Indie studio MidBoss has quietly picked up the pieces after allegations of sexual harassment and wage theft emerged against its former CEO and founder Matt Conn. It’s now under the leadership of temporary CEO Cade Peterson, whose first order of business was to fix the studio’s internal problems. Recently, he has also spearheaded his first external initiative at MidBoss: the Queer Games Bundle, which is a partnership with other indie studios to promote LGBTQIA titles on the PC marketplace Steam.
After Conn stepped down from his role at both MidBoss and the nonprofit GaymerX Foundation, which he also founded, former GaymerX president Toni Rocca was slated to replace him. But when allegations swirled around her, she also left. The two companies both have new CEOs now and have severed ties with each other.
Understandably, MidBoss employees were concerned by the allegations as well as the leadership shakeup. Peterson says that his first move as CEO was to overhaul the company’s culture and reassure employees that no one would lose their jobs.
“I have a very different way of doing things, a very different personality, to Matt, for example,” said Peterson in a phone call with GamesBeat. “And I think that right away I got to the meat of the things that made people uncomfortable. From the working culture, the expectations of availability, just the general professionalism within the way we work, all that — it was very different, apparently.”
Former employees had criticized MidBoss for its lack of formal paperwork, no HR, and low wages. Under Peterson’s stewardship, the studio now employs the HR company Zenefits to handle payroll and human resources, and employees have undergone sexual harassment training. Some folks also brought up concerns about off-hour availability — Peterson says that several people told him that they felt like “they had to be ‘on’ all the time.”
“If they received a Slack message or a text at 3 a.m., they all felt like, gosh, I have to do this right now. I said, no, that’s not the case,” said Peterson. “We’re going to have general daytime hours. We’re going to have semi-flexible hours with a window of time we call ‘office hours.’ Whether you’re in the office or working remotely, you have to be online between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific, just because that allows collaboration to work better. Then, if you’re a full-timer, you do your other couple hours at leisure, so long as you get your work done. That allows the flexibility of collaboration, and also availability of everybody to each other.”
MidBoss creative director John James has been at MidBoss since 2012 and directed its cyberpunk adventure title 2064: Read Only Memories. He says that things seemed “dire” after the allegations against Conn emerged, but the changes Peterson has implemented has had positive effects on the studio’s environment and processes.
“Things are way more solid and official now in terms of how the payment system works. We went through sexual harassment training, which was interesting,” said James in a phone call with GamesBeat. “Generally, work-life balance is actually very balanced now. I feel like I actually have time to catch up on either reading or playing my backlog of games, or just having a bit more freedom, creatively, outside of work. As far as working with projects and stuff goes, things feel a bit more flexible and organized with timing and figuring out milestones.”
James has worked closely with Peterson on how the studio will move forward, particularly on how the team will tackle its newest game — which they’re keeping mum about for now — to make sure no one feels overextended. He’s trying to prevent scope creep and he wants to make sure everyone on the team knows and is comfortable with what their role is on the project.
“Something that was an issue whenever it came to the development of 2064 was that everything was happening all at once, at the same time, and it kind of stretched people thin,” said James. “What I want to do with this new project is try to do things in a very specific order. We need writing and pre-planning for this game done first. When we’re done with that we can figure out what assets we need for that and start building those out halfway through. Do we need music? Yes, OK, so halfway through or close to the end of the project we’ll get music and sound on board. Trying to do things in a very orderly fashion, as opposed to all at once, everything has to happen all at once.”
Since the allegations came out in March, MidBoss has been quiet on social media. Peterson says that he made the decision for “radio silence” until things in the studio were on the mend. Now the team is busy getting 2064: Read Only Memories ready for Nintendo Switch, and it also released limited edition physical copies of the game.
“During the period of all the chaos in April and May, I purposefully put a kibosh on it,” said Peterson. “When we had the limited run come out, that was the first reason to talk again. I had the team put together a social media post and art and support all that. We wanted to get that knocked out of the park, and it worked really well. We sold out of all of our limited run physical editions, both the standard and the collector editions, in like 60 seconds, which is amazing. That was a litmus test for me to feel like the community still wants us. We’ve been cautiously becoming more public with tweets and Facebook posts, and me in particular being more active in the Midboss Discord.”
In addition to a new game, MidBoss is also taking the first steps of an initiative to help promote queer games in general. Peterson reached out to several developers to see if they’d be interested in putting together a Steam bundle to help spread awareness and boost visibility of games that star queer characters. He contacted Valve, which was on board with the idea, and spent five or six weeks finalizing the idea. Fullbright cofounder Steve Gaynor advised on some of the business-related details, like how much of the bundle should be discounted.
The Queer Games Bundle is now live on Steam and will be 50 percent off until August 21. After that, it will stay up permanently at a 15 percent discount. It features MidBoss’s 2064: Read Only Memories, Fullbright’s Gone Home and Tacoma, Christine Love’s Ladykiller in a Bind, Lizard Hazard Games’ Your Royal Gayness, Sundae Month’s Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, and Sassybot’s Fragments of Him.
Some of the titles are fairly high profile — like Gone Home, which won Best Debut at the BAFTA Game Awards in 2014 — but Peterson says that a surprising number of people are still unfamiliar with them.
“I dropped [the bundle] into three or four Facebook gay gaming groups, there’s the L.A. one which is kind of big and I did the San Francisco one and there’s a couple of others that I did, and what’s funny is that two or three of the people who commented on the post in those places had never heard of these games,” said Peterson. “Gay people had never heard of some of the most well known gay-related games. And I was like, OK, I’m definitely onto something, this is vitally important to me.”
Steam bundles have a few advantages — for instance, if someone already owns one of the games, the service nixes it from their purchase and adjusts the price accordingly. But the biggest advantage is that all the titles in the Queer Games Bundle will cross-promote each other. Visiting one of the game’s pages will show that it’s part of a set, and this boosts visibility for all the titles.
“Each of our game pages is now promoting this bundle which in turn basically promotes all these other queer games and queer game developers,” said Peterson. “So we basically just created a new marketing channel for all of our games from each other games.”
Peterson is exploring other ways to promote queer games, whether that’s in other bundles or revisiting the current one and adding new titles. He doesn’t just want MidBoss to be a better studio in terms of the way it treats its employees; he wants it to be a bigger part of the community — and a platform for it as well.
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