one person said, was that employees would be rewarded by that work. But despite those major efforts, a number of employees weren’t rewarded for that hard work like they’d thought: After the Dungeon Defenders: Awakened launch, at least five people said a “significant” amount of employees were let go, including the community manager. “The fact that we fired our community manager a few days after our game launch was unbelievable considering the state the game was in and how unhappy our players/customers were,” one person said.

Chumpitaz seemingly confirmed crunch, at least for himself, leading into Dungeon Defenders: Awakened on his personal Facebook page. In a post, Chumpitaz said the Switch launch in August 2021 had “countless setbacks’’ with “2-hour sleep routines, a few of them at the work place.”

The Chromatic representative said the team “does not endorse crunch during development.”

Employees were encouraged to work hard under these circumstances, according to those who spoke to Polygon, with promises of bonuses when meeting certain milestones, one of which was the Dungeon Defenders: Awakened launch on Nintendo Switch in August 2021. When the game shipped on various platforms, workers say they were promised thousands of dollars in bonuses. The rollout for these bonuses ended up being sporadic and delivered in pieces. Some people received their bonuses on time, but others got piecemeal payments over months or longer, eight people said. One person alleged they did not get this bonus, as the goalposts continued to be moved to different milestones.

Chumpitaz denied that the bonuses were sent out in parts, saying that they were paid out in full for the whole staff on a rolling basis — some employees got their bonuses before others. A Chromatic representative, however, said that some “larger bonuses’’ were paid out over time. Polygon has also viewed internal documents wherein HR describes bonus payments being paid out in pieces.

During this time, Chromatic Games appears to have had trouble with its taxes: From 2020 to 2022, Chromatic had a tax lien put on the business until more than $10,000 in unpaid taxes was paid. Earlier, a Florida tax collector asked the court for a warrant to collect around $2,000 from the studio, but the amount was paid before the warrant was issued. Both instances appear to have been resolved, according to public records. Lye told Polygon he wasn’t aware of these cases.

Chromatic Games has a history of hiring people new to the video game industry, often straight out of college, including a number of interns who were allegedly promised eventual full-time employment, two former interns told Polygon. The studio’s location, literally on the University of Florida campus, is perfect for that. With no previous professional experience, these employees don’t have a baseline for what’s normal.

Some workers alleged that Chromatic exploited their industry naiveté, whether intentionally or not. Employees Polygon spoke to described incidents in which Lye or others in management would convince people that certain conditions at Chromatic were normal, or even fun. One worker described this experience as feeling like they were being “gaslit” by the company. This played out in two patterns, both at conventions and during company parties.

When Chromatic brought employees to conventions to show off the studio’s various Dungeon Defenders games, workers claimed that Chromatic management booked beds in hostel spaces shared with strangers. Workers who spoke to Polygon were uncomfortable with the decision, and one employee said they were unaware they’d be sleeping in a shared space before heading off on the trip. Those who were aware of the hostel situation heading into the event were encouraged to accept it as a “fun, team-building activity.” Lye would assure workers that it was a totally normal thing and that everyone else was OK with it, five workers said. One worker alleged they had to stay in the hostel with a colleague they’d previously reported to HR.

Gaming fans play PlayStation’s Dungeon Defenders 2 at E3 - the Electronic Entertainment Expo - an annual video game conference and show at the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 16, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Chumpitaz reiterated that workers staying in hostels is “something that happens a lot” in the video game industry. He added that he didn’t recall any instances where workers had to share rooms with strangers. The Chromatic representative denied the allegations and said employees “were never required to go on a work trip and stay in a hostel.”

Ten Chromatic employees also described a Dungeon Defenders: Awakened early access launch party in February 2020 for which Lye allegedly asked female workers at Chromatic to wear a cosplay outfit of an in-game character called the Huntress, who wears a short, low-cut green dress. Similar to how workers described the hostel, Lye reportedly told female staffers that it would be a fun thing that everyone did. These workers claimed female employees weren’t forced to wear the outfits, but they also felt like they weren’t able to say no — again, they were assured that it was a normal thing for people at the company. Ten workers told Polygon that they weren’t aware of male employees being asked to dress up, but one employee said it may have been possible.

