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

Wednesday, 6th 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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23 Comments

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  1. Gekidami

    Everyone should just get a job at Insomniac Games. That place is awesome.

    #1 3 years ago
  2. osric90

    @1 Or Naughty Dog, they are located in the best place of the whole world. I hate them so much.

    #2 3 years ago
  3. humanfish

    Another quality read, well done Brenna. Your an asset to VG247 producing some interesting work, would be nice to read some ‘proper’ indepth articles from the others too.

    #3 3 years ago
  4. aleph31

    I regret having bought LA Noire. I’ll never buy something from Team Bondi again until McNamara leaves. This guy should receive public contempt and find no place again on the industry.

    #4 3 years ago
  5. BraveArse

    Another good read Brenna.

    It’s not just the games industry that does this, sad to say. I’m sure plenty of the VG247 journalistic crew will have experienced the “work for free or don’t work at all” phenomenon in their first few months to a year. Pat, you’d better be paying Johnny ;)

    I graduated in photography and came out of Uni to find getting paying work as a photographer’s assistant near impossible. The expectation was that your love for the medium and desire to get on was enough to make you work for free, regardless of the logistics of feeding yourself during that period.

    I’ve moved over to the tech industry over the last few years via graphic design ( long story ), and have had the pleasure of getting to know a number of ex-games devs who had had enough of those expectations. From the stories I’ve heard, while they may not have had quite such a brutal time of it as the Team Bondi lot, they certainly weren’t rewarded by the experience in any way. A job which I consider to be pretty humdrum by comparison, to them seems like a utopian dream. To my surprise, none of them say they would ever go back to it, quite the opposite in fact.

    So yeah, I reckon it’s endemic in the industry, it pretty much is in any creative industry with young grads trying to break in. But that doesn’t excuse it in the slightest. It’s no surprise that Pachter, who in this instance represents a body of people who profit from the status quo, would play it down either.

    #5 3 years ago
  6. Brenna Hillier

    Thanks guys. I’d also like to read more features from the other core news guys – I do a lot of them because I work the quietest shift, is all.

    I’ve heard Media Molecule is a pretty great team to work for, too.

    #6 3 years ago
  7. Johnny Cullen

    @5 – He still pays me 500 a month. When I say he pays me 500, I mean pennies, not pounds. I should quit.

    #7 3 years ago
  8. Christopher Jack

    Nice read Brenna.
    It’s not really fair for the people working at Team Bondi to be forced to work crunch time just because other developers are forced to. It’s likely to do with the lack of efficiency, maybe they should cut back in certain areas in order to hire more workers or smarter management could fix it.
    @7, No! We love you ;)

    #8 3 years ago
  9. viralshag

    Really glad I managed to drag myself into work early (as on time is even a struggle) and caught this article. Really good read. It’s interesting to think that there can’t be some way to better the conditions if they really do get that bad during crunch time.

    Maybe simply offering a few little luxuries when you’re doing a 12 hour day or something, anything. Just something to help ease the no doubt ridiculous pressure these guys are under.

    It would have only been made better with a cup of tea. Made by someone else.

    #9 3 years ago
  10. endgame

    “you just have to be prepared to do what you have to do to compete” what a f**king prick. should be hanged just because thinking like that. just like kotick. ppl like these r destroying the games industry. bobby already did that to the incredible IW team and now this guy is doing it to team bondi. sad. just sad.

    p.s. oh and, yeah. good article Brenna. :)

    #10 3 years ago
  11. GamezIdiot

    There’s a big difference between volunteering to work your ass off for personal reward and being forced to work your ass off for someone elses benefit. The games industry is full of the latter. Crunch time never benefits devs and is simply money for publishers because devs almost never see the gains. Good number of Team Bondi staff’s reward for working their arse off was to be burnt out, unable to work, jobless and struck from the credits of what they made.

    #11 3 years ago
  12. mathare92

    The sad part is everyone will have forgotten this in a few weeks, work conditions won’t change, McNamara and his ilk will keep heading up projects, and the games industry will keep chugging along. :(

    Great use of the top screenshot there by the way. Quite appropriate.

