How to get away with being an abusive employer | This Week in Business
A helpful guide for staying out of the headlines and being lowdown on the down low
This Week in Business is our weekly recap column, a collection of stats and quotes from recent stories presented with a dash of opinion (sometimes more than a dash) and intended to shed light on various trends. Check back every Friday for a new entry.
It seems like every week there's another new story coming out about employees being mistreated or neglected by their employers.
This week it's Montreal-based studio Dynasty Loop, which has been working on NFT projects and (appropriately enough) has all but rug pulled its employees, judging by a Polygon report.
Dynasty Loop employees told Polygon the studio has been missing months of paychecks, asking them to return their equipment to the office (but insisting they weren't fired), and then trying to get them to sign a lien agreement under which they might receive the money they were owed eventually if they promised not to take legal action or file complaints with the government for six months. Now Dynasty Loop CEO Rania Oueslati is reportedly not even communicating to the studio's employees, referring all matters to her lawyer instead.
It's a bad scene all around, one made all the worse by how little it stands out from the crowd. It's depressing, right? I don't think many journalists actually enjoy talking to people whose lives have been shattered and writing these kinds of stories, and I imagine the companies whose reputations are being composted don't find it much fun, either.
Wasn't it all so much better back in the day when we didn't know about the ugly underbelly of game development? When people either weren't aware of the myriad ways developers were being abused by their employers, or perhaps even celebrated them as evidence of just how fun and non-corporate gaming was?
As a huge fan of nostalgia and all things retro, I'm going to lay out a helpful guide here so all the rotten companies in gaming can help us get back to those halcyon days of ignorance, if they're just willing to follow a few simple rules when it comes to their various abuses.
No unforced errors
This is the simplest one. There are a million ways to be abusive, but you absolutely have to be smart about it, and that means you can't do things that are plainly, undeniably wrong, because a lot of getting away with abuse is really just a PR battle.
QUOTE | "While many studios did amazing work on the remaster, I'm let down Metroid Prime's Remaster does not include the full original game credits. I worked with so many amazing people on the game and everyone's name should be included in the remaster…" – Metroid Prime senior engineer Zoid Kirsch recently joined the growing ranks of developers speaking up to get the credit they deserve when companies ignore the people responsible for their success.
Improper crediting is all the rage in 2023, as Metroid Prime Remastered joins The Callisto Protocol, Persona 3 and 4, and The Last of Us TV show on the list of big name projects to be called out by developers upset at seeing their contributions go unrecognized.
It takes a rare breed of reprobate to say a corporation is in the right to deny someone credit for their work
Improper crediting may be popular, but it's also incredibly foolish, because the evidence of your wrong-doing is very public, and there's not much gray area to work with.
Lots of people will argue that there are two sides to abusive practices like crunch, but it takes a rare breed of reprobate to say a corporation is in the right to deny someone credit for their work. And the last thing you want is for them to be your only defenders, as people will quickly associate their flagrant disregard of basic decency with your brand, and that stink doesn't wash off so easily.
Plagiarism is another misstep where the evidence is entirely too public and there's simply no excuse you could give that wouldn't make you look even worse for trying it.
QUOTE | "Harassment and inappropriate conduct have no place at Naughty Dog and Sony Interactive Entertainment. We have taken and always will take reports of sexual harassment and other workplace grievances very seriously. We value every single person who works at Naughty Dog and Sony interactive Entertainment. It is of utmost importance to us that we maintain a safe, productive workplace environment that allows us all to channel our shared passion for making games." – Naughty Dog's response to a former employee's sexual harassment allegation in November of 2017.
QUOTE | "Inappropriate conduct or practices have no place at Quantic Dream. We have taken and always will take such grievances very seriously. We value every single person who works at Quantic Dream. It is of utmost importance to us that we maintain a safe environment that allows us all to channel our shared passion for making video games." – Quantic Dream's response to three separate press reports of a toxic studio culture marked by homophobia and racism in January of 2018.
Quantic Dream's scandal was just three months later! Not even Naughty Dog is shameless enough to bring out a remake that soon!
On a side note, if you're the subject of a work culture tell-all and you want to take people to court over it, you'd better be very sure you're going to win in a cakewalk. Quantic Dream sued over those reports, but only sued two of the outlets, and only won one of those cases, so two-thirds of the reporting about its workplace problems are essentially confirmed now, either by Quantic Dream not finding legal grounds to challenge it or the courts saying the press was in the right.
