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QA testers report feeling like ‘second-class citizens’ at COD developer Treyarch

Kotaku has shared a damning report of crunch at Call of Duty developer Treyarch, with many contract employees – particularly testers working in QA – reporting “they feel like second-class citizens”. The report, which features interviews with 11 current and former staff from the studio, states QA staff are forced to use a different car park from the non-testing development team, sit on a different floor, and whilst they are fed during crunch, they’re purportedly told “not to eat the lunch provided to non-testing developers until an hour after it’s been served” (or sometimes “not at all”). 

There are also reports that when Treyarch sends out staff surveys, testers aren’t included, nor are they invited to all-staff meetings. They also do not qualify for paid time-off and have limited sick pay. 

“Often, testers say they’re asked to work crunch hours with little notice or transparency, which makes it difficult for them to have lives outside of the office,” Kotaku reports. “‘Frequently,’ said one, ‘we wouldn’t know if we worked weekends until Friday night’.”

“You’d constantly overhear remarks and jokes about QA,” said one non-QA developer at Treyarch. “People blame them for issues in our game, not catching something… QA is the butt of everyone’s joke.”

“When I started, I was told explicitly not to interact with members of QA, but instead to go directly to the QA leads for any questions that I may have,” said one Treyarch developer. “You could look at that as a way to funnel key information to the appropriate leads for members of the QA department so there aren’t any redundancies, or different people coming to different members of the team with the same request. But the explicit phrasing was that you were not supposed to interact with or talk to them. Which was very strange to me.”

“It seemed like every other month, every other three months, there’d be members of the QA team who were leaving, and new members brought on,” added another non-testing developer. “There was a lot of churn. You’d always have these fresh faces in QA. It always felt like someone was leaving and someone was joining. I think the result is you had a lot of people who just weren’t trained, who were just expected to perform.”

On discovering Activision’s new chief financial officer, Dennis Durkin, received a $15 million cash and stock bonus, one former QA tester said: “That broke a lot of people. We’re getting paid these very minimal amounts working these ridiculous hours, yet these people are getting paid absurd amounts of money. It’s just a culture of not being cared about.”

The report also stated that contractors are not eligible for bonuses. They also use a different coloured ID badge so they’re clearly identifiable as different than their full-time peers. 

“As a contract employee, I guess you could say you do feel a little different than everyone else in the studio,” added another Treyarch contractor. “It’s not outspoken, but it’s the general demeanor in how things play out.

“We don’t even get to be part of it and talk about how we’re being treated. It’s a common theme between contract employees, feeling like their voices aren’t being heard. And then you feel like you can’t talk to a senior artist or managerial lead because you’re a contract employee. You feel like your job is at risk if you say anything. Nobody says that, but that’s just how you feel.”

In a press statement, Activsion said: “Black Ops 4 represents three years of hard work, creativity, and passion from hundreds of talented individuals across Treyarch, Activision studios and publishing teams, as well as agency partners around the world. It represents the culmination of a wide variety of development initiatives, the best of which comprise the game that our fans are playing today.

“The teams who created this game are diverse and widespread. It’s important to us that everyone working on the game, or any of our projects, is treated with respect and that their contributions are appreciated. If there is ever an instance where this standard is not met, we work to remedy it immediately. We constantly strive to provide a rewarding and fun development environment for everyone.

“Everyone at Treyarch is extremely proud of Black Ops 4. We love bringing games to life, and we always want to do the best work of our careers. We realize this is only made possible through the varied perspectives and contributions from every individual working on the team.”

In response to the Kotaku report, Treyarch studio heads Dan Bunting and Mark Gordon sent the following e-mail to staff:

Team: Today, Kotaku published a story that explores a number of reported behind-the-scenes issues in Black Ops 4 development. The first and most important statement that we want to make to the team is that, as managers of this studio, we take the well-being of every single individual working here very seriously.

We have a vision for the future of this studio that includes significant improvements to work/life balance, and we plan to achieve that through better project planning, streamlined production processes, and rigorous decision-making timelines. It is also our intention to maintain our commitment to increased transparency.

Getting there will require time, hard work, and commitment — most of all, it will require open communication. If you ever feel like your needs aren’t being met, please do not hesitate to communicate actively with your manager. No one should ever feel like they don’t have options, can’t talk openly, or that the only choice is to take their concerns to the public. These conversations should always start with an honest dialogue with your department manager, and if that’s not working, feel free to reach out to one of us.

Game development is a wildly complex art and it requires a diverse set of people and skill sets to do it successfully. It’s important for all of us to foster a studio culture that treats all team members with respect.

We appreciate the contributions made by all parts of the team in the name of the games we make.

About Vikki Blake

It took 15 years of civil service monotony for Vikki to crack and switch to writing about games. She has since become an experienced reporter and critic working with a number of specialist and mainstream outlets in both the UK and beyond.

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