IGDA redux

So I hinted last time about my continuing disappointment with the IGDA, and promised a more complete write-up of why. It seems though, just to take the sting from my tail, they’ve chosen this month to do something useful. So that has cheered me somewhat. It doesn’t erase the failings of the past, but it at least gives me hope for the future. Here’s a summation of my last couple of years of impressions of the IGDA.

[EDIT: the original draft of this article did not mention the IGDA press release made a week after the Rockstar San Diego Gamasutra post mentioned. Thanks to Erin for pointing this out in the comments, it's definitely pertinent information, and in the IGDA's favour.]

Credibility Hit #1: Mike Capps and working hours

This was the incident which prompted my previous posts: a board member, who had become aware of the IGDA’s efforts to work towards more sensible working hours, and didn’t agree with those efforts. Now, fair enough, the best (indeed only) way to influence policy in an organisation like the IGDA is to get involved, and he’s forthright about why he joined though:

But yes, I’m familiar with that [IGDA QoL white paper]. In fact it’s one of the reasons that I joined the Board in the first place. Because when I ran for the Board it was right around the time of “EA spouse” hitting and there were certainly organizations that were not taking quality of life seriously. But I thought that the efforts of the IGDA SIG task force were really misguided.

His stance ran completely counter to what the IGDA had been campaigning for. When pressed, the IGDA had the choice of standing by their original position, or defending what Capps had said and done. They chose the latter, which to me invalidates all they’ve stood for. Worse, individual board members made statements which pretty much supported Capps’ views, although many of them were later retracted.

Credibility Hit #2: IGDA and Rockstar San Diego

A chance to redeem themselves came in early 2009, when the wives of various R* San Diego employees got together and threatened legal action against their husbands’ employer. Not the best of moves admittedly, but a move borne out of frustration and an inability to help their situation any other way. After a week, the IGDA posted a press release which nodded to the Gamasutra article, and re-iterated their position on QoL, without outrightly accusing R*SD of anything (understandably so). This I can’t disapprove of, although I felt it could have been far more critical, and should have called for R*SD to respond publicly to the accusations made against them.

However I was worried by the immediate response (on the day of the article) from the IGDA, in the comments, as represented by Erin Hoffman. In it she voiced vague moral support, followed quickly by claiming that things were better than they were 5 years ago, defending the IGDA against criticisms about its inaction, and seemed to be blaming the developers for not asking the IGDA nicely for help.

It is an inflammatory red herring to call attention to the IGDA in this case. I have sat on the IGDA’s Quality of Life committee since it was formed and the ECQC since 2005 and its formation. No one from Rockstar has ever once contacted either group, nor, to my knowledge, sought advice from the IGDA on this issue at all. I have individually spoken with multiple Rockstar San Diego developers over the years and have known that this was brewing, but until someone was willing to do something about it, there was nothing to be done from the outside.

The QoL SIG has achieved very little over the years, and it seems very much that it is content to sit and debate the issue, without taking any active steps. What role does it have, if not to act as an independent voice through which the development community as a whole can criticise the actions of studios who abuse their staff’s quality of life? They shouldn’t be waiting for permission.

If there’s even a hint that conditions like this exist at a studio, it’s time to make a carefully worded statement condemning such practices, and asking the studio in question to defend itself: either by debunking the accusation, or by coming clean and apologising for the way things are (and explaining what they intend to do to fix them). The IGDA is one of the few organisations in a position to bring these practices into the light, and by doing so help us start the conversations needed to fix them. I was cheered to see their statement in January about Kaos studios and a similar situation. This should be the norm, and I hope to see more of it in the future.

But at its heart, the IGDA’s position is inherently unclear. Are they representing the individuals, the staff, who develop games? Or are they representing the studios (a large chunk of the IGDA membership is from ‘studio’ memberships, where every developer at a studio is a member only because their studio is a member). When it comes to Quality of Life, those two groups are in tension, and in trying to represent both, the IGDA would represent neither.

