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#1 Posted by Haz (420 posts) -

USGamer has a great article up about the crunch culture at NetherRealm Studios, which came out as a result of the Polygon article about Fortnite.

Last week, just as NetherRealm Studios celebrated the release of Mortal Kombat 11, ex-contractors at the company shared stories on social media with startling allegations of crunch and stressful workplace conditions; particularly for contracted employees. Our investigation into the allegations has revealed a long-running culture at NetherRealm that has taken advantage of a contracted workforce, enabled by a full-time staff and management team that are still currently working at the studio.

The writer, Matt Kim, spoke to former contractor members who worked on Mortal Kombat 9, 10 and Injustice 2. A lot of these contractors were recent graduates from Chicago who were looking to start their careers in the industry.

Our sources confirmed they worked for $12 an hour while working contract at NetherRealm. For context, the minimum wage in Chicago is currently $12 an hour, but only after a minimum wage hike that took effect on July 2018. Multiple sources also told USG that NetherRealm would offer $11 per hour wages for the art team.

"I can share that everything Beck Hallstedt has said is absolutely true," said another anonymous source who contracted at NetherRealm. "[Ed Boon, creative director at NetherRealm Studios,] kind of brags, 'I don't ever fire my full-time employees.'" But two sources feel the statement is hypocritical.

"[Boon would] claim to be fortunate to never be forced to lay off people but ended contracts of dozens of people on a regular basis due to the system despite that," said one former contractor. "People never get hired," another said bluntly. LinkedIn currently lists a little over 200 employees as working at NetherRealm, but because the studio hasn't released any internal data it's difficult to parse who is full-time versus who is a contractor.

"It was the first time any of us were working on a triple-A game," said a former contractor who spoke with USG. "We all had hopes of getting hired after our contract were up," said another former contractor. "Spoilers: none of us got hired immediately after our contracts were up."

The desperation to earn a full-time position at NetherRealm, essentially a protected status, was repeatedly dangled in front of young, hungry developers. Leads would tell contractors of openings at NetherRealm "in the 'near future' and to 'keep working, you're doing great!'"

There's a lot more in the US Gamer link. Jeff mentioned this on the Bomb Cast this week but I'm sure we'll hear more of these stories as this is likely just the beginning. The hardest part for me as a consumer is trying to determine the best course of action. Boycotting these games isn't really fair because a lot of people put so much time and work into these games. On the other hand if these games end up as huge commercial successes, that might also make management focus more on what they're doing currently instead of bettering themselves.

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#2 Posted by FLStyle (6633 posts) -

I'm disappointed but not surprised to be reading this, hopefully the more companies are reported on the more likely there will be change.

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#3 Posted by soulcake (2753 posts) -

This may sound bad but it's kinda the business these days you get a contract you complete it you get a other "gig". 12 bucks isn't enough but at least you get a experience you can put on your CV in the hopes you get hired full-time in a other studio. I am betting most of the big studios work this way to get there game shipped at the correct time they hire a bunch of contractors to do the heavy lifting at a short period and dump them afterwards.

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#4 Posted by nutter (2110 posts) -

I’ll read the article when I have more time, but based on what’s in the first post, that just sounds like business.

Contracting can get you lots of experience, contacts, and money. You need to pick your shots, though. If you come in at $12/hour, having no experience (I’m assuming no experience), it shouldn’t surprise you to be treated like a more disposable hand.

The employment market is crazy right now. Jobs for days. Is the video game industry over-crowded? We throw all sorts of stuff at kids, these days. The economy is sizzling and it’s a seller’s market.

The Epic story was some bullshit, but it’s understandable that a company that grew so much would struggle to manage demand and staff.

The Bioware story was a lot rougher. I didn’t really see any excuse for that.

This one just sounds like contracting work. I’m kinda shocked folks agreed to work for such little money, though I’m not super up-to-speed on conditions in video game development, specifically. I guess I’ve heard your much better off writing business apps, which stands to reason.

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#5 Posted by notnert427 (2207 posts) -

I legitimately hope all these articles lead to some industry changes because it sounds like a bunch of awful shit goes on in game development, but I have to admit, I've only got so much empathy. It sure seems like a bunch of outlets are bandwagoning on this "bad culture" narrative to paint themselves as intrepid champions of the proletariat, and I'm growing increasingly weary of it.

