Last month, the entirety of Texas ground to a halt after a colossal winter storm pushed the state’s cordoned-off power grid to the brink. Power and heat outages, as well as resulting food and water shortages, led many businesses to temporarily shut down. This included a large number of Texan video game studios. Of those that did not, however, one stands out: Cloud Imperium Games, whose employees’ confidence in the company remains shaken after they spent the week trying to juggle work and survival.
The Star Citizen developer has studios all over the world, but the core of the massively crowdfunded MMO’s operation, from a technological perspective, lies deep in the heart of Texas. In a statement to Kotaku sent the week of the snowstorm, CIG talked about how Austin employees had banded together to provide each other with aid, which employees speaking to Kotaku under the condition of anonymity say is true—because, functionally speaking, CIG had left them high and dry. The company concluded its statement by saying that “everyone at CIG has been very understanding and concerned about the situation the Texas team is facing and we’ve stayed in constant communication.” According to six sources who spoke with Kotaku, that part isn’t true.
Communication, all six sources agreed, was the biggest problem. The week began with an interaction that set the tone: On Monday, sources said, an Austin office manager told employees, many of whom had already lost power, to figure out how to make up for lost work time in the near future—specifically “this week/weekend as a first option,” according to one source. That source said the office manager continued: “Assuming roads are clear we also can manage a few people in the studio. If all else fails then enter PTO for whatever time you cannot make up.”
The expectation was clear, say the employees: Be prepared to work through a natural disaster, or make up for it later at the cost of off hours or vacation time.
In response to employees’ criticisms, CIG provided Kotaku with a statement. “CIG is saddened to hear these allegations from the anonymous sources,” a company spokesperson said in an email. “Our staff’s safety and well-being are a priority to us at all times. The Austin offices have remained closed to general staff since the beginning of the pandemic, with teams working from home. In the immediate aftermath of the Texas storm, studio leadership reached out to all 100+ Austin employees through their managers and individually to offer support; and continues to do so with actionable assistance for all of those who were affected.”
During the week of February 15th, sources recall receiving just two direct communications about the storm from company executives—one on Tuesday the 16th, after large portions of the workforce had already lost power, and one the next week, on February 21st, after daily life had already begun to return to normal. The first communication, which Kotaku has viewed, began by saying that employees’ “safety is of the utmost importance and should continue to be prioritized over everything else.” In it, CIG also promised flexible work schedules and made ovations in the direction of supporting employees through ordeals like power outages. Ultimately, though, the email came back around to the same idea as prior messages from managers: Time off would require use of PTO, and work would continue, in some capacity, despite a statewide emergency.
The employees who hadn’t lost power or cell service, sources say, pushed back, noting that prolonged power outages could cost them an entire week of PTO—possibly more if they also had to deal with burst pipes and other damages to their homes. Others did not have any PTO to spare. But CIG upper management held firm.
“In response to further expressions of concern, we were told to work directly with our managers for help,” said one source. “Yet, managers were facing the same crisis as the rest of us, and some lacked any method of communication for days.”
As the week went on, companies like EA, Aspyr Media, Certain Affinity, and Owlchemy Labs temporarily shut down their Texas operations. EA and Gearbox (which did not fully suspend operations) also provided resources for employees, including hotel accommodations and emergency supply deliveries in the case of the former, and a check-in system in the case of the latter. The sources with whom Kotaku spoke said that if CIG provided aid in the form of essential supplies or anything else, they were not aware of it, even as a few employees reported that their apartments had flooded. Toward the middle of the week, when employees learned that other studios had shut down, they asked CIG upper management why the company wasn’t enacting similar measures. According to several sources, they received no direct reply to their questions.
“I don’t expect CIG to get our power back on or make the city give water back. I don’t feel like I’m unreasonable,” said one source. “But I feel as though situations with natural disasters should be treated the same as if we were all still commuting to an office. Losing power and internet was not a ‘snow day’-type break. It brought on stress of how to survive, keep babies and pets alive, and was by no means an enjoyable break for anyone who couldn’t work.”
Being pressured to work, sources said, only added to that stress.
“I still felt obligated to check in on teams every couple hours,” said one source. “I just felt like I had to do it, even though most people weren’t talking those days. Everyone was just focusing on surviving.”
While employees at many different video game studios in Texas ended up coordinating efforts and providing aid to one another independent from company initiatives, CIG employees say they didn’t really have a choice.
