Game Developer Unions are a Daft Idea

Some game developers would like to unionise. This is not an inherently bad idea. Unionisation is an effective way for people to improve their working conditions when there is a chronic imbalance in bargaining power between workers and management across an industry.

Such an imbalance might occur because regulation makes it hard to start or destroy companies. Or because workers cannot easily move between industries, perhaps because re-training is hard, or because a social security system ties benefits to an individual career . Or for many other real world reasons that affect many people.

Game development does not suffer from such an imbalance. Quite the opposite:

  • Companies making games generally struggle to find and retain skilled workers
  • Strong competition between companies makes capable development teams their only competitive advantage

For workers to enjoy the best working conditions, poorly performing companies must be destroyed as quickly as possible. Yes, that includes studios that we might fondly remember for being very good in the past, but are now falling behind more innovative competitors.

Fortunately, it is very easy to start and destroy game development studios. Capital costs are low, regulation is light, markets are near fully globalised, and geography is largely irrelevant. Under such circumstances, it is relatively easy for a hungry entrepreneur to pull together a motivated team and beat established players.

The best thing that game developers can do is to maintain an atmosphere of ruthless innovation: Bad companies get destroyed, good ones keep popping up. That way, talented game developers can choose from a wide array of companies, allowing demand for their talent to force competition for the acquisition of their labour.

Of course, there is an elephant in the room. If competition in games is so intense, why is pay generally low? Game development attracts lots of people who perceive it as more enjoyable work than say, finance or accounting. At the macroeconomic level, the game development labour market is heavily supplied.

If you are working in game development, someone with equal or lesser talents than you is working in a fin-tech startup earning twice as much as you while working half the hours. If you don’t like that, you need to go work in a fin-tech.

If you try to force higher pay by controlling supply of labour through a union, then the company you work for is going to go bankrupt. Someone hungrier than you is going to supply their labour elsewhere, the company they work for is going to produce an equal product at lower cost,  and customers are going to end your fantasy with their wallets.