On this Thursday in December, in room A12 of the labor court of Paris, the atmosphere is a mite tense. Admittedly, the labor courts, which deals with disputes between employees and employers, are never particularly relaxed. But for this case, the last of the afternoon, the council, two representatives of the employees, two representatives of the employer, must speak on a case that is unusual for several reasons. First, because of the business sector: the former IT manager of a video game company is turning against his employer. The name of the company is Quantic Dream. This star of the French video game industry, founded in 1997, works with Sony to release its next game Detroit: Become Human. It has its offices in eastern Paris. The dissatisfied employee essentially criticizes the way Quantic Dream top management dealt with a crisis between himself and some of his peers. Secondly it is the origin of the crisis that takes the case a little further away from the litany of disputes to which the labor court is accustomed.
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Strange atmosphere at Quantic Dream
A dive in the heart of the famous Parisian studio
As a video game journalist for Canard PC, the opportunity to cover a big event in court does not come up every day. The adventure was all the more exciting. On the menu, a gloomy case of photomontages that would virtuously highlight the peculiar in-house culture of a video game company.
You are reading an english version of the story published in the French magazine Canard PC. This is a rough, done by ourselves, translation, aiming to provide a more understandable text than the one you would obtain with Google Translation.
Inquiries about this story or Canard PC can be adressed by mail to Ivan Gaudé, Publication Director: "ivan" at "canardpc.com".
Sexism and homophobia constitute one of the "comic" springs of choice of the photomontages series.
The gang of pastiches. At the heart of the case, a series of photomontages. The "pastiches" incriminated were made by another employee. Not just anybody: a fifteen years employee, a Quantic Dream legal staff representative, and programmer, head of the Game logic department. A seasoned, well established member of the company, in a position of power. The images he created represent their author, other employees, but also "newcomers" and the leaders of Quantic Dream, placed in situations that range from funny to filthy, from bad college jokes to insults, from plain gross to very humiliating. Counselors look into the exhibits submitted by the plaintiff's lawyer. Quantic Dream council, who criticizes her colleague for having made a selection, has not, cautiously, chosen to bring the corpus in its entirety. For the first time in this long afternoon, faces of the labor court counselors are decomposing. Some have trouble keeping their cool, not fully understanding what they are looking at. Sexism and homophobia constitute one of the "comic" springs of choice of the series. Others are bad play on words on surnames, poop, sodomy, overweight, a little bit of Nazis and a lot of nudity. One of the images, soberly titled "Accountants.jpg", for example, shows two of Quantic Dream female employees’ faces pasted on muscular men bodies, and delicately subtitled: "All women are born equal, but the best become WHORE (sic)». Another shows the manager of the IT service as Supernanny, giving the finger. This one is, it seems, a somewhat special image: the six hundredth. This is the one that broke the camel’s back, it is this one, not the worst yet of what is described, not the worst of those we were able to get, which has caused the anger of this employee. According to him, the way the top management chose to deal with the crisis compelled him, it is in any case the meaning of the legal procedure he initiated (a breach of contract), to leave the company, followed by the four members of his team.
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Quantic Dreams are made of tears. Bad jokes between colleagues happen everywhere. But it has, by a sequence of decisions that now belongs to a career magistrate to unravel (the Counselors have failed to agree and have sent the case back to tie), caused the departure of all the IT department of a video game company. It's not a trivial event. More than a simple bad joke, we are facing 600 photomontages of dubious taste, made by a manager in the workplace during lunch breaks, and shared on the internal network. A situation that, by its magnitude, its systematic character - almost daily for several years - borders on, the word is dropped by one of the advisers, “harassment”. That this would take place in one of the top video game studios in France raises questions. Depending on the stage of production, 150 to 200 people work regularly at Quantic. Many people probably did not expect or agree to see images of the company’s Who’s who being used to represent them in a swimsuit, on a toilet bowl, as a sexy Mrs. Santa Claus or contiguous to violent insults. The lawyer of the departed employee, who explains the video game production process to the tribunal as much as he can, presents the facts as the result of a culture, perhaps attributable to the video game community. In fact, the answer given by the company’s deputy General Manager, "I take this in the eighth degree (...), everybody has had his image" can suggest that the management knew, and let it be. An idea they denies vigorously before us, arguing that they sanctioned the author with an formal warning as soon as they were alerted.
