As the game industry enters a new year, the International Game Developers Association announced a refreshed organization, with a new mission statement. But there are existing issues that affect game developers both local and globally, including a renewed interest in video games' link to gun violence from the current Trump administration, as well as questions about the future of game development as we wrap another year of high-profile layoffs and company shutdowns.
We spoke with IGDA executive director Jen MacLean about the IGDA's new goals, and discuss the questions regarding gun violence and games, and the prospect of unionization within the industry.
It's only March but it feels like it's been a full year already. What are the IGDA's plans and goals for 2018?
Jen MacLean: So the IGDA is relaunching itself as an organization with a new mission statement. We want to help game developers around the world build sustainable and fulfilling careers. Now, fulfilling careers means different things to different people. And that's okay.
At the end of the day, we want to give game developers the tools they need for professional success as well as personal success. And that includes something we plan on announcing at GDC like more direct support for our chapters and [special interest groups]. We have over a 150 chapters and special interest groups around the world that cover six continents and topics from game design to censorship to women in games to Muslim game developers to indie game developers. And we want to be much more active in helping these groups serve their communities.
The IGDA grew in the 1990s during the congressional hearings over Mortal Kombat and the video game industry is in a similar position with President Trump having recently met with the ESA over video games and their connections to gun violence. Do you have any comments on this particular matter?
JM: Absolutely. The science is crystal clear, there is no connection between playing video games and gun violence, absolutely none. And I think it's really telling when you look at how video games are played around the world, that the United States is unique in its problem with gun violence. So just trying to make that connection, not only does it not pass the science test, it doesn't pass the common sense test. At the end of the day the IGDA believes very strongly and we've stated publicly—and will continue to state—that anytime to use video games as a scapegoat instead of moving forward with common sense gun laws that the majority of Americans want is doomed to fail.
"Where are the Valves, where are the Bethesdas, where are the Blizzards, where are the kings of the future?"
I want to circle back to this global mission statement that you mentioned. What are the challenges for game developers outside the United States? You mentioned Muslim game developers, so what are some of the challenges abroad?
JM: It's funny because our members are literally all over the world so we have an incredibly vibrant community for example in Finland which is one of our largest chapters. The challenges that they face is very different than the challenges that IGDA Iran faces for example. So there's not necessarily broad generalizations that you can make. That said one of the things that I think is really important for the industry is increasing access to capital. We want game developers to have lifelong careers as game developers. We want them to be fairly paid for their work and an important part of that is having successful businesses. So if you don't have successful companies to hire game developers, game developers aren't going get paid. And one of the things that we're looking at is doing a better job at supporting smaller game studios specifically.
In the games industry you see the middle-tier studios, that 50-250 person studio, that's really shrunk and that's a big problem for the industry looking 5-10 years down the line. We have to ask, "Where are the Valves, where are the Bethesdas, where are the Blizzards, where are the kings of the future?" So one of the the things that we're looking at is how we can do a better job at supporting the 5-15 person studios around the world, not just in the United States so that they can become 50-person studios, then 250-person studios, then 1000-person studios.
One of the things we're doing there is making studio membership more affordable and increasing the benefits to studio members, especially for smaller studios. But also looking at how we can help small studios not only access capital but also understand some of the challenges that business face. That they may not have the experience or expertise because they're game developers. And game developers don't always enjoy thinking about business--business is nowhere near as fun as game development. So we want to be that expert resource to help. Especially smaller, newer indie studios be successful, because at the end of the day that leads to more jobs for game developers, more success for game developers, and a more solid and stable industry for everybody.
The other problems is that there are other people who are happy to make the trade-off to work those hours and at the end of shipping their game, get a bonus that is one, two, three times their annual salary.
I want to talk about your GDC roundtable this week, "Union now? Pros, cons and consequences of unionization." Specifically the synopsis mentions, "What unionization can mean for game developers including both good and bad." Can you explain that to me? What is the "bad" of unionization?
JM: So I think one of the challenges that game developers have is that we tend to think of game development in our region, and in our area. So for example a game developers union would by nature be very different than STJV in France which is the game developer's union in France. There are very different laws governing unions, there are very different cultural expectations. That would be very different from a union in South Korea. And South Korea for example just announced laws limiting the number of hours employees can work. So I think one of the things that I'm really looking forward to doing in that talk is to hopefully get people to think about what unionization means on a regional level but also on a global level. And if you unionize in one country what does that mean? Are there repercussions there? If you unionized just in one sector, so if you had a artist's union but not a programmer's union, what would that mean?
I imagine North America as a region is one of the larger regions for game developers. And we had in this past year high-profile layoffs and shutdowns from big companies—Visceral for example. It still feels like there's really no protection for developers that get laid off. There's always grassroots, Twitter campaigns like #GameJobs. Wouldn't a union protect developers from these occurrences?
JM: So I think it depends. We can't assume that there is one single cause of layoffs. So for example if you are a relatively small studio that has laid off a team, odds are you laid them off because you can't afford them anymore. A union's not going to change that, access to capital is going to change that. If you are EA shutting down Visceral it's for a different reason that's not necessarily access to capital it's because your relationship with your shareholders and how you are using capitals to further shareholder return on investment. It's a completely different situation... We tend to focus on the stories that get a lot of attention like Visceral, but we need more data.
So the ESA just released a study that showed in California that most of the game dev jobs are in smaller studios. We don't have an international game dev census, there's no real good numbers on that. But the reason that a smaller studio is laying people off is not the reason EA is shutting down Visceral and a union is not going to help the smaller studio that says "You know what we only have money for payroll for three more months." And so it's a much more complicated issue, and one of the things I'm really looking forward to talking about is fundamentally the economics of supply and demand. Right now we have an oversupply of people who want to be game developers.
There should be no question that there are physical, emotional, and mental impacts of crunching.
I don't think anybody wants to change that. We have these amazingly talented programs, amazingly talented people. So if we want to keep our supply, how do we increase the demand and how do we make sure that everyone who has the aptitude and desire to be a game developer can find sustainable and fulfilling employment as a game developer. And a lot of that comes to things like access to capital and to supporting especially smaller studios as they grow into bigger studios and can provide those sustainable and fulfilling careers.
One of the tenants of the IGDA is to protect game developers [Quality of Life advocacy]. And so for example you mentioned in South Korea where they cut back on the working hours companies can force on employees. But that's a real problem in the game industry. Crunch. That's a global problem for game devs in South Korea, Japan, North America. So we can't just call this a regional issue. But wouldn't unions protect game devs from crunch, long hours, burning out, from moving from one job to the next?
JM: So I think you're assuming that you can get critical mass to unionize there. But a lot of studios out there that crunch are very well known for crunching. When you go to work there, it's not a surprise when you're asked to work 60-70 hour weeks. Now one of the problems is that if somebody leaves there are a hundred people lined up to take their place. So there's the supply issue. The other problem is that there are other people who are happy to make the trade-off to work those hours and at the end of shipping their game, get a bonus that is one, two, three times their annual salary. So—
Should that be the expectation though? The idea that if you're a developer going into a company well-known for crunch you have to understand that there'll be a bonus, sure, but also know that you'll have to put in 60-70 hour work weeks?
JM: So I want to be really clear here. There are significant repercussions to crunch. There should be no question that there are physical, emotional, and mental impacts of crunching. It is not a lifestyle I would choose. And I think the IGDA's role is to make sure that everyone who considers it understands this. So if this is a path a company embarks on we will sit down with them and tell them "this is the short term, mid-term, and long-term effects of crunch."
This interview has been edited and condensed for quality.