Editorial: The Chucklefish Accusations Examined

Now with the passage of time we can look back on the situation that has embroiled Chucklefish Games with a rigor that is often not possible during the initial bout of accusations and responses.  With impartiality and time to gather the facts and weigh the merits we can examine both sides of the controversy and that is what this editorial will attempt to do.

A brief disclaimer before we begin: I pre-ordered Starbound and enjoyed the excitement that surrounded the game. Though many of the promises the developers made were ultimately not fulfilled I had gotten my fill sadly in early access, so the failure to deliver on content didn’t impact me as hard as it did a lot of the community. My personal opinion regarding the issue is that I’m not happy it was cut, I didn’t like how they strung the community along with the guise that the features would be implemented post 1.0 before ultimately finally announcing their abandonment. At the same time I do not bear an unbearable grudge against the developer either.  I’m far from an impartial observer and this is the disclaimer as such. With that out of the way let us with a brief summary of the game’s history.

Starbound began development back in 2012 with its announcement as a tiered pre-ordered system similar to Kickstarter. By the time the game reached early access in December 2013 it had already garnered over $2,000,000 in pre-orders alone. It would take another 3 years of marred development before the game would leave early access to the moderate disappointment from the early adopters displeased with the failure to deliver on several of the promised features. As of this writing the game has gone on to sell over 2.5 million copies.

During development, and even before release, the game was hyped as both “Terraria in Space” and the spiritual successor to Terraria. Everyone was over the hills with excitement for the project. Numerous modders dumped hundreds of hours of their time and dreamed of their mods becoming an official part of the game. The end result of this fervor were mods that greatly expanded and enhanced the experience, so much so that several are must installs for any run in the game today.

In September Twitter user Shrieks came forward to present accusations that Chucklefish did not pay them for their hundreds of hours of volunteer work they had dedicated to the game. Not only had Chucklefish not paid them, but failed to pay numerous other volunteers.

i started out my gamedev career working on starbound for almost two years.

 

i was sixteen.

 

i worked hundreds of hours and wasn’t paid a single cent for it while the company made unbelievable amounts of money off of my labour, and that of around a dozen other unpaid workers.

 

a couple of them ended up working at the company. it doesn’t mean they weren’t exploited too.

 

i spent a long time being very afraid that talking about this would tank my career. but this is indisputable truth, and i am, for now, in a stable and safe position. so there you go.

 

the point i’m trying to make here is that you shouldn’t work for free. i see so many young people & students angling for a foot in the door but doing free work won’t give you anything but a permanent bad taste in your mouth once you realize you’ve been had.

 

can’t even keep track of how many times i’ve drafted twitter threads like this one. shit’s exhausting. believe people who’ve been victimized. i’m not looking for sympathy or RTs or anything. just be less fucking terrible, gamedev.

These claims would be backed up and validated not by evidence, but by two others on twitter in typical witch hunt fashion.

Composer Clark Powell would also come forward to attempt to back up the claims that the developer was hiring unskilled labor. Albeit his story runs into the massive issue that Curtis Schweitzer – famous composer now working on Halo Infinite – was already hired to work on the games musical score back in 2012 https://playstarbound.com/music-in-starbound/ amongst a second glaring issue.

“I almost did the audio and music for Starbound. Almost, until the director told me that this was going to be unpaid. He revealed that none of the artists or coders were getting paid either, and I said that didn’t seem right to me. He just exploded at me after that. [1/3]

 

“He launched into this foul-mouthed screed about how entitled I was, and that he would just do the music himself because I was probably bad at my job anyway. All the artists and coders present for it just went silent until he was done. It clearly wasn’t the first time. [2/3]

 

“I spoke to some of the workers afterward. They had all been given promises of future pay, continuing because of all the time and love they had already poured into Starbound. Their passion for games was abused by an industry star. And it wasn’t an isolated incident. [3/3]

There is a serious secondary problem with Clark’s claims. When Chucklefish began development on Starbound they did not have a formal office space. The company would not establish its London office until 2014, three  months after the game launched into early access and roughly two years since they already had a composer hired for the project.

