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New Internal Emails Paint an Even Uglier Picture of Team Bondi's Work Practices

Rockstar Games reportedly looking to back away from the studio after a tumultuous working relationship becomes untenable.

Team Bondi developed one of the year's biggest games in the acclaimed detective adventure L.A. Noire. Over the course of the years-long process to bring that game to fruition, the studio appears to have jilted more than its share of ex-employees along the way. And now they're speaking out en masse.

It all started when somewhere around 100 former developers suddenly found themselves uncredited for their work in the game and launched a website to protest this fact. It continued when IGN published a story from freelance writer Andrew McMillen, who took Team Bondi to task for reportedly troubling work conditions at the studio over the course of the game's seven-year development cycle, providing quotes from both anonymous former employees of the company, and even oft-complained-about studio head Brendan McNamara. McNamara's quotes (which halfway confirmed many of the complaints lodged against the company, and simultaneously brushed them aside as simple facts of being a developer in this business) seemed to tell all the story there was to tell at the time, but evidently, McMillen was far from done.

Things have gotten very ugly Down Under.

In a story published yesterday on GamesIndustry.biz (you'll need a registered account on the site to read the whole thing), McMillen went to town on Team Bondi, bringing to light a lengthy series of internal emails collected by former employees of the studio which depict McNamara and the management at Team Bondi as complicit in grinding former studio workers into the ground with insane hours and minimal compensation.

Without just reprinting the entire series of emails McMillen posted in his story (you should read the entire thing, as it's fascinating stuff), the core issues pertain to McNamara and the studio's upper management, who allegedly dangled L.A. Noire's completion date as a perpetual carrot on a stick in order to secure lengthy, unpaid overtime hours from the rest of the company's staff. Multiple emails from as far back as 2008 show studio management proclaiming the game's completion as projected within a six month window of the email's send date. In nearly all instances, these emails were used as justification for increasing work hours at the studio, many of which allegedly were unpaid crunch hours. Sources then go on to list everything from misrepresented announcement dates (one email suggests impending media coverage a whole 14 months prior to the game's official unveiling in Game Informer last year), to non-existent raises and cost-of-living increases, despite hefty amounts of overtime work by employees across various departments.

The really bizarre thing about this whole story is how closely it echoes the now infamous Rockstar Spouse letter, which took the publisher to task for the alarmingly brutal hours it purportedly required Rockstar San Diego employees to work while finishing up Red Dead Redemption. That particular letter is something that one source at Team Bondi even mentioned as signaling something of an alarm bell for those working at the company. However, according to that source, studio management treated the letter as more an object of derision and mockery, rather than any sort of wake-up call to how their own employees might be feeling.

All these former employees bad-mouthing the company certainly seems like it might hit a little too close to home for Rockstar, though reportedly ties between the publisher and developer were strained long before any of this news hit. Though nothing has been said publicly by either company (and, again, these sources are anonymous, and thus cannot be directly corroborated), one source seems fairly sure that Rockstar's relationship with Team Bondi is merely a one-and-done.

== TEASER ==

"It's pretty well reported now that the working conditions were bad. What hasn't been discussed yet (from what I've seen) is the relationship between Team Bondi and Rockstar. I've heard a lot about Rockstar's disdain for Team Bondi, and it has been made quite clear that they will not publish Team Bondi's next game. Team Bondi are trying to find another publisher for their next title, but the relationship with Rockstar has been badly damaged - Brendan treats L.A. Noire like a success due to his vision but I think Rockstar are the ones who saved the project. They continued to sink money into LA Noire, and their marketing was fantastic. Without their continued support, Team Bondi would have gone under several years ago."

"Rockstar also made a huge contribution to the development; their producers were increasingly influential over the last two years of the game's development, and overruled many of the insane decisions made by Team Bondi management. At a lower level, Rockstar also pitched in with programmers, animators, artists, QA, etc. Part of the conflict between Team Bondi and Rockstar was due to Rockstar's frustration with Team Bondi's direction, and eventually Team Bondi's management in turn resented Rockstar for taking lots of creative control. It's also worth pointing out that Rockstar used to be very keen on making Team Bondi something like 'Rockstar Sydney' - the more they worked with Team Bondi management, the more they came to understand that this was a terrible idea."

