Concept art for Steel Division: Normandy 44 from the game’s trailer.
Image: YouTube

Félix Habert is a game designer and staff representative at Eugen Systems, a small French studio behind several well-received strategy games, including the recent Steel Division: Normandy 44. He joined the company as an intern five years ago, but walked out last month alongside 20 other employees because of unpaid wages and breached contracts. Today is his 30th day on strike.

“In the face of the refusal to pay us as required by law, and the manifest lack of consideration for the value of our work, we have come to the conclusion that, in order to make ourselves heard, we have no option but to go on strike,” reads a February 15 statement from the workers. It was distributed on their behalf by a small labor advocacy group called Le Syndicat des Travailleurs et Travailleuses du Jeu Vidéo, or “The Syndicate of Video Game Workers.” The group of workers claimed that Eugen management had refused to budge after 15 months of negotiation on the topic, while Eugen put out a counter statement claiming sloppy payroll paperwork and onerous legislation were the source of the delay.

Nearly a month later there hasn’t been meaningful progress. It’s unclear if there ever will be, short of taking the matter to the courts and spending several more months, if not years, in costly litigation.

Strikes at video game studios in any country are rare. In the United States, video game developers don’t have a union. Unions, ones with collective bargaining powers and the like, aren’t common in the French video game industry either. The Syndicate, which was founded last fall, is not a traditional union. France does have protections in place to prevent employees who strike from getting fired, provided they follow certain guidelines, giving developers an opportunity to speak out and take action when they believe they’re being mistreated.

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The Eugen strike doesn’t look like what people might initially picture. The game developers don’t picket outside the studio but instead meet occasionally at one another’s homes to regroup, reaffirm one another’s commitment, and discuss their next move. These plans include speaking to the press, meetings with labor advocates, going on radio shows and trying to get politicians involved to speak out on their behalf.

A Helicopter from the cinematic trailer for Wargame: European Escalation, the game that inspired Habert to start working at Eugen Systems.
Screenshot: YouTube

Habert, who has been leading efforts on the strike, hadn’t even expected to be working in games a half-decade ago. He played games before he became a game designer, but he was also a physical guy who liked to ride horses, surf and sailed. And he loved helicopters. His dream was to be a pilot, but discovering he was nearsighted made that impossible.

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Several years ago, he became smitten with Eugen Systems’ 2012 strategy-sim Wargame: European Escalation, and played it for hours in-between some coursework and odd jobs. “I’d been playing Company of Heroes for five years but Wargame had a fully modeled physical engine to represent helicopter movement,” he said. “You can imagine that I immediately fell in love with it.” He became a huge fan, practically lived on the game’s Steam forum, and even became one of the “VIP” players who helped to actually work on balancing the game. Poised to join the army, he instead got an internship at Eugen, postponed recruitment, and was hired full-time six months later.

The pay was never great, but he was just starting out and excited for the opportunity. Two years later, he was rising through the ranks of Eugen. In 2016, he and two colleagues were elected as staff representatives at the company, a position that made him privy to complaints from other employees. He began taking a closer look at what their contracts and French labor law said they were entitled had a right to.

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French workers have a lot more protections and guarantees then many of their counterparts in “at will employment” states in the U.S. Part of these additional protections include convention collectives, particular labor codes negotiated for each sector of the French economy. The employees at Eugen fall under the country’s national SYNTEC Collective Bargaining Agreement which consists largely of tech workers, including those at video game companies. One of the most public examples of the kinds of rules instituted under these agreements was the recent “right to log-off” which sought to provide French IT workers the freedom not to have to answer work emails after 6:00pm.

The agreements also include rules about salary ladders and overtime compensation, ones which Habert and other striking employees say they were not aware of when they were first hired. Many started as interns (60% according to the company’s website) and hadn’t previously had jobs in the gaming industry.

Tensions rose last year as Habert and his colleagues tried to negotiate with management over adhering to what they believed these minimum salaries should have been and the backpay they would be owed as a result. Eugen had made some payment mistakes, the employees had argued, according to Habert. He and the other employees expected pay slips with the money owed would go out sometime in January of this year. The payslips did go out on February 14, but didn’t include all of the extra money, he says. Normandy 44’s second DLC had just shipped the day before.

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On February 14, 21 Eugen employees went on strike.

Concept art for Steel Division: Normandy 44 from the game’s trailer.
Image: YouTube

Habert says it took two weeks for Eugen management to approach him and the others about potentially resolving the issue. It took another week for the studio to actually sit down with them on March 5. On that day, a small delegation, sat down with management and a Labor Inspector working as a mediator. During this meeting, according to a statement issued through the Syndicat group, the workers started by claiming that Eugen had not contributed to the employees’ occupational medicine program yet in 2018 as required by law. Eugen allegedly responded by calling it an oversight due to unreceived invoices. The studio also allegedly denied that the workers’ contracts were accurate or enforceable, and sent the striking workers a proposal the next day which they deemed “incomplete” and “not serious.”

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“It’s rather hard when you’re just a bunch of people with no political experience,” Habert told me over the phone late at night a week ago. It was around 10:00pm in Paris where he lives in a flat share with two other roomates, and he sounded determined but exhausted. Habert explained feeling hammered by a system much stronger than himself. “But we hold tight,” he said. “We hope for the best.”

He admits they aren’t pros at this, and there’s not really a roadmap for collective organizing in the video game industry. The group has a lawyer representing them and, according to Habert, the sympathy from those paying attention in the French press and the public. It’s a small but symbolic labor dispute in one of the country’s most often praised economic sectors that could have ramifications for workers at other studios.

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“The strike itself was a very spontaneous movement from the employees,” Habert said in an email. We were tired of these never-ending negotiations. We were tired because we had to finish the DLC in time. We were just waiting for the results to move on.” Unfortunately, there’s no end in sight. The remaining strikers set up a crowd fund to help them through this period that’s currently raised € 8,325 (just over $10,000), but that only goes so far. “The vision of the striker is the lazy guy who doesn’t want to work and just stay home and watch TV and everything, but it’s far from the reality,” he said. “It’s really tough.”

Habert notes that the combined stress of previously working long and difficult hours and now being on strike and risking their livelihoods has taken an emotional and physical toll on some of his peers. While a few of the strikers have returned to work, some others have gone on sick leave. Currently, Habert is one of 15 still sticking it out of the original 21. “We have some people who are taking Xanax and everything at the moment because it was prescribed to them because of the pressure they’re under,” he said over the phone.

When I asked him when he’d been the happiest over the last month, I expected him to remark on having some extra time to himself, maybe catching up with friends or family members, or simply enjoying a coffee in the morning without spending it at a work desk. Instead it was reading a glowing comment of someone who was testing Normandy 44’s latest DLC, the game’s impressive second expansion he helped design. “When you love what you do but the value of your work is constantly negated by your boss, reading someone who finds that what you do is great is really heart-warming,” he said.

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[Correction—2:15 P.M.]: In a previous version of this article, I wrote that “The payslips did go out on January 14, but didn’t include the extra money.” In a follow-up email, Félix Habert confirmed that the actual date had been misstated in one of his emails and the slips went out was February 14. He further clarified that the slips included some, but not all of the money the developers had told management they were owed. I have made changes to the article to reflect that.”

[Update - 4/13]: The strike at Eugen Systems ended earlier this week. No compromise was reached and some of the employees who went on strike have begun legal proceedings against the studio.