At a meeting on Thursday, Xbox spoke about growing employee concerns about working conditions at Bethesda Game Studios and its parent company, ZeniMax. Matt Booty, head of Xbox Game Studios, said he was “confident” that the studio wasn’t crunching and that it was “unfair” to attribute crunch culture to Bethesda alone.
In a Q&A, Booty was asked to give the Kotaku report from earlier this month documenting difficult working conditions at Bethesda and ZeniMax during the development of Fallout 76† He said Xbox took crunch reports about its studios “seriously”, but added: “The challenge with many of these articles is that they look back, sometimes quite a long way back in time.” While Kotaku‘s report stated that crunch occurred in older productions such as Skyrimit was mainly about the crisis that took place in 2018 on Fallout 76†
Kotaku was able to independently verify the content of this meeting by viewing a recorded video.
“Crunch culture is… if you go back 10 years ago, it’s kind of unfair to put that on one studio,” Booty said. “It was just part of the industry. I’m not saying that to justify it, I’m just saying it was part of the culture of the industry. I literally slept under my desk early in my career. And we saw that as a badge of honor.”
Booty said the working conditions described in the report were a thing of the past. “I know from conversations with the Bethesda leadership that we don’t have a situation where people are having a hard time and we have a bullying atmosphere… I’m confident in that.”
He acknowledged that crunch could still take place without his knowledge, and said employees should rely on Xbox’s internal processes. He said Xbox’s human resources department would be willing to listen to employees’ concerns, and that all studios had support groups for individual disciplines. “There are opportunities for them to report that to us anonymously through HR,” Booty said. “We have to rely on those independent systems of checks and balances.”
Since the Xbox HR department is employed by Xbox, it can hardly be considered an “independent” entity.
The Xbox head said overtime should only be limited to personal excitement and passion, and not as a mandatory part of production planning. However, many ZeniMax testers who were not explicitly mandated to crack had still worked overtime from social and professional peer pressure. the crunch Kotaku documented took place before Xbox took over ZeniMax and Bethesda. But the report noted that after the acquisition, Xbox was reportedly a “hands-off” owner who typically didn’t make significant changes to newly acquired studios. During this week’s all-hands talk, Booty didn’t say what actions Xbox would take if studios behaved in ways inconsistent with its outspoken stance against crunch.
Kotaku reached out to Matt Booty, Xbox, and ZeniMax for comment, but received no response at the time of publishing.
Earlier this month, Kotaku published a report on the horrendous working conditions behind the development of Bethesda’s multiplayer, open-world RPG Fallout 76† QA testers reported working ten hours a day, six days a week in precarious financial conditions. They claimed that project managers forced them to work unsustainable amounts of overtime, which reportedly led to many developers leaving the company. Former Bethesda employees said Xbox took a hands-off approach to managing ZeniMax once the acquisition was completed, frustrating employees who hoped Microsoft would improve their benefits.
ZeniMax wasn’t the only Xbox-owned studio reportedly given relative autonomy from the publisher. Former Employees of Undead Labs also claimed that Xbox took a “hands-off” approach after acquiring that game studio. While it may seem right for the publisher to allow acquired studios some operational liberties, sources at Undead Labs worried that such indulgence “created the dysfunction.”
As of early June, Microsoft has taken more overt public stances on game development. Last month, Xbox CEO Phil Spencer pledged to recognize the Raven Software Union once Activision Blizzard’s Xbox acquisition was completed. On June 2 Microsoft announced it was willing to “cooperate” with labor organizations. While Microsoft is certainly required to abide by local labor laws, the public statement holds the company publicly accountable for working with unions in good faith. Unlike an HR department, an employee association would actually be an independent entity from Xbox Game Studios.
However, Xbox has chose not to comment publicly about the employment conditions at ZeniMax Media since Kotaku‘s report was initially published.
“What I take as an employee from this is that he says to go through HR,” an anonymous Xbox employee told Kotaku† “And We Know” how that worked at Blizzard†
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