The Write Stuff: The Dispute Between A Mobile Developer and Its Contractors

Up until a little while ago, I’d never heard of Voltage Entertainment before. They have exactly one entry on the Google Play store, a romance visual novel game called Lovestruck, though their parent company Voltage Incorporated has a considerably larger number of entries in the same genre. While I occasionally enjoy a good visual novel, the romance genre has not really been my thing, though they’re a thing which others clearly enjoy.

But this is not about my preferred VN genres. It’s about how one company and the large number of contract writers they hired seem to be hashing out a labor dispute, and neither side is coming away from the engagement covered in glory.

The Company

Voltage Entertainment Dispute
“We’re gonna write beautiful stories together.” (Image from “Lovestruck” trailer)

Voltage, Inc. has been around over twenty years at this point. They’re a well established company on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, but not part of the Nikkei. They opened their US subsidiary, Voltage Entertainment USA, in 2012 and set up shop in San Francisco. Their VN app, Lovestruck, appears to be a sort of “channel” for romance themed visual novels, in much the same way a themed cable channel might be set up. Each VN “program” is arranged in an episodic format, averaging about 12 episodes of two to three thousand words each.

On their website, Voltage Entertainment has a careers page. Naturally, it lists all the benefits of working there as a full time employee, such as medical insurance, 401K, and break room stocked with snacks. It sounds like the typical SanFran tech startup. There is a button on the Careers page for freelance writers which leads to a Google Forms page, but there is a separate button for freelance artists leading to a built-in form which remains on the site’s domain. Lovestruck itself has its own site with a full domain. But on that site, there is a page which is not accessible by any link. It contains a statement from Voltage Entertainment laying out the timeline (from their perspective) of the whole affair.

The statement is poorly formatted in nothing but bullet points. It opens rather unusually, “This is the official statement from Voltage Entertainment USA, Inc. and we now consider this unfortunate situation resolved.” The statement goes on to say that Voltage attempted to negotiate with writers individually on July 15, but were rebuffed (presumably by each individual) with a polite, “On the subject of individual negotiations, we respectfully but firmly decline.” According to Voltage, false statements went up on social media within 20 minutes of the exchange. A second attempt was reportedly made on July 17, with what Voltage describes as a “very favorable rate,” and it was again rebuffed with a statement (again, presumably by each individual writer) of, “none of us will be entering negotiations individually.” The statement goes on to say that Voltage has made its attempts to resolve the situation in good faith, but “the company must move forward.” Yet Voltage hasn’t made any reference to formally terminating the writers’ access to Voltage’s system. One point on the statement is particularly ambiguous. “Our freelance contracts do not guarantee work or assignments. It establishes a freelance ‘at will’ arrangement that allows us to offer individual assignments that any contractor can choose to accept or refuse.”

The Writers

Voltage Entertainment Dispute 2
“The shop steward would like a word. And a finger.” (Image from “Lovestruck” trailer)

On July 15, a post went up on Reddit’s r/Lovestruck subreddit from a user identified as “VOWTogether.” It was purportedly an ID from a group of of 21 writers who had worked on Lovestruck, announcing that they were going on strike. The subreddit is a fan run channel rather than an official communications channel for Voltage Entertainment. VOWTogether informed the community that they were seeking better wages and had formed Voltage Organized Workers (VOW) to serve as a union. The missive went on to implore the fan community not to boycott Lovestruck, but rather to message Voltage politely and respectfully, imploring the company to improve the wages the writers are being paid and improve the conditions under which the scripts are written.

