Sadly, the video games industry has a long history of developers and employees at companies being mistreated or exploited in some way or another, from people not being properly credited for their work to at times not even being paid for it. For an industry that makes billions of dollars’ worth of revenue every year, employs a massive number of people, and continues to grow at an exponential rate, video games are surprisingly behind in protecting their employees. And it seems we have another example of a major studio partaking in some activities that, even under the best circumstances, can only be described as more than a little shady.
It’s very likely that you’ve heard of The Day Before over the course of the previous year. Singapore-based developer Fntastic The Day Before in January of last year, and instantly caught the attention of many. Set in a post-apocalyptic America filled with zombies and very few survivors of a deadly outbreak, the game is promising a massive AAA MMO experience, blending its open world setting with online and social gameplay and survival and horror mechanics. It’s ambitious, to say the least, and on the basis of the details revealed on it so far and the brief gameplay that has been shown since its announcement last year, it’s generated plenty of buzz. So much so, in fact, that it is currently the most wish-listed game on Steam, and has been for some time.
With a project that big, especially with that many eyes on it, you’d think that its developers would be motivated to do things by the book behind-the-scenes. Maybe that’s too naive, especially given the fact that the industry as a whole has given us every reason to be cynical when it comes to most developers- but at least in terms of basic things like paying your workers, you’d want everything to be above water. Fntastic, however, has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons of late, because the studio is very proudly advertising the fact that parts of its development are handled by… unpaid volunteers.
The developer’s official website explains that it considers every one of its employees to be volunteers. “Fntastic’s culture is based on the idea of volunteering. This means that every Fntastic member is a volunteer,” the Volunteers page on the website reads. By itself, that fact should mean nothing- just a studio being weird about its nomenclature, maybe, but nothing else, right? Except Fntastic explains that it has two kinds of volunteers at its studios- full-time paid volunteers, who are considered employees, and part-time volunteers who are not paid with money, but with “rewards, participation certificates, and free codes.” In other words, they’re not paid.
“Part-time volunteering at Fntastic includes various activities ranging from translating to community moderating,” the developer’s website reads. “Part-time volunteers also can offer their unique skills to improve our projects or create new special features.”
That should instantly set off alarm bells. Any kind of worker in any industry has to be paid and compensated for the work they’re putting in. That’s literally the most fundamental law when it comes to labour. Specifically in this situation, you have a studio that employees roughly a hundred full-time employees from around the world and is working on a massive open world MMO that literally millions of people are looking forward to- and yet they’re refusing to properly compensate the people who’re helping them develop the game? “Help us make this game that you will then pay money to play” seems like a very strange deal, especially when you consider the fact that the game in question will potentially make a buttload of money for the developer, none of which will go to those unpaid volunteers.
Fntastic’s response to this controversy hasn’t exactly been the best either. Not only is the studio showing no signs of changing these strange policies and stepping away from what is essentially unpaid labour, it’s defending those policies. In a statement to Australian outlet Well Played, the developer said that “the volunteering aspect does not relate to ‘code writing or development itself’. Just things like localization and moderation. Have asked for more information.”
And that’s supposed to… what, make it okay that those people are not being paid? Fntastic might be trying its hardest to make it seem like localization and moderation are not important parts of game development, but you don’t need to have a thorough understand of game development to realize that that couldn’t be further from the truth. And that stands doubly true for this game. The Day Before is going to be an MMORPG, built on online and social interactions, which means moderation is crucial for the project. Meanwhile, given the massive worldwide audience it’s targeting, localization is just as important, if not more so. Without those things, the game does not function even at a fundamental level, plain and simple. And it doesn’t help that Fntastic’s own website says that it encourages its unpaid volunteers to “offer their unique skills to improve projects or create new special features”, which means their work is not necessarily limited to moderation and localization.
Meanwhile, in a statement to Eurogamer, the developer provided further explanation, saying, “Last year, we ordered localization for Propnight from a well-known large studio specializing in translations. As practice has shown, the result of their work was not so perfect. Most of it had to be redone with the help of our enthusiastic volunteers. In Propnight, together with these supporters, we found bugs, dealt with cheaters, and even organized our Discord communities.”
So wait, their defence for doing something that’s clearly not right is that… they’ve done it before? So that makes it okay to keep doing it? Or is it that localization work that they paid for wasn’t satisfactory while localization work done by unpaid volunteers was, so they’d rather stick with the latter? No matter how you look at it, it’s troublesome.
The Day Before is looking like a big and ambitious game, coming from a developer that has had zero experience with anything on this scale, being published by MyTona, a company that has only ever had experience with free-to-play mobile titles. Recently, just weeks before its intended June 2022 launch, the game got delayed into March 2023 so that the game could shift to Unreal Engine 5 (which is several more months of unpaid labour on the project, incidentally). Looking at all of these factors together, you can’t help but be more than a little skeptical about the game and what’s going on with it behind-the-scenes, especially when you consider the fact that actual gameplay footage of the project that demonstrates examples of some of the many bold promises it’s making remains scant even now.
Whether or not The Day Before ends up living up to its lofty promises is an entirely different question though (even though it’s also very pertinent). The most concerning thing in the here and right is its developer’s labour practices, because asking people to help finish a game that may or may not be able to make good on its promises and then not even paying them for their work is a problematic practice, at the very least, and could easily be considered exploitative. If nothing else, the hope is that Fntastic will change its policies and at least do the bare minimum of fairly compensating its workers, whether they’re full-time or part-time. That’s literally the least they can do.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.
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