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Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga has led to extensive crunch at TT Games

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In late 2017, development studio TT Games began work on Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga at a time when dozens inside the company were at odds with management. Citing frustration over tight development schedules, the company’s crunch culture, and outdated development tools, more than 20 current and former TT Games employees tell Polygon that calls for change over the years had largely been ignored.

Multiple people who worked at the studio remember breaking down outside of work hours because of the workload and some of the stresses they were under.

“It was a very soft-spoken blackmail,” one former employee says. “‘If people don’t start doing overtime, there’s going to be problems,’” although the problems were never specified.

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Some former staff even came up with a term to describe their experiences at the studio, referring to them as “PTTSD.”

With The Skywalker Saga — an adaptation of all nine main films in the Star Wars series — management promised employees a longer development timeline and a new engine. Unfortunately, this did little to improve the situation, according to employees. Multiple staffers say that management ignored warnings about switching to NTT, a new engine being developed internally, and say that the longer time frame was unsuccessful in alleviating crunch.

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Over the past few months, Polygon has spoken to more than 30 current and former TT Games employees, all of whom spoke anonymously due to nondisclosure agreements and a desire to avoid negative repercussions. They opened up about the studio’s challenging work culture over the last decade and a half and The Skywalker Saga’s difficult development cycle. Two years have passed since TT Games and publisher Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment announced The Skywalker Saga, and the game has been through three delays. Meanwhile, TT Games, which employs hundreds, has seen high staff turnover and has undergone a change in management since development on The Skywalker Saga began.

A giant machine walks through the forest

Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga screenshot
Image: TT Games/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

A Lego empire

The company’s challenges started well before The Skywalker Saga. According to staff, the culture of crunch at TT Games goes back to the company’s formation in 2005. That was when, following the success of Lego Star Wars: The Video Game, British game studio Traveller’s Tales acquired publisher Giant Interactive, forming what we know today as TT Games.

Over the years, TT Games has found tremendous success with its line of Lego games, producing well-reviewed titles that have sold millions of copies and won awards. These days, they are commonly referred to as some of the most family-friendly games available, due to their simple and approachable gameplay. But former employees say that the company’s decision to release new Lego games annually resulted in a culture of crunch.

Six former employees who worked under Jon Burton, co-founder and creative director at TT Games, say he would often yell at staff to return to their desks if they tried to leave work on time, and that he regularly expected employees to put in extra hours. Others, meanwhile, remember leads following employees out of the studio, to question their reasons for leaving and their loyalty to the job.

“A big problem was that crunch was premeditated,” says one former employee who worked at the studio under Burton. “It wasn’t an emergency protocol for when things went wrong. Instead, it was a tool in the box for production; projects were planned with crunch periods in the schedule, or even worse, crunch was the schedule. […] It was a regular occurrence because of the type of games we made: movie tie-ins, and kids’ stocking fillers. They all had deadlines dictated by a holiday event or the release of some film.”

In November 2007, Warner Bros. bought TT Games Group, which included the Knutsford, U.K.-based studio TT Games, the Wilmslow, U.K.-based TT Fusion (acquired in January 2007), and TT Centroid (which spun off into its own limited company in 2008). TT Games bought mobile game developer Playdemic in February 2017 — which it then sold to EA in June 2021 — and acquired mobile developer TT Odyssey in 2018.

Shortly after TT Games’ acquisition, in 2008, Warner Bros. held a companywide satisfaction survey to determine what people thought of the working conditions across the studios. According to two people who were working at TT Games then, the results were the lowest ratings Warner Bros. had received at the time.

“Jon told us [during a presentation] he was going to ‘hit the reset button’ in response to the survey results, and try to start fresh,” says a former employee. “He started by dropping some of the odd rules we had at the studio — disabling the internet firewall, and allowing people to answer phones at their desks — but nothing meaningful that addressed project timelines, low salaries, or the crunch culture. It was back to business as usual the following Monday.”

Reached for comment, Burton sent the following statement: “I can’t respond to these points as I have continuing obligations to TT that I don’t want to risk breaking (for example – confidentiality and non-disparagement).

“I can clarify a couple of things for you though. I founded the company [Traveller’s Tales] in 1989 and was owner of the company [TT Games] until I sold it to WB in 2007. I moved to California in 2013, at which point my job title first changed to Creative Executive, and then later to Creative Executive Advisor, and as you can imagine, any insight into the day to day running of the studio ended when I moved.”

