May 12, 2021
EP. 104 — Toil and Turmoil in the Video Game Industry with Jason Schreier
If you love video games, working in game development sounds like a dream job — especially since the industry now grosses more than movies and sports combined. But the reality is a lot less… fun than you might think. This week journalist Jason Schreier joins Adam to discuss his latest book Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry. In it, Jason sheds new light on the strenuous, sometimes-abusive work environments behind some of the world’s most popular and beloved games. Purchase Jason’s book Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry at http://factuallypod.com/books
104 — Toil and Turmoil in the Video Game Industry with Jason Schreier
Speaker 1 [00:00:02] Hello, welcome to Factually, I’m Adam Conover. Thank you so much for listening. If you are a fan of what I do (if you’re aware of me at all, frankly) I don’t think this will come as a surprise to you: I enjoy playing video games. Is that clear from my voice and face and general personality? I enjoy playing them, I loved them as a kid and I play them now. I happen to think that they are one of the most interesting new art forms we have as a species. There are incredible things being done in video games, new interactions that we have between us; the experiencer and the artists who made the game. If you’re not playing video games I happen to think you’re missing out on one of the most interesting cultural products that we have going right now. The products of the video game industry continue to impress and delight. And by the way, they are massive. The video game industry in 2020 grossed around $180 Billion. For perspective, that’s larger than the film industry and the sports industry in North America combined. We think of both film and sports as being a much more mass market than video games, yet video games are making so much more money. By any measure, this is one of the most important cultural products we have in this day and age. It’s no wonder that for many people, especially the generations who grew up playing video games, working in the video game industry sounds like a dream job. ‘How could anything be better? What do you do? Just play games all day? Must be fun.’ Well, the reality of working in the video game industry is much more of a waking nightmare. See, as far as white collar office work goes, video game studios are about as grueling and oppressive of a work environment as it gets. For instance, there’s a practice called ‘crunch’ under which people working at some of the largest video game studios in the world ( on some of the biggest games like ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ or ‘Cyberpunk’) have to work 80 hour weeks or more for months on end in order to push a project out the door resulting in burnout, bad health outcomes and the destruction of these people’s relationships with their families and children. Even after a game is released, updates and DLC might require workers to continue putting in egregious hours with no end in sight. And even though the video game industry makes so much money, the financing for even successful studios is incredibly precarious. There have been cases in which a studio (these are the people who make the game) immediately after releasing a game that sold well, that was a success, the studio will go out of business and lay everyone off because they simply can’t keep bringing enough money in the door to keep people employed. That is how messed up the economics of this industry are. Oh, and by the way, the industry as a workplace is also rife with sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Riot games (which makes the incredibly popular game League of Legends) is well known for allowing a sexist workplace culture to thrive. And one of its executives was pushed out last year after blaming George Floyd for his own death on Facebook. So, not a great workplace in general there. And one of the reasons that this massive industry has gotten away with being so shitty for so long is that for many years much of the gaming press didn’t actually cover it. Instead, they’d cover things like what new games are out, strategies for how to be better at them, or they do consumer focused reporting like whether gamers were getting their money’s worth from the game, that sort of thing. And there’s a place for all that coverage. I love that coverage. I’ve read it for years. But in recent years, we’ve seen more and more real journalism about what is going on behind the scenes in the video game industry. Well, today on the show, I am so proud to say that we have a reporter who is at the forefront of that movement, who takes a more in-depth and critical view of the gaming industry that he and I both love so much. His name is Jason Schreier and he is one of the most respected voices in games journalism. He wrote for many years at the site Kotaku and he is currently a reporter for Bloomberg News and the author of the new book ‘Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry,’ please welcome Jason Schreier. Jason, thank you so much for being here.
Speaker 2 [00:04:14] Thank you for having me, Adam. It is a pleasure.
Speaker 1 [00:04:17] So you are a video game reporter, journalist. Tell me a little bit about what you do first of all, because I think you have a unique job in the world of games media or media in general. There aren’t a lot of people who do what you do.
Speaker 2 [00:04:33] Yeah, it’s been fun. Whenever I introduce myself to people, I say I’m a journalist and they’re like, ‘Oh, what do you do? What do you cover?’ And I’m like ‘The weird wild world of video games.’ And I either get one of two reactions, either ‘Oh my God, that is so cool.’ Or this look that is like ‘What? Who are you? Aren’t those for kids?’ But yeah, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I spent a couple of years freelancing, working for sites like Wired and then got a job at Kotaku (which is a gaming site that used to be part of Gawker Media and now is part of GO Media) and I was there for about eight years, a little over 8 years. And now I work for Bloomberg News, where I cover the video game industry. And nowadays I’m covering the business side of things and the cultural sides of things and there’s a lot to write about. Games are big these days, as you know. You are also a big video game fan.
Speaker 1 [00:05:31] I am. That’s why I’m very excited to have you here. Just to put an even finer point on this, even when someone like myself who reads a lot of games media, thinks about video game journalism we think about like, ‘OK, here, a new monster just came out in Monster Hunter Rise and here’s how to kill them.’ That sort of writing or like ‘Here’s a new game that’s going to come out. It looks really good. The trailer just dropped. Here’s how fans are reacting.’ Things like that. You though, not to besmirch that kind of writing (because that’s great and I enjoy reading that stuff as a video game fan) but you do more on the ground reporting about labor issues in video games, about trying to get a sense of what’s going on internally at different game studios, that sort of thing. Correct?
Speaker 2 [00:06:21] Yeah. Something I’ve been trying to do over the past however many years is shed some insight on what happens behind the scenes and tell some of the stories that game companies don’t necessarily want told. I talk to people, give people a voice, give people a platform to tell their stories from within game companies, because actually (and maybe not everybody knows this) despite being incredibly humongous and lucrative has this darker side to it. And it faces a lot of issues, it deals with a lot of problems that I don’t think that game companies like EA and Activision are eager to talk about. Some of the things that I’ve written about over the years are sexual misconduct at game companies or something that’s called ‘crunch,’ which is an epidemic in the video game world that is essentially excessive, unpaid overtime that lasts for weeks or months or sometimes even years on end. One of the things that I’ve been focusing on most recently is the volatility in the video game industry and how fickle it is and how tough it is to stay employed in games, which is actually what I just wrote a book about that is about to be published called ‘Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry,’ which is about the turbulence that comes with having a career in video games and how you probably won’t stay at the same company for more than a couple of years before a mass layoff or a studio shutdown hits and suddenly you are finding yourself moving somewhere else, moving across the world 3,000 miles to find your new job. And all of this stuff in aggregate has created a lot of problems for the games industry that I like to talk about and make sure that more people are talking about. I try to get the conversation started as much as possible about a lot of this stuff.
Speaker 1 [00:08:16] Yeah, your last book was fantastic, it was called ‘Blood, Sweat and Pixels,’ and it was about different studios, the stories behind the creations of different games from indie developers, one person bands who made an entire game themselves, to great big developers. But why write a second book? Was it to capture that angle of the volatility?
Speaker 2 [00:08:39] Yeah. Well, so the first book, which I’m very glad you enjoyed. Your quote is on the cover. Still very proud of the great quote you gave
Speaker 1 [00:08:45] Now this sounds like I have a conflict of interest. I do. Oh my gosh. I do indeed have a pull quote on the front of the book because you sent it to me and I enjoyed it.
