A toxic workplace and 100-hour workweeks marred production at Warner Bros. Interactive studio NetherRealm during the creation of its recent “Mortal Kombat 11,” as well as previous titles in the popular fighting game, multiple sources tell Variety.
The studio says it’s now investigating those issues, following Variety’s inquiries.
Reports of low pay and the crunch of extreme overtime as workers tried to finish the game on time initially surfaced about NetherRealm Studio on social media earlier in April, but those issues appear to be symptomatic of a long-term poisonous work culture at the studio, according to seven people who spoke to Variety — five of whom asked that their names not be used for fear of reprisals.
The sources — a mix of current and former full-time employees and contractors — talked of gender discrimination and “loud, obnoxious, super toxic” co-workers. The common thread among all the sources was that they said they felt the pressure to work long hours came with the threat of being replaced or denied a chance at a more desirable position or better pay.
NetherRealm Studios responded to the complaints raised by the former employees and contractors in a statement to Variety:
“At NetherRealm Studios, we greatly appreciate and respect all of our employees and prioritize creating a positive work experience. As an equal opportunity employer, we encourage diversity and constantly take steps to reduce crunch time for our employees. We are actively looking into all allegations, as we take these matters very seriously and are always working to improve our company environment. There are confidential ways for employees to raise any concerns or issues.”
One current employee said that he and others at the studio have been working 60 to 70 hours per week, seven days a week since January. While he said various factors are to blame for the crunch, such as poor communication and mismanagement, he cited a January marketing event for “Mortal Kombat 11,” called MK Day, which put the studio behind significantly.
“Everybody said from the get-go, ‘No, this isn’t going to impact any development time at all; we should be fine. We’ll use the content we have now,’” the employee recalled. “Little did our creative director, our publishing team and marketing know that we were already about three months behind on the entire game.’”
“So they had to pull everybody off, set everybody back another month and a half so we could we could make ourselves look good for MK Day,” he continued. “So that set back design, that set back QA [quality assurance], programming, animation — mostly every department had to start playing catch-up.”
The catch-up still persists, even though “Mortal Kombat 11” was released on April 23. Problems with in-game currency and exploits have the studio working on its third patch to fix glitches, and it already has two more patches planned.
When asked how the studio higher-ups are positioning this “catch-up” work, the current employee said that they phrase it very carefully.
“I think they walk that fine line really well,” he said. “So it’s a lot of implying, not up-front. They don’t tell us, ‘You have to work these hours.’ They also don’t tell that to any of the temporary/contract employees. When we interviewed all of our contractor/temporary employees, my direct manager would tell them, ‘Overtime isn’t mandatory, but everyone is expected to do their fair share.’ Meaning that when we have it — because even before we started interviewing and building up our temp team, we already knew there’s going to come a point where we’re going to start crunching because we’ve been doing this since time immemorial, [on] every project.”
Some full-timers have taken to living at the studio when working the most intense periods of crunch, he said, sleeping in their office or on an inflatable sofa in their cubicle. One employee has even been spotted wearing a bathrobe while in the studio.
Once source said that for some of the temporary positions, it’s easy enough to replace those who don’t crunch with a new batch of eager contractors. Many temporary employees are recruited from DePaul University, the person said, and are students who are willing to work a nine-month contract for $14 an hour in exchange for the chance to work on a triple-A franchise.
He blamed the various project shortcomings on “poor planning.” “If we had more time or if there was actual project management, we wouldn’t have to be scrambling at the last moment for all these fixes and changes ’cause all the shit broke at the last minute,” he said. “It’s like the tree is a problem and the roots are all the causes.”
The problems began long before “Mortal Kombat 11.” The employee described a tense situation with “Injustice 2” before its launch, back in 2017, when a leak occurred.
Attempting to identify the leak, all of the temporary workers were pulled into the motion-capture room, and NetherRealm studio head Shaun Himmerick laid into them, according to the employee.
