Game Developer Employee Complaints Paint Picture of Broken Industry
Glassdoor is a website that tries to give would-be employees of various companies insight into how they function by offering current or former staff the chance to explain insider culture and shed light on the creative process. Glassdoor catalogs hundreds of companies, but Kotaku went to the trouble of looking up a huge number of game developers and reporting what the results looked like. While such reviews should always be taken with a grain of salt, there's interesting details to be found as well.
The short version? If you want to be a game developer, work at Valve. Valve is rated as five stars. The most negative review Kotaku could find contained exactly one negative point: "very competitive internally (high standards)." Zynga is rated fairly well but decried as a sweatshop, Volition (Red Faction, Saints Row) earns a 1.3. TimeGate (Aliens: Colonial Marines, Section 8, FEAR) scores a 1.9. Blizzard is described as a bastion where politics and sucking up gets you farther than great games, Sony Computer Entertainment America is labeled an "Old company, old practices, old mindset— obsolescence imminent" by a current employee in 2009.
Reading through the various reviews, it's clear that there's a common thread of dissatisfaction. Developers don't mind hard work, but they often feel as though they're left out of the loop. Changes aren't communicated, product features are reshuffled without warning, long-term master plans are either missing or change too often to be considered reliable. Internal promotion is a major problem at a number of firms, with employees being told there's no way to really move from position to position unless you leave the company and come back in a new role.
What many of the issues point to is the core disconnect between a publisher who wants to maximize value/profits for minimal efforts and developers who want to build great games. These issues may be particularly acute in gaming, but they aren't unique to it. It's extremely hard for successful companies to retain the agility and nimble development that characterized their initial success. As new products become entrenched profit centers, interests and individuals develop a defensive mindset that focuses on protecting income streams at any cost, even when the disruption has a chance to boost earnings. It's a trend that's been described at companies from GM to Microsoft, and it continues to impact studios today.
Unless you happen to work at Valve. Valve, apparently, is awesome.