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Pitting developers against one another | This Week in Business

In the absence of Striking Distance explaining The Callisto Protocol's credits omissions, we find a window into the management mindset elsewhere

Earlier this week, we published a story about Striking Distance Studios leaving a number of developers out of the credits for its debut title, The Callisto Protocol.

It's a silly practice, but not entirely uncommon in this industry. It costs a studio essentially nothing to give credit, but many continue to refuse that basic courtesy to those who leave partway through development.

Why? Well, to send a message, of course.

QUOTE | "Somebody wanted to send a message, and the message was, 'Next time have a bit more loyalty to us.'" – One of our sources for the story describes the message as they understood it.

I think our source is essentially correct there, but surely Striking Distance cannot expect there to be a "next time" for any of the developers they have so thoroughly disrespected here. Those developers will almost certainly not be returning for a second stint at the studio, so perhaps a slightly different interpretation of the message is called for.

QUOTE | "We are full of utterly impotent rage that you dared to find a better job for yourself and advance your career, but you're beyond our ability to punish now so we're just going to throw a tantrum over it." – My interpretation of the message Striking Distance sent.

As for the message Striking Distance thought it was sending, we don't really know. We first asked Striking Distance's external PR firm about the credits issue in December. They never got back to us.

We asked again last week after speaking to a number of sources for the article. They said they would check with the studio and asked if we knew when the story might run, but other than that, we heard nothing back.

If you were Striking Distance, would you rather plead gross incompetence or petty malice?

It's not all that difficult to guess the reason behind their silence. How do you justify something that's basically unjustifiable? Maybe if this had only happened to one or two people there might be some explanation, but 20?

If you were Striking Distance, would you rather plead gross incompetence or petty malice? A formal apology and restoration of omitted names to the credits would be worth talking about, but short of that, I don't think there's any excuse the company could make that would pass public scrutiny.

Striking Distance management (or their PR handlers) were apparently smart enough to know that, so they figured it was best to not say anything at all.

Not every boss is so shrewd.

Take, for example, Raccoon Logic CEO Alex Hutchinson responding to a quote in the article about how the credits omission "felt like an obvious F-U to those who were left out."

QUOTE | "And to be fair if you leave during or before the last big push, you are giving an obvious F-U to all the people still working at the coal face." – Hutchinson volunteers a defense for denying people credits. In the name of fairness, no less.

First of all, I don't think it's a great idea for a game development studio CEO to compare working in games to working in a hazardous industry notorious for utter contempt of workers' rights and wellbeing, particularly when he's doing so in defense of industry practices rather than in criticism of them.

Regardless, Hutchinson suggests the credits omission is an act of revenge, which certainly fits with our "impotent rage" theory above. (A credits omission can be a big deal for an entry-level dev or contractor for whom it represents their entire footprint in the industry, but for many of the established and veteran senior devs omitted from The Callisto Protocol, it's not exactly a make-or-break career moment.)

But the key aspect of Hutchinson's quote is that it frames the decision to leave not as a betrayal of the employer, but as a betrayal of a developer's fellow employees. It's not hard to imagine this is how studio CEOs would prefer their employees to think about such situations.

Because that "last big push" is generally not an easy or pleasant time, and people are likely to be upset at their work situation. They may be under loads of pressure, working long hours, losing sleep, and sacrificing bits and pieces of their health and personal lives in order to get a game finished by a deadline.

QUOTE | "This is gaming. Hard work. Lunch, dinner working. U do it cause ya luv it." - Schofield describes the stretch run of Callisto Protocol development in a now-deleted post talking about his team working 12-15 hour days, 6-7 days a week, through exhaustion and COVID.

When someone leaves in the midst of such a push, their responsibilities will likely be shouldered by the rest of the team, which is already working beyond normal capacity.

But who is actually responsible for that? Who was responsible for agreeing to that deadline in the first place? Who was responsible for managing and pacing the development process to meet that deadline? Who was responsible for maintaining staffing levels appropriate to the amount of work that needed doing?

Who was responsible for making the studio a destination for talent rather a place they would want to leave? Who was responsible for making it a desirable place to work, from culture to pay to work load? Who was responsible for matching each developers' talents with their tasks and ensuring they were engaged in rewarding work that allowed their careers to progress?

As a general rule, management doesn't enjoy having the blame pointed in their direction, so they tend to redirect employee anger elsewhere

The answer to all these questions is ultimately management. But as a general rule, management doesn't enjoy having the blame pointed in their direction, so they tend to redirect employee anger elsewhere (at each other, for example) wherever possible.

After all, doing so ratchets up the pressure for people to stick around lest they too become persona non grata with the co-workers they once considered friends. It can build team unity (or at least quiet down any hint of dissension), and have employees enforcing crunch on each other through peer pressure rather than managerial mandate. That's particularly important as few people are comfortable thinking of themselves as abusive or exploitive, so a little plausible deniability goes a long way toward helping bad management sleep soundly.

For a company, that's a win all the way around, particularly if all those extra hours cost is a steady drumbeat of take-out dinners for crunching devs.

I recognize this way of looking at things puts a lot of the onus on the bosses, and is asking a level of responsibility from them that they traditionally have not had to live up to in this industry.

Tough.

As management, the bosses will benefit far more from the meeting of deadlines and the success of a game than the people working beneath them, in many cases exponentially so.

Management can't reasonably ask the people "at the coal face" to sacrifice much when doing so just means more time at the coal face, possibly with a modest bonus for their efforts. Not when management's upside in the deal is so much greater and more varied.

