The games industry is not without its problems, all of which are regularly covered in the pages of this website. Crunch and diversity are two such issues that, based on the volume and persistence of coverage alone, occasionally seem beyond solving.
The International Game Developers Association is attempting to create a new solution, for the four issues it has identified as key problems in the industry today: event diversity, crunch, ethics, and proper credit for completed work. According to IGDA executive director Renee Gittins, by creating standards around these four issues -- which you can read about in detail here -- it opens up an opportunity to "help improve the industry and make it supportive of everyone within it."
"We thought it would be good to put them forward all together, so they have the most effect, with a plan to apply pressure to encourage companies to really consider them," she says in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz. "We want these to be conversations that people are having, and clearly right now is a huge time of need within the game industry."
The standards in each of the four areas have been reviewed by industry professionals of different backgrounds and with different levels of experience. They will continue to be refined and adjusted over time, with new standards added as appropriate, but the IGDA intends for this initiative about more than just words.
"We're going to be tracking reports, if people say that a company has been in explicit violation of those standards"
"We're going to be tracking reports," Gittins says, "if people say that a company has been in explicit violation of those standards."
If anyone working in the industry believes a company is failing to meet these standards, they can make a formal report to the IGDA. The authenticity of that report will be verified, and an anonymised version of their account will be added to a database. The company in question will then be contacted by the IGDA with an offer of assistance, and its response -- whether positive or negative -- will also be added to the report.
Over time, Gittins says, the IGDA will build a comprehensive database of the behaviour of companies within the games industry, and that information can be requested by both its members, and also journalists seeking to verify information in their coverage.
"If anyone is thinking of working with [a company] in the future, or there are some questions about how they're behaving, people can... get a history of how they behaved in comparison to the standards the IGDA is putting forward," Gittins continues. "This is going to evolve based on the needs of the community, and tracking that data is going to be important in the long-term."
The value of such a database is clear -- a risk-free place for games professionals to voice their concerns, and an objective source of information to help guide career choices and inform accurate news coverage -- and the IGDA has taken great care when defining the standards that guide what will or won't be included. There is grey area in each of the four key issues, Gittins admits, offering crunch as an example.
"We found that what, culturally, is considered to be crunch is different per company, per region, and per role," she says. "Clearly, if somebody is particularly ambitious and just wants to drive themselves into their work, and they want to work 60-plus hours per week, we can't say that's incorrect. People are free to spend their time the way they want."
What is more clear-cut, though, is what Gittins describes as "failure of management" in the face of persistent problems. A period of crunch due to bad planning can be addressed and improved, but a failure to do so would go on that company's record in the database.
"We know there are game studios out there that believe crunch needs to be a part of the game development process, and never work to correct it," she continues. "They never work to bring the hours back down within the studio... We feel that's irresponsible. We believe that's failing to support developers properly.
"Rehabilitation is better than punishment, in any context... It's less about creating an industry blacklist"
"Instead of tracking [instances of] working 60 hours a week for two weeks in a row, we're tracking a team crunching for a deadline and nothing changes so they crunch for the next deadline, and nothing changes so they crunch for the next deadline.
"If [a company is] trying their best -- they're changing management practices, changing pipelines -- and they fail again, it's unfortunate but it's not malicious. But if they don't change anything -- y'know, 'it helped us ship a great game last time!' -- that's where it becomes a problem, that's where we see it as management abuse."
This initiative recalls a similar push by the IGDA back in 2016, but that was expressly focused on crunch. The remit is now broader, Gittins says, and there is no longer a pledge to publicly name companies that consistently transgress the standards in any of the four areas.
"We really want to help people improve," she says. "Rehabilitation is better than punishment, in any context... It's less about creating an industry blacklist."
Every reported company will be directed towards relevant white papers, research, training sessions and mentor schemes that the IGDA already offers, and it is working with Take This to create more resources around the new standards. Information on companies with poor track records will be freely available by request, Gittins says, but the main thrust is solving problems rather than putting them in the spotlight.
"We're doing something new on reaching out to companies, working with them, and providing resources"
"We're not looking to call people out -- we're looking to improve the industry," she says. "Our mission is to support and empower game developers in having fulfilling and sustainable careers. In order for that to happen, the companies they work for both have to be sustainable, as in continuing to operate, and they have to be sustainable to work at, as in not burning out their employees.
"However, one thing we're working towards creating, on the opposite side of the spectrum, is a badge system. Our studio partners who have done particularly well in crediting [their staff], or who have done really well in supporting those on paternity and maternity leave, there will be badges to celebrate that they're supporting employees with best practices.
"We're trying to move things forward and not call out specific companies -- we want to improve all of the companies."
Some of the key ideas here were also present in 2016, and the reluctance to name specific companies with poor standards may prove divisive, but the new, broader remit is at least a recognition that the industry has more than one pressing issue to address. How useful it proves to be largely depends on the IGDA's ability to communicate these new standards, and make sure that its members are aware of the reporting system. Gittins cites guaranteed anonymity as one way of doing this, but building the detailed database she describes will require consistent effort over an extended period.
Gittins is confident that the renewed initiative will be welcomed by the IGDA's members, at least. And if there is any pushback from companies in the industry, she says, it's unlikely to stand up to scrutiny.
"There's a risk of that," she admits. "But we think that the way this is presented -- it's pretty fair, pretty unbiased, we're trying to provide improvements rather than punishments. I think there might be some complaints, particularly the first time a [journalist] reports on some of this... but what it comes down to is is not much different from reports on Glassdoor.
"We'll have more verification than that, but we're not doing much new on the report-tracking sense. We're doing something new on reaching out to companies, working with them, and providing resources. And truly being a voice for game developers, and putting forth their best interests in one place."