Indie Studios Embrace New Work Models In An Increasingly Labor-Conscious Industry

Melissa Brinks, Forbes Contributer | July 15, 2019 --Conversations about crunch, labor division and organization have exploded in the games industry. With public backlash for Rockstar's claim that they were working 100 hour weeks and stories about Netherrealm overworking and abusing its workers, people are beginning to pay attention to not just what games are being made, but how they're being made.

But in many cases, these conversations have focused on the AAA sphere. It makes sense—these are the games we hear the most about, the games most people are playing—but changes are happening elsewhere, too. Some indie developers who have more control over their company structure are embracing co-op models where employees have equal stake and ownership as company founders.

Some companies, like Dead Cells developer Motion Twin, have been famously working under this structure for ages. Others, like KO_OP, are in the process of converting from a de facto co-op where they operate as a worker's cooperative but are not yet one legally. The Glory Society, a new collective from two of the creators of Night in the Woods, was founded with the bylaws and structure of a co-op from the beginning.

The journey to becoming a game development co-op can be a tricky one. As Bethany Hockenberry of The Glory Society puts it, "There aren’t as many resources out there for co-ops in this style, a lot more exist for businesses like farms, pizza shops—businesses that are selling a physical product."

KO_OP has struggled with converting their business to an official co-op, particularly with obtaining the correct visas for some of their employees. Because restructuring as a co-op is a complex process, they're actually forming a new company that will absorb the assets of the old one. It's complicated, but Saleem Dabbous, one of KO_OP's co-founders, believes it's worth it.

"We're trying to design a place where it's like, why would you leave?" he says. "That's kind of the goal, that the studio is really a structure that exists to serve its employees, not the other way around."

That desire to provide for everyone, to make the work environment belong to all the workers, not just the bosses, is at the heart of this push to organize game development in the indie space. Game development is notorious for overworking developers, using "passion" as a defense for long hours, hectic schedules and the massive layoffs that often follow big game releases.

Unfortunately, indie spaces are not immune to these problems. Though they may not have the exact same pressures as AAA developers, money and time are still concerns. If a game isn't out on schedule, they may not make their financial goals and the studio could suffer as a result.

"We say sometimes that crunch is a failure of management and planning, but it’s often not. It’s part of a business model," says The Glory Society's Scott Benson in an email interview. "Crunch occurs in smaller studios for the same reason, and we crunch ourselves sometimes even when we’re our own bosses because we’re desperately short on money and time, and because we’re afraid of failure and poverty, and because we’ve internalized the idea that we should be killing ourselves for our work. That’s beaten into us in the workforce, and it comes out in other places in our lives."

Shifting ownership to the employees won't necessarily fix crunch—KO_OP crunched on GNOG, despite functioning as a collective—but, unlike a traditional work model, the financial results of that crunch don't go to a few people at the top. When their studio crunches, everyone crunches, not just contract workers and developers, and the resulting money flows to the employees rather than a handful of executives.

Straying from the norm in any sense raises questions—can this model even work? Valve is an infamous example of the pitfalls of supposedly flat work structure; though the company's boss-free system has been praised in the past, reports from former Valve employees suggest that hierarchies still arose and contributed to worker exploitation.

KO_OP and The Glory Society are both aware of these common pitfalls and are taking steps to prevent replicating the issues in their own organizations. KO_OP hosts regular anti-oppression and anti-racism workshops with their workers, and The Glory Society has detailed bylaws for conflict resolution.

KO_OP's Dabbous has an additional recommendation: therapy. "That is what's really critical to having these sorts of environments that are more fair and equal succeeding, having that kind of emotional intelligence and being committed to that kind of emotional labor," he says. "And that only comes with educating yourself and giving yourself the tools to know how to do that for each other. And that starts for me... with therapy, but I think it also then extends through training and workshops and things like that."

These considerations, made early and reinforced often, are one of the keys to a co-op business that is not only successful in a business sense but also supportive of all of its employees.

Another major hurdle for many flat-structured businesses is size—some, like Motion Twin, have experimented with expanding and found that growth robbed them of what made their studio feel so unique.

Though Hockenberry and Benson told Kotaku that they want their collective to remain small, they also suggested ways that organizations like theirs can grow without losing the equal status of their employees, such as through electing representatives for specific departments within a larger company. The approach is not without potential flaws, such as forsaking some of the creative autonomy present in a smaller studio, but the same can be said of any work model. The co-op system is not inherently riskier than a traditional hierarchical work structure, just less familiar.

But that lack of familiarity is part of what makes it so exciting. Game development is simply not a sustainable career for many of its workers, who experience mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as a perpetual lack of job security. These co-op systems are beginning to spread in small indie studios, but Game Workers Unite, an organization focused on raising awareness for a game industry-wide union, is also gaining traction, not just among developers, but among players, too.

"My take at least is that all players should care about this because more sustainable game development on a worker level is going to lead to better games (see how many... games have development stories full of overwork, high turnover, overpowered management making bad decisions, etc.)," says Benson. "But they should also care because better conditions for workers is something we should all be pushing for, as it affects all of us in some way."

For those that want to support game developers pushing for fairer labor practices, there's Game Workers Unite, as well as companies like The Glory Society, Motion Twin and KO_OP to follow. Just talking about labor practices, crunch and employee treatment is also great for raising awareness, as many players simply don't know how the games they love are made.

There are resources for developers, too. Hockenberry recommends finding lawyers and accountants who are familiar with co-op structures, which will help people interested in organizing their own studios do so in a way that is legal and more sustainable. Many guides to creating worker co-ops exist online, but may require some digging to find. And, of course, developers can find like-minded people with additional support through Game Workers Unite.

"It’s a process but a very worthwhile one," says Benson. "Like any business, there’s risk and uncertainty, but we think it’s just a better way to do things."

It feels like an uphill battle; what works in small studios is hard (but not impossible) to translate to larger organizations and the co-op structure requires a level of trust and compassion for fellow workers that is simply not a priority at many large companies. But The Glory Society, KO_OP and similar studios are working to make life better for game industry employees in whatever ways they can.

"Honestly, genuinely, actually, I'm very optimistic, because I can see the tangible difference of when I started in the game industry seven years ago and [went] to GDC, versus this past one in 2019, where there is a very strong push for better rights and unionization and co-ops," says Dabbous. "And I feel like that can only trend in one direction, honestly."

Dabbous cites the history of labor movements and the current energy and conversations being had about worker's rights as positive signs that we're moving in a different direction.

"I feel like it has to get better because the current situation is untenable," he says. "I think we're seeing it."