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Team Bondi: Ex-employees want to "destroy" the studio

IGDA letter claims press coverage has been one-sided, studio will learn from its mistakes

L.A. Noire's lead programmer has spoken out against the accusations of harsh working practices from Team Bondi's former employees.

In blog post on Gamasutra, Dave Hieronymous published his letter to the IGDA, along with a brief introduction that accuses the original IGN story and subsequent leaked e-mails of misrepresenting the studio's working culture.

Hieronymous acknowledges that many will label him as, "'Brendan McNamara's sock puppet' or worse," but the severity of the comments could seriously harm the future of Team Bondi and its 35 employees.

"What is the motivation behind these attacks on Team Bondi? If the motivation were to see improvement in the working conditions at Team Bondi, then I'm all for it," Hieronymous wrote.

"However, some of these comments in recent stories seem to go beyond that. Some ex-employees who left the company years ago want to see Team Bondi destroyed. They want to see 35 game developers out of a job. That seems to me to be a less laudable motivation."

Hieronymous was one of Team Bondi's first local employees, and he claims that working hours in "the early years" of L.A. Noire's development were reasonable, with only occasional late nights.

As progress began to slow weekend work became "inevitable", but the company implemented a scheme to "generously" reward employees for their time. In addition, time spent working on weeknights in the final 6 months of the project were paid back in kind once the game had shipped, with most of Hieronymous's team receiving, "an additional 4 weeks of leave...on top of the weekend working payment."

In L.A. Noire's final stages, Hieronymous estimates that he was working an average of 65 hours a week, but he never came close to the 100 hours posited by former employees.

"I can't say that no-one ever worked 100 hours per week, but those sorts of hours were not encouraged. In fact, if someone on my team was working that hard I would have done my best to stop them."

"I never (and in my experience, neither did any of the other managers) expected anything from my team that I didn't expect of myself. The management team at Team Bondi was not ensconced in an Ivory Tower working normal hours while everyone else crunched."

Hieronymous finishes by highlighting the importance of L.A. Noire's success to the Australian development community. Local studios like Pandemic, Krome, Ratbag and Transmission all closed during the game's production, and thanks to Rockstar's support and commitment to quality, Team Bondi is in a position to become a leading light for the country's growing industry.

"No-one at Team Bondi is under the illusion that crunching is a good way to work and we're actively working to learn from our mistakes for our next project. The people at Team Bondi are great to work with and I'm confident that we can make Team Bondi a leading game studio on the international stage."

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Latest comments (20)

Fazi Zsolt Game & Level Designer @Atypical Games 6 years ago
I once worked on a project for a company with the same policy as Team Bondi. We had to finish a game in 6 months, we weren't enough, we faced horrible working hours. The management was the worst I've seen. And yes, no one forced anybody to go in on a saturday and work. But they made it pretty clear if you won't do it, you will get fired. If you left after working for "only" 10-11 hours straight, then you could expect the following day a serious talk with the management, and no bonus for that month.
Worst part was, they never ever payed the overtime, and the bonuses handed out during crunch was insignificant and it's not that easy to quit, when you depend on your salary to pay the rent and food, so you could survive for another month.

Of course there are two sides to the story. Though I tend to believe more the story of the ex-employees (with a pinch of salt) then the lead programmer, who was also one of the first employees.
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R Bargiel Game Developer 6 years ago
Team Bondi got lucky with a financially stable Company backing them. There is no way in hell they could of pulled this off without Rockstar.
They should all count their blessings daily, alot of great studios have withered away that should be still standing firm way before Team Bondi ( Ratbag for one)

But! I wish them all the best in their next endeavour, there will be alot riding on them now.
So no 7 year hellish dev schedule guys!
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Tony Johns6 years ago
Team Bondai were lucky to have a great publisher and developer Rockstar to lead them the way in money and support.

Most Australian Developers are not that lucky, this is the reason why I THINK that in order for Australian Developers to survive, we need to work on games that DON'T require realistic graphics and sell games in a different alternative sort of art style and scope, even change from the hard core realistic audience into an audience that appreciates a different art style of game that does not need to be realistic.

