Update October 3, 2019: Sauropod Studio management has issued an official statement saying the studio remains open despite laying off almost all of its employees.
Original story September 24, 2019:
Montreal-based Sauropod Studio has shut down, costing around 20 people their jobs.
Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz, several former employees attribute the studio's closure to poor project planning and money mismanagement throughout the course of the development of its second title, Mirador, which launched in July.
Development on Mirador began in full force shortly after the release of Sauropod's first game, Castle Story, in late 2017. Former employees describe the development period as challenging for a number of reasons, including an "unrealistic development calendar," continued refusal of leadership to provide hard deadlines or benchmarks, and persistent feature creep throughout the game's development.
One particular ongoing struggle was the lack of a consistent game designer throughout Mirador's development. At the beginning, various studio leaders filled the role of game designer in addition to their other duties. A game designer was hired in the fall of 2018, but left shortly after. In total, Mirador went through three different game designers in its final year of development, with the third and final designer departing before the game was complete and never being replaced.
The studio's problems were exacerbated by debts owed on work-for-hire deals for some of Mirador's assets, with one employee saying the studio had "too many engineers, not enough artists." Sauropod struggled to find a publisher for Mirador, and increased its debt by paying another company to design and launch a Kickstarter campaign that did not reach half of its $60,000 goal. In a post to Kickstarter on June 14 of this year following the campaign's failure, Sauropod blamed the lack of funding on "current events" including E3.
Less explicitly blamed, but still heavily implied, is the movement of crowdfunded games such as Shenmue III to the Epic Games store. In the post, Sauropod said these moves "contributed to an erosion of the overall community confidence in crowdfunded games, and for many people in a reticence to back, or even look at, new and ongoing campaigns."
Mirador went through three different game designers in its final year of development
Despite the failed Kickstarter and no publisher support, former employees say Sauropod was able to maintain itself for as long as it did due to a $900,000 commitment from the Canadian Media Fund. They add that it became more and more apparent as Mirador drew nearer to launch that the money was going to run out well before the end of the year, though they also say they received reassurances from management that no one would be laid off following Mirador's launch. Instead, they'd be moved to the studio's next project while a small team remained to support Mirador.
Former employees point to these money issues as a large part of what prompted Mirador to launch in a seemingly unfinished state. The game didn't have a working prototype until around a month before its Steam release on July 26, and despite Sauropod normally having a strong company culture of healthy work-life balance, former employees say they had to crunch in the final month of development to get the game out the door by the deadline.
Several of those in touch with us say that the environment at Sauropod grew tenser over time, with one describing multiple shouting matches between workers. Some say that the studio's generous infinite sick leave and flex-time policies began to cause problems, as key decision-makers would be gone frequently or work odd hours, making communication a challenge. In addition, multiple women at the studio report being talked over in meetings or having their ideas ignored, only to have them repeated by men and accepted. These problems only grew as the game neared its launch.
Mirador launched to mixed reviews, many of which effectively say the game appears to be more of an early access title than a full release. Former employees say that the idea of releasing the game with Steam's "Early Access" tag was floated internally, but management rejected the idea due to a reluctance to continue working heavily on the game after July.
With money running out and Mirador receiving lukewarm reception, Sauropod began two rounds of layoffs. The first took place at the start of August, just after the game's launch, and reduced the studio by around 8-10 people -- nearly half its staff. A second wave of layoffs occurred near the very end of August, effectively reducing the studio to its management, owners, and a few bug fixers who worked on the final update to Mirador published on September 9 before also being laid off.
Affected employees say they received neither appropriate notice ahead of the layoffs, nor appropriate severance. One employee tells us that everyone was given two weeks severance, but that several employees had been asked to work during that period anyway, effectively negating it. Another employee says they received no severance at all.
Affected employees say they received neither appropriate notice ahead of the layoffs, nor appropriate severance
One affected employee says they had been told the studio would reopen in February and rehire the majority of its former employees to continue work on the next project. They believe if management follows through on that plan, it could allow them to avoid paying out holiday, overtime, and severance money owed to laid off workers under Canadian labor laws.
Despite the apparent promise of reopening, the former employees we spoke to doubt Sauropod's ability to survive. Sauropod leaders are openly selling the studio's equipment and furniture on Facebook Marketplace, and one employee told us that management acknowledged the studio was still in debt and may ultimately need to file for bankruptcy.
Sauropod Studio leadership did not respond to GamesIndustry.biz's requests for comment. On the official Discord server, the game's community manager wrote the following about the studio's status on September 13:
"Sorry we've been a little quiet besides that latest Mirador update. Lots of things changed at the studio recently and I'll have news for you all soon, most likely towards the beginning of next month as it's currently very hectic. We're moving out of the studio and we have a ton of things to be working on. We'll likely have a stream at the beginning of next month and we'll chat about it all and about what's next for Sauropod. Thank you for your patience."
For the record: The section referencing Canadian labor laws has been amended to remove a reference to a section of the law that does not apply in this case.
Update: Sauropod Studio head of communications Shatojon has said that the company remains intact despite the layoffs.
"The studio isn't shut down and we will continue support the communities of our titles," he said to GamesIndustry.biz
He added that the company's three founders and CEO would have a full statement on issues of severance and sexism later this week.