Speaker 2 [00:08:58] No, it’s not like we paid you. I should be very clear here. It’s not like we paid you for a quote or anything. I was just like, ‘Hey, Adam, I think you would enjoy this.’ And you’re like, ‘Yeah, I enjoyed it.’ I gave quotes to a couple of books and I don’t feel like it’s a conflict of interest. But anyway, I enjoyed writing that. One of my takeaways after that book was like, ‘OK, I want to write something else.’ I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I had a couple of false starts and eventually I landed on this question of – So everything I do, I like to think of reporting as every good story starts with an interesting question of some sort. And with the first book with ‘Blood, Sweat and Pixels,’ my question was, ‘Why are video games so hard to make? Why is this? Why are games such a strange, elusive art form? And what is going on there? Why do people always talk about how difficult these things are to do?’ And I try to answer that question through stories of how games are made. For the second book, I wanted to ask the question, ‘Why is it so hard to maintain a career in the video game industry?’ And I wanted to answer that question, again, through stories and on the ground reporting, first hand interviews with people. And so what I did this time, was I said, ‘OK, I’m going to look at a bunch of case studies. I’m going to look at a bunch of stories of game studios shutting down.’ And I wanted to do a whole mix of them. I wanted to do everything from Thirty Eight Studios (which is this glorious, extravagant company that was run by the former baseball player, Curt Schilling, who completely mismanaged it and threw out all their money that they took from the state of Rhode Island, so that’s a whole big story) to Irrational Games which are the makers of ‘Bioshock,’ one of the most critically acclaimed games ever and they shut down just a year after releasing ‘Bioshock: Infinite,’ which had won all these awards and was critically acclaimed. So I wanted to figure out ‘Why are the studios shutting down whether they’re making failures or whether they’re making successes? What happens to people when their studios shut down? How do they react? What do they do afterwards? What do they do once they’re in this kind of impossible situation? And how do they rise up from that?’ And so I went around and I found a bunch of different people who I found really interesting and tried to tell some of their stories in this book. And there’s stories in there of people who go through a studio shut down and then go on to create an indie mega hit and they’re doing really well for themselves and then there are stories about people who after studio shut down and say, ‘You know what, this video game industry is not working for me. I’m going to go somewhere else where they actually treat workers with respect and pay us better and give us stability and don’t make us crunch.’ And so there are people who do that as well. What I found over the course of reporting this book is that it’s really an epidemic problem, and the kind of conclusion that you hear from all of these game developers is: something needs to change. And then what I did at the end of the book was I started exploring some ways in which – some solutions to these problems and ways in which the video game industry can change and tackle these demons and try to figure out, ‘Hey, there’s all this money here maybe we can support our workers, maybe we can face these crises and not let this brain drain keep happening and keep losing people to burn out and stuff.’ It’s been quite an experience. The book is – it’s a little bit dismal, I would say, but it’s not like totally bleak. There’s a lot of optimism in the book, I think. Even though it sounds – it’s about studio shut downs but there’s a lot of – I think people will read this book and I think come away from it thinking, ‘OK, things can get better. There are paths forward. There are paths out of this.’ It’s just things happen to be a little dark right now.
Speaker 1 [00:12:34] Let’s talk about it. First of all, even if your work is dismal (I wouldn’t use that word, but you know) you’re pulling back the curtain on something that we normally don’t get to see. Because so much of any writing about video games is about, ‘Hey, here, the new features. Here are the new maps. Here’s the new, et cetera.’ In the entertainment industry generally (not just video games) but in my piece of the entertainment industry, there’s also a dearth of journalism. Generally, most of the press is about those ‘Hey, what new movie came out?’ Not ‘Hey, here’s what happened behind the scenes of this movie.’ Plenty of reviews about why the last ‘Star Wars’ movie was bad. But where was the story going ‘What the fuck happened with that “Star Wars” movie?’ Like, ‘What the hell happened to Disney that made them go from the great success they were having to – What were the pressures, what were the institutional mistakes? What were the errors?’ All these sorts of things. And so that’s what makes it fascinating to read your work but also, it really points to a malaise over this massive industry. I think we don’t often appreciate that the video game industry is massive, larger than the movie industry at least by some measures. I don’t know the top of my head, but I’ve seen plenty of statistics over my life about how much money the industry makes. Enjoyed by untold millions of people around the world. These games make enormous amounts of money yet the finances of the industry (both for the companies and the workers) are completely tenuous. What if a big movie came out, it was a big blockbuster, the new Avengers movie comes out. Then a year later, Marvel Studios shuts down because they don’t have any money and they say ‘We actually became unprofitable. We are shutting down the whole studio.’ And what if everybody who worked on the movie retired from the industry at age of 28 because they couldn’t stand to work in the industry anymore and they all had horror stories saying, ‘Oh my God, working on Avengers, it almost killed me. I didn’t see my kids for five years.’ That would be weird. Yet that is the status quo in the video game industry. And I want to talk about some of the specifics of those stories. But you have any sense of why that is, what is it about the video game industry that causes it to be that way?
Speaker 2 [00:15:00] Yeah, last I checked $180 billion dollars in revenue is the big stat in the video game industry, which is nuts. Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think the newness of it is one big answer. As you said the games industry, really the modern video game industry that we know it today started in the 1980’s. So it’s about forty years old, which is very young compared to Hollywood or really anything else. It’s definitely the youngest considering how much money it brings in. It’s an extremely young industry and it’s –
Speaker 1 [00:15:32] Compared to film we’re in the 50s, in terms of video games.
Speaker 2 [00:15:39] Yeah, and I think that as a result of that, there are a number of things. First of all, if you look at how things have changed since the 90s when it was people living in these frat house environments making games, things have evolved in some good ways and become more professionalized and progressive in a lot of ways. But the big thing that hasn’t happened yet is that there are no unions in the video game industry, at least in North America. There’s some in Europe where there are more union friendly countries, there are some. But in the US & Canada (the North American video game industry) there are no unions and that makes a huge difference between this world and Hollywood, where everybody is unionized and there are a lot of protections in place for workers. There are a lot of other big differences, one of which being that in Hollywood, most of your world is in Los Angeles. So if you lose your job as a writer or if you’re bouncing between jobs as a writer in film and TV you can pretty easily – well, not easily but you don’t have to move anywhere. If you want to find new jobs, you just stay in Hollywood. Maybe you have an office in Santa Monica, maybe your next office is in Burbank, whatever, but you’re always in the same place.
Speaker 1 [00:16:50] That’s in fact how most people work. You go from job to job. ‘I was in this writer’s room. I was in that writer’s room. I didn’t work for three months, then I got a new gig and then I got lucky and sold something. But I was in Burbank. I was in Santa Monica. But the whole time I lived in L.A..’ Yeah, yeah,
Speaker 2 [00:17:06] Yeah, exactly. And in games it’s very different because in games, even though there are a few hubs where there is a cluster of game companies, (L.A. is one of them, Seattle is another) it’s very spread out. There are game companies all over the place and there’s no one central area where you go and you know, ‘OK, if I am pursuing my career in video games this is where I’m going’ and something that I explore in the book – and it’s actually wild timing because I explored that one possible solution here is if we can’t solve the problem of volatility (and maybe we can, maybe we can’t I don’t know, there are a lot of questions there). But let’s say hypothetically, we cannot solve the problem. We cannot solve the problem of a company potentially running out of money and having to shut down. What we could solve, potentially, is a problem of forcing those workers to then have to move 3,000 miles every time they want a new gig by creating more of a remote friendly environment in the video game industry. In the past, people have been very, very anti remote work. It was always like, ‘You have to be in the office, you have to be in the office.’ Then just as I was finishing this book we started hearing about something called Covid-19 and suddenly for the last year everyone’s been working remotely. So it’s fascinating to see. So this is something I got – I actually had a chance to put some stuff in the book about the future of remote work and what that will look like, because I think that alone could change so much for the video game industry. If I’m in Boston working at Irrational Games and suddenly I get called into an All Hands meeting and I find out that Irrational is shutting down but there no other game studios in Boston. So I can either uproot my family and pull my kids out of school and move to L.A. or San Francisco or whatever, or I can quit the video game industry and go find something else to do. Now, there could potentially be a third option which is: I find a job in Santa Monica but I work remotely so I don’t actually have to uproot my life. And that alone, something that simple could really change everything for the video game industry and make it so much more accommodating to so many people. So, yeah, we’ll see. It’s interesting times.