Only developers who were lucky to have Rockstar and others helping them could they release a game as realistic as L.A Niore
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Show all comments (20)
Rich P 3D Environment Artist 6 years ago
I hear the term "Team Bonds and Shackles" in these news stories every time I read them!
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Wafik Salim Studying Video Game Design (Art), Academy of Interactive Entertainment6 years ago
This guy is on par with those who have blind faith and become defensive when they are critisized and are put on the spot. His attitude is poor and he refuses to see all the negativity that's spawned from his company. If he really cared for his company he would accept these backlash statements to the company as mistakes, and have a meeting on how to turn things around in the company so this NEVER happens again - for example hiring some staff at the beginning of a project soley for time management. How many people and years would they have saved, if they hired a small team of 2-3 people just for planning the whole project out in advance?
Another thing they could look into is the mental wellbeing of their staff, once again I wonder how many years could be shaved off this title if they worked on staff relations and wellbeing instead of pushing them to the bone? Their arists would not have quit, leaving the load to the new guy, who has the old guy's work + his own.

This guy is only a fraction off pulling a Whitney Houston asking to see reciepts when she was accused of spending $750,000 on drugs. No reciepts? Didn't happen!
"I can't say that no-one ever worked 100 hours per week, but those sorts of hours were not encouraged. In fact, if someone on my team was working that hard I would have done my best to stop them."

What a load of bull. Multiple.. if not all sources saying 80-110 hours was normal for them, getting reprimanded for coming in late (9:15am) when they left 3AM that morning. He needs to pull his Bondi-tinted-shades off his head and start looking at these comments critically to further the company.

Something I was told a while ago that was really good advice : Do not equate being wrong with something negative. If you are wrong about something, it doesn't mean you have failed, it means you have something to learn which is always a good thing.
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Teri Bolke television 6 years ago
Excellent compensation is not a justification for bad working conditions.
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Jeremy Robinson Quality Assurance, eyecon6 years ago
I worked with and ex programmer from Team Bondi. He was pretty burnt out and a had taken on a very much can't do attitude because of unrealistic expectations. No gmaes project can justify a greater than 50 hour week or weekend work for that matter. Dangling a carrot in front of someones face in the form of bonuses and the like is no way to inspire work productivity. Did any of the managers think the the slow in progress may have been because of the fact that everyone was so damn tired. When I was in qa if you'd pulled a 40 hour week by the time wednesday rolled around you started missing stuff. It would be worse for a programmer or designer. Working massive hours shouldn't be a badge of honour, it should be a bad reflection of management or poor production choices. The team is too quickly blamed as well as lack of commitment rather than idiots at the top that have no idea what the hell they are doing. I've worked for 2 companies that had idiots at the higher levels. Both those companies have failed.
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Epona Schweer Game Development Teacher, Academy of Interactive Entertainment6 years ago
Wafik, I would be very wary of casting judgement without operating from a position of complete information.

You are using the bias opinion of one journalist as a standard to judge the validity of this article. You can see the breakdown in credible and factual data there can't you?

This article's position is extremely similar to what I've heard from graduates and friends working at Team Bondi now. Yes there was a crunch, but no more than most games. Yes there were growing pains, but no more than any new studio experiences on their first major project.

There will ALWAYS be "sensational" stories around a massive project like this. You should have heard some of the crap they were spreading when I wrapped up work on Happy Feet. Animal Logic was the Team Bondi of six years ago.

And you know what? 90% of the stories they spread were entirely bias opinions made by disgruntled workers who felt like they should have been a) promoted b) paid more c) appreciated more etc. I know a lot of them that complained and frankly they got EXACTLY what they deserved.

The entire industry has so much to learn still about cost effective project management, both film and games. That's only going to happen though if we share what works well and learn from what doesn't in a constructive way.

NOTHING will be solved if we poor all our time and attention into identifying scapegoats to pin our collective sins against.
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Terence Gage Freelance writer 6 years ago
To be honest, I find the most surprising thing about this story to be that Team Bondi only have 35 staff - are those the last hangers-on, or has it more or less always been the size of the studio? Because LA Noire is a beast of a game for such a small team.
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Greg Knight Freelance Developer 6 years ago
Its tough at the top....
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Sergey Galyonkin Marketing Director, EMEA, Nival Network6 years ago
My ex-boss always said: "Working overtime doesn't mean you're dedicated, it just mean you're ineffective and bad at planning".

