Game Developers Behind Dead Cells, Night in the Woods, and More Share Why the Co-Op Studio Model Works

Developers from all around the world share their experiences in worker cooperative for video games.

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.

Tagged with GDC 2019, indie games, Motion Twin, News, PC, Pixel Pushers Union 512, Platformer, PlayStation 4, Switch, Talespinners, The Glory Society, Xbox One.

Sometimes we include links to online retail stores. If you click on one and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. See our terms & conditions.

Read this next

Best Switch Games - The 25 Best Nintendo Switch Games You Can Play in 2019

Our rotating list of the best Switch games, now bigger than before!

The 25 Best Steam Games: Now Updated for 2019

A rotating list of the best games on Steam may seem impossible on the surface, but against all odds, we've done it!

Dead Cells Has Sold More Than One Million Units, With Switch the Top Console

During a Dead Cells postmortem at GDC 2019, Motion Twin unveils how well Dead Cells has sold.

USG's Top 20 Games of 2018

The 20 best games of 2018, as determined by your friendly neighborhood USG team.

Mike's Top 10 Games of 2018: The Perfect Hit List

The only list you need to read.

Caty's Top 10 Games of 2018: Be the Cowboy

Just me, my horse, my morbid magic pocket watch, and my exploding rubber duck.

From Axe Throwing to Swinging, Celebrating The Best Game Mechanics of the Year

Sometimes all a game needs is one perfect interaction to stick out in your mind.

More News

Plants vs. Zombies 3 Is Happening, But For Now It's Locked In Pre-Alpha

Time to get the army of the dead off my dang lawn again.

PUBG Has A Canon Origin Story Now, And It's Bonkers

Coping with trauma by starting a death-game island.

Trails of Cold Steel 3's Western Launch Delayed By A Month

North America and Europe will have to wait a bit longer.

Streets of Rage 4 Brings Back Composers From the Genesis Games

And adds some notable additional talent as well.

More on PC

Fortnite Season 10: Mecha Versus Monster Battle

Fortnite is set to change once again. Here’s what we know about Fortnite Season 10 so far.

PUBG Has A Canon Origin Story Now, And It's Bonkers

Coping with trauma by starting a death-game island.

Metal Gear Solid 2's Commentary On America On The Brink Resonates Just As Strong Today

An essay on Metal Gear Solid 2, from a new book collection of Metal Gear Solid essays Okay, Hero.

Streets of Rage 4 Brings Back Composers From the Genesis Games

And adds some notable additional talent as well.

Apex Legends Is Matching Cheaters and Spammers With Each Other

Giving them what they deserve: each other.

It Took Several "Crappy Prototypes" For Furi Developer To Get To Haven

A change in pace was not easy, but it was much needed.

More Platformer Games

Popular Super Mario Maker Creator Says Inexplicable Removal Of His Level Feels Like A Gut Punch

He believes it's due to mass reporting, though he's been given little to go on from Nintendo.

Mario Maker 2 The Keymaster Walkthrough

Not all of the levels in Super Mario Maker are created equal. Here’s how to clear the devilishly difficult Keymaster stage.