Speaker 1 [00:19:12] But that just solves one problem that people have, which is losing a gig and then having to move. The problem, though, is much bigger that top to bottom working conditions are very, very difficult. So let’s talk about it this way: I have a family member in my extended family who says, ‘Hey, I think I want to go into video games.’ I was talking to him about it being a little bit of a student of the industry, having read your book. I recommended him your last book to read. But I also knew enough to tell him – he’s like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s my dream job.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, well, careful’ because that’s how we all perceive it. That’s what people think. His relatives are like, ‘That’s unrealistic. You could never be so lucky as to get a job in video games. That’s like a lottery ticket.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, hold on a second. I think we all have a misunderstanding, culturally, of what this is. It’s actually – be careful what you wish for.’ So tell me a little bit about what it’s like for the average person working on a big, big game like, say, Cyberpunk (which just came out) or a large Blizzard or any EA game – the world of triple A. What does that look like for the average person working on it?
Speaker 2 [00:20:32] I can kind of give a general description, but I should add the caveat here that it really varies depending on the company. Some companies have a culture of ‘crunch’ where they’re ‘all in, all the time’ and you get dirty looks if you leave the office at 7:00 p.m. and then other companies are trying to do the opposite and try to create an atmosphere where they have producers going around and telling people to go home. So it really depends and there are a lot of different – like CD Projekt Red, the company behind Cyberpunk, as you brought up, is really known for its ‘crunch’ culture and people have to work a lot of hours there. Whereas EA is actually (despite their broader reputation in the gaming sphere) known for – at least within certain divisions of EA – they’re known for trying to really create a healthy atmosphere for people. But I think even the most healthy game companies, you’re always going to have to face ‘crunch’ and you’re always going to have to deal with a lot of these issues that I’ve been talking about.
Speaker 1 [00:21:29] Can you define ‘crunch’ for us?
Speaker 2 [00:21:31] Yeah, crunch is the games industry’s colloquial term for excessive overtime. And it’s period of time – it’s not just an occasional night or weekend here. It’s a period of ‘OK for the next 8 weeks we are all working every Saturday or for the next five months leading up to E3, we are all working every Tuesday night and every Thursday night.’ Or something like that, it can take a bunch of different forms. Sometimes it’s not mandated. It’s not like someone says, ‘Hey, we’re working late tonight.’ It’s more like you’re expected to be there and available. And, like I said, you get dirty looks if you leave and everybody else is there. So it’s like, ‘Oh, man, I don’t want to be the first to leave the office.’ And it can take a lot of different forms, but it is very common. And it’s not something that – I think because of the nature of making games, because games are so difficult to make for so many different reasons, you eventually get to a point where you’re like, ‘Man, we only have two months left to finish this game and we have a lot of work to do. So we really need to give it our all.’ And because so many people, just like your – was it a relative or friend of a friend who wants to get into games?
Speaker 1 [00:22:42] Relative.
Speaker 2 [00:22:42] So many people see it as a dream job that – it’s that capitalistic way of taking advantage of someone’s desire to turn what they love into a living, where you want to put in – Let’s say you’re 25, you just got your first job in the games industry. You want to put everything you can into this game because it’s awesome and you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m making video games for a living. I want to stay at the office till 10:00 p.m..’
Speaker 1 [00:23:07] Yeah, this is my self actualization. This is what – I was put on earth to do this. I love this.
Speaker 2 [00:23:12] Yeah, exactly. And you better believe that people in management at these companies, in the C suite of these big publicly traded companies, are very cognizant of that and very much rely on that mentality to get games out the door. And I think that that’s one of the reasons that the video game industry skews so young is because people in their twenties might live for that. But then once you get into your thirties, you’re like, ‘Hey, I want to have a family. I want to take control of my life. I don’t want to spend all day at work every day.’ Then you’re kind of like ‘Maybe games is not for me anymore.’ And you just get kind of churned out by this. Like I said, there are some companies that are actively working to change this stuff. There’s some people that are actively working to change stuff. But it’s very, very difficult because of the nature of these things and because it can be so, so much fun to just pour yourself into your work and to be surrounded by people who are putting in their all and just burning the candle at both ends. It becomes part of like – you feel like you’re on a team and you’re all in this together. You’re ‘in the trenches,’ is how a lot of game developers describe it.
Speaker 1 [00:24:22] A lot of what you’re describing, too, is a good feeling and can be a good thing on a project. Putting a lot of work into a project is a great thing. And again, my own industry on my own television set we do long hours. I stay up late and work on scripts. I appreciate it when other people do the same thing. On a TV set we often will work 12, 14 hour days for a week or two. But the difference is we are doing that for a defined period of time and we also have a union that’s setting rules around those things that says, ‘OK every six hours you must provide a meal. After people go home – they can work twelve hours but then after that, they need a certain amount of time at home before they can come back. They need to be paid differently if they’re being asked to work on a Saturday.’ There’s all of these things around that, that have built up around collective bargaining. The people who work on the set saying, ‘OK, what do we and don’t we find acceptable?’ So it’s all an agreement. But what you’re describing goes pretty far beyond that. Sure, we got to work on a Saturday. I think a lot of people have had that experience. But when you’re talking about – everybody is being required to work 80 hour weeks for weeks or months on end with no end in sight, no particular end date. No, ‘We’re going to stop at this date.’ And that’s just the culture of it and you’ll be socially or perhaps financially punished if you don’t do it. It ends up being bad for people’s health, even, is my understanding. Am I right about that?
Speaker 2 [00:26:02] Yeah, I don’t think you’ll find many people who would complain about a week or two of overtime. Of putting in everything you can at the very end of a project or something like that. The problem is that A: it can be weeks, it can be months on end. Sometimes there is that end date and distance. It could be like, ‘OK, we’re shipping in November, we’re releasing the game in November. So we know we have a hard stop of October 30th or whatever it is,’ although sometimes the game will then get delayed and the ‘crunch’ will just continue even longer, which can also be really brutal. But the other part of this equation is that a lot of people in the games industry are on salary and they’re not getting paid for every hour they work. They might get a bonus at the end of the project. They might get some paid time off at the end of the project to make up for things but often it is not nearly enough to compensate them for the number of hours that they are working. So it’s funny, there’s been a lot of talk recently about overtime in the banking industry. I’ve seen a bunch of articles about people like Goldman Sachs complaining about their hours and how they’re all working these crazy schedules. But those people also get paid ridiculous amounts of money. We’re talking like $200,000 entry level. You’re making these huge bonuses. You’re making these huge salaries and maybe if you break it down into an hourly rate it’s not very impressive, but you’re still getting paid. And trust me, I’m not defending that world because it’s crazy and horrible for people’s mental health. But imagine that kind of schedule with normal salaries, salaries where you’re not making Goldman Sachs money. You’re lucky to break six figures if you have a bunch of experience in the industry. Most people are not making that kind of money unless they’re the C Suite executives bringing in $30/40 million dollars a year, which is a whole another thing that we could get into. It’s the type of culture that really chews through people, it burns people out and sometimes they don’t even realize it. Sometimes they enjoy it, like you just described. There’s something – and I’ve done this too. It’s exhilarating to pull an all nighter working on something you really care about. You’re really into you’re like, ‘Man, what a rush to do this’ but do that for enough time and suddenly you wake up and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so burnt out right now.’ And that can really hit people, especially after they’ve been doing this, after they’ve been in the games industry for four or five years (or longer). They’re just kind of like, ‘Man, I’m really burnt out.’ So yeah, it really can just add up.
