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The Inevitable Unionisation of the Games Industry

By on August 18, 2011
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[In the first of a new series of opinion pieces I’m writing for Gamasutra, I’m looking at how the issue of proper game crediting could lead to the emergence of unions in the games industry.]

Last week, Michael Pachter, an investment analyst at Wedbush Securities caused a stir amongst game developers the world over.

His crime? To declare that “unpaid crunch deserves no sympathy“.

I understand where Pachter is coming from: I used to be an investment banker and equity research analyst. From 1994-2003 (with a year out as CFO of a dot com startup) I analyzed media companies, advised them on raising capital and buying other businesses and I helped them understand how the internet was going to change their world.

Bankers have a peculiar perspective on the world. It is a hyper-aggressive, well-paid industry filled with people who are extremely capable at fighting their own corner on remuneration. When looking at other industries (like games), they ask questions like these:

  • Are people clamoring to join the industry? Answer: yes. Just look at the number of games design, coding, art and general courses popping up at universities around the world.
  • Are people in the industry well-paid? Answer: yes. Develop Magazine undertook a games industry salary survey, covering 400 games professionals globally and found that the median salary in the games industry was £31,509 ($52,422*). The mean (which is skewed due to a handful of senior figures who participated) was nearer £40,000 ($65,000).
  • Is the industry being damaged by a lack of talent? Answer: from a commercial perspective, it doesn’t look like it. The threats are coming from transition to digital, difficulties at retail, the challenges of picking winners in a creative industry and so on, not from a lack of talented people wanting to work in it.

So bankers and analysts conclude that if game developers, like bankers and analysts, work hard doing something intellectually stimulating, and get paid well, they should quit bitching.

I don’t agree with Pachter, and I think he is wrong among many of the issues, particularly about whether crunch is inevitable and about how effective the profit pool is at remunerating those employees that put in months, even years of unpaid overtime.

But that’s not what I want to write about in my first column for Gamasutra. Instead, I want to talk about the original question Pachter was asked that triggered this Internet flame war: do you ever think that there will be a game developers’/artists union?

The Specter Of Games Industry Unionization

I am no fan of unions. I grew up in the United Kingdom in the 1970s and 1980s, a country blighted by a unionized workforce that stultified innovation that led to poor customer services, weak products and low productivity. The idea that I am in favor of unionization in the games industry is likely to be an enormous surprise to people who know me.

I don’t think a union is going to emerge over a punishing development process at Team Bondi. It’s not going to emerge because of unfair working practices, or unreasonable crunch, or not enough overtime payment. It’s going to emerge over credits.

There Ain’t No Jobs For Life Anymore

I doubt any reader of Gamasutra thinks the games industry offers jobs for life. Too many games have been released after a long period of crunch only for the teams involved to be rewarded with layoffs, not profit-sharing payoffs. Although this might be inevitable given the structure of the industry, it doesn’t make it any less traumatic for the poor individuals suffering the loss of their livelihood. At the same time, there are new opportunities to make games rearing their heads all the time. Making games on iOS and Android. Using your console development skills on smaller, download-only projects for PSN and XBLA. The indie scene on Steam and the PC.

Increasingly, there are also short term, contract positions on mainstream, AAA games. Which is why the credits issue becomes so important.

In the games industry, you used to be employed by a studio for years, maybe even a decade. If you were at a studio when a game was shipped, it was easy to convince people that you were involved. Now that’s all changed. You might get laid off just as the game ships. You might, like 100 Team Bondi staff, have your involvement in a global smash-hit title like LA Noire airbrushed out of history. Your key role in rescuing a project that was near the brink of disaster might go unrecognized because you were “only a contractor.”

We’re slowly moving towards a more Hollywood-style nature of game production. It’s not starting with AAA development (although the cynical usage of “seasonal layoffs” is one way of using flexible, contractor-style staff without needing to pay them a premium for the uncertainty of being freelance). Instead, it’s happening with people making games for non-traditional funders like brands and television or as small, self-funded indie teams.

We are moving into an era where what is important is not which studios you worked at, but which games you worked on. In that case, being properly credited is not just a matter of professional pride: it is the cornerstone of your entire career.

Are you really prepared to leave such an important element up to the whim of your development boss, or more likely someone at the publisher who you’ve never even met?

Enter The Union

I expect this issue to roll and roll. Someone (perhaps the IGDA, perhaps TIGA in the UK, perhaps someone new) will start helping to negotiate the credits so that the difference between a lead artist, a senior artist, an artist and a junior artist is fixed and clear. So that if we see someone’s name in the credits, we are 100 percent certain that they performed the role the credits say they would.

This clarity will benefit the developer, who will have a clear, verified resume, and it will benefit employers who won’t need to do extensive due diligence just to confirm a contractor’s credits. Without this clarity, the freelance model of game development will take a very long time to gestate.

I only hope we can invent such suitably ludicrous titles for respected, senior professionals as gaffer, best boy and key grip. Any suggestions?

* Yes, the pound really is that weak at the moment

(Crossposted from Gamasutra)

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • A union is also of interest because of their focus on education and continuing professional development (CPD). My attention was drawn to a one-day workshop last month organised by the Federation of Entertainment Unions, and they’re doing more. Yet the overwhelming image of unions to games industry people is v negative.