Interviewed by us on this matter (with French media outlets Mediapart and Le Monde), Guillaume de Fondaumière, the deputy General Manager of Quantic Dream, states "most of the time, (the images) were sent only to those who were caricatured. I knew about mine and about some that were displayed in the cafeteria, because the people themselves were exposing them." As for the CEO David Cage, represented wielding a huge dildo, he explains: "If we had been aware of these images (author’s note: the ones which make very heavy references to men's sex, naked women), if we had seen them, we would have stepped in. But he creates them on his computer, on his free time, I am not going to dig in the personal computers of my employees." Witnesses have confirmed that some of the montages were indeed displayed in the office open space, and according to them, a large amount was available on the local network via a link shared in a mailing list.
Often presented as a model of French industry, one would expect Quantic Dream to be exemplary.
Chief Emotion officer. At this point, there was plenty to wonder about the atmosphere, the working conditions in these open spaces where visitors are greeted by the word EMOTION in capital letters, but where employees can be told bluntly that their work is "shit”. Quantic Dream is an influential flagship in the French videogame industry. Its deputy General Manager is one of the former presidents of the SNJV (the Syndicat national du jeu vidéo, professional association of the French video game developers, defends the interests of its members, mainly video game development companies. Guillaume de Fondaumière has been the president twice, from 2005 to 2008 and from 2014 to 2016, from where he worked in favor of the video game tax credit system). David Cage, Quantic Dream CEO, is the one the newspaper L'Express calls "The Godard of the pixel”, and he was made knight of the French Légion d’honneur in 2014. This was the studio where the SNJV organized this year the presentation of its annual barometer of the French video game industry, a self-congratulation session, to which the Minister of Culture, Françoise Nyssen, attended in person. Often presented as a model of French industry, one would expect Quantic Dream to be exemplary. At Quantic, however, there is atmosphere and atmosphere. The one between the employees, and the one that weighs on them. This was quite striking: the witnesses we interviewed about the relationships between the workers in the studio all pointed out that in this company, "it's the atmosphere that keeps you going". Where we expected to find a divided team in rivalries between departments, as it had been outlined during the tribunal hearing, we at worst found some latent tensions. Sure, "programmers are a bit like the kings of the world. They have the highest salaries, (...) they are often quite arrogant and at Quantic Dream it was particularly true" explained Aurélien*, who spent several years in the company. But besides that, at least until the end of Beyond: Two Souls' production, "it's a company full of very competent people" says Renaud*, a veteran of the industry. "There are a lot of very good people in the teams," adds Igor*, who recently left. "Hypercompetent, lovely and very nice people," confirms Elise*, a former employee. Before continuing: "And they become your family, because they are the only people you see anymore."
* Names have been modified at the request of the witnesses.
Mediapart and Canard PC
For this series of articles and investigations about the working conditions in the video game industry, Canard PC has paired with Mediapart. Since September 2017, two journalists from each publication have worked directly together, sharing approaches, witnesses and information. This crossover of views and skills between a video game magazine and a investigation specialist, serving a joint study, is to our knowledge a first. Each media outlet writes its own articles, but we try to coordinate, if possible, themes and dates of publication. For this story only, we also worked in parallel with our colleagues from Le Monde.
Crunch tablets. According to our interviews and discussions, it appears indeed that the working hours at Quantic Dream briskly phagocytes the days of its employees. It must be nuanced, based on the departments, and the proximity of deadlines. In early 2018, the studio is in the final stretch to deliver Detroit: Become Human in the spring. "At the moment it's around 70 hours a week" an employee told us in early January. Thomas*, a former employee, keeps a burning memory of his Quantic Dream time: "On Beyond Two Souls there has been a lot of crunch, almost for a year. About ten additional hours a week, sometimes more. Knowing that I was in the low average for additional hours." This long crunch pattern is repeated at each new game: "Fahrenheit was already hard. But at the end of Heavy Rain, I could not do more. I have a memory of exhaustion, we had sleepless nights, we worked all the time" recalls Caroline*. In some departments or at specific times, the management would encourage the troops to spend a lot of time in the office. "They're putting pressure on you to stay longer, throwing bad looks if you're only doing normal hours" says Elise, who left before Detroit. But she also describes it as a kind of absurd presenteeism: "At the same time, I often did not have anything to do. People would be less productive to stay late, with the idea that staying late means being invested in the project." And in fact, with the CEO David Cage very invested and omnipresent, the temptation is to emulate the boss. "I work very late, I'm often there on weekends (...), I already slept with my sleeping bag under my desk," David Cage admits before adding: "but I never asked someone to do the same. Never." He even claims to temper the ardor of those who "exaggerate" and want to do too much. Some of our witnesses do not recall the same kind of attitude. For example, one of the employees we interviewed remembers the intervention of the CEO in a team that its lead was trying to shield from pressure, by working himself late alone: "It's not normal, your lead stays every night until midnight, you have to be supportive, you have to stay also".