Princess Leia points a gun at two stormtroopers

Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga screenshot
Image: TT Games/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Low morale

Twelve former employees say that conditions failed to improve after Burton’s move, with studio manager David Dootson (2013-2018) and his successor, studio manager and director Paul Flanagan (2018-2020), maintaining an atmosphere where overtime was expected.

According to sources who worked at TT Games over the last two decades, overtime at the studio was always presented as voluntary and paid. The company had systems in place for calculating, monitoring, and paying out overtime. Starting in 2010, though, overtime at TT Games was split between two types for every employee: “flexitime” and overtime. Department leads were responsible for determining which hours were which, based on workloads and milestones.

Employees could exchange overtime hours worked for extra pay or days off, while flexitime hours could be exchanged only for late starts or extra holiday. Flexitime also had a 40-hour cap, according to staffers. This meant that employees could hit the limit and not get any benefit for hours they were putting in beyond it, if there was still work that they needed to stay behind and finish.

Several employees say it was extremely difficult to turn down working additional hours. In some cases, employees were warned about consequences if they didn’t pull their weight and told that they were letting others down if they chose not to work, while in other cases, staff felt compelled to take on additional overtime to bolster their salary. Half a dozen staffers told us it was not uncommon to work 80-100 hours, six days a week, while crunching.

The expectations didn’t impact every department in the same way, with sources saying that programmers, visual effects, and animation were among some of the worst teams hit, as well as contractors who were told about full-time employment opportunities and asked to prove themselves. According to staff, this didn’t just impact TT Games’ Knutsford studio, but also TT Fusion, which has developed its own titles, like Lego Jurassic World, Lego City Undercover, and Lego The Incredibles, in addition to working on console ports, cutscenes, and quality assurance for the company at large.

Multiple former QA testers for TT Fusion, who worked at the company over the last decade, say that working conditions at that studio were among the worst they had ever experienced in the games industry, with crunch and bullying between staff being commonplace. They say QA was treated as “less than the development team” and kept separate from other departments. QA staffers weren’t allowed to access other floors without supervision, which was a policy the company had implemented to control leaks after a QA tester tweeted an image of a redesigned Wii U GamePad ahead of the console’s release. This had the consequence of preventing QA from visiting HR discreetly, and also made it difficult for programmers to contact specific QA testers if they needed more information about a particular bug.

“The mood at [the Knutsford studio] was always rock bottom,” says a former employee. “People were worn out, worked down, mentally and physically ill because of the pressure. TT always said, ‘We’re going to change,’ but we all knew it was never gonna happen. It was always a case of, Just one more game and then we do it differently.”

Other sources say that the two TT studios were also a hostile environment for women to work at, with female staff being subjected to bullying, comments about their appearance, and withheld promotions and contracts. Some speaking for this story highlighted the studio’s gender pay gap, and the number of women in senior roles, with reports showing that women were paid less than their male counterparts on average and held significantly fewer senior roles.

The pay gap is not a problem isolated to TT Games, with many of the top game makers in the U.K., including Rockstar Games, Codemasters, and Sumo Digital, all reporting that women working at their companies earn less hourly pay on average than men. TT Games, however, ranks among the worst game studios in the U.K. for women in the top quartile of pay. The latest report, with a snapshot date of April 5, 2020, says that women at TT Games represent only 2.4% of the highest-paid employees and only 8.7% of employees in the upper middle hourly pay quarter.

A ship flies over a snowy landscape

Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga screenshot
Image: TT Games/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Unreal expectations

From crunch to mistreatment allegations, many of the issues at TT Games came to a head during the development of The Skywalker Saga. One reason why: Around the time the project kicked off in late 2017, management made the unpopular decision to develop the game on a new engine called NTT.

Sources tell Polygon that employees inside the studio had been pushing hard for TT to switch to the Unreal Engine, with a small group even creating a Lego Star Wars test in the software. This was well received internally by those who saw it, according to both current and former staff, but management decided to continue developing the project on NTT, in an attempt to avoid paying engine licensing costs — Lego games often ship on a large number of platforms, and each of those adds to the expense. This was despite warnings about some of the problems NTT might cause.