Speaker 1 [00:28:34] And the thing that makes me mad about it when I think about it is, that I’ve been in a position as a manager of a creative project where I’m like, ‘Hey, guys, we got a late network note’ or ‘I fucked up, somebody fucked up. We’re going to have to put in a little extra work here.’ Or ‘we think it’s for the good of the show, we’re going to make a change and we’re all going to have to stay up a little late working on this script.’ And everyone says, ‘OK,’ and we do it. But there’s a difference between that and the company planning to use this kind of overtime in order to complete the project. Like they’re saying, ‘Oh, my God, guys, we’re late getting this game done. We really got to work hard now’ versus people going like, ‘All right, we need to launch on this date. And if we just crunch everybody really hard, we can make it.’ It’s the bosses in the C suite, like you say, accepting an unrealistic deadline and pushing all of the burden of that onto their workers who are going to have to make up the difference. And then that works once. And the game is a big hit and they make a lot of money and they’re like, ‘Well, why don’t we just do that every time?’ Like, ‘Uh oh, oopsies – gotta crunch again.’ Is there that dynamic? Because that’s what it looks like to me from the outside.
Speaker 2 [00:29:54] Oh, yeah, 100 percent. Some companies are just well known for building their schedule around ‘crunch.’ And so when people are building schedules in the video game industry, it’s always based on just complete estimates and guesses. One of the reasons that you’ll see (and I’m sure you’ve noticed) is that pretty much every single game, not just during covid, but all throughout gaming history every single game gets delayed at least once. And that is because most schedules and release date estimates are just complete guesses. But even with that in mind there’s a lot of guaranteed and forced ‘crunch’ built into schedules. It’s like, ‘OK, we know we’re hitting this point a month before the end of the project, two months before the end of the project we know it’s crunch time.’ At some companies it’s even longer. And then what can also happen is – sometimes it’s not even insidious. Sometimes it’s totally unintentional crunch. And so here’s an example. Let’s say I’m an artist and I just started at my favorite game studio and I’m like, ‘Oh, man, I’m so excited to work on my favorite game.’ And someone says, ‘OK, you have to create this level. You have to draw this environment,’ whatever. How long do you think it’ll take you? And I’m like, ‘It’ll take me a week.’ And then I realized that, actually, to do it in a week, I’m going have to work really long hours. And so I do that because I want to prove myself and I finish it in a week. Then my boss thinks, ‘Oh, Jason can do this thing in a week’ and (even though I was ‘crunching’ and pushing myself to do it in a week) suddenly I’m expected to be able to deliver that exact thing in a week next time it’s required. And so it can really be this self-perpetuating cycle where people are pushing themselves to the limit. And it’s really important. I think the only way to really combat that is for managers to really be looking around and producers really to be looking around and saying, ‘Hey, you need to go home. You need to stop working at 7 P.M no matter what. You need to leave this office right now.’ And that can sometimes really be the only way to stop people who are really passionate and into their work from doing that sort of thing.
Speaker 1 [00:31:56] But some of it’s coming from the top, right? Some of those managers are not going to be able to look around and do that because they have their goals they have to hit, too. I’ve seen – I’m sorry to compare it to my industry so much
Speaker 2 [00:32:09] No, it’s great. I think it’s fascinating.
Speaker 1 [00:32:12] It’s really affected how I think about this. I was in a position where I was running a project where I didn’t determine the delivery date or the amount of money or the scope of the project. That was agreed to by people above me. They agreed to a delivery date and a scope and an amount of money for the project that I only realized afterwards was unreasonable. They said ‘We can get you this date and it’ll cost this much and it’ll be this many episodes and they’ll be this long and they’ll look like this.’ And then when they said, ‘OK, Adam, will you make this happen?’ I said, ‘Yes, I will.’ And then once we looked at all the numbers were like, ‘Oh, holy shit, this is, like, borderline impossible.’ So all of this shit rolled downhill onto not just me, but everybody who worked under me, and they all had to work very long hours. It was extremely difficult for everybody. And I looked around and said, ‘This is not ethical. I will never put people in this position again.’ Because I’m fucking furious with the position that these people are in. But that decision wasn’t mine, right? I was not in that position at that point in my career to say, ‘No, wait, we can’t do this’ because it was being done by people above who didn’t even know what they were doing to the people below them, because they were negligent enough to not pay attention to what they were putting their workers through. It seems like there’s a lot of people in the video industry – there’s a lot of companies who do or are compelled to take that bargain. Does that track for you?
Speaker 2 [00:33:44] Yeah, definitely. I mean, it’s the type of thing where not everybody is in a position to be able to turn down – Not everybody has any leverage in a negotiation like that. If you’re an independent game studio head and someone presents you with an unrealistic schedule or an unrealistic budget but it’s the only offer you have and your other option is shutting down your studio, then you might be totally screwed. Same thing happens to the big publishers, sometimes if you’re a studio head and you’re negotiating for resources with a bunch of other studio heads, sometimes the only way to deal with the internal politicking and get what you want is to make those compromises with the devil. And, yeah, much easier said than done. And I think that ultimately what it comes down to is what we talked about before, which is unions and unions exist because you can’t trust your managers to always do what’s best. And sometimes your managers might be great people. But ultimately at the end of the day their job is not to protect the workers. Their job is to do their job; is to answer to people above them and the people above them and so on and so on. And I think having those union mandated protections in place protect the type of situation that you’re talking about and can at least ensure that if someone is working an 18 hour day that they’re paid properly for it or that they will get restitution down the road for it. And I think that is the the part of the equation that is just glaringly missing from the video game world.
Speaker 1 [00:35:10] You’ve got all this pressure from the top of the industry: from the finance people, the publisher, whatever, saying ‘We need the game out on this date. It’s got to be out by Christmas. It’s got to be done. You got to be able to play for two hundred hours. The commercials need to look like this. That’s part of our business plan.’ And they’re going to ask for shit that’s unrealistic, because that’s how capitalism works, right? Capitalism always wants more, cheaper. It’ll always demand more, cheaper. And you need a counterbalance saying ‘No, no, just no. It’s not possible.’ We need to build into this business plan the humanity of the people making the thing so that they have basic standards to live; of pay and also of work conditions. And that’s what a union is for. The union is there to say, ‘Hey, guess what, it’s not worth it to build a railroad if people need to die of black lung at the age of 25 at the bottom of a mine shaft. We’re going to say “no” to that and enforce better conditions, even if you make less money.’ And I believe that is why the entertainment industry (that I work in) doesn’t look like the video game industry today. Why its people are working under better conditions and it seems like the video game industry needs the same thing.
