Where There’s Smoke: Team Bondi’s Sydney “sweat shop”

Wednesday, 6 July 2011 07:22 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Everyone’s talking about Team Bondi, but is the Sydney studio just one of a growing number of developers bedevilled by harsh working conditions?

The industry is abuzz after a pair of recent features blew whistles on what it was like to work at Team Bondi during the development of L.A. Noire.

The picture the sources paint, of a “sweat shop” graduate mill burning through cheap new talent for meagre and decreasing rewards, is grim indeed. So grim, the IGDA has launched an investigation into the claims.

But Team Bondi founder and lead Brendan McNamara seems to feel these specific grousings are rooted in local ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable working conditions.

“The expectation is slightly weird here, that you can do this stuff without killing yourself; well, you can’t, whether it’s in London or New York or wherever,” he told IGN.

“You’re competing against the best people in the world at what they do, and you just have to be prepared to do what you have to do to compete against those people. The expectation is slightly different.”

We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto

By basing his new studio in Australia, McNamara is certainly guilty of poor timing.

When Team Bondi opened in Sydney in 2003, the world was a very different place. Asked what he’d do differently if he could start all over again, McNamara answered:

“I think we’d think twice about Sydney, wouldn’t we?”

Until very recently, Australia gave little or no support to the games industry, but it’s not just the lack of tax breaks, although McNamara makes specific mention of that. Rockstar took over L.A. Noire’s funding after Sony bowed out in 2007; one year later, the world was suffering the throes of one of the worst recessions of the modern era.

In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, the Australian Government, banking on continued economic growth fuelled by the mining industry, guaranteed its dollar. The resulting investor behaviour has driven the Aussie dollar to record highs and held it there, making it one of the strongest major currencies in the world.

This is very bad news for international and multinational companies funding salaries in Australia, because the cost of paying those employees has skyrocketed. And as Australia is rapidly becoming one of the most expensive nations in the world in terms of cost of living, local developers find themselves unable to swallow reduced salaries.

Given how much more cheaply development can funded in other countries, the Australian games industry halved in size in just a few years.

Following the introduction of an incentives scheme, this situation may reverse, and it’d be nice to think the staff who served at Team Bondi may soon find themselves comfortably employed elsewhere.

Elsewhere

Unfortunately, developers are unlikely to escape unpleasant strictures any time soon. This certainly isn’t the first time claims of unfair industry conditions have been raised; in 2004, a similar story broke over conditions at EA-owned studios, headed by an anonymous blogger known as EA Spouse.

There have been a number of responses to the insider grumblings, but McNamara, among others, seem to suggest that the conditions at Team Bondi are largely par for the course. This school of thought is typified by comments from Michael Pachter. Apparently, the developers involved need to take a shot of cement and harden up.

“Disagree on Team Bondi work issue,” the analyst noted on Twitter.

“Devs know what they are getting into.”

“Devs know what they are getting into, it’s a creative job, not an assembly line; overtime inappropriate.”

But Development staff certainly seem to have some cause for complaint if and when their working conditions have negative impact on their lives and health, and fobbing it off as part and parcel of a “creative” industry seems unfair.

Beyond the celebrities of our industry, the Cliff Bleszinskis and Ken Levines, are thousand of other staff who receive no more attention than a name in a credits roll – if that.

These unnumbered, faceless masses of artists, programmers, managers et al rarely have the chance to dictate what they do with their working life. High profile designers and their core teams of leading staff – who no doubt work as hard as anybody – act creatively to craft unique experiences; for everyone else, there’s the slog to shade in the detail of somebody else’s vision.

Is the programmer working twelve hours days non-stop for weeks on end trying to solve a physics issue in an engine he or she has no say in the overarching structure of really pursuing a “creative” industry? Is a working artist piecing together asset models to someone else’s schematic really being “creative”? And if the answer is yes, is there enough satisfaction and glory in that to make up for working conditions meaner that those of a minimum wage earner?

By suggesting it is, Pachter – and many other voices raised in similar vein – is excusing some of the harsher realities common to the games industry: the long hours and demanding workloads studios suffer during “crunch time”, attempting to meet deadlines and milestones set by funding bodies.

Why would you even

Knowing that harsh conditions grind staff down, wasting veteran talent, why would any company choose to implement them? The usual reason: business.

Most of the companies funding games – publishers, mainly – are beholden to investors, and these investors demand profits. Big profits; breaking even is not enough, and nor is a small return on investment.

When a game sells five million units, it’s easy to look at the price tag on the front of the box, do some napkin math, and conclude that everybody’s getting extremely rich, and regular celebratory sessions on the growth of a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry do little to dispel this illusion.

But even a cursory familiarity with the industry quickly reveals the truth. Earlier this year Eurogamer ran an excellent breakdown of where the average UK gamer’s money goes, concluding that only 30 percent makes it as far as the publisher.

Even in some jet-pack clad future vision where games are piped directly to your home via entirely free services, eliminating that 70 percent currently spread over retailers, distributors, and taxes, that amount isn’t pure profit.

It’s easy to do some napkin math, and conclude that everybody’s getting extremely rich

To make any game, let alone a triple A with a chance to go blockbuster, publishers have to fork out salaries for an entire development team, not just while the game is actually being worked on, but right through the conceptualising process and post-release support.

Obviously, some games cost more than others – Dead Space 2, a massive, courageous investment in new IP, had up to 150 people on board, which is a very large team, for at least two years of development. With the average UK developer earning around £32,000, that’s a lot of money.

Then there’s licensing and platform holder fees, the numerous enormous incidental costs of running a large company, keeping everyone in reasonable workspaces. Add on to that the poor performance of failed games – which cost as much to make and produce no profit at all – and making a game becomes an incredibly expensive and risky proposition for the funding body. Is it any wonder companies try to cut corners wherever they can?

No wonder, but perhaps no excuse either. As far as Team Bondi goes, we should wait for the IGDA’s report, although it’s hard to resist the “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” argument. But in the wider industry, it seems clear some serious questions need to be asked about the sustainability – and humanity – of current business models.

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