“Everyone was like, ‘We have new programmers, why are we not using this technology?’” says one former employee. “We have all this crazy technology, Unreal is [charging lower fees] than ever before on their stuff, and people know how to use Unreal. Why are we not using this technology instead of creating something that is unfinished and being forced into production and is going to give really terrible final results?”

Members of the team say that in practice, when they got their hands on NTT, it was unstable and missing features. Tasks like adding animations that would take two minutes in the old engine could take 10 minutes or longer this time around, depending on how many times the engine crashed. It also resulted in hours of work vanishing if the engine didn’t save properly. New engines typically arrive with teething issues, but several former employees wondered why the company had taken this risk on such a high-profile project.

To add to this, staff say that much of the pre-production on The Skywalker Saga had been done with the old engine in mind. That created problems when trying to implement the game’s design, as assets and animation had to be reexported and reintegrated. According to some staffers, the struggles with the new engine were the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Several team members took their concerns to TT Games managing director Tom Stone to inform him about the low morale at the studio, the issues with NTT, and other problems they saw within the company. Stone responded by holding a series of meetings where anyone could voice their feedback about the company.

“Essentially, someone communicated to Tom that [the mood inside the studio] wasn’t great,” says a former employee. “So Tom got half of the studio into one meeting and half the studio into a second meeting, and essentially split people off into groups so they could talk about what they liked and disliked about the studio. And at the end of the day, you just see this huge list of terrible things and this tiny crop of good things on the left. And he’s gotten this feedback from multiple groups.”

Reached for comment, Stone said, “I noticed towards the end of 2017/the beginning of 2018 – I definitely felt things were not right. I can tell you now I had no reports of bullying. No one ever came to me and said, ‘I have been bullied or I have been discriminated against or I’ve been picked on.’ No one ever said that. People said it’s tough working here, we work long hours, and people don’t communicate with us. But also to give it balance we had plenty of people, even the same people, say, ‘I absolutely love being here and I love working on Lego games.’ […]

“I said that I wanted to know everything that was going on, but I didn’t want it to be just about, ‘Well that’s wrong, that’s wrong, and that’s wrong’. I wanted them to say, ‘Well, why do you come to work?’ ‘What inspires you?’ ‘How do you feel about making Lego games?’ ‘What do you think about the environment?’ ‘What do you think about the atmosphere in the office?’ ‘How are you all?’ It was that.”

After these meetings, employees say TT Games offered new contracts to staff, which gave them more holidays and a higher percentage of a bonus at the end of the year. But more than 10 current and former employees say little else changed inside the company during this time period, and that the problems with NTT, and the fractured relationship between management and staff, still remained. Stone left the company the next year to pursue other opportunities.

Chewbacca looks around in the forest

Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga screenshot
Image: TT Games/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

The biggest Lego game yet

Beyond NTT, former staff also told Polygon about other issues with The Skywalker Saga’s development, including feature creep. They say management told employees early on that The Skywalker Saga was supposed to mark changes in the company’s working conditions, but it eventually grew into what many now refer to as TT Games’ biggest project yet, with management coining the phrase “strive for 85” to refer to the game’s potential Metacritic score — the company’s highest Metacritic score at present is 83 for Lego Marvel Superheroes on PS4. This, they say, required staff to be in and out of overtime for years to achieve the company’s ambitions.

Former staff members say that constant revisions to the design were not uncommon throughout development, and that this resulted in months of lost work. Among these was a new 27-hit combat tree, which was removed after focus tests said that users were only using one button to fight with.

“The director would request new mechanics on a whim, then ask that they be changed, whilst never actually fixing anything that really mattered,” says one former employee. “Read every review of a Lego game. They always say the same [things]: ‘Platforming is pants, the camera is terrible, no online co-op.’ So let’s add a God of War-style combat tree! 5-year-olds will love it.”

Sources also say that despite the importance of The Skywalker Saga, the studio always had multiple projects going at one time, and that staff were often moved around, putting more pressure on those that remained on the Star Wars game.

“A lot of staff got taken off the game [in early 2020] to focus on another project,” says a former staff member. “This made zero sense to me at the time. For example, Star Wars got taken down to about six artists to see it through to the end, but there were still thousands of bugs to work through and feedback to be done. It made zero sense to take any staff off Star Wars, let alone most of them.”

As a result of NTT struggles and feature creep, many sources are not surprised that The Skywalker Saga has taken almost five years.