The devil's advocate in me can't help but consider that any company of relative size that's been around for a while is going to have a few disgruntled former employees happy to badmouth the place. The idea of "fired employees not liking the company that fired them" sure as hell isn't some shocking revelation that undeniably proves corporate wrongdoing, but it really feels like we're all supposed to just accept whatever stories they can dig up from folks who may simply have an axe to grind.

It's a lose-lose, guilty-until-proven-innocent proposition for these companies. Anonymous disgruntled former employees get to tee off on them for these articles, and really their only possible response is a broad denial crafted by their legal team that is pretty much dismissed by everyone regardless of its veracity. It's not like they can just slander former employees even if they were deservedly let go, and that's if they can even figure out who these unnamed sources are.

Contract labor is inherently kind of shitty and I get that a lot of companies exploit it, but companies also aren't somehow obligated to re-sign/promote each individual contractor. Also, this shit works both ways. Unless a company is actively expanding, the only way to create a full-time position is to show someone currently in one the door. I'm highly doubting the contractors who wanted and didn't get a full-time position would be shedding tears for the person they replaced if they had.

If I'm a contract laborer in a contract that's nearing its end, I'd have a backup plan in place no matter what. I'm leveraging the experience at company x to secure potential employment at company y. That's the name of the contract game. Loyalty doesn't exist in that world and shouldn't be expected from either side, and assuming you'll definitely get promoted is fairly asinine.

I don't know what actually went on at these places (and frankly, neither do the authors of these "exposes"), but I'm taking all this stuff with a grain of salt. Out of sheer self-interest, even shitty corporations aren't generally keen on ridding themselves of amazing/talented employees just to "stick it to the little guy" or some shit. I can't help but wonder how many "former employees" in these cases are just wanting to point the finger somewhere other than the mirror.

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#6 Posted by zombie2011 (5595 posts) -

I'm a project manager and often hire contractors when project demands ramp up.

Everything in the first post is just business, you are a contractor, and you shouldn't feel you earned a full-time job just because you worked your full contract. We also boasts about not having to layoff people during downturns during full time interviews due to us being able to cut contract work and take care of our full time employees. Honestly if you don't like it don't apply or accept contract jobs, if you don't like the $12/hr you signed up for...don't accept the job.

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#7 Posted by hippie_genocide (2434 posts) -

It's wrong if they dangled a full-time position when they never actually intended to hire any of them, but beyond that a contractor should have no expectation of full-time employment at the end of their contract. $12/hr is definitely not enough, especially when you're not receiving any benefits, but don't take the job.

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#8 Edited by Haz (420 posts) -

I understand that what I mentioned in the OP is typical of contractor work and that full time employment is never guaranteed. However, people being mislead into thinking they will obtain a permanent role and that the company has openings for them is terrible.

The wages are terrible, but the article also mentioned that the area where NetherRealm Studios is located does not have a lot of opportunities for the video game industry, so choices are limited. I'm not from Chicago so I have no idea if this is true or not, but if your options are limited and you are looking to get your foot into the door, then that might be something that would persuade you to take the role even at a lower wage.

The article also mentions poor working environments and work culture. I've pulled some more quotes below but like I said in the OP there's more in the article.

"Most of QA is temp, that's about 40-50 people on console and mobile QA onsite at NetherRealm. Then you have about 15 or so modelers, animators, designers. I'm just ball parking numbers, but the number of temporary workers at that studio is high and competition is fierce." Another source said that the "lowest tier of contractor employees were put in the same windowless room," a box-like, renovated garage that was often filled to the brim with temp workers.

...

Some full-time employees were allegedly part of cliques at NetherRealm and they would sometimes mock contractors behind their backs. "They were called nicknames behind their backs and they were very inappropriate, especially for women. A lot of the nicknames for women were really perverted and disgusting." Other sources say they've only heard of the nicknames second hand.

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#9 Edited by Wolfstein_3D (289 posts) -

Can someone enlighten me how we can be in 2019 and game devs still didn't unionize? That's not hyperbole I honestly don't understand it.

It's the same stories over and over again independent of success - after the latest stories coming out of Bioware and Epic you could argue the contrary - the bigger the companies (and consequently the projects), the more people suffer from unacceptable working conditions.

Game development which probably has a higher than average rate of workers with a strong enthusiastic background to the industry seem only more prone to exploitative treatment.

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#10 Edited by notnert427 (2207 posts) -

@haz said:

I understand that what I mentioned in the OP seems like typical for contract work - especially not being guaranteed a full time position afterward. However, people being mislead into thinking they will obtain a permanent role and that the company has openings for them is terrible. The article also mentions poor working environments and work culture. I've pulled some more quotes below but like I said in the OP there's more in the article.