“And when they went in there, they closed the doors and our senior director, he started shouting at them, telling them, ‘We know the leak came from inside the studio. We’re going to investigate. It’s somebody here and that person is going to get everybody here in trouble,” the source said. “And he’s threatening to fire the temps/contractors if nobody speaks up and rats out that person who leaked, because he assumed that everybody there knew who it was and he was threatening to fire them. ‘We know it’s somebody here; whoever leaked is in this room right now. Give them up or we’re gonna fire you all.’ And so that scared everybody shitless. That pissed people off and it caused everybody to have all sorts of emotions.”
The employee spoke to the concerned and angry contractors after the meeting.
“So a lot of them are angry, a lot of them were scared, a mix of both,” he said. “And I had to tell them, ‘Everything’s alright; they can’t afford to lose any of you. We’re going to be OK, but take this as a lesson: Don’t trust them. Don’t think that they like you. They think you’re all disposable.’”
It turned out that the leak came from outside of the studio.
The mismanagement and toxic environment seemed to be more keenly felt by female employees, who shared experiences as far back as 2015.
Former QA analyst Rebecca Rothschild worked on “Mortal Kombat X” and “Injustice 2,” and explained that she had 90- to 100-hour workweeks on both titles. She left her job, uncertain that she wanted to continue to work in the gaming industry, despite not all of her experience being negative.
“At the same time, I have never been more aware of my gender and insignificance at a workplace,” she told Variety. “I left with scars and fear of an industry I am deeply passionate about. I don’t like being a news story. I have nothing to gain from this professionally. I just want management to at least consider the other side and try to be better.”
Rothschild recounted to Variety her experience working at NetherRealm as a female developer.
“As far as being aware of my gender, it was a lot of things,” she explained. “The small amount of women working there, the even smaller amount of women who were full time or had any kind of real influence. Being given a disgusting nickname I won’t repeat by a set of co-workers I never spoke to.”
Another source stated that all of the women in the office were given nicknames by male developers.
“Sexist, transphobic and generally toxic behavior was rampant, likely due to the fact that people were working 80-plus hours a week for months on end and there was no accountability for such behavior,” the former female employee told Variety via email. “I heard from multiple people that a cabal of male [developers] had nicknames for all of the women in the office, including ‘Silver Fox’, ‘DB’/’Dyke Bitch’ and ‘Morph,’ in reference to a trans employee. A co-worker once jokingly called an ‘Injustice Mobile’ character who did bleeding damage over time ‘Time-of-the-Month Wonder Woman’ in the presence of two leads, and referring to women as ‘bitches’ was commonplace.”
This mistreatment seemed to extend to women’s experience trying to get raises or promotions while working at NetherRealm, according to Rothschild.
“I was on my third contract and before I could even try and negotiate I was told the hourly pay rate was non-negotiable,” she said. “I heard the same from a lot of women I worked with. However, I heard from men working on contract that they were able to negotiate and get a higher rate. Same thing with promotions. The studio would create positions for specific people — all men. That meant no one else got a chance to interview or even hear about these positions. If you were adjacent to executive friend circles, which were almost all entirely male, you had a much better shot at job mobility. If not, you had to get real comfy, because you weren’t going anywhere.”
This and other allegations in the story were shared with the studio, which declined to address the issues individually beyond its statement.
Another source brought up similar issues concerning contractors. At the time, she was a female programmer at NetherRealm, and says it was the most difficult situation she’d ever experienced.
“I was a contractor, which had a set rate regardless of discipline and treated like disposable, useless help, which is incredibly difficult to untangle from gender,” she told Variety. “Full-timers would consistently dangle the possibility of full-time employment in front of us as long as we [were] ‘good enough’ as an incentive for us to not speak up about issues and to crunch.”
“As far as I know, no women programming contractors have ever gotten hired full-time on the console team,” she continued. “The attitude was always that they were doing us a favor by giving us the opportunity to work at a triple-A studio, and we would be easily replaced by many willing to work for little pay and no benefits.”
Still, Rothschild emphasized that there were some positives to working at the studio.
“Working at NetherRealm wasn’t all a nightmare,” she said. “I had good-hearted supervisors, incredibly talented and innovative co-workers and was working on amazing games.”