Regarding the development of The Skywalker Saga and its delays, a spokesperson for TT Games provided this statement: “Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, is the most ambitious title the studio has ever undertaken. The team is determined to deliver a wonderful Lego experience to our players, and we are giving the game the time it needs to deliver on that aspiration. We greatly appreciate the support and understanding from our fans.

R2-D2 stands in the desert

Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga screenshot
Image: TT Games/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Under new management

Throughout 2020, TT Games made a number of changes to its upper management. In March 2020, the company appointed former Sony Worldwide Studios vice president Michael Denny as vice president and studio head. Then, in August 2020, TT Games head of technical design Martin Palmer left the company. Studio director Paul Flanagan departed shortly afterward, in October; in July 2021, he joined 10:10 Games, a studio formed by Jon Burton, one of the co-founders of the original Traveller’s Tales.

When reached for comment about his time at TT and his reasons for leaving, Flanagan said, “Given the seniority of my position whilst at TT it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the day to day running of the studio, any decisions that were made or how they were decided. Regarding my departure, I left TT over a year ago now after just over 16 amazing years and am now focused on building a new studio at 10:10 Games.”

Since his arrival, Denny has been a divisive figure at TT. While some see him as someone trying to fix TT’s historical problems, including excessive crunch and a lack of diversity, others have criticized some of his choices as studio head for not seeming to match up to his aspirations.

Chief among these is the hiring of his former Sony colleagues Eric Matthews and Mark Green, as director of game development and head of game, respectively, in 2021. This was controversial inside TT, as the roles weren’t widely advertised within the company, which some staffers argue prevented more diverse candidates from applying. Following these hires, head of design Arthur Parsons, a TT veteran, also ended up leaving the studio in April.

The departures of Parsons and Flanagan were met with a mixed reception. Some saw it as a fresh start and a way for the studio to finally address some of the issues it had long ignored, while others were just as critical of the direction of the new management.

We’ve confirmed that at least 40 employees have left TT Games and TT Fusion since the start of 2021. According to two high-ranking sources, the company employs more than 400 staff across the two studios. (Warner Bros. and TT declined to provide exact numbers.) Over 15 of the current and former employees Polygon spoke to say they’re disappointed with management’s vision for the future, and its decision to focus solely on Lego projects. Management has overhauled the new concepts team inside TT Games, a group that had originally been set up to future-proof the studio should it ever lose the Lego license but has now been retooled into focusing exclusively on Lego. This concerned the staffers, as many have become increasingly aware of Lego’s interest in working with other studios — including with independent developers, like Light Brick Studio on Lego Builder’s Journey, and mobile studios, like Red Games on Lego Brawls, as well as Gameloft on Lego Legacy: Heroes Unboxed and Lego Star Wars Castaways.

Current and former TT staff also see parallels between what is happening at the company and what Polygon reported was happening at Sony Manchester, with Matthews and Green micromanaging all aspects of design.

A spokesperson for TT Games did not answer specific questions about the company’s issues, but provided us with the following statement about its current work culture: TT Games is committed to creating a respectful, fair and inclusive workplace for every employee. There have been many efforts in recent years, with new studio leadership and the support of Warner Bros. Games, to nurture a collaborative culture and work-life balance our employees can be proud of. Our legacy of delighting fans with the games we have created over the years is very important to us. We recognize our continued and future success relies on sustaining the momentum of the positive changes we have made to date, ensuring every employee feels supported, appreciated and experiences a true sense of belonging.

Meanwhile, a number of senior staffers who have left TT over the last two years have since joined Flanagan at 10:10 Games. This includes former lead lighting artist Leon Warren, former lead technical designer James Lay, and former senior programmer Robert Nicholds, among others. But 10:10 doesn’t account for everyone who has left TT Games, with many others joining studios elsewhere in the U.K.

Over the last few months, we have heard of some positive steps at TT. Multiple sources close to the company say TT will no longer be using NTT on future projects, finally agreeing to switch to Unreal Engine, which some view as a potential step forward. Current employees also say that in the last few months, the company has started paying closer attention to, and limiting, the amount of overtime that staff can work.

As for The Skywalker Saga, a mixture of current and former employees say that they expect the finished results — currently scheduled for early 2022 — to satisfy fans, but they wonder why the staff had to endure so much to get to that point.

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