The following Article is based on interviews Daniel Ziegener conducted with our studio as well as Randwerk and was originally published on Superlevel.de in German. We publish a translated version of the original article with the kind permission of the author.
Games are political and so are the companies that make them
The developers of Abriss and Chronescher don’t want to be start-ups. Instead, they are testing alternatives - as far as that is legally possible.
The fact that the games industry has a problem has been known far longer than the recent strikes at Activision Blizzard King last year. Accusations of massive overtime - known as crunch in industry parlance - and toxic, often misogynistic work environments have been lining up for a long time.
The realization that small, supposedly fine indie studios don’t automatically do better is just beginning to seep into the consciousness of the gaming community. The YouTube channel People Make Games collected examples of power abuse at Fullbright and Funomena in the spring, and sources describe the work atmosphere at Ori developer Moon Studios as “oppressive.” Small studios seem to reproduce the abuse-prone power imbalance of the AAA industry.
Some developers are therefore asking a rather radical question: can companies and employers be good for people at all? The Berlin-based teams of Randwerk and Purple Sloth at least try to find an answer to this question - and therefore found cooperatives instead of companies.
“Togetherness, co-determination, self-realization and so on”.
“There is a political dimension, of course” states Johannes Knop about the founding of Randwerk. Together with his two fellow students Friedrich Beyer and Till Freitag, he developed Abriss. But instead of a GmbH, UG or GbR, [All of those are German legal entities] they founded an eG - a registered cooperative. All members have equal shares in the company.
Apart from a formal legal person in charge, there are no bosses, not a single owner of the company, no one who can decide over everyone else. “We’ve seen how the start-up world tends to work. Even in indie studios, with flat hierarchies, there tends to be conflict, since ownership is limited to few,” he says. “That doesn’t fit together very well.”
Since teamwork functions as a democratic process, everyone really should be equal owners, too. “Maybe what the start-up concept promises ideologically is somewhat more realizable this way,” Knop thinks: “Compared to employment in a large corporation, somehow relaxed working, social interaction, co-determination, self-realization and so on.”
Role models can be found mainly internationally
The cooperative is anchored in German law and has a long history. That game studios choose this legal form is unusual so far. Randwerk and Purple Sloth are among the first. Knop, Beyer and Freitag had been working on concepts of democratic workplace design for some time. But they found concrete examples mainly abroad.
For example, Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry, who worked on Night in the Woods, founded The Glory Society, a cooperative that says it doesn’t need bosses; the roguelike Dead Cells was developed by the French cooperative Motion Twin. The game proves that even the business-skeptic business form is capable of producing a hit.
Motion Twin is also an example that shows the limits of a purely cooperative approach. After commercial success, part of the team split off to develop new content for Dead Cells - and, under the self-deprecating name Evil Empire, now does so as a company with a classic decision-making hierarchy. Motion Twin are one of the best-known examples of a company that doesn’t want to be a company.
Cooperatives as an expression of emancipation.
That name, the Evil Empire, the studio has given itself as a warning against what you don’t want to be. “We’re all aware of how easy it can be to exploit ourselves,” Purple Sloth’s Radow also says. “Taking care of yourself, rather than just wanting to create a particularly beautiful product, is a challenge and one we all value accordingly.”
The members of Purple Sloth see themselves as “left-wing, queer-feminist and emancipatory” and position themselves not only with their games, but already with their company. Before founding their cooperative last year, they practiced game development “as an intense hobby, so to speak,” Radow says.
With the puzzle game Chronescher, their first commercial project appeared at the end of August after numerous game jam prototypes. In their search for a suitable legal form, they also ended up with the cooperative. This was “not without alternative, but comes closest to the collective idea”, which has been important to the team since they joined forces. “Already anchored in law, the goal of a cooperative is the economic and social promotion of the members, not the profit of the company, as it would be with GmbH, UG and AG,” Radow explains.
You have to cultivate a different culture
Especially with indiegames that - like Demolition and Chronescher - are born out of friendships and hobby projects, the crunch hides behind the passion that brought them to game development. This romanticized self-exploitation is sometimes learned early on by young developers, for example at game jams.
“Essential to confronting this problem is the office culture we have,” Radow says. “There are no bosses who can demand more output or more hours from the top down.” Instead, Purple Sloth members would watch out for each other “that we don’t sit in the office significantly longer than agreed - and if that does happen, then work correspondingly less in the coming weeks.”
They would also have kept that in mind when drafting their bylaws and employment contracts. These, they said, were created from the perspective of an employee, not an employer. “That means, for example, that we work with a 3-4 day week from the start to avoid Crunch getting a foothold in the first place.”
As founders, these young developers have it in their own hands to set the conditions for their work. Instead of changing an established employer from the inside, they tear it all down - and rebuild it according to their own vision.
There’s a movement behind Demolition and Purple Sloth
The developers of Abriss and Chronescher are not alone in Germany. An entire movement is forming to find even better solutions. With the Purpose Foundation and Stiftung Verantwortungseigentum, two groups have been lobbying for several years to establish a new type of company.
This seems necessary, since things look dire for democratic structures within German game studios. Apart from the exceptions Bigpoint and Massive Miniteam, there is no development studio in Germany that has established a workers council. This is a simple, legally anchored means of balancing the power imbalances between bosses and employees.
In 2020, the Berlin SPD considered linking start-up funding to the establishment of a workers council. A similar approach would also be conceivable for games funding. According to the Ministry of Transport, which was initially still responsible, almost all projects from the pilot phase of games funding were submitted by small and medium-sized enterprises anyway - and 87 percent by micro-enterprises with fewer than ten employees. Exactly the company size in which the coop model works ideally.
“It’s just a bit like getting married, too.”
Both Purple Sloth and Randwerk have entered into more of a marriage of convenience with the registered cooperative. In the end, every company in Germany needs a legal form, and the cooperative is just about the closest thing to the idealistic ideas of both teams.
For this relationship to work, all members of the cooperative have to look out for each other. “The fact that everyone has a say has its problems, of course; it’s just a bit like getting married,” says Johannes Knop. “You really have to know who you’re doing it with.”
This is because “as game creators, our responsibility and our claim is to deal with the political dimension of media” as Radow of Purple Sloth puts it. Both teams leave no doubt that their games are political. But they go one step further: For them, the company itself is political.
Instead of founding a start-up out of university with a business plan and filling out grant applications, Purple Sloth and Randwerk have thought about how they want to work. In this way, these young cooperatives show that alternatives to the problem-ridden games industry of the past are possible.