Reports emerged last week of troubling working conditions at Team Bondi, the Australia studio responsible for developing Rockstar Games‘ latest, L.A. Noire. The info came from a number of unidentified former Bondi staffers, who also indcated that the situation led to a split between Rockstar and the studio on future projects.
As is always the case with these sorts of stories, there are multiple perspectives and not all of them see things as the whistleblowers do. Disturbed by the allegations raised by those former Bondi staffers, Noire lead programmer Dave Heironymous fired off a letter to the International Game Developer’s Association, which he then shared in its entirety with Gamasutra. Heironymous admits that working conditions were difficult — really, that’s nothing new for the games industry, especially during “crunch” periods — but he believes that the allegations which have been raised are not so much meant to make things better as they are meant to see the studio “destroyed.”
The letter is a hefty read, but Heironymous has a lot to say. After all, he’s sort of defending his job here, and employers who he clearly believes in. The reality of the situation probably falls somewhere in between the picture painted by both sides. Working conditions were difficult, we know that much, and a few people probably came out of it feeling used and abused, for whatever reason.
Check out the full text of Heironymous’ letter to the IGDA below:
To Whom It May Concern:
My name is Dave Heironymus and for the past four years I’ve been the Lead Gameplay Programmer at Team Bondi. This is an open letter regarding the development of L.A. Noire at Team Bondi.
Firstly, my motivation for writing this: while I’m part of the “management goon squad” at Team Bondi, I’m also part of the “Aussie Five” who were the first five local employees at Team Bondi. I’ve been at Team Bondi since it was 11 people in a big empty room. I’ve been there through the highs and lows of developing L.A. Noire. And the recent coverage on working conditions has been very one-sided. At no point did the journalist who wrote the original IGN piece ask me for my side of the story. So here it is:
I started at Team Bondi on April 5, 2004, as a Junior Programmer straight out of university. During my final year at university Brendan McNamara gave a talk about a game he wanted to make and how he was starting a new studio in Sydney to make it. This was a dream come true! I’d been hoping that by the time I finished my degree I’d have the opportunity to make games right here in my home town, and sure enough here it was. I’d emailed Brendan within an hour or so of the end of his talk and two interviews later I had the job! From there I made my way to Programmer, Senior Programmer, and finally to my current position.
During the early years of L.A. Noire, we generally worked 9 to 6. Occasionally we’d do some late nights towards the end of a milestone, but by and large it was pretty smooth sailing. Unfortunately as time went on we failed to make as much progress as we’d have liked and there was growing pressure to work longer hours. It was not any one person’s fault that we weren’t making progress, responsibility for that has to rest with the entire team. There were times when it seemed too hard to keep on going. Work kept piling up, potential release dates slipped by, and frustration grew. At these times we lost people, who legitimately decided that they weren’t willing to keep on pushing.
Recognising that working on the weekend was inevitable, Team Bondi put in place a scheme to (generously) reward employees for their weekend days spent at work. Additionally, in the last 6 months of the project a scheme was put in place to reward employees for staying back late on weeknights, and this resulted in myself and most of my team getting an additional 4 weeks of leave upon completion of L.A. Noire, on top of the weekend working payment.
Towards the end of the project I was probably working (on average) around 65 hours per week. Apart from a few isolated cases (various demo builds) this was the highest my regular hours ever got to, and at no time did I ever work 100 hours per week. If you think about it, that’s 14 hours per day, 7 days per week, which is huge. I can’t say that no-one ever worked 100 hours per week, but those sorts of hours were not encouraged. In fact, if someone on my team was working that hard I would have done my best to stop them.
I never (and in my experience, neither did any of the other managers) expected anything from my team that I didn’t expect of myself. The management team at Team Bondi was not ensconced in an Ivory Tower working normal hours while everyone else crunched. Brendan himself worked very long hours and few of us here in the studio are aware of how grueling the DA and motion capture shoot in LA was.
Saying all of this, no-one at Team Bondi is under the illusion that crunching is a good way to work and we’re actively working to learn from our mistakes for our next project. The people at Team Bondi are great to work with and I’m confident that we can make Team Bondi a leading game studio on the international stage.
L.A. Noire is the biggest game ever made in Australia but we started as a small fish in a large local game development community. While we were making L.A. Noire we’ve seen the game development community in Australia dwindle with the likes of Pandemic, Krome, Ratbag and Transmission closing their doors during our tenure. We could have gone the same way, and I’m sure we came close to being cancelled several times. Having Rockstar as the publisher of L.A. Noire was a blessing, because their focus is on developing extremely high quality games. Rockstar kept faith with L.A. Noire and Team Bondi throughout the hard times because they could see the game L.A. Noire would eventually become. I’m proud that we managed to pull L.A. Noire away from the brink and get it shipped, because it’s a great game and it’s a rare new IP in a sea of sequels. For those of us that made it to the end L.A. Noire is a huge source of pride.
Please think about that when you talk about boycotting L.A. Noire or about how heinous Team Bondi is. There is a team of dedicated game developers here in Sydney that look forward to learning from their mistakes, improving on their successes and taking on the world again next time around.
All the best,