Axios Gaming

Picture of a gaming controller.
May 12, 2022

Happy Thursday. I've been spending part of the last three weeks talking to a lot of people who've worked at Nintendo about some of their frustrations. The results take up most of today's newsletter.

Today's edition: 1,093 words, 4 minutes.

1 big thing: A worker reckoning at Nintendo

Animated gif of a white solidarity fist coming out of a Super-Mario-themed green pipe
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Workers at gaming giant Nintendo of America say the company’s reliance on temporary workers is exploitative.

Driving the news: Current and former Nintendo contractors have been speaking up over the past three weeks, since Axios first reported a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board against Nintendo and a contracting firm.

What they’re saying: “I loved what I did. I hated how I was treated,” a former contractor named Ash, who asked that their last name be kept private, tells Axios.

  • They worked in Nintendo’s customer service center for several years through 2015. Strict time-off rules for contractors and limited pathways to full-time employment added to stress that contractors could be dropped at any moment. That pressure, they said, aggravated a heart condition.
  • Ash says their moment of disillusionment came when their grandpa died: “I was told if I went to his funeral, I wouldn’t have a job when I came back.”

State of play: Ash’s story echoed those shared by seven other current and former contractors who spoke with Axios about their time at Nintendo.

  • Their accounts square with those published by gaming news sites Kotaku and IGN. Those outlets cited interviews with dozens of workers who say Nintendo treats its large contingent of contractors, technically employed by staffing firms, as second-class citizens.
  • These contractors fume about a status quo they believe was established to avoid violating labor laws: cycles of 10- or 11-month contracts that can be quickly cut short and are followed by two-month breaks, with expectations they’ll come right back.
  • They describe employees who log three, five, even 10 years of these cycles, without many of the benefits of full-timers, but are never converted to full-time.

The contractors’ stories center on Nintendo of America, the U.S. subsidiary of the Kyoto, Japan-based maker of Mario, Zelda and the Switch.

  • NoA, headquartered in Redmond, Washington, has for more than a decade supplemented its full-time labor force with hundreds of contractors, one longtime contractor estimates.
  • They largely work in its customer service and product-testing divisions but also populate nearly half of the team that translates and finesses the writing in Nintendo's games.

Nintendo hasn’t commented publicly about the uproar from its workforce and did not reply to questions from Axios.

  • On the Friday after contractors began speaking out, NoA president Doug Bowser sent an internal message to employees regarding “stories appearing in some media today about alleged working conditions at Nintendo.”
  • “Like many of you, the executive leadership team and I find many of these points troubling, and we are closely reviewing the content,” he wrote.
  • A current contractor in product testing told Axios they found the message disappointing, as it didn’t mention the contractor issue core to so many accounts.
  • (Kotaku had cited four sources saying the NLRB complaint stemmed from a worker being fired after asking about unionization, which Nintendo, in a public statement, denied.)

Between the lines: Nintendo of America’s use of contractors is somewhat typical of game companies and the wider tech industry.

  • But contractors are disappointed with Nintendo, a wealthy company that markets its penchant for putting smiles on faces.

Former Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé, who worked in senior positions at the company from 2013-19, told Axios that “what’s being described is not the NoA I knew.”

  • He said the company hired “a significant number” of contractors, or associates, into full-time roles during his tenure but added that he “truly understands” the frustration of those who haven’t been.

2. Chilling effect

Screenshot of a Super Mario bros. game, showing a character avoiding getting bitten by carnivorous plants
New Super Mario Bros Deluxe. Screenshot: Nintendo

Contractors at Nintendo of America claim efforts to bring about change within the company have been stymied by fear of reprisal.

Stymied activism: Contractors who spoke to Axios said they and their peers largely avoided pushing back against management, but two recalled a mid-2014 effort when a group of Nintendo customer service workers began meeting offsite to discuss ways to force change and possible unionization.

  • Those meetings ceased after their management at Nintendo-affiliated Parker Staffing found out about them. Two sources recalled getting an email from a Parker manager encouraging them and their colleagues to think of the company as a family and that organizing wasn’t necessary.
  • “It was union-bustering without technically being union-bustering,” a former contractor recalled.
  • Current contractors say union talk at the company is rare.

What’s next: Former Nintendo contractors hope recent revelations bring change. “If any change is going to happen, it’s going to have to be a bad publicity thing,” says one current contractor.

  • Workers have usually only vented more privately, including in a recently shuttered Facebook group called the Nintendo Recovery Center.
  • Former contractor Ash, who moderated the group, said it had a few hundred members but that they shut it down out of fear of drawing management’s attention.
  • “There’s a really strange and shared trauma between all of us,” they said.

3. Need to know

🤔 Crypto is struggling as top currencies crater in value, as my Axios colleague Javier David explains.

👩🏻‍⚖️ Game-grading firm Wata is the subject of a class-action lawsuit alleging manipulating prices in the retro game market, VGC reports.

📈 Konami just had record revenues for the past year, even as it has veered away from making sequels to some of its best-known franchises, such as Metal Gear, Eurogamer reports.

💰 Roblox revenue and daily user counts are up, but the company still lost $160 million in the first quarter of the year, MarketWatch reports.

🎮 BioWare contractors who are trying to unionize will no longer be required to return to the office, The Verge reports.

4. Big delays

Concept art of a futuristic train station with passengers waiting on a platform
Starfield. Concept art: Bethesda

Some of this year's biggest upcoming games are now set to be some of 2023's.

Driving the news: This morning, Microsoft and Bethesda said Starfield and Redfall, expected to be top Xbox exclusives late this year, would instead come out in the first half of 2023.

  • The teams cited the need to make the games good enough.
  • Microsoft gaming chief Phil Spencer also acknowledged that "we hear the feedback" about the platform's inconsistent release schedule, which continues to have large gaps.
  • Earlier this year, Nintendo delayed the sequel to The Legends of Zelda Breath of the Wild, its expected marquee late 2022 release, to 2023.

You might be feeling some déjà vu: The following games were once expected to be some of the biggest releases of 2021 ...

  • Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga
  • Destiny 2: Witch Queen
  • Hogwarts Legacy
  • Gotham Knights
  • Gran Turismo 7

But they all slipped to 2022.

The big picture: Game delays happen every year but are hitting even harder in the pandemic, as workflow disruptions compound the existing difficulties of making great games.

What's next: 2023's looking great.

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🐦 Find me on Twitter: @stephentotilo.

... And all that stuff keeps expanding. Yes, some of it made the asteroid belt. And even the rock that killed the dinosaurs.