Credibility Hit #3: Tim Langdell

More trouble on the IGDA board. A member who not only does not represent the games industry, but indeed is someone whom the games industry is actively ashamed of. Someone quite happy to use the fact that he was an ‘IGDA Board Member’ to bolster his own reputation. Elected in March 2009, eventually forced to resign in late August 2009. His underhand tactics and practices regarding abuse of tenuous trademarks have since been thoroughly exposed, documented, and now thanks to EA of all people, consigned to history. But I mention this here not for those reasons, but because even once the full extent of Tim Langdell’s business practices were exposed, the majority of the IGDA board not only condoned his actions, several of them even defended him. Much like the Capps affair, it seemed clear that the IGDA board would stick together, regardless of their members actions.

The resulting furore and outright uprising on the IGDA forums should have been ample indication to the board that they had royally pissed off their membership, and that they needed to do something. What they did, sadly, was to first ignore, then to suppress the discussion, by locking threads and deleting the increasingly shrill posts condemning their actions. Month after month, it dragged on. Those most passionate about the whole affair demanded that Langdell be removed from the board, but the board refused to do consider this, stating that the IGDA membership would have to raise a petition before they’d consider it. But, they wouldn’t consider the forum thread a petition, nor would they consent to actively poll their members on it. Eventually, those involved had to scrape the membership’s email addresses from the website just to solicit the membership opinion. Very quickly thereafter, the support for Langdell’s removal (or at least a proper vote on the matter) was irrefutable. Only then was the IGDA board even starting to acknowledge that Langdell’s position might be untenable.

Throughout this whole affair, I was flabbergasted by just how disconnected the board was from its membership. If this is how the IGDA as an organisation responds (or fails to respond) to a matter where their membership is clearly polarised, how can they be expected to reach a representative decision when the matter is less clear cut. As a democratic organisation, it is continually struggling to reach quorum on its votes, and as a result very little can be actioned. Even board membership elections fail to reach quorum, but by convention the board accepts the votes anyway (otherwise the whole thing would fall apart). So how it can claim to represent developers, I’m not entirely sure.

Website

Ironically, the mechanism by which the whole Tim Langdell debacle really kicked off: the forums, is also one of their most chronic failures. For several years, a new website had been promised, all bells and whistles, which was to transform the IGDA website and how the community interacted with each other. To say that the website, when it was finally delivered (late), failed to deliver would be an understatement. The old forums weren’t great, but at least it worked. The complaints about new forums are so bad, it’s no surprise that conversation has dropped off to a pitiful amount. Which I suppose is great for avoiding controversy and criticism by your members, but much less so if you want to maintain a thriving community which promotes communication amongst your membership.

Benefits

It would be remiss of me to write a post like this without talking about the up-sides to membership of the IGDA. For an ‘international’ game developers association, the benefits of membership are largely not that international. The biggest tangible benefit: health-care discount, is only applicable in the US. The discounts on conferences are mostly for US conferences, except for GDC Europe. There are discounts on books and they provide web resources though, which is very likely useful.

There certainly are useful SIGs as well: the Toolsmiths SIG is a gold-mine of knowledge, a great place to bring some very good and very experienced tools developers together to share knowledge.

But the biggest benefit of the IGDA in my eyes however has always been the social aspect. The local chapters are where the real value of the IGDA lies: getting game developers to come together, share knowledge, and get to know each other. That is why, for all the organisation’s flaws, I’m still happy to see efforts to restart the IGDA Scotland chapter. As a banner to rally under, it’s a pretty decent one – well known and easy to find.

The vast majority of usefulness I’ve seen come out of the IGDA has been voluntary work, done by chapter organisers for the benefit of their local community, not paid for by the membership dues. I want to know how I can support those people, not the IGDA. Absolutely, let’s get together and get involved: the more we work as a community the better we’ll be. But that doesn’t need to involve paying $48 dollars to a US-based organisation, for some intangible benefits. Especially when that organisation gains both cash and credibility by counting you as a member, but is not actively working in your best interests.

