All posts tagged noire

  • Talk: “Team Bondi, L.A. Noire and The Truth: The Perils of Online News”, October 2011

    This is the transcript of a presentation I gave at the Brisbane Emerging Writers Festival on Saturday 15 October 2011, as part of a panel discussion around the topic of “Writing online – How different is writing for an online audience, how can you do it creatively, and what are the challenges and opportunities for writers working in this field?”

    Footage of my presentation is embedded below.

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    Team Bondi, L.A. Noire and The Truth: The Perils of Online News

    by Andrew McMillen

    This is a cautionary tale about online journalism. It’s about learning first-hand how the internet can be a beautiful and terrible place to break news. It’s about choosing what kind of writer you want to be.

    In June, the biggest story of my career was published. It was the result of four months of investigation, based on my interviews with 11 former employees of a company named Team Bondi, who made the biggest, most expensive video game ever made in Australia, called L.A. Noire. These 11 sources all spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. Between them, they’d spent a combined 24 years at Team Bondi. They each alleged that their experiences working there were uniformly terrible: long hours, no overtime pay, a praise-free workplace led by a guy who treated them like crap. As a result of these factors and high staff turnover, the game took seven years to make, which is an incredibly long time in the games industry. I put these allegations to the Team Bondi founder, who did not deny what his former employees had told me, and made no apologies for his style of management.

    My story encapsulated all of this, and was published on the gaming website IGN. Within 24 hours it received over 120,000 hits, and was being reported and analysed by the gaming media around the world. My four months of patient work – including building trust with my sources, and many conversations with IGN’s editors about the story’s final shape – were reduced to a handful of quotes and rushed summaries rewritten by other gaming journalists. To my knowledge, nobody tried to track down my 11 sources and verify what they were saying, nor did anyone seek additional comment from Team Bondi.

    Soon after the story was published, two other former employees emailed me, and provided some more information, including company emails they’d saved from their time at Team Bondi. This new information shed more light on the fact that the company had been stringing their employees along for years, consistently saying that the game was close to being finished, even though it clearly wasn’t. I combined this new information into a supplementary feature that was published on the gaming website, GamesIndustry.biz.

    One of the more interesting comments made by one of my sources in this second story related to the breakdown of the relationship between Team Bondi and Rockstar Games, who published L.A. Noire. You might know them as the guys behind games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. My source said, and I quote:

    “I’ve heard a lot about Rockstar’s disdain for Team Bondi, and it has been made quite clear that they will not publish Team Bondi’s next game. Team Bondi are trying to find another publisher for their next title, but the relationship with Rockstar has been badly damaged.”

    Now, keep in mind that these are informed comments made by a person who worked at this company for a few years. Still, these are some pretty strong allegations to make, about some high-profile businesses. My source has inside knowledge, for sure, but it’s very easy to start these kinds of rumours – namely, that one of the world’s best-known videogame companies has decided to cut ties with the Australian studio that they’d sunk millions of dollars into. In the eyes of every sane and rational person in the world, though, allegations and rumours stay just that until they’re either confirmed or denied by those in the know.

    Over the next couple of days, I was surprised to find that many websites were not exercising caution when publishing these additional rumours. Some sites didn’t even acknowledge the source of these allegations, instead simply saying that, quote “Rockstar have decided not to publish Team Bondi’s next game”. Full stop. It was alarming and disappointing to see my work skewed beyond its original form, purely because other writers didn’t care enough to provide full context.

    To complicate the situation, neither Rockstar nor Team Bondi made any public comments on any of these matters. I learned during this process that their silence bred a kind of quiet acceptance of ‘the facts’ of my stories – which is a really shitty thing. To this day neither company has publicly commented on what I reported.

    This whole experience was simultaneously exhilarating and depressing for me. Exhilarating because it was the first real newsworthy story I’d worked on, and I got a kick out of watching it being passed around the world. Depressing because I also watched commenters misinterpret my findings, and fellow journalists misrepresent my work in their editorials. It made me wonder what would’ve happened if I was less restrained with my own analysis and storytelling. Arguably, my stories would never have been published if they didn’t meet editorial standards, but the manner in which other online publications were loose with the facts made me wonder how far I could’ve stretched the truth and gotten away with it.

    This is an interesting thought to entertain. And I should point out that my two published stories on this topic did not stretch the truth in any way. But hypothetically, let’s say that I’d fabricated a few quotes that were supposedly made by my anonymous sources. The reader wouldn’t know any better, and it’s doubtful that I’d even get found out. The story was re-reported with such breathless enthusiasm, often containing only the most inflammatory and controversial quotes, that it would barely have mattered. The success of the stories, and the additional opportunities that have since been offered to me, might have led me down an entirely different path. I might have become addicted to seeking easy controversy in my journalism, had I made that choice.

