Open-world zombie survival game State of Decay 3 was announced in July 2020, but according to small house It was reported yesterday that the game is still in pre-production as the studio has been battling mismanagement, burnout and workplace toxicity following its acquisition by Microsoft in 2018.
Kotaku’s story is based on 12 anonymous interviews with current and former employees, so it’s important to note that this feedback, while disturbing, may not fully reflect the studio’s state or history.
Undead Labs has doubled in size since the Microsoft acquisition, but studio founder Jeff Strain left in 2019, leaving a real leadership void, the report said. While some employees initially feared Microsoft would change the studio’s internal culture, it actually took an extremely hands-off approach that ultimately hurt the company, according to a former employee. “Our debacle came from within, we could have exploited [Microsoft’s] help,” they said.
The lack of clear direction during the early pre-production of State of Decay 3 was exacerbated by the studio’s problems. Developers are split into “assault teams” to prototype different new features, but there is little communication or oversight, and team members are often shuffled, so there is no consistency in direction. One former employee said management would ignore QA concerns and instead show “artificial progress” in the game.
“Milestone is made up of a cluttered bunch of features that’s less about making a fun video game than a checklist,” a former developer told the site.
To make matters worse, nine former employees interviewed for the report also complained about misogyny, bullying and discrimination in the studio.
“When I was interviewing in the lab, I was sold [the idea of] A studio in transition [diversity, equity, and inclusion] A top priority,” said one. “It was actually studio leaders who painted a DEI face for Microsoft, and women have been ignored, fired, interrupted, talked about and blamed.
Another said women’s opinions, even on basic issues, were often “totally rejected”, “no one listens to them, and even women in executive-level positions are completely ignored, talked about and blamed.”
“We had to roll out meeting etiquette because men talk so badly about women and demean them at all meetings,” another source said. “But the guidelines didn’t help.”
Multiple employees interviewed for the report largely blamed the problems on Philip Holt, the successor to Strain’s studio head. They accused him of quickly leading Undead Labs’ new offices in Florida and Illinois from friends at other studios, and also claimed he did not adequately support and hire men for higher positions, helping to push two women into senior positions to absorb their roles. “It’s really a model where women are uprooted and men are protected and helped,” said one current employee.
However, Microsoft has denied the allegations of nepotism and said in a statement that “Undead Labs has a rigorous and standardized recruitment process for all potential employees, with visibility and scrutiny from multiple studio members.”
It also noted that Undead Labs’ changes in recent years include “a whole new leadership team,” with 42% of new hires in 2021 being female or non-binary, and 29% from visible minorities. The studio has also rolled out new training for managers, including a sexual harassment workshop. Some employees see the changes as a move in the right direction, while others see Holt’s continued existence as an obstacle.
Despite these issues, many current and former employees interviewed for the report said they felt very positive about certain aspects of the studio; some said there was room for improvement, but overall it was a very good workplace. Microsoft’s acquisition caused upheaval, but it sounds like there’s hope for a turnaround: A current developer says the studio changes could also mean State of Decay 3 can finally start to make real progress. “It could be a cool game, we have a lot of great people working on it, I just hope we don’t repeat the bad habits of the past few years,” they said.
Interestingly, Strain, the founder of Undead Labs, has been vocal about the need for greater workplace safety and inclusion in the gaming industry since his departure: In August 2021, he called for unionization Across the industry, he co-founded a new studio, Possibility Space, in October with a clear commitment to treating employees “fairly and equally.”