Speaker 2 [00:36:23] Yeah, one hundred percent. And again, I should say, there might be people who work in gaming right now and are listening to this and are like, ‘Wait a minute, my job is perfectly fine’ because this is not an overall – the games industry is so big that you can’t say sweeping things that apply to every single game studio. And there’s some game studios where people are super, perfectly happy. Might have some gripes about certain parts of it but in general are not totally mistreated. But overall, I would say standards: the bar is low for what is considered good and ethical treatment in the video game industry. What you said reminds me of an anecdote from my new book: ‘Press Reset,’ which is I talk to this guy named Zach Mumbak, who was at EA at a studio called Visceral Games, best known for the ‘Dead Space’ series. They shut down in 2017. And so this part of the book tells that story and tells the story of his life. And he’s fascinating because he and I had quite a few conversations, and he told me that he spent many years of his life working at EA – he was there for like18 years. And for a long time he believed in this workaholism where he was like, ‘Hey, this is a dream job, just like Kobe Bryant. I have to be in the office every day practicing my craft or else I’m going to be replaced. I need to be there. I need to be putting in the hours. I need to be giving this my all.’ And eventually he came to this revelation that is like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m coming in every day. Right next to me is the executive office, where the CEO of EA, Andrew Wilson (who makes 30 million dollars or 20 million dollars a year, whatever it is) comes in every day. Every day he leaves at 5P.M., we’re all still there. The game developers are all still here. And the executives are heading out to go hang out with their families at dinnertime.’ They’re making tens of millions of dollars. They’re making private jet money. We’re all thinking that we’re lucky if we’re making six figures. If we’re lucky we’re making like $100/$120K, we’re like, ‘Wait a minute, what the hell is going on here?’ And I think that capitalism as a whole has this issue. But the games companies, the games industry especially is known for CEOs and C Suite executives that are just obscenely paid. And oftentimes some people look at the games industry and say, ‘Hey, there’s so much revenue here. Where is it going?’ The answer really is to the people at the very top. I believe the CEOs of EA and Activision, Andrew Wilson and Bobby Cotic, were on a list recently (I think it was last year or two years ago) of the most overpaid CEOs
Speaker 1 [00:38:47] Across capitalism?
Speaker 2 [00:38:49] Across all industry, across the entire US, across every industry. Bobby Cotic has been bringing in about 40 million dollars a year. You see these headlines of C Suite executives at Activision or EA getting paid these bonuses of ten, fifteen million dollars just to come in. They oftentimes leave after a couple of years. The amount of money that is getting thrown around at the upper echelons of gaming is just unbelievable. And then at the same time if you’re at the very bottom of the totem pole: if you’re QA for example, which is quality assurance which is the part of the game company where they’re testing games. So they’re playing games and trying to break them and find all the bugs, those people often get paid close to minimum wage – maybe if they’re lucky, they’ll make twenty bucks an hour. And they’re looking over and sometimes they’re living in these expensive cities like L.A. They’re like, ‘Man, I can barely afford to pay rent and the guy next door is going home at 5 P.M. every day and making 30 million dollars a year. Like, what the hell is going on here?’ I don’t know if there is a way, aside from regulation and government action to cap CEO salaries to fix that problem. But at the very least, there is a way for game developers to get more of a seat at the table and more of a voice and at least a little more leverage when it comes to dealing with those overpaid executives.
Speaker 1 [00:40:14] Yeah, and that way is called a union.
Speaker 2 [00:40:17] Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I just don’t. And there’s been resistance to – this is something I explore in the book as well. There’s been some resistance to it, but I think the tide is turning. The last stat I saw was more than 50 percent of game developers said that they felt like unionization was inevitable and was going to happen in games. So I think the question is when and what will it look like and how will it happen, more so than will it ever happen?
Speaker 1 [00:40:41] Yeah, that’s a tide that’s turning across the country as well in terms of the labor movement. But cool. We got to take a really short break. When we get back, I want to ask you about some specific stories from the book and from your reporting. Especially about how some of the biggest games in the world have some shocking stories behind them. So we’ll be right back with more Jason Schreier. We’re back with Jason. So let’s talk about some specific cases, one I’d like to start with – and I’m not sure if this is in the book but I know it’s a case that you’ve reported on; is Cyberpunk 20- I forget what it is, 20, whatever it is,.
Speaker 2 [00:41:21] 2077.
Speaker 1 [00:41:25] 2077! Why 2077? That’s a weird – I know it’s the original property that it’s based on, but OK. Cyberpunk 2077 was (for folks who didn’t follow this) one of the most anticipated games of the last decade, easily. They’ve been working on this game for a decade. It’s by CD Projekt Red, which is one of the biggest developers in the world and had some of the biggest hits in the past. And this was a feverishly anticipated game. When the game came out, though, it wasn’t done yet. Despite them working on it for a decade, despite them ‘crunching’ people for an extremely long period of time, the game just came out unfinished. We’re talking people posting shocked screenshots and videos of like ‘what the fuck is happening?’ The company had to apologize. It was pulled off of the PlayStation store. And so I’m looking at this going like, ‘All right, this is this big mismatch, again, between expectation and what’s possible somehow. And yet this is a company that was able to determine its own destiny. In many ways, because of how big it was. I know that you reported on it. What the hell happened and how does this show us what is going wrong with the video game industry?
Speaker 2 [00:42:42] Yeah, this is an interesting case study because I think it was this confluence of factors where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. I think that this is a game that suffered from a lot of problems that games that suffers from; one of which being they were so ambitious and had so many ideas and many of those ideas once they tried to execute them, had problems. For example, this is a company that is about 400 people, I believe (CD Projekt, the company behind Cyberpunk) and they tried to make a game that they hoped would take on Rock Star’s Grand Theft Auto. Rock Star last I checked is about 2,500, maybe 2,000 people. So already it’s this group of scrappy – that’s hard to say scrappy when it’s 400 people. But it’s a group that’s trying to punch way above their weight class. It was also a game where they tried to do so much that was drastically different from their last game, that it was a recipe for a disaster from the beginning. Their last game: ‘The Witcher 3’ which was beloved and critically acclaimed and a massive commercial success was a third person: the camera is out and you can see your character on the screen, fantasy role playing game set in like a big open world with lots of villages and not a lot of verticality – a lot of horizontal atmosphere, a lot of horizontal landscapes. And then after that, they switched to a first person. So what you see is through the character’s eyes, a Sci Fi shooter in a big vertical world where suddenly you have to think about the interiors of buildings and city streets and cars and it’s just completely different from the last thing they did. So the beginning of this development, they announced it in 2012 but the game didn’t really start until closer to 2016 after they had finished ‘The Witcher’ because they had a very small team working on it. A lot of those people got pulled on to help them finish ‘The Witcher,’ as is common in game studios. Many big studios try to do two projects at once. But it’s always impossible because whenever a project is on fire and needs to get out the door and just needs all hands on deck, they need everybody to grab a hose and come in. So it wasn’t really until towards the end of 2016 when they were like, ‘OK, this is what we want ‘Cyberpunk’ to look like.’ From the beginning they were just unrealistic deadlines. They just had all this ambition and things did not come together the way they should have when they announced the game and they showed off the game in 2018, which when it really blew people out of the water. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this massive demo’ of this game that looks incredible. They had not done a whole lot. It was a demo that was mostly scripted and faked for E3, which is a big gaming trade show. So it’s common for demos to be scripted for E3. But this is a company that really hadn’t done a ton. The demo was very long, so they just spent a lot of time on it that couldn’t go towards the actual game. Needless to say, when they announced the following year that this game was coming out in (I think they said) April of 2020; was their first release date. Everyone just laughed at the company because it’s just like, ‘No way we’re coming out in April.’ And soon enough they delay the game to September and then again to November and then again to December. And that alone, that string of three delays in a row shows you that there was some turbulence happening behind the scenes. But as they were doing this, as they kept working on this game, there was a sense from a lot of people on the team (from what I’ve gathered) that, ‘Hey, this is not realistic. We need more time. We know our time.’ And then there was a pushback from managers and from directors who have this mentality of like “We worked on ‘The Witcher 3,’ it followed the same sort of path; where things are very broken until the last minute. And then it all came together. We did ‘The Witcher 3.’ It’ll work out. Things will work out this time. I believe in our magic, our studio magic.” This Is a common thing. It’s funny. The line between disaster and massive success in the video game industry is often so, so thin. It’s really incredible. How many games – I’ve heard so many stories from game developers who are like, ‘Yeah, we thought this game was just going to be a disaster and then it all somehow came together.’ In ‘Cyberpunk’s’ case, it did not somehow come together and it showed the hubris that comes with this mentality of ‘It’ll work out. It’ll work out. We made ‘The Witcher.’ We made The Witcher.’ It’ll work out.’ And yeah, fundamentally, that’s the problem. They just needed more time for whatever reason: whether it was financial or whether it was investor pressure, because CD Projekt is a publicly traded company. So even though they are independent in the sense that they control their own destiny, they’re not because really the shareholders control their destiny, which, oftentimes (if you’re wondering) what causes problems in the video game industry it comes down to a publicly traded company being beholden to its shareholders and executives having the fiduciary duty to shareholders and having to make decisions based on that. Based on fiscal quarters instead of based on what’s good for the game. But for whatever reason, CD Projekt decided ‘We have to get this out in 2020.’ Maybe they were contractually obligated. I don’t know for sure. That ultimately just really, really hurt them and now we’ll see if they can recover. I’m optimistic that they’ll be able to regain people’s faith and come out with a version of the game that is better and fixed in a lot of ways. Then there are all sorts of other smaller issues on the course of production, like technical problems and vision problems and directorial problems and personality conflicts and people coming to the company to work on this game and getting driven out by the Old Guard of ‘Witcher’ people and all sorts of other issues. So that’s why I said it was a confluence of all these. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong on this game,
Speaker 1 [00:48:35] Every ill that the video game industry has sort of concentrated into this one product. And I’m just imagining working on this game and you’re ‘crunching’ again, you’re working insane overtime for months on end. And then the game comes out and the game isn’t done. The fans are like, ‘What the fuck happened?’ And you’re still not done working on it because the game isn’t done yet. What if a movie came out and – well, this actually kind of happened with ‘Cats.’ But when the movie came out, this is the first example of that happening, where the movie came out and the first cut of it was like, ‘Whoa, this is not finished. We need to keep working on it.’ That must be incredibly dispiriting. I have to imagine, working on it because this game was promoted as the most immersive. The city is going to be incredibly dense and it’s going to be revolutionary in all these ways. I really believed until the game came out that this was going to be a big step forward in terms of storytelling and the density of the open world and all these things, because that was what I had been led to believe. It turned out to be at best. ‘Oh, yeah, a pretty good open world, Sci-Fi game.’ Is there just a fundamental mismatch between what the public has been led to expect (and trained to expect) and what is actually possible to make?
Speaker 2 [00:50:01] Yeah, the standards have definitely risen so high that it’s like every AAA (which is industry lingo for big budget) every big budget game is expected to be everything. It’s expected to be an open world, playable for one hundred hours, have a skill tree, have realistic graphics, have amazing dialog. It’s like you need this checklist to hit. And I think that’s a real problem. I think that the expectations that have continued to rise are impossible to keep up with. And it’s something that I think a lot of companies are looking around at and trying to figure out how to deal with because it feels like we’re headed towards something bad. It feels like it’s a bubble, maybe it’s just a cliff that everybody is about to run off of. But the bar has been risen so high, especially graphically. Because everything is so much more expensive. Game prices, meanwhile, haven’t changed. It’s been $60 for a long time. It feels like we’re heading towards $70 with this new generation. But that hasn’t officially happened yet and of course, all that money that games actually make is going to the very top of these game companies. We’re hitting this point where it really feels like we’re hitting something; hitting some sort of crisis point in the video game industry. There’s also such a glut of games. There’s a new trend called ‘games as a service’ that’s kind of newish to the video game industry, where it’s this idea that instead of releasing game after game, you release one game and then you stick with it for ages. So ‘Fortnight,’ for example, there’s not going to be a ‘Fortnight 2.’ ‘Fortnight’ is just going to be continually updated for years and years. The problem with that trend is that every ‘game as a service’ is now a new form of competition for any new game that comes out. So when Activision releases the new ‘Call of Duty,’ they’re not just competing with that Fall’s games (like the new ‘Battlefield’ or whatever else), they’re also competing with ‘Fortnight’ and any other games that people are just continually playing: ‘PubG’ or ‘Apex Legends’ or ‘Overwatch’ or whatever else is a consistent multiplayer game that people are sticking with. We’re definitely entering a glut of games and this territory where the expectations keep rising and I don’t know how much longer people will be able to keep up – game companies will be able to keep up.
Speaker 1 [00:52:22] Well, maybe what video games have been in many ways for the last 10 or more years: of the big open world game that you can play for 200 hours that is just so full of content. The ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ the ‘Skyrim’ type of game is specifically maybe a little bit unrealistic. Especially because – I play those games. But how many people who play them actually play them for 200 hours? I play them for 20 hours. I do the main mission. I’m like, ‘OK, I had a good time. I’m done.’ I’m not seeing all the rest of it. So all of this extra time is being spent on this piece that is not being played by – I would have to see data to see how many people are doing it. But it can’t be that a majority of people are doing one hundred percent of these games versus something like ‘Fortnight’ or an ‘Apex Legends’ or a game like that where you say ‘Oh yeah. I play that a little bit. I dip in and see what’s new. I spend a couple extra bucks to buy a new skin for my character and then I’m moving on.’ It’s maybe a little bit more reasonable of a pattern.
Speaker 2 [00:53:22] So the good news (for you and I especially and for anyone out there who enjoys playing games) is that the barrier for entry for actually making a game is lower than it’s ever been and therefore, there’s so much creativity out there in the indie space and in the mid space below the triple-A world. And there’s so many cool games you can find if you just put a little bit of time into it and you don’t just settle for whatever is hot on PlayStation Network that fall, the new biggest thing that has all the marketing budget. If you put the time in and you find games like ‘Baba is You,’ which I know you enjoy, or ‘Outer Wilds’ or ‘Return of the Obra DInn,’ or any of these other amazing indie experiences then you can really have such a good time. And so many of them are just shorter than the big 200 hour triple-A experiences. There are so many good games out there that people who – I always recommend that when people are more in tune with just the big triple-A game (the big EA game, the big Activision, big ‘Call of Duty,’ whatever), I always recommend that they try to put a little bit of time into just finding something a little more off the beaten track because it’s worth it. And there’s so much good stuff out there.
Speaker 1 [00:54:38] Yeah. Luckily we’re still in a position where those smaller games can become hits and can be profitable for the people who made them and allow them to make more games and make a cultural impact. I’d love to hear: is there a story from your book that is like, ‘Ah, this is it done right. This is a this is a way forward?’