    I didn’t, and I haven’t. I’m glad I was thorough and responsible in my reporting, but the alternative is still fun to think about occasionally.

    This experience taught me a valuable lesson, about how quickly people tend to believe what they read online as the truth, especially in the absence of denial from the parties in question. The more the story was reported around the internet, the more true these allegations became to most readers. This is reflected in the comments sections of these articles. I watched the tide turn from acute doubt, to utter contempt for Team Bondi and Rockstar, in a very short period.

    This experience taught me that no matter how thorough and careful I am with my own work, once a story is published online, it’s completely out of my hands. I think that, in the rush to ‘first’, some web publishers are a little loose with their words. This is troublesome, because whoever reads their articles may not have the time or inclination to read the initial source material, and if a website has their facts wrong when re-reporting a story, then the reader’s understanding of a situation may be compromised. It’s hard to shift facts in people’s minds once they’ve come to a conclusion, and I think web journalists, editors and publishers have a more pronounced responsibility than their print counterparts to check the facts and exercise caution before hitting ‘publish’.

    It’s tough, though, because on the internet, there is little incentive for this kind of cautionary, responsible journalism. Inflammatory and controversial stories spread much faster than their circumspect alternatives. This has always been the case, with any kind of news, but the trouble with the web is that the publishers of these kinds of stories are rewarded with traffic, which in turn directly benefits them, as advertisers are more willing to pay them to run ads on their sites.

    A few thoughts to close. Writing for the web, it’s very easy to become swept up in instantaneous, inflammatory, controversial reporting. But I urge you not to go down this road. To do so is to toss away your integrity, to swallow your pride and sense of self-worth in favour of short-term gratification. It is a fucking shame that online journalism appears to be built on this principle, and that it is so ingrained in our day-to-day web browsing that you probably don’t even notice.

    Like I said, there’s little consequence for following the path of ‘publish first, fact-check second’. But if you have even a shred of integrity, again I urge you: do not take the path of least resistance. Always err on the side of caution before pressing ‘publish’. You owe it to your readers, your sources, your fellow journalists and yourself.

    Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok) is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane, Australia. http://andrewmcmillen.com/

  • GameSpot story: ‘Game Developers’ Quality of Life: Why Should Gamers Care?’, August 2011

    A feature story for GameSpot; my first for the site. Excerpt below.

    Game Developers’ Quality of Life: Why Should Gamers Care?

    In this feature, we ask if quality of life at development studios should affect how gamers think about the industry.


    Blowing the Whistle on Working Conditions

    A video game is composed of millions of tiny achievements made by hundreds of people. When combined, their work results in innovative, genre-defining artistic statements like World of Warcraft, Half-Life, Super Mario 64, or Tetris. The fruits of their collective labour are savoured around the world by gamers, a once-exclusive tag that is now, thanks to the burgeoning market of Web-based casual games, embraced by more people than ever before.

    Despite the impact that generations of video game developers have had on the medium of interactive entertainment, though, it’s easy to forget those millions of tiny achievements when you’re embedded deep within virtual worlds like Azeroth, the Black Mesa Research Facility, the Mushroom Kingdom, or a 10-block-wide screen of endlessly descending shapes. Logically, our brains know that none of these worlds can exist without the imagination, artistry, and programming skills of human beings. Yet for many gamers, those who work in the gaming industry are, essentially, faceless purveyors of joy. There are a handful of household names like Shigeru Miyamoto, John Romero, Hideo Kojima, and Will Wright; as for the rest of the names listed in the closing credits and the instruction manual…well, who?

    This apparent cognitive failure of gamers to acknowledge the contribution of game developers to our overall well-being is only brought to the fore on rare occasions, when the people behind our gaming pleasure see no option but to go public with their sentiment of systemic discontent. The enduring example of the entire discussion surrounding game developers’ quality of life arose in November 2004, when an anonymous blog post by the partner of an EA Games developer working on The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth detailed a studio-wide, 85-hour work week.

    “The stress is taking its toll,” the blogger wrote. “After a certain number of hours spent working, the eyes start to lose focus; after a certain number of weeks with only one day off, fatigue starts to accrue and accumulate exponentially. There is a reason why there are two days in a weekend–bad things happen to one’s physical, emotional, and mental health if these days are cut short. The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing.”

