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Smith: The Underbelly of the Video Game Industry

Video games

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. 

Smith: The Underbelly of the Video Game Industry | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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