‘Every Game You Like Is Built on the Backs of Workers.’ Video Game Creators Are Burned Out and Desperate for Change

Spending on video games and related equipment reached an all-time high last year, with Americans shelling out $42 billion to immerse themselves in virtual worlds where they can steal cars, shoot cowboys, and fight Nazis with abandon. But as tens of thousands of video game fans and creators gather in Los Angeles this week for…

Spending on video games and related equipment reached an all-time high last year, with Americans shelling out $42 billion to immerse themselves in virtual worlds where they can steal cars, shoot cowboys, and fight Nazis with abandon. But as tens of thousands of video game fans and creators gather in Los Angeles this week for the Electronic Entertainment Expo, more commonly known as E3, a difficult truth about the gaming industry is beginning to emerge: what’s seen by outsiders as a fun, creative business is becoming psychologically and financially unbearable for those working in it.Related“Every game you like is built on the backs of workers,” says Nathan Allen Ortega, 34, who thought he found his dream job when Telltale Games offered him a position as a community and video manager in 2015. Ortega was such a Telltale enthusiast that he used to participate in cosplay—the practice of dressing up as a particular character for events—as Rhys Strongfork, one of the main heroes in the company’s Tales from the Borderlands. So it was an easy decision to pack up his stuff in Texas and relocate near the company’s headquarters in San Rafael, California. But he was soon so stressed out by work that he developed an ulcer and started coughing up blood.Part of the problem, Ortega says, was that executives would order up game changes at the last minute, sending developers into overdrive, which then led to inferior products. This made Ortega’s job of marketing the game even more difficult. “I was working with compromised games made by people killing themselves to get them out the door month after month after month,” he says. Both his doctor and therapist advised him to quit, but he stuck around until Telltale laid off 25 percent of its staff, including Ortega, in 2017. Telltale shut down permanently in October of 2018 and laid off 250 employees after it failed to secure more funding. The company was then sued by both its co-founder and by one of its former employees. (Records for the first lawsuit were sealed to protect confidential information, and the second lawsuit was dismissed in early February. Lawyers for Telltale did not return TIME’s requests for comment.)The nightmare hours and job uncertainty at Telltale are by no means unique in the game industry, according to 10 video game workers who spoke to TIME. “There’s a belief in the games industry that working in it is a privilege, and that you should be willing to do whatever it takes to stay there,” says Emily Grace Buck, a former narrative designer at Telltale. “The most important thing to remember is that it’s not every single game studio that’s functioning like this, but this is the vast majority, this is normal for this industry.” Indeed, the chief executive of Rockstar Games, publisher of the hugely popular Red Dead Redemption 2, bragged in an interview last year that people there were working 100-hour weeks to finish that game in time for its scheduled release date. Another top gaming company, Activision Blizzard, said in February it was cutting 800 jobs even as it reported record 2018 revenues of $7.5 billion.Games creators face other serious challenges, too. In early May, 150 workers walked out at Riot Games, which publishes League of Legends, saying that the company was not doing enough to respond to repeated allegations of sexism. One developer for Mortal Kombat 11 recently told gaming site Kotaku that he was diagnosed with PTSD after working on the extravagantly violent and gory fighting game.Riot said in a statement that it supported the employees who made their voices heard during the walkout, and that it would “continue to listen to Rioters regarding all things, including their thoughts on arbitration.” Once the active litigation is resolved, the company will give employees the choice to opt-out of mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment claims, a spokesperson said. Activision provided a statement it had shared when it announced its layoffs in February, and said that it had not met its goals for growth and was increasing investment in its biggest franchises. Neither Rockstar nor NetherRealm, which makes Mortal Kombat, returned requests for comment.Like the software industry more broadly, the gaming world is known for “crunch,” the period just before a launch when workers are expected to put in 100-hour weeks with no extra pay. In decades past, especially for console games, that crunch period was typically limited to the weeks before a game’s release date. But conditions are worsening in part because the underlying technology powering video ga
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