Business/Finance

Coming of age in the games industry: The Collective Agreement

by Michael Smith

It’s no secret that the video games industry likes to compare its successes to those of the film industry. For several years now, game sales have surpassed the box office. The recent Avengers film set an opening weekend record, grossing $200 million in its first three days. Compare that to last November’s hit game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which did $400 million of business on day one. And that doesn’t even get into the recent revolutions in social gaming and the ironically named free-to-play games.

In spite of this, the film industry continues to lead the games industry in one important way — a sustainable business environment. The games industry is rife with horror stories of long work hours, inequitable profit distribution, burnout, divorce, and worse. Over the last couple of decades, a culture of twisted bravado has become entrenched as developers wear their “crunch time” like medals of bravery. There have even been rumors of producers quietly bragging about the number of divorces they’ve caused on their most recent projects. It got so bad at EA Games a few years ago that the employees’ spouses banded together and sued the firm.

Not content to sit back and let litigation steer the industry into responsible business practices, an organization of veteran game developers called The Collective Agreement has formed in Austin, Texas. I recently had the opportunity to talk with founder Shawn Lord about the group. As he describes it:

The Collective Agreement is a nonprofit organization focused on providing technology workers with the concepts and tools needed to improve their quality of life … we plan to create a web-based community portal, (providing) tools and services to help developers meet and create new projects, and work with existing companies to improve their processes.

MS: Shawn, what prompted you to form the Collective Agreement?

SL: Since joining the games industry in 2000, I’ve not only read articles and research concerning issues with quality of life and fairness, but I’ve seen the problems firsthand. These issues were here when I joined the industry and are still widely discussed today. This extends beyond some people bitching about life not being fair or disliking work. I’ve watched an unconscionable number of people burn out, get seriously ill, miss out on seeing their kids grow up, and in some cases have their relationships dissolve / implode.

MS: How long has this concept been brewing? Is it strictly your brainchild or was it the result of conversations you’ve had with others?

SL: The need for change has been apparent from the moment I got past the initial honeymoon of entering into the industry. In talking to my peers and more senior mentors early on, there was a realization that things needed to change. I often heard the excuses, “it’s a young industry” or, “it’s an industry based on creativity and innovation” – implying that we can’t address these issues due to the dynamic or highly iterative nature of our projects … we make cutting edge multi-million dollar games and services of enormous scale. Creating a web portal, consolidating tools and knowledge, and creating a few new services are far from impossible for a community like ours.

MS: You say that your work caters to technology workers, with a focus towards game developers within that group. Given your background, I can understand your focus on the latter, but why cast your net more widely on the former?

SL: Trying to go broader has some really positive implications. Game developers, traditional software developers, web designers and devs, customer service, quality assurance, even some guy managing a movie animation outsource house based offshore – they all have valid insight into different facets of the issues being discussed here.

Also, we’re seeing a convergence of these technologies that is already creating new generations of consumer products. It seems counter-productive, if not isolationist, not to leverage the experience found in other sectors.

MS: Would you say that a game development company has more in common with a productivity software developer or a film production company?

SL: No matter which sector or industry we discuss, they’re all generating billions of dollars – with a single project capable of generating hundreds of millions of dollars. When you consider the production costs involved, a small percentage increase in productivity and efficiency can save very serious amounts of cash. There’s no reason not to improve our methodologies. There’s also absolutely no excuse for not treating everyone involved more equitably.

MS: Have you been surprised by how candid developers have been in sharing their concerns and priorities in response to your Facebook poll questions? Have you been surprised by the responses?

SL: I’m excited by the number of people participating openly in the polls. We’re all fairly tech savvy and know that anything posted online (like this interview) is open game. Also, with this starting on Facebook, there’s a lot of employee / employer cross-pollination. Yet, a good percentage of the people invited have popped over and participated on our page.

Some people have expressed concern in private about pissing off their employers, potentially being blacklisted from future employment, etc. I can’t, in good faith, tell people that those concerns are invalid. I can, however, promote new approaches, forums, and tools that help give them a voice, while protecting their identities.

One of the tools we’ve discussed is a type of social petitioning system (think Change.org), which provides the ability to trigger and create a detailed post-mortem. This would allow employees to provide feedback to their employers at any time, while protecting their anonymity (if they choose).

Even simple statistical data can have an impact on a company’s management, owner, or stockholders if it’s provided in the right manner. You don’t have to stage a strike to get results. As feedback tools such as this become more common, I think you’ll see business take notice.

MS: You talk about employing post-mortem reviews as a means of improving methods. Don’t most game developers already employ post-mortems? Would it be fair to say that most developers use them more as means to let their employees blow off steam rather than look for actionable improvements?

SL: Most game developers talk about post-mortems, but aside from the occasional Gamasutra article, which is really just an outward facing PR move of sorts, I don’t see a lot of internal After Action Review.

