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What should the IGDA be? | This Week in Business

Former members and leaders of the group share thoughts on what it's good for, and what it isn't

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.

Earlier this week, GamesIndustry ran an investigative piece by Marie Dealessandri covering the International Game Developers Association and its failure to live up to its own standards when presented with harassment complaints and conduct violations of people within the organization.

Let's start with one of the quotes from the original article.

QUOTE | "I don't think they don't care, I just feel like there is definitely that thing of keeping a very positive outlook, even in how they word their emails. Everything's very positive, there's nothing negative. So when you bring up things that are negative, they're always addressed in a positive way. Sickeningly positive." - A person who spoke to us as we looked into the IGDA's handling of these complaints.

This sentiment was echoed by a number of others on social media, including some with first-hand experience within the IGDA.

QUOTE | "The older I get, the more I find that the IGDA is a nice way to have pats on the back and act like a problem is being solved on the surface, but if you dig even slightly deeper, it's just 'not our problem.' The problem is, you can only say 'not my problem' so many times." - Former IGDA Lafayette chapter chair and Raconteur Games dev Nick Laborde in a Twitter thread.

Laborde likewise emphasized that there are well-meaning people in the organization trying to make a positive impact, that the IGDA could serve its purpose and actually help developers, but the way it's currently set up does not. He is not the only person with experience in an IGDA leadership role to find the same thing.

QUOTE | "When I was on the IGDA board we were active in calling out crunch culture and employee concerns, but we were mostly overwhelmed with just keeping the organization afloat financially and managing the events and volunteers. The IGDA is mostly a volunteer organization. As such, expecting the IGDA to bring forward aggressive action on every complaint is unrealistic. Complaints become a legal matter very quickly and the IGDA doesn't have anywhere near the resources to litigate on behalf of employees." - Beamdog CEO and former IGDA board member and chairperson Trent Oster, in reply to our initial posting of the investigation.

Oster brings up a key point here in that the IGDA can have all the proper policies and processes in place to deal with these sort of issues, but that doesn't matter much if it lacks the staff and the money to follow through on them.

As noted in the original article, the IGDA's 2019 budget was just $525,000. As for salaries, it paid a grand total of $130,000 split between three people.

The IGDA bills itself as "the largest non-profit membership organization in the world serving all individuals who create games" and has a mission to "support and empower game developers around the world in achieving fulfilling and sustainable careers."

And it has to accomplish that with three people on staff averaging an annual salary that would put them in the bottom half of the industry (going by the IGDA's own 2021 Developer Satisfaction Survey). The costs of properly investigating and handling these claims are beyond the reach of the organization, but that's less an acceptable excuse for ignoring them so much as it is a fundamental flaw with how the IGDA operates.

Realistically, anything that's going to be done at the IGDA needs to be done by its volunteers. So if the IGDA wants to help developers achieve sustainable careers by advocating against studios forcing developers to work long unpaid hours, it first needs developers willing to work long unpaid hours to fight that fight. And they'll probably be doing it on top of a day job which (going by the 2021 DSS again) is likely to crunch them already.

This is partly why the organization has such a poor track record of following through with its initiatives like its 2016 plan to name the best companies for crunch, or its 2020 plan to create a database of company performance on event diversity, crunch, ethics, and proper credit.

QUOTE | "One of the challenges with a volunteer organization is you have to maintain interest over the long term. You have to take the sharp and intense burst of interest when something hits the news and figure out how you maintain that to drive meaningful and lasting change... that's hard with a volunteer organization, especially when you have interest that wanes, and when people are getting ready to ship a game, or they have a kid, or their partner gets sick or they get sick, and all of the 100 things that come up and end up distracting them." - In a 2018 interview, then-IGDA executive director Jen MacLean explains why the group hasn't always done what it said it would.

The code of conduct and harassment policies the IGDA has in place are effectively a promise to handle these matters properly. But they are a promise the IGDA can't realistically keep because keeping them would require flexibility with staff and money the IGDA does not have. And that raises all kinds of questions about whether having stated policies you can't adhere to is actually doing more harm than good by giving members false reassurance that the group will -- or even can -- take care of them.

QUOTE | "I presented at and attended the Montreal IGDA chapter back then and it was a great local chapter, but even they knew the greater organization was more a hindrance than a help to get any real industry-wide initiatives done." - Former Ubisoft Montreal and Naughty Dog animator Jonathan Cooper gets to the heart of the issue this week.

Just before that tweet, Cooper referred back to a 2013 blog post by Darius Kazemi explaining why he left his role on the IGDA board of directors after a three-year stint. In his post, Kazemi talked about how the board's primary focus was its fiduciary responsibility, the obligation to make sure the IGDA doesn't waste its money and can continue to do what it does.

While that's understandable, Kazemi argued the reliance on membership dues and corporate sponsorships meant the fiduciary responsibility was effectively an obligation to maintain the status quo, because any substantive change the group pushed for would alienate some portion of its members or sponsors. The IGDA simply can't serve two masters, particularly when their desires are so often directly opposed to one another.

QUOTE | "The moral basis for all of this is the theory that an organization that exists can do more good in the world than an organization that does not exist. But that is a flawed assumption. Because the IGDA exists, when workers start to grumble about organizing, corporations can point to the IGDA and say, 'You already have an organization. Be happy.' When workers start to talk about unionizing, corporations can point to the IGDA and say, 'Join that organization instead.' If workers complain that the IGDA is not effective in advocating for developers, those in power can say, 'But have you tried to make it better yourself? It's community-run! Have at it!'

