Cases of sexism and harassment are unfortunately commonplace in the video game industry and the emancipation of victims’ speech only highlights these actions, and this in all structures. Today, Xbox Game Studios member Undead Labs (State of Decay) comes under the spotlight for allegations of sexism, bullying and burnout.
A complicated affair for Microsoft, which has wanted to lead by example for months
While Microsoft received the prize for the best global corporate culture yesterday and the group announced that it was closely monitoring the internal affairs of Activision Blizzard, it was finally within its own group that the storm broke out. , as detailed by Kotaku in its file. Indeed, it is accusations raised by the staff of Undead Labs concerning facts that occurred during the integration with Xbox Game Studios that are brought to light today. The toxic environment and ambient harassment would have greatly disrupted this transition.
Following the takeover by Microsoft four years ago, the Undead Labs studio has taken on a new dimension and its ambitions have only grown despite the departure of the emblematic founder of the State of Decay series. The third installment has been in development for a while, stuck at the pre-production stage, but the revelations from our colleagues at Kotaku finally give us reasons for this complicated advance.
Kotaku spoke to 12 Undead Labs employees who wished to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize their careers in the video game industry. Despite some positive aspects of the studio reported by employees, the internal culture has deteriorated significantly since the takeover by Microsoft. The Redmond firm may have loudly proclaimed its commitment against harassment and toxic environments in the industry, but Undead Labs employees believe that Microsoft’s “detached” approach has only allowed the dysfunctions to escalate. A former developer states in particular:
“We were afraid they would come and change our culture, but our collapse came from within, and we could have used Microsoft’s help. »
Kotaku contacted Microsoft’s Press Relations department, but the feedback was not particularly conclusive. The Redmond firm remained evasive by transmitting figures, statistics and a statement on behalf of Matt Booty, head of Xbox Game Studios:
“Each Xbox studio receives the resources and guidance it needs to grow in both capability and culture. The form this support takes varies from studio to studio, but each has a direct link to Microsoft HR resources outside of their team, and the ability to work with other studios and partner teams to leverage of their expertise. Additionally, all Microsoft employees, including our studio teams, are required to regularly complete our Standards of Business Conduct training, which covers topics such as harassment, supplier code of conduct, and more. Over the past few years Undead Labs has seen a number of positive changes and we are confident in the direction the team is taking for State of Decay 3, one of our most ambitious open-world games in development. »
A Microsoft spokesperson says in particular that “a completely new management team” has been put in place with diverse recruitments in 2021, including 42% women or non-binary people and 29% people from a minority background. racial or ethnic. Additionally, 84% of respondents would recommend Undead Labs as a good place to live. However, these statistics transmitted by Microsoft do not represent the heart of the concern and its entirety according to Undead Labs employees.
“The studio culture until recently wasn’t the most welcoming of anyone who wasn’t a cishet white man. It has improved over the last six months or so. But the studio has hired a lot of diverse talent that it hasn’t supported enough in the past. »
Ambient sexism and permanent pressure at Undead Labs
Until his departure, Jeff Strain, founder of the studio and of State of Decay, was defined as a central figure capable of rallying the troops and bringing in talents from all walks of life to carry out his project. After the success of the first opus, State of Decay 2 was launched in 2018, followed by the surprise announcement of the takeover by Microsoft. Jeff Strain had always proclaimed his wish to remain independent and this agreement took everyone by surprise.
This integration within Xbox Game Studios has changed the overall organization of teams and working methods at Undead Studios. Microsoft wanted to make State of Decay a central title in the Xbox catalog, especially through the Game Pass. A former developer states in particular:
“Every two months, after a milestone, the teams were completely broken up and mixed into new teams. So there was no consistency as to who was in charge of which system. »
Another developer adds:
“What happened on a day-to-day basis at Undead Labs was the more low-key death-by-a-thousand-paper-cut version of sexism. The QA department was hard at work tracking down all of our bugs and trying to fix them, but the executives were ignoring their concerns and saying things like ‘don’t log multiplayer bugs’ in an attempt to show artificial progress on State of Decay 3. Milestones consisted of a bunch of disjointed features that were less about making a fun video game and more about ticking off a list. »
The place of women in Undead Labs since the integration into Xbox Game Studios is also very questionable, as explained by a developer interviewed by Kotaku:
“When I did my Undead Labs interview, I was sold on the idea of a studio in transition that made diversity, equity and inclusion a top priority. In reality, studio executives painted a DEI face for Microsoft, while women were constantly ignored, rejected, interrupted, ignored, and blamed. Women’s opinions were outright rejected, even for extremely basic knowledge of code or games. No one listened to them, even women in managerial positions were outright ignored, talked over the top and blamed for the problems. »
The facts cited above are only part of the 12 testimonies collected by Kotaku journalists. The complete file goes into detail on the events that have taken place over the past three years within Undead Labs, whether in terms of actions, comments made or their impact on the development of State of Decay 3. According to d former developers, there is still a lot of work to do, one of them said in particular:
“I care about a lot of the people I worked with at Undead Labs, and I really hope things get better there. But without any accountability, nothing will change.”
This case has a particular resonance in the current social context and we will have to closely monitor Microsoft’s reactions to Undead Labs and Activision Blizzard. If the Federal Trade Commission validates the takeover of 68 billion dollars of the Californian group, Phil Spencer will have the mission of completely reforming the cultures reigning within the studios directed by Xbox, a colossal challenge which he will have to succeed if he does not does not want to betray its commitments. Find the entire investigation conducted by Kotaku in their file published yesterday.