Last Friday, the quality assurance (QA) workers at Raven Software, a subsidiary of Call of Duty publisher and scandal magnet Activision Blizzard, announced plans to form a union, partially in response to the company’s poor treatment of a department responsible for finding bugs in the company’s biggest games. Only days later, Polygon reporter Nicole Carpenter revealed leaders at Raven had rolled out plans to redistribute QA employees, moving them from a separate team and instead embedding them within other departments within Raven.
Activision Blizzard, who Microsoft has proposed purchasing for $68.7 billion, did not respond to an immediate request for comment. But in a statement to Polygon, the company said this move was “the next step in a process that has been carefully considered and in the works for some time” and meant to “make the opportunities for our talented QA staff even stronger.”
The decision to form a union and changes to Raven’s QA department came after weeks of striking by some Raven employees, a radical move in the mostly ununionized games industry.
“When Management uses meaningless buzzwords like ‘alignment, ‘synergy,’ and ‘reorganization,’” said Communication Workers of America (CWA) organizing director Tom Smith in a press release, “they are sending a message to workers: ‘we make all the decisions, we have all the power.’ Workers organize to have a voice at work to rectify these power imbalances.”
The QA workers at Raven have partnered with the CWA to form their proposed union. The CWA is also encouraging the Department of Justice to scrutinize the Microsoft purchase.
The timing of Raven and Activision Blizzard’s announcement is suspect, but the proposed change—making QA staff integrated across the development chain—is becoming popular among game makers.
“It's both common and uncommon at the same time?” said a production manager who has worked in the industry for more than a decade and asked for anonymity to avoid scrutiny on their ongoing projects. “The idea of them not being isolated and instead having direct access to the development staff is something you see a lot more in smaller studios—in AAA [big budget games] it's fairly recent. Though in this one the play seems to be 'if you eliminate the idea of there being a dedicated QA department then is that anything with regards to union busting.’”
In the past, QA has been—and often continues to be—an unceremonious dumping ground. Artists, programmers, designers, and other creative-level developers are vital to the process of making a video game, but if it’s unplayable because it’s full of bugs, none of it works. For much of gaming’s history, QA departments have been underpaid and overstressed, despite their importance in making the whole thing work. During the strike at Raven, Call of Duty Warzone fans frequently complained about the amount of glitches ruining their matches.
“It makes sense to have embedded QA in most departments,” said a current Activision Blizzard employee, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid reprisals. “That won’t replace the QA department itself but that will help quality overall. To fix bugs, you have to reproduce them and it’s not always easy. Having QA by your side helps a lot.”
The same source was surprised Raven didn’t already have embedded QA.
“Now, if they move some of the folks and get rid of their QA department,” they said. “I would read that differently.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by developers responding to the initial news.
It’s possible the timing is coincidental, that Activision Blizzard and Raven had been planning this QA integration just prior to unexpectedly laying off a bunch of contractor workers, prompting a strike that lasted seven weeks and a strike fund that raised nearly $400,000. It’s also possible this is simply the latest union busting tactic by Activision Blizzard, following similar tactics employed by the company in response to larger unionization discussions.
Additional reporting by Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai and Lauren Kaori Gurley.