Smith: The Underbelly of the Video Game Industry

As much as I love video games the industry that creates them is often an unscrupulous place, overflowing with con men in business suits who have one objective—make as much money for as little work possible.

The video game industry has grown up, making it a prime target for clueless money men.

Long operating in the shadows of niche entertainment ignored by most everyone except children and young adults, video game publishers have had free reign since Nolan Bushnell sold “Pong” to local bars. Back then, free reign meant long hours and a thriving drug culture.

The Atari headquarters was infamous for reeking of marijuana.

Now free reign means grinding down the will of programmers with impossibly long hours. And then some more long hours. Followed by an inevitable lay-off when the game is released.

Development studios defend themselves by pointing out most of those long hours come in the months before a game’s release, known in the industry as “crunch time.” It’s been the modus operandi for the industry since video games were invented. Even Steve Jobs encouraged an overworked, exhausted atmosphere.

As a spoiled teenager who hadn’t worked an honest day in his life, I would hear these stories and admire the developers for going the extra mile. I didn’t give second thought to the attention-starved families.

I know what work is now and am appalled by how major developers have exploited these talented programmers and artists for decades. Working at a big video game company is a dream job for most of them. If they don’t keep their mouth shut, 20 more work-starved programmers are ready to take their place.

According to a 2016 study from the International Game Developers Association, 38 percent of developers work unpaid overtime. While crunch time isn’t always a failure of management, it’s worth noting the magnitude of the crunch period seems to be unmatched in other software fields.


Heard but not seen

Video game exploitation extends well beyond making game programmers miserable. Video game voice actors, represented by Hollywood’s biggest acting union, just came off an 11-month strike. Screen actors get residuals for movies sold, but video game actors did not.

The strike put a welcome spotlight on a niche industry that is finally being dragged into the spotlight. Video game publishers will argue unpaid overtime is necessary to make a game profitable. They argue gambling mechanics in their games (loot boxes) are necessary to keep the studio afloat.

If video game publishers can’t make money, maybe they should get into another business. Instead of guilting gamers into the unwanted subsidy of microtransactions, make something that’s worth $60 or more. Something so good that gamers will be aching to open their wallets.

But that takes time, money and creativity—three big “no-no” words for corporations. Companies like Electronic Arts and Warner Bros. are happy to ride the microtransaction bubble until it pops, cutting development costs and exploiting workers while charging twice the money for boring, barely functional games.

I can only hope that when the bubble does pop, it will take some of these bloated publishers with it.

Will Smith is a reporter for The Hawk Eye—a GateHouse Media Company—in Burlington, Iowa. His weekly column is printed in the Sunday edition of The Hawk Eye.