“People were sharing tips on when grocery stores would be open, where people could travel to get drinking water, and even in the middle of an ongoing pandemic offered their own homes to anyone who felt they could travel safely,” said one source. “I have nothing but nice things to say about my coworkers here in Austin. The amount of care we have for one another is phenomenal. My issue solely stems with upper management’s handling of the situation.”
Others talked about spreadsheets shared among various teams within the Austin studio, which offered information and tips, like how to insulate rooms during power outages, how to use melted snow, and where to go for water, meals, and gasoline. “I want to make clear that all of this information came from inside our studio,” said one source. “There was zero attempt made from other studios to share information that may be useful to our situation.”
This, sources believe, is because CIG upper management failed to communicate the enormity of the situation to other CIG studios in places like Los Angeles and the United Kingdom.
“Head leadership for the company never appeared to acknowledge that we even faced a natural disaster and seemed to completely neglect to communicate our situation to other studios,” said one source. “This lack of awareness was evidenced when some of us were discussing the aftermath of the storm, and coworkers from another studio location asked if we had been dealing with tornadoes.”
“I was talking to some other people in the [Austin] office, and apparently, some of the blowback from the other offices is that they were like ‘Oh, they just want a snow day. Why should we give them a snow day?’” said another source.
As far as other offices were concerned, the week was business as usual. This, according to three sources, was exemplified by the VP of HR sending out an email asking employees to participate in an International Women’s Day promotion while completely failing to acknowledge that some of those women were in mortal peril.
“I was reached out [to] by our head of HR about a women’s week thing happening in March,” said one source. “No word on ‘Hey hope everything is OK with you in Austin’ and then getting to what they needed to say. There were others who had issues with the timing of the message and their lack of empathy. I even approached them with the concerns and only received frustration and lack of understanding on why what they did was not OK. Basically was told that we needed to get over it.”
It wasn’t until the 21st that employees received clear communication on what went wrong. According to sources, upper management explained that executives simply weren’t aware of how dire the situation in Austin had gotten, and by the time they found out, the week was already over.
This, sources said, infuriated employees, who’d spent all week trying to communicate the severity of the situation, when they were even capable of communication. Employees are split on how, exactly, they view what ultimately occurred. One characterized the incident as a communication breakdown.
“I was affected by all this very strongly,” the source said. “I can’t begin to make excuses for the decisions that were made. All I can really say is that it feels like there was a breakdown in communication, that the severity of the issue was not fully realized by the people that had the power making these decisions...I believe that there were also people in the studio that still had power and didn’t realize that there was such a severe outage. I think it boils down to, there were a lot of communication issues about the severity of the situation.”
But others don’t view things quite so charitably.
“When I heard that response, that they were unaware, I was like ‘They’re either gaslighting us, or they’re admitting to gross incompetence,’” said one source. “Because yeah, [news of the storm] was everywhere.”
In the wake of everything that happened, management at the Austin studio offered to help employees find better solutions to the missed work issue, and ultimately, CIG director Chris Roberts sent out an email, which has been viewed by Kotaku, telling employees that they would “get fully paid this cycle.” One source also said that the studio manager and VP of HR have recently been doing “damage control” by speaking to individuals about their experiences during the snowstorm.
But, sources agreed, the damage has already been done. Moreover, given the track humanity is currently on, the ravages of climate change are likely to get worse over time, not better. Employees are not confident CIG will treat them any differently next time something like this happens.
“I hope studios such as our LA location never have to fret with wildfires coming too close, only to be told to use PTO as they seek shelter,” said one source. “I want the company to get better, and if they won’t listen to employees internally, then maybe externally is our best bet.”
Morale has taken a hit after a year that already had employees questioning how much CIG cares about them. Sources cited the company’s tendency to internally tout record earnings while offering low pay (by Austin standards) and no additional compensation to help with issues like higher electric bills during the pandemic, as well as animation studio layoffs and decisions that disproportionately impacted lower-wage employees, like taking away the QA department’s work-from-home privileges before the pandemic began. (CIG reversed that decision after it became apparent that everyone would have to work from home indefinitely.) All of this has left some Austin employees fed up.
“While I think the company ultimately came to the right decision...CIG’s slow and hesitant response and general lack of communication hit hard for employees that are already low on morale and feel this company doesn’t care about them,” said one source. “With all those things on top of a game that feels like it’s coming closer and closer to a gacha for expensive ships and no actual gameplay, useless features being constantly shoved in and removed, where marketing holds absolute power over any other department, employees start to feel disheartened after awhile.”
“I think people are just tired of how this company can be,” said another source. “It’s just about the money and not about their employees. They don’t really show they care when it matters most, and they have failed with this time and time again.”