(Apropos of nothing, Naughty Dog co-president Neil Druckmann is now co-creator of a critically acclaimed HBO series. Congrats to any burned out and forgotten former Naughty Dog devs whose lives were shattered on the road to making this happen!)

So when bosses like Hutchinson ask us to think about the well-being of the rest of the team in cases like this, it rings hollow to me, and not just because I'm skeptical they would welcome it if their employees formed unions with the explicit goal of looking out for one another.

It rings hollow to me because whatever hardships "the people still at the coal face" endure, they are enduring them at management's behest, in conditions management creates, and for the primary benefit of management. The idea that "the people still at the coal face" should be angry with one another for this situation is perverse.

The games industry is pretty good at adapting, but only when it absolutely has to

The urge to take care of the people you share a difficult situation with can be compelling, but when invoked like this, it only perpetuates the harm being done to your co-workers. If every developer suffering through crunch in the run-up to release found some other place to work, I'm pretty sure we'd have a bunch of novel best practices for eliminating crunch in very short order. The games industry is pretty good at adapting, but only when it absolutely has to. (See: remote work, pandemic.)

Arguments like Hutchinson's are presented as if they are aligned with the needs of developers. But in reality, it's a bit of slight of hand to get developers to identify not with the needs of their co-workers – which clearly were not met if they chose to leave at a key part of development – but with the needs of the company and the boss.

Rather than scorn people for leaving, we would do better to celebrate our co-workers who found a better job, who left for better pay, a better position, or better treatment. And management should, too. Because if you honestly care about your co-workers and employees as people rather than cogs, you shouldn't begrudge them for trying to improve their situation.

Directing your anger at those who felt they had to leave only lets the management that failed them off the hook.

The rest of the week in review

QUOTE | "I do want to change the industry. I want to change it for the better. It's about finding better leaders for the industry, it is about not tolerating practices that have been on past and inspiring those around us. People will come and go. If they come and do brilliant things with us and go onto something bigger and better, they go on with our blessing. And they go on with these better practices, and that's going to make for a better industry." - Maverick Games COO Harinder Sangha is saying a lot of the right things as she works to get the start-up studio off the ground. (But then again, so did Glen Schofield when he was starting up Striking Distance. We sincerely hope Sangha has a bit more follow-through.)

QUOTE | "The Proletariat leadership is and has always been pro-worker." – The management of Proletariat Games tries to explain why it is forcing its employees to go through a time-consuming formal vote on unionization even though a supermajority of the employees who would take part in that vote have already shown their support by signing union cards.

QUOTE | "As we enter a new year, we remain committed to creating the best workplaces we can for people who make a living in the tech sector." – Microsoft, in a pro-union ad it ran in the Washington Post that reiterates its desire to bring a union-neutral stance to Activision Blizzard if that acquisition goes through.

QUOTE | "I want to move towards more events that encourage networking and are not marketed as networking when they're actually just a party. I'm really keen to explore more inclusive, accessible events, alcohol-free events and more sensory-friendly events that aren't just full of bright lights and heavy music, which can be super overwhelming for people, especially with mental health, and neurodiversity, which is key to my job as well." – Safe in Our World's content and community manager Rosie Taylor talks about what changes she wants to help bring about in the industry as part of our Game Changers series.

QUOTE | "I feel like everybody is sick of it to be honest. Even I am sick of talking about it, you know, I keep repeating the same stuff all the time! We wouldn't have to talk about it that much if we were being shown more as existing and as being proactive within the industry." – In another of our Game Changers profiles, Afrogameuses' Jennifer Lufau says the industry needs to do more to normalize Black women and marginalized people in general, inviting them on panels to talk about more than just diversity.

QUOTE | "Because of the constriction and consolidation of the industry over the past two years and how a lot of companies are just owned by the subscription services, my concern is that because the libraries are so big and the companies are so prolific with huge user bases, that they won't need us." - Finji CEO Bekah Saltsman has concerns about what the subscription trend means for indie developers in general.

STAT | $50,000 to $600,000 – The bizarrely unhelpful pay range published on a job posting for a QA Test Lead at Netflix, in accordance with new laws mandating pay ranges be included on job ads in California and Washington. Not every company was so reluctant to nail down a helpful range for candidates.

QUOTE | "This overall context has triggered a full review of our revenue prospects leading to increased cautiousness over the coming years." – Ubisoft explains that it has revised its strategy in light of worsening macroeconomic conditions, the disappointing performance of Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope and Just Dance 2023, the cancellation of three more of its unannounced titles, and the now-traditional delay to Skull and Bones.

STAT | 8 – The number of Nintendo-published games that made the European GSD Top 20 digital and physical best-sellers chart for 2022 based solely on sales of boxed copies. (Nintendo does not report digital sales.)

STAT | 64% - On average, games released on both physical and digital formats in Europe last year saw 64% of their sales come from the digital version.

STAT | 5% - The year-over-year decline in mobile consumer game spending last year, according to a new report from Data.ai.

STAT | 5% - The amount of power the Xbox Series S and X use when they are completely in Shutdown mode instead of Sleep mode. Microsoft will be defaulting consoles to Shutdown mode as part of a new "carbon aware" update meant to lower the console's total energy expenditures.

QUOTE | "No developer wants their game to be used in such a way." – Bohemia Interactive PR lead Pavel Křižka discusses the ongoing problems with footage from the studio's Arma games being used for propaganda and misinformation purposes.

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Author
Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.