Texas, a state whose leadership has long espoused a hyper-individualistic Mad Max apocalypse sort of ethos, has spent the past week putting those ideals to the test. It has not fared well. A record-breaking winter storm led to power outages across the state, as well as food and water shortages. Millions of Texas residents are suffering, with a death toll that continues to climb. As a result, a multitude of major Texas-based game studios have temporarily ceased operations, while smaller developers struggle to get by.
Texans began losing power last Thursday, but the state truly came to a halt on Monday, when the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) instituted a series of rolling blackouts to keep the state’s cordoned-off grid — a product of privatization and deregulation — from blowing its top. Originally, blackouts were only supposed to last a short period. Instead, millions of Texans have been without electricity all week. Without power, water treatment plants have faltered, leading many major cities to issue boil water notices. These remain in effect now, as burst pipes and overwhelmed systems have led to further complications, even with weather conditions and power issues starting to improve. The food supply is also in dire straits, with deliveries disrupted by icy roads, leading to empty grocery store shelves and overtaxed food banks.
Video game companies, too, have closed down. In statements to Kotaku, EA, Aspyr Media, Certain Affinity, and Owlchemy Labs said they halted operations in Texas entirely for the week. Even with many employees working from home due to covid, the situation was too much for studios to bear.
“With the ongoing severe weather events and widespread power outages, we’ve temporarily closed Electronic Arts operations in Austin to allow for those employees to prioritise and focus on their safety and that of their families,” an EA spokesperson told Kotaku in an email, noting that EA employs over 700 people in Texas. “All other EA studios remain operational and are supporting the Austin team during this time. We do not expect player experiences to be impacted. We place our teams first and continue to perform daily wellness check-ins with employees to assess their safety and offer any support and resources.”
Among these resources, said the spokesperson, are hotel accommodations for workers facing “extreme challenges,” as well as “transportation options to deliver emergency supplies to employees in critical need.”
In an email, Aspyr co-founder Ted Staloch said that the Austin-based publisher has been closed for the past five days “so that our employees can focus on the well-being and safety of their families.” But he also noted that it still managed to announce a game — Stubbs The Zombie — on Wednesday with support from “many teams outside of Aspyr.”
Owlchemy, the Austin-based studio behind VR games like Job Simulator, Vacation Simulator, and Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality, has also temporarily closed down.
“We have chosen to prioritise the health and safety of our team this week and have halted operations until power and water [are]restored,” CEO Devin Reimer said in a statement emailed to Kotaku. “The team is working cooperatively to care for one another as best they can by providing shelter, water, food, and power to those in need.”
Certain Affinity, an independent studio that’s worked on series like Halo, Call of Duty, and Doom, had to halt Austin operations this week, and CEO Max Hoberman — who’s been openly critical of Texas leadership on Twitter — is none too happy about it.
“No one warned any of us about the potential for widespread or prolonged outages,” Hoberman said, noting that over 200 employees have been impacted by the outages. “There still has not been coherent communication or assistance at a state level, though leaders and civic organisations in Austin are stepping up to the best of their ability…As a company, we have had only intermittent power to our facility, forcing us to shut down all services and ride the storm and outages out. Even our staff with the ability to work can’t, as a result. We’ve lost a minimum of a week of work on each of our projects, and almost certainly more as power outages continue (I’ve had 2 hours of service in the last 48), and then people deal with the inevitable consequences of this deep freeze, including [burst] pipes thawing out.”
A spokesperson for Activision Blizzard, which also has an Austin campus, told Kotaku in an email that the company is offering employees paid time off so that they can “take care of themselves and their families first.” The spokesperson added that “this is somewhat affecting Blizzard’s Customer Support response times.”
Gearbox, the Frisco, Texas-based creator of Borderlands, has not ceased operations, though work in some areas did come to a near-complete standstill earlier this week, according to sources who spoke to Kotaku. In the wake of initial difficulties, Gearbox has “asked our team to prioritise the well-being of themselves and their families,” according to an email from a company spokesperson. The company has also deployed a check-in system to ensure that employees are safe.