    The blog post gained widespread media attention and, later, saw EA settle over US$30 million in overtime to staff at its California studio following three class-action lawsuits. The “EA Spouse” saga, led by blogger Erin Hoffman, shone a spotlight into the dark corners of game development. For the first time, it seemed, gamers were made aware that making video games for a living isn’t necessarily as fun as it sounds.

    A similar incident in early 2010, ahead of the release of Red Dead Redemption, saw the “Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees” publish a scathing attack against that studio’s management on industry website Gamasutra and threaten legal action if their partners’ working conditions were not improved. It is unclear whether that situation was resolved, although it appears that no lawsuits were filed against Rockstar Games. More recently, Team Bondi, the Sydney-based developer of the Rockstar Games-published L.A. Noire, was revealed to have dictated what former employees referred to as an “ominous crunch” (the intensive period before a deadline) that lasted for years, and a revolving-door staff policy that saw over a hundred employees leaving throughout the game’s seven-year development.

    Those three games–Battle for Middle-earth, Red Dead Redemption, and L.A. Noire–achieved Metacritic ratings of 82, 95, and 89, respectively. Collectively, they were enjoyed by an audience of millions across the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 platforms. In the grand scheme of things, it’s all too easy to sweep a few months–or, in the case of L.A. Noire, years–of long working hours under the rug and bask in the shining glory of the final products. But to do so would be a mistake, argues Kenneth Yeast, who was the engineering development director at Electronic Arts during the Battle for Middle-earth project.

    For the full story, visit GameSpot.

    Further reading: Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years To Make?

  • GamesIndustry.biz story: ‘Revealed: The emails behind the whistle blowing at Team Bondi’, July 2011

    A feature story for GamesIndustry.biz; excerpt below.

    This a follow-up to my feature on the development of the videogame L.A. Noire for IGN, published last month.

    Revealed: The emails behind the whistle blowing at Team Bondi


    Last month a story on IGN called “Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years To Make?” detailed the lengthy process wherein Sydney-based developer Team Bondi worked on the biggest, most expensive video game ever made in Australia. Published by Rockstar Games, L.A. Noire - released worldwide in May – was expansive in scope and revolutionary in concept.

    At the story heart’s were eleven testimonials – delivered by former Team Bondi employees interviewed under the condition of anonymity – which detailed the oppressive work conditions that hundreds of staff endured throughout those seven years. Among their complaints were an “ominous crunch” period of development which continually shifted year to year; a studio-wide expectation that staff would work overtime and weekends; a praise-free working environment; and a boss named Brendan McNamara, who one of the sources called “the angriest person I’ve ever met”.

    In the last few weeks, the story has been read and reported around the globe. Both fans and the game development community have reacted with contempt for Team Bondi, and for Rockstar Games, who seemingly condoned the Sydney-based studio’s incessant whip-cracking. The International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA) has declared that they are seeking comments from former Bondi staff as they investigate what they deem to be “absolutely unacceptable” working conditions.

    As the original author of the report I’ve been contacted by developers who have worked under Brendan McNamara at other studios over the years. All have concurred with the assertions made by the Bondi Eleven. “When Brendan came on board, it became clear that he was a huge bully with no talent, vision or management skill. But he really knew how to intimidate,” wrote one. “Fits with my experience of McNamara,” tweeted another.

    Several more ex-Team Bondi employees have also contacted me to express their gratitude. “On the day the article was posted, I had been linked it by a dozen or so other Team Bondi ex-employees in the first few hours, and then it was re-linked on Facebook for the rest of the day,” one source told me. “Everyone I’ve spoken to is really grateful that it’s ‘out there’, and completely shocked that Brendan agreed to the interview.”

    Two former Bondi staffers, in particular, have supplied evidence which refutes comments made by Brendan McNamara in my original story, and strengthens the validity of claims made by the Bondi Eleven. Between them, this pair spent several years labouring under the Team Bondi banner. As with the original Bondi Eleven, the pair have supplied information under the condition of anonymity. Their rebuttals to their former boss follow; their evidence includes time-stamped internal emails and staff employment contracts.

    Deterioration of relationship with Rockstar

    Source: “It’s pretty well reported now that the working conditions were bad. What hasn’t been discussed yet (from what I’ve seen) is the relationship between Team Bondi and Rockstar. I’ve heard a lot about Rockstar’s disdain for Team Bondi, and it has been made quite clear that they will not publish Team Bondi’s next game. Team Bondi are trying to find another publisher for their next title, but the relationship with Rockstar has been badly damaged – Brendan treats L.A. Noire like a success due to his vision but I think Rockstar are the ones who saved the project. They continued to sink money into LA Noire, and their marketing was fantastic. Without their continued support, Team Bondi would have gone under several years ago.”

