AAA Games: Think Ahab Only with Joysticks
Becca Gray / Jul 31st, 2012 No Comments
Though subjective, by definition an “AAA game” is a big-budget entity that’s been green-lit for supposed success. In layman’s terms, it’s a newborn Kennedy (or Kardashian… depending on the developer.) Holding in its fat, baby hands a megastar publisher and a staff the size of the ancient Roman army, an AAA title gets the important press at E3 and generally holds the public in a state of anticipation that varies from three years to the end of time. However, there seems to be a problem emerging, a crack in the side of the marble statue of gaming. Behind the facade of glory and brotherhood, the Game of the Year awards, and overall hoopla, the oldest rift in the books is occurring: the one between bourgeois and the proletariat, the head honcho and desk worker.
There’s no shortage of articles on the outright offensive working conditions of game developers who sign on to AAA titles. Blogs have been made by fed-up spouses, major lawsuits for unpaid overtime have been enacted, and on occasion, even employees have come forward to vent. Thus, the veil began to lift, revealing that, in essence, creative staffs are slave labor, with omittance from credit rolls and layoffs upon completion being some of the more egregious wrongs lobbied against them. So why hasn’t this issue become a prime-time discussion? Why isn’t reform being demanded? To parallel, let’s look at the mega-market conglomerate Walmart.
The “neighborhood” store has been and continues to be railed, utterly destroyed, for its supposed underhanded practices and employee exploitation (and allegations of overseas child labor) both in and out of the country, which is fair in a free-thinking society. The question though is why? Why jump on their backs at every turn and not another supplier? The pedestrian answer would be that Walmart doesn’t cater to everyone. Let’s be stereotypical for half a click (you know you want to) and say that Wally World’s target consumer is college kids with pizza box coffee tables and/or families who are living below the regional poverty line. This would make Walmart a niche market. If you drive a Benz, you don’t need to go there and probably don’t want to. However, video games reach everyone. That’s a part of their appeal: their universality. They cross all socio-economical lines the way a tap dancer crosses floorboards; Al Gore plays just the same as that twelve-year-old from Nowhere, Nebraska who dominated you on COD does. So what’s there to investigate? What’s to question? We’re having fun, aren’t we? Embarrassingly and personally speaking, I rarely think of the development staff who toiled while I’m playing a game; it’s only in a sandbox or a large-scale map—when I pause to focus on the details of the landscape—that I’m aware of their unseen hands, and this moment takes up (being generous) 2% of my gameplay. The other 98%, I’m immersed in a sea of story and sense stimulation. Why on earth would I stop to think that employees of a big-budget, AAA title sometimes work thirteen to fourteen hours days with few perks and the very real possibility of being laid-off from the studio in the end?
So, why would anyone willingly stay in such an environment? The reason, from my perspective, is simple supply and demand. Gaming is the freshest, hottest industry, and in turn, the market’s saturated. With the advent and promotion of new Ipad games and mobile apps, more colleges now offer digital media degrees, and as a result, more people try to break into the industry every year. This sets up studio leads and management with a nice view from their Bohemian, eco-chic penthouses while they sit on satin couches with Siamese cats purring gently beside them (okay, that’s a fairly hyperbolic…) But, honestly, why would they raise an old employee’s pay if they can hire somebody greener and cheaper? Why bend to the wishes of a disorganized mass of angry workers when there’s new blood chomping at the bit? These newbies are not unlike the immigrants who would come in to work during strikes in the Industrial Revolution, strikebreakers, and more often than not, that switch didn’t pan out so well for the workers who were demanding better treatment.
At the end of the day, it’s a choice to be a game developer. It’s a choice to take the job, to work the hours, and stay the course. In that regard, it’s hard to fall on one side or the other, to shout from the rafters, “This is appalling,” but the coin is two-sided, and here it does seem weighted in favor of the publishers and studio executives. There is abuse going on, and without some sort of organization or behemoth outcry, my guess is it’ll only get worse. The new motto of anything in today’s society tinges on quantity over quality. The more you sell, the more you make. You buy a $60 game, plus tax, (visualize whichever you’d like; I’m going with Mass Effect 3), beat it only to find disappointment and sadness wrapped in a swirl of text or a press junket that says, “Congrats, now buy some DLC,” and voila, the cycle begins anew. Who cares about the little guy’s satisfaction when the dollar signs come back in full force?
Are AAA game developing practices the wave of the future? Absolutely. How could they not be? The only thing slowing down the companies at the moment is an overabundance of product on the market, but that’s just a blip, something they’ll eke out in time. The real question is how much longer can they go before the employees—their backbone—have enough and demand change, maybe even a coup d’etat, perhaps?