Becoming Xbox Game Studios since 2018, Undead Labs is widely known for its license state of decay. The American studio is in fact the origin of the franchise and is currently developing a new work, state of decay 3. But a new investigation by Kotaku reveals various dysfunctions within the company over the past few years. According to several testimonies, management in particular would have considerable organizational difficulties if they practiced ordinary sexism.
A takeover that goes wrong
So there are twelve former or current developers kotaku could ask. Individuals testifying on condition of anonymity, all framing Undead Labs management as a cause of professional burnout. A situation that arose shortly after the release of state of decay 2 and the takeover by Microsoft. Because at the time, many thought that the studio would remain independent after various speeches by Jeff Strain, the founder of Undead Labs. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride and some of the early staff were shocked by the whiplash” so explains a former developer. But a priori this is not the only mistake of the Fuhrer.
Following the sale of his company, Jeff Strain will remain in office through the end of 2019. According to testimonies collected by Kotaku the man had been absent for many months. Some refer to it as “absent father”, highlighting his detachment from the teams in the weeks and months leading up to his departure. And above all as a leader who relies on more than just reason: Philip Holt.
Hired at the beginning of 2019, Holt will gradually take over leadership of the teams. It is he who secures the succession of Strain and is now in charge of Undead Labs. Unfortunately, the studio manager is portrayed as particularly toxic. He is described as nepotistic and would therefore have preferred the hiring of close friends in important positions. Charges dismissed by Microsoft, notably driving the rigor of its hiring process with Kotaku.
Undead Labs has a strict and standardized hiring process for all potential hires, with visibility and vetting by multiple members of the studio
Undead Labs employees also claim that sexism is particularly present on a daily basis. Women’s opinions therefore seem to carry little weight in discussions and many of them could be downplayed. “Men would ask women to take notes during meetings, ignore their expertise, and even make sexist comments like ‘You’re not as pretty today as you used to be’ and ‘I’m surprised a girl like you got this job.'” we can read at Kotaku. Ordinary sexism that doesn’t allow women to thrive alongside their male counterparts.
When I had an interview at Labs, I was convinced [l’idée] of a transition studio that made [la diversité, l’équité et l’inclusion] absolute priority. In reality, studio executives painted a face of diversity, justice and inclusion for Microsoft while consistently ignoring, firing, disrupting, ignoring and blaming women.
Everyday situations that some of them were able to denounce to Anne Schlosser, who was responsible for human resources at the time. Despite this, it seems that the speeches were not heard or that Covid and teleworking were used as an excuse. To the point that meetings were held at the initiative of employees to disseminate advice and training on the relationship between men and women at work.
The culture the studio had until recently wasn’t the most hospitable to someone who wasn’t a white male.
However, without knowing exactly why, Microsoft has conducted various interviews within Undead Labs. These affected dozens of employees and led to the departure of Anne Schlosser. The latter, however, denies any correlation between the two subjects and affirms into Kotaku’s microphone that his departure has already been recorded as part of one “planned redesign of the studio”
A long and tedious pre-production
Also after Kotaku’s research, we learn that the development of State of Decay 3 would have been extremely difficult until now. The pre-production phase would have been particularly long and tiring with separate teams and many changes within them. In addition, although many ideas were at the heart of the gameplay of state of decay 3 barely took shape.
However, Xbox wants to present its first party games in July 2020 before the release of the Xbox Series X|S. To that end, several teams are encouraged to show off their title in development, although this remains optional. Philip Holt still wants to be there and would have put his teams under extra pressure. Friction arises and the developers are forced to create a trailer.
“We didn’t want to promote the game because at the time we didn’t even know what it was.” says a developer who is still in office. Despite this, State of Decay 3 is presented to the world. But that’s not the only source of excitement. The video highlights an encounter with an undead animal and then promises players interactions with fauna and flora. The only difference is that nothing has been recorded internally and th is idea is difficult to implement.
To a better future?
However, some employees believe so The studio is now on the right track. One of them also specifies that the context “has improved in the last six months or so” while another firmly believes in the potential of State of Decay 3. “This could be such a cool game and we have a lot of great people working on it. I just hope we don’t repeat the terrible habits of the past few years.”
And besides, when Philip Holt wasn’t specifically responding to Kotaku, he wanted to speak on the subject. Through a press release from Microsoft, he shares a speech that seems to acknowledge past mistakes. He testifies there a kind of acknowledgment of the incidents mentioned by the various developers, being careful not to veil his face. Above all, however, he underlines how much effort has been multiplied recently. Efforts probably late, but we hope they will bear fruit very soon.
Since our acquisition by Microsoft in 2018, Undead Labs has been focused on increasing the quality and ambition of State of Decay and increasing the diversity and inclusivity of our studio culture. Building an inclusive and supportive environment is central to our culture’s vision of how we enable our teams to do their best work and how we make the best games. I recognize that some of our current and former employees have confided that their experiences at the labs have not always been positive.
Our past culture does not reflect who we are now or what we want to become. We have seen many changes over the past few years: we have a completely new leadership team, including a new HR Director and a new department in 2021; we have hired approximately 75 employees since the pandemic began; and we’ve changed the demographics of our team. We’ve already seen that our ongoing cultural shift creates a better place to work for the team, which leads to better games for our community. I’m proud of the work we’ve done, humbled by the task ahead, willing to learn from this experience and determined to do better every day.