Fullbright: Toxic working conditions - Gone Home studio co-founder resigns

Fullbright: Toxic working conditions - Gone Home studio co-founder resigns


Yesterday evening a message from the team was published on the Twitter account of Open Roads - the new game from developer Fullbright - which states, among other things, that Fullbright wants to promote a "healthy and collaborative work environment". Therefore, co-founder Steve Gaynor is no longer employed as creative lead and manager. Instead, Gaynor will be involved as a writer on Open Roads in the future.

Shortly after the statement, more details about what happened at Fullbright were shared in a comprehensive report by Polygon. Since the start of the development of Open Roads in 2019, fifteen employees are said to have left the studio. In the report, twelve ex-employees spoke about their experiences. All of them state that Steve Gaynor's behavior towards employees (especially women) was at least in part a reason for leaving Fullbright. One of the employees told Polygon that it felt like "working for the mean girl in high school." Gaynor is said to have laughed at the opinions of employees and then publicly embarrassed them in front of colleagues.

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"Hello everyone. [...] At the beginning of the year, I stepped down from my role as Creative Lead of Open Roads. My leadership style was for hurting the people at Fullbright and I really want to apologize for that. My resignation showed me how to change my role and what I need to learn and improve as part of a team - that includes working with a management consultant and one Rethinking my relationship with working at Fullbright. I care about Open Roads and the Fullbright team. I'm sad that I had to step back [...] from day-to-day business, but it was the right thing to do. The Open Roads team has my full confidence and support in completing the game. "

Source: Polygon

How the founder’s toxic culture tore apart Fullbright, the studio behind Gone Home

a house in the dark © Image: Fullbright

Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor, known for his work on Gone Home and Tacoma, has stepped down from his role as creative lead on Open Roads following multiple allegations regarding his treatment of Fullbright staff.

Development on Open Roads, which was announced in December 2020 and expected to star Keri Russel (The Americans) and Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), is behind schedule. Fifteen employees left the studio since development on Open Roads began in 2019; around six staff members remain. Speaking with Polygon, 12 former employees said their departure was at least in part due to Gaynor’s behavior toward workers, specifically women on the team. At least 10 of the employees who left since Open Roads production began were women.

Multiple former employees, who spoke with Polygon anonymously out of fear of retaliation, described the Fullbright work environment as “controlling,” a place in which staffers felt undermined and demeaned by Gaynor. Because of Gaynor’s status as the co-founder of a beloved indie darling, some former employees say they were worried about being blacklisted from the industry — though some ended up leaving the industry entirely, anyway. These former employees said they did not experience or witness sexual harassment or explicit sexism; instead, they said, the studio’s toxic culture hid behind the veneer of inclusivity, as women were allegedly repeatedly broken down by microaggressions.

A Fullbright representative confirmed to Polygon that Gaynor stepped down in March due to the “pattern of women leaving” the company. “Steve stepped down in March 2021 after it became clear that the steps that were already being taken to improve his interactions with the team were only yielding temporary results,” the representative said. “More drastic action was needed for the health of the team.”

The representative also noted that “Annapurna is aware of the situation at Fullbright and has been instrumental in helping the Open Roads team make changes to its structure.” A representative for Annapurna told Polygon it supports the Open Roads team. Gaynor did not respond to Polygon’s request for comment.

Fulbright has always been a small independent studio. Just four people — three of which were studio co-founders — created Gone Home (2013), a BAFTA award-winning narrative game that influenced the industry. For the studio’s next game, Tacoma (2017), the number of staffers increased by more than double. Following the success of these two games, Fullbright continued to grow, taking on more employees and contractors.

In the development of Open Roads, Fullbright partnered with publisher Annapurna Interactive, which provided full funding and additional support staff. The number of core Fullbright employees remained under 20 at any given time. Former employees described the studio at that time as close-knit and supportive of each other. They took pride in creating games that resonated with marginalized people, like Gone Home, a coming-of-age story about a teenage lesbian. But at the same time, former employees say they also felt stifled by Gaynor’s “controlling” and “demeaning presence” — someone who allegedly saw Open Roads not as the team’s game, but as his game. That he, himself, was Fullbright.

On Twitter, at least, Gaynor “was” Fullbright for quite some time: He held the @Fullbright Twitter account as his personal handle for over a decade. When he stepped down from his position as creative lead, sources said he was required to change his Twitter account to @SteveGaynorPDX. The @Fullbright account now serves as a placeholder, and the studio now uses @FullbrightGames for official updates. A Fullbright representative confirmed to Polygon that “employees were uncomfortable with the official Fullbright account doubling as Steve’s personal Twitter account.”

Women in leadership positions told Polygon that they experienced constant micromanagement that made it difficult for them to do their jobs, having to get even the smallest details approved by Gaynor. This was compounded, they said, by Gaynor’s tendency to disparage and discredit the contributions of female staffers in particular, oftentimes directly to leadership. Some of the former female staffers said they often worried about how Gaynor characterized them to other employees.

“This is going to sound like a joke, but I’m completely serious: Working for him often felt like working for a high school mean girl,” one former employee in a leadership position told Polygon. “His go-to weapon was to laugh at people’s opinions and embarrass them in front of other people.”

Six other former employees corroborated this characterization.

Employees told Polygon that they had wanted to report Gaynor’s behavior but had no actual process to do so. The company had no dedicated human resource employees, other than the occasional third-party consultant. “There’s no infrastructure to escalate,” a former employee said. Several former employees said they confronted Gaynor directly while they were still employed at Fullbright, telling him their concerns about how they believe his behavior negatively impacted the staff.

