It's tough to write a year-end recap of 2020 without mentioning COVID-19. The pandemic has touched virtually every major happening this year in one way or another, causing calamitous medical and financial fallout for many while gifting the games industry with a suddenly more engaged player base with fewer entertainment alternatives.
But even the pandemic is just one part of a larger theme for 2020, a year that has laid bare a more fundamental problem, and one that won't go away once everyone is vaccinated. More than anything else, this year has shown me just how rare actual competent leadership really is, in the games industry, in government, and in society as a whole.
More than anything else, this year has shown me just how rare actual competent leadership really is
Let's start with the pandemic response, which has run the gamut from incompetent to unconscionable in much of the Western world. Even with cultural differences, differing limitations around people's freedoms and the relative quality and accessibility of healthcare, I don't think it's controversial to suggest that much of North America and Europe has dropped the ball here, and the things we would want from our leaders in a public health crisis -- preparedness, a coordinated response, clear and consistent public messaging, and an ability to adapt to the situation -- have been largely absent.
And while the game industry's response to COVID-19 has been admirable in numerous ways, it hasn't been particularly well-orchestrated. GDC fell apart one exhibitor at a time until cancellation became inevitable.
When the ESA saw that, it reiterated that it was "moving ahead full speed" with E3 2020, then thought better and cancelled it a week later. And rather than move E3 to an online event, the ESA left its members to fill the E3 void on their own with a summer gauntlet of digital events that might have only convinced them they don't actually need an E3 to get their message out.
And to be fair, GamesIndustry.biz parent ReedPop dodged a bullet holding PAX East just as COVID-19 fears in the US ramped up and then waited longer than would have been ideal to cancel its later shows like EGX, PAX West, and PAX Australia.
But I can forgive much of that. It's not like anyone had personal experience dealing with a global pandemic before, and the situation was changing quickly back in February and March, with the unthinkable transitioning to the inevitable in days or even hours.
What I'm having a much harder time forgiving are the other leadership failures we've seen this year, like the abundance of people in leadership positions at Ubisoft who sexually harassed their employees and co-workers. But as awful as those betrayals are, they had to be enabled by the company at large, with a derelict HR department and a leader at the top of it all who was utterly ignorant or utterly indifferent.
Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot made it clear that the buck stopped absolutely anywhere else
When asked which of those it was, Guillemot's answer made it clear that the buck stopped absolutely anywhere else.
"Each time we've been made aware of misconduct, we made tough decisions, and made sure that those decisions had a clear and positive impact," Guillemot said. "It has now become clear that certain individuals betrayed the trust I placed in them, and didn't adhere to Ubisoft's shared values."
In the wake of the Ubisoft abuse allegations, there was also Twitch CEO Emmett Shear making a good show of leadership, commending women for their bravery in coming forward and pledging to support others who did the same.
That inspired one of Shear's former employees to approach us about the abuse and harassment she suffered at the company, and we found more than a dozen other ex-Twitch staffers and executives to detail Shear's numerous leadership failings on issues of misogyny, racism, safety, and more, both in the office and on the Twitch platform.
In Twitch's response, the company noted that "many of these allegations are years old," which I'm sure would be very comforting to anyone whose career or mental health had been derailed by the sexual, verbal, and/or physical abuse they suffered, injuries compounded by watching their employer side with their abusers.
(For more Twitch-related leadership failures, you can read-up on the music label DMCA nightmare streamers are currently enduring, a situation that was 100% predictable given the Recording Industry Association of America's litigious history and years of observing YouTube's own ContentID difficulties, but one that Twitch leadership apparently did nothing to avoid and has done next to nothing to fix. Well, except for suggesting that people turn off in-game music while they stream to avoid copyright complaints.)
And then there was Rocksteady, which was embarrassed when a 2018 letter written by 10 of its then-16 women employees complaining about sexual harassment and transphobic and misogynistic behavior was made public. While the women of the studio disagreed on how much progress Rocksteady had made in the intervening years, the original letter writer, former Rocksteady senior scriptwriter Kim MacAskill, said management at the company and the HR department had discouraged her from writing the letter -- a purely internal communication -- in the first place.