Applies here, I guess.
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Tamir Ibrahim Programmer, Splash Damage6 years ago
@Fazi "And yes, no one forced anybody to go in on a saturday and work. But they made it pretty clear if you won't do it, you will get fired."

I'm sorry; I have to comment on this. This statement is part of the reason why so many people accept doing overtime. I can only speak for the UK but adult workers cannot be forced to work more than 48 hours a week on average - this is normally averaged over 17 weeks (unless you signed an opt-out form). Furthermore you can always cancel your opt-out even if it is part of your original contract.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tamir Ibrahim on 15th July 2011 2:56pm

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Laura Roberts Manager 6 years ago
"Yeeeeaaaahh, I'm gonna need you to come in on Saturday...Ah, ah, I almost forgot...I'm also going to need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday, too. We, uhhh, lost some people this week and we sorta need to play catch-up. Mmmmmkay? Thaaaaaanks." - Bill Lumbergh
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Micah Ian Wright Game Writer 6 years ago
"The entire industry has so much to learn still about cost effective project management, both film and games."

Actually, no, the film industry figured all of this out back in the 1930's, and the system works perfectly to this day. The answer was strong craft unions with specific minimum pay and work condition requirements. If you're an electrical grip on Transformers 3 and Michael Bay wants to go past the standard length workday, you and all your peers in every department IMMEDIATELY start earning time and a half. Go past another point, and everyone starts immediately earning doubletime. The producers are forced to pay for their poor planning processes, and the production managers who consistently run into overtime find themselves without jobs after a while.

Thus far the videogame industry has managed to avoid unionization through a combination of hiring young people who feel lucky to have ANY job in the industry, engendering a "Sacrifice for the Family" team spirit, and "workaholic is the norm" mindset... but this isn't a garage-based hobbyist business any longer, and while those tactics worked back in the era of lifetime employment on job after job, the games industry is quickly transforming to a contractor-based workplace where developers come onto a project for a specific length of time and are quickly let go when their tasks are finished. With 150 different designers complaining that they have been left off the credits for L.A. Noire, and others complaining about constant crunch and no overtime, it's only a matter of time before various state governments begin to investigate these claims and start cracking down with massive fines. The best way forward for game workers is Unionization; this would provide predictable workplace conditions and hours, guaranteed minimum salaries, and most importantly, portable health and retirement plans. Portability is key when the average developer is now expected to work for no fewer than 15 companies in their lifetimes.

Hollywood shows the way forward. We'll see if game designers have the stomach to actually unionize to protect themselves from abusive workplace environments, or if they keep allowing themselves to get burnt out by wealthy corporations which suck them dry and throw them away.
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Joshua Scovel Studying Game Art and Design, Art Institute of California6 years ago
Unionization is never the answer. Unions are great for the employee and terrible for business and eventually lead to situations like California. Unless of course the union isn't charging =).
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Epona Schweer Game Development Teacher, Academy of Interactive Entertainment6 years ago
Micah, I spent five years in the film industry here in Australia and on every project I worked under the same conditions as most games companies. Long crunch, often 7 day weeks, low pay, standard stuff.

VFX companies in the film industry are in exactly the same boat as games companies.

The portability you're vouching for is also a direct result of short term planning on the part of many film companies. The financial and time waste of firing all the staff you've trained and invested in at the end of a project just to hire a new crop to have to train and invest in for the next one is amazing. Most of the VFX companies that have shut down would see continually diminishing returns as each project would be harder to staff and of a lower quality than the previous.

However, you look at companies like Pixar and Valve that do NOT follow that process. The invest in people for the long term. It's not surprising to hear someone saying they "worked for the last 10 years" at Pixar. How many other individuals in VFX can say that?

It's dangerous to look at another industry and say "There's our answer! Lets do what they do!" especially without having tested that business model yourself.

How will Unions enforce these perfect workplace standards? What power will they have? What will their relationship be to companies within Australia? Government?

And who makes these decisions? How do we ensure the union leadership is incorruptible? How are the leaders picked?