This is, unfortunately, one of those ugly situations that we will likely never know the entire truth of. It seems unlikely that McNamara will be giving any more interviews following this latest volley of criticism from former employees of his studio, and while the veracity of their claims seems legit, given the sheer number of different sources (and the at least halfway confirmation of several of the claims by McNamara), it seems even more unlikely that any of these developers will step forward and give their names, either out of fear of lawsuit or blacklisting within the industry.

While L.A. Noire is unquestionably a major critical success, and at least a moderate commercial success, we are sadly now left to ponder at precisely what cost that success came at.

Alex Navarro on Google+
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Posted by Alex

Team Bondi developed one of the year's biggest games in the acclaimed detective adventure L.A. Noire. Over the course of the years-long process to bring that game to fruition, the studio appears to have jilted more than its share of ex-employees along the way. And now they're speaking out en masse.

It all started when somewhere around 100 former developers suddenly found themselves uncredited for their work in the game and launched a website to protest this fact. It continued when IGN published a story from freelance writer Andrew McMillen, who took Team Bondi to task for reportedly troubling work conditions at the studio over the course of the game's seven-year development cycle, providing quotes from both anonymous former employees of the company, and even oft-complained-about studio head Brendan McNamara. McNamara's quotes (which halfway confirmed many of the complaints lodged against the company, and simultaneously brushed them aside as simple facts of being a developer in this business) seemed to tell all the story there was to tell at the time, but evidently, McMillen was far from done.

Things have gotten very ugly Down Under.

In a story published yesterday on GamesIndustry.biz (you'll need a registered account on the site to read the whole thing), McMillen went to town on Team Bondi, bringing to light a lengthy series of internal emails collected by former employees of the studio which depict McNamara and the management at Team Bondi as complicit in grinding former studio workers into the ground with insane hours and minimal compensation.

Without just reprinting the entire series of emails McMillen posted in his story (you should read the entire thing, as it's fascinating stuff), the core issues pertain to McNamara and the studio's upper management, who allegedly dangled L.A. Noire's completion date as a perpetual carrot on a stick in order to secure lengthy, unpaid overtime hours from the rest of the company's staff. Multiple emails from as far back as 2008 show studio management proclaiming the game's completion as projected within a six month window of the email's send date. In nearly all instances, these emails were used as justification for increasing work hours at the studio, many of which allegedly were unpaid crunch hours. Sources then go on to list everything from misrepresented announcement dates (one email suggests impending media coverage a whole 14 months prior to the game's official unveiling in Game Informer last year), to non-existent raises and cost-of-living increases, despite hefty amounts of overtime work by employees across various departments.

The really bizarre thing about this whole story is how closely it echoes the now infamous Rockstar Spouse letter, which took the publisher to task for the alarmingly brutal hours it purportedly required Rockstar San Diego employees to work while finishing up Red Dead Redemption. That particular letter is something that one source at Team Bondi even mentioned as signaling something of an alarm bell for those working at the company. However, according to that source, studio management treated the letter as more an object of derision and mockery, rather than any sort of wake-up call to how their own employees might be feeling.

All these former employees bad-mouthing the company certainly seems like it might hit a little too close to home for Rockstar, though reportedly ties between the publisher and developer were strained long before any of this news hit. Though nothing has been said publicly by either company (and, again, these sources are anonymous, and thus cannot be directly corroborated), one source seems fairly sure that Rockstar's relationship with Team Bondi is merely a one-and-done.

== TEASER ==

"It's pretty well reported now that the working conditions were bad. What hasn't been discussed yet (from what I've seen) is the relationship between Team Bondi and Rockstar. I've heard a lot about Rockstar's disdain for Team Bondi, and it has been made quite clear that they will not publish Team Bondi's next game. Team Bondi are trying to find another publisher for their next title, but the relationship with Rockstar has been badly damaged - Brendan treats L.A. Noire like a success due to his vision but I think Rockstar are the ones who saved the project. They continued to sink money into LA Noire, and their marketing was fantastic. Without their continued support, Team Bondi would have gone under several years ago."

"Rockstar also made a huge contribution to the development; their producers were increasingly influential over the last two years of the game's development, and overruled many of the insane decisions made by Team Bondi management. At a lower level, Rockstar also pitched in with programmers, animators, artists, QA, etc. Part of the conflict between Team Bondi and Rockstar was due to Rockstar's frustration with Team Bondi's direction, and eventually Team Bondi's management in turn resented Rockstar for taking lots of creative control. It's also worth pointing out that Rockstar used to be very keen on making Team Bondi something like 'Rockstar Sydney' - the more they worked with Team Bondi management, the more they came to understand that this was a terrible idea."

