Indie Bosses Are Still Bosses: Exploitation and Unionization at Small Game Studios

Robin Trach
Feb 8, 2021 · 13 min read
An indie employer stands on a table surrounded by exhausted employees, levitating stacks of pizzas and energy drinks

In the 2019 IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey, 13% of respondents worked at a company with 10 or fewer employees, and 26% at a company with 11–50. My home of SoCal has a particularly large ecosystem of small studios; many of the workers I’ve met in my time as a labor organizer were small studio employees, and I’ve worked at some myself. Clearly this is a significant part of the game-making workforce, so why is talk of unionization always relegated to AAA?

One factor is that we so frequently idealize small, startup, and/or “indie” game studios as the saviors of our industry, safe havens away from AAA. After all, indies are the underdogs, the rebels, the scrappy outlaws sticking it to the man! But being small and scrappy does not preclude the ability to harm employees, and in my time as an organizer I’ve seen some truly reprehensible conditions at small game companies — endless crunch, harassment, underpayment, and wage theft to name a few.

A quick note on terminology before we start. The word “indie” is contentious; festivals and stores use it to label everything from noncommercial solo projects, to titles with publisher funding and dozens-strong teams. I’m using it here because too often I’ve seen employers use “indie” as a warm, fuzzy shield to escape accountability. Nevertheless, this article’s scope covers any small game company with at least one non-owner employee — indies, startups, “double-As,” etc. Whatever they want to call their operation, a boss is a boss!

Exploitation at Small Game Companies

“Indie” employers are simply small businesses, and it’s an open secret that small businesses can be just as bad to their workers as huge corporations. So often these “Mom and Pop” workplaces are idealized as kinder, fairer environments, but nothing about being small precludes the ability to do wrong by your workers — in fact, it often helps. Below I’ll go over four dimensions of exploitation that are exacerbated at small studios — crunch, harassment, underpayment, and wage theft — and how organizing can help us fight back!

Crunch

At a GWSC social a few years back a worker from a AAA company well-known for horrible crunch testified that even that environment was preferable to the death march they experienced shipping an indie title at their previous job. It’s not unheard-of for employees at small game companies to work 10 or even 14 hour days, to go months-long stretches without weekends, and to pull all-nighters on milestones and deadlines. I myself have left the office at 5am or “later” on shipping days. A few factors make small employers particularly susceptible to crunch:

  • The close-knit “family” atmosphere of small companies makes crunch easier to sell — you’re not toiling for a corporate overload, you’re going above and beyond for the team! This is compounded by the mythology of “dream projects” and the visibility of company owners who practically live at the office.
  • Indie companies are often run by creatives who would rather spend their time authoring game content — making art, writing code, etc. — than managing their company. This can lead to sloppy production, poor task management, and death-march deadlines.
  • With less oversight, small businesses can have an easier time getting away with illegal overtime and other labor law violations than huge corporations.

How organizing can help:

  • When workers get together, they can say “No.” In cases where excessive crunch is being forced upon employees, those workers can use a group demand, strike, or other direct action technique to force the employer to move the deadline or re-scope the project.
  • When overtime or other labor laws are violated, power in numbers is the way to force your boss to shape up. It’s easy to ignore one person complaining, but bosses have a much harder time ignoring the law when they know everyone is watching.
  • Union contracts can include provisions to prevent employers from enforcing mandatory crunch, or special overtime clauses that make crunch prohibitively costly to the boss.

Harassment

A lauded benefit of indie workplaces is the freedom from “corporate hierarchies.” In practice, this usually means that all those levels of leadership and oversight are boiled down into a single person — the company owner — who holds final say over all decisions. This is a breeding ground for harassment because when an owner or a friend of theirs behaves inappropriately towards an employee, there is no manager or HR department to report to. The “close-knit family atmosphere” compounds the issue; it’s difficult to speak out about harassment when the abuser has so many social ties with your fellow workers.

I will not for a moment argue that AAA HR departments adequately protect survivors of abuse — they don’t, because their job is to protect the employer, not the employees. But at a small game company with nobody to report to, survivors’ only options (outside of organizing) are often to stay at the company and tolerate the abuse, to quit, or to risk their safety and reputation with a public call-out. Harassment is a horrifying experience in a company of any size — and organizing against abuse is just as necessary in AAA — but being harassed at a small company can be especially alienating.

This isn’t an abstract argument; within just the last few years, consider the examples of indie darlings Midboss, LabZero, Nicalis, Mountains, and Scavenger. (CW: links contain descriptions of harassment and abuse).

How organizing can help:

  • The fundamental principle of organizing is creating a “culture of care” — a network of structured bonds between employees where sharing experiences is no longer taboo. In my time as an organizer I’ve seen workers coordinate to build a culture of speaking out, to counsel survivors of harassment, and to get abusive employees fired. An injury to one is an injury to all, and with a little bit of organization workers can build their own systems to protect each other.
  • Union contracts often instate a “grievance process,” a structured way for workers to report abuse and effect consequences. While this process can be slow — and it’s no substitute for direct worker action — even the threat of a filed grievance can go a long way towards motivating concessions from owners and/or abusive managers.
  • Union members who are recipients of abuse have resources through their union with which to pursue legal recourse — and knowing that will make some harassers think twice.

