The video game industry is currently undergoing a small but unprecedented wave of developer organizing. Last week it even reached the halls of famed RPG maker BioWare, where a group of QA contractors working on Dragon Age 4 revealed their intention to unionize. The two biggest reasons why? Bad pay and concerns over a full-time return to the office while the pandemic still lingers.
The unionizing QA developers are employed through a global contracting services company called Keywords Studios, but work directly with the production teams at BioWare’s Edmonton office. They began supporting development on Mass Effect: Legendary Edition before moving to the latest Star Wars: The Old Republic expansion, Legacy of the Sith.
Now they are working on Dragon Age 4 as part of Keywords’ “embedded services” group which promises “the expertise of an in-house team” to “deliver flexible, in-house outsourced solutions.” According to a representative for the group, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, project direction comes directly from full-time BioWare developers, and Keywords’ role in the relationship is almost exclusively administrative.
The rep said that the catalyst for unionizing was a return-to-office announcement earlier this month. Keywords allegedly told everyone they would have to return to BioWare’s office in-person, five days a week starting May 9, despite an average of nearly 1,000 new covid cases a day still being reported in Alberta, Canada.
According to the rep, Keywords staff don’t receive any paid time off even as Alberta’s health guidelines recommend 14 days quarantine after someone tests positive for covid. Full-time BioWare employees, meanwhile, would still have flexibility to work from home. Keywords has been criticized in the past for its covid sick time policies, and for pushing some of their employees to stay in the office when the pandemic first began in March 2020.
“As this situation is still developing we are gathering facts and will have a statement as soon as possible,” a spokesperson for Keywords told Kotaku in response to a list of questions. BioWare and EA did not respond to a request for comment.
The rep for the QA group said that, depending on the final decision by the Alberta Labor Relations Board which is currently reviewing its application, the final bargaining unit would consist of somewhere between 15 and 20 testers and analysts. After the review is complete on May 3, a vote by mail is likely to be held within two weeks, and two weeks after that the results are likely to be ratified by the Board.
“We are very confident that we would be able to win a union vote,” the rep told Kotaku in a phone interview.
In addition to covid safety and work-from-home flexibility, another big issue is pay. They said some Keywords QA analysts are being paid as little as $16.50 Canadian dollars (just under $13 U.S. dollars) for roles where full-time BioWare staff are paid much more. The rep also said there are concerns about gender-based pay discrimination, a lack of consistent metrics used to evaluate employees, and overall transparency around pay and performance. Unionizing is one way for employees to negotiate better and clearer terms of employment for everyone doing similar types of work.
However, most employers are also extremely hostile to staff efforts to unionize, and the Keywords QA staff at BioWare already feels punished. “We did see what we would consider retaliatory action,” the rep told Kotaku. This allegedly included employees receiving complaints about performance or being stripped of certain responsibilities following the decision to unionize.
But the rep sounded hopeful and emboldened about what the group is moving forward with thanks to other recent examples. In December, indie studio Vodeo Games unionized. At Call of Duty studio Raven Software, QA are also voting to unionize. Embattled publisher Activision Blizzard recently promised to make all QA full-time with a minimum hourly rate of $20, though it excluded the unionizing employees from the pay bump.
A contractor at Nintendo of America asked a question about unions in a meeting in February. They were later fired, though Nintendo claimed it was for an NDA violation and that there is no union activity currently going on at the Mario maker.
The Keywords QA rep told Kotaku that the unprecedented labor campaign at Raven, as well as at places like Starbucks and Amazon in recent months, were a big source of inspiration. “The individuals at Bioware are incredibly kind and we love working with them,” the rep said. They just want to do it for better pay and with more worker protections in place.
Update: 5/9/22, 1:34 p.m. ET: A member of the unionizing staff tells Kotaku Keywords has backed off its mandated return-to-office. Originally set to go into effect today, the company has instead reverted to its previous work from home arrangement for the “foreseeable future.”
“As well they started offering us a flexible start time to the team which had not been previously available to everyone,” the representative said in an email. “Presumably to try and dissuade us from voting yes.”
Voting on whether to unionize is also currently underway. The Labor Board ruled that all Alberta staff should be included in the unit, though Keywords is challenging that to have it limited to just staff at BioWare.
“Depending on who is included the ballots for those who can vote will be counted and those who can not will be destroyed,” the member said. “Currently though ballots will be sent to all employees in Alberta employed by Keywords studios which also includes a graphic designer and a motion capture tech. We hope to be able to include them with us as we feel together we can obtain more equitable treatment.”
Keywords did not immediately respond to a new request for comment.