This is, unfortunately, one of those ugly situations that we will likely never know the entire truth of. It seems unlikely that McNamara will be giving any more interviews following this latest volley of criticism from former employees of his studio, and while the veracity of their claims seems legit, given the sheer number of different sources (and the at least halfway confirmation of several of the claims by McNamara), it seems even more unlikely that any of these developers will step forward and give their names, either out of fear of lawsuit or blacklisting within the industry.

While L.A. Noire is unquestionably a major critical success, and at least a moderate commercial success, we are sadly now left to ponder at precisely what cost that success came at.

Staff
Posted by Lokishot

wow crazy stuff.

Posted by Faramir82

I love L.A. Noire but the more that comes out about Team Bondi, it makes feel dirty for liking it.

Posted by sins_of_mosin

Bad name means bad PR for a long time.
Posted by Mathey

@Faramir82 said:

I love L.A. Noire but the more that comes out about Team Bondi, it makes feel dirty for liking it.

I'm right there with you.

So glad the game came out and was as good as it was...but, man, it sounds like making it was a horror show.

Online
Posted by The_Moorasaurus

@Faramir82: I feel the exact same way... :( i did about Red Dead too.

Unfortunately it's the kind of thing you always find out about too late, and if it comes out early, you never know whether to take it seriously enough to boycott a game.

Posted by TheSpartanDon

The plot thickens.

Edited by Spacetrucking

This is such a bummer. I was really looking forward to playing this game but knowing all the mess behind the scenes, I'm not sure if I'll enjoy it anymore. Maybe once all this drifts out of my immediate memory...

Also, Brandon McNamara doesn't seem like a very nice guy.

Online
Posted by mbkish

Wow, yeah this situation doesn't look good. I hope Rockstar does back away 100%. Thanks for the article Alex.

Posted by thegrue72

Just wanted to say that I love the word "untenable."

Posted by sirdesmond

To Team Bondi and Game Devs Everywhere: Take care of your employees. If you show them you are invested in their well-being, they will happily be involved in your game's well-being.

Also, this situation reminds me of the scenes in Pirates of Silicon Valley where Steve Jobs makes all those people work until they pass out at their desk (and then fires them for doing so, I think) while working on Lisa.

Posted by gothaggis

I'm a former game developer....we always worked long hours during crunch time and didn't get paid overtime...i don't know any game developers that get paid overtime as a matter of fact. this is common place in the industry, not limited to team bondi. the only way it will ever get fixed is for game developers to unionize, like it or not.

Posted by PlyrYaKA

I've heard horror stories like this from CGI companies, must be tough doing this work, I wouldn't want to

Posted by Raviyn

I dont get what the big deal is ?

Posted by Jolt92

I have given up all my dreams of working in the video game industry, not that I think that I would ever get good enough at coding for doing so, but one can dream and those working conditions are nothing I would like to partake in. I will not buy L.A. Noire.

Fuck those assholes. Something is seriously wrong when you don't pay your workers overtime.

Posted by sirdesmond

@gothaggis said:

the only way it will ever get fixed is for game developers to unionize, like it or not.

Or for some of this game development studios to grow a conscious and treat their employees well. You would think that this idea would be especially prevalent in the new-agey Web 2.0 world of video game companies (and I'm sure there are some that are great at this), but it seems like more and more companies want something for nothing out of their employees.

Posted by Mongoose

@Faramir82: This is kinda how I feel. It's a great game, no doubt. But this taints it, and it makes me feel somewhat mixed over my thoughts towards the game.

Should it affect my top 10 list? No. Will it? I don't know.

Posted by MattBodega

The idea of Rockstar finding the mangagement and working conditions at Team Bondi untenable is the most hilarious instance of the pot calling the kettle black.

Posted by eduardo

This is ridiculous. Seems like almost everyone forgot about those stories when Red Dead Redemption was still in development. Rockstar is just as guilty as this developer they're shunning away.

