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Booty's bad calls | This Week in Business

Xbox Game Studios head Matt Booty trots out familiar excuses in response to a report of crunch on Fallout 76

This week saw Kotaku follow-up its reporting on Fallout 76 crunch at Bethesda with an account of an all-hands meeting in which Microsoft's head of Xbox Game Studios Matt Booty addressed the contents of the report with an assortment of flimsy and clichéd excuses.

For the sake of readability, we will go over some of the things Booty said using the Good Call, Bad Call format from our 10 Years Ago This Month columns. Well, half of the format, anyway.

BAD CALL | "The challenge with a lot of these articles is that they look backwards, sometimes pretty far back in time."

This line bothers me for a couple reasons. First, Booty is downplaying the significance of not just the Kotaku report, but the flood of investigative reporting into abusive game companies in recent years, as if they don't paint a collective picture detailing the various ways employers exploit developers through both design and neglect, one that is as relevant now as it was when the games industry first started.

Crunch. Crunch never changes...

And while some such reports rely exclusively on former employees, the participation of current employees -- as Kotaku had for its original report, as well as for the report of the all-hands meeting -- is clear evidence that these problems have not been addressed to everyone's satisfaction.

Second, Booty's statement echoes numerous other statements from the subjects of such reports, suggesting that if something happened sufficiently long ago, it is no longer reasonable to hold anyone accountable for it.

STAT | 4 years - How long ago Fallout 76 came out.

STAT | Unknown - How long it takes for an individual to recover from burnout, to repair a broken marriage or home life, to return to a career in the games industry after being driven out of it, to quit health-destroying habits, or reverse any of the other horrible outcomes that happen a lot more frequently when studios treat people like kindling.

In an industry constantly changing and permanently fixated on the future, four years can feel like an eternity ago. For people dealing with the scars of what is described in "a lot of these articles," it can be something that is forever happening in the present.

If Booty wants to argue that Microsoft specifically can't be held responsible for crunch on Fallout 76, then sure. The company only acquired Bethesda in 2020 after all, so reasonably, the studio's treatment of developers in 2018 is not on Xbox. But Booty can't really argue that as long as Bethesda leadership who oversaw that crunch are still around in prominent positions and spearheading the company's biggest marketing beats.

The idea that the past is irrelevant to the present -- particularly when there has been no demonstrable accountability and the leadership remains in place -- is staggeringly, willfully obtuse.

BAD CALL | "It was just part of the industry. I don't say that to justify it, I'm just saying it was part of the culture of the industry. I literally slept under my desk early in my career. And we looked at that like a badge of honor."

"I don't say that to justify it" is one of those phrases like, "I don't want to sound racist, but..."

You know, "I don't say that to justify it" is one of those phrases like, "I don't want to sound racist, but..." in that nine times out of ten it's exactly what it claims not to be. It shows understanding of the subtext and a belief in its relevance to the discussion at hand, while also trying to absolve oneself of making an argument they know they should not be making.

Has there been a culture of crunch in the industry? Yes, absolutely. Did we know four years ago that crunch was an exploitive practice that should be minimized, if not eliminated from the industry? Yes, absolutely. Does Booty talking about it as a badge of honor and establishing his dev cred with the sleeping under his desk detail both promote crunch and suggest that employees shouldn't complain if they haven't endured the same level of workplace abuse that Booty has? Yes, absolutely.

I don't doubt that Booty and many veteran developers have been through crunch worse than what goes on now. But it wasn't right then, and whatever they went through years ago doesn't make it any more right to inflict upon other people now.

Booty also stressed that overtime should be a result of personal excitement and passion rather than mandated by the schedule, which is a rule of thumb that conveniently ignores the realities of the workplace.

If you treat overtime as a sign of excitement and passion, then anyone who wants to be perceived as an excited or passionate employee -- perhaps in the hopes of career advancement, or at least avoiding a round of layoffs in an industry historically marked by precarious employment -- will feel obligated to put in overtime, regardless of factors like workload, health, excitement, or passion. If an employee's colleagues all seem to be putting in overtime, there will be immense peer pressure on them to follow suit. Some studios explicitly count on this to keep people working while maintaining plausible deniability about anyone being forced to crunch.

