You may not have heard of Keywords Studios, but you’ve definitely played its games. A prolific support studio, Keywords devs have worked with Ubisoft, Square Enix, EA, Nintendo, and many, many more industry giants.
We recently interviewed several women who work at Keywords in various departments, about how the studio's work-from-home policy during the Covid-19 pandemic was actively helping marginalised people get into the gaming industry – especially other women. The flexibility of working at home meant that devs didn’t have to put their careers on hold if they had children, as many women once did.
Our conversation was positive, and there was no indication that this helpful policy was going to change. Until, very suddenly, it did.
“There was a direction given by Keywords Studios that we were going to be returning into the office five days a week,” says Keywords quality analyst, James Russwurm. “Our pay was really, really low[…]if you wanted to go to the office every day, you're looking at about a 30-minute car drive to the office, and then you're probably looking to pay about $250ish a month just for parking.”
Russwurm works with a team of QA workers who are currently supporting BioWare. Just coming out of Mass Effect Legendary Edition’s development, they’re now well underway with Dragon Age: Dreadwolf.
His team made the news this month when they voted unanimously for unionization, following a battle with bosses over the return-to-work order. But even before this, these BioWare contract workers had already faced issues with Keywords.
“Minimum wage here in Alberta, which is what our testers are starting at, is $15 an hour,” Russwurm tells me. “And if you're looking to rent a one-bedroom apartment for yourself, you're probably looking at somewhere in the realm of $1,200 a month in rent. You're very quickly paying more than half of your income in a month just to keep a roof over your head.
“We also don't really receive any sick days. So if you get ill and you can't go to work, that's coming out of your own pocket […] It got to a point where we can no longer afford to work there. That was the point that we decided we're going to form a union.”
So, inspired by the Game Workers Alliance, formed by Raven Software devs, that’s exactly what they did. However, unionization doesn’t happen overnight. Before that, they had to do their research – and all that did was spur Russwurm on even further.
“The employees that work directly for BioWare and Electronic Arts were not required to return to the office. They were free to remain as remote or hybrid. It was only us contracted QA workers that were being forced back into the building.” This is despite BioWare having its own employed QA workers, who were again, allowed to work from home.
Through unionizing, Russwurm and the team were able to get into contact with other Keywords devs, who are largely kept separate from each other as they worked on different projects. As it happened, there were other even Keywords devs in Alberta who didn’t have to return to the office either.
When they asked for some kind of explanation on why they in particular had to return to the office, Russwurm tells TheGamer they received none. It was simple: their contract was written before the pandemic, and therefore, made no mention of working from home. The office had just opened so, per their contract, they were to work there. As Russwurm explains, “there wasn't any sort of operational concern, or performance-based concern.”
Very little was happening at this stage. But this changed quickly when bosses discovered what their workers were up to.
“The [union] application was given to the Labour Board. Shortly thereafter, [the return to work order] was reversed. And we were allowed to remain working from home”. This came just a week before they were set to return to the office.
Unfortunately, that was apparently Keywords Studios' only positive response to the news.
“We submitted the application on April 25. The next day, we saw some of our team members being pulled into meetings with management and HR to be given disciplinary notices,” Russwurm says.
“They were kind of along the lines of ‘if you mess up again, you're gonna be fired’. Of course, they claim that it had nothing to do with the unionisation thing. But they also hired lawyers here in Alberta that are notorious for union-busting”. That is according to the union Russwurm worked with, at least.
“I was actually removed from my job capacity,” Russwurm says. “Keywords figured out that I was one of the prominent organisers. And I was put onto doing tasks that no longer interacted with other individuals.
“We did see retaliation taken against the team, though, I will say it did work in our favour. It ended up driving even more people to our side.”
Russwurm tells me these actions may come under investigation, as such behaviour may amount to a breach of labour law. Keywords denies this, saying it is “not currently aware of any investigation.”
Yet when that didn’t work, Russwurm tells me that Keywords went with the “appeasement” route.
“[Keywords] gave us work from home back and more flexibility in our jobs. [They] flew in executives to the city to say ‘come talk to us if you got concerns’,” he says. “I was really proud of the team for not taking the bait on that one.”
As we now know, no one at all took the bait. The vote to unionize was won unanimously – and yet that still hasn’t got Keywords cooperating. When I ask what the bosses have said to the union, he points me to the public statement on the website, because that’s all there is.
Initially, this was all Keywords passed onto TheGamer too. However, after raising the allegations of union-busting, a representative added: “As we have already stated, we are ready to engage with the union representing the team of Keywords Studios employees in Edmonton once that process begins. Keywords Studios is always aiming for strong engagement with our people."
Russwurm, however, suggests it is not in any rush to do so. “They have a manager that works out of Keyword Studios in British Columbia that manages the whole team from a higher capacity. And since we put the application in no one has seen or heard from her.
“We're forming our bargaining committee right now, and at the top of [the agenda] is going to be wages, just because it has become too unlivable to continue to earn what we earn.”
Russwurm continues to explain what workers will negotiate first: “Electronic Arts and BioWare are paying Keyword Studios a certain amount of money for our services, and we hope that through the bargaining process we can find a little bit more of an equitable agreement there on which side is keeping most of that money.
“The other concerns we do have are around things like work from home flexibility,” he continues. “If we're going to have our members forced to commute into the office every day, we would like to see some sort of compensation.”
In what may be surprising to those of us that remember the reports of crunch at BioWare, one of the Keywords team’s demands is to stick with the EA contract and stay working on Dragon Age: Dreadwolf.
“We're not looking to get any more money necessarily out of Bioware and Electronic Arts,” Russwurm says. “I worked a little bit on the Mass Effect Legendary Edition before moving on to the new Dragon Age: Dreadwolf. We want to continue working with BioWare and EA. We love working with them.
“The individuals that we personally work with, the other members of the BioWare in the QA department, have always been fantastic for us to work with.”
It’s perhaps for this reason that Russwurm feels that the team will never have to strike. Now that they have formally unionized, Keywords will have to work with them via arbitration, thanks to Alberta labour laws. As the negotiation process with bosses begins, it sounds like we’re a far way off from seeing this integral BioWare QA team plan a walkout, as we have seen from Raven QA workers this year.
But that doesn’t mean the team doesn’t have high hopes for its fledgling union. As Russwurm says, low wages and a lack of transparency from bosses is hardly unique to Keywords. And like the Game Workers Alliance, this small group of QA workers would like to inspire other devs to do the same.
“I know how badly QA gets taken advantage of in a lot of different studios, ” Russwurm says. “Even if it's not directly in video games[…]it's just ripe for unionisation.”
“We're seeing a great wave across North America with Amazon workers and the Starbucks workers[…]we're really hoping that more studios can come forward and follow our example, because we just want to make sure that everybody's getting a fair deal.”
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