At Thursday’s general meeting, Xbox addressed 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 “sure” the studio didn’t do crunch and that it would be “unfair” to attribute the crunch culture to Bethesda alone.
In the question and answer, Booty was asked to contact Kotaku report earlier this month which documented problematic working conditions at Bethesda and ZeniMax during development Fallout 76. He said Xbox took the critical reports about its studios “seriously” but added, “The problem with a lot of these articles is that they look back, sometimes quite far back in time.” Bye Kotakuthe report mentions that crunches took place in older productions such as Skyrimit mainly dealt with the crisis that occurred in 2018 on Fallout 76.
Kotaku was able to independently verify the content of this meeting by viewing the recorded video.
“The culture of crunch… if you go back 10 years, it’s a little unfair to put it in one studio,” Booty said. “It was just part of the industry. I’m not saying this to justify it, I’m just saying it was part of the culture of the industry. Early in my career, I literally slept under my desk. And we treated it like a badge of honour.”
Buti said the working conditions described in the report are a thing of the past. “From talking to Bethesda management, I know that we don’t have a situation where people crunch and we have this atmosphere of intimidation… I’m sure of it.”
He acknowledged that a crisis could still happen without his knowledge and said that employees need to trust Xbox’s internal processes. He said that Xbox Human Resources would be willing to listen to employees’ concerns and that all studios have discipline-specific support teams. “They have the ability to anonymously tell us what goes through HR,” Booty said. “We have to rely on these independent checks and balances.”
Since Xbox Human Resources operates within Xbox, it can hardly be considered an “independent” organization.
The head of Xbox said that overtime should only be about personal excitement and passion and not a mandatory aspect of production planning. However, many ZeniMax testers who were not explicitly tasked with crunching still working overtime due to social and professional peer pressure. Crunch Kotaku documented happened before Xbox acquired ZeniMax and Bethesda. But the report notes that after the acquisition of Xbox, he was allegedly a “hands-off” owner who typically did not make drastic changes to newly acquired studios. During this week’s general meeting, Booty didn’t mention what action Xbox would take if studios didn’t behave the way he stated his stance against crunch.
Kotaku reached out to Matt Booty for comment, Xbox and ZeniMax but had not received a response at the time of publication.
Earlier this month Kotaku published a report on harsh working conditions behind the development of Bethesda’s open-world multiplayer RPG Fallout 76. QA testers reported that they were working 10-hour days, six days a week, in precarious financial conditions. They claimed that project managers forced them to work overtime, which led to many developers leaving the company. Former Bethesda employees said that after the acquisition was completed, Xbox took a hands-off approach to managing ZeniMax, which disappointed workers who had hoped Microsoft would improve their labor benefits.
ZeniMax wasn’t the only Xbox-owned studio to claim relative autonomy from the publisher. Former Undead Labs employees also claimed that Xbox was taking a “hands-off” approach. after acquiring this game studio. While it may seem good that the publisher is giving acquired studios some operational freedom, sources at Undead Labs are concerned that such permissiveness has “allowed the dysfunction to deepen.”
As of early June, Microsoft has taken a more open stance on the labor of game developers. Last month, Xbox CEO Phil Spencer vowed to recognize the Raven Software union following the completion of the Xbox acquisition of Activision Blizzard. June 2 Microsoft declared that he was ready to “cooperate” with labor organizations. While Microsoft must of course comply with local labor laws, the public statement makes the company publicly responsible for working in good faith with unions. Unlike Human Resources, the employee union is actually an independent organization from Xbox Game Studios.
However, the Xbox has decided not to comment publicly about the conditions of work in ZeniMax Media with Kotakuthe report was originally published.
“As an employee, I take away from this what he says to go through HR,” said an anonymous Xbox employee. Kotaku. “And we know how did it happen in Blizzard“.