Image courtesy of KO_OP

Giving Workers Equal Power Isn't Radical. This Studio's Done It For Years.

Canadian developer KO_OP has been experimenting with the co-op model long before America's socialism flirtation—and it's working.

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Mar 12 2019, 5:10pm

Image courtesy of KO_OP

KO_OP describes itself as an “an artist run game studio,” and is your quintessentially quirky modern video game developer, having worked on everything from experimental soundscape projects like Skipping Stones, to the monster face puzzle solver GNOG, and even expansion packs for the Tomb Raider mobile spin-off, Lara Croft GO. Despite this, it’s not what makes KO_OP stand out. It’s the way KO_OP, as a developer, is structured; KO_OP is also a co-op.

Under the new rule of socialist empress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, maybe you’ve heard of the term in passing. Maybe, like me, it’s mostly in the context of the neighborhood grocery store you’re told is owned by a group of people, but, well, what’s that even mean? The notion of a co-op, in which a business is explicitly owned by the workers operating it, runs counter to ingrained notions of capitalism and the business/employee relationship; it shifts the power dynamic. The worker being the owner means no distance between the fruits of one’s labor.

“A lot of people don't realize in the discourse around capitalism how ingrained the propaganda elements are from a very young age,” said KO_OP co-founder and studio director Saleem Dabbous during an interview. “When you're told something is the way it is from a very young age and it's repeated in every single piece of media and through the work and through the school system and everything you consume, it's hard to see beyond that.”

Game creation is often mythologized, blinding us to the everyday work making art possible. A person does not simply sit down at a computer with a clever idea and—voila—video game. This is especially true for games made by a team (or teams) of people who have to work with one another. But while we spend endless energy on the obviously important design work that goes into video games, precious little is spent on understanding the structure supporting it.

The short version of what being a co-op means for KO_OP—and for the record, it’s actually only a coincidence the words are so similar to one another—is workers are also the bosses.

“This studio, this company, exists to support the people who are part of it, not the other way around,” said Dabbous. “KO_OP is there for us to take advantage of whatever resources it awards us, be it healthcare, or this opportunity to create a certain piece of art that we really want to see out there in the world.”

No one who’s joined KO_OP has left since KO_OP was founded in 2012. (That will change when its co-founder, Bronson Zgeb, leaves next month.) The company did institute a six-month probationary period for new hires, a way of feeling things out, a few years in. So far, only one person decided to move on before the period was up.

KO_OP is only 10 people, and while each has a distinct role—Dabbous, for example, handles a lot of the day-to-day business decisions, and is often their public spokesperson—they have an equal seat at the table. Every person, for example, has the same salary. If you joined the studio today, you make the same as someone who’s been there since day one. Small decisions are made by individuals, because otherwise nothing would get done, but KO_OP’s big decisions happen as a group.

To date, KO_OP has not had split decision votes, where part of the studio wants to go in a direction, but it’s technically a majority vote system. Several other KO_OP team members I spoke to echoed Dabbous’ claim that KO_OP’s decisions have largely been universal.

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A look at the KO_OP office in Montreal, Canada.

"When we've made big decisions it's always come down to reaching a consensus as a group," said art director and designer G.P. Lackey, who's been at KO_OP since nearly the start. "This hasn't been a very formal process, but as we've grown a bit the intent is to make sure that it is and that we always steer the decisions as a group."

This has its own constraints, of course. Nobody at KO_OP has a child, but if someone suddenly required more money to afford child care and other expenses, it doesn’t mean increasing that one person’s salary to accommodate—it means moving up everyone’s salary. KO_OP tries to manage the challenge of this problem by limiting the scope; not many people work at KO_OP by by design.

This sense of equity extends beyond pure salary, too. Dabbous, for example, has put the most amount of his personal savings into establishing KO_OP, foundational money that was needed to get the studio off the ground in the early days—$20,000. But this doesn’t change how money, resources, or power is distributed; it just means Dabbous was there at the start.

“Money just enabled me to start something, and bring in these amazing people,” he said. “They are contributing to the value of the company in so many intangible ways.”

Dabbous was born, raised, and spent his pre-college educational years in Kuwait, a Middle Eastern country that spent decades as a British protectorate, a form of colonialism where territory retains some measure of local autonomy and power. The result is a country where, Dabbous told me, means Western ideas of capitalism are ingrained to the point of propaganda.

He moved to Canada to attend college, and spent a year in business school before he found himself loathing everything he was being taught—it felt wrong, even if he didn’t know why. Without telling his family, Dabbous switched into the English department. (They forgave him, though his father did hang up the phone when it was revealed.) It was there, during a cultural studies course, Dabbous had a personal awakening.

“It gave me the vocabulary and the training to unravel the world around me,” he said, “and that's the approach I've taken towards money and capitalism and running a business.”