"Most of QA is temp, that's about 40-50 people on console and mobile QA onsite at NetherRealm. Then you have about 15 or so modelers, animators, designers. I'm just ball parking numbers, but the number of temporary workers at that studio is high and competition is fierce." Another source said that the "lowest tier of contractor employees were put in the same windowless room," a box-like, renovated garage that was often filled to the brim with temp workers.

...

What's more, the hierarchy of management and full-time employees at the top versus the lack of power from contractors was baked into the company culture. When asked whether there was a feeling full-time employees knew about the power they held over contractors, a source told USG, "Definitely. They would definitely take advantage of it. I know full-time employees that would take extra long lunches and told contractors when they could take their lunch, or when they could take their break. They would micromanage us." A source said working as a contractor was "kind of a popularity contest."

...

Some full-time employees were allegedly part of cliques at NetherRealm and they would sometimes mock contractors behind their backs. "They were called nicknames behind their backs and they were very inappropriate, especially for women. A lot of the nicknames for women were really perverted and disgusting." Other sources say they've only heard of the nicknames second hand.

FWIW, I read the article. I'll address these other quotes:

In what company do temps get cushy offices from the outset? I recall somehow surviving a few years of a windowless cubicle when I was first hired on, and this was for a full-time gig. Also, a company is free to hire as many temps as it wants. Expecting people to compete for promotions isn't unfair, and apparently they have 50ish temps out of over 200 employees, which isn't that ridiculous.

The way even these "former employees" talk longingly about the full-time positions makes me think they'd happily have similarly considered themselves "above" the contract labor the moment they got promoted and then been the tormentors themselves. It's the fraternity mindset. Humans are shitty and many will happy look down on others given the opportunity. It's like the smug faces in first-class on an airplane. Also, if someone I don't actually report to is trying to boss me around, I'm bringing that to my actual boss immediately.

Cliques? Oh, the humanity. That is literally a part of every society ever. It's how people interact. As for the inappropriate comments, it sounds like these may or may not have even happened. Nothing about how that's written indicates much actual substance behind this claim beyond gossip. This should have either been more substantiated in their investigation or excluded from the article entirely, but it "sounds" juicy, which is probably exactly why it was tacked on.

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#11 Posted by nutter (2110 posts) -

@notnert427: Pfft...I’m a 17 year tech vet and I make a very healthy salary. I’m with a very large, very successful

company.

I have a desk (not an office, not a cube, not a wall in sight) with no windows. It’s not exactly a hardship.

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#12 Posted by nutter (2110 posts) -

@notnert427: I also read the snippets and immediately thought “are these guys out for those Kotaku/Polygon clicks?”

I’ll read more tonight, but this just sounds like contract work.

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#13 Posted by Nodima (2602 posts) -

I agree with the heirarchy posted above: Mass Effect (and Anthem) was an inexcusable mess, Fortnite was a seriously unfortunate situation with a lot of spiritual casualties on both sides I would imagine/hope and this...this is just how capitalism works sometimes. I always post from the position of being a service industry worker, in which the concept of "crunch" appears at random and entirely out of both management and staff control. In some ways, every night is a potential "Fortnite has 100 million players today!" scenario waiting to happen, and you just have to deal with it.

I do think game devs should unionize, as should computer graphics / application developers, and restaurant workers more broadly. The way this economy is going, it seems more and more people are being excluded from the benefits and protections that make America such an ideal country to be an employee in - more and more sectors of low- to mid-level workers are seemingly exploited by a system that refused to accept or even acknowledge the changes in cost of living, cost of healthcare and so on.

But I do worry that as a news audience we risk skewing too far towards fetishizing this kind of reporting, or that the scant number of games press left who work under corporations within limited staffs and receive general benefit packages won't remember what it was like to be young, impressionable and wanting of experience. I admit myself I was ready for another piercing story of employer greed and employee regret; I'm the sort of person that sympathizes with Bryce Harper and Manny Machado when they only get $300 million contracts instead of $450 million contracts! Great labor begets great compensation, and I will never see eye to eye with anyone who argues less.

But sometimes a job sucks, and that's why you look for another one.

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#14 Edited by notnert427 (2207 posts) -

@nutter said:@notnert427: Pfft...I’m a 17 year tech vet and I make a very healthy salary. I’m with a very large, very successful

company.

