Kotaku spoke to employees and former employees of State of Decay 3 developer Undead Labs to find out where they’re headed after Microsoft’s acquisition.
Undead Labs has carved out a niche for itself in the gaming world with its State of Decay offering, which has raised player expectations for the third instalment. Recent news about the game includes support for the development studio and a new signing for the team. In addition, after the acquisition by Microsoft, it seemed that the studio had sufficient resources to develop the game without any significant problems, but the new information suggests that it is not just a lack of material.
Sources cite an “inconsistent” development system
Kotaku was able to speak with 12 current and former Undead Labs employees, and it was revealed that the studio has fallen into a state of collapse in the wake of the mentioned Microsoft acquisition. “The testing team worked really hard, pointing out all the bugs and trying to fix them,” explains one former employee, “but the executives ignored those concerns and said things like ‘Don’t log multiplayer bugs’ to show artificial progression [in State of Decay 3].”
“The development milestones were a bunch of features that felt more like they were put there so that we could check them off the list”, – an Undead Labs employee
“The development milestones consisted of a bunch of disjointed features that weren’t about making a fun game, but rather about checking items off a list.” If this problem holds back the team’s progress, employees also point to a lot of negativity and friction with some colleagues. According to Kotaku sources, “this friction is compounded by discrimination against female employees, non-binary and other marginalised groups.”
“When I interviewed Lab [Undead Labs] staff, I was presented with the idea that it was a studio in transition, prioritising diversity, equity and inclusion,” explains a former employee. “The studio was really about executives painting a DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) face for Microsoft while women were constantly ignored, dismissed, silenced and blamed.”
“Women were constantly ignored, dismissed, silenced and blamed.”- Undead Labs employee
This is followed by various statements reporting experiences that women’s roles in the studio were minimised to that of negotiators or that they were dismissed on basic things like their knowledge of video games. In response, Kotaku contacted various officials at Undead Labs to get their take on their recent track record in this area, with a high rate of hiring of women, non-binary people and other groups.
It was this environment that led to the arrival of Anne Schlosser, the first head of people and culture, who was introduced as coming in to update the company’s practices. However, Kotaku sources remember her as a woman who did little for her colleagues. “There was a man on the SoD3 team who was incredibly sexist, and Anne did nothing about it,” says one former employee. “There was a manager on the Technical Art team who was awful, and Anne took his side.”
“It was total chaos. People left and were replaced by younger people” – former Undead Labs employee
Anne, for her part, defends herself against the accusations by highlighting her achievements at the studio: “Before I left Undead Labs in a routine reorganisation, I introduced a new hiring practice that increased the diversity of the staff by over 30%. Female, LGBTQ+ and BIPOC colleagues thrived in both leadership and individual contributor roles while I worked at Undead Labs.”
Schlosser’s departure did not improve the working environment, which continued to drag on development problems both with the progress of projects and the constant turnover of staff: ‘They were constantly piling on more and more features for more and more demos’, says one former developer, ‘It was total chaos. People were leaving and being replaced by younger people. […] Even when the coding experts explained to a vendor that ‘No, this doesn’t work at all’, they ignored the comment and added new features by the deadline.”
On the other hand, several sources would have welcomed some cooperation from Microsoft, which has so far claimed to have complete confidence in the Undead Labs project:
“There was no visible result of [Microsoft’s] support,” recalls a former employee. “From my point of view, nothing got better, and things just got worse.”
Kotaku contacted Microsoft directly to find out what the working environment was like for the developer. From here, the outlet was told that all Microsoft studios follow a practice of inclusion and respect and that “Undead Labs has seen many positive changes over the past few years, and we’re confident in the direction the team is taking in the development of State of Decay 3, one of our most ambitious open-world games.”
It seems that Kotaku has uncovered yet another contradiction in the video game development industry, adding to what is already known about Irrational Games or Activision Blizzard’s well-known problems. For the time being, we’ll have to wait and see how this conflict situation develops, which, as is evident, could affect both the mental health of the team and the progress of State of Decay 3.