A light has recently been shined on the problematic development process of Call of Duty Black Ops 4.
According to a recent report from Kotaku, the AAA shooter had a difficult development period that ended with the game’s campaign mode being discarded in favor of the battle royale mode, Blackout. The change was made about a year prior to its launch, which caused the working conditions for QA testers to be less than satisfactory.
Kotaku was able to interview 11 current and former Treyarch employers, who spoke to the publication on the basis of anonymity to protect their jobs. While crunch time is still the norm for the games industry, it is typically reserved for launch periods and not for a whole year. As a result, QA testers felt that this year long period of crunch time caused them to feel like they were treated as inferior compared to full-time Treyarch employees, who weren’t working for low wages like they were.
One of the anonymous employees stated that the company routinely would shut off the air conditioning in the building off as the night shift would come in to cover their 12 hours, leading to 90F degree (about 32 degrees Celsius) temperatures in the second-floor Santa Monica offices where they had been working.
The working conditions had jokingly been likened to a Chinese sweatshop, which was still serious. Particularly when temperatures typically increase in California in the month of July where production had ramped up.
Activision was unable to comment on the specific stories conveyed in Kotaku’s report. Instead, they released a general statement in support of Black Ops 4′s development team and that they were “committed to making everyone who works on its games feel appreciated and respected.”
“We constantly strive to provide a rewarding time and fun development environment for everyone,” it said.
The crunch time conditions at Treyarch persisted for much of 2018 and well after Black Ops 4‘s launch, according to employees. As a result, the amount of bugs in the game’s various post-launch builds had increased because the contracted QA testers didn’t have enough time to identify and flag them.
“I think the majority of us just want to be treated equally,” one said. “All of us give a shit about this game … Why treat us like subhuman even though we work just as hard as you guys?”
Unfortunately, these conditions aren’t unheard of. It has been well-documented that other developers such as Epic Games, Bioware, and Rockstar Games had their development teams working longer hours than normal to release a AAA title. However, the conditions at Treyarch are particularly problematic because the company seemed committed to isolating its contracted workers from the full-time employees. On top of crunch time, these contracted QA testers were told that they were not allowed to touch catered lunches until an hour after other developers had consumed much of what was served. It isn’t likely that Activision or Treyarch’s top brass were unaware of the questionable treatment of these employees, either. They had to have known this was going on in their own house.
Following Kotaku’s report, Treyarch heads Dan Bunting and Mark Lamia sent an email to Treyarch staff, which Jason Schreier was able to acquire. The e-mail which was clearly sent out as a response to the report read, “take the well-being of every single individual working here very seriously,” and “have a vision for the future of this studio that includes significant improvements to work/life balance.”
“We plan to achieve that through better project planning, streamlined production processes, and rigorous decision-making timelines. It is also our intention to maintain our commitment to increased transparency,” they wrote.
“Getting there will require time, hard work, and commitment—most of all, it will require open communication. If you ever feel like your needs aren’t being met, please do not hesitate to communicate actively with your manager. No one should ever feel like they don’t have options, can’t talk openly, or that the only choice is to take their concerns to the public. These conversations should always start with an honest dialogue with your department manager, and if that’s not working, feel free to reach out to one of us.”
Bunting and Lamia sent the e-mail addressing the report not just to full-time employees, but the contracted QA employees as well.
Whether Activision and Treyarch will change their policies towards the treatment of their employees is not known. It is clear though that they are part of what many critics of the games industry have dubbed a “systemic issue” which has lead to continuous calls for unionization.