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Mass Effect 3 Wii U developer faced a tough reality Exclusive
 Mass Effect 3  Wii U developer faced a tough reality
October 22, 2012 | By Kris Graft

The past few years have been tough for Australian video game developers. But while some have folded, others have found ways to flourish.

One of the studios that has navigated through the turmoil is Melbourne-based Tantalus. Founded in 1994, the independently-owned company's bread and butter has been work-for-hire gigs, porting games across various platforms.

With new platforms and new interfaces, the term "porting" doesn't really adequately describe what needs to be done when optimizing existing games for different platforms. Tantalus is learning this first-hand, as its year-old Straight Right label is bringing BioWare's Mass Effect 3 and other unannounced titles to the soon-to-launch Nintendo Wii U, which sports a unique touch screen-enabled GamePad.

We'll have more on Tantalus' experience with the Wii U, but for now we'd also like to bring a focus on just how the studio has been dealing with an industry in flux. CEO Tom Crago was candid in an interview with Gamasutra, explaining how things nearly fell apart.

"We held on far too long"

"In the space of a year, a while back, we went from being very profitable to losing a ton of money," he said. "This was a huge affront for me, as every one of my 12 years in this industry I had managed to turn a profit, and I had never had to let one of my developers go because I couldn't afford to pay them.

"But then of course there was this perfect storm," Crago continued, "with the financial crisis and the industry itself transitioning. And I was a total idiot. I figured we could ride it out, that I'd be able to sign new deals as I always had, and that we would be able to sustain our headcount.

"I felt a huge sense of responsibility to the people working for me, and then you have pride and ego playing their part in the process as well. And like a lot of studios we held on for far too long. I'm happy that our guys were able to stay employed for longer as a result, but ultimately you don't do anyone any favors by pretending the world hasn't changed."

That's when he realized that layoffs had to happen. There wasn't a single "dark day" that saw a large volume layoffs, but over the course of a year, people had to be let go.

Hand on your heart

"I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could do things better, from a studio perspective, and I made a lot of changes," said Crago. "Fundamentally, and I realize this is a little controversial, I came to the conclusion that in an industry as volatile as video games, it's impossible to put your hand on your heart and say to any of your developers that their job is going to be secure for the next five or 10 years.

"I feel like anyone who does that is kidding themselves, and so I determined to be much more transparent about our business, both in terms of its challenges and its successes."

Crago said the studio is actually hiring now, and that his employees are paid more than before. But management makes sure staff understands the volatile nature of the game business.

It's not as though Crago has the metaphorical scythe hanging over the heads of his employees. He has implemented a plan where every year, Tantalus shares 20 percent of its profits with the staff, on top of other bonuses. Not only does that mean potentially more cash in employees' pockets, but it also means they can gauge the health of the company. Again, transparency is the idea.

"I feel like it's a pretty fair system," he opined.

Gamasutra will have more from Crago in the near future.

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David Amador
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Really? Why us this titled WiiU developer? Seems like a story dozens of developers share across other companies.

Kris Graft
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Hi David,

I had no issues with the original headline "Hard-won lessons for one Wii U developer", but it maybe it sounded like the Wii U played some role in Tantalus' problems(?). Anyway if that's what it was, that wasn't the sentiment it was meant to convey, so I tweaked the headline just to be safe :)

(And they are actually a Wii U developer -- Mass Effect 3, plus multiple unnannounced Wii U titles.)

k s
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I do like Mr Crago's idea of sharing 20% of the companies profits with the staff because a lot of people do get laid off and this can held ease the sting.

Mike Murray
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The article says that the WiiU stuff is coming.

Merc Hoffner
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I'm worried EA is throwing this group under the bus. I'd considered buying ME3 Wii U, then decided to ignore it while EA is releasing the trilogy earlier on everything else. Reading this I feel bad.

John Flush
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and I'm sure there are a bunch of people just waiting for the real trilogy bundle that has the DLC in it and such. While I know it hurts the end workers, as a consumer I can't feel bad though. It is businesses job to give us something we want rather than hold out and attempt to cash in a few times along the way.

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It's respectable that he treated lay-offs as a worst case scenario and last ditch option. For other companies and industries, lay-offs would a very "duh" first move option.

Merc Hoffner
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I think the point you make is CRITICAL. Industries where the cost (which is really investment) is in hardware, stocks, some kind of tangible good etc. can potentially operate like this. But in creative industries, particularly software development where the capital and manufacturing costs are fractional and practically virtual, the real ownership and fiscal assets a company posses are its people (and IP). Case in point: Microsoft simply didn't understand what they were buying when they bought Rare. They thought they were getting IP, technology, a reputable name, pipelines and a track record with the kiddy market. 'People' was way down the list, or else they wouldn't have mucked around with the personnel dynamic the way they did. When their pissed off work force walked, the rest of the world realised they were sitting on an expensive pile of nothing.

Robert Boyd
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I thought this article was going to be about how they're trying to sell Mass Effect 3 for full price on the WiiU when you can purchase the 360/PS3/PC versions for a pittance these days and how it's unlikely to do very well on the WiiU as a result.

Katharine Neil
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Are these new employees actual employees or are the development staff still independent contractors?