Remuneration for these overtimes has long been subject to soft focus. Asked about a case that was reported to us of hours paid but not done, as part of a credit for overtime system, which led an employee to have to pay Quantic Dream for these hours at the end of his employment contract, the management plead a mistake and wants the victim, or whoever would have been in the same situation, to contact the company in order to correct the error. It seems, however that the situation has normalized and harmonized between the different departments over the years. The amount of payment for overtime is now even part, in the opinion of current employees as well as that of their managers, of the attractiveness of the studio. But there has been a lot of mystery for a long time. "Everything was done so that we could not understand," summarizes Thomas. If the misunderstanding regarding the compensation of the overtime was raised, it remains, however, at least among the developers who told us about it, about the distribution of royalties, the amount of money depending from the commercial results of the games. According to Guillaume de Fondaumière, the profit-sharing and participation agreements are nevertheless based on "criteria that are clear and communicated to everyone" and that are the result of "a social dialogue for every project”. However, we have encountered great difficulty in obtaining the necessary conditions: "There are criteria of seniority, responsibility, it is something quite scientific, a form with a lot of columns, and in the end, it gives a figure," explains the Deputy General Manager. He emphasizes his attachment to this system, which has allowed, according to him, the redistribution of hundreds of thousands of euros in royalties for Beyond: Two Souls: "All the profits we make go to two places, the production tool and the royalties we pay to our employees”.
* Names have been modified at the request of the witnesses.
This long crunch pattern is repeated at each new Quantic Dream's game.
Golden Cage. These are all the more delicate questions as wages in video game companies rarely reach hights. Guillaume de Fondaumière told us that the minimum entry wage at Quantic was 26% higher than french minimum wage. This must be a recent policy since we have seen salary slips for the year 2017 which were only 5% higher than the legal minimum. Hence a desire from employees to accept overtime: it is indeed difficult to live in Paris with 1 320 euros.
This has consequences for the daily lives of the employees. At certain production moments, there is no time left for a life outside Quantic. Then at the end of production, and often before, there are those whose fixed-term contract ends, those who prefer to leave or those who are on the brink of nervous breakdown. Sophie let off: "It's a common joke in the studio that people are disappearing. Overnight, we do not see them anymore. I experienced it, the management can be quite brutal." And when you talk to employees and hear the words "bad atmosphere", it's not about photomontages or feuds between departments, it's about management: "There is a lot of departures, people being fired, or let go in a probably not very legal way. Like "you will leave, and we will arrange for it to go well", says Renaud. Thomas remembers the procedure that led to his departure: "What we did was not a classical breakage but a private settlement. There are documents, there is a disagreement between the management and you that is staged. All this in backdated documents. It allows them to pay you what they should but without paying all the social charges." According to the evidence we have gathered, Quantic uses the system quite regularly to terminate fixed-term contracts before their end, or put an end to permanent contracts they don’t need anymore. Sophie, who along with some of her colleagues had been offered one of these settlements, sought to follow a more conventional procedure. "We asked a staff representative. He told us that the procedure was "maybe a bit borderline", but that it was not shocking because it was the classic procedure at Quantic”. So classic in fact, that the management of Quantic Dream did not hesitate to apply it to itself when it finds its interest in it (see our box below "When management fires itself").
