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Scandals, snake oil, and optimism: GDC is back | This Week in Business

The industry's premiere convention for developers picks up right where it left off

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's GDC week, and for the first time in a few years, we had a somewhat normal show where much of the industry's attention focused on the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

It's been a while. How long? Well, the last normal GDC -- the 2019 show -- was the big coming out party for Google Stadia, which has come and (mostly) gone since then. It's actually been over a year since Google shut down its Stadia first-party studios.

Even if Stadia is no longer among the "next big thing" topics, much of this GDC week surely felt familiar to those either attending in person or following the festivities on social media. There was plenty of news about start-ups and acquisitions, recruitment pitches galore, people vociferously hating on or defending San Francisco, group selfies of smiling friends at Yerba Buena Gardens, group selfies of existential dread from people at Denny's, and everything that has come to be synonymous with GDC.

There were, of course, other familiar things.

Scandals

This is not the first GDC to arrive alongside a public reckoning for some high-profile indies.

At 2018's GDC, the scandal was about 2064: Read Only Memories developer MidBoss and accusations of sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior, and mistreatment of marginalized employees by studio CEO Matt Conn. It was shocking for some, a long-known whisper network factoid for others, and a reminder that things like working on a game full of queer representation and helping organize the GaymerX queer gaming convention don't preclude toxic behavior.

This year the scandals were about Ori and the Blind Forest Moon Studios and Wattam developer Funomena (along with publisher Annapurna) were the subject of separate investigative pieces published Friday, the former by VentureBeat and the latter by People Make Games.

You can check out the original reports for the troubling details of each. The Moon Studios report focused on the bullying and adolescently edgy company culture as shaped by co-founders Thomas Mahler and Gennadiy Korol, while the Funomena report centers on descriptions of emotionally abusive behavior by co-founder Robin Hunicke, a long-time prominent advocate for diversity and progressive causes in games.

As a horrible bonus, the People Make Games investigation also covers two more studios that worked with Annapurna -- Mountains and Fullbright -- although the problems with their well-known developers (Ken Wong and Steve Gaynor, respectively) have been aired in public previously.

I don't even know what lessons there are for people to take away from this that weren't plenty apparent from the parade of similar scandals we've seen in recent years. The values people embrace in public and the behavior they use in private don't necessarily line up. Developers who make cozy games aren't necessarily cozy people. Indie studios can exploit, abuse, and neglect workers just as well as AAA can, sometimes even better. People too often seek leadership roles for hypothetical outcomes of prestige/wealth/power, and too rarely consider the guaranteed burden and responsibility of the position.

No game will ever be good enough to justify abusing people to get it made.

Snake Oil

GDC has plenty of amazing and insightful talks by wonderful developers. It also has a reliable dose of snake oil on the program schedule every year.

I don't really blame the organizers for this, as it's sort of inherent to the field. After all, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," so people trying to sell you on the technology of tomorrow that is not yet possible today are sometimes going to sound like they're promising magic, even when there's something legitimate there.

Throw in a dose of Silicon Valley VC culture where tech investors sprinkle around money on a portfolio of moonshot bets hoping one or two pan out into true disruptions and grow their wealth from "merely obscene" to "downright blasphemous," and you've got a thriving market for magicians as well as their look-alike cousins: dishonest hustlers with a sense of showmanship and a knack for slight of hand.

GDC has historically (and appropriately) made room for early adopters in emerging spaces to report back and let their peers know what they've learned, whether it's been dynamic in-game advertising, free-to-play gaming, VR, AR, AI, or streaming. It has also made room for companies in these new spaces to sponsor sessions where they can make a straight-up sales pitch.

STAT | 23 - The number of GDC 2022 sessions that show up when you search for "blockchain" on the event's official site.

STAT | 5 - The number of those sessions that weren't sponsored, one of which is a "Women in Games in LATAM: Where Are We Standing?" advocacy panel that does not appear to have anything to do with blockchain.

That ratio may be expected, considering how few early adopters in blockchain gaming have actually launched anything, and how even fewer of those have results they're eager to share. (Why no Ghost Recon NFT victory lap, Ubisoft?)

There was also one bit of news we didn't cover this week, about a cryptocurrency company using GDC to announce the acquisition of a collectible card game developer. In keeping with our aversion to covering blockchain gaming, I won't name the parties here but it should be pretty easy to figure out with a Google search and anyone still stumped can DM me on Twitter.

So this studio has had a game in Steam Early Access since June of last year, and it seemed to have gotten some traction. It also had no indication that it was a blockchain title or had any aspirations to become one. As you can imagine, people who had invested in it only to hear it was acquired by a crypto company and exploring ways to implement blockchain into the game had thoughts.

STAT | 2,276 - The number of reviews the game had received on Steam just prior to the acquisition announcement, good enough for a Very Positive (80%+) review average.

