This Space For Sale(s)
In a special investigation, we dive deep into the current culture at Nintendo of America, where many employees are increasingly frustrated by treatment of contractors and lack of support amid growing demand.
I wasn't sure whether this needed a thread on this site, but having read the article, I do think it's important to discuss. To be clear, poor working conditions among contract employees is not just a Nintendo problem or even a game industry problem. Nevertheless, IGN's reporting finds some interesting details about how the working conditions for NoA contractors have changed over the years, and how NoA has increasingly placed a focus on contractors rather than hiring full time employees, and made converting a contract to a full time job a -- no pun intended -- pipe dream.
I applaud IGN and other outlets who have done some actual journalism (rare in this industry) to bring these important issues to the public consciousness.
On the workplace environment for NoA contractors:
In contrast to the ultra-modern facilities nearby, many of the workers are toiling away on outdated equipment and software, with software that looks like it’s running on Windows XP and a database that dates back to the 90s. Until just a few years ago, it was still possible to find bins of old VHS tapes filled with bug recordings in the PTD area. Secrecy, constant software crashes, and the ever-present need for translation of messages from the Japanese headquarters frequently slows work to a crawl.
A large percentage of the workers inhabiting this building are contractors, many of whom increasingly see themselves as second-class citizens with no hope of earning one of the coveted red badges that can grant them unfettered access to the building just across the way (or even just the soccer pitch, which is also off-limits). That building doesn’t just represent more comfort; it stands for job security, career progression, and even a basic professional respect that many contractors don’t feel in their day-to day life at the company.
On the stressors contractors face on the job:
They talk about the bureaucracy involved with being a contractor at NOA, describing how they would have to account for virtually every minute of their day on a timesheet, breeding paranoia about leaving their desk for even a minute lest Microsoft Teams mark them as idle. At one point, tired and ill amid a strict schedule, they attempted a tried-and-true trick from The Simpsons — using a household item to depress the insert key to keep the idle message from appearing.
"It was like Homer with the bird, except I didn't cause any problems at the Nuclear Plant... You couldn't even really go to the bathroom without someone noticing you were away from your desk," they remember.
At Nintendo of America, many employees are paranoid about posting on social media lest they be reprimanded or even fired. Translators are a constant feature of life as messages are translated and re-translated. Taking time off can be frowned upon and viewed as putting more of a burden on your teammates. Sick days include fervent apologies and promises to be in touch.
On Nintendo's ongoing shift away from full time employment to contractors:
Speaking with a dozen current and former full-time employees and contractors at Nintendo of America across several departments, the picture that emerges is of a company that has steadily become more heavy-handed and restrictive despite the ongoing success of the Switch, particularly in matters like the recent closure of the Redwood City office. Nintendo was contacted for comment on these reports but did not respond by press time.
It has made the perceived reluctance to hire new full-time employees a flashpoint within NOA. Despite the careers site currently listing more than 100 jobs, the perception is that there’s no path for contractors to become a full-time employee. Instead, NOA is seen to be relying more and more on an army of perma-temps who are treated as second-class citizens despite being full-time employees in all but name.
“Nintendo is a very big and complicated and secretive company. And that's what kind of causes the problem," the current contractor says. "Each contractor starts with the hope they will become a regular employee, and very, very, very few people do.”
Most employees IGN spoke with agree that NOA culture started to shift around 2015. It was a particularly tumultuous period in Nintendo's history, noted for the struggles of the Wii U and the sudden death of CEO Satoru Iwata. It was a sharp contrast to the opening of the new NOA headquarters just five years before, when the company was still enjoying the double success of the Nintendo DS and Nintendo Wii — two of the biggest bets in Nintendo history.
On how things changed around 2015:
Jenn, who also rejoined the company after an extended break in 2015, echoes these sentiments.
"Just before I came back, I actually got a call from a manager who said, 'Listen, we want you back'... But she was like, ‘Things have changed here. Things have changed a lot. And you need to know we’re evolving into a new kind of call center.’ And I was kind of worried about that, because when I worked there it was a very family atmosphere, it was a lot of fun. Some of the managers from then are my personal friends today," she says.
What she discovered was that the opportunities to gain full-time employment had largely dried up, and that she herself was taking on more and more responsibility. Meanwhile, she says, NOA continued to dangle the possibility of finally earning an elusive red badge.
On how an increased reliance on contract staff affects even full-time employees negatively, and decreases productivity overall:
“It’s just like throwing bodies at things,” our source says. "It just seemed like the full-time staff was almost drowning all the time. They didn’t hire enough full-time people, so full-time people just ended up managing more and more contractors, getting more and more bogged down, and there was this bottleneck... That’s how contractors end up training each other, because the full-time staff is just buried.”
On one contractor's treatment when applying for a coveted full-time position:
After years of pursuing a full-time position at NOA, she finally gave up after being declined a position. Jenn had been earlier forced to return home in the midst of the interview process due to the death of her sister, leading the interviewer to tell her that she had “attendance issues.”
Reflecting on one's time at Nintendo as a contractor after moving on:
it was only after departing Nintendo and finding a job that offered her what she describes as "three times as much money for much less work" that she was able to properly reflect on her time at Nintendo.
“You don’t know that you live on the death planet until you leave the death planet,” she says. “[After] my 10 years there, I was very disappointed at the end. I was very disappointed that I didn’t get the dream job…I would have worked for Nintendo forever if I could.
“We loved working there, we were just being so exploited. We didn’t really realize it until we left…At Nintendo I did it out of passion and a love of the product, and they know that there’s a line out the door of people who will do exactly that for dog food. And that’s the sad part. They know that if you complain and you don’t want to be there, they can let you go and hire the next Jenn.
“And that’s what frustrated me in the end,” she says. “I didn’t know I was on death planet until I left death planet.”