    #12 3 years ago
  13. aleph31

    @12: I just hope that young gamers willing to become developers in the future learn from these articles (as they will be much more receptive to this type of info than the average gamer), so the industry start lacking the batches of newcomers that know little about abusive practices and become easily exploited with the lure that you’re working in something “cool”. If your job target market is overcrowded, just move to some other place where your skills are better valued and remunerated.

    #13 3 years ago
  14. Brenna Hillier

    @12 when I found that screenshot the top of my head nearly fell off from grinning

    #14 3 years ago
  15. GamezIdiot

    @13 it’s staggering how many times the argument “just move” has been used. Most people can’t up and away, devs have families too you know?

    #15 3 years ago
  16. aleph31

    @15: yep I know, I had the same problem in my case. I meant “move to a different company or sector”, not a different city / state / country, sorry for the lack of accuracy.

    In any case, being exploited should be an immediate cause to fight to fix the situation or quit the job. I know it sounds easy and it’s way hard to implement -I have faced the situation, I fought and finally I quit. A generation of people hanging their heads in shame all the time has no future. People in power will lower and lower the wages and general conditions until people scream in fury.

    #16 3 years ago
  17. humanfish

    The problem is it happens in all kinds of jobs, the games industry certainly isn’t unique. My mate works for a large accountancy firm in London and often puts in weeks of 9am until 10/11/12pm. It is kind of expected of him- a) because he is paid pretty well; and b) if he wants to move up the ladder he needs to show he is an asset.

    #17 3 years ago
  18. LOLshock94

    where there is smoke there is fire

    #18 3 years ago
  19. loki

    Angry guy on the picture: “We don’t want PC port. We don’t want support torrent users. We want normal console support and respect. You greedy bastards!”

    #19 3 years ago
  20. KrazyKraut

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

    Ofc they dont. when someone is saying:
    “Folks, sit down and make a demo we can show the press in some weeks..”
    And the devs designers and what ever work like shit and at the end the management says:
    “Ehm…no we will not showing it/we dont need it anymore” its fucking ugly. for everyone.

    Or when the management says at a job interview:
    “Okay, 14 months to go…give everything you have”
    and the dev/designer signs the contract…and then after 16 months the staff hears again:”okay….12 months to go”

    you get fucked up by a choleric bastard and want to quit and then they say:
    “okay, you only will get paid your overtimes when you stay till the end of the project”

    How could you expect it?

    Awesome article Brenna…Andrew McMillen would be proud…or he is maybe.

    #20 3 years ago
  21. frostquake

    Good Job Brenna!

    Typical 1% (1-20) while the staff 99% (90-300) make very little.

    Their pay may Look great, but that is only working a normal 8 hour shift, when you start putting in 12-14 hour days, then your pay might even drop below minimum wage, especially if your putting in over time with no over time pay!

    How many times has a programmer, headed out the door, be stopped and asked a question that is only supposed to take 15 minutes and turns into 4 hour grind either at his station or someone Else’s.

    1% see money and get the staff pregnant, all the while going to parties, living it up, while 99% see a baby they want to birth, go through all the suffering and problems of developing a healthy baby, then birthing that baby, many times suffering from mental, physical, financial, marriage after effects! And once the baby is born, The Father or 1% divorce themselves from the Mother or 99% of the staff and leave the mother out in a dark alley to fend for herself, which many times she can’t!

    #21 3 years ago
  22. xino

    well written article

    #22 3 years ago
  23. DSB

    Work without pay really shouldn’t be possible.

    There’s a lot to be said for creative and high pressure jobs like that though. Working in a music studio for example, you’re 100% expected to stay 72 hours straight, and often more if you have to. It’s an industry for people who want it, not the people who just happen to like it.

    You might be working, eating or sleeping in the studio until you get to where you need to be, but it’s 100% understood by all involved. That’s the game. You’re spending peoples money, including your own by being there, and you need to earn it, and you need to show that you belong there. Otherwise there are another 50 hopefuls who’ll gladly outperform you.

    I don’t know how the games industry works in comparison, but I imagine that it’s like any other big league, talent and ambition is welcome, and everybody offering less than that is expendable.

    Obviously it’s important that you tell people what the job is going to be like, otherwise you end up with a clusterfuck, and every games developer should either consult his union or let a lawyer look over his contract before signing it. I would imagine most of them have had educations that prepared them for that sort of thing.

    #23 3 years ago