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.
Last Friday, the ABK Workers Alliance and Communication Works of America asked Activision Blizzard to voluntarily recognize a union of Raven Software QA testers in light of the fact that 78% of eligible QA staff were already in favor of unionizing.
On Monday, they received an answer (more or less) as Raven Software studio head Brian Raffel told staff the company was restructuring, splitting up the QA team and embedding them within various other teams across the studio: production, art, engineering, etc. Raffel said the change had been in the works for months, and did not mention the union push.
The next day, Raffel directly addressed the question of unionization separately in an internal email, telling staff Raven expects the staff to take the matter to the National Labor Relations Board.
QUOTE | "The most important thing to the company is that each eligible employee has the opportunity to have their voice heard and their individual vote counted, and we think all employees at Raven should have a say in this decision." - Raffel's email suggested Raven would prefer a studio-wide vote on unionization, rather than a QA team-specific vote that the publisher already appears to have lost.
We already know Activision Blizzard doesn't want anything to do with a union, as chief administrative officer Brian Bulatao made clear last month when the CWA started distributing union cards to Activision Blizzard employees.
QUOTE | "Achieving our workplace culture aspirations will best occur through active, transparent dialogue between leaders and employees that we can act upon quickly." - Bulatao explains that the key to fixing a culture where leaders were allowed to prey on employees is to make sure leaders can act quickly and unilaterally regardless of employee consent.
As for the employees, we know a little about where they stand, too.
The QA staff is all in (or 78% in, at least). Even before last week, the QA staff were the ones who had been on strike for six and a half weeks with their only demand being the full-time jobs that were offered to a number of QA contractors who Activision Blizzard laid off in December. The strike was ended this weekend in a show of good faith while the QA team waited on Activision Blizzard's response about recognizing the union.
And the rest of Raven? Well, I'm sure the ABK Workers Alliance and CWA would have loved to include them in the initial recognition request if the numbers of support were anywhere near as overwhelming as they were among the QA staff. Early on in the strike, there were walkouts from other staff throughout the Activision Blizzard system, although much of what was reported involved other QA departments.
There has definitely been support for Raven staffers from Activision Blizzard colleagues beyond QA, but it seems fair to characterize it as less organized, and less visible.
In some ways this is unsurprising. QA has always been treated as lesser than other development disciplines in gaming. They are often contractors rather than full employees, dealing with precarious employment that ratchets up the pressure to put up with anything to stay in management's good graces and continue getting work. It's no coincidence that so many of the horrifying reports we see around abusive employers carve out special mention for the particular suffering of QA workers.
QUOTE | "We often got overlooked and it was very, very obvious that QA was lowest down on the hierarchical ladder. It felt like we were dispensable, like they could just replace us." - A former Paradox QA tester describing poor treatment and mismanagement they endured at the developer for Rock Paper Shotgun.
QUOTE | "Multiple former QA testers for TT Fusion, who worked at the company over the last decade, say that working conditions at that studio were among the worst they had ever experienced in the games industry, with crunch and bullying between staff being commonplace. They say QA was treated as 'less than the development team' and kept separate from other departments." - Polygon's recent feature on crunch culture and mismanagement at TT Games.
QUOTE | "All [management] wanted was people who are disposable... One senior guy would say, 'Just get more bodies.' That's what the contractors were called: bodies. And then when we're done with them, we can just dispose of them. They can be replaced with fresh people who don't have the toxic nature of being disgruntled." - A Polygon source in the site's feature on crunch at Epic Games in the wake of Fortnite's release.
QUOTE | "It wasn't just executives looking down on contractors. Even within their own ranks, there was a pecking order. One former QA contractor said that when the team expanded during crunch time, the pre-existing contractors would refer to the pod where the new people worked as 'the exile room,' adding, 'They were lesser people. They were disposable. They were likely never going to come back.'" - Our own investigative piece into crunch culture at NetherRealm Studios.