"I believe that it is in the interest of game studios and publishers for an association of workers like the IGDA to exist in an ineffective state in order to drain the energy of people who could otherwise do effective pro-developer activism and to provide a straw man that can be pointed to in order to show that organizing will get us nowhere. [Emphasis in original.] It is the fiduciary responsibility of IGDA board members to ensure that the organization continues to exist, but it is the moral responsibility of IGDA board members to ensure that it does not."

The eight years that have passed since Kazemi wrote that have only bolstered his argument, as we've seen the mistreatment of developers throughout the industry chronicled in exhausting detail time and again. (Beyond the IGDA, Team17 was also added to the list this week.)

Over the same eight-year span, we've also seen a surge in developer support for unions (again, thanks to the IGDA's surveys, which are among the most valuable needs the group serves). While correlation doesn't equal causation, there does seem to be a growing awareness that the mechanisms supposedly set up to protect developers --be they professional associations or HR departments -- are not working. Something else is needed.

The IGDA absolutely has value as a networking and educational tool for developers, but so long as it lacks adequate resources and effective leverage, it cannot be a worthy advocate for them.

The rest of the week in review

QUOTE | "There were people who would have to skip meals to save money, people who would have to go into the office during the pandemic to reduce their bills, people who couldn't afford new clothes, people who got an emergency bill and were in their overdraft. We took it to management, and the second time we took it to HR. Nothing came of it. We were essentially told 'the wages you are being paid are fine'. I can confirm they're not. People are struggling, badly." - A Team17 employee in Eurogamer's report detailing shoddy treatment of employees.

STAT | £16,000 a year - Team17's reported entry-level wage for QA workers, which has actually increased from £13,000 a year five years ago.

STAT | £16,766 a year - 60% of the UK's inflation-adjusted median household income in 2011 (£27,944 going by UK government figures), which is the threshold below which a person is considered to be living in absolute poverty.

QUOTE | "NFTs are a scam. If you think they are legitimately useful for anything other than the exploitation of creators, financial scams, and the destruction of the planet then we ask that you please reevaluate your life choices." - makes it pretty clear where it stands on NFT games. Valve has already said it won't allow NFTs on Steam, while Epic has been more open to the idea.

QUOTE | "Adding salary information to your job adverts is one of the easiest steps you can take to appeal to a wider, more diverse audience." - A HitMarker study on game developers' job-hunting preferences found that people like to know how much they would be paid rather than wasting their time with interviews and a screening process just for an insulting lowball offer.

QUOTE | "To be clear, Microsoft will continue to make Call of Duty and other popular Activision Blizzard titles available on PlayStation through the term of any existing agreement with Activision. And we have committed to Sony that we will also make them available on PlayStation beyond the existing agreement and into the future so that Sony fans can continue to enjoy the games they love. We are also interested in taking similar steps to support Nintendo's successful platform." - Microsoft is looking to ease regulator concerns about its pending acquisition of Activision Blizzard by committing to supporting other platforms and making its own stores (on PC and smartphones) more open and fairly accessible to competitors.

QUOTE | "Significant regulatory challenges preventing the consummation of the Transaction, despite good faith efforts by the parties"- SoftBank explains why a deal to sell off its semiconductor firm Arm to Nvidia has been scrapped. SoftBank gets to keep a $1.25 billion deposit Nvidia made on the deal, and is preparing to spin out ARM with an IPO sometime in its next fiscal year.

QUOTE | "We will have a really strong balance sheet and a powerful [profit and loss statement]." - In a pre-earnings briefing call, Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick suggests to us that Zynga's strategy in recent years of buying up a ton of companies to drive revenue growth but posting steep losses will probably change after Take-Two's acquisition of Zynga is finalized.

STAT | $104 million - Zynga's net loss for 2021, reported this week as it posted one last eye-watering annual net loss as an independent company. It also snuck in one more acquisition this week with the addition of NanoTribe to its Rollic subsidiary.

QUOTE | "The ability to tell stories -- any story -- is at the core of what we do at The Sims. Holding back Cam and Dom's story meant compromising the values we live by. We are committed to the freedom to be who you are, to love who you love and tell the stories you want to tell." - The Sims development team has said it will not change the upcoming My Wedding Stories expansion pack so it can release in Russia. The country passed a law in 2013 banning depictions of homosexuality in content marketed toward minors.

QUOTE | "We could have sat there and we could have cut out lights, and we could have cut out these parts, and we could have cut out haptics and tried to reduce the cost of goods. The trouble of it is we still had to sell it at $249 almost to make money. Now we're just doing it and taking it in the shorts for a while." - Newly appointed Intellivision CEO Phil Adam says the company is raising its previously announced $10 price limit on games and might raise the price of the yet-to-be-launched hardware itself. Unfortunately, the company doesn't appear to be situated to "take it in the shorts" for any significant length of time.

STAT | 5 months - How much longer Intellivision can operate without revenue, according to an SEC filing made this week.

QUOTE | "If we want to say that games is an art form and what we create collectively is art, then we have to respect our past. We have to make it playable and enjoyable and we have to make sure that people can experience it." - Nightdive Studios CEO Stephen Kick explains why the company has gone out of its way to bring back more obscure titles like Shadowman and PowerSlave in addition to its work on bigger names like Doom and Quake.

QUOTE | "We're looking at all business models and we don't feel we need to limit ourselves. The most important thing is the game is really fun and provides a lot of content to the players." - Coffee Stain Malmö's Daniel Persson says the mobile-first arm of the publisher isn't limiting itself to premium or free-to-play games. It may even do both with the same title, as has already been done with Goat Simulator on mobile, where the free version launched to no apparent cannibalization of the premium version's sales.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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