Activision Blizzard has announced that all "temporary and contingent" QA workers at its Activision Publishing and Blizzard divisions, a group of "nearly 1,100 people," will be converted from contractors to full-time employees on July 1. The company also said that the hourly wage for most those positions will be increased to a minimum of $20, and that the new employees will receive "full company benefits" and be eligible for its bonus plan.
"Across Activision Blizzard, we are bringing more content to players across our franchises than ever before," an Activision Blizzard spokesperson said in an email sent to PC Gamer. "As a result, we are refining how our teams work together to develop our games and deliver the best possible experiences for our players. We have ambitious plans for the future and our Quality Assurance team members are a critical part of our development efforts."
The move comes in the wake of employee unrest sparked by a July 2021 lawsuit filed by California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleging widespread harassment, discrimination, and a "frat boy" culture at the company. That led to calls for the removal of CEO Bobby Kotick and ongoing unionization efforts that began in earnest last year when Call of Duty developer Raven Software's QA team walked off the job to protest a round of planned layoffs of contract workers. Activision pushed back but failed to stem the tide, and the Game Workers Alliance—the first videogame industry union at a major North American studio—was announced in January.
One catch is that the full-time QA employees at Raven Software will not receive the base pay increase "due to legal obligations under the National Labor Relations Act," an Activision Blizzard spokesperson told Bloomberg. The National Labor Relations Board prohibits giving benefits to employees "during a union organizing campaign to induce employees to vote against the union," which is likely the obligation being referred to. Should the union be recognized, Activision Blizzard will be prohibited from making changes to pay without bargaining with union representatives; base pay will surely be one of the biggest topics of that first contract negotiation if it happens, especially following this increase for the rest of the company.
Activision Blizzard opted not to voluntarily recognize the union, but it can still be formalized through the US National Labor Relations Board. Microsoft, which announced its intention to acquire Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion in January, subsequently said that it "will not stand in the way" if the union is ultimately recognized.
Converting all Raven QA workers to full-time employees was one of the demands made by strikers when the work stoppage first occurred, but this company-wide change goes beyond that: Activision Blizzard confirmed that these 1,100 converted QA positions are on top of 500 jobs it previously pledged to transition from contract to full-time. The conversion will increase Activision Publishing's full-time staffing by 25%.
A year ago, we made a promise to make A Better ABK. Little by little, we are accomplishing that goal. This is the power of collective action. When you work with your co-workers for the betterment of your workplace, the impossible becomes possible. #ABetterABK #EveryVoiceMattersApril 7, 2022
Activision Publishing chief operating officer Josh Taub said in an email sent to employees that Call of Duty has "expanded and evolved" over the past two years, which has driven the change in approach to QA.
"Our development cycles have gone from an annual release to an 'always on' model," Taub said. "In response to greater engagement, we've increased our live services business across all platforms. Our offerings now encompass season passes, operators, and the awesome content available in our stores. We’ve also grown our workforce and support across our studios, along with exciting new plans on mobile.
"In light of these changes, and as we look to our ambitious plans for the future, we are further refining how our development teams work together. QA is, and continues to be, critical to our development success. We have amazing QA teams in place that work hard to ensure our players have the best possible gaming experiences—thank you!"
Activision Blizzard isn't done with contract QA work, though: Taub added that "extra support" for QA will still be brought in from external companies as needed, calling such contract work "a long-standing studio and industry practice."
Blizzard boss Mike Ybarra also sent a message to employees about the change.
"Our ability to deliver great games at the 'Blizzard quality' level our players expect is vital to ensuring we exceed player expectations," wrote Ybarra. "Over the last six months, I’ve had the opportunity to listen and engage with members of our QA team and we’ve had several meetings where I outlined my philosophy about contract/full-time roles. I want to thank everyone who helped educate me and expressed their views on how we can make Blizzard the best player-focused game studio. We all know QA is integral to our success in ensuring the best possible gameplay experiences."
Activision Blizzard told GamesIndustry that the QA worker conversion "does not have any relation to the [unionization] petition pending at Raven studio." The Communications Workers of America, the union under which the Game Workers Alliance is organizing, disputed that position, however, as well as Activision Blizzard's justification for not including Raven QA workers in the change.
Make no mistake, all credit for Activision Blizzard’s latest move to give all temporary and contingent QA team members full-time employment and a raise should go to the workers (@ABetterABK) who have been organizing, mobilizing and speaking out. 1/April 7, 2022
"Make no mistake, all credit for Activision Blizzard’s latest move to give all temporary and contingent QA team members full-time employment and a raise should go to the workers who have been organizing, mobilizing and speaking out," CWA secretary-treasurer Sara Steffens said in a statement.
"It’s especially galling then that Activision has excluded Raven Software QA workers, who have been at the forefront of this effort, from these benefits. The company's assertion that the National Labor Relations Act prevents them from including Raven workers is clearly an effort to divide workers and undermine their effort to form a union (Game Workers Alliance - CWA). Activision’s disingenuous announcement is further evidence of the need for workers to have a protected voice on the job. We strongly urge Activision Blizzard to rectify this situation and respect Raven QA workers’ protected right to organize under the law."
In a follow-up statement sent to PC Gamer, Activision dismissed the union's allegation as "wrong and disingenuous."
"It is well known that, during an election petition period, the law prevents an employer from extending new kinds of benefits to employees who are going to be voting," an Activision Blizzard representative said. "See National Labor Relations Board v. Exchange Parts Co., 375 U.S. 405 (1964), and the associated cases, for discussion of these rules. The CWA is blaming us for trying to comply with the law by pretending the law does not exist."
The Game Workers Alliance hasn't yet made statements about the announcement—we've reached out for comment and will update this article when we learn more.