"Basically, You're Just a Cog in the Machine to Turn out the Product They Want"

"Basically, You're Just a Cog in the Machine to Turn out the Product They Want"

THIS WEEK IN BUSINESS | NetherRealm Studios, Spanish publisher Sindiecate, Riot Games, and Grinding Gear reveal work cultures both horrifying and healthy.

Last week, Polygon published a report on the horrors of crunch at Fortnite developer Epic Games. And if the fact that the theme of this column has been the same two weeks back-to-back is any indication, it seems that the conversation around crunch is beginning to escalate as more developers feel comfortable speaking up about past or present working conditions.

So this week, we have multiple reports on crunch culture at Mortal Kombat studio NetherRealm coming right in the wake of its latest release, Mortal Kombat 11. There's also Spanish indie publisher Sindiecate, whose founders allegedly led a toxic work environment for two years before vanishing entirely, leaving their workers in the lurch and with plenty of money owed them. Riot Games, meanwhile, says it's trying to do better after its sexist work culture was exposed last year, but it's trying to dodge discrimination lawsuits for past behavior as it promises diversity improvements in the future.

It's not all bad, fortunately. The increased conversation about crunch has also caused a number of studios and their leaders to go on record refusing to crunch. Among them: Path of Exile developer Grinding Gear Games, Hidetaka "Swery" Suehiro's studio White Owls, and Borderlands studio Gearbox.

The more the industry talks about this, the more likely it is these issues will improve. That doesn't make it a fun topic to address, and given how prevalent crunch appears to be, it seems that Brendan and I will inevitably end up using this column theme again in the future.

Developers on Mortal Kombat 10 went through intense crunch. | NetherRealm Studios/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

QUOTE | "You felt like a body crammed into a corner. Basically, you're just a cog in the machine to turn out the product they want." – After two former NetherRealm employees took to Twitter to speak out against the studio’s crunch culture, sites including GamesIndustry.biz, USG, and PC Gamer spoke with even more former and current employees, resulting in detailed, horrifying reports of 100+ hour work weeks, contract workers treated as "second-class citizens," and a bro culture at the Mortal Kombat studio.

STAT | €30,000 - The approximate total in unpaid wages and services owed to former contractors and staff of Spanish indie publisher Sindiecate after its founders, having allegedly cultivated a toxic work environment and largely abdicated responsibilities in running the studio, closed the studio unexpectedly and went AWOL, possibly to Peru.

QUOTE | "As soon as current litigation is resolved, we will give all new Rioters the choice to opt-out of mandatory arbitration for individual sexual harassment and sexual assault claims." - Riot Games, targeted by multiple gender discrimination lawsuits, says the women filing them waived the right to sue when they were hired. When faced with a possible walkout in protest of these forced arbitration clauses, Riot issued a plan to improve inclusivity and diversity at the company, including opt-outs of mandatory arbitration for new employees at the League of Legends studio.

QUOTE | "Some studios make their teams work 14-hour days to pack every patch full of the most fixes and improvements possible. Sometimes when we read our own Patch Notes threads and community feedback, we feel that we are being asked to do the same. I will not run this company that way." - Chris Wilson of Grinding Gear Games, the studio behind Path of Exile, says that while sometimes fan pressure makes the studio feel it is being asked to crunch, he would rather take time to make improvements and ensure the developers doing them are working healthily.

STAT | $1.83 billion - Activision Blizzard's net revenue for Q1 of 2019, which met company projections but was still down year-over-year largely due to a 16% drop in Blizzard's earnings. After laying off 800 employees following a record 2018, the company is now in the midst of a "transition year" where it intends to staff up on proven franchises, as well as pursue mobile, free-to-play, and esports endeavors.

QUOTE | "In 13 years we never laid anybody off. It was a hard place to work at, but you always had a job. We kept you employed and we never missed a payroll. I was really proud of that because behind the scenes there were lean times, where that wasn't always the easiest thing to do." - Former Telltale CEO Kevin Bruner says he was devastated when the studio went bankrupt in October of last year, resulting in around 250 people losing their jobs. Bruner had departed the studio in 2017, and sued it the following February for breach of contract.

QUOTE "If they were to unionize, the workers in Japan, and make their position even stronger than the employer's' position, a lot of companies would just go under. They wouldn't be able to support themselves." - Hidetaka "Swery" Suehiro hopes to create a working culture that gives employees freedom and balance in their lives, but says the discussion around worker's rights and unionization issues is a very different one in Japan.

QUOTE "When we say 'no microtransactions,' what we're really trying to say is that we're not trying to nickel and dime people. We'll probably make content after launch that we will sell, but we also don't intend to take what Borderlands was and then chop it up into chunks and sell it." - At a Borderlands 3 reveal event, Randy Pitchford seemed to claim the game would have no microtransactions, but a clarification from producer Chris Brock in a longer interview confirmed that the game would indeed have cosmetic items that could be bought with real money.

QUOTE "We don't have a culture of crunch. To say we never work more hours would not be true, we are still a deadline-based job and any time you have finite time you're going to have people who work extra because they want to make it. But we do not have a culture of crunch, we do not drive people into the ground. I would rather be late than kill my team."- That's Chris Brock again, in the same interview, tying into our theme of studios either getting exposed for horrible crunch practices or, in this case, asserting that they don't crunch, a conversation they may not be having at all were it not for the growing number of voices speaking out against the practice.

STAT | 320,000 - The number of copies that World War Z sold on the Epic Games Store in its first two weeks. The game sold over one million total copies in its first week, one-fourth of which were on the Epic Games Store after the title joined a number of others opting for the storefront over Steam.

QUOTE | "We are continuing to sell Rocket League on Steam, and have not announced plans to stop selling the game there. Rocket League remains available for new purchasers on Steam, and long-term plans will be announced in the future."- After a press release appeared to state that Rocket League would be supported, but no longer sold, on Steam after it migrated to the Epic Games Store following Psyonix's acquisition by Epic, a spokesperson told USG that this was not necessarily the case and its removal from Steam could not be confirmed or denied.

STAT | $999 - The cost of a Valve Index base station, two Index controllers, and the headset. The VR hardware, which Valve revealed this week, features full finger tracking, compatibility with the entire Steam library, and numerous improved visual features that Valve says are intended to remove barriers for developers, as well as be a high-end headset for existing VR customers.

QUOTE | "His comments and opinions do not reflect those of Microsoft or Mojang and are not representative of Minecraft," - That Microsoft spokesperson is speaking of Marcus "Notch" Persson, who isn't invited to Minecraft's 10th anniversary celebration most likely due to his numerous comments on social media over the years expressing bigoted views on LGBTQ people, race, feminists, and more.

Correction: We have amended Activision Blizzard's net revenue for Q1 of 2019 to 2019, in place of the originally stated 2018. We regret the error.

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Rebekah Valentine

Senior Staff Writer

Rebekah arrived at GamesIndustry in 2018 after four years of freelance writing and editing across multiple gaming and tech sites. When she's not recreating video game foods in a real life kitchen, she's happily imagining herself as an Animal Crossing character.

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