Keywords Studios (1): The Honeymoon, and What Happened Next
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Gamedev Stories - This article is part of a series.
My mother always used to say, “One kick in the ass, two steps forward.” I didn’t see the wisdom in it until I had my first run-in with just how shitty the games industry can be.
When Keywords Dublin approached me with an offer, I was already working on League of Legends through a different vendor. I was a freelancer at the time, and the job at Keywords was full-time and included relocation. I was massively into League back then, the pay was better than what I was making back in Romania, and I’d already traveled to Dublin a year before to interview with Riot and fallen in love with the city.
It was a no-brainer. I said yes.
Am I grateful to Keywords for spring-boarding my career into the games industry? Sure, I guess. Then again, my old manager at Keywords did nuke said career and my mental health while Keywords kinda went “meh, whatever” and let it happen. I can see how that was a valuable learning experience overall. In the moment, it felt like anything but.
Why now? #
“But Chris,” you might be thinking (if you know me and know what happened back then), “it’s been six years! Why write about it now?”
First, because Keywords continues to be the kind of company that underpays and exploits its workers. That alone warrants a serious bollocking.
Second, because I have it on good authority that my then-manager lied about me to justify his decision of letting me go without notice, which led to a number of things that directly hurt my career. It’s time to set the record straight.
And, okay, I also feel like venting a little. I never did get to tell my side of this particular story.
The honeymoon #
Things at Keywords were good for a while: I got to hang out with Rioters, brought some new ideas to the table (that Riot liked and Keywords promptly shut down), and made some new friends along the way. There was a job opening at Riot (that I’d interviewed for and failed to get), and my hope was that, eventually, I’d become good enough to try again. I was also passionate, and… well. Therein lay doom.
Before I dive into what happened next, a quick word about that.
I’ve always wanted to work in games because I love to play games. I also used to think that working on a game I loved–League, in this case–was my dream job, regardless of what the actual job entailed. Hell, I was even willing to work for free.
And that’s exactly the kind of attitude that the games industry loves to exploit: if you do something you love, chances are you’ll take a lower pay, work longer hours and put up with the kind of shit that no-one should ever have to go through.
I know because that’s what I did. I did things that weren’t a part of my job because I cared about the game. I crunched. I was never paid for any of those things (in fact, being passionate and outspoken was actively held against me when they decided to let me go).
If anyone’s reading this and sees themself in it? Stop it. You’re worth more than that.
The money #
Let’s talk specifics, starting with the most important thing: the money1.
The pay was bad.
As a full-time linguist, I made €24,000 a year, which at the time amounted to a little over €1,600 a month. Not a livable wage in Dublin by any stretch unless you lived with roommates (I had two), compromised on necessities (I did), and didn’t have any major medical needs (which, at the time, I didn’t). A colleague whose actual master’s degree was in translations made €20,000 doing the same job.
We kept hearing about how well the company was doing and how they were buying studios left and right, but none of that success ever showed up in our paycheck. We didn’t get bonuses, either. I can’t talk about the other benefits because I never used them, aside from the once-a-month free massage, which I could’ve well gone without.
The team #
I was the third linguist hired to work on the game. The team grew quickly until there were… something like 10-12 of us, if memory serves. Every language had a translator/LQA pair assigned to it. If anyone’s unfamiliar with the term, LQA means “language quality assurance”.
In theory, the LQA tested the translator’s work in-game or wherever else it shows up. In practice, LQAs had nothing to do until the translators finished their work and said work was implemented in-game so they had something to test. Which meant that half the team sat around twiddling their thumbs, goofing around, or playing League while the rest of us were trying to work.
Things got loud. Obnoxiously so.
Noise has always been my kryptonite. There were days when I had no choice but to blast music in my own headphones to be able to concentrate while the guy sitting across from me shouted “ULT!! ULT NOW!! OH MY GOD, ULTTT!!”.
One day, my manager ripped off my headset as I was listening to Ghost Love Score. My music bothered him, apparently. It’s worth noting that he didn’t take issue with the yelling, or the laughing, or the physical joshing that went a little overboard sometimes. Old-school Nightwish, though? Unacceptable. /s
My lowest point happened when I got fed up with the Friends coworker and politely asked him to stop laughing over Skype. He started shouting at me, and I blew up right back. He got away with it. I didn’t. Nevermind that he’d been the one to instigate the whole thing (and he was watching bootleg American sitcoms at work, something I subsequently got bollocked for a few weeks later).
The manager #
I’m older and wiser now, so I can recognize that the team manager–let’s call him Steve, and I do apologize to all the Steves out there–was in way over his head. He had at least 10 direct reports, which is too much for any one guy to handle, let alone someone who may not have had all the support he needed.
I don’t know how green Steve was, but he never struck me as the kind of guy who knew how to foster a work environment that was conducive to, well, doing work.