Underpayment

On one level it’s intuitive that workers at small game companies would make less than their AAA counterparts — after all, indie games tend to sell fewer copies at lower price points. But without access to your employer’s finances, it’s difficult to know exactly how short on cash they are.

I once spoke to a worker who made significantly below industry standard for an engineer, reasoning that their boss was doing their best with limited resources — until they learned that a coworker with the same job was making nearly double their rate. This sort of anecdote is not uncommon; small employers usually don’t standardize pay rates, they lack accessible numbers on sites like Glassdoor, and they often obscure the nature of their funding. And unsurprisingly, small companies are just as prone to pay differentials across race and gender.

Even if your boss truly can’t pay you an industry rate, they still benefit asymmetrically from your labor. Let’s imagine a 2-person company where a boss and their single employee make $15 an hour each. This might seem fair — over one year, each accrues about $30,000. But remember that that year was spent building a product of which the boss owns 100%, and the employee 0. If the product sells well the boss can give themselves a big bonus, fire the worker, sell the company, or hire more workers to further their creative agenda — while all the employee has to show is a year of falling behind on debt and medical treatment. Even if the employer could only afford the 15, what stopped them from supplementing it with a large revenue share, guaranteed raise with backpay, or co-ownership status?

How organizing can help:

  • In US union negotiations, employers are required to back up claims of limited resources or unprofitability with financial audits — “opening the books.” Having this information allows workers to truly understand the wages their employer can afford!
  • Union contracts often set pay scales — uniform compensation standards for different positions and levels of seniority to which the employer must adhere. These act as minimums, and individual workers are still able to get raises and bonuses, but the presence of pay-scales ensures that no worker is cheated below a base rate.
  • Even before union certification, workers in union campaigns will often make salary spreadsheets that allow underpaid workers to strategically ask for raises. This is something you, the reader, can do right now regardless of where you work!

Wage Theft

As an organizer in the games industry, the number of times I’ve had to hear “and then they never paid me” is sickening. While wage theft is common in businesses of all sizes, it is especially prevalent in small workplaces because the people handling the money are under less scrutiny. There are a few ways this can manifest:

  • Wage and hour violations: a common theme in this article is that small businesses have an easier time violating labor law. This often manifests through overtime violations, misclassification (illegally classifying workers as “independent contractors” to impose an extra tax burden), and even unpaid internships.
  • Informal, unfulfilled promises of payment: I once spoke to a worker who spent a year working for a small company with the promise of a big payout once the product shipped. The boss was an acquaintance and there were no contracts involved. Voila, one day it was revealed that the promised sum — tens of thousands of dollars — was never coming. While this is a dramatic case, it’s not an uncommon story. It’s so tempting to take your boss at their word when everything at the office feels so informal; of course they’d never cheat you.
  • Not paying contractors: small studios often contract out portions of their workflow, but all too often these contractors never get paid. The reasons are many — sometimes the employer is overly optimistic about revenue and comes up short, sometimes they squabble with the contractor about the work received, and sometimes they straight-up decide to cheat somebody. Whatever the reason, it’s easier to get away with this as a small company because the contractor has a harder time tracking you down.

How organizing can help:

  • As an individual, it’s dangerous (not to mention terrifying) to confront your boss about wage theft. But as a group — of two, of ten, of the whole workplace — you have safety in numbers and the threat of a work stoppage if the boss doesn’t adhere to the law.
  • Collective bargaining agreements usually impose terms on who can be considered a contractor. This helps “perma-lancers” achieve full employment and regularly scheduled direct deposit payments.
  • It is the job of every organizing committee to build bonds between all workers, leading to fewer socially isolated employees who don’t have anybody to report what’s happening to them.

The Myth of “Good Bosses”

I’ve described some grim scenarios above, and from these anecdotes it would be easy to imagine a landscape of “bosses from hell.” We certainly have a few of those, but several bosses from these cases (excepting harassment) were outwardly friendly, even well-intentioned people!

Few think of themselves as bad bosses; in fact, many start small game studios to create spaces outside the exploitation of AAA. But when these new bosses place themselves in owner-employee power structures that inherently encourage exploitation, they usually reproduce the very dynamics they set out to defy.

Labor organizers stress “workplace democracy” because we as workers must understand that the modern company, big or small, is a dictatorship — where a tiny set of people, or just one, have final say on all decisions. Self-identified “good bosses” are a lot like benevolent dictators: they’ll do the right thing when it’s easy, but when difficult choices come the population is at the mercy of what their ruler considers “fair.”