I have a desk (not an office, not a cube, not a wall in sight) with no windows. It’s not exactly a hardship.

No argument here. The more I read the complaints from entry-level game industry devs, the more I'm convinced that a large part of the problem is that a significant portion of these workers appear to be soft, entitled, and naive. I'm getting the sense that very few, if any of them took issue with much of anything or reported any of this up the chain of command during their employment. I know; they were "scared of losing their jobs". At a certain point, though, inaction tacitly condones the environment, so these people trashing the company after the fact for things they tolerated while there is pretty weak.

I further wonder if there's something to be gleaned from the very attitude of being willing to let fear dictate their actions. In my experience, people afraid to make waves don't generally rocket up the hierarchy, whereas someone willing to stand up for themselves and/or what's right sets themselves apart by showing initiative/leadership and maybe does get hired on full-time the way these people didn't.

These "former employees" apparently expected a day one window office of their own as a temp and for the company to force out a current full-time employee to promote them when their contract was up, apparently looked around at 50ish people vying for few openings and acted surprised when there was competition, and apparently kept their head down when they arguably shouldn't have and then were just shocked when they didn't stand out from everyone else to make the cut for promotion to full-time.

By all means, though, let's pile on the evil corporation.

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#15 Edited by Seikenfreak (1522 posts) -

Didn't read the article but going off the quoted stuff in the original post.. As others have said, this sounds like business to me. Sounds like these up-and-comers are also a bit naive, which is natural.

The alternative is that they hire a bunch of people full time and then lay them off at the end? Companies already do that and they have been getting grilled about it for some years now.

I love games and I've never wanted to make them, in the traditional sense, because this is how the business works. The work doesn't sound fun, IMO. And employee demand rises and falls with a games production and release.

Sounds like working on games sucks. But playing them and talking about them is amazing and is why Giant Bomb is a dream job (even though I'm sure there is lots of behind the scenes shit that sucks)

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#16 Edited by DasaKamov (1110 posts) -

@notnert427: Why pile on the evil corporation when we can shake our fists and grumble "why, back in my day" and blame "those durn millenials" for being "soft" and "naive", eh?

Saying "no one should complain about being treated like shit, because they've always been treated like shit" doesn't excuse toxic culture. Saying "I was treated like shit back when I worked in the industry, so everyone else who comes after me should be treated like shit, also" has never helped a single human being on this planet. And having these contract employees saying "we're speaking out now because this industry culture can't continue forever, and we want to make it better" will harm absolutely nobody.

Conspiracy theories aside, there's nothing to gain from several disparate people to get together and fabricate stories about a former employer *that they no longer work for*. No one's going to sign some exclusive book or movie deal over "what went on over at this video game studio", and the whistleblowers are employed elsewhere, so they aren't going to be approached by some studio rival looking to head-hunt disgruntled employees.

Aside from criticisms about crunch-culture and misleading/lying to contracters, don't forget that there are also serious allegations of sexual harassment, abusive mis-management and self-serving power-plays by management and executives at NRS (mentioned on this site in the Comments section of Switch's Mortal Kombat version). Even if those allegations didn't exist, there are enough stories of running studio employees into the ground to realize that the environment needs to change *now*.

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#17 Posted by nutter (2110 posts) -

Read it. It’s pretty much a nothing burger outside of one heated meeting. For the record, the only time I’ve had to deal with leaked internal data, it’s been contractors. I’m not saying “it’s always contractors,” just that in my experience...it’s always been contractors...

The “boys club” harassment of women needs to stop, though. I don’t notice nearly as much of this as I used to, but it was always shitty behavior that I’d challenge people on.

For the record, I found the Epic and Telltale situations unfortunate, but understandable. I’m not sure how you’d realistically fix those situations. You could Monday morning quarterback all day, but those are rough spots to be in.

I thought the Bioware story sounded both disgraceful and entirely avoidable.

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#18 Posted by nutter (2110 posts) -

@wolfstein_3d: Enthusiasm is easy to exploit. I’m not saying it’s good, right, just, or fair, but it’s fact.

The kids quoted in this article clearly REALLY want(ed) to be in the games industry. You can pay them less and treat them worse and demand they thank you for it, as a result.

That aspect is shitty, but it’s kinda part of an employment package, to an extent. It’s like demanding more pay because the office is in a super inconvenient place. If they know you’re dying to be there, they know you’ll put up with some shit.

