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KO_OP by name, co-op by nature

Co-founder Saleem Dabbous talks about the Winding Worlds studio's worker co-op structure, from hiring and firing to making decisions when everyone's a co-owner

KO_OP Mode is not actually a worker co-operative. Not yet, anyway.

But speaking recently with GamesIndustry.biz, co-founder and studio director Saleem Dabbous says the Montreal-based independent studio behind Gnog and the Apple Arcade title Winding Worlds has been running like one for years.

"When we founded the studio, we didn't really know about the co-op model," Dabbous says, noting that the KO_OP name was originally meant to reflect a spirit of collaboration rather than a business structure. "It wasn't until a year or two in that a couple friends of ours said with the way we were running things and talking about things, had we considered being a co-op? So we looked into it and were like, 'Hey this is exactly what we believe in. Let's do that.'"

So the studio transitioned into a worker co-op structure -- where the business is owned and democratically run by its employees -- and is now going through the formal process to ensure the company is legally obligated to preserve that structure. It hopes to have that completed by the end of the summer.

The co-op model seemed to fit with one of their inspirations: indie record labels.

"We were really inspired by this idea of indie record labels in the music scene, where you have a bunch of artists -- they're all doing their own thing, they all own their own work -- but they're supported by this umbrella group, this label," Dabbous says.

He adds, "We believe in artists being the drivers and the owners of their work. Making video games is a huge challenge, everybody sacrifices and puts a lot of themselves in their work, regardless of if they had the luck and privilege of having money to invest or not."

Dabbous says he doesn't want to view money as a differentiator between people. As part of that, everyone at KO_OP earns the same salary.

"That's the best way to retain talent: by giving people a lot of trust, control, and obviously, ownership as a way to keep people in the studio"

We ask if that discourages the existing employees from wanting to bring on less experienced recruits, but Dabbous says KO_OP has a pretty healthy mix of newcomers and senior people.

"I'm a pretty firm believer that the best talent is the talent you train and raise into what you need them to be," Dabbous says. "Also, that's the best way to retain talent: by giving people a lot of trust, control, and obviously, ownership as a way to keep people in the studio."

On the other side of the coin, we ask if this uniform salary makes the studio less competitive when it comes to hiring for higher paying disciplines or more experienced talent.

"We can't compete with huge salaries, but we've had a couple people join at pay cuts because of the environment, the work we're making, and the fact they have control and ownership over things in a very transparent way," Dabbous says. "I've had people take very significant pay cuts as a part of joining this studio. So while it does make us less competitive in terms of hiring in some cases, for the types of people who are interested in being a part of this kind of environment, it has happened before where they're like, 'I want to be a part of this and that's more important to me than the salary rate.'"

So far, that approach has probably helped select for people who are better culture fits with the studio, and KO_OP has yet to let anyone go. (Co-founder Bronson Zgeb left last year, but Dabbous says that was for personal reasons.)

Still, Dabbous says it's inevitable that the studio would at some point run into that situation. That's why they have a six-month probation period before hiring anyone on as an equal owner, and processes in place to smooth problems out if they come up after that probation.

"We do a lot of conflict resolution so that when there are issues, getting to the firing stage is a last-case scenario, after literally every single [alternative] has been exhausted," Dabbous says. "If people want to stay in the environment, they deserve to stay in the environment."

That intentionally conservative approach to hiring means that KO_OP relies on contractors when it needs to increase its output in a hurry.

"The co-op model is about a transparent, equal layer about running the company. It doesn't necessarily have to be a flat creative hierarchy"

While there's no shortage of stories of game developers who have exploited contractors as a way to keep costs down, Dabbous says KO_OP is trying to do right by these collaborators even if they aren't going to become co-owners of the studio.

He says KO_OP hires contractors as fixed-term employees in Quebec to give them some legal rights and protections. They receive all the standard benefits of a normal employee, but there's an end date to their term and they know it when they sign on. Additionally, if KO_OP decides to get rid of them before the end of that term, the contractors get paid for the rest of the term anyway.

