Opinion: Will Telltale's fate be a catalyst for industry reform?
It would be hard to blame anyone in the game development industry for feeling desensitized to news of mass layoffs these days.
Despite their ubiquity, and their deleterious effects on the workers impacted by them, these incidents that should be causing alarm bells to ring are generally treated like the dull roar of the machinery working as intended.
Rather than each of the many “downsizing” announcements and studio closures that occur each year being treated as evidence of a structural flaw in the industry’s business practices, they are instead cause for a new round of shrugs from the people authoring those business practices, as we’re assured that this is simply the inevitable nature of the process of making games.
2018 thus far has been a particularly fraught period for the job security of game developers. Capcom Vancouver, the studio behind Dead Rising, announced their closure in September, resulting in the disappearance of over 150 jobs. The Cliff Bleszinski-helmed BossKey Productions suffered a similar fate, shutting down and laying off around 60 employees back in May.
So too for the creators of Supreme Commander, whose 150-person team were all shown the door of their Seattle-based offices. Big Fish Games, Hangar 13, Disney Canada, Trion Worlds, and countless other teams have seen their numbers shrink as well.
The response from others in the industry to events like these has become fairly standardized. Those still gainfully employed at other studios will offer their condolences on social media, and in some cases attempt to use Twitter hashtags etc. to find new jobs for the affected developers.
The symptom is treated to the best of everyone’s abilities, but the disease carries on, and within a couple days life is back to normal for everyone except those still left without a paycheck.
Hurtling toward a breaking point
There will eventually be a breaking point, and job security is far from the only factor driving the industry towards that point. The latest IGDA developer survey, released at the beginning of this year, found that 51 percent of game developers had engaged in “crunch” over the course of last year, while an additional 44 percent reported “working long hours or extended hours that they do not refer to as crunch”, meaning only five percent of the entire games industry is working a normal schedule. Meanwhile, a whopping 82 percent of game developers are not getting paid for overtime.
It's clear that a growing number of workers are finding their current situation increasingly untenable, and history may come to view Telltale’s rise and fall as one of the most important stepping stones on a path to a more humane games industry.
Numbers like these, combined with constant precarity and aggravating factors like rampant sexism at major studios, paint a picture of the industry as a meat grinder that can’t possibly continue to sustain itself in the face of any coordinated resistance from the workers who it relies on to create the products it sells.
History has made clear that there is a limit to how much abuse workers are willing to put up with before they get organized to do something about it, and one has to imagine that game developers in 2018 are swiftly approaching that threshold of abuse.
With all this in mind, from a workers' rights perspective, it was encouraging to see how the announcement of Telltale Games’ impending closure garnered such a wave of critical attention.
The news had people criticizing the nature of studio layoffs and closures in general. It had people renewing calls for unionization in the games industry. It even had people questioning the corporate behaviour that led to this closure in the first place. This was a far cry from the usual, passive industry response to this sort of thing.
The gravity of the Telltale closure
Why, then, was this studio closure among countless other studio closures so uniquely attention-grabbing? The most obvious factor is that not a single one of the 250 Telltale employees now out of work received any advance notice whatsoever of the studio’s fate, nor did they receive any severance pay to speak of. T
here are even (unconfirmed) stories that new staff were still being hired days before the shutdown, moving their lives and families to San Francisco only to find they were unemployed upon arrival in one of the most expensive and competitive cities in the Western world. This is a level of corporate callousness that stands head and shoulders above the already conspicuously terrible norms of the games industry.
Also unique in this case is the reputation of the studio in question. Telltale Games has come to be regarded as one of the industry’s biggest success stories, selling tens of millions of units while transforming themselves from a small, scrappy team of adventure game enthusiasts into a 300+ person enterprise over the course of the last six years or so.
Despite tales of how messed up the work culture of latter-day Telltale was, you’d be hard pressed to find very many people who would’ve guessed that the studio was in anywhere near this bad a shape before the announcement was made.
So the unexpected nature of the closure and the violence with which it was performed make for quite a surprising spectacle - and we should be surprised. When a studio is consistently releasing critically-lauded games and selling ample units thereof, landing contracts to make adaptations of some of the biggest game and television franchises in the world, and asking its workers to put in superhuman efforts for no personal gain so that they can ship more games on tighter timelines, we should be questioning why that studio can’t find a way to keep the lights on.
What Is to Be Done?
If we assume for the sake of optimism that this new groundswell of attention being paid to labor issues in the games industry isn’t just a momentary anomaly, but rather a growing realization that our current reality is both morally unacceptable and logistically unsustainable, the question that arises is a very old question indeed: What Is to Be Done?
In the immediate case, Telltale’s former employees may have some recourse via the legal system, as they enter into a class action lawsuit that, if successful, will see them all entitled to 60 days of backpay in lieu of notice under California’s version of the WARN Act. In virtually any other developed nation, they’d be entitled to some measure of severance pay under regular employment law, but the lack of similar protections in the United States is just one more hurdle for American developers to overcome.
As for whether or not the Telltale closure will catalyze a broad worker-centric movement in the game industry, the answer is less clear -- but there are promising signs nonetheless. Some industry workers are trying their hand at collective organizing, one of the labor movement’s most time-tested methods of advocating for reforms.
Game Workers Unite is beginning the arduous work of building a foundation upon which the games industry can become unionized. Others are using the Telltale situation as a springboard to opine on the futility of caving to employer pressure to partake in “crunch”, a stance which if allowed to gain momentum has the potential to change the industry’s culture for the better.
Whatever the means chosen, it's clear that a growing number of workers are finding their current situation increasingly untenable, and history may come to view Telltale’s rise and fall as one of the most important stepping stones on a path to a more humane games industry.
The roar of an industry machine that chews up and spits out its workforce at a pace unmatched by virtually any other field of work may finally be growing loud enough that it sounds like alarm bells after all.