Some people think the IGDA’s day is past, and the declining membership is a sign that a new organisation is needed. I don’t agree. There’s a new crop of board members elected, that know fine well what has gone before. Some of them (like Darius Kazemi) have been open and honest about the organisation’s flaws, and are working hard to make things right. I want those people to succeed, and restore the IGDA to being something I am not only happy about, but would actively support. And in taking a stance against Amazon’s app store policies, it looks like they’re heading in the right direction. I look forward to the day when they sort out their work on Quality of Life in the games industry, and I can reconsider my stance.

3 Responses to “IGDA redux”

  1. ErinHoffman Says:

    Hi MrCranky. I appreciate reading your thoughts on the IGDA. Regarding Quality of Life, I would be curious as to what specific actions you would like to see from the organization to improve QoL for all game developers, whether regionally or internationally. I personally have been looking for actionable answers to this question for years.

    To speak specifically to the Rockstar San Diego case, I’m not sure if you were aware of the press release the IGDA issued, which was covered by the major industry news outlets (Gamasutra, etc) and was unequivocal: <> <>

    (The full release is still online here: http://www.igda.org/igda-regarding-overtime-concerns-rockstar-san-diego )

    I do not find that statement vague and would be surprised if you did. And it was actually quite a lot of work to get that statement issued. As you noted, the statement on THQ was even stronger — we are winning slow internal battles. Whether those statements alone can make change is a completely different matter. In the specific case of the Rockstar developers, I specifically assisted one in finding a lead to a new studio, and spoke with three others, asking what they would like the IGDA or anyone else to do to help them. Their answer was, very clearly at the time, nothing — and they had good reason. They were prepared to take legal action if certain commitments the company had made were not followed through on, and they had myself, the org, and others supporting them. There are certainly people involved with the studio that I never spoke with, and I do not now speak FOR any of them — but I do know that: 1) the IGDA’s response was fast, clear, and unquestionably against excessive overtime, and 2) close personal support was provided to the Rockstar developers and their families. To take further action when we had specifically spoken with the developers in question and been asked to wait would have been disrespectful and harmful.

    I wish that there were more that the IGDA, or I, could do to stop crunch. And we are open to hearing it from anyone who has specific action they want taken on its behalf.

  2. ErinHoffman Says:

    Whoops. Sorry for second comment. Blog ate my quotes from the statement:

    “In any studio, the IGDA finds the practice of undisclosed and constant overtime to be deceptive, exploitative, and ultimately harmful not only to developers but to their final product and the industry as a whole.”

    “As part of this mission, the IGDA published a landmark whitepaper on Quality of Life in the game industry in 2004, and it stands behind the paper’s conclusions. Specifically:
    * We assert, as has been well documented, that extensive overtime is not only ineffective from the point of view of productivity, but moreover is destructive of employee morale.
    * We believe that companies have an obligation to inform prospective employees of their overtime policies prior to their employment.
    * We believe it is unethical for studios to routinely rely on extended, uncompensated overtime in order to get their products out the door.
    * We believe that deathmarch hours injure the reputation of the entire game industry, preventing top talent from entering and remaining in game development. Excessive overtime destroys the talent upon which the game industry is founded and depends.
    * We further believe that studios engaging in excessive overtime injure studios that work rigorously to ensure quality of life for their developers.”

  3. MrCranky Says:

    Hi Erin, glad to hear from you. Thanks for the link to the IGDA press release, I must admit that it had slipped my recollection by the time I wrote this. I do believe I read the press release at the time, but had since forgotten. I apologise, and will amend this post accordingly so it doesn’t mislead. You are right in that that release is not vague; it fairly carefully avoids direct criticism of Rockstar San Diego, but I understand absolutely the reasons for that. It is good that IGDA responses are becoming stronger as well. I liked the white paper, it made very good points, and that’s why I was originally enthused about the IGDA’s work on the topic. But the white paper was a good start, and I’m more interested in how that work is continuing.

