The Video Game Industry Sweatshop

I read over the weekend that Rockstar Games employees are badly overworked in an open letter from their wives.  This is the samedevelopment studio that made Grand Theft Auto into a $1 billion franchise.  They apparently have no extra cash to change the work environment for the employees working in the trenches by giving them raises, hiring more employees to reduce grueling work hours and letting them have vacations.  The situation is so bad that employees are exhibiting suicidal tendencies, their marriages are on the rocks, and the future of the studio is in jeopardy.  (Working for a drug-addled rock band would be easier in comparison.)  The executive management team, of course, blew off the open letter as “the opinions of a few anonymous posters on message boards[.]”

If you’re familiar with the video game industry, this won’t surprise you at all.  The trend over the last ten years is for the executive management team to emulate the Wall Street corporate model: squeezing the blood out of the workers in the trenches, boosting the short-term profits to keep the markets happy, and kicking the money upstairs as bonuses.  (This model replaced the Hollywood “content is king” strategy that failed miseribly after most of the development studios relocated to Southern California.)  Employees are “resources” to be used, abused and fired at will.  If this process ruins the lives of employees and destroys the studio, the executive management team can always bail out to find another studio to ruin.

The video game industry has become the sweatshop of the 21st century.

What did surprise me was that the Sony Playstation Network has a reality game show, The Tester, where the contestants compete for a video game testing position.  That’s pure fantasy.  The sofas are long gone to put in more cubicles in any studio that has embraced Wall Street.  Contrary to public perceptions about working in the video game industry, being a tester stops being fun and games after the first six weeks and becomes pure hell when crunch time is all the time.  The recent Penny Arcade webcomic reveals the stark reality for the potential winner: long hours of being in the same dim cube for days on end, testing an unplayable video game that no one likes, and eating a “nutrient-rich sludge” every eight hours (i.e., the roach coach or Taco Bell).

After having spent six years as a tester and lead tester at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crises) that went from a family-owned company to a corporate hellhole, I’m using that experience as the basis for my first novel to reveal the truth about the video game industry and convey all the funny stories that I have witnessed, heard about or been involved in.  (More romans à clef than kiss and tell.)  The only major difference with reality is that my novel has a pissed off ghost with homicidal tendencies.  Considering some of the things that I went through, a homicidal ghost would’ve been a blessing.