Some recollections of working in the games industry

From 2004 to 2005 I worked at a new Ubisoft studio. Technically it was “Guillemot Entertainment” at the time (before it was renamed to Longtail Studios, and then later moved to Halifax and became Ubisoft Halifax), but it was basically Ubisoft; we used Ubisoft corporate letterhead, our QA and publishing went through Ubisoft, our paychecks came from Ubisoft, and so on. And, most importantly, our studio head was Gérard Guillemot, one of the Guillemot brothers. Notably, Yves runs Ubisoft as a whole, and Michel ran Gameloft, which was (at the time) Ubisoft’s foray into mobile gaming.

Because it’s relevant to the current discussion around the games industry and its rampant toxicity, I have a few stories to share.

The Romanian Metric

My studio was founded as part of a bet between Gérard and Michel.

Their bet was which workers were more exploitable: Americans or Romanians.

They’d worked out that the bare-minimum salary they could pay an American game developer was 2.5x the bare-minimum salary of a Romanian developer, and what they were trying to figure out was whether the higher salary of Americans was worth it.

The way that I found out about this bet was one day Gérard gathered us all together to give us a pep talk where he told us about the bet, and that in order to prove him right we’d have to be “2.5x as good as a Romanian.” The extremely strong implication was that if we didn’t help him win the bet, we’d all be fired.

The end result of this little pep rally: we all started measuring our productivity in terms of Romanians. Like, “I only had a 1-Romanian day.” “Oh man, I felt like I was operating at 12 Romanians!” “Damn, nice. But then [game designer], I don’t think he’s ever done more than half a Romanian, tops.”

This bare-minimum salary? US$50,000/year. In Manhattan.

(The writers made half that, and worked just as many hours.)

Crunch-Time Extreme

During crunch time we would typically work 9 AM to midnight, 7 days a week – 105 hours per week. This got reduced to 6 days a week, but only because the building security got fed up with having to pay a guard overtime. If you do the math, you’ll note that this is still about 90 hours. So relaxing.

Even outside of crunch time we generally worked 12 hours a day, 5-6 days/week (60-72 hours/week). One time during one of these relative lulls, a coworker and I asked our team lead if we could leave “early” (meaning 7 PM), because there’s a thing we wanted to attend. He got visibly annoyed at us for wanting to leave “early,” and wanted to know why we thought we could. I said something like, “There’s nothing else for us to do today anyway.”

His response: “There is always something to work on.”

The bug bash

During the crunch time leading up to the release of our first game, our producer decided we weren’t putting in enough hours, and that in order to get release-ready we should do a 36-hour bug bash. The messaging they gave us during that time: “During the bug bash, you can leave the building, but if you do, you can’t come back in.”

“Oh, so you are a painter, too?”

We needed some UI art to be produced. We didn’t have anyone on-staff to do that. So I stepped up and used some of my “downtime” to make UI assets. Gérard got upset at me for wasting developer time on art, and sarcastically asked me if I was also a painter. But really I needed to do something that wasn’t coding!

Pod people

Our studio was laid out in an open floor plan, with “pods” of desks for the functional divisions. The production team looked inward on those clusters, like some sort of reverse panopticon.

Of course, my back was to the producer, so he would constantly watch over me to see what I was doing at every minute. If I ever did anything that didn’t look like work to him (including taking a typing break), he’d get mad at me.

Unreasonable time demands

Pretty much every day I’d work until midnight, get home at 1 (because I couldn’t afford to live close to the studio and had to take the subway), get up at 8 AM, then scramble to get in by 9. Sometimes the subway would be late. One time I got in at 9:05 AM, and I got yelled at for “holding up the team.”

Vacation time

Vacation time had to be scheduled well in advance. For the Christmas vacation I made sure to schedule mine two months out. The HR representative lost the application, which I only found out the day before my trip home, when the producer was livid at me for thinking I could take time off without scheduling it. Also, all the other devs were taking that time off too, and for some reason there had to be a dev on-hand to do… what, exactly? We weren’t running online services, no work was going to be getting done, and so on… but anyway, the producer tried to make it my fault that I had to stay there.

I struck a deal with him, where I’d come into work before my flight to visit my parents, as a show of good faith. And he kept on piling more and more trivial make-work on me. Finally when I absolutely could not wait any longer to go to the airport to make my expensive flight I pleaded with him until he graciously let me go “early.”

Then two days before I was to return, I started getting angry phone calls on my cellphone asking why I wasn’t back yet!

In sickness, or in… sickness…

Our health insurance was awful. Extremely limited coverage in terms of available doctors, and their network only covered the tri-state area. So of course when I got sick on a different trip, I couldn’t even find a doctor who I had insurance coverage with. My parents finally had to convince me to go to urgent care and they promised to cover the bill.

The bill was quite high, and they ended up not, in fact, covering it, telling me it was my own fault for waiting too long to see a doctor. And I was making big-city bucks anyway, why wouldn’t I be able to afford it?

And after all that…

I desperately needed to get out of there, but from the past 10 months of internalized abuse I was feeling worthless and unwanted, and I didn’t have the time to do interviews anyway. I also had basically no savings net, because with my salary I was only just barely making ends meet.

I was working up the courage to quit, but it was difficult. Suddenly, that became irrelevant, as they took me into a room and told me I was fired. The reason for it? Someone had leaked the Nintendo DS SDK, and because I had a programming blog and was, according to Gérard, “a hacker,” I was obviously to blame. So I was an easy scapegoat.

My teammates were all told that I was culpable. There was no real investigation, aside from there being “14 pages of code on [my] website.”

I couldn’t get out of that place fast enough.

Within two weeks I’d gotten a much better job offer… at Amazon. Which was an improvement. (Still an awful, toxic place, though.)

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