"Some of the strongest supporters I've had ... have been heads of studios. In an important sense, organized employees level the playing field for studios - especially those that are concerned with treating their people well and dislike the idea that they're essentially being 'undersold' to publishers by studios who are willing to slave-drive their employees."
Smart studios know death marches make for poor product. Precisely because game development, like all software engineering, is a "white collar" endeavor, it requires a lot of brain power, and brain power is the first function to shut down under excessive fatigue. No one - perhaps least of all the studio head who stands to lose a project or even a company if a major undertaking spins out of control - wants to put his employees through a death march, but studios, particularly small ones, are at the mercy of the deals they can secure from publishers. If another studio promises more delivered in less time, they gain a competitive edge over the studio seeking a fair deal, and this cycle can become one of infinite regression, as young studios compete to out-stretch each other.
A developer organization would give a small studio a wall to lean on when pressed or tempted by unreasonable contracts, and this is the quiet, unspeakable reason indie studio heads support unionization. Because developers and independent studios tend to be on the same side, the organization of one becomes the sharp tool of the other.
But that's not all, John says. "There's another important consideration, which is actually legal. Under current law, it would probably be illegal for independent studios to sit down and discuss their deals with publishers in detail, because that would be anti-competitive. However, if those studios had in common a collective bargaining unit in their employees, then they are allowed to sit down and share business information with each other. This is for instance the area of law that allows Hollywood producers to share information about the deals they get from studios, and work together to improve those deals."
Beyond bargaining, unionization can actually protect an industry or individual studio from class-action lawsuits. "Collective bargaining also has an advantage in that it lets studio management off the hook to a degree vis-a-vis work conditions. Under most states' labor laws, much of the enforcement of labor conditions is shifted at least in part to the union and away from the state labor commission. So long as the studio is in compliance with the collective bargaining agreement, it has little to fear of class action lawsuits."
We Can Rebuild You
Once Pandora's Unionization Box is opened, the question then becomes: How can we rationally address the challenge of creating an organization that fills these needs without turning into the Teamsters?
John says that the question of urgency comes from the increasing and unrelenting encroachment of other unions on the game industry.
"For me, I just wish that developers - rank-and-file developers - had a voice in the industry. I described this scenario at D.I.C.E. - and maybe that was my Waterloo - but when the Screen Actors Guild comes to the table and makes an argument that their talent is crucial to the success of games, with the current structure there's nobody to say, 'That's great, but actually, development talent is far more important than you'll ever be.' I mean, who would say that? The publishers aren't going to say it. Yet that's pretty much who's at the table with these groups. Doesn't it seem like we should fix that?"
John doesn't think unionization is a question of "when" - it's still an "if." But as time goes on, he envisions advocates postulating advantages along with disadvantages, and the use of more friendly terminology than the historical U-word.