Investigation: A Video Game Studio From Hell

Seven-day work weeks. Sexist decisions. An office environment so toxic, employees are terrified to speak up for fear of losing their jobs. That's the atmosphere at the Florida-based game development studio Trendy Entertainment, according to current and former employees.

Trendy is responsible for a popular tower defence game called Dungeon Defenders and is currently working on the sequel. Over the past few weeks, I've talked to nine different people with connections to Trendy, and obtained a number of emails and Skype logs that show a studio filled with fear and dysfunction.

Current and former employees describe the company as dismal and unpleasant, painting a picture of Trendy president Jeremy Stieglitz as a dictatorial manager who publicly berates his staff and, according to four of the people I spoke with, allegedly makes salary decisions based on gender.

I first heard about the many problems at Trendy from one whistleblower. That source quickly became two, three, and more. Employees were frustrated. They were tired of a miserable status quo at Trendy and wanted to speak out. Soon they were sending along e-mails and chat logs, conversations between each other commiserating about working at the company, snippets of communications with management. Altogether, over the last week, the picture of this studio that came into focus was ugly.

Many staff at Trendy don't plan on putting up with the situation much longer: about a half-dozen developers have already left over the past two months, and according to the people I spoke with, an estimated 5-10 more junior and senior Trendy employees plan to leave once the first part of Dungeon Defenders II goes live in July. The company's higher-ups are aware of this -- and Trendy has had a few meetings over the past couple of weeks in order to talk about morale -- but some are unconvinced that anything will change for the staff, who currently number around 45.

Long hours and tough management are not unusual in the video game industry; it's common for development studios to subject their employees to periods of "crunch," during the last few weeks of a game's production, when staff will stay late and work weekends until that game is finished. But at Trendy, according to people who work and have worked there, crunch lasts all year round. Staff describe an atmosphere where everyone must work 10 to 12 hours a day for six or seven days a week, and some people fear losing their jobs if they question this arrangement.

Trendy president Stieglitz declined to address any of the specific allegations in this story, but the company sent over the following statement:

Trendy is a fairly young indie video game developer experiencing some of the unfortunate issues associated with new companies finding their footing: long hours, quick growth, and on-going challenges stemming from working in a highly creative environment. Our management is focused on continuing to grow and develop a positive workplace despite these challenges. We are excited for our upcoming release of Dungeon Defenders 2 and hope that consumers appreciate the results of our efforts.

Based on what I've seen and heard over the course of reporting this story, "unfortunate issues" is one hell of an understatement.

Men Vs. Women

Last year, according to multiple people I spoke with, a man applied for a certain position at Trendy. After some back-and-forth, Trendy offered him the gig at a starting salary of $US3,850 a month, but he turned it down.

Not long afterwards, according to the people I spoke with, a woman applied for the same position. Trendy offered her $US3000 a month -- non-negotiable.

That's a difference of almost $US10,000 a year. I've seen the e-mails detailing both job offers, and while it's possible that gender wasn't the only factor here, one person close to the situation told me that both candidates had the same amount of experience. Others have said it's a trend.

"Artists have been hired (and very quickly left the studio) on the motto of, 'Hire a woman -- we can pay women less than we can men,'" one person connected to Trendy told me.

Last week, a departing Trendy employee sent a letter to staff at the company, which I received from two different people. Although the writer declined comment -- and asked us not to print what he had written -- the note corroborates what others in the company have told me. One section, for example, says that upper management at Trendy pays women less than men. Another section of the letter accuses Trendy of publicly belittling employees and forcing them to work unsustainable hours.

Two different people told me that Trendy president Jeremy Stieglitz treats female employees differently than males. "He won't even look at women," one person said. "He would go [to] the room one was in and stand to the side and yell into the room... without ever going in."

This uncomfortable behaviour toward females doesn't seem to be limited to the workplace: A Skype log obtained by Kotaku shows Stieglitz talking about one of the female characters in Dungeon Defenders II in terms that made at least a few employees uncomfortable. "Needs to be more like [a] Brazilian beach super model if you know what I mean," he writes. "It'd also be nice if the arse was attractive."

Another person connected to Trendy told me that the team once created a seductive image of one of the characters that was meant to be an internal joke, but when Stieglitz saw it, he released it to the public.

'Flying By The Seat Of Their Pants'

Employees describe Trendy as a company brimming with issues -- one person started off a phone conversation with "I'm sure everything you've heard is true" -- and many of those issues trace back to Stieglitz. All nine people who talked to me shared similar stories: Stieglitz, they say, is fond of threatening and screaming at employees, often in front of other people in the office. Two people told me they were afraid to request vacation or ask for weekends off, worried that Stieglitz would fire or threaten to replace them.

One employee tells the story of a cousin who passed away. The employee was too terrified to ask for time off. "I was so afraid of losing my job that I didn't go to his funeral," the employee told me. "It was probably one of my lowest points."

Before 2012, according to two people, the studio had some serious financial difficulties. Staff would go unpaid for long periods of time, and many worked 80-hour weeks because they felt they had no choice. Last summer, when Trendy received an $US18.2 million investment from a firm in New York City, some at the company thought conditions would get better. They didn't. Today, employees say the hours are just as excruciating. Worse, people connected to Trendy say, progress on the game is constantly interrupted by Stieglitz's interference.

Late last year, according to four different people, Stieglitz fired the lead designer on Dungeon Defenders II and shifted direction on the game, telling the development team to start taking ideas from the popular arena battle game League of Legends. The motto floating around the company, employees told me, is "if League does it, we do it."

"He threw out design work to copy League of Legends," said one person.

