Imagine pouring months, even years of work into a project, and then being unable to put your name on it. Unfortunately, that's the reality for many video game developers – and there's not much they can do about it.
"I was working for Codemasters at a new studio of theirs, managing a team of programmers," explains one developer who wants to stay anonymous. "We were originally set up to work on new projects, but predictably ended up doing work on a game called Operation Flashpoint 2 (recently released) that was in death march."
This developer and his team of programmers spent months on the project – for some, it was three months, and for others up to six - before being reassigned to a new project. But another six months down the line, Operation Flashpoint 2 was again in need of extra hands, and this developer was pulled back onto the project – "dropping everything on the current project and bringing my team with me," he recalls.
The developer himself left Codemasters before Operation Flashpoint 2 shipped – and once it did, he was surprised to find no one from his team received credit on the game, despite the fact that by the project's end some of them had spent some 18 months working on it. There was "very little appreciation at the time or since," he says.
"OFP2 was a seriously broken project, with two or three restarts, and a very high turnover of staff," he reflects. "Looking through the credits list it was disturbing to see how many people had been left out, presumably because they either weren't part of the core team who finished it or had left the company before it shipped."
We contacted Codemasters for comment about this situation and will update this article any we receive.
But the frustrated developer's story is not unique, nor is there any one studio or publisher that bears the brunt of these kinds of complaints. It seems in this case, the lack of credit on the final project was something of a penalty for developers who left either the company or the struggling project mid-cycle – and the anonymous developer says this is an all-too common slight that often happens whether leaving the project was a staffer's choice or not.
And it gets more complex. Just as common as a studio's failure to assign credit is the use of game crediting as leverage – a way to get more work out of developers for less pay, or to force a designer with a particular specialty to stay on a project when there's another one at his studio on which he'd rather work. The fact that in most cases, credits aren't agreed on until a project's end means there's plenty of room for bargaining and bullying.
For example, rather than promote someone at the "Associate" level to "Lead", with the appropriate title and increase in salary, a studio may ask an employee to assume the workload and responsibilities of a Lead with either the implication or explicit promise of appearing in the credits that way.
These credit-based pseudo-promotions save money at studios – who get someone doing the work of, say, a Lead Producer while only paying for an Associate Producer – but it also can tangle the final product: Too much of this and it's easy to see how key roles in video game development are assumed by people who are overworked or even unqualified. It also causes long-term, wider-ranging damage: If your title and salary don't really matter because everyone's pushing for that credit, what does your job role really mean, and why aspire to further qualifications and real career growth?
Even worse, this is something of an under-the-table practice – with nothing to protect a developer whose studio might go back on its word for any number of reasons when it's time to write up the credits. That's happened more than once to pseudonymous developer and blogger Spitfire, who joined a project as a mid-level artist but had assumed a Lead role by the time the game shipped.
But the credits didn't reflect his additional responsibility – and when he asked for an explanation, "I was simply told that I wasn't really a Lead on the game. Mind you, there was no real reason not to give me proper credit. [Neither]my salary, bonuses, nor any other form of compensation were based on title. It was simply an intentional and painful slight."
Another time, at the same studio but on a different project, despite clear responsibilities as a Lead, Spitfire says, "my name was just thrown in with the rest of the artists in my discipline. Again, I went and pressed the issue, and I was told that it was too late... The manuals had already gone to print, and we were about to press a submission disk. No one would even answer whose fault it was for the lack of a proper credit… the complete lack of concern by everyone involved above me was a real shocker and actually hurt."
It's more than an issue of what label appears next to your name in the small print, adds Spitfire: "When you're working 80+ hours getting that baby to market, sacrificing time with your family, your personal life, loved ones, etc, just to ship the product, and then you don't get the right credit? It's beyond enraging. It literally shows that your employer doesn't care about you."
Stories like these are endless. A survey by the International Game Developers Association, the trade group that represents those who make games, conducted a survey that found 35 percent of respondents say they "don't ever" or "only sometimes" receive official credit for the work they've done.
But so fraught is the issue that it often goes uncontested. It's only the rare high-profile example that makes it into the realm of public controversy – Last year, Mythic Entertainment drew fire for its decision to credit only current staffers on Warhammer Online, and at the time sources told Shacknews that Mythic "made sure not to include anyone who was not in the office the day of the credit list creation".
The outcry in the developer community sparked a debate between Mythic and the IGDA, who called the lack of proper Warhammer credits "disrespectful". At issue was the most popular reason studios say they withhold credits: They're afraid developers will feel free to ditch a project whenever they like, if they don't have the incentive of crediting to make them stick around. Studios also claim that revealing a full list of their staffers exposes them to unsolicited recruiters and poachers, and they're afraid to lose people.
But the IGDA says that's just a cop-out: Chairperson Jennifer MacLean said in a statement on the Warhammer controversy that these reasons are "arbitrary, unfair and in some cases even vindictive... they simply don't hold up". The IGDA established a crediting standards committee in 2007, aiming first to evaluate the scope of the problem and then to develop a universal standard for roles, titles and the way individuals must be credited.
It has since published draft guidelines and a standards proposal in beta – but none of these are yet final, and few of the developers I spoke to for this article were aware of the status of these initiatives, speaking to the enormous challenge the issue poses.
But why does it matter to gamers whether a developer is listed at a game's end as "Lead" or "Manager""
According to the developers we spoke to, it matters a lot: "By not crediting, we undermine the individual's contribution," says the anonymous former Codemasters employee. "Accordingly, these developers feel less emotional and creative involvement in future projects. This helps lead to big teams of disenfranchised people, and a corresponding reduction in the character, charm and personality of the finished game."
In other words, good games are made by invested, creative people. Yet another anonymous developer – notice a trend here? - says the lack of consistent crediting is "just another point towards the general feeling of 'it's the game industry - we shouldn't expect it to be a mature, professional place.' It affects how people behave at work, and how people behave at work affects what goes into the game (sometimes in surprising ways)."
It also helps ensure the game industry stays insular, rather than diversifying with talent from other disciplines, he says: "A talented, up-and-coming artist isn't going to want to choose the game industry, for example, if he knows he's going to get dicked around and disrespected."
So why don't more developers speak up? It's a vicious cycle, my sources say: People who feel less like individual contributors and more like interchangeable machinery cogs that their employer can swap around at any minute don't want to risk rocking the boat. Especially in today's economy, people are just happy to have a job in the industry of their choosing. So the culture of silence continues, and perpetuates the destructive idea that gaming is only a stepchild to more formalised media industries.
With the IGDA hard at work on standards, a solution may be on the horizon. In the meantime, remember: Video games are made by human beings, and whether you like their work or not, it's important for consumers, the final audience, to remember that - because those who employ them often don't.
[ Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]