A new investigation into emotional abuse at three indie studios brings gaming auteurs into stark relief.
People Make Games has released a new video on the studios Mountains, Fullbright, and Funomena, each led by a so-called "indie superstar". Interviews with staff past and present has reported emotional abuse suffered under each of their leaderships.
All three studios have had games published by Annapurna Interactive, who it is claimed have been unable to deal with complaints appropriately.
Mountains, led by Ken Wong, is the Australian studio best known for the game Florence. Staff at the studio complained about communication issues as Wong steadily chipped away at staff confidence by questioning all decisions.
One staff member at Mountains described him as "a very cruel person in a position of power who liked to make people feel bad to make himself feel better".
In 2020, the studio created a policy where staff could decline a one-on-one meeting with Wong if they felt he was overstepping.
A number of resignations from the studio caught the attention of publisher Annapurna. All seven remaining members voted unanimously for Wong to step down from leadership.
Yet while Annapurna was unable to remove Wong, their tone in a meeting with Mountains staff was described as "dismissive", with one senior staff member from the publisher saying that without strong personalities, games don't get made.
Wong moved the studio from Melbourne to Adelaide and was reportedly told by Annapurna to hire graduates who would expect less. However, Wong told People Make Games the move was for personal reasons and Annapurna made no such suggestion. Annapurna did not respond for comment.
As Eurogamer previously reported, in 2021 Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor stepped down due to his toxic behaviour towards female staff.
The studio's next game, Open Roads, is being published by Annapurna, with staff asking the publisher to step in and mediate the situation.
However, according to staff that People Make Games spoke to, Annapurna's focus was on the state of the game more than the health of the studio. Once the Polygon report about the studio's toxic workplace went live, a statement was made by the Open Roads Twitter account. But this received no support from Annapurna.
Some staff from Fullbright said they understood Annapurna's position, that as it did not have ownership over the studio, it could not force change. Others were more cynical, with one staff member describing the team as "LA bros... just like any other publisher with money".
The third studio in question is Funomena, run by Robin Hunicke (the creator of Wattam - also published by Annapurna).
Hunicke is known externally as a female leader who purports to be inclusive. However, People Make Games spoke to staff members who state Hunicke was emotionally abusive and often used sensitive personal information in a way that was humiliating or unprofessional. Some of that private information was shared with people outside of Funomena.
Annapurna was reportedly aware of issues at the studio, but staff were disappointed the studio wasn't able to act more definitively. Annapurna did not respond for comment.
After the release of Wattam, Hunicke took a step back from creative responsibilities at the studio. However, People Make Games was contacted by a group of current and former employees describing Hunicke as "the instigator of a huge amount of toxicity at Funomena". The investigation suggests her behaviour is ongoing.
People Make Games' report concluded by suggesting that smaller indie studios were often created without the necessary fail-safes required to protect staff and that, with these three studios, auteurs caused projects to fail which left staff traumatised. Perhaps, the report suggests, rather than us buying into the unhealthy obsession with auteur game creators, publishers such as Annapurna could do more to protect the staff of studios it works with.
Watch the full People Make Games report below.