Companies, even game development studios, have long existed based on hierarchies with uneven pay distribution. It's been a controversial model, one that's ignited the formation of organizations like Game Workers Unite to combat it and fight for workers' rights—including fair pay. Some indie studios over the years have taken it into their own hands though, as evidenced by the likes of Motion Twin, Talespinners, Pixel Pushers Union 512, and newly founded studio The Glory Society.
A co-op studio, or worker cooperative, is one that operates with equality in mind. Owned and operated democratically with equal pay, equal ownership, equal say, emotional and social support, and most importantly: zero bosses. During today's "Embracing the Co-Op Studio Model in Indie Games" talk at the Game Developers Conference 2019 in San Francisco, California, developers Scott Benson (Night in the Woods), Bethany Hockenberry (Night in the Woods), Ted Anderson (Tonight We Riot), Steve Fillby (Dead Cells), and Ian Thomas (Talespinners) discussed the benefits of operating within co-op game studios.
"Why not a structure that is actually a community," Benson said early in the talk, noting the trend of traditional workplaces boasting a "family"-like work environment. A co-op model, one where every employee has a vote, is argued to better to foster that idea. Where employees can actually support one another. Where everyone has accountability. But as Fillby of Motion Twin stepped in, calling himself the "black sheep" of the talk, it's not always a perfect model.
During Fillby's portion of the talk, he outlined the varied limits to organizational efficiency. These include preferably small team sizes, to the additional rules and systems compared to standard companies because of the increased accountability divided among each employee. Fillby also cites firing people within a "zero hierarchy" co-op as a huge challenge, as with no boss, it has to be democratically voted.
Motion Twin typically tests employees on limited time contracts, because firing is such a "heart wrenching" task in a co-op space, so it wants to be careful about who it brings into the fold. Fillby bookended the ugly discussion with a note in all caps on his slide though: "NONE OF THIS IS A REASON NOT TO DO IT." For all the bad, there is still quite a bit of good.
Thomas, with Talespinners based primarily in the U.K. (and one guy in Toronto), said he's been surprised with how little the U.S. knows about co-ops, considering their large presence in Europe. It's synonymous with a lot of the labor discussions that have grown prominent in the U.S. games industry, as crunch has grown prevalent and studio layoffs run rampant.
While The Glory Society was announced in early March 2019, Benson told the crowd they've actually been working as a worker cooperative since 2018, after they fell in love with the idea of starting a small co-op studio rather than hiring freelancers for short term projects, as they had operated before. The studio was founded by Night in the Woods developers Benson and Hockenberry (long proponents of workers rights in the games industry), alongside artist and musician Wren Farren. The developer is currently working on two unannounced games.