Friday, June 26, 2009

Video Games -- Non-Union Frontier

Over the years we've gotten calls from disgruntled animators, technical directors and designers at video games studios.  For some reason, these folks have been disgruntled by the long hours that chop the dollars of their weekly paychecks into small pieces when tabulated on an hourly basis.

But the game industry, even though it uses a lot of the same skill-sets and technologies as the cartoon biz, has been a tough nut for union organizers to crack -- not just for TAG but other unions as well.  Our experience has been meetings followed by management getting wind of the discontent, and then ... no more meetings or rep cards.  Even SAG hasn't achieved much leverage over the games industry.  The actors have some contracts, but they are paltry.

Aside from that, it turns out that the video games industry is a lot like the movie business. Big cash flow overall, but a lot of misses along with the game console blockbusters:

The phrase "hits driven business" gets thrown around a lot these days, but in the case of video games it really is true ... [A]ccording to Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR) – as reported by Forbes – roughly 20 percent of video games that make it to market are actually profitable. To think that 80 percent of video games only break even or lose money for publishers is somewhat alarming ...

Games are pretty much like movies in the ratio of successes to failures, kissing cousins in fact. Which maybe explains why movie companies buy them. .

Warner Bros. has emerged as the only bidder for Midway Games, all but assuring that it will take control of the bankrupt publisher previously owned by Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone and become a major force in the video game industry

... Redstone, who took control of Midway in 2004, was never able to bring the troubled company to profitability. He sold it at a huge loss to a private investor last November in exchange for a $700-million tax write-off that has since led to a lawsuit from the publisher's creditors ...

Cynics might say: "Of course games are tough to organize now. The business isn't as healthy as it was a couple of years ago ..." but in my experience the health of a company isn't what gets it to sign a union contract. Leverage is.


Movie and cartoon studios signed union contracts in the late thirties and early forties when the depression was still dragging pocketbooks down and corporate profit margins were minimal. But union-friendly labor laws had recently been passed in Washington and film workers were motivated. to change the status quo.

When games employees get to a place where they desire to organize their workplace ... and corporations' power is trimmed back (like, people don't fear for their jobs when the sign a union representation card) ... we might see more Midways and Electronic Arts coming under labor agreements.

In the meantime, the Warners, News Corps and Viacoms will go on pursuing game companies, becuasethe possibility of finding a rich vein of gold among all the pyrite is simply too tempting to pass up.


Anonymous said...

Many video game companies do pay very well and treat their employees wonderfully. Especially the "smaller" ones which have created a pipeline that is perfect for their style of games: Bungie, Harmonix, Insomniac, Naughty Dog, Valve, Infinity Ward, Double Fine, Sucker Punch, Blizzard (proper), etc.

Unfortunately, the larger (older) mega studios are going through some tough growing pains where their pipelines are too bloated and where the profits are not based on how good of a game it is, but how many they put out (EA, Activision, Ubisoft, Midway, etc). It was not uncommon for these studios to hire someone fresh out of school, work them to death for a year, have them quit on their on volition, and begin with a new batch of recruits.

The game industry is a relatively young industry, and the companies which are run by younger teams who grew up gaming are usually the ones you want to work for. They will take care of you, to them it is about the creativity and fun of the games. The companies which are run by businessmen and treated like any other industry (sometimes the businessmen come from the movie industry) are the ones to avoid.

Much like the movie industry, do your homework before joining a company to see what their work hours/benefits are.

R said...

Nicely put. But, in the games industry there are studios that take advantage of the employees, as much as in the animation biz.

I assume most of us are aquainted with the famous "Angry spousse" letter that was circulating a number of years ago. EA reps will claim they have cleaned up their act. But who really knows the entire story?

To be fair, as stated above, many game studios do take care of the workers, and they do offer very good sslaries. I can only offer my experience as an example. Not only am I making more than I did at Disney, it has been very steady employment. For now.


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