Speaker 2 [00:54:58] There’s a lot of optimism in there. Like I said before, I found some stories and some great people who just went on from studio shut downs to do these amazing things. I met this woman named Gwen Frey, who started in the video game industry in 2009, eventually moved to Irrational Games where she worked on ‘Bioshock: Infinite’ and she was caught up in the layoff when the studio shut down in 2014. And so she went off with a group of people and they started a company called the Molasses Flood in Boston where they made indie games. And then she said, ‘You know what, even this indie studio is not indie enough for me. I’m going to go do my own thing.’ And she became a solo developer and she released this really cool game called ‘Kyne,’ that’s a puzzle game where you play as a walking musical instrument and you maneuver, it’s a platforming puzzle game. It’s really cool. It has some great, great tunes. And she found enough success through that to be able to keep going on the solo indie path and she is happier than she’s ever been doing her own thing. And it’s been really cool to watch her career path and watch her find success in that world. I think that even though I talked about burnout earlier, I think another viable path these days – if you get caught up in a layoff or in a studio shut down and you decide you’re going to leave the triple-A world, the big budget world. Another viable path is to go indie and it’s really worked out for a lot of people. And they found they were able to have – maybe they’re not going to be the next Notch (the creator of Minecraft) and become a billionaire, but they can find financially viable paths and that is really cool. And the fact that the Internet and the rise of digital distribution has allowed for this democratization of games and you don’t have to be selling your game at Target or GameStop in order to make a successful game these days. You can just put it up on Steam or put it up on the Switch eShop or whatever. I think that’s really cool and has been really rewarding to watch happen.
Speaker 1 [00:56:56] I hope you’re right about that. I mean, I’ve played those games and I love those games and I’ve seen those success stories. You wrote about in your first book, the fellow who developed Stardew Valley as a completely solo project, incredibly massive hit that made – I don’t know how much it’s grossed, it must be tons of money. And that was a bedroom project that he worked on all by himself for years and years and years and then it finally came out. But I always wonder when I read those stories, ‘What about the person who spends five years on their game in their bedroom and they release it on Steam (if folks don’t know, Steam is the big iTunes music store of games, every game possible that you can play on a PC or many on Mac are on this) and it becomes hard to find. Plenty of people make a podcast. They upload their podcasts. No one ever listens to the podcast. Very common story. How much is that happening with games and is that a problem?
Speaker 2 [00:57:57] Definitely, it’s definitely a problem. There’s a glut of games in the indie space as well. There’s so many games competing for your time and money all the time. But I will say most people are not going to be Stardew Valley. The Stardew Valley story, I mean, he made millions and millions: he sold 12 million copies, last I checked 13 million copies. He made a lot of money. Most people are not going to be Eric Barone and they are not going to have that story. But I think there is a space between that and releasing a game and nobody’s ever heard of it and nobody buys it. And if you have enough luck and if your game is good enough, I think there is a viable way to – maybe you’re not going to make millions of millions of dollars but maybe you’ll make enough to be able to do your next game. And there are a lot of games, and there are a lot of indie games that I cover in this book even, where maybe they’re not giant smash hits but they are making enough to be able to support the careers of a few people. And that’s really all that matters if you’re looking to pursue your own career path, it would be nice to sell millions of copies but at the end of the day a lot of people are happy as long as they’re making enough money that they can just keep doing what they love. That said, there is a very, very big caution that there is this over saturation and people call it the ‘indie-pocalypse.’ People have been talking about this for a few years now in the indie world, because there are just so many games and it’s so hard to break out. You really have to be lucky. You really have to be right time, right place, right success story. Here’s another example from the book; is that The Molasses Flood (the company I was just talking about) that Gwen Frey helped start. They have this game that did not do well when it launched but wound up having this tail; where over time it built on momentum and allowed them to keep going. And in fact, they were in the right place at the right time because they released a version on the Switch in 2017 just as the Switch had come out and nobody foresaw how successful the Nintendo Switch would be. And that fall, 2017, a lot of people had it and a lot of people were looking for new things to buy because there wasn’t a lot to play on the switch eShop just yet. And so this game, ‘The Flame in the Flood’ happened to be on there and happen to sell another 200,000 copies (or whatever it was) just because it happened to be on the Switch at the perfect time where everybody wanted games on the Switch. So, yeah, if you’re lucky, if you work hard enough, if you have a game that is good or good enough, there is a viable career path. It’s not easy and it’s definitely – a lot of luck goes into it. But yeah, there is kind of that middle ground.
Speaker 1 [01:00:29] Yeah, and it seems that maybe there’s a way to make a middle class income if you get that small but devoted fan base, the same way a podcast (like this one) is able to. We’re not burning down the world with our incredible download numbers. But we’ve got an incredibly awesome, passionate fan base that listens to the show and supports the show and that means the show is able to keep going as a profitable going concern. Is there that sort of possibility for a game developer as well? You get your 5,000 or 10,000 fans who love the game and you’re able to keep going.
Speaker 2 [01:01:05] Yeah. One hundred percent. There’s a guy I know named Zach Barth and he has a company called ‘Zachtronics’ and they made a ton of games that are just incredibly niche games like ‘Opus Magnum’ and ‘Infinite Factory’ and a whole bunch of more games. And they’re very specific types of games, games that appeal to math nerds and they’re all about programing and doing these really specific things. And they’re never going to make billions of dollars. They’re never going to crack the mainstream. But he has (and his company) has this dedicated fan base that may not be huge (might be maybe, twenty thousand people, maybe less maybe more I don’t know) but they’re supporting him and they allow him to continue making games, which is really cool. And so, yes, one thing that I think is true now, especially after the past year is that the video game playing audience is bigger than it’s ever been. And we’re seeing console sales hit record highs and hours on all sorts of games are breaking records. The new ‘Animal Crossing’ last year sold extremely well, like millions and millions of copies. And so especially because of Covid, a lot of people are stuck at home looking for things to do and wound up discovering video games. But really, even before that I think the population of people who are into games has grown a lot over the past couple of years. That’s also been really cool to see and I think that also allows for more, even though there is that over saturation, that glut of games. There’s a lot more people, I think, willing to support those games which is also cool.
Speaker 1 [01:02:37] Yeah, just to sort of summarize all this stuff, something that I think about a lot is: why is the video game industry, as opposed to other industries, fucked up in so many ways? There’s other new industries, like the tech industry. The tech industry has plenty of problems. It’s going through its own unionization wave right now. But it’s not like when you go look at the white collar workers at Google’s headquarters, they’re not pulling their hair out because they’re all being underpaid and grotesquely overworked. There are people being grotesquely overworked as part of the system generally, but it doesn’t seem to be a system where companies are closing right after they release their product or they’re releasing products unfinished that are big disasters or this crazy boom or bust thing that’s happening in video games. Is there anything structurally about the video game industry that causes it to have these ills?
Speaker 2 [01:03:37] Yeah, I think there are a few reasons. One that comes to mind immediately is actually the disciplines involved. If you’re a programmer and you’re working in Silicon Valley, you are getting calls all the time. You have a bazillion different places. You are high in demand and low in supply and there are a bazillion places you could work and you can command a fortune for your work (if you’re a good programmer and you’re in Silicon Valley). And in fact, I’ve seen game developers (often game programmers in game development) often move to tech companies to triple their salaries and make these incredible bonuses and get all these incredible perks from the tech companies. I think tech companies, because that world is so competitive and there’s so many of them in one place, they kind of have to offer the best possible compensation and perks and all this other stuff in order to get the best talent. And you look at games and there’s a lot more supply than there is demand. Artists; a lot more people want to become artists. A lot more people want to be writers than there are jobs for writers. And so it’s just a basic capitalistic supply and demand thing and because the demand is so much lower than supply in those other disciplines, they can get away with a lot more. And yes, so for that reason you’ll see salaries for programmers at game companies look a lot higher than salaries for other disciplines. And again, it depends. There are certainly high level designers or high level artists, because once you have 10 years, 15 years of experience under your belt you are more in demand; in part because so many of those other senior people have burnt out. So there are a lot of senior spots to be filled across the video game industry. So once you’ve shipped a couple of games, you have a few games on your resume, you can pretty much find jobs. It’s not hard to find a new job but getting in, in the first place, there’s so many people who want to do it and so few jobs that it’s really hard to crack in. And then once you crack in, game companies can get away with not giving you the types of perks that a Facebook or Google has to give people.