Yes, the internal post-mortems that I’ve seen have either been an intentional move to have people voice their concerns into the ether, or have been initiated with the best intent in mind, and ultimately dissolve into the feedback loop that is middle management. In either case, they rarely affect change.

It’s possible that I’m wrong here, but if employers (or the people holding the purse strings) started getting feedback from a broader group, then change may actually start to occur.

So, if we created a system that people actually felt safe using, we might see more participation, which in-turn might result in more direct action on the part of the businesses. Also, this data could also result in a form of Yelp for companies. Something that Glassdoor.com didn’t get traction on – in our industry at least.

MS: Do you ultimately see the group focusing more on improving life for the individual developer or on standardizing processes that will create a less stressful, more efficient working environment?

SL: I think they’re two aspects of the same thing, but a lot of this starts with the individual. People that feel valued, empowered, and accountable within a fair and transparent work environment are going to [do] a better job and make better products. But, it’s not just up to the businesses involved to empower these individuals.

People need to understand their value and work to ensure that value is acknowledged. Communicating and acting as a community will make this more feasible. As this value becomes more broadly acknowledged, we’ll see working conditions improve, which ultimately improves the lives of everyone involved.

MS: In spite of the fact that game development has become a more regular line of work over the last 30 years or so, the vast majority of developers are in their 20s and 30s. What happens to those over 40?

SL: The International Game Developers Association publishes an excellent white paper on quality of life issues. In it, they address burnout and longevity in this industry. Our retention rates suck at the moment, but if conditions improve for developers, more of them will stick around.

Companies will benefit on several levels from investing and preserving that experience. It’s actually a selling point for many entry-level folks to get a chance to work with some of the people who made the games that got them into the industry. The transfer of knowledge is something that’s also underrated. .. There need to be more wizened oracles and battle-hardened first sergeants in this industry.

MS: Functionally, depending on the way the Collective Agreement goes, one could almost view the group as either a format standardization group for how developers do business or possibly even the beginning of a labor union. Thoughts?

SL: At the end of the day, everything tends to follow the path of least resistance. The issue has been that there really hasn’t been much resistance in the employee / employer relationship. We go to work each day thinking, “I’m lucky to have a job.” In too many cases, this common belief has led to stagnation or even systematic abuses from companies and their management.

Chris Rock said, “a man is only as faithful as his options.” I don’t want to create a union. If anything, I’d like the Collective Agreement to exemplify the concepts we promote, while being careful to avoid bureaucracy. Politics and bureaucracy have turned unions and trade associations into a nonstarter for a lot of people. I don’t blame those individuals for being wary. I’d rather find new ways to provide people with the information necessary to give them options.

MS: Recently, Kickstarter has become a popular means of crowdsourcing capital for independent game development. Do you see this as a fad or a potential game changer? Do you see it improving the quality of life for the average game developer? Improving the quality or selection of products for the consumer?

SL: Crowdfunding sounds buzzy and fadish, but it’s definitely a game changer. Crowdfunding, especially given the JOBS Act, has the potential to empower a lot of really creative people and projects.

In 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote about the merging of consumers and producers into something he called a “prosumer.” We’ve seen that evolution in everything from blogs and YouTube to Etsy, and it has definitely impacted traditional industries. People are getting more comfortable with creating their own content or getting it outside of the traditional commercial channels.

Social media, open source resources, online collaboration, digital distribution, along with dozens of other advancements, can now be easily combined with crowdfunding to remove the need for a large corporate structure that handles traditional logistics and overhead.

If all this sounds pie in the sky, look at it this way – there’s already discussion going on in major business publications and sites with regards to how to mitigate the impact these changes are making.

MS: Do you fear that Kickstarter has the potential to create a ‘race to the bottom’ as fledgling game developers buy their way on to development teams by donating large portions of the capital?

SL: It’s already the case that most games either don’t ship or launch into obscurity. I think once crowdfunding gets its footing, we’re actually liable to see the opposite effect. A game that’s crowdfunded inherently demonstrates the existence of a core audience. This is different from the current model, in that many times a person or group of people decide they know what people want and then pay some other people to try and convince those people that they do, in fact, want the thing in question. I’m not saying either one is the better model. I just don’t think that either is going away anytime soon.

MS: In an industry that changes as rapidly as the games industry does, what role do you envision for the Collective Agreement in five or 10 years?

Honestly, I’d love to think that five to 10 years from now, people are using the Collective Agreement as a normal part of their lives. Whether it’s a means to identify people they’d like to work with or projects that interest them, or as a common tool for getting feedback to companies or legislators, or maybe as a way to get help when needed – anything from a bit of crowdsourced code / art, to a loan for an emergency situation.

There’s no point predicting too far ahead. I’d like to see if we can begin to value ourselves more as workers and then go from there.

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