"Interesting, creative ideas [were] thrown by the wayside because 'we don't have time,' or 'Does League do it? No? Then it's a waste of time, we need to do what League does,' said another person.

On top of that, people say the studio has been plagued with disorganization and dysfunction: work is often scrapped or drastically changed due to Stieglitz's whims, employees told me.

"There's no pipeline," said one person. "Everyone's flying by the seat of their pants all the time."

"Jeremy does not believe in pre-production," said another. "Choices are to be made on the fly, without any input from designers."

Anonymous employee reviews on GlassDoor echo everything I've heard. "There are many very innovative individuals working for this company who suffer daily under poor working conditions, arbitrary deadlines and slimy management," one reviewer writes. "I do not understand how the artist teams deal with the uninformed decisions made by upper management. It's bad enough in our room and yet, I know they have it even worse off than we do. I have never worked for someone who is so afraid of his own employees before that he treats them like bad kids and while I may not be one of the vocal ones in the office I am secretly ashamed of working for this company by the way it treats the people it employs."

Some at Trendy hope that by publicizing the company's conditions, they can help inspire some change. If things don't get better within the next few months, and people do continue to flee this studio, it sounds like there will be change either way.


Comments

    This sounds horrible. I really liked Dungeon Defenders... But Dungeon Defenders 2 doesn't look as interesting. Sounds like they need to fix up the president/owner, and get some good management in there.

    Doing this crap is illegal in Australia. Or at least, in theory it is illegal. You shouldn't be allowed to pay women and men different salaries for the same position. I'm aware that it is all too common, but it should not be allowed.

    This guy sounds like the CEO of Zynga except even nastier. He'll eventually drive his company into the ground, though.

      Its noble to try and establish a legal framework, but it just does not change much, when in practice it is essentially unenforceable. As far as I am aware, statistics show, that this is a pretty significant issue in pretty much every country, most of which have very clear equal opportunity-laws.

        Bullcrap, in australia the relevant Gov departments would be all over this guy like white on rice, probably cost the CEO $100k in fines per offence.

          You can be as colourful about this as you like, statistics speak a very clear language about income-related discrimination Australia, be it related to gender or other criteria. Not even government-related jobs offer a specific income, but an income-range, which can be abused very easily.

            Ermm... no...

            As someone who works in the government sector and seen some of HR, pay/work is applied via a postition/category basis. While it seems like there's an "income-range" the only category that influences which pay-range on the same position you get is how long you have been w/ the department. A new person starts at the lowest bracket and as you stay longer (ie. 1yr, 2yr, etc.) then you are moved to a higher bracket. There is no in between on these positions. Say a position says 1000 to 2000 then that would be split on a specific bracket per year ie. 1k for 1st year, 1.5k for 2nd year and 2k for 3+ years. There is no inbetween to these pay brackets. If you have served 2 years then you should be paid at that bracket.

            Any changes on how these HR positions are applied are a breach of labor laws =/

              +edited out+ first part of my reply, since I understand now what you explained, and it is a good point. So I withdraw the "can be done easily", that was over the top.

              However, I am not saying, this is specifically a public-service/government employment issue. If anything, they have the more stringent supervision in that regard. It is however a significant issue in the private sector, from entry positions all the way to top management. The numbers are very clear in that regard. See statistics on income disparity based on gender or other criteria for equally qualified personnel. I suspect, a large part of this issue also connects to whether the person concerned wants (or can afford) to sue their way to compensation or rectification. For every person that does, there are probably ten, who do not, hence explaining the statistics.

              Last edited 09/06/13 4:12 pm

        Actually you are completely wrong. Utterly.
        My wife just sicced an Equal Opportunity lawyer on her employer for illegally making her position redundant while she was on maternity leave.
        Just walked away with $50k without going to court because the company knew they were wrong and the law here in Australia is pretty clear.

          Did I write, equal opportunity laws are completely useless? No, not really, and your anecdotal evidence of a very specific situation does not prove the opposite of what I actually wrote. It is however hard to enforce them, and hard cold numbers prove that this is a fact of life, here or elsewhere. There is a persistent income gap in Australia of about 16%, based on gender alone (seems trivial, but add up numbers over a yearly income!). I am not even bringing in ethnicity, where the contrasts are even more severe and many people have severe problems even getting to a job-interview.

          Saying, this is "Completely and utterly wrong", to use an absolute assessment of my own, means to deny reality regarding this issue.

          Last edited 09/06/13 4:10 pm

            I'm not saying your wrong, or right.. but with the mention of figures, a link to the source would be nice. I'm curious if these figures are on the average wage, or split out over type of role, seniority, and age.

          I think what he is trying to say is that even though those laws are there it is very easy for the employer to give a different reason for the pay difference and avoid the shit storm. Unfortunately in Australia the onus of proof falls on the employee (did at least not sure if it has changed) so it makes it hard to prove sometimes. That being said this guy would be screwed with the amount of people that are speaking up about him

    Seems like the manager doesn't know what he's doing, nor does he seem to understand the gaming industry. It's always infuriating when dickheads are given management roles and then overcompensate to cover their own professional inadequacies. Good luck to the employees. Hopefully this attention will cause the higher-ups to get a clue and do something about all this. A good way of making change quickly though is for all the employees to unite and threaten to walk if he's not replaced and other changes are made. The company heads may be able to ignore a few people here and there, but not everyone. Of course they would have to be ready for any backlash and even be prepared to walk if push comes to shove. But then that's easy for me to say because I'm not in their position, nor do I have a mortgage to pay off or a family to take care of (cats count as family, right?).

    Finally some decent investigative reporting in games churnalism, not just a recycled press release. Congratulations to Schreier on a well researched and written article.

    What a freak, I hope that guy gets what's coming to him.

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