STAT | Nearly 400 - The number of reviews it received since then, the vast majority of them giving it a thumbs down. As of Friday morning, the game's recent reviews assessment had been knocked down to "Overwhlemingly Negative" (just 18% of reviews in the past month have been positive) while the total reviews have fallen to "Mostly Positive" (73% of all reviews since last June have been positive). Here's a before-and-after comparison of the game's recent reviews graph on Steam:

Blockchain gaming. Not even once.

It's a good ol' fashioned review bombing, but Steam has so far decided not to invoke its review bombing policy, which removes such campaigns from a game's overall review score. It could be because this is too new a situation to have gone through the human review process Valve uses to assess potential review bombings. It could also be that this bombing is actually kosher by Valve's own rules.

QUOTE | "We define an off-topic review bomb as one where the focus of those reviews is on a topic that we consider unrelated to the likelihood that future purchasers will be happy if they buy the game, and hence not something that should be added to the Review Score." - Valve, explaining its review bomb policy in 2019.

This game does not have blockchain elements in it as of yet (which helps explain why Steam is allowing it on the storefront despite a ban on blockchain games). But it's assumed to be coming, and the developers even started distributing NFTs based on the game, albeit outside the Steam ecosystem. Clearly, many current players of the game are unhappy with the sudden future vision of the game, and it makes sense new prospective new players might feel the same way and consider these reviews to be useful information.

But what really gets me about this is that the developers put in all the effort to build up a community for their game and grow it over the better part of a year, only to alienate an potentially significant portion of it that they had to know would include some of their most devoted players.

QUOTE | "Shame the devs really managed to paint a Mona Lisa here and then decided to toss it in the campfire just because the big guys offered them a bit of money." - A Steam user review for a player who was horrified by the possibility of blockchain elements coming to the game. At the time of the review, they had put 806 hours into the game.

I'm sure the acquisition has attracted some crypto enthusiasts to the title as well, but it's trading off some of its most devoted players in exchange. But hey, maybe the remaining playerbase will enjoy seeing so many of their friends in the community leave in order to make room for a new class of gold farmer.

Optimism

All evidence to the contrary, I can't be all-downer, all the time. And GDC can be a good opportunity to recognize the progress the industry has made as well. For example, this year's GDC featured a panel with four studio heads talking about how great their experience has been switching to four-day work weeks.

QUOTE | "The humans making the games matter as much as the business that's profiting from the game. We had been enduring the pandemic that long. I really needed people to not burn out and to stay on after launch and come with 100% of their health. It seemed like the best, or at least a temporary solution. And we thought, 'Well, why not continue?'" - Kitfox co-founder Tanya X. Short explains why the studio switched to four-day work weeks last year.

That panel had the CEOs or creative directors of Kitfox, Armor Games, KO_OP, and ManaVoid all raving about the benefits of the four-day work week. And while indies preaching quality of life issues is not a new thing, we've increasingly heard larger studios at least paying lip service to the idea.

QUOTE | "It's a great result. I'm very happy. It's very positive, but we still have to adjust and test new things to make sure everyone feels comfortable at work and has a well-balanced private life, of course." - In a GDC Main Stage presentation, Eidos Montreal studio head David Anfossi says the studio has likewise seen tremendous results since switching to a four-day week last October, with only 7% of employees seeing any drop in productivity and only 6% reporting ever feeling exhausted at the end of the week.

The great thing here is that these business owners and managers are not necessarily doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. I'm sure many of them are thrilled to adopt policies that make their employees happier, but they are doing this because there is a clear business case to make for it.

Beyond the boosted morale and health that the four-day weeks bring, these studios are adopting policies like this to stay competitive. Four of the aforementioned studios are based in Montreal, and a number of the studio heads mentioned the policies as part of their recruitment and retention strategies.

The demand for talent in the games industry has long exceeded the supply, but the beneficiaries of it seem to be changing.

QUOTE | "The battle in Montreal is the seniors. Everybody is scratching and fighting over the seniors. Our plan - and I think it's a logical plan - is to bring our juniors as fast as possible to mid-level seniority, and our mid-level staff as fast as possible to seniors." - In 2011, then-GM of Eidos Montreal Stephane D'Astous spoke with us about the competition for talent in the city's development scene.

Back then, the competition for talent could benefit senior developers from successful games. After all, they were the ones being poached by rival publishers, or finding investors eager to help them start up their own new studios.

That obviously still can and does happen, but these days I'm also seeing more moves that benefit people up and down the org chart, like these four-day work weeks or Ubisoft giving a minimum 5% pay hike to its employees across Canada last November.

Some of this is being done to stave off unionization. Some is being done in fear of -- or in response to -- workplace culture scandals. Just how much I think those are driving companies' motivations depends on which company we're talking about, and just how charitable I'm feeling that day.

