2021 showed video gaming's corporate mainstream is in crisis

How do you solve a problem like AAA?


It was hard to imagine how the situation could worsen at Activision Blizzard, and then it did.

On November 16th, the Wall Street Journal published a bombshell report detailing that Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick not only knew about widespread allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination at the company, but was involved in ignoring and covering it up. Having maintained he was unaware of such misconduct, it turned out that the “frat boy” rot, over which the company behind the Call of Duty franchise is facing a damning California lawsuit, started at its very top.

In 2021, the Activision Blizzard story was less an aberration and more confirmation of precisely what is wrong with blockbuster game making. A year prior, the French giant Ubisoft faced its own workplace scandal, and then in August 2021, it emerged that an employment watchdog was investigating Ubisoft Singapore over reports of sexual harassment, bullying, and racial pay disparities. It’s a similar story at Riot Games, maker of League of Legends, while Sony Interactive Entertainment has come under scrutiny with its own lawsuit. But at the end of this strange year, I’m left wondering whether this disaster of work culture — playing out simultaneously in the office, courtroom, news desk, stock market, and, most importantly, the lives of those affected — is but one aspect of a larger set of crises. These same companies now produce titles that fail to push the envelope in any sense except scope, and, perhaps, players’ tolerance for jank. Does the grueling, harmful work really justify such games?

It’s important to note at the outset that major studios have faced a challenging few years during the pandemic, and this goes some way to explaining both the buggy arrival of titles such as Battlefield 2042 and Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy as well as the year’s notably austere release slate. These titanic organizations now employ thousands of multidisciplinary workers across numerous continents, and so steering them towards remote working under lockdown conditions was always going to be choppy. But I think the bugs and barely-there roster are part of a bigger picture that predates the virus. Broken games are arguably symptomatic of overscope, and throughout the last decade, titles produced by the big three publishers — Activision, EA, and Ubisoft — have grown ever larger while becoming notably fewer.

In 2009, John Riccitiello, then CEO of EA, told investors that the company’s output in the coming year would be smaller than usual. Having released more than 48 titles in 2010, EA released 12 in 2018. In 2021 the number is just nine, and only three of those are original IPs. This isn’t unique to EA — the same has happened across the board. With the numerous delays it precipitated, the pandemic has laid bare the extent of this long-term process of consolidation, of which the collateral has been the workers who lost their jobs over the years.

There’s little to suggest these companies are anything but past their peak.

What 2021 hasn’t definitively shown is whether these companies are in financial trouble, but there are perhaps warning signs. In the UK, Call of Duty Vanguard’s sales are down 40 per cent on last year’s title. Battlefield 2042 is currently on sale for $39.59 while trying to entice players with a free weekend, and with holiday shopping over, Ubisoft was offloading its recently debuted open world extreme sports title Rider’s Republic for the hardly encouraging price of $25. Sales, however, are only one measure of health. On the creative side, the picture is even worse — there’s little to suggest these companies are anything but past their peak. In its recent past, EA greenlit Mirror’s Edge, Activision Blizzard gave players Overwatch, and Ubisoft, lest we forget, still had Beyond Good and Evil 2 in its locker. What about now? Sequels and games-as-service titles as far as the eye can see. These might be solid commercial bets, but they don’t exactly set the imagination on fire. The time of these companies’ creative relevance is waning.

The question now routinely asked is whether these games reflect the boys’ club work cultures that produced them. If this is the case, do the tired design principles and abusive behavior stem from the same out-of-touch place, namely the wealthy, middle-aged managerial and executive classes? Whatever the answer, these companies are in need of both a creative and cultural overhaul, with accountability baked into their very structures of governance.

Who knows whether we’ll see meaningful changes in the actual operations of these companies, but if it does arrive then it will be because of the tireless efforts of its organized workers. At both Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft, groups have emerged that, while not officially unions, have acted like them. It’s been heartening to see ABK Workers Alliance organize numerous worker walkouts, the effect of which has been a nearly unrelenting pressure on the company. Clearly, it has the C-suiters spooked, so much so that when it emerged that the ABK Workers Alliance was moving towards unionization, Chief Administrative Officer Brian Bulatao sent a company-wide email telling employees to “consider the consequences” of signing union authorization cards. It was a chilling, possibly illegal response, and one we’ll no doubt be seeing a lot more of. At the very end of the year, it emerged that Vodeo Workers United had become the first video game union in North America, thus raising the bar on what workers elsewhere will be willing to settle for. It’s a momentous moment.

Sequels and games-as-service titles as far as the eye can see.

There have been other developments that show positive transformation is indeed possible. In October we learnt that Eidos-Montreal and Eidos-Sherbrooke were transitioning to a four-day week in a move that definitively put people before products and profits. This method of work is becoming increasingly popular with independent studios — Mutazione developer Die Gute Fabrik has made the switch in Denmark while Young Horses, the maker of Bugsnax, and Kitfox Games, developer of Boyfriend Dungeon, have done the same in the States.

Consider this in conjunction with the rise of worker-owned co-operative such as KO_OP and The Glory Society in North America, and Motion Twin in France, and it’s clear there’s another way of organizing labor and capital to make video games. Admittedly, none of these companies are building worlds as vast and complex as their corporate counterparts, but the challenge of vision they present is one that goes beyond such pixels and polygons.

On this note of scale, I’m intrigued to see whether, either next year or further in the future, there’s a backlash against the opulence of blockbuster gaming (its USP of course). Digital technology carries its own carbon and environmental impact, and if these companies fail to engage with this aspect of their output, there may be a collective foregoing of their gilded graphical wares. While it’s true that some of these companies, including Sony and Ubisoft, are highlighting the issue by participating in events such as the Green Games Summit (the first of its kind — hopefully there are more to come), it all feels distinctly superficial — hard to shake the sense this is little more than greenwashing. (Ubisoft, for example, spoke about meek sustainability goals such as reducing cafeteria waste and hosting educational events.)

Wrestling with the environmental impact of these gigantic virtual products is yet another pressure on the corporate mainstream that, from whichever angle you approach it, is under pressure. Workers, journalists, and lawyers are lifting the lid on what’s happening in their offices while independent studios reveal the limitations of their creative output and ways of working. I haven’t yet mentioned the ongoing prevalence of exploitative, often unpaid overtime — what’s euphemistically referred to as “crunch.” This should give you a sense of how bad 2021 has been for the industry’s major players, the kicker being that none of these issues are disappearing anytime soon. For this reason, 2022 could yet be a further reckoning.