#106: Just about managing

On Fullbright, Mountains and Funomena, and the perils of the indie auteur.

[Thanks for reading Hit Points! If this is your first time, then a hearty welcome to you. If you enjoy today’s edition, note that you can sign up for free to get this thrice-weekly look at the latest goings on in the game industry sent straight to your inbox. It also gets you access to the full Hit Points archive. Thanks, and enjoy!]

Last Friday, a new report from the increasingly essential investigative YouTube channel People Make Games dug deeper into previous reports of the working conditions at indie studios Fullbright Games and Mountains, whose problems were rooted in their respective founders, Steve Gaynor and Ken Wong. While researching the story, PMG’s Chris Bratt also discovered similar claims about Robin Hunicke’s leadership at Funomena.

Obviously this is all thoroughly depressing, and there’s a substantial part of me that would just like to file it away with all the other things I’d prefer not to think about — global pandemics, illegal wars, that bloke I still haven’t rung — and get on with my life. But the video did surface a few things that have been rattling around my brain ever since, and I think writing something down about them will help me sleep a little better at night. A problem shared, and all that.

Firstly comes a reminder of the universally relatable fact that being good at doing something does not mean you will be good at leading a group of people that do it. Ultimately this is a story of failed management — one that makes this month’s Max HP, about former Ubisoft Massive MD David Polfeldt’s leadership philosophy, even more pertinent. At the core of this lies a misunderstanding of how to treat people, how to motivate creative teams, and how to give feedback in a healthy, productive way. It is about, to paraphrase David, not being an asshole.

Secondly, none of us are flattered by pressure. Ken Wong was not, as far as we know, much of a problem in the making of the rapturously received Florence; I am aware of no distaste for Robin Hunicke during her time making Journey. Mountains’ planned follow-up to Florence, detailed in the PMG vid, was clearly overambitious, and its development has been deeply troubled. Funomena’s Wattam was years in the making and had been dropped by Sony before Annapurna picked it up. Even Fullbright went from being a superstar after Gone Home to just one of the crowd with Tacoma, which puts it firmly in Difficult Third Album territory with Open Roads. We are all at our best when the wind is at our backs. When a storm is raging, things are different.

Thirdly, all of the above cases, and that of Robin Hunicke in particular, show that it is possible to be an ally and an advocate, to think and say and believe in a number of good and correct things — and make games that truly reflect them — and not embody those values yourself. One of the developers PMG spoke to observed that people who know they are on the right side of an argument often fail to examine their own conduct, and I had to pause the video at that point and have a good think about it. Quite an eye-opener, that.

But if there’s one thing the game industry can learn from all this, it’s the perils of the auteur. Personally I think the relevance and utility of the concept is overstated in games anyway, but this shows how destructive it can be in small teams, where one person in a position of near-universal power has an outsize influence on the working conditions and mental states of those around them. This is particularly awkward for Annapurna, which has rather built its business around the very idea, and largely explains why it declined to intervene when, for instance, the staff around Ken Wong sought Annapurna’s support in removing him. Its deal was with Ken, after all. I can understand why it would see keeping him in post as the priority; likewise I expect it now recognises that things are a bit more complex and nuanced than that. I hope the rest of us do too.

And that is the purpose of these things: to highlight issues that, evidently, can affect even some of the game biz’s most respected people and companies, and to give us an opportunity to reflect, to adjust our ways if necessary, and ensure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to us. The point of investigations like PMG’s isn’t to ruin anyone’s careers, or put anyone out of business. Rather they exist to highlight just how far this wonderful, dynamic, fast-growing industry we all love still has to go. We are all making it up as we go along, every last one of us, and we should count ourselves lucky to be learning from someone else’s mistakes rather than our own.

Ah, that’s better. I’m off to bed. Must call that bloke tomorrow, though.


  • PlayStation has acquired Haven, the studio set up by Jade Raymond last year. This is quite a change of course for Sony, whose acquisition strategy to date has been about buying companies with whom it already has a long-standing relationship. While I have no reason to doubt Hermen Hulst’s claim that Raymond and co are doing great things, I reckon Sony’s desire to push into live-service stuff is equally, if not more important, likewise the extent to which all this consolidation has changed the landscape out there. You don’t really get to wait and see anymore.
  • It is GDC week and oh no, we’re trying cloud stuff again. Google has unveiled its white-label Stadia rebadge, Immersive Stream; Ubisoft has announced Scalar, a new cloud-computing platform designed to streamline development for internal teams and power “bigger and richer worlds”. Bigger? Oh god.
  • The Federal Trade Commission has requested further information from Microsoft and Activision Blizzard on the former’s proposed acquisition of the latter, as its investigation kicks into the expected higher gear. Meanwhile, Activision has advised shareholders to vote in favour of the acquisition in an advisory poll held next month, warning its stock price will “decline significantly” should the deal not go through. Nice stock portfolio you got there. Be a shame if something happened to it.
  • CD Projekt has announced that a new Witcher game is in development. No surprise and no further information, but this is more about recruitment (CDPR made a particular point of stressing that the project will be in UE5, which will be much easier to hire for than its proprietary RedEngine) and placating investors than building buzz, so fair enough.
  • Nintendo Switch finally has folders, courtesy of a new system software update. You would not believe how excited the eight-year-old was about this yesterday.
  • A raft of copyright strikes have put the Destiny #cahntent-creator community on edge. Bungie says it has nothing to do with it — pointing out that even some of its own videos have been removed — and says it is investigating.
  • Microsoft is the latest company to fall foul of the hacking group Lapsus$. The crew has already gone after Nvidia and Samsung.
  • EA has removed Diego Maradona from FIFA 22, which seems a bit harsh since he’s dead. Supposedly it’s a contract snafu, and only temporary (the removal, that is, not the death). The publisher has also delayed the new PGA Tour game, which was due to launch this spring, by a full year. A rather embarrassing week for CEO Andrew Wilson, then, though last I heard his emotion chip wasn’t scheduled to come online until 2024, so he’s probably fine.
  • Fortnite’s new season has begun with the building component being completely removed from the game. In keeping with this bold endeavour, Friday’s Hit Points will ship without words.

There we go! Forgive me the absence on Monday — I bashed out 700 words on something before realising I wasn’t sure I had a point. The luxury of a one-man show is you get to just ctrl-A and delete something every so often. I promise not to make too much of a habit of it.

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed this, please give it a share: while I’m sure it’s boring to be asked all the time, it really is the most important thing you can do to help Hit Points grow and survive. And if you’ve read this far then I assume you probably like it, right? Oh, and if you’re at GDC this week, I hope you’re mentioning it to everyone you meet, whether it fits the context of the conversation or not.

Another request for GDC pals: please sit in the sun and drink an Old Fashioned for me. I am spectacularly jealous.