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.
In 2003, when Team Bondi was established, the core team consisted of Brendan McNamara and his cohort of transplants from Team Soho, the London-based studio that worked on The Getaway. Five staff – dubbed the "first Aussie hires" – started at Team Bondi in
One of these former employees describes the initial situation as "quite tough, but good. There didn't seem to be much direction, either technical, artistic, or overall. We had a CTO [chief technology officer], but he wouldn't really talk to people, or give directions. We were mainly left to our own devices with very high-level tasks and weekly reviews. We grew from there, relatively quickly, to about 30 people over the first year," he says. They soon moved to a larger office in Ultimo to accommodate the company's expansion. "In that first year we shipped a couple of milestones to Sony, but they weren't that good. When the pressure started mounting to deliver stuff, and [management started] seeing how we weren't delivering – mainly due to technical problems – things started getting worse and worse."
Another of the original "Aussie five" comments that "at first, it was fun. New studio; big, new game. As time went by and the project wasn't coming together as fast as management wanted it to, they started to become aggressive and demanding. That led to people quitting, or being forced out when they didn't obey direct orders. It became a nasty place to be. When I left, there was a little over 100 people working there."
Team Bondi's lead staff were cherry-picked from Team Soho. According to a source, McNamara "coaxed these people to come join him with the promise of lots of money and a wonderful life in Sydney. They brought with them preconceived ideas on how things should
be run, and how awesome and mega-cool their company would be."
The developers accounts all indicate that the studio functioned under a decidedly informal hierarchy. If writer/director Brendan McNamara wanted something changed, he'd just go and talk to the staff member implementing it, rather than going through lead staff. "Often the leads weren't involved," remembers a programmer. "If you'd talk to your lead and say, 'Hey, Brendan's making this unreasonable demand,' they'd be understanding, but they're ultimately powerless. They can't go and tell Brendan that it's not feasible, just as much as I couldn't tell him. He just won't listen to reason."
"I can go to anyone I want," McNamara told IGN when we raised the topic of studio structure. "It's my game. I can go to anyone I want in the team and say, 'I want it changed'." Rockstar's Sam Houser, he told us, can also make the same requests of his teams. "I've been doing it for a long time," he continued, "and it seems to have worked so far for me."
Part and parcel of this approach, according to a number of the ex-employees we spoke to, was McNamara's need to exert total control over what goes on in the studio. When asked whether that was true, he chuckled and asked "And is that a bad thing? I make video games. They're personal statements for me. I write 'em, I direct 'em, I put the technology together to make them. I go out to the world and say, 'Will you fund them?' So if you think that's obsessive: absolutely."
A recurring theme throughout the interviews that we conducted with the Bondi Eleven was that the mindset of Team Bondi's management was to hire junior employees, and make employees "work longer and faster," accepting high turnover in the course of it. "There
was simply an expectation that you'd work overtime and weekends," said a source. "I was told that I was taking the **** by saying that I couldn't give every single one of my weekends away. We were looked at as a disposable resource, basically. If you weren't
in the 'inner circle'" – an exclusive group which seems to have consisted of the former Team Soho employees – "you were just a resource to be burned through," he says. "Their attitude is: 'it's a privilege to work for us, and if you can't hack it, you should
leave'. I heard one of the upper echelons say pretty much that. I thought it was disgusting. I don't understand how they can't see that maintaining talent would actually be good for them."
An artist with 12 years professional experience recalls, "They created a below-junior position; 'graduate junior', I think, so they could pay less and push people around." Team Bondi was the first – and last – game development company that he worked for. "I don't want another job in the game industry because of my experience [at Bondi]. Most of the [artists] I know who worked there, never want to work in games again."
A former programmer says that, during his three year tenure, the studio had a "massive turnaround, especially in the coding department. Out of the 45 people that no longer worked at the studio, 11 were fired. Out of the 34 that actually decided to leave, 25 of those were coders; most of whom had no job to go to, since they decided that it was better to be unemployed than to be working there. I was one of those."
This was echoed by a gameplay programmer, who had no prior game development experience. "They have a massive turnover; a huge attrition rate," he says. "I remember sitting in a meeting with all of the gameplay programmers. There were around 20 of us at the time. I looked around, and realised that out of all of them, other than the team lead, I'd been there the longest. And I'd only been there for under 12 months."
When we raised the issue of staff turnover, and mentioned that our sources indicated that around a hundred staff had passed through the studio's doors, McNamara took us by surprise: "I'd say more," he replied. "Of the people we tried to build the game with,
most of them would've never had any experience with this kind of thing before. And most of them would never have made a game that had these kinds of expectations."
Several of the Bondi Eleven mentioned the knock-on effects from poor staff retention. A former gameplay programmer recalls that when one of his colleagues left, "I inherited all their stuff to work with. And of course, once that happens, I'm quite unproductive for, like, a month, trying to figure out which way's up. That happened to me three or four times; I ended up inheriting four peoples' stuff." He was working simultaneously across so many systems, that when a Rockstar executive producer visited the studio, he was shocked to discover that the programmer was doing four peoples' jobs. "I was like, 'tell me about it, man!'", he says. "But when I left, I handed all those four things on to somebody else, and they hired some new people, and just kept going. If they'd maintained their talent, they'd operate a lot more efficiently, and it wouldn't have taken them so long."
McNamara wasn't actively involved with HR matters at Team Bondi, and by his own admission made no attempt to intervene once he realised that people were leaving quite frequently. "I thought it was a process where some people would stay the course, and some wouldn't," he said. "You talk to people who say, 'Oh, I'd love to come in and be a tester,' but the process of making video games – or testing video games – is: generally, they're broken. They aren't much fun to test. And to some extent, we try to build those systems. If you're working on some tools to build the world, and those tools aren't working very well, by its nature, all your artists are going to be upset about that. If you're working on tools to let you build levels and they aren't working very well, then by its nature, all your designers are going to be upset about that. But that's part of the process you go through when you're making new technologies, and new games."
##### Its quite a moutfull but very interesting to read through your thoguhts and comments, just though I would bring this to the forums ####