Multiple employees said they were asked to wear the costume, which made them uncomfortable. Some declined, but others weren’t sure they could. Chromatic disputed this allegation, saying that “participation [was] always voluntary.”

Alcohol allegedly played a major part in social engagements related to Chromatic; Lye held parties at bars and at his home, during which he would reportedly drink heavily. This made several employees uncomfortable; though some workers described his behavior as “inappropriate,” no employee accused him of harassment during these events. However, five employees described incidents to Polygon regarding Chumpitaz, who according to these sources touched at least two employees in ways that made them uncomfortable, like rubbing their shoulders or back. Two employees said they reported Chumpitaz to HR for other reasons, too.

Chumpitaz said he was reported to HR once, in an incident that he characterized as tapping an intern on the shoulder because they were wearing headphones. He denied being reported any other times. “It’s almost like they’re trying to make a bigger story than about what actually happened,” Chumpitaz said. “Whoever is bringing this up is trying to blow this out of proportion.” He added that he’s a “very friendly person” and that people in the office are used to him “shaking hands or hugging or whatnot.”

Though multiple employees told Polygon that they had reported Chumpitaz to HR, according to them, he was never disciplined. Instead, he moved into a new role that put him in charge of “creating a healthy atmosphere and company culture.” Several people alleged that the current HR representative is a friend of CEO Lye’s, which made them uncomfortable about submitting reports. One former worker laughed when asked about the HR structure at the studio.

Lye and Chumpitaz appear to also own a Gainesville beer and wine bar called Squire’s; though Lye is the only person listed as the business’ owner, Chumpitaz is called an “owner” on the bar’s Instagram. Together, they also host a Twitch stream called “Dev Juice,” where Lye and Chumpitaz talk about Dungeon Defenders, drink, and play music. Most of the workers Polygon spoke to were uncomfortable with the stream being tied to the studio as a whole.

“As the studio director was fretting and tuning into the stream to see what things Augi would say next about the studio or our current work, Guille would be there right beside [Augi] often jamming away on a music instrument and matching Augi’s drinking,” one former employee said. “No real explanation was ever offered for the odd situation between the two but it was hard to avoid.”

Two other former employees described producers frantic to address promises made during Dev Juice streams, like the two teasing a surprise for the game when the studio actually had nothing prepared to show. The Chromatic representative said that if an employee had said they were uncomfortable with the stream, they “would have addressed the matter swiftly and appropriately.”

Over the past few months, Lye has reportedly become increasingly involved in development, including two separate restructurings. One former employee said that everything “crashed overnight” when Lye decided to step into development. Part of that change is the aforementioned removal of the production department, allegedly implemented to make the studio feel more “indie.” Instead, it has complicated development and holds up work, without a clear pathway for decision making. The company reportedly let portions of the staff go and others have left, leaving the studio with limited production capability; however, workers are allegedly still expected to keep up with milestones and deadlines. The studio is continuing work on Dungeon Defenders: Going Rogue, which was released in March, alongside an unannounced project.

Chromatic Games, for its part, is no longer the “video game studio from hell,” but both current and former employees are worried about the impact it leaves on developers new to the industry. But as with any workplace, that experience doesn’t appear to be universal. One current employee who reached out prior to publication expressed similar sentiments as Chumpitaz: “Some of the people who left have said things that are just wrong it seems or twisted,” he said via email.

But for the majority of the current and former employees Polygon spoke to, Chromatic is a studio that’s been around for nearly 10 years, and it doesn’t have an excuse for what they allege is a mismanaged, unorganized structure and questionable HR department.

Correction (Oct. 29): This story has been edited to properly attribute Trendy Entertainment’s 2013 statement to a studio representative, not Jeremy Stieglitz.

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