In each case, employees trusted their employers enough to go through proper channels to resolve issues, and the employers declined to make things right
There's a pattern in those Ubisoft, Twitch, and Rocksteady stories, a collective cautionary tale for the rest of the industry. In each case, employees trusted their employers enough to go through the proper channels, to file their grievances with leadership and HR, to give them a chance to address impropriety and make restitution without it becoming a public spectacle. And in each case, the employers and their leadership declined to do so, leaving the employees no recourse but to accept being made a victim or to take their dirt public.
Honestly, it seems like half the industry should have probably figured this out from first-hand experience, including Riot Games, Microsoft/Mixer, GlobalStep, Oculus, Insomniac, Quantic Dream, Dangen Entertainment, Unity, and NetherRealm Studios, all of which have all had employees go public with complaints of harassment or harmful workplace cultures through the press, through legal action, or both. (This is not a comprehensive list, and all of those stories are pulled just from the past three years.)
And all that's just one specific kind of bad leadership in the industry. If we expand the discussion to include crunch, then we can expand the list of this year's leadership failures (whether through mismanagement or malice) to include Naughty Dog, id Software, Bossa Studios, Limestone Games, and perhaps most obviously, CD Projekt Red.
After all, CD Projekt responded to crunch complaints by doing away with mandatory crunch in May of 2019, with co-founder Marcin Iwiński saying the company wanted "to be known for treating developers with respect."
"We try to limit crunch as much as possible, but it is the final stage"
CD Projekt's Adam Kiciński, in January
Treating developers with respect must be simply exhausting, because by the time January rolled around and Cyberpunk 2077 was delayed for the first time, CD Projekt's joint-CEO Adam Kiciński confirmed the team had already been required to crunch.
"We try to limit crunch as much as possible, but it is the final stage," Kiciński said. "We try to be reasonable in this regard, but yes. Unfortunately."
That "final stage" of development lasted through two more delays and essentially all of 2020, taking the game to its eventual launch on December 10. The crunch presumably continues, as even though the game's third delay was supposed to buy the necessary time to optimize the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions of the game, those past-gen versions have been so buggy the company was forced to apologize again and has promised two large patches to address issues in January and February.
In announcing the last of the delays, Kiciński told investors crunch at the studio was "not that bad -- and never was." He stood by that comment for all of a single day before apologizing to CD Projekt staff in an internal email, acknowledging his comments had been "demeaning and harmful."
And even though it's a leadership crisis that dates back several years in this industry, I do feel it necessary to make the obligatory loot box / gaming disorder reference in this editorial as that situation is ongoing and there's been nary a hint of an appropriate and industry-wide response arriving before various governments step in and squash some businesses flat.
All this isn't to say the industry is completely lacking in examples of actual leadership. Our GI 100 Game Changers project is full of them. On top of that, there's no shortage of teams large and small who managed to admirably adapt to working from home and ship some fantastic games in unprecedented circumstances.
We've also seen individual companies like Electronic Arts, Infinity Ward, and Capcom show some indications of finally taking their roles seriously, even if it's mostly cleaning up communities they let be overrun by hate and harassment in the first place. Just this week, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo released their own joint statement committing to make their online spaces free from hate and harassment.
(Twitch made a similar commitment, but given the year it's had, we'll wait to see enforcement before giving them a pat on the back for that.)
So while it's not an absolute vacuum where leadership should be, this is the lesson I'm taking from the year in games. And as bad as 2020 has been, it makes me awfully nervous for the future.
Gaming is a massive industry as is, and it's well-positioned to be even more influential in whatever the post-pandemic new normal looks like. If the impact this industry has on its customers and the world at large is going to be a positive one, we desperately need more accountability throughout the industry and more protections for the people who make and play games.
We've seen a lot of talk about systemic problems this year, about how they're not the kind of problems one well-meaning person -- even one situated in a supposedly powerful position -- can fix. Having more leaders who are worthy of the title would be a great start, but we clearly cannot take it on faith that the supposed adults in the room are up to the task.
That means it's up to each of us to work toward solutions, to advocate for fair and equitable treatment of each other. We need institutions, employers, and leaders that will hold bad actors accountable for their actions. And if they won't, we need to find new ones that will.