Last week, Worms developer and indie game publisher Team17 brought the ire of the internet upon itself as bosses attempted to launch a range of collectible Worms NFTs. But while the reveal, swift condemnation and embarrassing backtrack have all now passed, employees at the developer's main Wakefield and Nottingham sites remain stunned. They say the incident reflects a company out of touch with its staff - and which is yet to say sorry to team members left in the internet's firing line.
Speaking to Eurogamer under condition of anonymity to protect their careers, more than a dozen employees have said they felt let down by how Team17 handled the announcement, and that the company's refusal to listen to staff concerns has added additional pressure to a workforce already worn thin. Team members I spoke to - fiercely loyal to their colleagues and proud of the work they do - were aghast at the public drubbing the company's name got last week, and say they have become increasingly upset by the decisions of management over the past few years, as workloads have risen while pay has remained poor.
Team17 staff past and present confirm the company has recently been shedding team members, as many are fed up by low salaries, long hours, and concerns around HR and upper management. Team17's public Glassdoor page paints a similar picture, with many one-star reviews over the past six months and a further flurry after last week. Now, rather than brush the NFT blunder under the carpet, Team17 members have told Eurogamer they need to speak out on a range of issues that bosses have to both acknowledge and improve.
Eurogamer laid out the concerns raised in this report to Team17 and invited the company to respond to a set of points individually. Yesterday, in response, a Team17 spokesperson provided the following statement, which is printed below in full. (At the same time, Team17 warned staff that an "extensive and negative" article would be published, which would "impact teams across our studios and offices". Team17 staff reflected to Eurogamer that this alert had been given with far more notice than that of the NFT reveal last week.)
"Team17 Digital takes its responsibilities to its staff extremely seriously," a Team17 Digital spokesperson told Eurogamer. "We constantly review our internal policies and practises and assess how we support our employees through our engagement survey and through direct dialogue with the team, including newly-established employee-led working groups. This encompasses compensation, workplace culture and environment, among other key areas, to continually strive to improve our employee experience. In January, as part of this, we announced new improvements to the way we pay and reward our Teamsters. We care passionately about our Teamsters and our aim is to ensure they feel connected, valued and have a sense of belonging and purpose, and that they continue to be proud of Team17 and the products we develop and publish."
As Eurogamer first reported last week, several teams within Team17 had no knowledge of the company's NFT plan until just prior to its public announcement, while others who were aware for operational reasons had voiced their disapproval - only to be ignored.
Staff said support for NFT collectibles had come from the very top of the company, and that the project had quietly been in the works since late last year. Meanwhile, other team members began to suspect the worst after a brief mention the company was exploring NFTs in an earlier internal meeting. This set some staff, protective of the Team17 brand and fiercely against NFTs, on edge.
When the Worms announcement did come, team members were instructed to keep opinions of the scheme to themselves. "I don't ethically believe in NFTs; does this mean I cannot share that opinion on social media channels after the partnership has been announced?" reads an internal FAQ document passed to Eurogamer. "While Team17 cannot control what Teamsters publish on their social media or other public-facing channels, please be mindful that as an employee of Team17 you are a representative of the company and its reputation," the studio's response instructed. "Criticising or embarrassing Team17, its contractual partners, or fellow Teamsters in a public forum could be cause for disciplinary action."
When Team17 did backtrack, it was following fierce public opposition from development partners such as Ghost Town Games, Aggro Crab, Playtonic, The Game Kitchen and SMG, who spoke up and said they wanted nothing to do with NFTs in their games. Aggro Crab went further, and called on developers to no longer do business with Team17 altogether.
Team17 members were informed of the company's subsequent U-turn via a brief town hall meeting that felt like a "political apology", staff said, where they were told the scheme had been planned in the best way possible. This, however, only led to further anger. "If it was the people in the office who swayed them - if it had been the employees - they wouldn't have done it," one staff member who attended the meeting told Eurogamer. "Instead, they did it, and they left it for a day and a half to simmer and see what would happen... It wasn't even that people might lose their jobs [if developers pulled their games], or that the company was going downhill," they continued, "it was that the managers were doing something so monumentally stupid without a thought for those who would actually bear the brunt of it. They didn't apologise to staff, even the community managers who were subjected to a barrage of abuse because of it."
Team17 develops its own titles, including numerous games in the Worms series and recent sequels like Overcooked 2 and The Survivalists, while also publishing and marketing scores of indie games such as Yooka-Laylee and Yoku's Island Express. The bulk of Team17 is housed in two offices: Wakefield, the company's original site that holds its development and QA departments, and Nottingham, where the company's marketing arm is located. Staff past and present from both locations have spoken to Eurogamer for this article, and have shared long-term complaints of low pay, long hours, and increasing workloads.
