A group of about 30 current and former TT Games employees have spoken out over the working conditions and crunch in their latest project. Taking nearly five years to develop, LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga has been plagued with tight development schedules, crunch culture, and outdated development tools.
In a feature article published by Polygon, these TT Games employees, who all spoke anonymously in order to avoid reproductions, broke their silence to describe a company that has the kind of corporate culture that makes employees break down outside of work hours. Their latest project, a LEGO Star Wars game that adapts all nine main films in the Star Wars series, was first revealed to the public in 2019 and has gone through multiple delays, culminating in an April 5th, 2022 release date. During this time, TT Games has seen high staff turnover and a change in management.
When did the issues with crunch start?
TT Games had problems with crunch way before The Skywalker Saga. Their crunch culture dates back to the company's formation in 2005 when Traveller's Tales acquired publisher Giant Interactive after the success of the first LEGO Star Wars game. Co-founder and creative director Jon Burton was described as someone who "would often yell at staff to return to their desks if they tried to leave work on time, and that he regularly expected employees to put in extra hours." Others would hound employees who left the studio for the day to question their loyalty to the job. One employee said that crunch "wasn’t an emergency protocol for when things went wrong. Instead, it was a tool in the box for production; projects were planned with crunch periods in the schedule, or even worse, crunch was the schedule."
Shortly after TT Games was acquired by Warner Bros. in November 2007, a companywide satisfaction survey showed some of the lowest ratings Warner Bros. had at the time. Despite dropping some odd rules, like not allowing people to answer phones at their desks, nothing meaningful was changed about timelines or the crunch culture. Burton's successors, studio manager David Dootson (2013-2018) and studio manager/director Paul Flanagan) continued to maintain a culture where overtime was expected. It was always presented as voluntary and paid, but employees often took it to earn more money or because they were warned of "consequences" if they didn't pull their weight. Some departments, such as programming and animation, were hit by this culture especially hard, and QA testers for the Wilmslow, UK-Based TT Fusion say that the working conditions there were some of the worst they've ever experienced in the video game industry.
What was it about LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga that brought these issues to a head?
One of the major breaking points for TT Games' company culture happened during the development of The Skywalker Saga when management made the unpopular decision to develop the game on a new engine called NTT. Employees pushed for the studio to switch to the more popular and well-known Unreal Engine, and some even made a well-received mockup with the software, but management held the course because they didn't want to pay engine licensing costs. Even worse, this switch meant that many of the pre-production assets, which were done with the old engine in mind, had to be reexported and reintegrated. Despite meetings with TT Games' managing director Tom Stone, which led to new contracts that gave staff more holidays and a higher percentage bonus at the end of the year, little else had changed. Stone left the company in 2019 to pursue new opportunities.
Another major issue with The Skywalker Saga's development includes feature creep. Early on in development, management told employees that the game would "mark changes in the company's working conditions," but it's become the studio's biggest project yet. Management coined the phrase "strive for 85," referring to a potential Metacritic score record for the company (their highest so far is 83 for LEGO Marvel Superheroes for the PS4.) Despite being such a major title for TT Games, the studio was often working on multiple projects, and would often move staff away from the Star Wars game. One former employee also remembers the director requesting new mechanics on a whim while not fixing what mattered. "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."
TT Games' upper management has seen some changes in the last two years, and these changes have had a mixed reception from the 400+ staff that work at the studios. Over 15 of the current and former employees Polygon spoke to are "disappointed" with management's vision for the future and its decision to focus solely on LEGO projects. However, there have been some positive steps at TT Games. Multiple sources close to the company say that TT will no longer use NTT and will switch to Unreal Engine for future projects. In addition, some employees report that the company is paying closer attention to how much overtime staff can work, even limiting this amount in some cases.
As for LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, it's currently scheduled to release on April 5th, 2022.