    “Rockstar also made a huge contribution to the development; their producers were increasingly influential over the last two years of the game’s development, and overruled many of the insane decisions made by Team Bondi management. At a lower level, Rockstar also pitched in with programmers, animators, artists, QA, etc. Part of the conflict between Team Bondi and Rockstar was due to Rockstar’s frustration with Team Bondi’s direction, and eventually Team Bondi’s management in turn resented Rockstar for taking lots of creative control. It’s also worth pointing out that Rockstar used to be very keen on making Team Bondi something like ‘Rockstar Sydney’ – the more they worked with Team Bondi management, the more they came to understand that this was a terrible idea. I have a few logs that show the relationship souring – see below.”

    Date: Tuesday, April 06, 2010.

    From: Brendan McNamara [Team Bondi founder]

    To: Everybody List [everyone who worked for Team Bondi]

    Hi Everyone

    I found out this morning that Rockstar have pulled out of the E3 show. I’m trying to find out more information as to why. I don’t agree with this decision as I think the case we were going to show is looking great and that we could do some real damage there. Jeronimo [Barrera, Rockstar VP] is talking to the Marketing Team to ascertain what the Marketing Plan is going forward. Once I know what is happening and why I will get back to you.

    Brendan

    Source: “The context on this second one is that our Production Designer (Simon Wood) posted an email with links to a new L.A. Noire logo designed by Rockstar (which Brendan hated). The announcement apparently had a Rockstar logo, but no Team Bondi logo alongside it. Brendan’s reply was only supposed to be to Simon, but he replied to everybody at Team Bondi by mistake. He claimed he was only talking about commenters on news articles, but it was pretty clear to everyone that this wasn’t true.”

    Date: Monday, October 11, 2010

    From: Brendan McNamara [Team Bondi founder]

    To: Everybody List [everyone who worked for Team Bondi]

    Every dog has its day and there’s going to be hell to pay for this one. I’ll never forget being treated like an absolute c**t by these people.

    To read the full story, visit GamesIndustry.biz. You’ll have to register a free account with them to do so.

    UPDATE July 7: This story has been syndicated to GI.biz’s sister site, Eurogamer, where you can read the full story without registering an account. Click here to read it on Eurogamer.

  • IGN Australia story: ‘Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years To Make?’, June 2011

    A feature story for IGN Australia. Excerpt below.

    Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years to Make?
    Examining the troubled development of Team Bondi’s opus.
    by Andrew McMillen


    Team Bondi’s film noir-inspired detective thriller L.A. Noire was released last month to critical and commercial success. Set in a lavish recreation of 1947 Los Angeles, the game eschewed a familiar open-world design for case-by-case detective gameplay that revolved around examining crime scenes and interrogating suspects. Featuring a vast city, cases that adjusted depending on the player’s actions and choices, and sophisticated motion capture technology that had never been used in a video game before, it was a mammoth project.

    So mammoth, in fact, that it took over seven years to complete, with a publisher switch – from Sony to Rockstar – midway through. That’s not the whole story, however. The development of L.A. Noire was anything but smooth.

    Much has been written about the long development cycles on games such as Duke Nukem Forever, Too Human, or Prey, but the story behind L.A. Noire’s rocky road to release stands out within Australia’s small, tightly-knit development community. Team Bondi’s crime drama is not just the biggest game development project ever undertaken in Australia, it also served as the first-ever project for many of the creative forces behind L.A. Noire. It’s perhaps the combination of all these factors that has resulted in surprisingly open testimonials from former Team Bondi members about their experience working on the game.

    Recently, a group of former Team Bondi employees launched a public website with an amended staff roll for L.A. Noire that includes 100 developers omitted from the official game credits. But the look behind the curtain started much earlier. On January 23 2010, an anonymous source on Twitter began leaking stories heard through the grapevine regarding the Sydney-based studio. The account wasn’t run by an ex-employee; it was anonymously dishing the dirt on Bondi as heard through unnamed sources, Wikileaks-style.

    The tweets alleged that studio founder Brendan McNamara had mismanaged Team Bondi and development of L.A. Noire, and had spent “tens of millions” on proprietary technology in just a year. Despite then-publisher Sony Computer Entertainment America’s faith in McNamara based on his PS2 hit The Getaway, Sony dropped the project in 2005, when the studio “had far exceeded SCEA’s expected price tag for the game.”