Dabbous became involved in the local independent scene, and found himself drawn to creating games. Dabbous and his friend, KO_OP programmer Bronson Zgeb, decided they wanted to start their own thing, and looked towards independent record labels for inspiration. Their goal was to start a place, a sort of artists collective, that allowed people to make cool shit. The literal co-op model came later, after someone pointed out how their goals aligned.

KO_OP is almost always working on several projects at once—at the moment, it’s three—at various scales of production ambition. To date, KO_OP’s releases have been modest successes, but all it takes is for one game, in one singular and unexpected moment, to take off and lead to a financial windfall. In a traditional company, the team who worked on the game and the executives who greenlit the project would be the sole beneficiaries of the sudden influx of cash. At KO_OP, though, the entire studio would benefit from success.

“One team's success is every team's success,” he said. “Fundamentally, if you choose to work here, you are agreeing to that kind of arrangement, where we are all working to find a way to make game sustainable for the whole company.”

For the moment, it remains theory more than practice, but the aspiration is the same, and based on several other folks I talked to at KO_OP, it’s one the team believes in.

Art director and designer Sam Boucher joined KO_OP a year or so after its founding, and admitted he had no idea what a co-op was before suddenly becoming part of one.

“When you grow up into a system where everything is hierarchical, it's difficult not to see hierarchies and power dynamics everywhere. For a a while, I was really afraid to voice any concern or opinion, even though they were encouraging me to."

“The only adjustment was like—now I get to say things I really think and it wouldn't compromise my job,” said Boucher. “I've had bosses veto on decisions that turned out to be very bad because they didn't want to hear opinions or they had them but decided to act anyway. Now I feel like if a general consensus arises at KO_OP that's what we will do. Good or bad, we're in this together.”

It’s one thing to believe people should share equal power and influence, another to act on it. Lucie Viatge started as an intern at KO_OP, and at the end of her program, KO_OP offered to bring her on full-time as art director and one of the studio’s many designers. Viatge told me it took an entire year for her to adjust to life at KO_OP, and to begin asserting herself.

“When you grow up into a system where everything is hierarchical, it's difficult not to see hierarchies and power dynamics everywhere,” said Viatge. “For a while, I was really afraid to voice any concern or opinion, even though they were encouraging me to, because I thought if they didn't like what I was gonna say—they would fire me or something!”

The power imbalance of the employee/employer relationship proved difficult to shake. As KO_OP was Viatge's first “real” job, she felt a pressure to maintain an outdated status quo. Even if places like KO_OP suddenly spread everywhere, it would take a long time for people to adopt a new mental model, one that puts themselves, not the company, at the center.

“We all have the same salary and we hear everyone's opinions and take decisions together,” she said, "but people are different and their situations are different, so we can, in my opinion, never really be exactly at the same level. But we try our best to be!”

That idea of sustainability is at the heart of the KO_OP’s mission, and being a co-op is one part of achieving that mission; being in it together ensures fewer loose ends. An organizational structure doesn’t achieve this alone, however. As studio director, Dabbous is constantly thinking about the next day, the next week, the next year. To that end, when KO_OP mulls its future, it always assumes the next game won’t make any money. If you assume a game won’t make any money, you can’t be surprised when it’s not a hit, and it allows you to build in buffers—say, a new contract—to keep the studio moving forward.

But, again, being a co-op does not magically solve every problem. KO_OP has, like virtually every developer on the planet, crunched to ship a game. They’re still trying to figure out systems and processes to avoid crunch. And yet, the notion of crunch at a co-op is different.

“By being owners, when we fuck up and do have to exploit ourselves, at least we are benefiting from the fruits of our labor,” said Dabbous. “It's not just going to another person who gets to fire us at the end of the day.”

Crunch is still wrong, but we’ve all experienced long hours, late nights, and workdays that bleed into weekends. Often, that extra time does not turn into extra money—it’s just what’s necessary to get the original job done. But when you’ll tangible benefit from the increased time? At the very least, the reward is going towards the person who put in the actual labor, not a faceless executive who only stands to gain, never to lose, from the additional strain.

This, like so many other parts of KO_OP, remain a work-in-progress.

KO_OP is structured like a co-op, but not legally a co-op—at least, not yet. To access various funding mechanisms, like government grants, KO_OP remains technically a for-profit company, but it’s currently exploring how to transition formally, legally into a co-op. This is different than The Glory Society, a co-op formed by several Night in the Woods developers. (You can read a recent interview with them about their move here.) The legal question is important because while being a spiritual co-op is nice, it’s still a company, not a co-op, and it means certain individuals do have more power than others, they have just chosen to, so far, not exercise it. That’s a potentially dangerous problem.

In the meantime, KO_OP is trying to split shares equally, as a way of hedging their bets.

It’s also not a union, either, though Dabbous supports the growing movement to introduce unionization to the games industry. But equality comes in different forms, and at KO_OP, they’ve found, through fits and starts and improvisation, progress.

“It's about having an overall system that works harmoniously that protects people,” he said.

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