Former ArenaNet co-founder Jeff Strain calls for game dev unionization

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In a series of Tweets posted on the eve of the Game Developers Conference, Jeff Strain, a co-founder of ArenaNet, the makers of Guild Wars, called for game developers to join together in a union.

In an interview on the EdgeGamers podcast, former ArenaNet co-founder Jeff Strain was asked about the state of the game development industry. He said, “I think the death of the AAA game as we know it is a fact. I think that’s obvious to anyone who’s paying attention, and it’s not necessarily just because of what’s going on in the tech world, but it’s also because of the changes in the business and how it’s being run today. I think that’s also clear. So I think people are starting to pay attention to it.”

With the 2017 Game Developers Conference (GDC) just one week past, it seems like a good time to revisit a piece I wrote last year following the announcement that ArenaNet had closed its doors. As many may know, ArenaNet was a studio that made games—including the much-loved Guild Wars franchise—but this year, ArenaNet will be remembered as the studio behind the game that laid the foundation for today’s unionization movement: Guild Wars 2. And if you’re a developer, you should read on to find out the lessons that can be learned from the peoples’ fight to protect their jobs.


Jeff Strain, a former Blizzard employee, former ArenaNet co-founder, and current founder of Undead Labs, has joined the chorus of critics of Activision-culture. Blizzard’s Strain is asking for the video game business to unionize and encouraging his company to join a union with his full support in a letter addressed to his workers that he encouraged them to post to the public.

“I can’t fathom how much worse it will have to become if this week doesn’t convince us that our industry colleagues — even the most entry-level QA tester — deserve real support and baseline protection,” he says in the letter. “We need to form a union.”

Strain joined Blizzard in 1996 and worked as a programmer on some of the studio’s most well-known games, including StarCraft and Diablo, as well as as a lead programmer and team lead on World of Warcraft. According to his letter, he left Blizzard in 1998 after a “cataclysmic meeting with one of the founders” about issues with a dismembered female body in the beta version of Diablo — a meeting that led him to leave the studio and found ArenaNet, as well as an event that shaped his future as a games industry entrepreneur.

“My experience at Blizzard left a lasting impact on my life and work, which I am still dealing with today. Most importantly, it demonstrated how abusive cultures can spread and self-amplify over time; how ‘hardcore gamers only’ is a smokescreen for ‘bro culture; how fostering a sense of exceptionalism prevents people from speaking up because they should just deal with it if they love the company and its games; and how passive leadership that turns a blind eye can be the most abusive thing o.

Strain goes on to say that his 25 years in the games business have been littered with “hundreds of deeply distressing tales [from developers] about their industry experiences,” prompting him to join the push for developer representation via labor unions. “I’m an entrepreneur with three successful independent studio start-ups under my belt. I’m well-versed in game development’s financial, legal, contractual, and organizational elements. I also know that unionization poses no threat to me,” he adds. “This week, the industry’s behemoths shown that we can’t trust them to regulate and manage the money and power that players and fans have bestowed upon them.”

Following a two-year investigation, the state of California filed a huge sexual discrimination and sexual harassment case against ActiBlizz, prompting Strain’s call to action. Since then, a slew of victims and former Blizzard employees have come forward with their own horror tales, and details of occurrences within the business, ranging from a real Cosby Suite to an employee’s arrest for peeking in a toilet, have leaked out in the days after the story’s publication. Employees have already walked out over the situation, but there have been no significant efforts at reform inside the studio other than hollow platitudes from CEO Bobby Kotick.

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