The Estonian chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) talked to Game World Observer about the situation around Aeon Must Die! The development team behind the title accuse the employer, Limestone Games, of unbearable work conditions, manipulation and corruption.
Marianna Krjakvina, Executive Vice President at IGDA Estonia, answered our questions.
Marianna Krjakvina, Executive Vice President at IGDA Estonia
What does IGDA Estonia think about the situation?
IGDA Estonia is currently conducting an independent investigation into the situation using the information from public sources (government online resources) and the documentation contained in the Dropbox folder that was shared on Friday. Our primary goal is to find out whether the described transgressions actually took place. We hope that the state regulatory authorities will carry out all due checks in the manner prescribed by the law of the Republic of Estonia.
IGDA’s primary mission is to protect the interests of employees. If violations by the employer are proven, IGDA Estonia will do its best to help the former employees of the company find a new job in the industry or start their own project.
Does IGDA Estonia have enough information to fully understand the situation?
Former employees of Limestone Games refused to cooperate with IGDA Estonia directly and to give any comments. This significantly limits the ability of our organization to somehow contribute to the resolution of the conflict.
IGDA is a non-profit organization established to support the game development industry, the related infrastructure and the community. We are not an official professionals union, therefore we have no right to interfere in the internal affairs of businesses. The best our organization can do at the moment is to listen to both sides of the conflict and try to persuade them to take steps towards a peaceful resolution. We can only act as a kind of mediator.
How did the former Limestone Games employees explain their refusal to cooperate?
They said their lawyer advised them against communicating with anyone directly. All communication with the team is handled exclusively by their lawyer.
If the claims of former employees are proven, what will IGDA Estonia do?
In the event that violations by the management of Limestone Games are proven, IGDA Estonia will do its best to:
A) help former employees find employment in the gaming industry;
B) find an investor and publisher for subsequent projects;
C) permanently suspend Limestone Games from participating in any events, activities and projects of the Estonian gaming industry.
Has IGDA Estonia faced such situations before?
Situations like this have never occurred in the gaming industry or IT sector in our country before. There have been cases when workers filed class actions against the employer on charges of inappropriate working conditions, but this happened in industrial enterprises.
Estonia has very strict labor laws, and non-compliance with the rules is punishable by high fines. The rights of employees are fully protected by law.
Therefore, we hope for the Labor Inspectorate and the Estonian Tax and Customs Board (ETCB) to intervene in the investigation of this case as soon as possible.
How widespread is the use of envelope wages, unlicensed software and crunch time in Estonian game development?
Few people talk about this, because, as I mentioned earlier, Estonia has very strict legislation. As far as I know, envelope wages are not a common practice in the gaming industry. This is due to the nature of the financial flows at companies that receive income from distribution platforms through bank accounts. Envelope wages are more common in businesses with high cash flow, such as the service industry, for example.
Withdrawing cash from a company’s account is not easy and will definitely leave a financial footprint.
In Estonia, it is not forbidden to pay wages in cash, provided that it is declared to the ETCB and all related taxes are paid.
In the case of Limestone Games, in the first quarter of 2020, according to the ETCB, €20,917.11 were paid in payroll taxes. At that time, the staff was 16 employees. This corresponds to a gross salary of €1,000-1,100 per person per month. Net pay is, then, about €800-900, which corresponds to the average wage in the country.
Even if employees were paid a minimum wage of €550 (officially the minimum wage in the Republic of Estonia) via a bank transfer and the rest was paid in cash, then, based on the data of the ETCB, these amounts were declared and taxed.
Unfortunately, here I can not give any comments, since there were no substantive checks and it is impossible to say with certainty that all companies use exclusively licensed software.
Crunch and overtime
According to the Labor Code of the Republic of Estonia, the employer is obliged to compensate for any extra working days / hours either with time off or with a payment at a rate of 150% of the basic hourly salary. It depends on the agreement between the employer and the employee. An employee can always refuse to work overtime.
It is a common practice in the game development industry that before the delivery of a project or milestone, the team works overtime in order to meet deadlines. However, in Estonia the mentality and work culture do not support this. It is customary for us to work from 9 am to 5 pm and not for a minute longer. If you enter the office of any large Estonian company at 17:02, you will only see rows of empty desks and offices. Due to the increased rate for overtime, employers often try to avoid it in every possible way.
In the case of overtime, the employer is obliged to compensate for the hours worked.
You also said that employees, according to the documents, were paid a net salary of €800-900. How does it compare to other gaming companies in Estonia?
This is less than the salary at other Estonian studios, but you should take into account the fact that Limestone Games is a startup that does not yet have a sustainable income.
In our country, the competition in the hiring market is quite fierce. The talent pool is limited, and large companies such as Creative Mobile and Ringtail Studios offer higher compensation to attract and retain employees.
For small indie studios, this creates certain difficulties in hiring, as they do not have the funds to attract high-quality specialists.
Often, employees in such teams are more motivated by an interesting project than by money.
Could it have been that the execs were paid much more than the developers, so the total amount was large, while the staff received little of it?
Maybe so, but considering that the staff of Limestone Games was only 16 people, the difference should have been very significant. The ETCB would have immediately paid attention to such declarations.
Unfortunately, we cannot obtain a complete statement for each employee from public sources.
How will this story affect the game development in Estonia? Does IGDA plan to prevent such cases in the future?
There are not many successful game studios in Estonia, and IGDA Estonia had high expectations from Limestone Games and Aeon Must Die! as the next flagship of our industry. We hope the title will be released this year despite all the difficulties.
IGDA is advocating for fair business practices and our chapter will do its best to prevent such conflicts in the future. We have to educate people about their rights and business owners and managers about corporate culture, conflict resolution and motivation. And not only in Estonia, but across all 100+ chapters in the world.