Regardless, the key thing here that gives me optimism is the idea that rank-and-file game developers are increasing their leverage as time goes on. And that in and of itself should ensure a better, healthier future for developers, and a more rational industry that doesn't treat its workers as replaceable fodder.

QUOTE | "You can't trust people like us who are giving this talk right now as business owners. We might be nice, possibly might be good people, but there's nothing stopping us from reverting back or changing things or exploiting [employees] in other ways." - In the above four-day work week panel, KO_OP's Saleem Dabbous reminded developers in the audience that it's better to have leverage -- like the leverage a union could provide -- rather than rely on employers not to change their minds, something they can do pretty abruptly. Just ask Google's old first-party Stadia developers.

The rest of the week in review

QUOTE | "Netflix's commitment to offer ad-free games as part of members' subscriptions enables game developers like us to focus on creating delightful game play without worrying about monetization." - Boss Fight Entertainment's CEO David Rippy and co-COOs Bill Jackson and Scott Winsett talk about the decision to be acquired by Netflix, becoming the third developer acquired by the movie streaming and production company in the past six months.

QUOTE | "We are finally in Canada, we're finally in Quebec, and we've hit the ground running with a team that's deeply embedded in the area." - PlayStation Studios head Hermen Hulst talks about the acquisition of the Jade Raymond-led Haven Studios, giving the PS5 maker its first Canadian development team.

QUOTE | "The bloom is quite expensive, and god damn did I turn up that bloom." - Beethoven and Dinosaur's Johnny Galvatron talks about the compromises made when bringing The Artful Escape to the Switch in a longer article about the making of The Artful Escape, and how the arduous task gave him two grey nose hairs.

STAT | $100,000 - As revealed in John Romero's Wolfesntein 3D postmortem at GDC, the upfront cash payment Id Software requested when Sierra Online made an offer to buy the Commander Keen developer in 1992, just months before the launch of its seminal first-person shooter. Sierra balked at the idea, closing off a whole bunch of interesting alternate timelines in the process. If Sierra buys Id for their children's label based on the Keen games, do Wolfenstein 3D and Doom ever even happen? Does anything close to the Sierra acquisition chain from CUC Software to Vivendi to Activision to Microsoft ever start, much less end in the same place? Without the decades of Blizzard horror stories, does the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing ever investigate Activision and create a path for Kotick's exit from the company? We could be looking at a very different industry just because Ken Williams didn't want to pay $100,000 in cash instead of company stock.

QUOTE | "On August 30, 2018, Ms. Doe reported Activision Blizzard's hostile work environment to HR, who dismissed Ms. Doe's sexual misconduct complaints, saying that it was just her leadership being nice and trying to be friends with her." - The lawsuit of an anonymous current Activision Blizzard employee (Jane Doe for the purposes of the suit), filed this week against the publisher.

QUOTE | "The value [Nintendo] places on its brand and IPs just isn't compatible with how the business model for mobile games works right now; that's not a judgement on either side, just a simple statement of incompatibility." - Our own Rob Fahey writes about Nintendo's decision to sunset Dragalia Lost, its only currently running original mobile game.

STAT | $2.5 billion - The amount independent developers in Microsoft's ID@Xbox program have collectively earned since its inception in 2013.

STAT | $27 billion - The amount of money Tencent brought in from games in 2021. That's more than Sony ($24.8 billion), Nintendo ($16 billion), or Microsoft (about $15.3 billion) reported for their last fiscal years.

STAT | $16 billion - The amount of money Nintendo brought in in its fiscal 2021.

QUOTE | "Never on my watch!" - Jason Slama, the game director on CD Projekt's next Witcher title, commits to treat employees well in reply to a Twitter user who said Slama's recruitment post forgot to mention "the sign-on bonus of horrible crunch and being treated like a dog," referencing CD Projekt's history of mandatory crunch, even after adopting a non-obligatory crunch policy. Here's hoping Slama's word is worth more than his employer's.

QUOTE | "Ubisoft enjoyed working with MGP Live and its talented musicians, experts of the symphonic space, whose musical arrangement and artistic performances helped bring this unique experience to life, delivering an emotional and nostalgic journey to the audience." - Ubisoft, in announcing this week that it has settled its dispute with the original production company of the Assassin's Creed symphonic concerts.

QUOTE | "MGP failed to comply with the quality standard set out in Article 4.1 of the Symphonic Show License. Ubisoft informed MGP that it was failing to meet the quality standard under the contract in numerous written communications, including via emails dated April 26, 2019, July 2, 2019, September 2, 2019, September 23, 2019, October 14, 2019, October 23, 2019, November 15, 2019 and December 18, 2019. Despite such communications, MGP was never able to meet the quality standard set forth in the Symphonic Show License, thereby breaching Article 4.1 of that contract." - Ubisoft, in a February lawsuit that was much less complementary toward its former business partner.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

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

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