Three months ago, Paradox Interactive signed a collective agreement, to better establish workplace rights with the unions in their company. In an industry where we hear so many horror stories about underpaid and poorly treated employees, unionisation can be an important tool in giving workers a bigger voice, and providing support when it comes to negotiating their rights.
This moment has only come after months of negotiations, however, and for some employees, comes too late. I've spoken to several current and former employees at the Swedish studio, and they all paint a picture of a rapidly growing company clinging to an outdated image of itself, at which quality assurance workers in particular are exploited and underpaid.
Around October last year, Paradox Interactive received a handful of poor reviews on the employer-rating website, Glassdoor, from former employees. Those complaints included poor pay, mistreatment of staff, and the company's alleged anti-union stance, among others. One very specific event stuck out both in these reviews, and in the conversations I had with former employees: the abrupt closure of the Swedish studio's entire publishing QA department.
Between April and May 2019, Paradox Interactive closed down their publishing QA department in Sweden, and many employees I spoke to expressed discontent with how the closure was handled. (Every current and former employee I spoke to asked for anonymity, to protect their jobs or future employment.) Some told me of poor communication about it from management, of affected staff being offered worse jobs as a replacement for their lost positions within QA, and of uncertainty around who that department's work would fall to after it had been disbanded.
"When they disbanded them I didn't understand," a former employee told me in a call. "I didn't know what they were going to do or how they were handling it. They never officially gave a statement that they disbanded a whole department like that. They didn't even tell the rest of the company."
As Paradox Interactive is both a game developer and a publisher, it had QA departments for both sides. Closing one down led to multiple people losing their jobs. I asked Paradox's HR manager, Marina Hedman, how employees were supported through the closure.
"When you do this kind of reorganization, when it affects people it's always tough, but by Swedish law, they are, of course, also very protected," she told me in a call. "We worked together with the unions through this transition to make sure that they were, of course, treated in the very best way."
For some context, Sweden's labour laws are fairly similar to the UK's, and different to how US law handles these things. In some ways they're quite strict - a company can't fire someone, for example, unless they've given that person an opportunity to improve, or offered them another role elsewhere in the business in the event of redundancies. They also couldn't hire someone else for that same job unless they appropriately justified why the fired person couldn't have continued.
According to staff who worked at Paradox around the time of the closure, they didn't feel well-protected by the laws.
"We were told they would take care of all the people, give them proper opportunities to develop and to be promoted or something in the organisation," one former employee told me over a call. "But every single person that was in that team was given really bad opportunities. They downgraded all of us, basically. It felt like their way of just getting rid of us."
This isn't to say all the publishing QA testers left. While the jobs offered were allegedly worse, I was told by the former employees as well as Hedman that a few ended up staying within Paradox.
This wasn't the only issue. Many employees didn't know that the publishing QA department had been shut down at all. Some staff only discovered it had been closed after going looking for colleagues, only to be told they no longer worked at the company.
"The communication around it was really bad. Our manager had basically been put on sick leave because they burned out dealing with the whole situation," one former employee said. "There was very little communication internally about how this was going to be handled."
When asked about how the closure was communicated to the employees, Hedman told me that all those directly affected by the closure were informed first, as were the managers so they could start the transition with the unions.
"I think all the managers were informed within a week, with a Q&A [on] why we did this transition. And of course, the Paradox Development Studio QA was informed because they have similar job tasks," she said.
"When we do these kinds of changes it is very important that we think through the communication - and we can do things that [are] not great as well, and we learn."
It's worth noting that at the time this took place, a collective agreement had not been established with the unions at Paradox yet, so there were limits to how much they could get involved. For context, in the UK and parts of the EU, being a member of a union is partly about ensuring existing labour laws are followed correctly. This is different from the US, where unions are more likely to be bargaining to secure those fundamental worker protections. Still, unions can be extremely useful, and the two unions involved with Paradox (and with the new collective agreement), Unionen and SACO, now have more power to communicate with the company, as well as bargain for salary increases and other benefits for employees.
Closing the QA department had other consequences for the employees who remained. "It was obviously really bad for the publishing QA testers, but it also affected colleagues who have been working with them because they relied on them to do certain sorts of tests, and suddenly, they were just gone," one employee told me.
Hedman told me the closure happened because "the department couldn't scale with future needs", so the decision was made to outsource the work instead. Staff who were at Paradox at the time told me this caused problems, however, because some of the testing done at the publishing QA included telemetry on live games. Due to data protection regulations in the EU, a lot of this work couldn't be outsourced because it involved player data. Allegedly, no one who remained at Paradox knew who this work would now fall to.
The trouble with QA
Quality assurance workers are frequently among the most mistreated within the industry - both overworked and underpaid, and often treated as expendable when a project comes to an end. This isn't a new revelation by any means, as for years testers across the industry have shared their stories about working in QA. The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain even stated one of their goals was to tackle zero-hour contracts in QA, which is frequently cited as an issue in Glassdoor reviews. Both EGM and Kotaku have written about what testing games for a living is really like, and Kotaku has reported more specifically on how testers at Treyarch were treated. When covering the crunch at Rockstar, Eurogamer also touched on the struggles QA testers faced working on Red Dead Redemption 2. These are just a few of the prominent and all-too common stories that highlight how underappreciated the role can feel - and it's exactly the sentiment multiple former Paradox testers shared with me.
"We often got overlooked and it was very, very obvious that QA was lowest down on the hierarchical ladder. It felt like we were dispensable, like they could just replace us."
Not everyone I spoke to was working at Paradox at the time this QA department shut down, but most felt that this treatment of QA is ingrained in not only Paradox's culture, but the culture of the games industry as a whole.