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#19 Edited by notnert427 (2207 posts) -
@dasakamov said:

@notnert427: Why pile on the evil corporation when we can shake our fists and grumble "why, back in my day" and blame "those durn millenials" for being "soft" and "naive", eh?

Saying "no one should complain about being treated like shit, because they've always been treated like shit" doesn't excuse toxic culture. Saying "I was treated like shit back when I worked in the industry, so everyone else who comes after me should be treated like shit, also" has never helped a single human being on this planet. And having these contract employees saying "we're speaking out now because this industry culture can't continue forever, and we want to make it better" will harm absolutely nobody.

Conspiracy theories aside, there's nothing to gain from several disparate people to get together and fabricate stories about a former employer *that they no longer work for*. No one's going to sign some exclusive book or movie deal over "what went on over at this video game studio", and the whistleblowers are employed elsewhere, so they aren't going to be approached by some studio rival looking to head-hunt disgruntled employees.

Aside from criticisms about crunch-culture and misleading/lying to contracters, don't forget that there are also serious allegations of sexual harassment, abusive mis-management and self-serving power-plays by management and executives at NRS (mentioned on this site in the Comments section of Switch's Mortal Kombat version). Even if those allegations didn't exist, there are enough stories of running studio employees into the ground to realize that the environment needs to change *now*.

I'm 34. I didn't say a thing about millennials. I simply observed that some of the complaints made by the former employees seem a little soft and naive because they do. I didn't say no one should complain about being treated like shit or anything even close to that effect. You've constructed one hell of a strawman here.

I haven't worked in the industry. I consider myself fortunate to have a good job at a company that generally treats its people well. However, my job like most is less than perfect at times. I deal with the adversity when it crops up, and speak up on the rare occasion that I take issue with treatment of myself or others.

These people publicly trashing their former employer absolutely does harm. Especially when the company has virtually no recourse and just has to take a massive PR hit, regardless of whether this stuff is accurate or not.

It's not a conspiracy theory to consider that individuals may well have ill will towards a company where their job didn't pan out like they hoped, and naturally may prefer to tell a tale that blames everyone else and excuses their own role in things not working out.

I'm not sure I'd term any of this whistleblowing, either. That term is usually reserved for people who speak up at their own company while they're there, not people taking shots at a company after the fact.

The sexual harassment stuff here seems dubious at best, and isn't really substantiated in this article. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn't, but a few throwaway lines about what amounts to hearsay and admittedly unresearched secondhand rumors doesn't fly there.

The statement I kept looking for in this article was "I reported this to my superiors, and nothing came of it." The supposed harassment/mistreatment seems to also have come from mostly the full-time employees whose jobs these folks also just happened to clearly covet.

As far as I can tell from this article, none of these people made a peep until their career there went south, which raises an eyebrow from me. I'm not going to claim to know if working there is actually a hellscape or not, but the full-timers are apparently not leaving, which leads me to wonder if it's actually fine there and this is just sour grapes from a handful of disgruntled folks who couldn't hack it and don't want to admit it.

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#20 Posted by Justin258 (15647 posts) -

@soulcake said:

This may sound bad but it's kinda the business these days you get a contract you complete it you get a other "gig". 12 bucks isn't enough but at least you get a experience you can put on your CV in the hopes you get hired full-time in a other studio. I am betting most of the big studios work this way to get there game shipped at the correct time they hire a bunch of contractors to do the heavy lifting at a short period and dump them afterwards.

"Experience" is bullshit. I have a stable job, but if I were some kind of artist or were working towards the completion of some kind of entertainment product, I wouldn't accept "experience" as all or even part of my pay. Experience doesn't put food on the table or keep the roof over my head. This isn't a humane way to treat the people that make your AAA video games possible.

...but also, that's why I have a stable job and why I'm not terribly motivated to make video games. Pretty much the only way this will change is if a massive number of video game developers coordinate and unionize, and even then I don't know if it will actually change.

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#21 Edited by ripelivejam (13162 posts) -

I like Netherrealms, I like their games a lot. I bought their latest because I'm still going to support their hard work. But yeah, this needs to change. Even if we need to wait 3+ years between games. Rather that than employee burnout and them bleeding all their talent. I don't think staff at Netherrealms is blameless but I also put a lot of this on WB.

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#22 Posted by BladeOfCreation (1309 posts) -

So some of the arguments here are essentially "contractors don't deserve a living wage because they aren't employees."

Fuck that. That just means the nature of contracting is fucked up. If you work, you deserve to a living wage.