Where is the money going to come from to run this operation? What if your average artist or programmer can't afford the fees?

What stops a company from exclusively hiring "independent contractors" who are not unionized?
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Epona Schweer Game Development Teacher, Academy of Interactive Entertainment6 years ago
Andrew McMillen, author of the original IGN article, is the same journalist who was out for blood last year when he was interviewing around for his "games education" industry report card. When he was interviewing me it took all my political hotfooting to avoid questions DESIGNED to get me to say something damning about AIE. If you read the article it's obvious the other interviewees weren't so lucky: [link url=http://andrewmcmillen.com/​2010/12/09/ign-australia-s​tory-australian-games-educ​ation-a-2010-report-card/
]http://andrewmcmillen.com/​2010/12...[/link]

He's also behind the articles airing all of Krome's dirty laundry after that studio shut down.

There are many factors at play here. To expect a new studio working on it's first MASSIVE project to NOT make mistakes is just silly. Of course it will. It will make lots of them. Hell, look at Animal Logic six years ago! There were just as many flame wars happening online from disgruntled employees then as there are now. And Animal Logic is now a favorite place to work for many of my graduates.

So chill it with the sensationalism. Yes we've got a shit load to do to improve workplace standards in the industry but that is ACROSS THE BOARD and will not happen by directing all of our ire against one company. NOR will it happen by trying to find catch all answers like Unionization or legislative action. It WILL however happen through industry supporting industry. Through sharing knowledge on production processes, leadership, project management and building a company to last.

We need the positive effects of healthy competition. We need more studios. Putting time and energy into tearing ANYTHING down as opposed to building new things up is short sighted and self destructive.
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Micah Ian Wright Game Writer 6 years ago
Micah, I spent five years in the film industry here in Australia and on every project I worked under the same conditions as most games companies. Long crunch, often 7 day weeks, low pay, standard stuff. VFX companies in the film industry are in exactly the same boat as games companies.
Most Australian film production is non-union, right? Whenever you have non-union workplaces, you're going to have exploitation. Worse, most VFX workers aren't unionized.

The portability you're vouching for is also a direct result of short term planning on the part of many film companies.
How on Earth do you figure that? These systems were all created back in the 30's during the Studio System era where workers might work at one studio for decades... but even with that protection, workers knew they'd be working for several different companies over time. Check out Edith Head's IMDB page sometime.

The financial and time waste of firing all the staff you've trained and invested in at the end of a project just to hire a new crop to have to train and invest in for the next one is amazing. Most of the VFX companies that have shut down would see continually diminishing returns as each project would be harder to staff and of a lower quality than the previous.
It seems you're talking specifically about VFX workers, not, say, electricians or cinematographers, whose jobs are more clearly defined and thus more interchangeable and who work easier as contractors. That said, in games, any one designer who creates electronic shrubbery models for my special forces characters to run past is generally as good as any other designer who does the same thing. If we were working on a stronger contractor basis, it would be more standard to hire a guy for 6 weeks, for him to move on after he's done, and for his name to appear in the credits. End of story.

However, you look at companies like Pixar and Valve that do NOT follow that process. The invest in people for the long term. It's not surprising to hear someone saying they "worked for the last 10 years" at Pixar. How many other individuals in VFX can say that?
Well, what Pixar does isn't really "VFX" per se, but I take your point. Pixar has chosen to build a long-term staff, something they have the option of doing because they've earned so much money for Disney. If they had thre major failures in a row, they'd probably close like any other studio, were it not for Disney's deep pockets. Another reason they retain the same staff, however, is that they're the only employer in the area, creating a culture of dependence among their workers... if you work in LA in animation, you have a massive glut of employers to choose from, and can leave at a moment's notice and not be more than 10 minutes further away from your new job. That's a little hard to do in Pixar country.

It's dangerous to look at another industry and say "There's our answer! Lets do what they do!" especially without having tested that business model yourself.
I'm saying that videogames is slowly moving to an all-contractor model. We should step back and recognize this and prepare and plan for it accordingly. Hollywood film is a good model to examine.