"A lot of people who just started working at Paradox, they're young, and newly graduated from a game development school or something, and they're like, 'Oh my god, I'm so passionate and I'm going I get to work on my idol company, I've grown up playing their games, etc.,'" one person told me. "And then to get to here and be told we're like a family and a flat organisation, when it's not. It just feels very, very deceptive that they're playing on people's passion this much. Making them feel like this is normal."
"I suppose it's a not-so shocking revelation about the industry what people will put up with, just for the sake of being in a company for a couple of years to have the experience," said another.
A lot of the stories we hear from the wider industry tend to focus heavily on crunch culture, with recent stories revealing the extent of the problem at industry titans such as Naughty Dog and Rockstar Games. While the employees I spoke to said that there has been crunch periods within Paradox's development process, they felt it was just a small aspect that builds up to a larger problem with the company's culture.
When asked how they hoped the company would improve, another former Paradox employee I spoke to said that progress needs to start with more transparency. Not just for other developers and those within their company, but for players and prospective game devs, too.
"When it comes to when people talk about bugs and stuff in games, you always hear 'QA don't do their job, blah, blah, blah.' But what they don't know is that there's so much more stuff going on behind the scenes at these games companies that they don't know about," they said.
"You don't know anything about what it's like under the surface, because a lot of companies are so good at presenting this facade. That makes people dream about working in the games industry. It's like, you see this glamorous thing, but it's not true, that's only what they show. I want game companies to be held accountable."
"We were severely underpaid for the tasks that we had"
The employees I spoke to told me they stayed at Paradox for as long as they did because they simply couldn't afford to be unemployed. For others, it was the fear of not being able to find a new job. A few however, told me they stayed because they thought things might change. Their working conditions were bad, but they wanted to see it through and to try to help the company improve from the inside. Paradox have systems in place to theoretically encourage employees to come forward with problems.
Paradox CEO Ebba Ljungerud told me in a call that there are anonymous ways staff can bring up issues within the workplace, while Hedman told me there are 'safety officers' they can speak to if they feel they can't bring up certain issues with their manager. Despite this, those I spoke to who did try to raise their problems within the company told me they were either chastised for being negative, or told to take their complaints elsewhere.
"If you were complaining about anything, you were being negative and you weren't being constructive," one told me. They said they had made an effort to include ways the company could resolve the issues they had raised.
"You'd be told that it's not relevant or you took it to the wrong place," another added. "If I can't take a complaint through these channels, then where do I take it?"
While it's not the quickest or the easiest issue to change, the main problem these former staff told me about was their pay. Some claimed that the salary you enter on in QA would likely stay the same for "years" after. Others told me how they were "severely underpaid" and only just making minimum wage.
"I was being paid so incredibly poorly in regards to the average wage in Stockholm that I eventually just gave up and decided that I had to definitely leave, whether or not I had a job to replace it," another said.
A few of the staff I spoke to only realised how poorly they were being paid when they left to join new companies.
"When I looked back at it, I realised we were severely underpaid for the tasks that we had. We were not just simple testers, we were gradually getting more and more complicated work tasks," a former staff member said.
In 2004, Paradox Interactive started out with a handful of employees who splintered off from a popular Swedish board game developer to focus on making and publishing video games. But the company has changed a lot since then. They now have around 400 employees working across their various studios, and some of those that started it all nearly twenty years ago remain involved at Paradox even now. But the company has grown quickly - too quickly according to the staff I spoke to.
"It was initially a very small, very passion-driven studio, where, you know, everyone knows everyone," one person told me. "Now the whole company is around 400 people strong, or something, and it's not really structured to deal with that."
I'm told by other former staff members that, in the Swedish studios, long-serving management makes an effort to maintain a feeling of "being a big family", when in reality, that feeling only extends to employees who've been at the company long enough to remember the "good old days". As a result, they say, the newer generation of staff instead have a feeling of tension. Employees also told me that sexist and racist comments made from tight-knit groups of higher-ups go unchallenged and complaints made by younger staff are often rejected. One alleged that they were warned by a senior staff member not to take a more serious complaint any higher, for fear that repercussions would only fall back down on them and their team.
Fixing this isn't as simple as signing a collective agreement
Considering that around 71% of Swedish workers are a member of a union, some staff I spoke to questioned why Paradox have taken so long to sign a collective agreement themselves. A few believed that maybe it's this "family" mindset that had led them to believe they didn't need to be unionised, because they could take care of their own. Others thought that perhaps it was more malicious - the longer they went without a collective agreement, the longer Paradox could keep wages down.
But Paradox Interactive have signed a collective agreement now, meaning that the unions involved with the company will be able to argue for pay increases for employees every year, as well as provide a formal way to negotiate other aspects of their jobs. I asked staff what they thought of this unionisation, and what else they think Paradox needs to do to improve. Almost all of them agreed that communication was one of the most important factors.
"While the agreement may not give a lot more obvious benefits as employees, it at least gives a bigger voice. And that's a big thing - it forces them to communicate better," one person told me.
Many I spoke to believed that proper unionisation will help with salaries, though they also felt it's unlikely to be able to truly help the company's culture if staff who have worked there from the beginning remain set in their ways.
Paradox staff now have a better tool with which to improve upon issues that affect game companies industry-wide. Those I spoke to remain proud of the work they did at the studio, and want to see the company progress. There's hope that, in time, the stories employees tell about their QA departments will be positive. But for the moment, it's too soon to tell.
"It seems like they're making a few moves to improve things now, but I'm gonna hold any praise of that until we actually see results."