There's a word - it starts with a "U" - that is unspeakable around most high-tech professionals. It conjures images of thugs breaking legs and poor workers forced to hand over dues to a fat parent organization. When the going gets tough, the word reappears in developer culture, but only within variations on a theme; those that have suffered and oppose poor management rail for it, and, predominantly, individuals doubt other developers could ever swallow the idea, even if they themselves support it.
It is a long and difficult discussion that's tumbled in the industry for some time, and like most long-running discussions, it is fraught with mythology. Whether or not a union is a good solution for the industry remains to be decided, but this past February, one of the primary myths - that organization could only hurt small studios - burst wide open.
A Toss of the D.I.C.E.
At the 2007 D.I.C.E. Summit this past February, Michael John, independent game designer and proprietor of Method Games, became the talk of the town by saying the U-word in his presentation on open market dynamics. John also blogs for Gaming Mercenaries, a site devoted specifically to spreading the word about disconnecting from the mothership of classical third-party development.
Near the end of his presentation, John attacked the union notion head-on: "You say this word in a room of game developers, they think of Hoffa and Tony Soprano. Here are some things I've heard. Unions will bankrupt small studios. Unions let slackers keep their jobs. ... Yeah, if we're stupid."
This unflinching catapult into the notion that a developer's union could be a good thing sent shockwaves through D.I.C.E. and beyond. In the month between John's presentation at D.I.C.E. and his requested encore at GDC, a host of studios buzzed with talk of organization.
The immediate response startled John, who'd only meant to suggest the notion of a union as a possibility and an afterthought to his "open market" pitch. "When I did the D.I.C.E. speech, my real agenda was about free agency, about trying to loosen up the industry to the idea that not everybody who works on a game needs to be - or even should be - a full-time, permanent employee. As part of that talk, I discussed some of the things that would help the whole thing work, so that included a proper set of agents (not recruiters), a decent healthcare option and like in Hollywood, unions would be helpful.
"I didn't anticipate that the union message would be heard so loudly. But moreover, that it would be heard so positively."
Deliberately provocative in his address, John realized that bringing up the U-word was playing with fire. "Much of it was under hushed breath (I think there's a view especially among old-school developers that anyone who favors a union is somehow not manly, or 'sufficiently independent of spirit'), but people were, by and large, positive. It was this reaction, not my original intent, that led me to really research unionization and to think very hard about how it might be done in games."
On the Same Side
What surprised John the most was the immediate, if very quiet, support he received specifically from heads of small independent studios, oft regarded as the cowboy heroes of the game industry.