A current employee confirmed that the environment at the studio used to be much worse, but that it isn’t completely fixed. “I think everybody, from what I’ve witnessed, is a lot more careful about it,” he explained. “Like you’ll get comments about other people — it doesn’t matter what gender they are — but because we’re so distrustful of each other and because everybody there does it and everyone has their own agenda, they almost work against each other. It’s usually those who have been there for longer, like around 10 years or more. When they’re together and then somebody who they don’t like leaves a room, they’ll be like, ‘That f…g asshole.’ “
A different source who also currently works for NetherRealm said that while she can’t speak for others at the studio or for past employees, her personal experience has been positive.
Along with Rothschild, three other former employees, all women, shared their experiences at the studio. The incidents include hearing women in the office being called derogatory, specific nicknames as well as women collectively being referred to as “bitches”. A few sources stated that when concerns about harassment and inappropriate jokes were brought up to HR or higher ups, either by themselves or by other employees, they felt they were dismissed. Some of the jokes overheard or in emails referred to employees’ disabilities. For example, one source noted that an employee with a chronic illness was mocked for taking frequent bathroom breaks. Multiple sources brought up the feeling of being passed over for promotions or full-time (non-contract) positions in favor of a male hire.
One source went to several full-timers with concerns about being pressured to not complain to Human Resources after problematic encounters with co-workers. But, the employees were dismissive, according to the source. “The entire studio had a bro-centric culture where complaints about women, in general, were a daily occurrence,” she explained. “‘Sometimes you just want to slap a bitch’ is a thing I got to read in a chat. Calling someone out for bad behavior was met with over-exaggerated pleas to not take it to HR. When I did talk about the culture problems to full-timers, I usually got the line of ‘at least it’s not as bad as Midway [essentially an earlier incarnation of NetherRealm] where they did … ‘ usually followed up with something terrible like doing blow off of hookers in the studio.”
This source spoke to higher-ups after witnessing sexual harassment.
“I witnessed sexual harassment directed specifically at contract artists, which I brought up to leadership,” she explained. “This wasn’t just ignored, but they put more women in harm’s way.”
Another source went to HR with a complaint but explained that, ultimately, it led to no action.
“I knew of multiple women who went to HR with various complaints of harassment, only to be dismissed with comments along the line of, ‘Well, not everyone has to get along,'” she explained. “So I avoided going to HR, with the exception of one particularly egregious rape joke that was emailed out. There was no follow-up from HR aside from, ‘I’ll look into it.’ “
A current employee Variety spoke with explained that relations between employees and HR can be tense. “HR isn’t there for you,” he told other employees and contractors. “HR is there for the company”
He described one situation in which a senior producer was being excluded from meetings, and felt the environment was unprofessional and that he would get ignored or his opinion wasn’t valued, so he went to HR to explain the situation and get some guidance. “She told him, ‘Why don’t you try caring less?’” he said. “I don’t know how that was supposed to help him. He said that he saw red, and after that never talked to [HR] about any of that again, except for when he really had to talk to her about” regular job-related topics.
This particular HR employee has been with the company since the Midway days, according to the employee.
The issues for female employees and contractors even extended to things as basic as bathroom access.
“As far as the bathroom issue, there was a period of time where there was no women’s bathroom on the mobile side of the building,” Rothschild explained. “There are two bathrooms in that wing, one with a tampon dispenser. Both at one point were for men only.”
Another source echoed the lack of bathrooms in that part of the building, and said it became an issue for outside talent.
“For much of my time there, there was a department with two men’s bathrooms instead of a men’s and women’s. The HR manager explained to me that I would have to go to another part of the building to use the bathroom,” the source told Variety. “We were discouraged from raising the issue, lest we jeopardize our chances of being hired back in the future. Finally, one bathroom was turned into a unisex bathroom after a producer I was friendly with got embarrassed that an outside voice actress had to walk across the studio to use the bathroom.”