Speaker 1 [01:05:39] There’s also the degree to which; as an entertainment product it is the biggest, most expensive entertainment product we try to make as a species. You wrote a book, right? I can read that book for, it’ll take me eight hours to read the book. I could play an eight hour video game. But it took you, Jason Schreier, a year or two to write the book on just your own efforts. But a video game that’s a comparable length is going to take hundreds, if not thousands of people. And the amount of money is immense. So it’s this massive investment that has to be made to reap hopefully big rewards. And so it really does lend itself towards a boom or bust economy.
Speaker 2 [01:06:21] Exactly. Yeah, no, totally. People look around and say, ‘Wow, how on Earth this is happening? This is unsustainable, this world where we’re making such huge bets and they’re so expensive and so they have to sell millions of copies in order to actually be viable’. And ‘Oh my God, the pressure is on.’ So you can see why the risk is so high that it leads to a lot of these conditions like the ‘crunch’ that we were talking about earlier. When the pressure is that high, there’s this expectation from the top down that, like, ‘Man, everybody better put in these hours because we got to sell millions of copies. We got to make the best possible game and win Game of the Year.’
Speaker 1 [01:07:04] It starts to look like – When I just pay $60 for one of these games, I’m like, ‘How is this only $60? I’m going to play this for a hundred hours and I’m paying $60 for it? I should pay them more.’ There’s a mismatch there where it’s like ‘How are they possibly making their money back on this?’ You do though seem to have some optimism about the trajectory of the industry, especially as regards labor. You do?
Speaker 2 [01:07:36] Yeah, I do. One of the chapters in ‘Press Reset’ is just exploring solutions. And I tried to explore a few different things and I found some optimism. There are definitely some places to be optimistic, some people who are doing cool things and trying to find ways to change the video game industry. And like I said I’m optimistic that most people will seem to want to unionize, seem to want to fight for better working conditions. So I think that’s going to happen at some point. I’m optimistic because this remote work trend could catch on at companies and I think that that’ll make for healthier environments and more accessible environments for people. I think one of the things that makes me most optimistic is the fact that more and more people are talking about this and over the course of my career covering the video game industry – 10 years ago not a lot of people were talking about many of the issues that are so ubiquitous in this industry. There wasn’t a ton of talk about ‘crunch.’ There were some and there had been conversations about ‘crunch.’ In 2004, there was this big blog post called ‘EA Spouse.’ It was an anonymous whistleblower whose husband worked for EA. And she was like, ‘I never see my husband’ and she talking about awful conditions and that led to a lot of changes. But now in 2021, the conversations are so much more frequent and people are on social media. On Twitter, game developers are just using their platforms to speak out about a lot of nonsense. And we’ve seen a lot of cultural reckonings at companies like Riot and Ubisoft, when it came to facing sexual misconduct and harassment and toxic workplaces and that’s been heartening to see. It’s been heartening to see people confronting that stuff head on. I think there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic. There are also a lot of reasons to be pessimistic. So I just choose to try to be a more optimistic person and I choose to look at the positive things. But yeah, I think that things can get better and will get better.
Speaker 1 [01:09:40] Do you have any words of advice for my cousin who wants to enter the video game industry without going broke or going nuts?
Speaker 2 [01:09:49] Yeah, don’t.
Speaker 1 [01:09:53] Really?
Speaker 2 [01:09:53] Yeah, it’s just hard to recommend that anyone try to enter the video game industry these days unless they really – I mean, it’s sort of like media, right? I love my job and I love being a journalist, but media is so volatile and hard to get into and hard to stay in and hard to deal with. I just wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. And I think that ultimately if you know that you can’t imagine yourself doing anything but that, then you’ll hear me say ‘don’t’ and you’ll just ignore me. So ultimately, it’s good advice because if you’re really set on it then you just won’t listen to that advice. And if you’re not, then you’ll take the advice. So it’s win-win advice either way.
Speaker 1 [01:10:36] OK, fair enough. Jason, thank you so much for being here. Just plug the book for us one more time, if you would.
Speaker 2 [01:10:41] Yeah. So it’s called ‘Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry.’ I’m really proud of it. I think it will resonate with a lot of people and I think it also will inform and entertain people, even though the stories are about kind of brutal stuff. I try to write them in a way that is hopefully entertaining. They’re all based on direct interviews that I did with people. So it’s all stuff that you will have not necessarily read before. It comes out on May 11th. You can get it at any bookstore. Do me a favor and support your local bookstore because local indie book stores need more support. So go and buy it from from your local shop that has probably been struggling over the past year and needs your support, but you can get it anywhere. It’s also an e-book. It’s an audio book and it’s translated to a bunch of different languages.
Speaker 1 [01:11:33] We’re going to have it on our podcast bookstore. It’s factuallypod.com/books, which is through bookshop.org. So it does kick back to your local bookstore, although I do recommend even more getting it at your local bookstore if you have one that you love to support. Jason Schreier, thank you so much for being here.
Speaker 2 [01:11:47] Thank you, Adam. It’s been a pleasure catching up, as usual.
Speaker 1 [01:11:52] Well, thank you once again to Jason for coming on the show, if you want to check out his book you can get it at factuallypod.com/books. When you do, you’ll be supporting not just the show but also your local bookstore because our shop is through bookshop.org. Thank you once again for listening. I want to thank our producers Chelsea Jacobson and Sam Roudman, our engineer Andrew Carson, Andrew W.K. for our theme song, the fine folks at Falcon Northwest for building me the incredible custom gaming PC that I’m recording this very interview on. You can find me online @AdamConover or AdamConover.net. Thank you so much for listening and we’ll see you next week on Factually.
July 26, 2022
How can we best help animals, when it’s we humans who cause their suffering? Animal Crisis authors Alice Crary and Lori Gruen join Adam to explain how the same systems that hurt and kill animals also harm humans. They discuss the human rights abuses that happen in industrial slaughterhouses and how palm oil monocrops are devastating the world’s rainforests. They also share how we can have solidarity with animals in our daily lives. You can purchase their book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 19, 2022
In times of turmoil, it can be useful to take a longer view of history. Like, a LOT longer. Paleontologist and author of “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals” Stephen Brusatte joins Adam to explain how mammals took over the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and why we survived and achieve sentience when dinosaurs died out. Stephen goes on to discuss why taking a deep look at our history can help prepare us for the crises of the near future. You can purchase Stephen’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 13, 2022
Trans people have existed as long as, you know, people have. But the barriers to legal inclusion and equality are still higher than most people realize. “Sex is as Sex Does” author Paisley Currah joins Adam to discuss why institutions have been slow to give legal recognition to trans identities, why Republicans have shifted their attacks from bathroom policies to trans youth in sports, and why the struggle for trans equality is tied to feminism and women’s liberation. You can purchase Paisley’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books