Earlier this month, Polish game devs, including several from CD Projekt Red, formed the Polish Gamedev Workers Union (PGWU). This came in the wake of further layoffs at the company in July, to the tune of 9% of its workforce. At the time, CEO Adam Kiciński explained the move as something to help make the teams more "agile and effective", but agile and effective doesn't pay the rent.
"This event created a tremendous amount of stress and insecurity," explains the union's website, "affecting our mental health and leading to the creation of this union in response. Having a union means having more security, transparency, better protection, and a stronger voice in times of crisis."
The devs at CD Projekt Red have shed more light on the situation during an interview with IGN, saying that the aftershocks of the game's crunch culture problems—both with the Witcher 3 in 2017 and Cyberpunk 2077 in 2019—led to that unnerving climate.
Linguistic QA Assurance Coordinator Paula Mackiewicz-Armstrong says that while things are looking up for the company as a whole, they're still not good enough. "I have been in the trenches in 2019 and 2020. I have seen the fires in Jupiter burning … I am happy that CDPR is committed to those improvements, but it's still not perfect."
These changes involve a commitment to reducing crunch culture that largely seems to have taken hold, and while there is still overtime, Mackiewicz-Armstrong says "overall it has been healthier." Jason Slama, the director of the next Witcher game, responded to related accusations with a resolute "Never on my watch!" But crunch isn't the only thing devs need to fear, as that 2023 wave of layoff shows.
"When you have a person close to you who you've worked with for a long time, or you mentored, or any kind of case like that where you know their potential … and you see them laid off and you can't find those answers as to why, the cracks begin to show really quickly," says technical QA analysis Tolly Kulczycki.
Mackiewicz-Armstrong agrees: "They have families, they need stability in their lives to just exist. So having the spectre of layoffs over you is quite stressful. Or if you are younger and you're just starting in the industry, then you want to have a chance to establish yourself … a lot of people that have been laid off were hired fairly recently, months or a year, and they just completely lost that chance."
The union is yet to be formally recognised by CD Projekt Red itself, especially since the union itself is still in its early days. It has, however, been reported that a dialogue has started between the fledgling union and the studio.
In a statement to IGN, CD Projekt Red highlighted its RED Team Representatives, an advisory group to the board who speak on the dev's behalf: "We have been working with them for over two years now and we will continue to do so to keep our work environment transparent, safe and healthy." Developers like Mackiewicz-Armstrong still insist a union's necessary, though, since "none of their decisions or recommendations are legally binding in any way. It's all advisory, it's all at the discretion of the board or the management."
That tracks. Very few corporations will say 'hey, here's some legally-binding power over your boss.' Any measures put in place by a company, no matter how well-intentioned, will inevitably act in the best interests of those who created it.
"[The RED Team representatives is] a great initiative, it really is," says Mackiewicz-Armstrong. "But a union is an outside body that is not dependent on the board, does not answer to them, and provides protections and assistance that is enshrined in law and not just internal company procedures."
It's been a great year for games, but a terrible year for the people making them—and the tech industry at large. 2023's not even finished, but the year's layoffs include: 600 employees from Unity, some of Dragon Age's best writers, about half of Brace Yourselves games, most of Telltale Games' staff, a smattering of Hearthstone developers, around 30 devs from Firaxis… and I'm barely past the tip of the iceberg. This stuff happens even if the company does well, like when Take-Two laid off employees after an 'exponential period of growth'.
The wider tech industry's been taking major hits, too. Microsoft's laid off a colossal 10,000 employees (though that number's a byproduct of scale: the company has over 221,000 employees worldwide). It's a widespread issue, though it's also one that isn't unique to the tech and gaming industry—that kind of job insecurity plagues society in general.
But just because it's common, doesn't mean that's a reason to shrug and say there's nothing to be done about it. I'm glad the developers at CD Projekt Red are beginning to build another barrier between themselves and that grim trend: and hopefully it won't be long before the studio officially recognises their union.