On the same day that TT Games released a gameplay overview trailer for Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, Polygon dropped an article that gives us a grim look into its development. In a story that feels all too familiar, TT Games has been accused of pressuring employees into excessive crunch on numerous occasions over the past 15 years. Polygon spoke with more than 30 current and former employees, gaining insight into the studio’s long history of troubles, as well as their recent struggles to finish developing the Skywalker Saga.
TT Games’ history of crunch
According to Polygon’s sources, TT Games has had a problem with crunch ever since it was formed in 2005 by Traveler’s Tales’ acquisition of Giant Interactive. Their Lego games were so successful that they quickly became an annual franchise. As movie tie-ins, they typically had strict release deadlines meant to take advantage of movie hype, and this created frequent problems for the development pipeline. Crunch was such a normal occurrence that long stretches of excessive overtime were frequently scheduled into the development cycle months ahead of time.
TT Games co-founder and former creative director Jon Burton was specifically signaled out for requiring excessive crunch. Six former employees told Polygon that he would frequently yell at employees for attempting to leave work at their scheduled time off. They also reported that leads would follow employees out of the building as they left for the day, questioning their loyalty to the company.
When Warner Bros. bought out TT Games in 2008, they took a survey on working conditions and found that it ranked lower than any of their other studios. Burton promised efforts to improve conditions, but these changes reportedly did not include reducing overtime or improving pay. In response to the Polygon report, Burton noted that his hands-on involvement with the studio ended around 2013.
I can clarify a couple of things for you though. I founded the company [Traveller’s Tales] in 1989 and was owner of the company [TT Games] until I sold it to WB in 2007. I moved to California in 2013, at which point my job title first changed to Creative Executive, and then later to Creative Executive Advisor, and as you can imagine, any insight into the day to day running of the studio ended when I moved.
Although overtime was initially always compensated, this changed in 2010. Some overtime was paid as normal after this, but much of it was converted to “Flexitime.” Employees could redeem “Flexitime” for time off, but not pay. There was also a 40-hour cap on Flexitime, so any additional overtime put in beyond that went completely unpaid. Sources say it’s common for employees to work 80-100 hours per week for extended periods.
David Dootson succeeded Burton in running the studio in 2013, and Paul Flanagan took over in 2018. Conditions did not improve under either.
Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga
Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga was the biggest and most ambitious project TT Games had ever tackled. As such, it was granted a significantly longer development cycle than most of the games. However, this did not stop TT Games devs from experiencing crunch during its development. According to Polygon’s sources, a series of bad management decisions created deadline problems that led to excessive overtime once again.
TT Games management chose to develop the game with a new game engine called NTT. Employees pushed back against this, wanting instead to use Unreal Engine. Sources describe NTT as “unstable and missing features,” complicating and lengthening even the most simple tasks. As one former employee put it:
Everyone was like, ‘We have new programmers, why are we not using this technology?’ We have all this crazy technology, Unreal is [charging lower fees] than ever before on their stuff, and people know how to use Unreal. Why are we not using this technology instead of creating something that is unfinished and being forced into production and is going to give really terrible final results?
Crunch on Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga was reportedly worsened by feature creep driven by a desire for critical acclaim. “Strive for 85” became an internal slogan, as management wanted a score of 85/100 or better on Metacritic. This goal led to constant design revisions, with features being pushed for months then dropped in favor of something else. One former employee described how time was wasted on developing a 27-hit combat tree that was scrapped after poor focus testing.
The director would request new mechanics on a whim, then ask that they be changed, whilst never actually fixing anything that really mattered,” says one former employee. “Read every review of a Lego game. They always say the same [things]: ‘Platforming is pants, the camera is terrible, no online co-op.’ So let’s add a God of War-style combat tree! 5-year-olds will love it.
The crunch on Lego Star Wars was further worsened by the fact that TT Games would frequently pull developers off of it to work on other projects.
Diversity and discrimination
In addition to the culture of crunch, TT Games spoke with Polygon about the company’s poor treatment of women. Women at the company reported that there were problems with bullying, including comments about physical appearance. Additionally, Government data shows that TT Games has one of the largest gender-based pay gaps of UK game devs. In general, women are significantly outnumbered at the company, but the disparity at the top is striking. Of employees in the top quarter of hourly earners at TT Games, just 2.4% are women.
New management and mass departures
Michael Denny took over TT Games in March 2020 and expressed a desire to reduce crunch and improve diversity. It seems his efforts thus far have not been enough to change the staff’s opinion of management, as more than 40 employees (out of approximately 400) have left the company in the past year. Polygon’s sources were especially critical of his decision to hire his former Sony colleagues Eric Matthews and Mark Green. The two were brought in as Director of Game Development and Head of Game, positions which were not widely advertised to current employees.
TT Games was not willing to comment on specifics about crunch or the development of Lego Star Wars, but they gave the following statement:
TT Games is committed to creating a respectful, fair and inclusive workplace for every employee. There have been many efforts in recent years, with new studio leadership and the support of Warner Bros. Games, to nurture a collaborative culture and work-life balance our employees can be proud of. Our legacy of delighting fans with the games we have created over the years is very important to us. We recognize our continued and future success relies on sustaining the momentum of the positive changes we have made to date, ensuring every employee feels supported, appreciated and experiences a true sense of belonging.
Polygon ends their investigation on a positive note, stating that in recent months there have been some more limits on overtime than in the past. The company has also shifted back to developing on Unreal Engine, leaving NTT and its troubles behind.