QUOTE | "Anyone who stayed later than everyone else would inadvertently set a precedent, and everyone else would be expected to follow suit. You didn't want to be the one person packing up to leave while the entire rest of your team was hanging around. There wasn't any outright hostility towards anyone, but you'd get glaring and people would complain to one another about you after you left. When you have to work with this team for 12 hours plus every day for months at a time, you also just plain didn't want to piss anyone off, either." - A former Rockstar NYC developer talking to us in 2018 after Dan Houser defended 100-hour work weeks at the studio by saying "No one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work hard."

QUOTE | "It wasn't a 100%, gun-to-the-head sort of thing. It was the sly thing where they say, 'We're not making anybody work overtime. We're not making anyone do anything.' But you look at the schedule and you know how long everything takes to make... They look at the amount of work they need to get done, and if it doesn't get done, [management] has the reason to [fire you]. It's a tricky maneuver where they can claim innocence in the fact they didn't make anyone do anything, but it's really by coercion." - A source for our 2019 story on how NetherRealm fostered crunch culture without explicitly mandating it.

If Booty's been reading all those articles he mentioned, he surely understands how these dynamics have worked in this industry for a very long time, and how employers take advantage of them.

Fallout 76 promotional screenshot or cry for help? You decide

BAD CALL | "I know from talking to Bethesda leadership that we do not have a situation where people are crunching and we've got this bullying atmosphere... I'm confident about that."

I don't think "The people accused of crunching developers and creating a bullying atmosphere have told me they did not do that" is quite the reassurance Booty thinks it is. It certainly doesn't give me hope that Microsoft will be able to clean up Activision Blizzard considering what a great job Kotick and his board think they've done with the place.

BAD CALL | "There's avenues for them to report that anonymously back to us that goes through HR. We have to rely on those independent systems of checks and balances."

Yes, HR! The famously independent body that has never before been complicit in horrible workplace environment stories, which has no track record of looking the other way, protecting people in power, or trying to silence victims, and has never been known to retaliate against people who make complaints. Of course employees can trust HR to have their backs!

Maybe the sarcasm in that last paragraph isn't fair though. I mean, it's not like those stories we just linked to happened at Xbox or Microsoft. Surely we should not hold the failures of others against the HR department of Microsoft, which, again, is somehow "independent" by Booty's definition of the word.

QUOTE | "As a [senior level position] Microsoft Partner, [I] was asked to sit on someone's lap twice in one meeting in front of HR and other executives. I can assure you that nothing was done. I alone objected and cited Microsoft policy. The person said that he did not have to listen and repeated the request a second time. No one said anything." - A woman who worked for Microsoft, in a 2019 email chain in which dozens of women at the company shared anger and frustration at discrimination and sexual harassment within the company that went unaddressed by HR. So many of the stories were about the console division specifically that one woman was worried people would dismiss it as "just an Xbox thing."

STAT | Dozens - The number of verbal and sexual harassment complaints made against Alex Kipman over the course of his 20 years with Microsoft that went nowhere, according to a report last month.

The former director of Kinect left the company shortly afterward, reinforcing the idea that people who want accountability of some sort have a better chance going to the press than going through Microsoft HR. Granted, the press has a pretty shoddy batting average when it comes to achieving accountability in the games industry -- think about your top three most notorious toxic workplace cultures in games and now ask if the CEOs who oversaw them are still in place -- but Microsoft HR set the bar very, very low.

STAT | 118 - The number of gender discrimination complaints filed by women at Microsoft between 2010 and 2016, according to a class-action lawsuit from 2018.

STAT | 1 - The number of those complaints that Microsoft determined were well-founded.

I'm deeply curious what happened with that one well-founded case, particularly if HR subscribes to Booty's "We asked and they said they didn't do it so I guess that's that" school of investigation.

We'll wrap this up with another quote from 2018, which I hope is not so long ago that Booty considers it hopelessly irrelevant to anything happening today. It's from an interview with Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry, who developed Night in the Woods and went on to form worker co-op The Glory Society. They're about as pro-union and pro-worker's rights as you're going to find in the industry, but they still crunched to get Night in the Woods finished at considerable cost to their health.

QUOTE | "The reason we're killing ourselves isn't because we love what we're doing. That's the thing we tell ourselves and tell people: 'We're just so passionate about it.' But I'm passionate about a lot of things and I don't kill myself over them. The reason we're killing ourselves is money and deadlines. It's these material constraints." - Benson, explaining why they crunched to finish Night in the Woods.