When management fires itself
In 2016, to the knowledge of Canard PC and Mediapart, Quantic Dream proceeded with seven settlements that were strangely identical from one case to the next: first, a contract termination for misconduct (with each time the same general reasons) then a formal dispute from the employee unfairly treated, and finally a private settlement giving rise to compensation for damages and interests. The protest letter of the employees is always the same, as if they had all been written according to a standardized procedure. Maybe swept along by its own momentum, the management decided to apply the recipe to itself: on June 30, 2016, the CEO David Cage is very angry against his executive producer (who is also his deputy General Manager), Guillaume de Fondaumière. He announces his dismissal. Guillaume de Fondaumière protests this injustice in a letter of October 7, 2016, threatening to bring his case to the labor court. As in the other six cases mentioned, a settlement for this departure is finally found. In this case, Quantic Dream agrees to pay Guillaume de Fondaumière 60 000 euros as a compensation, to be added to his legal compensation for dismissal for a total sum exceeding 100 000 euros. But soon, surprise, the rebel who was criticized in June for "a very personal behavior", a poor performance in the tasks that were given to him and a "refusal to follow the guidelines", reinstated the company as a full time Deputy General Manager. Proof that everything is forgiven, his total monthly remuneration increases by around 2 000 euros. When asked about this episode, Guillaume de Fondaumière told us: "It is perfectly legal, and it is none of your business”. This is good news for Quantic Dream employees: if this procedure is legal, it is also generous, and it could advantageously replace the one which consists of tearing up a fixed-term contract to replace it by another, with only a duration change. By Ivan Le Fou
The Detroit War will not take place. On the other hand, young people on fixed-term contracts whose cooperation Quantic wish to extend a little will see their contract torn up and replaced by another (author’s note: instead of agreeing on a new contract, the French law forbidding more than two fixed-term contracts in a raw). To stick as closely as possible to the needs of the company (the production schedule being subject to frequent changes), witnesses tell us that they have been summoned orally by human resources department, several times, with their contract. They say they tore up both employee’s and employer’s copies to sign a new backdated contract with a new deadline. Questioned on this point, Guillaume de Fondaumière first denies that such practices are "a policy". He then concedes that this may have been a mistake. He invokes the responsibility of a person "who was an accountant and made a number of mistakes" and after that of a person in charge of human resources. That does not quite match with the statements of our witnesses, who were told in advance that the contract would have to be torn up again. Igor summarizes his impression about the inner workings of Quantic in these terms: "We feel there is a strong collusion between human resources and the bosses, and no counter-power. In the Works Council only sit the most loyal Quantic Dream employees, all very close to David. In any case we have no one to turn to in case of injustice”. During our long interview with David Cage and Guillaume de Fondaumière, they insist they were "very unhappy" when employees left, that they had trouble recruiting and that their main challenge was to "keep people" within the company. The testimonies collected and transcribed here will perhaps give them some ideas for improvement, just in time for the new year's resolutions of Quantic Dream for 2018.
What do legal staff representative have to say
We have contacted Quantic Dream legal staff representatives. They choose a written general reply opting out of the suggested informal meet up. Here is their position on different matters.
- Regarding photomontages: personnel reps assured us they would have taken appropriate action if made aware of by Quantic Dream staff. They don't seem outraged by these images, as implying that if anyone was bothered, they should have stepped up. They however confirmed that they were opposed to the sanction that struck the author of said photomontage (a simple warning). Let’s point out that this author was also elected staff representative at that time.
- When questioned about the testimonies we published and about the way labor law is applied at Quantic Dream, staff representatives declare there is no problem they are aware of. Regarding the turnover, they see no wrongdoing from Quantic Dream, invoking instead “change of habits from employees” wanting to change companies more often, long projects weariness or “miscommunication with fellow employees”. No comment was made on how short-term contracts were handled.
- Regarding crunch and work overload, staff reps do recognize employees work “a lot” to wrap up Detroit: Becoming Human. What they really think about this will remain unspoken: “Overtime is based on volunteering and is paid as such. (...) It’s not our role to question the usefulness of overtime to finish an AAA project. We wish Quantic Dream respects its employees which will let everyone move forward in good spirit, in a win-win relation, in an international context”.
- When it came to how the royalties-like bonus system at Quantic Dream was handled, representatives were more accurate: according to them, it was only applicable on the Beyond: Two Souls production, under the following conditions: “employees had to have worked on the project for more than 217 days, to be part of the staff at the date of payment and not to have resigned or gotten fired”. This system is no longer in force, a negotiation is open for the Detroit project.
Finally, when asked to qualify the general ambiance at Quantic Dream, they reply “good natured” and add rather corporately “it is in Quantic Dream’s best interest to have a humanely fulfilling and professionally satisfying environment, in order to keep its employees”.