Posted by Ramboknife
@Raviyn:  Did you not read the article?...
Posted by hermes
@gothaggis: I am a developer too (not game developer, though), and while I agree crunch time is not uncommon, the part that is alarming is that the higher ranks treat it as something that can't be questioned, on the basis that can't be avoided... 
 I think the whole situation would be a lot less crappy if McNamara would do some mea culpa, instead of acting like he is entitled to push his people like that.
Posted by senor_evil

Unfortunately it's the way business is conducted mostly everywhere now.

Posted by skadave

Buy a used copy if you want to play this game.

Posted by astonish

Essentially these stories are the reason I don't program videogames for a living.

Posted by ryanwho
@skadave said:
Buy a used copy if you want to play this game.
Why? To insure the developers get screwed on residuals in addition to their bosses making them work overtime for free? Brilliant plan, sport.
Posted by jkuc316

 You really should have added this statement from Brendan McNamara

Every dog has its day and there's going to be hell to pay for this one. I'll never forget being treated like an absolute **** by these people.


Posted by Brendan

@gothaggis said:

I'm a former game developer....we always worked long hours during crunch time and didn't get paid overtime...i don't know any game developers that get paid overtime as a matter of fact. this is common place in the industry, not limited to team bondi. the only way it will ever get fixed is for game developers to unionize, like it or not.

The more I hear about the industry through, the more I feel like unionizing would kill it. It's such an inflexible structure in an industry where costly projects are such a huge risk and the particulars of a project are so flexible, I don't know. I feel like devs being stuck paying out certain amounts of money when they can't necessarily afford it would seriously harm games, when even now so many studios go under without it.

Posted by Hailinel

@Raviyn said:

I dont get what the big deal is ?

You mean aside from Team Bondi forcing its employees to work insane hours for years on end in order to satisfy the desires of executives that were apparently too incompetent to see the project to completion, necessitating Rockstar to come in and provide the direction necessary to both complete the game and save the Team Bondi staff from a Sisyphus-like Hell?

Posted by Nushi

I'm surprised that there has been no legal action, I work in a law firm in Australia, and this kindof evidence would be used to recoup pay, these practices are illegal and legal aid to pursue these unfair working conditions is something the government claims to take very seriously , I'm embarrassed this happens in my country, maybe it happens a lot around the world but there's no reason it shouldn't be stamped out.

Posted by Jeffsekai

Great article.

Posted by CrossTheAtlantic

The craziest part, to me, is that McNamara felt he could go to any single employee and tell them to change something or scrap something without relaying that to anyone else in charge. Structures exist for a reason and to circumvent them like that will undoubtedly result in a clusterfuck. 
 
The fact that Rockstar had to come in and put their own people to work on the project (even apparently fighting supposed-ridiculous design decisions on Bondi's part) does go a long way in explaining how a lot of the mechanics and world feel fractured and Rockstar-lite.

Posted by BeautifulSpaceCowboy

Great article, Alex.

Posted by Shuborno

I was holding off on buying and playing L.A. Noire until I had some time to do so, but this news makes me feel like I might not want to support this studio and game.

Posted by ballsnbayonets

maybe im the only one but besides the amazing graphics i did not enjoy playing LA noire.

Posted by bybeach

For ppl. excusing that this is business as usual, wrong. This is exactly why workers banded together decades ago, despite the contemporary political noise and their mouth pieces. Black listing does sound pretty horrible, you always try to steer clear of cunts who will potentially ruin your life and find a decent working situation, no matter what you do. Otherwise life turns into hell.

Posted by laserbolts

I like video games so regardless of how the developers were treated it won't sway me at all in purchasing a game.

Edited by natetodamax

Wow, some of the claims from the employees are just depressing. Apparently, there was no Lead Animator from January 2008 all the way to release date. A lot of information in that article is just messed up.

Posted by Vetterli

@Spatulalad said:

@Faramir82 said:

I love L.A. Noire but the more that comes out about Team Bondi, it makes feel dirty for liking it.

I'm right there with you.

So glad the game came out and was as good as it was...but, man, it sounds like making it was a horror show.

Agreed. I almost feel guilty playing it now.

Posted by forkboy
@sirdesmond: Yeah, you'd like to hope that would happen but at the end of the day it won't.  Companies, especially listed companies, exist to make money.  That often includes putting employees through the grinder.  We don't live in a fantasy world where all companies treat employees like they should.  The only way for employees to ensure they are treated fairly is to join a trade union that defends their rights.
Posted by Keen_12

If they've been mislead or lied to it seems like they should file some kind of class action lawsuit.