“How do we ensure we are creating an environment that results in women feeling respected. HR, accountability, training, something needs to change?”

One former employee said she approached Gaynor after reading a GamesIndustry.biz report regarding Season developer Scavengers Studio. She told Polygon she saw similarities between Scavenger Studio creative director Simon Darveau and Gaynor. (While the allegations regarding Darveau include sexual harassment and groping, no claims of physical conduct have been made against Gaynor.) The former employee said she warned Gaynor that a similar report could eventually surface about him.

“[The team was] already in consultation training for communication for the team due to [another former employee] quitting because of him,” she said. “And I told him, I have these concerns. When I read this article, I saw a lot of parallels. Not one-to-one, but a lot of parallels.”

She said she told Gaynor that she was struggling to commit to Open Roads because she was worried the game would be canceled if an article came out about him. “I did expect it to be an emotional discussion,” she told Polygon. “I don’t think that’s something anyone ever wants to hear.”

Gaynor told her that publisher Annapurna came to him to ask about Fullbright’s attrition problem — particularly, that women were leaving the company on what seemed like a monthly basis. The next day, the employee who had approached Gaynor said he sent her with a link to a Wikipedia article on “availability heuristics.” On Wikipedia, availability heuristics is described as “a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision.”

“He sent me the link [...] to explain to me that when there’s a shark attack on the news, people start to get more scared that they might get attacked by a shark,” she said. “So I wasn’t actually valid in worrying that we could have an article about his behavior.” She reported this interaction to the consultant, who reportedly said that Steve’s impact did not match his intent.

Employees found other ways to raise these concerns. Several left anonymous digital Post-It notes on the company server as part of a “team building exercise” in late 2020, helmed by a third-party consultant to help communication on the team. “This sprint marks the 4th woman to leave Fullbright in the last year,” one employee wrote. “How do we ensure we are creating an environment that results in women feeling respected. HR, accountability, training, something needs to change. We all have a part to play in creating a safe working environment, change doesn’t happen without discomfort.”

Other employees used exit interviews to report the studio culture that they said Gaynor perpetuated. (Exit interviews were conducted as a series of questions sent to departing staff, reviewed by department leads.) At least two employees reached out to Annapurna directly. “My personal experience of having Steve as my manager was a toxic and unhealthy dynamic,” this former employee wrote in a correspondence to Annapurna that was reviewed by Polygon. “I can confidently say that I do not want my career to be associated with him.”

Another employee, in a letter to Annapurna, described it as “the worst professional experience [she’d] had in games.”

Other former employees spoke about how they felt the behavior at Fullbright was dangerous. Fullbright, with games like Gone Home and Tacoma that focus on female characters, tends to attract women as prospective employees. It’s a studio that’s perceived to be inclusive and friendly to groups of people who have historically been marginalized. It’s a studio that amplifies these voices rather than stifling them — at least when it comes to its games and the stories they tell. People might expect a toxic culture at triple-A studios, but not at a studio like Fullbright, former employees recalled. Yet these allegations were reported consistently, and, because of it, the studio has lost a large portion of its staff over the years, they said.

Following the mass exodus of Fullbright employees in 2020 and 2021, the leads remaining at the company were tasked with hiring new employees. Two sources told Polygon that they were hesitant to hire the qualified, talented women who applied for the roles out of fear for how they’d be treated by Gaynor. Former employees had seen what they perceived as a pattern of young women, early in their careers, being broken down by their time under Gaynor at Fullbright — Multiple sources told Polygon they feared that even more promising talent would be driven out of the industry, like the others.

Some former employees described themselves as “changed” following their time at Fullbright. Many have questioned their abilities, describing their experience with Gaynor as having been “gaslit,” and have sought out therapy to deal with the trauma associated with development on Open Roads and company culture. Former employees in leadership described “intense guilt” in leaving the company, “leaving [the] team to fend for themselves.”

“I want women to not have to fear retaliation from a powerful ‘auteur’ figure for speaking up.”

“[We] were constantly acting as a buffer between Steve and the rest of the team just so they could actually get any sort of work done without being pulled into hours of meetings where everything was nitpicked to death or ultimately reversed.”

With so few employees left at Fullbright, the state of Open Roads now looks challenged. In January, Gaynor told Polygon that Open Roads was expected out in 2021. Several former employees told Polygon they believe there’s no way that will happen, noting that production timelines had been disrupted by convoluted decision-making processes and the constant state of flux within Fullbright’s staff. A Fullbright representative told Polygon that the game will not be out in 2021.

Although Gaynor is no longer a creative lead on Open Roads, he is still working on the game as a writer. He currently has no day-to-day collaboration with the rest of the team. Instead, Annapurna Interactive is operating as a mediator between the studio developers and Gaynor, as development continues with a fraction of the company. Multiple former employees expressed concern that Gaynor was even operating in this capacity — that it was weird for a man to be writing a story about a mother and daughter, particularly a man that has allegedly demeaned several female employees.

Despite the bad experiences that multiple former employees described to Polygon, many also said they still felt passionate about the stories Fullbright has been able to tell when other major studios weren’t doing so. But they often felt conflicted given the low morale at the studio and the effect it had on developers who worked on these games.

“It turns my stomach to think that he still gets to write these games about women’s stories when this is how he treats them in real life, with presumably no sign of stopping,” one former employee said. “I want women in the industry and this studio to feel valued. I want vulnerable young women who are new to the industry to be supported, not preyed upon. I want women to not have to fear retaliation from a powerful ‘auteur’ figure for speaking up. I want women to feel safe here. I want women to know that this is not normal. More than anything, I just want him to stop. He shouldn’t be allowed to keep getting away with this.”

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