The Many Problems of a Game Developers Union

Recently, thanks to the 2018 GDC, there has been more and more chatter of a proposed Game Developers union. With the current state of the industry as a whole, from indie to AAA developers, I feel this is a terrible idea. Join me today as I make the case that the industry, at least in its current state, is simply not mature enough for a Game Developers union.

For those few of you here who do not know what a Union is, a union is a group of workers, usually from the same job role, who come together to act as one large political voice. They do this to ensure they are treated fairly, paid well and any requests they collectively share are met and dealt with.

We won’t be debating whether or not unions are a good idea during this talk, that is a whole can of worms for a different day. Instead, I would like to draw attention to the arguments circling around the idea of Game Developers Union specifically.

I’m almost certain that with no surprise, you are well aware of the diverse angles and viewpoints that currently exist within the game development scene. AAA developers want to push the envelope further whilst maximising profits whereas indie developers wants to make just enough money to keep the lights on by offering unique experiences for a fraction of the cost (when compared to AAA games). Of course, there are outliers to these cases but that seems to be the general consensus across the board. The “rich” want to become richer and the poorer just want to get by. That’s the narrative that the various gaming “news outlets” and websites like to push so we’ll run with it.

This divide alone would cause a number of areas of conflict with such extreme opposing viewpoints. When you have two parties who view issues completely differently, the message you’re trying to get out there will no doubt become fragmented. This, funnily enough, is not the problem I have with a proposed union. Sure, it is a gaping hole in the puzzle of “how the hell would something like this work?” but it’s not “ace in the hole” for me that would sink the idea of a Game Developer’s Union before the idea even takes off.

The main problem I have with the idea of a union is that fact that there have been too many times where I have seen people downloading Unity, Unreal Engine, Godot or even RPG Maker and by just having it installed on their computer believe themselves to be fully-fledged developers. You even have people attending events like GDC just to prove to themselves and possibly others that they are developers who deserve to be taken seriously because they’re at a “Developers only” event. Therein lies the problem.

What I believe a game developer is most likely differs to what you think a developer is and vice versa. It’s a sad but simple truth that many of the “developers” that you interact with on Twitter, Facebook and all the other social media platforms usually aren’t developers and are just the people I described above. It’s sad to admit that these days that is getting more and more common.

We could spend all day trying to figure out why they do this — is it for fame? Is it to feel some feeling of accomplishment? Is it to feel like they have a seat at the table? Who knows. At the end of the day, all we can deduce definitively is that people kid themselves into thinking that they are developers and they are only growing in numbers.

If you were to have a union, you usually don’t have people outside of the union’s trade calling shots. You don’t go to a builder’s union as a CEO of an investment firm, voting on the issues that plague the workers who form the majority of said union. The issues don’t affect you directly, no matter how you think “the harder and faster they work, the quicker our new buildings will be done”. It’s a blatant conflict of interest that weakens whatever fight the union members are fighting for.

I think that it is a good point to reiterate that I do not see myself as a person who decrees who is a developer and who isn’t. But even though I am not the person to do that — who is?

What would the entry requirements for a Game Developers Union even be? Number of games shipped? Some of the most talented members of the industry I know haven’t shipped a game. Be it from layoffs before release or cancelled projects, they have not to date shipped a title.

How about judging people by years in the industry? How would that work when I could say I worked for 20 years at Framestore, only to have been a cleaner? With other unions, it’s fairly simple to say “to join a builder’s union, you have to be a builder” — you have to have the qualifications and the resume to back it up. With Game Development, even my two-year-old son can say he’s a developer — there’s no metric to gauge whether he is or not without getting into moveable goalpost territory as no real qualification currently exists for such a role.

Computer science? Sure, for coders. But where are the Games Producer qualifications? Where are the Game UI qualifications? Don’t even get me started on the new wave of “Game Developer” qualifications from colleges/universities that want to seem progressive. I, along with a good chunk of my industry friends laugh at them. They don’t prove anything apart from that you listened to some person’s perspective on what various roles in the industry are.

I’m sure you’re asking at this point, what is the problem? Who cares if there are people who want to pretend they’re sitting at the table and view people like Tim Schaefer and Nicole Tan as their peers? Well, my friend, that can cause a lot of problems.

Instead of meaningful change, you’ll have constant fragmented messaging. Instead of debating meaningful issues such as the industries love of “crunch”, you’ll have people fighting over the fact that people should hire people by the colour of their skin or the gender over the skillset they possess, which might I add is both sexist, racist and illegal even if the narrative is inverted.

You’ll have people complaining that they are not being hired for roles outside of their skill set and they deserve to be paid for that role, even if they can’t complete the work due to their skills. You might think I’m off in the crazy but no, sadly I’m not. These are actual things already being said by people already before the Union can even be started.

I honestly wonder where people who want this union think the money would come from. Who knows, maybe the want-to-be developers would pony the cash but I doubt any serious investor is going to funnel money into something where headless chickens shout at themselves all day and don’t make any progressive changes. Do the people calling for a union understand that it is normal to pay an annual entry fee? Who knows, it’s all madness. This whole idea is madness with the state the industry is currently in.

Hopefully, I have proven the case to you that a union with the current narrative simply can’t exist without being a complete clusterfuck. There are too many talking heads with unproductive opinions without the credentials to back them up. Obviously, your opinion is your own just as mine is my own and I encourage you to reach out and let me know what you think. I’ve been KITATUS and now I’m off to pretend to be a bouncer so I can get into clubs for free. Good night.