Behind the success of triple A video games lies the constant work of external developers. When a company like Electronic Arts, Gearbox, Ubisoft or Nintendo needs extra manpower, they turn to companies like Keywords Studios or UK service Universally Speaking.
There has been more attention on this end of the gaming industry thanks in part to the unionization of employees at Keywords Studios in Edmonton, Canada. These workers, who provided development support to Dragon Age: Dreadwolf developer BioWare, complained of unfair treatment and low wages and sought to organize to address these concerns.
With games getting bigger and bigger, requiring an ever-expanding workforce, developers like those at Keywords Edmonton will play an important role in the industry’s big hits in the years to come.
Until recently, industry veteran Andrew Brown was the CEO of Keywords Studios. He has now migrated to Universally Speaking, where he hopes to grow the company’s support services and expand the services the company provides to the world of game development.
Biggest growth area for the company? It’s in live service operations. Here’s why:
Develop external development
The language surrounding external game development service providers can be a bit tricky. “Contractor” can refer to an independent contractor, an entire studio doing contract work, or a temporary “contract” employee at a company. Brown introduced the phrase “exdev”, short for “external development” during our conversation. In his mind, the expansion of “exdev” services is in the world of supporting huge live service games.
Brown said that during his time in the gaming industry he saw it go through “reverse Moore’s Law”. While Gordon Moore was concerned about the doubling of transistors in integrated circuits, Brown observed the doubling of game development budgets. “The cost of game development increases every year, and the complexity increases with the race to find the next big thing that will be super appealing to consumers,” he noted.
At both companies, he saw more large developers turning to the world of exdev to manage those costs. Brown’s end of the gaming industry has often been affiliated with quality assurance and localization services. But at Universally Speaking (which is already working in other areas of development beyond those two disciplines), he sees the company expanding into live game support.
Brown noted that when many major studios set up shop or created teams to make great online games, they weren’t prepared for the ongoing, 24/7 commitment with a base. of global players that some of these titles require. “There are many opportunities to build our support and make these experiences more engaging for players,” he noted.
Universally Speaking already has experience staffing customer service representatives for different clients, but that’s not the only discipline where “a consistent focus on quality” can play a crucial role. Studios must produce new content at an ever-increasing rate. Some of this content is new game features, and some is unique art assets that drive in-game spending.
Instead of trying to keep an immaculate development team throughout a game’s lifespan, companies could integrate the services of an exdev service provider to fill gaps in the content schedule. It’s not something that can be launched overnight, but it can help moderate the hectic pace of work required for successful online gaming.
Support long-term exdev careers
Brown spoke to Game Developer just a month after Keywords Studios employees in Edmonton successfully unionized with the Alberta Labor Board. Doing some math on the back of the napkin, we determined that he had been CEO of Keywords during the period when workers were struggling with low pay and unequal work policies.
Did all of this land on Brown’s desk in his final months at the company? He said he wasn’t involved in that process, noting that “it happened at a time when I was focusing on other things.”
He did not, however, seem indifferent to workers’ demands for low pay and harsh working conditions. “We need to make sure we are creating a great value proposition for employees [in the game industry]”, he said. “The people who work here need to feel that they are supported, that they are rewarded and that they are on a journey that they feel really happy about.
Brown’s comments on the Keywords Studios union came after we discussed why developers might pursue careers with exdev service providers. This is an area of development where quality is changing as the gaming industry begins to view quality assurance and other affiliated workers as a less dynamic job market and more as a market filled with specialists and experts.
“We are often [considered] a step of entering the industry,” he observed. “I think we want to evolve this [thinking] because we want to make sure people have career paths. “We discussed the notion of a kind of business pipeline that started with STEM education in different school systems. If Brown’s vision came to life, there would be a knowledge that pursuing STEM in high school l he school could lead to a career start at one of these exdev studios, and companies like his could foster the next generation of industry talent.
STEM pipelines are great, but we were curious what Brown would say if Universally Speaking workers were to unionize.
He declined to say whether he would voluntarily acknowledge such an effort. “Ultimately, I think my goal will be to make sure the people in our house are treated well, have the right support and feel like they’re enjoying the journey,” he explained. “And we have to balance all of that with industry demands.”
If ever a surge of unionization occurred, then he would “take a stand on it”, he said, describing himself as “having no view on the solutions”.
“I’m more people interested in people who enjoy travel.”