In 2020, Team17 published seven games, including SMG's Moving Out and Aggro Crab's Going Under. In 2021 it was eight games, including Studio Koba's Narita Boy and Black Matter's Hell Let Loose. It's a schedule that has grown over recent years since the company went public in 2018, something staff say has led to increased overtime and rushed releases as company bosses target quantity over quality. People with knowledge of the company's publishing team say it had a target of signing a new game every single month. Meanwhile, game testers say they have despaired after alerting bosses to development issues, only to be ignored, with bugs then belatedly fixed post-launch.
Staff say Team17 has signed too many games, including those with strict deadlines that have to be shipped despite not being ready. In such cases, QA and user research staff say they have been aware of issues and attempted to raise concerns with higher ups, only for these not to be acted on. This is tough on staff and is affecting morale, team members tell Eurogamer, as they are proud to work on Team17 projects. Everyone I spoke to heaped praise on their fellow team members who worked hard, and over long hours. It is because of this, they said, it was so disappointing to see their work suffer, and Team17's reputation stall.
QA team members I spoke to variously described pay as "low" or "terrible", with around a £16k current base rate, up to around £19k for a more senior QA role. Salaries used to be even lower - starting around £13k - though this level was phased out over the last five years. Still, several people I spoke to who had recently departed the company said they had stepped into an equivalent role at a similar studio for around £10k more.
Overtime pay is offered for QA staff at a higher 1.5x rate, and there is typically a year-end bonus. QA staff said many stayed late to work several days a week, though there was typically a cut-off around 8pm to ensure team members did not work too long. However, several staff I spoke to said they had stayed later and worked weekends for projects which needed extra attention. On one project, staff said they worked late every night of the week for months to meet a particular deadline. Meanwhile, outside of QA, staff said they worked overtime completely unpaid.
Recently, QA staff have put forward their case for pay rises - but not got anywhere. "We got various testimonials from people within QA, those who were willing to come forward - some people aren't as confident talking about their troubles as others - but we got 10 people," a staff member told me. "There were people who would have to skip meals to save money, people who would have to go into the office during the pandemic to reduce their bills, people who couldn't afford new clothes, people who got an emergency bill and were in their overdraft. We took it to management, and the second time we took it to HR. Nothing came of it. We were essentially told 'the wages you are being paid are fine'. I can confirm they're not. People are struggling, badly."
The company's annual bonus has recently become a point of contention, as staff said they had become used to putting in extra hours in the hope of being recognised and rewarded as a result. However, last year's bonuses were abruptly slashed - some by more than £1000 versus what staff were used to - despite Team17 publicly declaring record profits for the first half of 2021. Staff who questioned the sudden reduction in their bonus were told it was a result of first-party titles that had underperformed. "This is something greatly out of our control," one staff member told me. "A lot of people relied on that. Even those who put in extra hours or worked to the extremes got a substantially reduced bonus." Before then, many staff had not compared bonuses. Now, suddenly without money they relied on for Christmas expenses, they did so - and found others struggling too. "It certainly caught people by surprise," one person said, saying they had initially thought they had missed an email explaining where the rest of their usual bonus was. Another person said they felt they had been "small-printed": their bonus mostly gone, and the full explanation left buried.
Aside from pay, QA staff at the company's Wakefield office say they enjoy working on the company's games and with their immediate colleagues, including some of the managers there, though there is still tension with other parts of the company. One story I heard from numerous people to illustrate this was of a developer visit by one of the major companies Team17 publishes games for. At the end of this visit, staff say, the developer was taken outside - past the QA office windows - for a celebratory photo with other teams in the studio, but QA was not invited to join them. Various QA staff saw this as a snub, though someone else with knowledge of the event said it was an oversight. Regardless, QA staff were upset, and a producer was wheeled out for an apology. However, the sense from those hearing that apology, multiple staff told me, was that the "grinning" producer was not taking the matter seriously, and that QA staff should have known their place.
A positive of Team17's QA department is its ambition to promote some staff, over time, into more senior positions in development or other areas. Likewise, some QA staff are encouraged to promote the company at events. But team members I've spoken to say there are two sides to this - and that others have not had the same treatment. One person said they had been told their team could not promote the company as they were not "photogenic" enough. Meanwhile, the focus on promoting those with a "Wakefield mindset" at the studio rather than hiring externally at a competitive rate has had the effect of keeping wages down, staff say, as well as normalising some of the studio's practises, such as the sheer amount of work to be done. Other staff said they had seen people take time out for stress or overwork - but this had just meant their duties were redistributed onto others.