Yet another source said that it is currently not clear that the bathroom in the mobile department is unisex, since there “don’t seem to be any signs indicating that it’s unisex.” She added that the second men’s bathroom had originally been a women’s bathroom.
“I don’t know if the number of women/non-binary folx has increased at the company or not but the numbers for that have never been good,” the source continued.” Plenty of women, people of color, and non-binary folx I’ve talked to who have previously worked at NetherRealm say they wouldn’t go back because of the culture there; it’s not inviting or healthy.”
A different source, who filed a report with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sent a list to Variety of more than a dozen job-related incidents between 2015 and 2016 that occurred at NetherRealm. The issues started from day one, the employee explained, when she spoke with a man who was previously hired for a prior game-development job for which she had unsuccessfully applied.
“While talking with the man who was hired instead of me when I had previously applied for the job, I found out that when he applied, he had no previous knowledge of the Unreal Development Kit, Perforce, or Jira,” she explained. “These three programs I knew well and have been working in for the last three to five years. I also found out this was his first game-industry job. I [had] been working actively in the game industry for the last three years. This showed me I was passed over as an experienced, qualified worker, for a man who didn’t have any prior experience as a game developer or had any knowledge of the company’s software prior to starting the job at NetherRealm.”
She further detailed her experiences with co-workers making indirect comments about her appearance, including her wearing of long-sleeve shirts to “hide the [self-harm cuts] on [her] arm,” according to her filed report of which Variety was given a copy to view. When she went to HR with concerns about the self-harm jokes, she was told not to discuss the issue.
“I immediately contacted the head of HR to explain the situation in an email,” she wrote in her EEOC report. “She responded the same day and asked if I could stop by her office to talk about it. I explained to her why I thought this comment was inappropriate, including that I suffer from depression and that I have previously self-harmed in the past. After I explained this to her, she told me that I ‘shouldn’t tell anyone’ about this and keep it ‘strictly confidential.’ “
In one incident, she detailed how a male higher-up responded after seeing a co-worker take food off of her desk. She jokingly told her co-worker that he needs to ask permission before taking her things. She said the higher-up, an associate producer, walked by and said, “‘He doesn’t need to ask permission; he’s a man. He can take what he wants from you.’ The associate producer attempted to high five me after this. I told him what he said was inappropriate and he explained to me it was just a joke.”
The former employee further detailed her being left out of important conversations at work, in part due to male leads only addressing male co-workers about various issues.
“NetherRealm knows that I and this other co-worker brought these charges [against] them,” the source told Variety. “But I [asked to] remain anonymous because I am terrified of what gamers and other game devs would say or do to me. I’m not trying to ruin people’s lives. I just want the game industry to do and be better, and from what I experienced at NetherRealm, they need to do so much more to fix their toxic work environment.”
Warner Bros. Entertainment lawyers denied any wrongdoing in a position statement in response to the EEOC filing, arguing that the source was an independent contractor and not technically an employee of NetherRealm. They also argued that the experiences she shared with a NetherRealm consultant after her employment ended did not demonstrate “severe or pervasive harassing conduct.” The position statement also noted that the formal complaint the source made about the self-harm joke resulted in a reprimand by NetherRealm HR. Some other complaints, because they were not formally reported to HR during her employment, were labeled as “work-a-day gripes.” This included the aforementioned incident with the associate producer telling her that men don’t need to ask for permission from women. That last was labeled in the position statement simply as a “sexist joke” that was not “meant to offend.” The EEOC dismissed the complaints, and the source was advised that her only recourse was to pursue a lawsuit.
The source who filed the report told Variety that she is aware that the crunch issues at the studio still persist, since she has some friends and acquaintances who currently work at NetherRealm.
“I can verify that workers there, many of them temporary/contract, have been working 80-plus hour weeks with no days off,” she wrote in an email.
Other past employees shared their experiences at the studio as well. Isaac Torres, a former QA analyst for NetherRealm, told Variety that he worked 90 to 100 hours per week for a period of four months. He explained that the pressure to work overtime came partly from the desire to get a full-time position with the company.
