Unbranding The Sheep: Repeating The Team Bondi Debacle

L.A. Noire was recently released, to largely positive reception. The game has received critical acclaim, as well as very positive reception by consumers who have bought it, beaten it and dissected it. Most lapped it up and wanted more, whereas others were a bit more discerning. Either way, the game has to be called a success on all fronts, despite an elongated development time of seven years.

In a surprise turnaround for a Rockstar published game, most of the controversy around the title has nothing to do with the content of the game itself. Soon after the game released, members of developers Team Bondi started to complain about their names not being in the credits, which violates guidelines set forth by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), and actually started a website “correcting” the oversight. Before long, leaks were starting to spring about the hostile work environment at the developer, including horror stories of backbreaking “crunch” periods exceeding a year, poor leadership, and a hostile work environment that brought morale down to pitiful standards. The story blew up with an outstanding article by Australian freelancer Andrew McMillen, who got interviews – and very specific stories – from the developers, as well as retorts from the studio’s head, Brendan McNamara. It’s gut-wrenching at times to read, mainly because we’ve heard this story before, and it was wrenching then, too. Other than the fact that Team Bondi’s story has a well noted villain (Studio head Brendan McNamara), this is a story that’s all too familiar.

I forget who it was who said it on Twitter (I only remember that it was a retweet by GamingAngel’s Tiffany Nevin), but what’s important to remember is that someone is going to take this game’s myriad problems, think of them as a success story, and bring them to his company. I will go a step farther: quite a few people are going to burn their employees out, citing a poor job market and playing on a sad sense of machismo in a male-dominated environment as reasons why it’s acceptable; as noted in the IGN piece, people who left at even semi-reasonable hours received “dirty looks” from the others, as if they were unclean and must be purged. The problem I have is that this is a part of a larger problem: the spectre of long, painful, gruelling “crunch” will not go away until the spiralling budgets of AAA games are reined in.

Though accurate budget figures are often hard to find accurately, more and more games are hitting into nine figure budgets, with many more coming close. Just about all of the marquee games at E3 – the ones that were part of keynote addresses – have massive budgets and squiggly numbers following the title. In what has always been a me-too industry, everyone follows, then tries to one-up the leader, and development costs – which include things such as marketing – are one of many examples of this being a longstanding trend in developing and selling games. Graphics have to be prettier, voice actors have to be better, soundtracks have to be more orchestral, marketing has to be sharper and more out front, and public relations has to be more selective. Everything has to fire, and it has to fire on schedule.

Of course, game development isn’t what it was like long ago. A lot more of those pieces have to fire than in the past, with the complex issues related to developing games on today’s systems. Therefore, it’s a lot harder to stay on schedule than it was in the past, so the margin of error is greatly reduced, even on long-term projects. Due to this, crunch often becomes the first, last, and middle resorts. Since most developers are paid on a set scale – either salary or by the job for contractors – they often don’t pay overtime, and aren’t obligated to give any bonuses. Since most game developers are in the industry “for the love”, it’s easy to exploit that and hold things back from them to prevent attrition. The whole spat between Activision and former Infinity Ward heads came about partly because Activision held back bonus money to keep the team well past Modern Warfare 2’s release date on the threat of them not getting their money if they quit. These draconian tactics become necessary in the minds of managers to keep a project on schedule, because the cost of being behind and/or over budget is too much to bear in today’s cutthroat market, where projects get cancelled and studios get shuttered with little notice.

The games industry is becoming very much like the Hollywood movie industry it has tried so hard to be like in recent years. In order to move the mass audience, spectacles have to be bigger, better, more explosive than the ones before it. Gamers, like most movie fans, are notorious for their short attention spans, and only react to greater stimulus than what they’ve dealt with before. One problem with this is that movie crews are largely unionised, whereas there are no game developer unions – they have the IGDA, but they’re virtually useless when push comes to shove, they’re basically there for goodwill purposes – nor do many developers wish to unionise; I have no figures and have not done a scientific survey, but I’d be willing to estimate that only one in five developers I’ve spoken to or heard from express even a passing interest in unionising for various reasons. Therefore, while the independent spirit that causes someone to want to go into an industry like this, knowing the workload, still exists, it can lead to abuses like this from powerful men with visions unmatched by their competence, like Mr. McNamara and other managers who consistently burn out their people to make up for their poor management.

It’s very easy for people to say that the industry needs more humane working hours, but that mindset would change if it meant games that had their budgets and scope cut back. As is typical of the average consumer, they tend to say things without thinking them through all the way. In America, the big political battle of the moment is about public spending. People who feel that taxes are too high are keen to say that spending needs to be cut, but then those spending cuts start to seep into something that they use – Medicare is a big one – they start to get cold feet. Games are much the same way. To facilitate a timely release schedule with blockbuster graphics and gameplay that gamers have come to expect for their money, especially on the yearly scale that they seem to be sucking these games up on, crunch is often a necessity. Threaten that, and gamers will lose their sympathy very quickly.

In fact, this is actually a rare case where the internet consensus is largely against Team Bondi. However, that’s mainly because Mr. McNamara comes off so harshly. In other cases where people within the industry complain about crunch, comments tend to be negative, most of them saying something along the lines of “tough, everyone has to work late, you’re making good money, shut up”. What’s most notable about this is the segment of the internet that isn’t expressing shock and surprise: other people within the industry, some of whom have noted to me that people in other studios actually have it worse than Bondi’s people did. In short, the casual industry follower is finally getting a glimpse of a horrible facet of the industry that people within it see as routine.

Unfortunately, heavy, months-long crunch is going to become even more of a problem as the industry continues to grow into the multi-billion dollar industry that it has become. Companies, games, budgets, and expectations are all getting larger by the day, and no one is willing to pay anything more than lip service to fix the problem of the industry eating its young. The only way to fix crunch is to fix the escalating budgets and to taper back some of the technological expectations that today’s games carry, and which tomorrow’s games will be demanded to exceed. Until that happens, the Team Bondi situation will continue to repeat itself more than anyone knows.

1 – I say “perceived” because only some parts of both countries enjoy the benefits of government support. Let’s not forget what happened to Kaos Studios.

Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.