Back on topic, when these unforced errors aren't in response to bad press, they can still drive people to talk to the press. And once an employee is talking with the press about one problem, you never know what other problems they might bring up. Pretty soon you have all the skeletons in your closet doing their best Ray Harryhausen homage on the evening news.
The unforced errors category also includes publicly bragging about crunch, calling your customers fucking idiots, publicly bragging about crunch, holding an AMA session on the anonymous racist child porn mass shooting board, publicly bragging about crunch, and insisting on paying a woman less for the same job in the midst of a scandal about how you pay women less for the same job.
There's also a special categoy of unforced error where bad news is pretty much unavoidable, but you go out of your way to make it the worst news possible.
For instance, let's say your business is failing and you're running out of money. You're now forced into some painful headlines about layoffs or closures or what have you, but it doesn't have to be that bad.
The responsible thing would be to suck it up and admit it's not working out while you've still got enough money to give staff their due severance and take care of all your obligations. That's rough, but luck plays a huge role in success, companies fail all the time, and there should be no shame in falling short if you gave it your best shot and did what you could.
Alternatively, you could do what Curt Schilling did with 38 Studios and miss payroll, tell relocating employees you would sell their old house for them and then not do that and collapse so they're stuck with two mortgages and no job, and ignore how your studio's failure would upend the lives of everyone who depended on you seeing as how you believed your clearly dying studio would magically survive "because God blessed me with the ability to throw a baseball."
Lots of studios shut down in 2012. But the reason we still talk about 38 Studios more than a decade later is because the company took a bad situation and chose to make it exponentially worse.
In short, don't twirl your moustache as you bulldoze the community center in Orphan City. And if even that is too much to ask, we suggest trying to find an industry with greater tolerance for unrepentent evil. Have you tried the oil industry? Arms dealing? Social media?
Keep a clean image
This one's also pretty straight-forward. People are less likely to throw accusations around if the behavior they're accusing you of runs counter to your public image. And that means treating people well, at least when others are looking.
Offer very competitive salaries and generous benefits packages above and beyond the norm. Be inclusive. Throw no-strings-attached money at progressive causes and non-profits working to help the people who need it most. Tell your staff to maintain a healthy work-life balance, make some accommodations to their workload and schedule so that's actually possible, and then don't punish the people who actually take you up on it.
Think of it as insurance that you actually make sure to keep paid up, more like the insurance that kept Schilling and other 38 Studios execs from being personally liable for a multimillion dollar lawsuit settlement stemming from the company's collapse, and less like the health insurance 38 Studios cancelled without informing employees.
If you get exposed later on, people will certainly call you hypocritical, but it still creates room for doubt. There's at least the possibility that maybe the malfeasance in question was a rare exception that slipped through the cracks. That's far better than being outed as a horrible employer and having a series of stories that only provide a higher resolution image as to just how bad the situation is, from the embarrassingly uncompetitive pay you offer to the way you illegally shut down a studio to that time you illegally threatened staff.
Another key part of this is a robust set of workplace conduct and anti-discrimination policies that cover everything from hiring to dispute resolution, and yes, I'm sorry to say you'll have to enforce them as well.
It does you no good to have a "zero tolerance" policy if it conspicuously does not apply to the CEO
It does you no good to have a "zero tolerance" policy if it conspicuously does not apply to the CEO, or if you can't even be bothered to actually look into alleged violations of said policy.
It's easy to have rules on the books, but culture will trump policy every time if you don't actively enforce them.
Do you think when Riot Games' senior management was setting up the company, they were aiming to turn it into a nightmare frat house woodchipper for women's dignity? Do you think they lacked a policy saying discrimination was wrong? No, of course not. They were just more focused on creating a homogenous culture than they were on ensuring a diversity of people could thrive in the workplace.
QUOTE | "As a culture, you don't want to be plain vanilla. You want to be uni or brussel sprouts. You want to be polarizing, and you'll be a magnet for cultural fits." – Riot co-founder Brandon Beck, in a keynote address at the Montreal International Games Summit in 2014.
But hiring so specifically for a polarizing culture fit – to the point where Riot paid new hires who didn't fit to go away – is how you wind up with a culture where senior executives think it's totally fine to go around slapping employees' testicles and farting on them. On that note…
No slapping employees' testicles or farting on them
We probably should have put this one under unforced errors. Actually, it probably shouldn't have needed saying at all.
No, we're not talking about killing people. (Did you not read the "unforced errors" bit?!?) We're talking about plausible deniability.
When people go to the press, they will often want to be anonymous, and that means the stories they tell are more likely to be hard to trace back to an individual. So you can't have your CEO threatening to punch people in the office and publicly shaming them. You can't have a slur be someone's office nickname. And you can't drunkenly grope employees at a work party.