This “fair” is intrinsically imperfect; I’ve seen countless bosses take actions they perceived as benevolent without actually meeting workers’ needs: setting up health insurance (but the plans don’t cover our health conditions), buying “free dinner” (but why are we still working at 8pm?), etc. It’s impossible for one person to single-handedly understand everyone’s priorities, and even the kindest decision-maker will seldom move against their own interests. Even if your boss has never done you wrong, there will come a day where a hard decision must be made — maybe funds run short and pay cuts or layoffs need to occur — and you’re going to want a say in what happens.

The problem in our industry is not that we have too many bad bosses and need to replace them with good ones. It is that humans deserve democracy in all aspects of our lives, including our workplaces, and the power structures in place deny us that. None of this is to say that bosses don’t or can’t do individually kind things, but we need to expand our imaginations beyond wishing for kinder rulers; the best way to make sure we’re treated fairly is to build power and claim a say in the decisions that affect us.

Small Workplaces’ Role in the Labor Movement

While their numbers are underestimated, employees at small game companies are still a minority of the total workforce in games. Why think about them when there are thousands of exploited workers in AAA? The labor movement’s answer is to simply unionize both, but there are some special strategic advantages to unionizing small companies:

  • Early Wins: Unionization is less complex in small companies than in multinational giants. Nailing early wins is important for any burgeoning labor movement, and unionizing a few indie shops is a great way to build a sense of momentum.
  • Building a Diaspora of Organizers: Small companies often employ new grads and other early-career employees. Many of these workers then go on to get jobs at larger companies. If we can organize these entry points, we’ll have a stream of workers flowing into the industry who understand the benefits of unionization.
  • Setting an Example: The indie game scene is often thought of as an aspirational alternative to our troubled industry, and many dream of leaving their corporate machines behind to work somewhere fairer and more personal. If indie shops are to be an example for the rest of the industry, let’s expand the dream to include workplace democracy!

My goal in listing these is to help small company workers understand that their actions can make a big impact on the global labor struggle. But in some ways that’s besides the point. The only reason anyone needs to organize is because they care about the people around them — and their own future — and know that their working conditions aren’t going to change themselves.

A Call to Action

Like all our articles, I wrote this one with an agenda. On a general level I’d like to encourage using a critical employer-employee lens on our indie darlings. But more importantly, I’m writing as a call to action for non-owning employees of small game and tech companies. The labor movement isn’t just for the so-called “cogs” of AAA — in March 2020 CODE-CWA sponsored a successful union drive at Glitch, a small web app developer with just a few dozen employees. Workers at small companies are welcome in this movement!

I’ve focused on extreme examples in this article to make a point, but your job doesn’t have to be a living nightmare for you to “deserve” to organize. Most workplaces are a mixed bag; several of the developers at Glitch enjoyed many aspects of their jobs and appreciated management’s non-antagonistic stance towards their drive. Nevertheless, they also understood that they deserve a say in shaping the company’s policies, protections against layoffs, and the agency to take initiatives like claiming Juneteenth as a paid holiday.

The labor movement welcomes all, and in fact it needs all of us if we are to succeed in overcoming global exploitation. If you’re interested in securing a better future — for yourself, for the coworkers you care about, and for all of us — take a look at the list of actionables below!

Next Steps:

  • General questions? Email us at hello@gameworkerssocal.org, or the author directly at r.trachemys@gmail.com.
  • Want to organize your workplace? If you’re in North America, we recommend you contact a CODE-CWA organizer with this form to arrange for an introductory call. Outside of NA, contact your closest GWU chapter!
  • Want to learn about unionization? We recommend taking Modules I and II of CODE-CWA’s online organizer trainings, which run every weekend. You can also contact your local Game Workers Unite chapter to see if they offer trainings!
  • Are you an employer who wants to leave exploitative power structures behind? Consider transitioning into a co-op! There’s a great resource page here, including a link to a Discord where you can learn more from the growing co-op community.
  • Want to join a community of game workers and organizers? If you’re SoCal-based, hit us up at GWSC! Outside SoCal, you can see if there’s a GWU chapter near you. If you work in tech, the Tech Workers Coalition is a great community of volunteers in our sister industry.

You might not feel like you have anything to contribute, but we promise you that’s not true. We’re all learning as we go, and we need all the hands we can get!

In Solidarity,
Robin Trach, Steering Committeeperson for Game Workers of Southern California

Game Workers of Southern California

Building workplace democracy in the SoCal games industry

Game Workers of Southern California

Game Workers of Southern California (GWSC) is a volunteer-based group of game workers and labor organizers in Los Angeles, Orange County, and the greater Southern California region.

Robin Trach

Written by

Robin Trach is a Los Angeles based game worker and a labor organizer with Game Workers of Southern California (GWSC). She/her.

Game Workers of Southern California

Game Workers of Southern California (GWSC) is a volunteer-based group of game workers and labor organizers in Los Angeles, Orange County, and the greater Southern California region.