Team17's Nottingham office was set up more recently, as home to its growing marketing department. I've heard a mixed set of experiences here, though staff past and present seem to agree things have gone downhill and it has lost some of its previous "family" atmosphere after the company went public. "It was about finding and publishing good games," one person said. "After going public, it has always felt rather tense, like you can't express an opinion or challenge anything for fear of being called negative."
Staff say they do not have faith in the company's current HR team, and that it has failed to act when alerted to issues surrounding sexual harassment. Staff have recalled incidents where women at the studio were sent degrading messages and suggestive photos by male colleagues, which were reported to HR. The response, they say, was that these incidents were minimised, perpetrators given a slap on the wrist, and victims told to sort it out amongst themselves. One woman said people were now afraid to go to HR, as they felt they would just be "gaslit".
Earlier this month, staff paying close attention to the company's Glassdoor page noticed a highly-positive five-star review posted amidst other damning one-star ratings. (Various staff have said this was a tactic by the company's HR team to make the company's fortunes appear more balanced.) Eurogamer has seen a screenshot of this review, which admitted that there had lately been "a number of leavers which has meant Team17 has lost some good talent" but this had "created space for some exceptional new staff to come in". After being called out by other members of staff, the review was deleted. This week, the review has returned, now posted anonymously but with largely the same text, while earlier critical reviews from other team members remain.
Multiple staff say there has long been a culture of presenteeism around Team17's group CEO Debbie Bestwick, who co-founded the company and bought out its other bosses in 2010. While some staff have remained long-term, I've heard others who didn't fit were given abrupt exits. Before the company's current HR team were installed, staff say firings were generally handled by one manager who would ask a team member for a "car park talk", where they were told they wouldn't be going back.
It's fair to say that staff at Nottingham - and across the company - hold mixed feelings for Bestwick, one of the richest people in the UK games industry who has a personal wealth of around £200m. While many saw their bonuses cut last year, Bestwick was reported to have made $10.24m (£7.56m). Bestwick is, I've heard from numerous staff past and present, not shy of discussing aspects of her wealth on social media and in the studio's open plan office. She is also often heard openly discussing team members while they are not present, as well as commenting on external development partners.
One anecdote I have heard from multiple people involves Bestwick asking staff to wrap her family's Christmas presents for her - and that this occurred over multiple years. Staff have described her as "formidable", and as someone who does not take criticism well. Pressure on her from a particular external partner, or from underperforming share prices, would lead to that pressure being passed down to other departments, staff say. Several people said they have seen her single out other team members in meetings, and that people have left the room in tears.
"Things are going to get missed if you are that overworked," one staff member reflected, "and when they are missed, you're going to be called up by Debbie."
"It is humiliating at times," the staff member continued, "because your hand is forced - you have bugger all budget, you have too many games, and then you're sat in a meeting being asked 'why the hell did this game not meet our expectations?' It can be a very pointed thing. It's not unheard of for people to go out of those meetings crying, which at a workplace is shameful."
On the flipside, things seem to have been easier for people closer to studio bosses. Staff have mentioned a house near the Nottingham studio, paid for by Bestwick, where some visiting or new staff, as well as people in management's inner circle, have been able to live rent-free.
A day after the Worms NFT announcement, though before its cancellation, various staff say they read a Facebook post by Bestwick which has since been shared with Eurogamer. In it, she expressed frustration with the announcement's reaction and "shock" at peers who had criticised the plans. Bestwick concluded: "I dare anyone to question my ethics tbh!"
This message is important, staff told me, because many at the studio are now doing this.
"Debbie posts so many things about being a woman in the games industry on Twitter, and yet harassment is going on in her company and people are being told, essentially, it hasn't happened," one woman who works at Team17 told me, after saying she had been driven to speak out by Bestwick's post.
"There's no way she hasn't seen people complaining about their wages - people who maybe can't afford to turn their heating on, have three meals a day. I've got friends who had, during the pandemic, a leak in their flat - and they had to get a second job. It's the same stories which come out over and over again and - nothing. Is she truly unaware, is no one telling her? Or does she just not care?"
Throughout my conversations with Team17 staff, the message I heard repeatedly was that employees desperately wanted the studio to improve. There's some hope for the future, after the appointment of former PlayStation exec Michael Pattison to the company in October last year, who has promised a renewed focus on quality. But staff remain sceptical. For many, Team17 was their first job out of college, for some still there after a decade, it is the only place they have ever worked. Time and time again, I heard people say they saw their colleagues as a second family, and that working on video games was their life's dream. The impression I was left with was of a company of people still loyal to that ideal, but who weren't willing to sit back and wait for it any longer. Without change, staff say, the departures will continue.