Quality assurance workers at Raven Software voted to form a union Monday, putting an end to a longstanding battle with its parent company, Activision-Blizzard. The Game Workers Alliance is one of the first unions in the game development industry in the country – and the one that’s attracted the most public attention by a longshot.
Activision-Blizzard’s missteps have been very public in recent times. Their stock has been struggling for more than a year, and they entered an agreement to be acquired by Microsoft for $68.7 billion. There have been several detailed allegations of sexual harassment that have resulted in accused individuals leaving the company.
While these stories have taken the limelight in recent months, in the midst of it all, Activision-Blizzard laid off a dozen members of Raven Software’s QA department in December. According to associate community manager Austin O’Brien, these employees were promised for months that the parent company was working toward a pay restructuring to increase their wages.
Sixty Raven Software developers staged a walkout in protest. According to a statement from the organizers, the personnel were cut after five weeks of overtime and “before an anticipated end-of-year crunch.”
Some of them had relocated to Wisconsin in anticipation of the return to in-person work – without relocation assistance – due to reassurances from Raven that their workload was consistent. Whether you’re pro-union or not, it’s not difficult to understand why workers at Raven Software haven’t been too pleased with their treatment. Of the 28 eligible voters, 19 voted in favor of forming the union while three voted against it.
Activision-Blizzard spokeswoman Jessica Taylor made an intriguing point in a statement: “We believe that an important decision that will impact the entire Raven Software studio of roughly 350 people should not be made by 19 employees.” On the other hand, I can’t imagine the decision to cut the dozen QA employees at Raven was made by popular vote. Pot, meet kettle.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this very public drama acted as a catalyst for the gaming industry. It’s a rigorous, oftentimes downright merciless industry to work in and has been for decades. In 1982, the notoriously awful E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial game tie-in for the Atari 2600 was the result of one man being worked to the bone for two months, crafting it from start to finish.
Similarly in 1996, one woman was commissioned to port Doom to the 3DO in just 10 weeks. Is it really surprising that both of those were a disaster? In 1995-96, the development of Sonic X-Treme was so rigorous that lead programmer Chris Coffin contracted severe walking pneumonia.
Additionally, lead designer Chris Senn became so ill that he was told by his doctor he had six months to live if he did not change his habits – sleeping at the office for months on end working 12-16 hours each day wasn’t sustainable.
Both of them petitioned to have the game’s deadline extended, but when Sega refused, Coffin, Senn and many others jumped ship, and the game was canceled. Everyone’s time and money was wasted and worse. Tragically, Sonic X-Treme is just one high-profile case – there are dozens of similar game-development stories out there.
A prominent developer like Raven Software making the push to unionize, and all the drama behind it, is proof that times haven’t changed much. The team is responsible for Quake 4 and Wolfenstein, co-developed Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and currently maintains Call of Duty: Warzone.
There’s plenty of money in all that, so if Activision-Blizzard is still cutting corners, it makes sense that the team would unionize in the hopes of shielding themselves from the publishers’ callous decision-making. From a consumer standpoint, if more game developers begin to unionize, there will be a lot less overtime.
Less overtime means even more game delays. On the other hand, with clear rules for working hours in place, perhaps initial game release dates would be more realistic. Whatever the case, it’d be a small price to pay knowing that the people who craft incredible media are staying a little saner.
Riordan Zentler can be reached at email@example.com.