At a time when game company CEO’s are getting praised for giving up their hefty annual bonuses and when large studios are laying off huge parts of their workforce without warning or severance, it’s clear that something has to change in the industry. The usual ideas are straightforward: pay executives less and workers more, form unions, change crunch culture, and so on. And these are all good things, but what if we look at the bigger picture? What if the problem is the shareholder-driver, hierarchical structure of corporations? What if we tried something different? Well, some developers are beginning to do just that.
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Motion Twin & Glory Society (Gaming co-operatives)
Co-operatives are organizations with no bosses where everyone shares an equal stake in the company, gets paid the same salary, and has a say in what direction they take. Everyone splits success and failure, there aren’t any executives on top.
Co-ops have been gaining attention in the games industry since part of the team behind Night in the Woods started Glory Society earlier this year and Motion Twin saw huge success with Dead Cells. Both are boss-less, profit sharing co-ops where everyone shares in the decision-making process, work load, and success of each game they make. There was a wonderful talk about this type of structure at the Game Developers Conference in March.
According to the Democracy at Work Institute, worker owned co-ops have higher productivity levels, more chances for growth, less worker turnover, and are known to boost profits and worker wages.
The co-op model does have limitations though. They have to remain small in order for everyone to have a meaningful stake, and decision-making is a far more delicate process as everyone has a say in what happens. Co-ops like Motion Twin and KO_OP are held together by shared goals — meaning that disagreements in creative direction can spell trouble for the health of the studio.
“It is very critical for new hires and co-workers to have common goals so that when there are disagreements we are building towards finding a solution that keep our goals in mind,” KO_OP studio founder Saleem Dabbous tells me.
When on stable footing, the co-op model is great for developers. It has lower overhead costs with fewer team members and lets the developers themselves set their own schedule, avoiding crunch and encouraging a good work and life balance. And Dead Cells is proof that you can still find huge success without huge teams or countless hours behind a desk. As of March of this year, the game has sold over one million copies.
While Motion Twin and Glory Society have made headlines, other gaming co-ops like KO_OP have been around for years, proving that the model is a sustainable alternative to standard studio structure. There are even grants from organizations like The Cooperative Development Fund and The Cooperative Foundation to help co-operatives get off the ground.
Co-ops are incredibly common in other European industries. There are 250,000 co-ops owned by 163 million citizens (a third of the EU population) in Europe according to the European Commission. And while there are currently far fewer co-ops in the US, the practice is on the rise.
Glitch (Gaming Nonprofits)
Gaming nonprofits have been around for some time. Some help promote games as a tool for social change, use games to provide help children in need, and others organize streams and events to raise money for other causes. There are only a few nonprofits that actually promote or create games, though. One of these is Glitch, a game label that offers residencies and provides support and grants for from developers.
According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics more than 1.5 million nonprofits were registered with the IRS in 2015, contributing more than an estimated $985.4 billion to the US economy (5.4% of the US GDP). While starting one or working at a nonprofit won’t make you rich, laws in most states let nonprofits pay their employees and officers reasonable salaries.
Nonprofits are still running into issues in the game industry, primarily with how they distribute their games. Major publishing platforms do not allow for not-for-profit games. In an interview with Polygon, Glitch executive director Evva Kraikul explained their experience dealing with Sony and the Playstation Store as frustrating, saying they their efforts to communicate with the company were eventually ignored altogether.
While they’ve struggled with console platforms, Glitch has worked to set up Steam and Itchio pages for their releases.
Nine Dots (Startup)
Located in Quebec, Nine Dots Studio has a hierarchical structure like other companies in the game industry, but differentiates itself by establishing several core tenets that prioritize developers.
Studio founder Guillaume Boucher-Vidal created a culture that outlaws crunch, with no employee working more than 52 hours a week; gives everyone creative input with the opportunity to work on their own side projects; and pays equal salaries from a strong revenue share model. Everyone gets a piece of the pie.
While startup structures aren’t always different from larger companies, it’s important to have companies with ideals that match their workforce. Boucher-Vidal started Nine Dots Studio with the goal of attracting quality developers with his different approach to running a studio, and his approach worked.
All of this demonstrates that the way things are done now in the game industry is not the only or even the best way. It’s simply the way things have been done for a long time. As unionization efforts continue at big studios, developers are also trying out different ways of making games — so who knows? Maybe your next favorite title will be produced by a co-op or supported by a nonprofit.