Booty and other leaders throughout the industry have a responsibility to get their games done and out the door without running their companies into the ground in the process. It's a business, after all, and they'll often admit to "harsh realities" like money and deadlines when talking about why crunch happens.

What they're far less likely to talk about is their responsibility to get games done without running their employees into the ground. Because traditionally, they've never really been made to face responsibility for that. They've known burned out employees can always be replaced, new recruits won't hold them accountable for what happened before, and the veterans who endure it and pass it on to a new generation of developers will simply be grateful they aren't still sleeping under their desks.

The rest of the week in review

QUOTE | "Whatever you do in life, you do it willingly or unwillingly. If you do it willingly, it becomes a heaven. If you do it unwillingly, it becomes a hell. Fntastic culture is based on the idea of volunteering. Being a volunteer means that you willingly take part in working for a common cause." - Eduard Gotovtsev, co-founder of The Day Before developer Fntastic explains the company's "culture of volunteering," which has full-time volunteers (paid salaries) and part-time volunteers (given "cool rewards, participation certificates, and free codes") for jobs they apparently don't think are worth paying for, like translation and community moderation. A number of people throughout the industry volunteered to call Fntastic out on this practice earlier this week.

QUOTE | "The idea of volunteering comes from our own experience and aspiration. Or in other words, to become a person who says 'yes' to life. Volunteering means that in every action you take, you bring a certain pleasantness." - Fntastic co-founder Aisen Gotovtsev makes clear he doesn't want to hear any complaints from that unpaid workforce, either.

STAT | 5 - Number of companies struck by layoffs this week, including Unity, Niantic, media firm Social Chain, and mobile firms AppLovin and Adjust.

QUOTE | "We have a lot of people coming from everywhere around the world to make video games here in Quebec. Our fear is that this is sending out a message [that Quebec is] not inclusive to other cultures." - Guilde du jeu vidéo du Québec chair Christopher Chancey is among those concerned about how the province's new language laws will impact game studios.

QUOTE | "It's important that we don't put all cultures on the same level; that's why we oppose multiculturalism." - Quebec Premier François Legault this week, explicitly sending out a message that Quebec is not inclusive to other cultures.

STAT | 33% - Roughly the amount of this year's console software and service revenues that will be accounted for by Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation Plus, and Switch Online subscriptions, according to DFC Intelligence.

QUOTE | "The second screen is essentially an adaptive difficulty setting for puzzles and environmental challenges, with "easy mode" sitting right there in every gamers' pocket" - contributing editor Rob Fahey ponders the role that the rise of guides and wikis have played in the development of games like Elden Ring.

QUOTE | "Overall, these indicators do not say the video game industry is 'recession-proof,' but so far, the industry has demonstrated resilience and given the state of the economy right now, resilience is as good as it gets." - Industry analyst Sam Naji crunches some numbers to argue that despite some pessimism and complaints of a light release schedule, the first half of 2022 hasn't been that bad for the games industry.

QUOTE | "Look up when the big events like E3 are on and then do not, under any circumstances, send the press release for your small one-person indie game right in the middle of when Bethesda and Xbox are revealing new games." - Rock Paper Shotgun's deputy editor Alice Bell was one of several journalists and content creators in our round-up of advice for developers on how to get their games covered.

QUOTE | "I don't remember really ever studying the other games in the market, because there was always so much fresh blood in the team and fresh ideas. The backlog became like a meme inside the team. Every time there was a great idea it was like 'Let's put on the backlog, how many years will it take to get to that point?'" - On the tenth anniversary of Supercell's Hay Day, game lead Stephan Demirdjian talks about how the studio has sustained its first big mobile hit over the long run.

QUOTE | "Innersloth supports reproductive choice and liberty. The ending of the constitutional right to abortion is a gender, racial, economic, and human rights disaster for both present and future generations." - Among Us studio Innersloth was one of numerous game developers to make public statements about the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, allowing states to adopt more restrictive abortion laws.

QUOTE | "What if Tacocat -- a very popular character in our card game -- had its own world? What if we could start building video games around Tacocat, featuring just Tacocat from the Exploding Kittens universe?" - Exploding Kittens' Elan Lee talks about aspirations to take the card game to video games, TV, and possibly even theme parks.

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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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