Even if abuse of that sort happens one-on-one behind closed doors, the victim may be shaken by it and likely to confide in others at the studio. It becomes hearsay at that point, but a press report on studio culture is not a court of law, and people who read the article aren't likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when sources recall meetings that ended with junior developers fleeing the office in tears.
So don't abuse anyone if there's anyone else around to see it. And if there's nobody there to see it, don't abuse anyone because it's possible they'll tell others and word gets around. I know, that rules out like, a huge swath of the abuse out there, but if you want to keep your wrongdoing under wraps, you can't wrong-do stuff people will know about.
Here's one big thing working in your favor, abusive employers: People don't like to go to the press with problems. It's generally a last resort because they take on a lot of personal risk when they do it.
Will the press tell their story accurately? Will people be able to figure out they spoke with the press? Will their employer retaliate against them? If their identity becomes known, will other companies refuse to hire them in the future? Nobody knows for certain when they decide to share their story with a reporter.
And as for what they gain from speaking with the press, it's generally not a lot: potentially a satisfied sense of justice, maybe a glimmer of revenge, and in exceptionally rare cases, perhaps significant institutional changes that help future employees and prevent other people from being hurt in the same way. There's no fame to be had as an anonymous source in the press, and no money either.
With so little upside to going through the press, people will more often than not raise their problems internally through proper channels first. And that's your chance to nip that negative coverage in the bud.
No, not by firing the complaining people or forcing them out. What you need to do is actually address the situation like a responsible company run by non-jerkwads would, even if it's a little bit painful in the near term. Did a senior developer harass someone? In a big enough company, that kind of thing is probably going to happen at some point. Give them the boot, make sure people see visible consequences for the transgression, and support the individual they harassed.
These people did you a favor by taking their problems through the official channels instead of going to the press
Sure it sucks to have to replace them mid-project, but key people do leave big projects on short notice every now and then, whether its for personal health or family needs or what have you. If you can deal with it in those situations, you'd better figure out a way to deal with it in this one. It's more important that your employees are tricked into thinking you actually care about their wellbeing and will support them if they're in the right, regardless of their title or the power dynamics at play.
And besides, these people actually did you a favor by taking their problems through the official channels where you can take care of things quietly instead of going to the press. Reward them by taking care of the problem for them. Because if you take the harasser's side instead, they've got a lot less to lose by going to the press (or a lawyer), and their sense of injustice could override any self-preservation instinct, at which point they are going to be dragging you over the coals for everyone to see.
Oh, and then there's also the whole bit about retaliating against employees being illegal. If you think a press report is bad, consider how much worse it can be when you're sued by the government and some of the largest press outlets in the country turn their attention to your company for a series of deeply embarrassing exposés.
We certainly didn't need to know about Bobby Kotick's ex-girlfriend getting a restraining order against him, and I suspect that kind of humiliating detail from his personal life never would have been publicized if state and federal agencies hadn't sued Activision Blizzard for discriminating against women and retaliating against them for speaking up, making Kotick's treatment of women in his personal life relevant to the operation of the company as a whole.
Relatedly, in the unlikely event that HR ever recommends you fire someone for sexual harassment, under no circumstances should you overrule them!
So yeah, if someone complains about a problem, your best bet is to take the hit and deal with it as if you weren't a total scumbag. When it comes to retaliation, "The only winning move is not to play."
(No, that won't hurt your engagement metrics; that's not the kind of 'not playing' I'm talking about.)
No union busting
I know, I know. What's even the point of running a company if you're just going to let the peons have a say in their working conditions?
But here's the thing. Fighting unions isn't a great look, internally or externally. PR-wise, it's really, really hard to come out of any fight against your own employees looking like the good guy. And it's bad for morale having to put up painfully transparent arguments about why unions are bad. No, not as bad for morale as telling them the truth – "Unions are bad because we will have to pay you more and probably treat you better" – but still not ideal. It certainly doesn't help recruitment when prospective candidates know you're willing to toss your public reputation in the dumpster in order to keep employees in their place.
Nobody knows where the bodies are buried like the grunts you paid to dig the graves
Honestly, your best move here is probably to pull a Microsoft and stay out of it when your employees start talking about organizing. If you fight them, there's a good chance they'll fight back, like the Activision Blizzard employees who presumably had the Communication Workers of America union notify a law firm about some dodgy monetization in Diablo Immortal. Nobody knows where the bodies are buried like the grunts you paid to dig the graves.
