We all know there’s a problem. It has gradually mutated into the biggest open secret of modern video game development. A growth clinging desperately to the ribcage of the industry. Developers under threat of dire repercussions talk about it, fans either lend sympathy or callous apathy toward it, and journalists attempt to navigate the underbelly of the development scene, unearthing a seemingly endless tale of mistreatment and fear. Whichever lens you view it through the image remains the same – crunch culture is here and it’s a problem with a capital P.
The only upside to a capital P problem? Good people are compelled to fix it. The process of solving the issue is seldom easy and demands those who are undertaking the task to be equipped with quick wits, big hearts and unwavering commitment.
Fortunately, for the workers and industry as a whole, good people are making progress with a growing collection of organisations pushing back against toxic workplace practices.
Meet The Pack
Enter newly formed London based publisher Modern Wolf. According to its official site, the name Modern Wolf was inspired by the strengths of the wolf; loyal, family orientated, pack animals. Wolves are also “super cool” which, like, yeah.
It’s a bit of charm not lost on this writer, though having had the chance to chat with the company’s Head of Communications Lauran Carter it strikes me as a slightly incomplete list of traits. Modern Wolf is loyal, family orientated and concerned with the pack but it is also ravenously hungry.
My correspondence with Carter was with a kind of charming broken rhythm. Me, with my wide-eyed awe of their initial press email seeking to better understand exactly what Modern Wolf was undertaking and Carter, buried in a mountain of work as the publisher. Mere weeks after announcing themselves on the scene, they were already hard at work at Gamescom.
Fortunately, these wolves do indeed move in a pack and Carter (herself having managed communities and social media for numerous big-name wolf packs across the industry since 2009) is joined by fellow teammates Fernando Rizo and Andreas Gschwari. Rizo, Modern Wolf’s CEO, is a former US Marine turned BAFTA member and indie game developer. Meanwhile, Gschwari rounds out the pack with close to twenty years experience in the industry now being put to use as Modern Wolf’s Chief Creative Officer.
Together they form an impressive team, collectively pooling their experiences in the industry to try and create something wholly new and, frankly, ambitious.
Naturally, my first question for Carter had to address this ambition as many onlookers are no doubt curious about the kind of people it takes to actively tackle an issue as omnipresent as crunch culture and developer wellbeing.
What first inspired the creation of Modern Wolf and why is a commitment to ethical development so important to the team?
All three of us have years of experience working in AAA, and in Fernando’s case, as an indie developer, and there are a lot of learnings from those experiences: good and bad. Fernando fundamentally believes that there is a better way of developing and publishing games, an ethical way, where the focus is not necessarily just on money, but first and foremost on the people, the developers.
Modern Wolf is our attempt to bring this vision to life. We intend to change the way publishers and development studios work together, and to remove those negative aspects of game development—like crunch—to (hopefully) improve things for devs and players alike. Consumers are becoming more and more aware of how their games are made and any personal sacrifices developers make to get a game to launch. Our aim is to almost create a seal of approval – when you see ‘published by Modern Wolf’ on a release, you’ll know that the studio had full creative control of the game and that the development was ethical.
Darkest Before The Dawn
Given the team’s collective time spent in the AAA development field, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that it instilled within them a desire to see more focus given to developer health. Changes like those that Modern Wolf is trying to implement couldn’t have come at a better time either as more and more cases of mistreatment are rising to the surface.
“Crunch” is a now-infamous term used to describe harsh working conditions under which developers are strong-armed into working unhealthy hours and under immense pressure to complete a game for launch. It is one of many workplace issues impacting the industry along with with shrinking budgets, tighter deadlines, toxic social environments and the ever-present threat of studio closure.
Crunch specifically seems to permeate most levels of the industry, from smaller indie studios to some of the biggest names in the field. Thanks to the tireless work of video game journalists like Kotaku’s Jason Schreier, as well as countless other voices coming from inside the studios themselves, we are starting to get a much clearer image of just how pervasive these issues are.
Notable cases over the past decade include the gruelling process it took to make the massive Red Dead Redemption 2 possible or how beloved developer Telltale Games burnt out in the most horrible of ways.
Wherever or however it’s happening most agree that something needs to be done, urgently, to ensure a better future for the people who make the games we all love so much. As with almost any other industry experiencing worker mistreatment, the creation and push for unionisation are already underway.
Game Workers Unite is an international grassroots organisation offering help to anyone in the industry who has suffered under unhealthy working conditions. Its efforts haven’t gone unrewarded either as the UK branch of the organisation was recently afforded legal recognition as a union under the government with more chapters across the globe hoping to follow suit.
While progress on the external front is fantastic to see, outside organisations can only do so much to quell an issue which seems hardcoded into current development practices. Which is exactly why teams like Modern Wolf matter so much to the conversation and to the momentum of change needed to fix these issues. The core message from the team has been one of solidarity with developers, offering a safe haven of a sort which will foster healthier workplaces and, in theory, better games as an end result. For as taken as I am with Modern Wolf’s ideology, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask Carter exactly how this philosophy will look in practice.
Are there specific programs/plans in place to assist developers with mental health concerns?
Two of the core causes of mental health concerns for indie developers are stress and worries about security. Those are the first two points we aim to tackle. Mental health something that’s really important to me, and to Team Wolf as a whole.
The aim is to foster an environment focused on transparency and honesty, so having a good relationship with our developers is paramount. Applying pressure to devs to hit milestones or crunch is not something that we’re going to entertain, we value creativity.
We know that creativity and mental health are inherently linked. So by shouldering some of the parts of bringing a game to market, we hope to alleviate the stress that developers can find themselves under.
Shouldering some of the pressure to bring a game to market, as Carter puts it, is no small task. Especially when you take into account that the Modern Wolf pack is no bigger than a handful of people. Dedication and passion go a long way though and the relatively small scale of the team has done little to dull the ambition, or spirits, of everyone involved.
Quite the opposite it seems as Carter explains below, the small-scale operation allows for a sense of true connection and family to be fostered between Modern Wolf and the several studios it is currently working with.
What are the challenges and/or benefits of working in a small team?
Both are plentiful!
As far as challenges go, we all wear a few hats at the moment. It’s important to all of us that we build a really good foundation for Modern Wolf, and in order to do that we all have to be as involved in the day to day goings-on as possible. We value our devs time above all else, so our primary aim is to remove as much of the fiddly and administrative aspects of development in order to free them up to make awesome games.
\Amongst the benefits – being a small team means that we are always learning, always discovering new things and always doing it together. We get to have one on one time with all of our development studios – of which there are currently six – which enables me to develop a wider picture of what’s best for each of them when it comes to their Social Marketing.
The whole team gets on really well, and we like our devs too. Our devs like our other devs and all share their triumphs and learnings in our slack channel. It’s a Modern Wolf family.
Red Moon Rising
While nobody involved in fighting back against toxicity in any environment is under the illusion that change happens overnight, thanks to teams like Modern Wolf we can start to look ahead with fresh hope. As workers join more unions and speak more freely about the conditions which threaten their health and livelihoods so too do industry veterans like Rizo, Carter and Gschwari step forward to herald game development to a brighter future.
Right now, under the protection of the Modern Wolf pack, developers are hard at work on new experiences and titles.
The full list of games is available on the Modern Wolf site but it’s safe to say if you’re a fan of artistic, strategic games then Modern Wolf is going to have something to suit your tastes.
More importantly, you get to play these games secure in the knowledge that the developers behind them are part of a family, secure and safe in a pack of the nicest wolves out there.
Thanks to Lauran Carter for her time.