Aug 4, 2011
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The Sordid Tale of L.A. Noire – What’s a Tech Startup to Do?

I got a challenge from my brother Dan the other day to write a blog post about this story about working conditions at Team Bondi, the software developer behind the hit video game LA Noire.1 Turns out even at 30, I can’t turn down a double-dog-dare from my big brother, so I dug in.2

The Backstory

Team Bondi is a software development company founded in 2005 for the express purpose of making LA Noire. While 2005 doesn’t seem that long ago in actual “regular person” time, in video game land, seven years is a lifetime. The fact that LA Noire took seven years to make means that, when it started, the Xbox 360 was just rolling off the assembly line, and the Wii and Playstation 3 wouldn’t hit shelves for another 6 months at least. I have it on good authority that for video gamers, that means 2005 was a long frigging time ago.

When LA Noire finally did come out this year, it was to rave reviews, and some glaring criticism: first, some of the developers who worked on it over the years noticed their names were missing from the credits. This sparked an online grumble, which erupted last month into allegations by anonymous former Bondi employees of “sweat shop” like working conditions, including a never-ending, near-obligatory “crunch” – which means “overtime work” in either British or techie slang. Still not sure which.

The allegations were detailed in online news reports by IGN and Develop, so I won’t bore you with the details. Here’s the quick and dirty:

  • Workloads averaged about 60 hours per week, and spiked to 110 hours when milestones had to be met.
  • The crunch never stopped – management promised that, once a deadline was met, things would ease up, but the goalposts kept moving, and the expectations of weekends and overtime just became a constant.
  • Masses of employees, with estimates ranging from 45 to well over 100, either walked out or were fired over the seven-year project.

On top of the conditions, Bondi founder Brendan McNamara was obviously tough. He made “unreasonable” demands of project groups and would bypass and ignore team leads if they questioned him. Former Bondi employees have called the working conditions “inhuman.”

McNamara’s response has been unapologetic, to say the least. From IGN:

“We all work the same hours,” he told us. “People don’t work any longer hours than I do. I don’t turn up at 9am and go home at 5pm, and go to the beach. I’m here at the same hours as everybody else is. We’re making stuff that’s never been made before,” he asserted. “We’re making a type of game that’s never been made before. We’re making it with new people, and new technology. People who’re committed to put in whatever hours they think they need to.”

Like I said, tough. Well, his toughness may come at a price. The International Game Development Association has announced an investigation into working conditions at the company. Here’s my takeaway:

Cowboys and Ranchers

McNamara’s comments sound a lot like the comments of many entrepreneurs whose startups are beginning to take off. Defiant, some would say arrogant:

“The expectation is slightly weird here [in Australia], that you can do this stuff without killing yourself; well, you can’t, whether it’s in London or New York or wherever; you’re competing against the best people in the world at what they do, and you just have to be prepared to do what you have to do to compete against those people.

***

“If you wanted to do a nine-to-five job, you’d be in another business,” said McNamara, citing routine hours from 9am to 8pm – “whatever days it takes” – with frequent travel and 4am calls with the New York-based publisher. He said that “everything” is riding on this title: “the studio, the opportunity to make new things; family, house. Everything. All the usual stuff.”

All the usual stuff. This is a man who is used to staking everything on an idea. He’s obviously dedicated to his baby. Elsewhere, McNamara admits to being tough on his team because this project is his project, and his name. He’s creating something.

I get where he’s coming from, completely. Executing a business startup takes a lot of creativity and work and guts. You are constantly moving, thinking, dodging bullets, taking risks. You’re a cowboy. A few guys out in some idea-filled wilderness blazing a trail. Living by your wits. How often do we hear about the “wild west” of the new tech boom? It’s not a coincidence.3

But once you’ve got a few regular employees, you’re not a cowboy anymore. Sorry. You’ve staked a claim. You’ve got responsibilities and bills to pay. People depend on you.

You’re a rancher.

Startups are so sexy because they refuse to acknowledge the limitations of business. But that’s also where they get into so much trouble. The cowboy in you wants to call all the shots, and come up with innovative business moves like prove-yourself-unpaid-internships and tying pay to performance and things like that. And the next thing you know you’re getting sued and agencies are investigating you and what the hell just happened?

So what’s a cowboy to do? Hire a ranch hand, of course. Successful entrepreneurs know this – that success is tied to delegation. That you have to surround yourself with people that will separate the mold-breaking initiatives from the law-breaking ones.

But for some reason, many startups will line up counsel to make sure their corporate structure is solid and their financing is uninhibited, and they secure patent protection and make sure they don’t get screwed on licensing or distribution agreements, but when it comes to their employees, the law never crosses their minds.

What do you mean I can’t have independent contractors working side-by-side with employees?

But I designated this guy as salaried! How can he claim overtime?

How could my noncompete be invalid? I stole it from the last place I worked!

I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s because it involves people rather than documents and money. But I can assure you, if you try to go it alone when expanding your workforce 200% in a quarter, your people problems will generate plenty of documents, and cost you a lot of money. Even if there’s no litigation, fixing a problem with workforce structure is hard when there’s 10 of you – it’s a lot harder (and more expensive) when there’s 100.

So, if your wild idea is starting to take off, and your little room of five guys sitting at computers is going to grow, please – please – call an employment attorney. I promise you it’s totally worth some of those VC guys’ money.

Footnotes:
  1. If you don’t know what LA Noire is, you must not have teenage kids or live in a major metropolitan area. I have not been on a single Chicago street that didn’t have some kind of sticker or other kind of guerilla advertising for this game in 6 months at least. It is a very realistic looking crime-drama-based video game revolving around 1940s Los Angeles. []
  2. A caveat: Team Bondi is seated in Sydney, Australia, which has employment laws that are quite different than those here in the U.S. So nothing in this post should be seen as having any application to the actual events at Team Bondi. That said, the story does provide a nice diving board for a couple of issues I’ve had bouncing around in my head for awhile, and some that hadnt occurred to me until I really began reading about this. So expect this to be the first of several posts related to the melodrama behind LA Noire. []
  3. Also, a lot of those guys wear satchels. Except now they call them messenger bags. []

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