“At the time [that I worked at NetherRealm], full-time positions were seen as this coveted thing, so there was always constant pressure to one-up everyone so you’re noticed,” Torres wrote in an email to Variety. “As someone who was doing more than just QA, there’s not only immense pressure to do your job better than everyone else but you also have to somehow be awesome doing your additional tasks. I didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity to even tease the idea that I wasn’t doing my job well enough. And I also didn’t want to lose opportunities doing any of my additional work.”
When asked about the other complaints regarding gender discrimination, Torres explained that while he did not witness it in his time with NetherRealm, a co-worker confirmed that such behavior occurred. Torres also explained that there were other issues with the culture at NetherRealm.
“It’s very clique based,” Torres wrote in an email. “The QA team was off in their own world, and barely anyone ever interacted with us. Just that alone made you feel like an other. In the lab itself, there were a few guys who were loud, obnoxious and super toxic, similar to something you’d experience playing online. Instead of helping people, they would criticize them or make fun of [the bugs in their programming]. In the last few months of development, they hired a bunch of new QA [workers] and placed them in the room next to us. That room was literally referred to as the ‘exile room.’”
Another source, a man who worked on “Injustice” and “Mortal Kombat X,” also expressed that contractors were treated as lesser workers by higher-ups.
“We weren’t forced to work overtime,” he wrote in an email. “But they ‘recommended’ it for increasing your chances of getting full time. Full time was a carrot they dangled over our heads throughout. They generally have contractors on for nine months at a time, and then end their contract for three months. And they just rinse and repeat in an effort to avoid bringing people on full time and having to give benefits, etc.”
Despite putting in well over 40 hours a week, contractors at NetherRealm were not treated like employees, according to this former contractor. Even after putting in all of that time, contractors did not even receive a free copy of the games they worked on. “It’s true that we had to buy a copy of our own game,” he wrote. “We were treated like second-class citizens in many, small ways. We were only invited to things like launch events if enough full-timers weren’t going, and only if we pushed for it. In the credits for ‘Injustice,’ we were listed as ‘additional support,’ even though we were creating entire scenes for story mode.”
The source said that though work as a contractor helps aspiring game developers get a start, the issue is that some game studios, knowing this, take advantage of those wanting to get a job in the industry, treating them as disposable. At a social outing, he said he heard someone very high up at NetherRealm say, “‘It’s OK. Interns aren’t really people.’ Contractors were always referred to as interns, even if they had been there for three or four tours,” the former contractor added.
James Longstreet, a developer who worked on “Mortal Kombat” (2011), shared his experience publicly last week on Twitter, saying that working overtime was mandatory at NetherRealm, and that crunch was scheduled.
“I didn’t sleep more than 4 hours for months … it was made very clear that everyone was required to crunch,” Longstreet wrote in a series of tweets. “[NetherRealm] doesn’t mince words and say ‘hey, anyone who’s staying late tonight…’ nope, your manager tells you when crunch is scheduled for.”
“The [Mortal Kombat] team’s stance is that crunch works, and MK games are always profitable, so it’s clearly the right thing to do,” Longstreet wrote in a follow-up tweet. “It’s wrong — crunch doesn’t work, the workers don’t see the profit (bonuses at WB games are capped to a small percentage of salary), and it ruins lives.”
Developers from NetherRealm Studios are the latest to speak out about crunch and mistreatment at their games studio, amid ongoing industry concerns about work culture.
Crunch is a very real issue for game developers. While it’s often associated with the final push to finish a game before release, more and more developers are speaking out about crunch as an ongoing problem at studios. Last year, “Red Dead Redemption 2” developers spoke out about their experiences at Rockstar. Crunch, though, is an issue with deep roots in the games industry. And, as games as a service continue to be a push for game makers, there’s always another patch, another update to work on. Just last week, the intense crunch at Epic Games, maker of “Fortnite,” came to light.
Do you have stories you’d like to share about working at NetherRealm or other studios under crunch or other adverse work conditions? Email Variety Gaming at GamingTips@Variety.com
© 2020 PMC. All rights reserved.