Quantic Dream has had a couple of years of nightmare publicity surrounding its alleged “toxic culture.” From the company’s perspective, the French game studio has been the victim of unjust slander perpetrated by sensationalist media outlets. And from the perspective of a few French journalists and one of its accusers, it’s the company’s leadership that’s the problem.
That’s a sad state of affairs for the Parisian game studio that David Cage and Guillaume de Foundaumiere lead. Their company has won 250 awards for games since its founding in 1997. Quantic Dream has created deeply emotional stories that elevate video games to an art form, such as The Nomad Soul, Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, and Detroit: Become Human. On the strength of that history, NetEase invested in Quantic Dream earlier this year, and the studio announced it would move beyond Sony’s PlayStation consoles to self-publish games on different game platforms.
But this success allegedly came at a cost, as three publications reported on an internal dispute at the company a couple of years ago. After the completion of one investigation, a French labor court cleared the company of the most serious accusations and any large financial liability related to them. And Cage is now speaking extensively via email with GamesBeat about the facts and outcome of the case so far. Quantic Dream’s own defamation lawsuits against media outlets that wrote about the alleged toxic culture are still pending, and a hearing was postponed (as a result of French labor protests) until 2021.
The dispute centers on one incident, but the open question is what it’s actually like to work at the company. Media outlets reported that the company had a toxic culture based on interviews with a number of current and former employees, while Cage said that third-party investigators have found no problems and that the company has many employees willing to vouch for its professionalism.
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The irony of the incident is that, at that time, Quantic Dream was finishing the work on Detroit: Become Human, which had a story about human androids and hammered home what it was like to be treated like a second-class citizen. Quantic Dream’s games are about moral dilemmas, and the media expressed moral outrage about how the company was run.
For this story, we spoke with 16 current members of Quantic Dream’s staff and conducted email interviews with Cage and de Foundaumiere. We are open to speaking with more people and have made queries about that. But this story is what we know.
An unfortunate incident
A real-life emotional story has distracted the studio. The long legal fight began with a triggering event. A lead programmer at Quantic Dream entertained himself by creating photo montages during his lunch break. He put the heads of his fellow employees on the bodies of various celebrities or other images. He shared these images with friends and managers, including Cage. Cage said that the employee honored requests by employees who didn’t want to be in the images, which were sometimes posted (often by the photo subjects themselves) at the coffee machine.
“The intention was never to mock or to humiliate anyone, otherwise we would have stopped this right away,” Cage said, regarding the benign beginning of the altered-image sharing. “Of all the images I saw, none were shocking. It is important to mention that no one in the team ever reported any issue about this activity: over three years, there were zero complaints, internally or to any official institution.”
For three years, none of Quantic Dream’s 200 or so employees complained about being included in the images. But on February 27, 2017, the employee editing these pictures shared all 600 of them with the entire company. He evidently forgot that 12 of the images were entirely inappropriate, and he shared them by mistake. The company’s IT manager at the time told management that the image of him was unacceptable. His face was pasted on a famous reality TV show character, Supernanny.
“The image had no specific angle (not homophobic, racist or misogynist, as the Labor Court confirmed), but it was definitely not acceptable,” Cage said. “We also discovered other images that were never shared and that we had never seen before, which were totally unacceptable.”
Cage said that management met with the creator of the images, and ordered him to stop making them. They asked him to apologize to the IT manager and gave him a formal warning (a disciplinary sanction that goes on record and can lead to contract termination). The company provided records for this disciplinary action and three different investigating bodies verified it.
The former IT manager, who declined to be interviewed for this story and referred GamesBeat to the articles already published, allegedly accepted the apology. But then he later informed the company that he wanted the creator to be dismissed immediately, and that he wanted to be compensated with one year’s salary (plus 40%), otherwise he would “tell the whole story to the press,” Quantic Dream said.
To the company, this sounded like blackmail, Cage said.
“We tried to talk. We offered a neutral mediator, which he accepted first then refused. We tried to find solutions, but he rejected all options,” Cage said.
Three of the IT manager’s other colleagues in the IT department resigned and also asked for compensation. The IT manager sought help from government institutions, but Cage said that Quantic Dream provided explanations and documents. In each case, the investigating bodies either closed or resolved the investigations. Then the IT manager reached out to French journalists, sending the 12 inappropriate pictures, and three journalists responded.
The newspaper Le Monde, video game site CanardPC, and media investigation site Mediapart wrote articles about Quantic Dream’s culture, based on the outreach from the IT manager. But the stories weren’t just about the incident involving the edited images. They were looking into what was wrong with game companies.
During the process of investigating the game industry, Mediapart decided to focus on Quantic Dream for its first article “because we were gathering a lot of information, and precise testimonies, about its work culture and work practices,” Mediapart writer Dan Israel said in an email to GamesBeat. “We also learned that Le Monde was doing a very similar job, so we teamed with them, only for this first article,” Israel said.
The journalists teamed up and sent questions to the company. Quantic Dream said that the initial questions were alarming. On December 26, 2017, the journalists sent Quantic Dream a list of questions that the company thought was “surreal.” They included these questions:
- We found an invoice of $10 for room service in a hotel in Las Vegas. Was this for a prostitute?
- We heard that one of your employees had a mouse pad with a sexy female character. Do you think this is acceptable?
- One of your employees had a heavy metal T-shirt that someone found offending. Do you encourage this?
- You are known to work a lot. Are you aware that some people who work less may feel bad about you working more?
(The journalists said they sent many more questions and even published both the questions and answers. They said their tone was professional).
“Quantic Dream’s co-CEO, Guillaume de Fondaumière, and I were absolutely stunned. We have met hundreds of journalists during the course of our careers, but we never encountered such questions,” Cage said. “We quickly realized that these journalists actually had ‘their own angle.’ They wanted to show that a successful company had to be toxic and they were looking for any piece of proof to support their theory.”
The journalists met with Cage and de Fondaumière on January 4, 2018.
“We stayed calm and answered their questions, but they ignored all our answers because these were not in line with their own personal theories. In their articles, they rearranged and truncated my answers in order to make me say what they wanted,” Cage said. “Then they sent their questions to our Employee Representatives, who answered in all honesty that they never heard any complaint and that the allegations were complete nonsense to them.”
Cage added, “The story they wanted is very simple: Quantic Dream and their top managers are very successful … but this success was built on a toxic atmosphere and perverted management.”
Cage said the company has dozens of formal testimonials from employees and former employees saying they had no issues with the company.
The articles ran in mid-January 2018. Dan Israel and Mathilde Goanec wrote three articles in Mediapart about labor culture in the video game industry, and it partnered with CanardPC on those articles. CanardPC published its own, longer version of those stories. Cage said he invited the Le Monde journalist to spend a week at Quantic Dream, but the journalist declined.