Either this blow up happened before at a smaller location a few of the devs worked together at and he just mistakenly called it their offices or he propositioned them when they already had a lauded composer working on the title. Whether the “Director” acted in an unprofessional manner or not it is mysterious why Chucklefish would even have the need to hire another composer when the first composer was already planning out and developing orchestra scores for the game.

Reece, as the story blew up, would go on to reveal his motivations were stationed in purely financial desires.

“If your game sells over two and a half million copies and your only excuse for not treating people ethically is, ‘but the dozens of teenagers whose labor we exploited signed contracts,’ you may need to do some soul-searching.” [sic]

(Note I have not edited his tweets or statements, those grammar errors are purely his)

Chucklefish would go on to release a statement to PC Gamer  refuting Reece’s claims while highlighting that they were volunteers dedicating their time for free and clout. That these interactions also occurred over a chat room and not an office space as Powell had claimed. In the statement, Chucklesish said…

“We’re aware and saddened by the current allegations against Chucklefish regarding Starbound’s early development. During this time both the core crew and community contributors were collaborating via a chat room and dedicated their time for free. Community contributors were under no obligation to create content, work to deadlines or put in any particular number of hours. Everyone was credited or remunerated as per their agreement.

 

“It’s been almost a decade since Starbound’s development first began, and from then Chucklefish has grown considerably into an indie studio that has a strong emphasis on good working practices, providing a welcoming environment for all employees and freelancers. Our doors remain open to any related parties who wish to discuss their concerns with us directly.”

When everything is said and done, Reece’s claims boil down to he is upset that a company went on to sell more than 2.5 million units and he didn’t see any money from his volunteer work. In his tweet storm he goes on to mention some of the developers in the same position were hired by the company. Even though they contributed their time for a chance at employment and then subsequently received that chance at employment, they were somehow still exploited.

Unlike instances of intern exploitation where the intern is reliant on the good review of the company this claim is absurd. Volunteers only need to demonstrate their involvement in a project for their portfolio.  At any time they could have dropped out of the project on good terms and used the experience to demonstrate their proficiency to work in the industry.

Yes in industries like software and game design companies are going to want to hire those that can demonstrate they can do the job they are going to be paid to do. The best way of which is to design a mod or contribute to another project for free. Chucklefish themselves are open to discussions for compensation, and have said that the issue should be discussed with them directly. Rather than once again on social media.

“Our doors remain open to any related parties who wish to discuss their concerns with us directly,”

In a further development of this story, several outlets are claiming Eric Barone the developer of Stardew Valley, is distancing himself from Chucklefish. Many of them citing his self publishing of the Switch release as further proof that he and Chucklefish have had a falling out as Chucklefish was set to be the original publisher of the Switch version.

The truth of this matter is actually rather simple. In 2018 after having Chucklefish handle multiplayer development and distribution of the game, he reacquired publishing rights to his multi-million unit selling franchise. Opting to handle the publishing himself, instead of splitting the money between him and Chucklefish. Barone summed up his reason for self-publishing by stating…

“But I’m at a point now where I’m ready to move forward on my own. I think self-publishing is the dream of most indie developers, and I’m happy to be in a place where that’s possible!”

In the blog post referenced for the current controversy, Eric Barone clarifies that he handled most of the development of his game, as some who are review bombing Starbound were confused as to the scope of his involvement in the game. He reiterates that he has been self publishing for years and the only work Chucklefish did for the game was development of the net code by a paid employee.

His post concludes simply appeasing the mob by saying what they want to hear:

“I can also say that, both personally and in my capacity as the recent founder of a small team, I believe in compensating developers for their contributions in working on games.”

 

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Seething Chaos of gaming, Kevin has spent an entire lifetime gaming and weebing.

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