Fighting them risks galvanizing opposition to you, but if you combined neutrality with the generous compensation and other measures in the sections above, there's a chance your employees won't be so motivated to unionize because they're already being treated better than their peers at other companies.
And even if they do unionize, then you can always spread the blame for poor working conditions or rotten culture issues to the union because it would have theoretically had leverage to do something about the problems. It's a win-win!
- Don't do indefensibly bad stuff
- Treat employees well
- Have robust anti-discrimination policies that you enforce as if you were a respectable company
- Don't punish employees for bringing problems to you instead of the press
- Don't mistreat people when there are a bunch of people around to see it
- Don't mistreat people when there's nobody around to see it
- Don't union bust
- No slapping testicles or farting on people (I can't stress this one enough. Seriously, people, what the hell?)
I should probably note that this is not a comprehensive list, but if you abide by these rules, I promise your crappy company run by vile creeps has a much, much better chance of not being the next bag of heavily soiled dirty laundry to be aired out for the world to gaze at in disgust and horror.
Godspeed, turd bags!
The rest of the week in review
QUOTE | "A divestment preserves the status quo and harms Xbox and PC gamers. As such, if the CMA expects that Sony will be 'significantly weakened' by partial exclusivity, the CMA must equally acknowledge that Microsoft is 'significantly weakened' by the status quo arrangements, which would be preserved by a divestment." – In its response to the CMA's concerns about its proposed acquisition of Activision Blizzard, Microsoft argues it is significantly weakened by PlayStation having been allowed to eat Xbox's lunch for a decade now.
QUOTE | "I think the next big game opportunity is Google Glasses [sic]. If I told you all my ideas for it, I'd have to kill you. And the Oculus Rift. The game business reinvents itself every five years. The last five years have been the days of mobile gaming and shortform gaming, exemplified by Rovio with Angry Birds and Zynga with Farmville. And that is over." – 10 Years Ago This Month, Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell says we can just put a fork in mobile gaming because it is officially over.
STAT | 4 years – The length of time a Lego Disney title had been in the works at TT Games before it was cancelled due to the success of the similarly premised Disney Dreamlight Valley, according to Nintendo Life. The outlet said it was one of several projects recently cancelled at TT Games.
STAT | 4 years – Roughly the amount of time it will take to remember that Circana is the new name for the NPD Group and not the name of a prescription drug with commercials that don't specify the condition they treat but promise to "help you get back to your life."
QUOTE | "For many successful titles, there are only a handful of truly iconic images, so spend time figuring out what yours are." – In our Academy article with advice on putting together a press kit, Polyarc Games' publishing director Lincoln Davis says it's better to offer a curated set of images than a shotgun blast of them.
STAT | 1 – Between Cult Games, The Believer Company, and Militant Religious Sect Studios, the amount of creepily named gaming outfits announced this week that I just made up.
QUOTE | "Players are the best audience to serve in the world. They're noble, smart, discerning, and infinitely inventive. We hold their investments of time, skill, and hard-earned money as sacred, and we will always put their needs first at every stage of Believer's journey." – The Believer Company CEO Michael Chow just announced the studio's existence and is already buttering up a player base it doesn't even have yet in a press release for the company. If this is how he panders to an audience's vanity, I can see how he convinced some of the biggest names in venture capital for games to give him $55 million.
QUOTE | "Video content using profanity, moderate or strong, after the first seven seconds will now be eligible for green icons, unless used repetitively throughout the majority of the video (under the November update, this would have received no ad revenue)." – YouTube walks back some recent policy changes that were implemented to make the site more advertiser-friendly but resulted in too much demonetized content.
STAT 1/3 – The price drop for the Oculus Quest Pro, which Facebook launched last October at $1,500 and dropped to $1,000 last weekend.
STAT | $200 – The new price point of Panic's Playdate handheld, $20 more than it originally sold for. In addition to the price hike, Panic announced it would be opening up an online store for users to buy more games for the device.
QUOTE | "To meet the challenges of the future, Ubisoft's management has decided to close a number of subsidiaries in Europe. Unfortunately, the Ubisoft Benelux entity is subject to the intended closure with most employees departing as of April 1st, 2023." – An Ubisoft internal email announced the reorganization of its European businesses, as reported by NME.
QUOTE | "We have been lucky enough to work on what we love for the past nine years, pouring our hearts and souls into creating immersive and entertaining games for you to enjoy, and we are so proud of what we have accomplished. But unfortunately, we have come to the end of our journey." – Aragami developer Lince Works announces the studio's closure.