The open-world zombie survival game State of Decay 3 was announced in July 2020, but according to a kotaku reported yesterday that the game remains stuck in pre-production as the studio struggled with mismanagement, burnout and workplace toxicity following its 2018 acquisition by Microsoft.
Kotaku’s story is based on 12 anonymous interviews with current and former employees, so it’s important to note that this constellation of feedback, while disturbing, may not tell a complete picture of the studio’s state or history.
Undead Labs has doubled in size since its purchase of Microsoft, according to the report, but the departure of studio founder Jeff Strain, who left in 2019, left a real leadership void. While some employees initially worried that Microsoft would change the studio’s internal culture, it actually took an extremely disinterested approach, ultimately to the detriment of the company, according to a former employee. “Our breakdown came from within, and we could have used [Microsoft’s] help,” they said.
The lack of clear direction during early pre-production on State of Decay 3 was exacerbated by problems at the studio. Developers split into “strike teams” to prototype new features, but there was little communication or oversight, and team members were routinely shuffled, so there was no consistency in direction. A former employee said management would ignore quality control concerns in favor of showing “artificial progress” in the game.
“Milestones consisted of a pile of scrappy resources that were less about creating a fun video game and more about ticking off a list,” a former developer told the site.
Worse, nine of the former employees interviewed for the report also complained of misogyny, bullying and discrimination at the studio.
“When I was interviewed at the Lab, I was sold [the idea of] a studio in transition that was doing [diversity, equity, and inclusion] a top priority,” said one. “What it was really was studio leadership painting a DEI face for Microsoft while women were constantly ignored, dismissed, interrupted, talked about and blamed.”
Another said that women’s views, even on basic matters, were often “rejected outright” and that “nobody listened to them, even women in board positions were totally ignored, talked about and blamed for the problems.”
“We had to implement meeting etiquette because the men were talking so badly about women at every meeting and belittling them,” another source said. “But the guidelines didn’t help.”
Several employees interviewed for the report blamed the problems largely on Philip Holt, Strain’s replacement as head of the studio. They accused him of rushing friends from other studios to spearhead new Undead Labs offices in Florida and Illinois, and also alleged that he helped oust two women in high-profile positions by failing to adequately support and hire men to higher positions. positions to absorb their papers. “It was really a pattern where women were uprooted and men were protected and helped,” said a current employee.
Microsoft has denied the allegations of nepotism, however, saying in a statement that “there is a rigorous, standardized hiring process in place at Undead Labs for all potential hires, with visibility and review from various members of the studio.”
It also noted that changes at Undead Labs in recent years have included “an all-new leadership team” and that 42% of new hires in 2021 were female or non-binary, and 29% were from a visible minority group. The studio also launched new training for managers, including a workshop on sexual harassment. Some employees see the changes as a move in the right direction, while others say Holt’s continued presence is an obstacle.
Despite these issues, many of the current and former employees interviewed for the report said they felt very positive about some aspects of the studio; some said that while there is room for improvement, it is a very good place to work in general. The acquisition of Microsoft has caused a turnaround, but it looks like there’s hope for a turnaround: a current developer has said the changes at the studio could also mean State of Decay 3 can finally start making real progress. “It can be such a cool game and we have a lot of great people working on it, and I just hope we don’t repeat the terrible habits of the last few years,” they said.
Interestingly, Strain, founder of Undead Labs, has been speaking out about the gaming industry’s need to increase safety and inclusion in the workplace since his departure: in August 2021, he asked unionization across the industry, and in October he co-founded a new studio, Space of Possibilitywith a specific commitment to treating employees “fairly and equally”.