Chucklefish responds to allegations it exploited Starbound volunteers

"Contributors were under no obligation to create content, work to deadlines or put in any particular number of hours."

Chucklefish has formally responded to allegations it exploited a number of volunteer contributors when it launched Starbound back in 2016.

Damon Reece - who is credited as a writer on the space exploration game - revealed on Twitter that they had worked "hundreds of hours" for free "while the company made unbelievable amounts of money off of [their] labour, and that of around a dozen other unpaid workers".

"I started out my gamedev career working on Starbound for almost two years. I was sixteen," said Damon Reece on Twitter (thanks, PC Gamer). "I worked hundreds of hours and wasn't paid a single cent for it while the company made unbelievable amounts of money off of my labour, and that of around a dozen other unpaid workers.

"A couple of them ended up working at the company. it doesn't mean they weren't exploited too. I spent a long time being very afraid that talking about this would tank my career," Reece added. "But this is indisputable truth, and I am, for now, in a stable and safe position. so there you go."

Others came forward to substantiate Reece's claims, including graphic artist Rho Watson, concept artist Christine Crossley, and composer Clark Powell.

"Those who were passionate and wanted to help with the game that wasn't a paid member was given a standard 'contributor contract' and told it was 'industry standard'," Watson told PC Gamer, acknowledging that while they were a paid contractor, many were not. "Put simply, it was either sign that contract and get your foot in the door or get out. A few people were happy to donate their time or just wanted to see their work in the game, but for most people who wanted to work their way up to a paid position, they'd be forced to sign that contract and waive any right to compensation."

"We're aware and saddened by the current allegations against Chucklefish regarding Starbound's early development," the developer said via a statement. "During this time both the core crew and community contributors were collaborating via a chat room and dedicated their time for free. Community contributors were under no obligation to create content, work to deadlines or put in any particular number of hours. Everyone was credited or remunerated as per their agreement.

"It's been almost a decade since Starbound's development first began, and from then Chucklefish has grown considerably into an indie studio that has a strong emphasis on good working practices, providing a welcoming environment for all employees and freelancers. Our doors remain open to any related parties who wish to discuss their concerns with us directly."

Reece states that despite agreements or contracts there was "no moral defence for this" and as they had been "a naive newcomer to the industry", their "trust was utterly betrayed". They also insist "deadlines were absolutely in place and "if not formal [it was] definitely heavily implied".

"Regardless of any contracts signed, it's massively unethical to allow workers to contribute huge amounts of content for no pay when you, the ostensible leader of the team, are walking away with millions of dollars in personal revenue share," Reece added. "If your game sells over two and a half million copies and your only excuse for not treating people ethically is, 'but the dozens of teenagers whose labour we exploited signed contracts,' you may need to do some soul-searching.

"The point I'm trying to make here is that you shouldn't work for free. I see so many young people [and] students angling for a foot in the door but doing free work won't give you anything but a permanent bad taste in your mouth once you realize you've been had."

An earlier copy of this story incorrectly stated that Chucklefish was the developer of Stardew Valley. This has been now been corrected.

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About the author

Vikki Blake

Vikki Blake

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When​ ​her friends​ ​were falling in love with soap stars, Vikki was falling in love with​ ​video games. She's a survival horror survivalist​ ​with a penchant for​ ​Yorkshire Tea, men dressed up as doctors and sweary words. She struggles to juggle a fair-to-middling Destiny/Halo addiction​ ​and her kill/death ratio is terrible.

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