How Making Video Games Became a No-Win Situation – The Nation

In May 2012, the video game company headed up by former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling shut down. 38 Studios had only just relocated from Massachusetts to Rhode Island thanks to a $75 million loan brokered by then-Governor Don Carcieri, a Republican, who hoped to transform the state into an East Coast Silicon Valley. The company expanded rapidly to meet the terms of the deal, co-launching the fantasy role-playing game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning while lining up the release of its own ambitious online RPG, code-named Copernicus. But the money ran dry, and at the time of its demise, Schilling’s studio listed an eye-watering $150 million in debt, $22 million in assets, and $320 in petty cash. Its nearly 400 employees were fired abruptly over e-mail, unable to claim their last paycheck.

This story, a staggering example of corporate greed, government negligence, and misguided hubris, takes center stage in the most compelling chapter of journalist Jason Schreier’s Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry. Building on his 2017 book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, the former news editor of the video game site Kotaku, now a video game reporter at Bloomberg, tasks himself with understanding why the industry is subject to such precarious conditions, often at companies seemingly more competently run than Schilling’s.

Talking to the workers impacted by mass layoffs at defunct studios—including Visceral, maker of the acclaimed Dead Space horror series, and Ensemble, whose Age of Empires franchise captivated audiences in the late 1990s and early 2000s—Schreier shows how a cycle of boom and bust became a regular feature of mainstream game development. But in addition to financial mismanagement—often driven by capricious executives considering little more than company stock prices—he drills down into the industry’s working conditions. Schreier introduces us to workers who regularly work 80-hour weeks, often directed by egocentric creative directors liable to scrap months of work in an instant, as well as independent developers such as Dodge Roll grinding on their own passion projects. Writing before the pandemic (which has ballooned gaming’s popularity further), he notes the bitter irony of the industry’s seemingly “astronomical” success and the contingent and volatile conditions many of its workers continue to endure.

And yet Press Reset is an account limited by both time and space. Schreier is mostly concerned with America in the 2010s, a period that saw the major video game companies tighten their belts. Video Game Layoffs, a website set up by VFX artist John Emerson, keeps track of the situation: Since January 2021, an estimated 321 people have lost their jobs, mostly under the callous management-speak of “restructuring.” This includes 190 employees at Activision Blizzard, currently being sued by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing for “numerous complaints about unlawful harassment, discrimination, and retaliation” at the company. But the site, which lists recent major layoffs in China and the Philippines, makes clear that this is a global phenomenon. It is also an unsurprising state for an industry that has tended to prioritize profits over people, one established alongside the rise of commercial technology in the 1970s and ’80s. To solve this problem, which Schreier himself has some ideas for, the industry will almost certainly have to look beyond the logic of boom and bust.


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