The thing about these pecking orders is that they are essential to dissuading developers from unionizing. If everyone is being equally exploited and abused, it's easier for employees to get the idea in their heads that they're all in this together and organize as such. But a not insignificant number of people will tolerate an incredible amount of systemic abuse and still work to perpetuate those systems, so long as they believe there's a pecking order and they're not at the bottom of it.
Going back to the NetherRealm story briefly, PC Gamer had its own story about the studio with another relevant detail for this discussion.
QUOTE | "We brought up the harassment, the bathroom issue, the secret nicknames that the devs had for all the female employees, the lack of women who actually had full-time jobs, the singling-out that we experienced, etc etc... We tried to get others involved but they were scared of getting blacklisted and being retaliated against which made our case harder to get pushed through." - A former NetherRealm Studios contractor talking to PC Gamer about unsuccessful efforts to get the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to hold the Mortal Kombat developer to account.
Developers who might think twice about speaking out here are justifiably scared about retaliation. After all, the EEOC filed suit against Activision Blizzard for (among other things) firing people in retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment.
It's reasonable to worry that Activision Blizzard would similarly retaliate against you for supporting a union push in any manner, to think twice about rocking the boat by even considering a union out loud. After all, Activision Blizzard was also accused by the EEOC of resorting to "constructive discharge," where a company doesn't fire an employee so much as it intentionally drives them to quit.
I can't speak to the actual conditions Raven's QA staff has been working under, or how Activision Blizzard has treated them. But I understand how QA is commonly treated in this industry. I understand the position doesn't get the respect it deserves despite being a vital part of the development process. I understand Activision Blizzard has treated Call of Duty QA staff shabbily in the past.
I understand Raven's careers page clearly warns applicants that "crunch times are real." I understand that it specifies QA testers are essential "as we near game launch," which makes me wonder about how essential the studio considers them the rest of the time.
And I understand that Raven's QA staff were treated poorly enough that Activision Blizzard boasted about raising the minimum compensation of QA by 41% over the past two years -- presumably bumping them up from being paid squat to being paid (not quite) squat-and-a-half -- and that still wasn't enough to dissuade them from unionizing.
Studios often talk about wanting team players, and Raven's QA staff embody a lot of the qualities I would want in a teammate. They went on strike not to increase their own pay, but to save the jobs of their contractor co-workers. They did this despite being the ones in the most precarious position, the ones with the least ability to land on their feet in this industry, the least likely to be recruited and relocated from Madison, Wisconsin to a more active development scene. The Raven developers with the least status, the least job stability, and the least financial security have risked a tremendous amount to ensure their laid off teammates aren't left behind, a concept one might expect to resonate with people who make games about the military.
If Activision Blizzard is successful in its push for a studio-wide vote, the QA team will need the help of their colleagues. Activision Blizzard is gambling that the rest of Raven Software will refuse to give them that help. That those colleagues will look at the situation and think it's not their problem, that they're too comfortable with their own station to risk anything for the benefit of others.
Activision Blizzard is gambling that Raven developers will see the QA team not as teammates and humans who work their hardest to build the studio's reputation and make everyone else's work shine the brightest it can, but as replaceable widgets.
It's also gambling that those non-QA developers won't see themselves as replaceable widgets -- that they are too valuable, that their games are too successful for them to be cast aside or mistreated like that -- even though they work for a publisher with a track record of treating layoffs like a victory lap for record sales and profits. (If you need a more recent example, the layoffs that prompted the Raven QA strike came shortly after Activision Blizzard posted the highest third quarter sales and profits in company history.)
It's gambling that Raven developers won't empathize with people working in a support role who are too often diminished and neglected because the credit for their work gravitates to those with more prominence, which is a bold bet to make on a studio that has lived much of the past decade in the shadow of Infinity Ward and Treyarch.
I hope the people who work at Raven will prove these gambles to be foolish ones.
The Rest of the Week in Review
QUOTE | "Blizzard is embarking on our next quest. We are going on a journey to a whole new universe, home to a brand-new survival game for PC and console." - Blizzard announces its first new IP in six years. I don't know about you, but I can't wait to explore this fantastical universe in which a brand-new survival has been made for PC and console. I mean, what would such a universe even look like? The mind reels.
