This week marked a milestone in the industry, as we saw the formation of the first US union at a major AAA publisher.
On Monday, Raven Software QA employees voted for unionization. It’s a historic accomplishment, and one with a relative handful of individuals at the heart of it.
STAT | 19 – The number of Raven QA staff who voted in favor of unionization, compared to just three who voted against it.
Kudos to those 19 for looking out for themselves and each other, and for doing it in the face of illegal union busting by their employer, which made it very clearly from the outset that it wanted no part of a unionized workplace. (I am compelled here to say alleged illegal union busting because the National Labor Relations Board wants Activision Blizzard to settle the issue before a formal complaint is made, and such a settlement would almost certainly involve no admission of wrong-doing on the publisher’s part.)
It’s easy to view this as yet another body blow to Activision Blizzard in a year jam packed with them. Ever since the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing first filed its gender discrimination and workplace harassment suit last July, virtually nothing has gone Activision Blizzard’s way.
Much of that was just a history of mendacious mismanagement coming due, a series of outrageous revelations around indefensible actions. That self-inflicted damage was exacerbated by a frankly incompetent mishandling of the situation, and it didn’t help that Call of Duty started flagging after a decade of the company doubling down on the franchise time and again to the exclusion of all else (in the Activision division, at least).
But if you remember, the spark of this unionization push was business as usual. In December, Activision laid off 20 contract QA workers at Raven, and their colleagues protested, calling for the 20 to be brought back and offered full-time employment.
Cutting ties to a handful of contractors because the golden goose laid a different kind of egg is real “For me, it was Tuesday” country in the games business
This is a company who for years has laid people off while posting skyrocketing sales and profits. It shut down an entire studio in France — illegally — just a few months into a pandemic that turbo-charged player engagement.
Cutting ties to a handful of contractors because the golden goose laid a different kind of egg is real “For me, it was Tuesday” country in the games business.
I imagine the rest of Activision Blizzard’s behavior over the years — and everything it’s done in the past year specifically — helped galvanize the Raven QA team, but the actual inciting action here was business as usual.
And that should absolutely have the attention of the rest of the big AAA publishers right now. Even if they haven’t had an Activision Blizzard-caliber scandal (and some absolutely have), we’re at the point now where rank-and-file developers — or at least the oft-neglected QA teams — are not accepting business as usual.
And now developers throughout the industry have an example to follow, people they can turn to who have unionized their game development workplaces and offer advice and insight in replicating that success.
The hard work is not over for the Raven union. They still need to negotiate a contract with Activision Blizzard, and the publisher has every reason to make that process as arduous and minimally rewarding as possible. And while pending acquirer Microsoft talks a nicer game in public, I’m not sure it has any desire to encourage unionization efforts either.
But I hope they can take a moment to enjoy their victory this week. They successfully defied their employer, one of the biggest and most powerful companies in the industry. They did it for their colleagues, and for each other, and they made history in the process.
The rest of the week in review
QUOTE | “We believe that an important decision that will impact the entire Raven Software studio of roughly 350 people should not be made by 19 Raven employees.” – In the wake of Raven Software QA employees successfully forming the first US union at a major game publisher, Activision Blizzard suggests it’s preferable for decisions affecting the studio of 350 people to be made by a handful of executives at a company with a history of laying people off in the wake of record financial results. (Not to mention all the other stuff.)
QUOTE | “At the end of the day, I would like to go into work and not have to think about anything but my work. But based on everything that has been happening, even well before it broke through the headlines, it has been taking up a sizable portion of my day, having to think about the inaction of leadership.” – Blizzard senior motion graphic designer Emily Knief is one of a dozen current and former Activision Blizzard staffers who have established an anti-discrimination committee and issued demands to company management.
STAT | 50-50 – The proposed investment split Sony hopes to have between new IP and existing IP by its fiscal 2025, as laid out in a recent strategy presentation. Currently, new IP only makes up about 23% of Sony’s investment.
QUOTE | “You need to see [diversity] in the levels below president or chief executive in order to see the pipeline of people who could step into that top leadership role at some point in time. So I do fear it’s going to take us quite some time because I don’t see that level of diversity one, two or three levels down. It isn’t there yet, and that’s a disappointing statement to make.” – In a wide-ranging interview, Reggie Fils-Aime talks to us about being the only Black face in the room for much of his career and how much further the industry still needs to go with its diversity push.
QUOTE | “Ultimately you do your best to keep it scientific, but a lot of it ends up being gut feel. Does this project feel good? Do we like working with a team? Publishing is a long-term relationship, so you absolutely have to like working with the people involved.” – Fellow Traveller managing director Chris Wright says the company has processes for choosing games to publish, but a lot still comes down to personal feelings.
QUOTE | “We never had that sense of urgency or panic. I think there was a sense of invulnerability — I don’t want to say invulnerability, but I think we were comfortable.” – A little after the collapse of 38 Studios 10 Years Ago This Month, Curt Schilling explains that he was comfortable even as the company missed payroll, halted payments on employee insurance premiums and left them with moving bills and mortgages it had said it would take care of.
QUOTE | “The thing about the world today is there is a lot of division, we know this right, we see it every single day, but the thing that unites us is that we’re all here to make amazing games and experiences for our players, and that is how we have the most positive impact on the world.” – In explaining to employees why EA isn’t making any kind of public comment on abortion rights, the company’s chief people officer Mala Singh offers the friendliest possible version of “Shut up and get back to work.” (I also think it does EA employees a disservice to suggest that selling the masses on casino-style loot box mechanics like Ultimate Team is really “the most positive impact on the world” they could have.)
STAT | $222 billion – Data.ai’s estimate for worldwide consumer spending on gaming in 2022. Consoles, PC/Mac, and handheld gaming are expected to be more or less what they were last year, but mobile gaming is projected to continue its explosive years-long growth trend, accounting for 61% of the total market.
QUOTE | “We still need formal approval from the Federal Parliament and the European Commission, but an ultimate start state already gives us the chance to prepare our companies for the arrival of this tax incentive for video game investors.” – BelgianGames CEO David Verbruggen says the trade group is thrilled the country has approved a plan to provide tax breaks to game developers.
QUOTE | “Safety is a journey, and this is a number one ask from our community. So we’re looking at how we can attach more details for people to understand — like the video itself. That’s something we’re definitely working on.” – Twitch VP of trust and safety Angela Hession says the company plans to start telling streamers why they’ve been banned, instead of simply telling them which rule they broke with no specific details as they do now.