That’s not to say he didn’t micro-manage wherever he could. One time, he changed seating arrangements and put Noisy Guy right behind me. When I went to him with feedback from half the team that the new arrangement didn’t work, he berated me for “starting a mutiny.” A couple weeks later, when I lowered the blinds so the sun wouldn’t shine directly into my screen and Noisy Guy blew up at me, gues who had to suck it up in the end.
After a while, it became clear to me that Steve had no interest in receiving any feedback from me–about the team, processes, or his leadership style. He wanted me to do my job and happily ignored the fact that that’s what I wanted to do, too. I was trying. I was bending over backwards to make it work. I compromised on things like pride and professional integrity just so he’d stop hounding me about non-issues.
For his part, Steve was failing repeatedly and spectacularly at doing his job, and he didn’t seem to care2.
The dumbf*cks #
Worth noting that I don’t use “dumbf*ck” as a catch-all term for “people who disagree with me”. These guys were just… not the brightest bulbs in the shed, okay?
When my usual reviewer was unavailable, Keywords occasionally foisted other reviewers on me. I say “foisted” because some of the feedback they came up with was so earth-shatteringly baffling I couldn’t not push back.
Keep in mind, we’re talking English to Romanian translation here. While one’s a Latin language and the other one’s Germanic, they’re not as different as, say, English and Japanese. This is important.
One of these ad-hoc reviewers came at me with this gem:
English copy: “Come to me, human,” Ahri whispered.
Reviewer’s edit of my translation (translated from RO back into EN): “Come to me, human!” Ahri whispered.
Why? Because come is an imperative verb, and imperatives always need an exclamation mark, right?
That’s a level of rigidity I’d expect from a third-grade teacher, not someone who’s supposed to be well-versed enough in the nuances of language to review literary translations. An exclamation mark denotes an exclamation, which is about as far removed from a whisper as pachyderms are from amoebas. And sure, there’s the “stage whisper” or “whisper-yell” (think “ostentatious whisper used for comedic effect”), but that’s not what was happening here.
Another one of these guys had opinions about dialogue tags and what tense to use:
English copy: “<Something something something>3”, the guy says.
Reviewer’s edit of my translation (translated from RO back into EN): “<Something something something>”, the guy said.
When I asked him why he changed “says” into “said”, he told me that all dialogue tags should be past tense. Always. Everywhere. He then linked me to an academic style guide that said so, and ackchyually’d me to tears (literally) until I had to go and get Steve and show him that whatever negative feedback he’d get from this reviewer would be terribly, terribly misguided.
Steve told me, in so many words, to shut up and take it. He didn’t want me to defend myself. Not this time, not ever. He made that crystal-clear.
Which ties neatly into my next point: Steve did not understand how reviewer feedback worked and that, sometimes, reviewers were the ones who were in the wrong.
The feedback #
My regular reviewer was someone outside of Keywords. Let’s call her Maddie.
Maddie sent me regular feedback on the work I delivered. On a given day, Maddie’s feedback might’ve looked something like this:
TYPO: “said”, not “siad”
MINOR: Rephrase this sentence to make it clear <this thing> refers to <that thing>.
PREFERENCE: Use <this word>, not <that word>, because <this word> works better here.
She was tough but (usually) fair. There were some MAJOR points, but there weren’t many. Nitpicks, sure, because that’s what reviewers do.
Steve didn’t see it that way.
If a feedback sheet had five items on it, one of which was a MAJOR and the rest of which were MINORS and PREFERENCES, Steve saw it as five MAJORS and took it to mean that my work wasn’t up to par. Steve’s word was gospel. He didn’t speak Romanian, but it didn’t matter. Any good feedback I got from Maddie went to die with Steve, and all the bad feedback went up the chain to prove that I was underperforming, even though I wasn’t.
I can forgive Steve a lot of things, but not this one. Not only did he fail in his duty of care, he actively chose to ignore it.
Which brings me back to Keywords and a company culture that made it possible for something like this to happen. I had no recourse. I think I may have had one skip-level interview early on, but other than that, there was no direct line to anyone above Steve. If we had an HR person assigned to us, I only met them when I was fired. And, as I said, Steve had no interest in receiving direct feedback from me.
The fuckening (SoonTM) #
“…Shit, this is already 2,000 words long,” I say to myself as I read through this draft one more time. The fuckening will have to wait. It’s too good a story to toss in as an afterthought.
It happened April 1st…
Featured artwork: Spirit Blossoom Ahri, © Riot Games/League of Legends.
People gotta eat, don’t @ me. ↩︎
I’ve had people leadership roles (“management”) since, and I can adamantly say that Steve did not do his job as well as he could’ve when it came to me. A manager has a duty to the company (to deliver the product/service), but also to their reports (to make sure they’re able to do their work). Steve didn’t take his duty of care seriously and was content to let things play out, occasionally stepping in to assert his role and (usually) make it worse. ↩︎
I don’t remember the actual dialogue. This was a developer blog about a new gameplay feature, I think. ↩︎