Unfortunately this is nothing new to the world of software development, if you think video games are bad try business software.

Posted by depecheload

I want to see Team Bondi refugees form their own company. They're first game could have a strong "pro-union" narrative.

Posted by leejunfan83

This doesn't sound all that serious everyday people put up with bullshit from their bosses and their jobs. I am not the least bit suprised to see the same things in the game industry making games is hard ass work I would know I've made one

Posted by Agent47
@Hailinel: Wow that was a pretty dumb answer.I guess that guy likes getting abused and taken advantage of?
Posted by Krampus

I love video games, but if people are treated like crap in order to make those games then I have to draw the line there.  Those are human beings with lives and families to take care of, for all the hard work they do they should be compensated rather than thrown in a pile of shit.  I know this isn't directly Rockstar but I was pissed when I found out about their crunch for Red Dead Redemption.  I loved the game but could have waited if it meant people were being treated humanely. 

Posted by CrossTheAtlantic
@forkboy said:
@sirdesmond: Yeah, you'd like to hope that would happen but at the end of the day it won't.  Companies, especially listed companies, exist to make money.  That often includes putting employees through the grinder.  We don't live in a fantasy world where all companies treat employees like they should.  The only way for employees to ensure they are treated fairly is to join a trade union that defends their rights.
It's also unfortunate that not every worker can do that. I'm an architect and the starting salaries/work conditions can be pretty terrible (the whole no overtime/long hours/sleepless nights/terrible boss stories here are pretty much par for the course in my industry as well). Sometime--in the 80's I think--back the NY chapter of the American Institute of Architects tried to start a union and help create a standard of pay/pricing and the state subpoenaed the entire chapter, accused them of illegal price fixing, and made them work for the city to pay off fines etc etc.  
 
It's tricky starting a union in an industry that doesn't already have a strong union presence, so I'd be interested to see how large companies like Activision would handle that. Does anyone know Australia's political attitude towards unions and workers rights?
Posted by Poki3

Sounds to me like the developers at Bondi should make a new studio with the help of Rockstar. Ditch the management.

Posted by MildMolasses
@sins_of_mosin

Bad name means bad PR for a long time.
Much like the Infinity Ward fiasco, I'm sure the vast majority of people who play these games will never hear about this. Most people probably don't visit games sites frequently, and when they do, they wouldn't read a story like this
Edited by Slaker117

The development scene seems kind of fucked right now for Australia. They must have other studios, but Bondi and Krome were the two I was aware of.

Posted by JackSheehan

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the games industry needs unionization. The idea that it is somehow permissible to treat your workers like absolute shit because this is a 'creative' industry is so unbelievably abhorrent. It's the same justification that employers have used for the last hundred and fifty years to resist unionization. Our industry is 'special', it's 'different', if you mess with it bad things will happen. Bullshit.  The argument that jobs would flee overseas doesn't hold muster either. Most countries have quite stringent union laws, the exception being America and to an extent, Australia.  
 
The very worst thing about this story is not the unpaid hours worked, the awful conditions, the borderline sociopathic management, but the pride that McNamara takes in all this. He sits there behind his thin excuse of being an 'auteur' and pretends that it's alright to treat human beings like disposable resources just because the end product is well received.  
 
The fact of the matter is that in most cases pertaining to worker's rights, employers can not be trusted to do the right thing by themselves. This is the entire reason unions exist. You'd better believe this kind of bullshit wouldn't happen if the industry was widely unionized.  
 
The final argument is always 'Well, if you do this, games will be more expensive/take longer to come out/ wont be as good.'  For a start, this is total speculation, and secondly, so what? Games are a hobby to me, I love and enjoy them but I'm not willing to see human misery caused in my name. It's not worth it.

Posted by Slaker117

@MildMolasses said:

@sins_of_mosin
Bad name means bad PR for a long time.
Much like the Infinity Ward fiasco, I'm sure the vast majority of people who play these games will never hear about this. Most people probably don't visit games sites frequently, and when they do, they wouldn't read a story like this

Most people buying the game probably don't care, but PR matters inside the industry too. Bondi is going to have a rough time finding publishers after this.

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