“This helped identify those who needed assistance with their power being out, broken pipes, and other issues,” the spokesperson said. “For those who needed it, our team members have been opening their homes and offering assistance.”
Cloud Imperium Games, whose main base of operations is in Austin, remains up and running, largely due to the fact that the main studio has not lost power “for an extended period of time,” and it has backup power systems in place. Austin employees, however, have still been affected in a big way.
“Many of our team members pitched in to help each other out, with some people going to stay at other’s houses if their services were out,” a CIG spokesperson told Kotaku in an email. “The overall situation has been very difficult when taken in consideration that the roads have been unsafe to travel, stores are closed, many people have been without power and heat, and many people remain without water service.”
Bossfight Entertainment, a studio born from the ashes of Zygna Dallas that has locations in both Dallas and Austin, has been trying to soldier on, but the process has been fraught, to say the least.
“We’ve had a couple engineers relocate (across very treacherous roads) not so much to work as much as to keep warm,” creative director and MMO pioneer Damion Schubert told Kotaku in a DM. “The whole area is undergoing rolling blackouts, so you’ll be having a conversation with someone, and they’ll just disconnect mid-sentence on Slack or Zoom. When your power goes down, your cell service becomes calls and text only, so you’re cut off from work (and the news!). There are personal decisions to deal with — people having to try to find food or firewood or families having to deal with child care. And that’s before you get into true emergencies, like the guy whose pipes burst while he was in the middle of a Slack conversation.”
Stoic, the developer behind The Banner Saga, was founded in Austin but has since branched out. Still, it’s been hit hard by Texas’ entirely avoidable catastrophe.
“We have about 15 or so people in Austin,” technical director and co-founder John Watson told Kotaku in a DM. “Almost everyone there was without power for at least a day. A few are still without heat even today, since Sunday night. It is a truly astonishing failure. Our operations have been affected as most of those folks have been unable to work this week.”
Smaller developers without built-in institutional support have been forced to fend for themselves.
“Not to be dramatic, but this has been the most traumatic event I’ve experienced in my adult life,” Gabrielle Genevieve, designer of narrative game Small Talk, told Kotaku in a DM. “I’ve never had to live through something where my family had no power and water (including my older mother) and not having the ability to go to them and drop off supplies. My sister ran out of gas and had no heat and was running low on food too. The mental space for that is just…a lot.”
Genevieve has been housing her brother and a friend, both of whom had to walk across the city of Austin to reach her “like some post-apocalyptic zombie world.” Now they are all crammed into her small home, which means no time or space for working on her game. Today, much of Austin got power back, but the crisis is far from averted.
“I’m still in survival mode,” said Genevieve. “Boiling snow. It’s very surreal.”
Dane Byrd, an Austin-based student and developer working with a team of friends on a larger project, considers himself lucky. He hasn’t lost electricity once this week. But he and his family have been without water since Tuesday, and many members of his team have only intermittently had power since Monday.
“My family’s home was without power for 15 days during Hurricane Ike,” Byrd told Kotaku in a DM. “So I’ve experienced other weather events without power for extended periods. This is different. On multiple mornings this week, the ‘feels like’ temperature was 0°F. I’m extremely grateful and feel somewhat guilty having power while others literally freeze to death on the streets. I’ve been able to work on personal work this week, constantly saving my Unity scene in fear of losing power at any time. Having not showered in half a week, needing to manually refill the toilet after every flush, dog throw-up, and a pileup of dirty dishes, it’s been difficult to stay focused on particle systems and shaders, to say the least.”
Austin resident Siavash Ranjbar can identify. In a DM, he told Kotaku that he’s been fortunate enough to have power, but “my internet, water, and heat have been off, so I have been having to ration the food/clean water I have left because grocery stores are both unreachable by car and sold out of essentials.”
Ranjbar has spent the week trying to get work done where he can because his game’s message now feels more urgent than ever. Bridgebourne, the RPG he’s been working on since 2016, is about climate change.
“All I could think about is the situation millions are in and how our politicians were failing us,” he said. “Whether or not this arctic blast was a result of climate change, we should still take this as a warning of what weather can really do to surprise us and start working on these problems now.”
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