</em>How will Unions enforce these perfect workplace standards? What power will they have? What will their relationship be to companies within Australia? Government?</em>
Well, I'm not Australian, so I don't know about what your laws are, but in film, unions enforce these "perfect" (your word, not mine) standards through the Minimum Basic Agreement between the studios and the union. There are clearly delineated processes for dealing with violations, and a work stoppage is the threat that the production is under should they break the rules. When you've got Tom Cruise for 4 weeks and your workers stop working for a week because you're working them 18 hours a day without overtime, that tends to throw a spanner in the works.

And who makes these decisions?
A Negotiating Committee made up of union members creates a list of negotiating demands after conversations with the members. They then submit that list to membership for a yay/nay approval, then go into negotiations and make a deal with Management.

How do we ensure the union leadership is incorruptible?
Elections

How are the leaders picked?
Elections

Where is the money going to come from to run this operation?
Dues. My union gets 2.5% of my income as dues for union overhead, 6% of my income for retirement pension, and 8.5% for health insurance. As a result, I have better health care than most of my fellow Americans, a guaranteed retirement income for myself and my surviving spouse (should I die before she does), and I make MUCH more money than I would were I simply hoping that my employers paid me a fair wage rather than working for whatever they felt like paying that week.

What if your average artist or programmer can't afford the fees?
Not sure who can't afford 2.5% of their income, especially when the Union guarantees a higher wage than individually negotiating possibly could. Even moreso in Australia where you have socialized health care (and thus won't be having 8.5% deducted for private health insurance).

What stops a company from exclusively hiring "independent contractors" who are not unionized?
Union shop coverage and a unionized workplace. Not every employer is a union shop. There are states in America called "Right to Work" states where unions aren't mandatory, for example. That's where the Japanese built all their auto manufacturing plants in the 1980's because that way they could lock out the United Auto Workers who dominated Detroit at that time. That's worked out fine for the Japanese, but then, pushing a button on an automated manufacturing line is a lot less skill-related than being a good film cinematographer or a great UI Engineer in games. Although there are right-to-work states and non-union film productions are filmed there, very often you'll find that those are either bottom of the barrel indy films, or they're studio films shooting non-union in a right-to-work state but still employing mostly-union crews. Why? Because a union crew is a better crew, a more experienced crew, and you get faster work out of a union crew because of that experience... which means you get more work for your dollar.

You can raise a billion objections to Unions, but there's an answer to just about every one of them. Unions created the Middle Class, ended Child Labor, created Employer-Funded Health Care, created the weekend, and much, much more. Unionized workers are better-paid workers and better protected workers. Are there bad unions? Sure, but often they're working in conjunction with bad owners (such as the 1980's-era auto workers union). As union membership has declined in the United States (after a 30-year campaign of hatred and derision poured on them by the Republican Party and Corporate America), the working conditions of American workers have gotten worse, and the wages of non-Union workers have frozen in place (unlike, say, America's CEO's, who gave themselves an average 18% raise last year). Are Unions perfect? No... but the answer to that problem is elections and repeat-term-limits (the WGA President, for example, can only serve two consecutive terms). If your leadership isn't serving your desires, you vote them out.

I'm mystified as to why game designers are so terrified of unions... they work just fine in Hollywood, and the games business is now just as big as Hollywood is... so why has our game designer pay frozen while we are expected to work 80-hour weeks?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Micah Ian Wright on 16th July 2011 6:23pm

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Epona Schweer Game Development Teacher, Academy of Interactive Entertainment6 years ago
Micah I still don't agree on your insistence that the all-contractor model is the way to go.

But you have a wealth of good points here and you've answered all my questions.

If I had to guess I'd say the unionization fear comes from a lack of understanding, both of the benefits unions may bring to the industry and (more importantly) what the Minimum Basic Agreement should be between studios and the union.

We don't yet seem to have a solid consensus on what good workplace conditions, good pay and good project management should look like.

We have a lot of IDEAS on what it should look like, you yourself have given us many good ones, but the ideas still sit at opposite ends of extreme viewpoints. We haven't found a good middle ground yet to point to and say "That is what we should aim for".
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 6 years ago
Studios are irrelevant in the long term.

What matters are talent and games. Studios are just temporary.

Put it another way, when you go to a party, what counts is the party and your friends. The taxi that gets you there is not the important thing.
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