By: BRENDAN MCDANIEL
One of the more interesting developments to come out of Game Developers Conference 2019 (GDC) was a March 19 panel on the state of worker’s cooperatives and unionization in the games industry. The games industry, as a whole, is particularly notorious for having rather lax views on the state of workers’ rights. This topic has shown up in “The Preface” articles previously, but the history of games development is littered with 100-hour work weeks, layoffs in the wake of record-breaking company success, and not-infrequent occasions of workers going uncredited on the games they helped to develop when the development cycle ran too long (most notably, in the infamous case of 2011’s “L.A. Noire”). Many studios in the industry have attempted to make moves to address these issues, primarily at the mid-size and indie-level developers, but the most recent attempt has been the rise of workers cooperative game studios.
Workers Cooperatives and the practice of unionization as a whole is far from the sole invention of the games industry. Labor unions are a long-established part of the modern economy, bringing with them their own set of solutions and problems. However, it is relatively new to the games industry.
Although the presence of unionization was rather weak at GDC 2018, this year featured numerous panels on the subject, a strong showing from union organization Games Workers Unite, and vocal support from industry leaders. Buttons and pins reading “UNION NOW” could be seen on the apparel of many GDC attendees, and a scripted skit lead by GDC Host and Double Fine CEO Tim Schafer drew attention to the role that unions and unionized workers played in making GDC possible.
The current major step in the unionization of the games industry is the proliferation of workers cooperative game studios. In essence, a workers’ cooperative is a business in which individual workers have roughly equal say in the direction and development of the larger company. Workers’ cooperatives in the games industry forgo the traditional boss-employee dynamic in favor of a system where each worker can play an equal part in higher-level decision making. For comparison’s sake, a traditional game studio could be imagined as operating like a monarchy, with the CEO being the king, the boards of directors and trustees being the royal court, and the lower-level developers being the peasants. Meanwhile, a workers’ cooperative could be imagined as direct democracy or a representative republic, where individuals can vote on important matters. It is far from a perfect comparison, given that the analogy is highly simplified and that the state of workers cooperatives in the industry is currently a work-in-progress, but it should provide for a base-level understanding.
Workers’ cooperative studios have seen some success as of this publication, with the most high-profile being “Dead Cells” developer Motion Twin, an indie studio consisting of 11 people. Motion Twin had a presence at GDC, along with other studios such as The Glory Society (“Night In the Woods”), Pixel Pushers Union 512 (“Tonight We Riot”), and Talespinners (numerous titles). While these successes have been rather small-scale, one should expect more companies to follow suit if the model proves to be financially successful or at the very least viable.
What does this mean for the end user? It’s too early to make any concrete predictions as of yet, but in the long term, it may very well alter the quality and quantity of games being produced for players. It’s relatively common practice for publishers and higher-level businesspeople to demand development studios to change large parts of games in development to conform with fads and trends. In the 2000s, many formerly single-player games saw added multiplayer modes that came into existence as a result of publisher demands, and most recently, the flood of battle-royale modes added to series after the success of Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite. It most likely wasn’t an artistic decision to make the most recent Black Ops game (a series that had previously been a standard yet inventive first-person shooter and competitive series) and make it solely a battle royale game. If developers are able to assert themselves and their ideas to their publishers, the frequency of these extra modes may decline, in one admittedly extreme example. Alternatively, notable individual talents that believe they can make a better name for themselves with start-up companies of their own may be emboldened by the workers cooperative model. Should these larger changes be successful, one may see more individuals take the route of Keiji Inafune (of Mega Man fame, who departed from Capcom in 2010) or Hideo Kojima (of Metal Gear fame, who departed from Konami in 2015) to pursue their own projects.