    According to the tweets, this situation “threw the studio into disarray. Strangely, McNamara quickly found hospice in his former rivals–the Houser brothers–and L.A. Noire was picked up by Rockstar [Games] in spring 2006… Since then, the game has been revamped, ported, and delayed four times. Rockstar spent more [than] Sony in their efforts to make it not suck.”

    Locally, when the tweets were reported by the Australian gaming industry hub Tsumea, several anonymous commenters stepped in to back up the reports: “I can certainly attest to the appalling working conditions, the angry and abusive boss and the ineffective leads who were completely unwilling to do anything to protect their team members,” wrote one. “It’s abhorrent that these young kids are being thrown into a 24/7 corpse grinder with perpetual crunch and weekend overtime,” wrote another.

    The comments on Tsumea recall events that took place in 2004, when an anonymous LiveJournal post by a user named ‘EA_spouse‘ expressed frustration at the fact that she rarely saw her fiancé, an employee of Electronic Arts, due to the long hours he was forced to work while attempting to meet deadlines for the title The Lord of the Rings: The Battle For Middle-Earth. The blog received wide press attention and eventually led to three class action lawsuits against EA for unpaid overtime.

    After the initial tweets and short-lived online discussions that followed, the situation returned to all-quiet-on-the-Bondi-front. In the meantime, there was finally light at the end of the tunnel: L.A. Noire’s worldwide release date had been set for mid-May 2011. The game would finally see the light of day, but many questions remained. Are the allegations true? Why did it take seven years to bring L.A. Noire to market?

    IGN Australia reached out to dozens of former Team Bondi employees to help get a deeper look and tell the story. Eleven agreed to speak on the record, under the condition of anonymity; many feared reprisal from current and future employers if they were to be tagged as whistleblowers. The combined experience of these former staff is extensive: between them, they represent 24 years of service. Their individual tenures range from a few months, to four years, and they include artists, programmers, animators, and software engineers. We also spoke extensively with Team Bondi studio head Brendan McNamara for his perspective.

    For the full story, visit IGN Australia.

    This story runs to 4,500 words. It’s the biggest story of my career thus far, in terms of length, readership, and impact. As is hopefully apparent, a lot of work went into this story.

    I first pitched it to my editor at IGN on February 14, 2011. My initial email, entitled ‘Story pitch: What was it like to work on L.A. Noire?‘, is below.

    Hi mate,

    Just catching up on some industry news via Tsumea and elsewhere. Am loving the allegations by (seemingly) dozens of anonymous ex-Team Bondi employees about the horrible working conditions behind L.A. Noire.

    Favourite comment? “It’s abhorrent that these young kids are being thrown into a 24/7 corpse grinder with their perpetual crunch and weekend overtime.”

    I’d like to investigate these allegations and find out how much truth there is to it. Like my Krome story, could be the case of ex-employees agreeing to speak anonymously. As long as we can verify that they were employed by the company and they know what they’re talking about, we should be good to go. Right?

    Interested?

    Andrew

    It wasn’t until I got the nod from my editor and began reaching out to former Team Bondi employees that I realised the Tsumea story was published in 2010, not this year. Those allegations had existed for over a year, and no-one had checked them out. Curious.

    As mentioned in the story, I contacted dozens of former Bondi employees. Some were silent; some told me to leave the story alone, as they didn’t want their former colleagues to suffer in the event of the allegations being found to be true. Over the months, I rounded up eleven ex-Bondi workers who were happy to speak to me, anonymously, about their experiences working for the studio.

    Rockstar Games found out quite early on that I was investigating this story – via an overzealous source contacting an existing Rockstar employee, I think. They weren’t particularly happy. In an attempt to ensure balanced coverage, they eventually offered me access to Team Bondi CEO Brendan McNamara – though speaking with him was necessary if the story was ever going to be published, as it would be rather slanderous to publish the ex-employees’ comments without juxtaposing them against the responses of their former boss. Yet, as picked up by many of those who commented on IGN and the article’s resultant media coverage, McNamara did little to deny what I’d been told by his former staff.

    With a gestation time of over four months, this is by far the longest amount of time I’ve spent pursuing a single story. It was worth it, though, because I feel that it’s a story that needed to be told. I hope you agree.

    A final note: I’m interested in pursuing this story – and stories like it – on an ongoing basis. If you’d like to share your experience of working for Team Bondi and/or Rockstar Games, you can email me here.