    In the post though I was specifically responding to your comment on the original Gamasutra article (http://bit.ly/7uOXRg). I’m sure it is frustrating for you to have your statements second-guessed as to their meaning, and if I have mis-interpreted them I do apologise. But the impression they gave to me was rather in line with the various QoL discussions I’ve observed on the IGDA forums around the time of Mike Capps’ and the controversial QoL panel: that while there’s consensus amongst the QoL SIG that ‘crunch is bad’, there’s no clear consensus on what the IGDA’s position should be about it, and when. Are you only to step in when asked by someone from the company? If developers “are willing to let this go on”, do you just abandon them to their fate? Hard questions, and I’m sure my answers would be different from the next person’s. Without clear answers to those questions however, I think it will be hard to action anything.

    Why was it a lot of work to get the R*SD statement issued? The statement doesn’t accuse R*SD of anything, it just points to a separate press release, and reiterates the IGDA’s stance as detailed in the white-paper. R*SD were free to refute the allegations if they wanted. If it’s hard to make a statement in such a clear-cut case, I can certainly understand why so few statements are made, but I’d like to understand why. Was it a disagreement on whether or not R*SD’s working conditions were ‘unacceptable’ and not just ‘bad’?

    I don’t think the SIG will ever come to an agreement on exactly what is ‘unacceptable crunch’, because I don’t think such a thing exists. If you try to hammer out such a definition, you will quickly be pulled to the lowest common denominator, which is of little use to anyone.

    My concern is that the SIG suffers from the same identity issue as the IGDA itself. Who does it represent? The individuals who are its members? Or the companies who make games? I don’t believe you can advocate effectively for both, not at the same time anyway. The individuals need the IGDA far more. They have very little power on their own. They shouldn’t have to ask for its help before it is given. In many cases, they can’t – they fear reprisal from their employers. Companies don’t need the IGDA. We have our own trade bodies and organisations. Even indie developers don’t need the IGDA, certainly not on QoL at least. But is the IGDA (at least the QoL part) prepared to say that they are unambiguously advocating on behalf of the individuals employed in game development? Or do they wish to represent both?

    Personally I think that the QoL SIG has the potential to be very influential, on behalf of the individuals of this industry. Its praise or condemnation carries weight. A simple press release, such as the ones you’ve issued, has the power to bring to light these poor working practices, and both encourage individuals to stand up for their own rights, as well as shame companies who abuse these shoddy working practices into improving their ways. The IGDA is one of the few organisations in a position to do anything. You have a voice which people listen to, and a very clear remit from your membership to use that voice to improve QoL issues. It doesn’t have to be a voice of criticism either, it just has to be clear and public, and ask the awkward questions that companies won’t, and the individuals can’t.

    In the end, it’s not down to the IGDA to ‘stop crunch’. It’s down to the companies and their employees to find a healthy balance. Right now, crunch happens, and it’s either not talked about, or worse, implicitly accepted as the status quo. In my opinion, the most actionable thing the IGDA can do is to bring these practices out into the light, and get people talking about them. Not in a vague, hand-wavy sort of way, but in a specific, you’re crunching and we’d like you to justify why sort of way. Don’t tell them to stop, just ask them publicly if they are crunching, and if so, why. If companies can justify their working practices then great. If they deny they happen, then either it’s not happening (great), or they are lying, and they can be exposed (in which case their employees and peers will judge them appropriately). But they won’t be able to work that way, and call it ‘standard business practice’ to their employees. I look forward to that discussion, and I think any employee or employer which values working co-operatively will too. But until an organisation like the IGDA calls those developers out and starts the conversation, crunch will continue to happen, in silence, and we’ll all suffer for it.


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