The people who run Trendy Entertainment want you to know that things are better. Or maybe they want you to think things are better. Maybe they just want you to play their game.
Trendy, the Florida-based game developer that we once labelled "A Video Game Studio From Hell", has gone through quite a few changes over the past four months. In May and June, the picture was bleak: current and former Trendy employees described a toxic environment plagued by excruciating hours, sexist behaviour, and dysfunctional management revolving around a video game that many of them didn't want to make. They pegged Jeremy Stieglitz, a Trendy co-founder and director on their project, as the main source of these issues.
Today, things are different. Stieglitz has moved to a different project. The company has switched direction on their next game. And many — but not quite all — of the staff at Trendy Entertainment say things have gotten better following our investigation last June. Morale is up, Trendy staff say.
It's a conveniently happy ending to a story that seemed destined for heartbreak.
In August, I was approached by a PR representative for Trendy Entertainment with an interesting request: would I like to fly down to Florida and come visit the studio? They wanted me to come talk to designers and artists and studio executives, and they wanted me to see their newest game, Dungeon Defenders 2.
This was odd for a few reasons: for one, Trendy hadn't used external PR companies before. Small independent studios don't generally have the cash to hire agencies to manage their public relations.
More bizarrely, they wanted me. They wanted the reporter who, just two months earlier, had published an investigative report about hellish working conditions at the company. They wanted me to come and write about them again. I joked to a colleague that maybe they planned on kidnapping me when I got there. It's not often you get invited to someone's house after you've shown everyone the skeletons in their closet.
The trip didn't work out, but we arranged for a few Trendy staff to stop by Kotaku's NYC-based office last week when they were in town for Comic Con. I expected a chat with two or three people, but I was greeted by seven. The full entourage: Phil Asher, a top marketing executive at the company; community manager Laura Muriel; 3D artist Jordan Kerbow; lead concept artist Danny Araya; lead content designer Danny Haddad; and two PR people from their agency, Sandbox Strategies.
Squeezed into a glass conference room, we started talking about what Trendy has been through over the past few months. I expected some awkwardness, but it was a pleasant conversation: they seemed grateful for what we had published, and they were eager to tell me about what they had done.
"Once the article came out, upper management, the board, and everyone at the studio was like OK well now what?"
"Once the article came out, upper management, the board, and everyone at the studio was like OK well now what?" Asher said. "And Jeremy decided to step down, voluntarily that day actually. I think that he didn't realise that perspective, because it wasn't really spoken about, even though a lot of it was true."
After my story went live, Trendy's top people spent a few weeks "soul searching," Asher said. They took an on-site management course, reshuffled staff hierarchies, handed out promotions, and installed a Human Resources department, which, unbelievably, the company didn't have until then.
"Basically we grew from 14 people to 50 people in the span of a couple months due to the success of the first game," Asher said, "but we were still being run like a 14-person studio. So you can imagine that caused a lot of problems."
And now, in October, they've re-revealed their next game, Dungeon Defenders 2. Earlier this year, the company's plan was to make two games: a League of Legends-style MOBA and a co-op modelled more after Trendy's first game, Dungeon Defenders, which was quite successful. But now they've scrapped plans for the MOBA and re-announced DD2 for launch as a free-to-play game this spring.
"The majority of people at Trendy now are actually very happy," Asher said.
Let's pause for a second.
If you're anything like me, you've probably got a weird feeling about all of this. Kotaku reports that things are disastrous at Trendy, and four months later, just in time to re-reveal their new game, suddenly everything is better? Something seems too convenient. The timing is too perfect. The story feels like too much of a fairy-tale.
Over the past few months, I've been reaching out to many of the people who spoke to me earlier this year. Some haven't responded. Some others echo what Asher and crew told me last week — that things have gotten better; that people at Trendy now actually enjoy coming into work every day; that with Stieglitz no longer in charge, the development team is finally free to be creative.
On the other hand, a different Trendy employee has spent the past few months telling me that things aren't all that great. This employee says the "boys club" mentality cited in my original article still exists at Trendy, and that removing Stieglitz might have cut down on the crunch time, but it didn't make things better. "The studio is in turmoil, no work is getting done, and the sexist pigs are still running the show," the employee said.
When I brought up some of these issues to Asher and the other Trendy staff in my office last week, their response was reasonable: the studio isn't perfect yet, but change takes time.
"If you go from how bad it was to how it is now, it's a massive change," Asher said. "If you look at how we are now, compared to a large studio… it's not close yet. We're learning and improving. But compared to how it was, I mean, that's something that could realistically change very fast, 'cause it wasn't like the whole team wasn't operational. It was select things that were broken."
"Going from dreading going to work to, I wanna be there as quickly as possible," said Muriel, "that's something that happens really fast, especially when the right change starts taking place."
"It really just felt like a machine with a rock stuck in it, and then that rock was removed," said Kerbow.
"We're making something we're really proud of now," said Araya. "Our presence here should at least alleviate some of that [concern], I think."
So they're saying all of the right things. Maybe they want to. Maybe they have to. Surely the people in charge of Trendy want to facilitate a better environment, and surely they want their employees to be happy. They certainly want to release a good game.
"I don't think for us it's really about, 'Hey people, Trendy's the good guy now,'" Asher said. "I don't care so much about that story. I just want people to see what we're working on now and they can make that judgement for themselves."