STAT | 3 - The number of games in the top 10 of the European GSD Games of 2021 chart that actually came out in 2021.
STAT | 3 - The number of new Star Wars games in the works at Respawn Entertainment. Combine that with existing Star Wars service games like EA's own The Old Republic and Galaxy of Heroes, an upcoming remake of Knights of the Old Republic, two new Lego Star Wars games, a Quantic Dream title, an Ubisoft open-world game, VR experiences, and Zynga's Overwatch-esque Hunters, and I'm wondering if it's possible to flood the market so much that even the good Star Wars experiences get lost in the din of crackling lightsabers and blaster bolts.
QUOTE | "As game devs it's so easy to underestimate the impact even your smallest games can have." - Hello Games Sean Murray explains why the No Man's Sky studio revamped and re-released its game Joe Danger on iOS after receiving a heartbreaking letter from the parent of an autistic child who loved the game and was upset when an iOS update rendered it unplayable.
QUOTE | "I think gamers don't get what a digital secondary market can bring to them. For now, because of the current situation and context of NFTs, gamers really believe it's first destroying the planet, and second just a tool for speculation. But what we [at Ubisoft] are seeing first is the end game. The end game is about giving players the opportunity to resell their items once they're finished with them or they're finished playing the game itself." - Ubisoft Strategic Innovations Lab VP Nicolas Pouard offers a stunningly condescending response to the backlash received by the introduction of NFTs to Ghost Recon Breakpoint last month.
QUOTE | "Well, first players are always right. Because they are our players, and we love them. And so, they're always right." - Two questions later in the same interview, Pouard adds a pandering twist to the condescension when asked about fears of NFTs just being a new model of microtransactions. (You know the pandering is empty and insincere because anyone who actually believed the players were always right would probably put a little more stock in the backlash over NFTs instead of assuming the players are just ignorant chumps who don't get it.)
QUOTE | "The challenge is designing great gameplay that is twinned with a meaningful reason for why a game would be better on the blockchain." - After expressing his confidence in Web 3.0/blockchain/NFTs in games, Games Workshop co-founder and Eidos "life president" Ian Livingstone identifies one very good reason to be skeptical of the trends.
QUOTE | "Our systems are breaking or broken, straining under neglect and sabotage, and our leaders seem at best complacent, willing to coast out the collapse. We need something better. But a system that turns everyone into petty digital landlords, that distills all interaction into transaction, that determines the value of something by how sellable it is and whether or not it can be gambled on as a fractional token sold via micro-auction, that's not it. A different system does not inherently mean a better system." - YouTube essayist Dan Olson, in the conclusion of a video providing an excellent and extensive look into the myriad problems with cryptocurrencies, NFTs, and blockchain technology.
QUOTE | "An NFT scam pretending to be publisher Freedom Games and developer Tbjbu2's crafting survival game Outerverse, but with blockchain technology and token integration, has been fraudulently marketing itself to the game and NFT communities. This is patently false. There is absolutely no NFT integration in the real Outerverse or with any other titles from Freedom Games." - Freedom Games director of marketing Bryan Herren in a release calling out the blatant copyright violation.
QUOTE | "Developers of low-budget mobile games have sought to leverage [League of Legends'] popularity and goodwill by featuring knock-off versions of LoL champions in their own games." - Riot Games in a lawsuit filed against the company behind the mobile game I Am Hero: AFK Tactical Teamfight, accusing it of swiping its cast of characters, gameplay, and character abilities from League of Legends.
QUOTE | "IP disputes have long since been an important aspect of games law, and their importance has only grown. Legal actions against 'clones' tend to come in waves, typically when successful games can be programmed quickly -- and cloned even quicker. The first wave was in the '80s, the next wave was web-based games, and now there are numerous disputes on (mostly casual or hypercasual) mobile games." - Advant's Dr. Andreas Lober and Luca Guidobaldi in an overview of legal trends to watch out for in gaming this year.
STAT | $840 million - Consumer spending in the Epic Games Store in 2021, according to Epic Games. That's up 20% year-over-year.