This Week in Games is a weekly column where Vikki Blake pulls apart the biggest stories in gaming each week. This week, she draws our attention to the very unfantastic business practices of Fntastic, a studio which relies on “volunteers” – paid or otherwise – to develop its games.
It’s hard for shady business practices in the games industry to catch our attention these days – well, there’s ever so much competition lately – but surprise! This week ushers in a new contender. Let me introduce you to Fntastic, the team behind upcoming zombie survival game, The Day Before.
Last month, we learned that the post-apocalyptic game had slipped from its original release in June 2022 to March 2023. We also discovered that, at the time*, it was Steam‘s most wishlisted game, a staggering achievement that meant more eager fans had put The Day Before on their Steam wishlist – one of the world’s biggest video game marketplaces – than any other game. Other games that include Hollow Knight: Silksong and Starfield. I repeat: that’s a staggering accomplishment.
And then we discovered something else.
To help The Day Before cross the finish line, Fntastic was looking for volunteers. More volunteers, actually, to complement the ones it was already using. Volunteers that are – bear with me here; this gets stupidly confusing and confusingly stupid – both paid and unpaid. The paid ones (you know; employees) are “limited” in number. The non-paid ones are not, but needed for activities “ranging from translating to community moderating” and may offer “unique skills to improve [Fntastic’s] projects or create new special features”.
Confused? Yeah, me too. Checking the website doesn’t help much, either, though. It says that “every Fntastic member is a volunteer”, only they use the word “volunteer” to mean “anyone who works on our games”, paid or otherwise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, gamers and game press alike called Fntastic out, seeking clarification. And they got it. Unfortunately.
To its credit, Fntastic didn’t issue a mealy-mouthed apology or tried to back peddle. In an ironic twist on the company’s name, instead it doubled-down. And it doubled-down hard.
“Essentially, the word ‘volunteer’ comes from the Latin word ‘voluntarius’, meaning ‘willing’ or ‘of one’s own choice’,” the company explained in a jaw-droppingly dreadful statement to press (nothing ever good came from anything that starts with a fucking Latin lesson).
“Anyone who is open to life” – yeah, it honestly said that – “can become a volunteer with Fntastic, and there are two types of volunteers. Today we have over 100 full-time internal volunteers (employees) from Singapore, Russia, the Netherlands, Thailand, Ukraine, Finland, Kazakhstan, and Belarus who work as engineers, artists, HR professionals, etc. We also have 40 external US and worldwide volunteers (supporters) who help with testing and reviewing our products at a very early stage.”
But wait. There’s more.
“In addition to tests, external volunteers (supporters) help localise products into different languages. Last year, we ordered localisation for Propnight from a well-known large studio specialising in translations. As practice has shown, the result of their work was not so perfect. Most of it had to be redone with the help of our enthusiastic volunteers (supporters). In Propnight, together with these supporters, we found bugs, dealt with cheaters, and even organised our Discord communities.”
I hate to break it to you, Fntastic, but this is not the winning statement you think it is.
It’s one thing to offer your players the chance to report bugs and issues through your communities; It’s quite another to lean on them to organise your communities, never mind exploit their talents as free QA testers, community managers, and translation staff, too.
With 40 of its 140ish staff classed as “supporters”, that means around 29 per cent of Fntastic’s workforce is unpaid. That’s nearly three in ten people are giving their time and expertise to The Day Before for nowt more than “cool rewards, participation certificates, and free codes”.
Now, maybe I’m being uncharitable here. Maybe it’s symptomatic of my perpetual rage fuelled by the British government’s determination to villainise unions and strikers – which now include rail workers, barristers, and BT staff for the first time in 35 years – who just want a pay rise. Maybe its the gradual chipping away of civil rights in the US. Maybe it’s just the awful mental image of BJ’s BJ. Whatever it is, I don’t think any of those people – people Fntastic already admits have “unique skills” – can pay their rent or skyrocketing fuel bills with a fucking participation certificate.
This kind of thing is why game studios need unions. And it’s why workers are striking. Many, many game studios are stuffed to the rafters with kind, thoughtful, compassionate, brilliant people, but even one shitty outfit like Fntastic is one too many.
Not only does it harm the people donating their skills, but it also completely undermines those who do those jobs for a living, too. It’s bad enough that Fntastic thinks it’s okay to stick “volunteer” in everyone’s job title in a bid to confuse everyone and cream off free labour from generous fans who want The Day Before to succeed so much, that they’re giving their “unique skills” away; to double down on it shows Fntastic either cannot see – or does not care about – how wrong this is. And I honestly don’t know which is worse.
If you enjoyed Vikki Blake’s round-up of this week’s biggest story, catch up on the rest of this month’s news with This Week In Games.