When asked about common misconceptions surrounding worker co-ops, Dabbous says the biggest one is that people are afraid nothing will get done because all of the employees/co-owners will spend too much time arguing over what to do. Often they have had bad experiences with collaborations in the past, he says, or they wonder why a programmer would have any say in what an artist is doing.

"That's not actually intrinsic to the co-op model," Dabbous says. "The co-op model is about a transparent, equal layer about running the company. It doesn't necessarily have to be a flat creative hierarchy.

"In our studio, our business decisions are a flat hierarchy. We're fully transparent with all of our decision making; people vote about what we do. But we also have systems and rules in place that prioritize people's experience and reaching consensus. It's not unanimous; it's about consensus."

There are rules requiring a quorum in meetings to decide on studio business, rules about what percentage of a quorum needs to agree for motions to be passed, and importantly, rules to ensure meetings don't stretch on endlessly. There are designated project leads and they ultimately get to the make the final calls in their discipline.

"When you have a system of trust from the business level, from the structural level, that trust finds its way through the creative work"

"We recognize we're all really fucking busy people trying to make a video game, and production is a very serious concern for us," Dabbous says. "So people know when to push for their ideas, and when to step back. And at the end of the day, there is a person who will call the shot and we all just have to accept it and move on."

Ultimately, Dabbous believes the co-op model is good not just for developers but for the games they make, as well.

"When you have a system of trust from the business level, from the structural level, that trust finds its way through the creative work," Dabbous says. "You actually have deeper bonds with the people you're working with, and they're more willing to trust you -- even if they disagree with you -- to let you try what you really believe in. Or they have accepted that you're the person on this project who calls the shots so you get to say what happens in the end.

"And that all stems because we have this flat hierarchy on the business level, where people know we're all getting paid the same and no one's getting screwed over, that no one is going to get fired after this project because we don't need them anymore."

It's a model that draws a lot of curiosity in the industry from developers and press alike. But Dabbous says that same interest isn't necessarily reflected by the studio's publishing partners.

"I think this pandemic has been revealing a lot of the ugliness of our current systems and how they hurt and hold people back"

"My experience is that the studio structure rarely enters into the discussion with external partners," Dabbous says. "If anything, it's like, 'This is who we are, this is our M.O. and the work we produced, and we've done this work at this style and quality because of who we are.' So if you're interested in working with us, that's as far as it usually goes."

When we suggest that nobody cares how the sausage gets made, Dabbous responds, "We're trying to be the organic, ethical sausage makers," and then asks not to be quoted on that. He later relents.

The conversation turns to unions, another form of labor representation that Dabbous would like to see more of in the industry. But when we ask what sort of progress pro-union groups are making in the industry, he specifically avoids speculating on if or when they will find traction in gaming.

"It's hard to say how a lot of the global pandemic is going to shake things up, but I think this pandemic has been revealing a lot of the ugliness of our current systems and how they hurt and hold people back," Dabbous says. "I hope that if there is any silver lining to this sort of thing, it's that more voices will unite in terms of gaining power and structure to their work, that they will be more empowered and organized against a lot of the shittiness capitalism puts us through.

"In this current crisis, you have certain companies that are not providing sick pay to their employees or telling them if they don't come into their work, they'll be fired or out of a job. That is remarkably upsetting and horrific to see. Those are situations where workers have no rights to fight against those sorts of things. But if they're able to unionize, they can have a system in place that has their backs and will support them in fighting against awful practices like that. With the global pandemic, we're seeing a lot of cases where the people in power are completely prioritizing the financial needs of their business over the health of their fellow human beings."

He adds, "I want to encourage all developers that are in scenarios that are very similar to ours, where they are sharing a lot of decision-making and power with their fellow co-workers, to give those people the power to organize and become a part of the ownership structure and transition into a co-op. I personally believe it's the right thing to do in a lot of cases. Maybe not in some, but in a lot. And I think it has so many upsides people are not aware of."

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