To hear the writers tell it, they are working under pressure cooker conditions for ramen cup wages. Writers are given a script outline by the producer (an in-house employee), given a target of between 2,000 and 3,000 words per script, and given a deadline of less than a week, sometimes not more than a few days. Over the course of a month, a writer might work on ten or more scripts, pumping out an aggregate total of between 20,000 to 30,000 words, possibly even more. As a basis for comparison, GameLuster’s own Kate Mitchell averages about 36,000 words a month just writing news pieces for our site, and usually on an exceedingly short time frame. On the other hand, visual novel scripts are a somewhat different prospect. But given the right tools and sufficient space to work, even 3,000 words can be polished off quickly if you have a good process in place. According to the writers, the process Voltage has in place doesn’t sound quite so smooth. A writer is given a “set” of three episodes to write (potentially 9,000 words) and a turnaround time of a few days, certainly less than a week. Again, not impossible, but certainly tough. And it doesn’t help if any supplementary materials the writer might need aren’t delivered alongside the script outlines.

Nevertheless, if a writer is cranking out the equivalent of a novella every month (which is an impressive and kind of appalling feat), it’s not unreasonable to expect an appropriate and commensurate degree of pay for the effort. Assuming a nickel per word (which is about as close to a genuine industry standard as you’ll find for freelance writing), and an average output of 30,000 words, it comes out to $1500 USD. Not bad money, although not exactly a living wage, certainly not in San Francisco. The writers state they were making about three cents per word, and only managed incremental “raises” of a fraction of a cent. At three cents a word and 30,000 words a month, that comes out to $900, not a living wage in most of the country, and absolutely not in San Francisco. While there’s no indication any or all of the writers live in the Bay Area, it’s still on the wrong side of miserly.

Compounding the pay issue is a “work/life balance” issue. Owing to the amount of work and the tight turnarounds, it would be ridiculous to expect any writer to keep the pedal to the metal without respite. Even the most creative minds need some downtime, a means to keep the creative spark going outside of the bare minimum needed for sleep. Moreover, a working freelancer often has to schedule their assignments to make sure that A) they have sufficient time devoted to a piece and B) they’re not accidentally double-booking. But if a writer is turning out the equivalent of a novella every month, it doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of room for either downtime or other work to be fit into the schedule. Indeed, one writer (who was quoted by Kotaku) indicated that Voltage basically stopped offering sets to them after they started insisting on longer turnaround times to get the work done.

I reached out to the writers’ Reddit ID, hoping I could get some more information from them. They did not reply prior to the publication of this article.

The Mechanics

Voltage Entertainment Dispute 3
“Is it really art if you’re not selling–errr, putting your soul into it?” (Image from “Lovestruck” trailer)

One of the first things to keep in mind about all this is that there is not a commonly accepted “industry standard rate” for game writing, certainly not on a freelance basis. The Editorial Freelancers Association gives a range of either $40-$50 USD per hour or 20 to 25 cents per word for fiction writing, but this is merely a general guideline rather any hard and fast statute or regulation on the subject. Moreover, it’s related primarily towards literature rather than visual arts or interactive media.

According to the National Labor Relations Board, there are two ways a union can be formed inside a company. The first is if 30% of workers sign a petition or preference cards saying they want a union to represent them, the NLRB holds an election. If a majority of the workers at the company vote to join the union in that election, then the NLRB certifies the union as the duly designated representative of the employees which is authorized to collectively bargain on their behalf. The second basically sidesteps the election when an employer voluntarily recognizes a union as the representative of the workers based on the expressed will of a majority of those workers, usually through union authorization cards being presented to management.

The writers are not specifically prohibited from joining a union. Indeed, any and or all of them could join the Writers Guild of America tomorrow and be covered as union members. If they informed the WGA they wanted to go on strike, there’d likely be a picket line in front of Voltage’s office within a week, though how much support the WGA could realistically offer is an unknown. It’s also unknown if the NLRB would be willing to entertain any complaints in light of a recent situation relating to Super Shuttle and the vehicles which made up their “fleet.” In that particular instance, the NLRB ruled that the driver franchisees were independent contractors since they actually owned the vehicles rather than Super Shuttle, and as such had “significant entrepreneurial opportunity for economic gain.” Since the VOW writers presumably are using their own laptops and desktop machines to crank out their work, they might also be assumed to have “significant entrepreneurial opportunity for economic gain” if the precedent was observed.

Voltage’s assertion that VOW is not a union hinges upon a couple of key points. The first is their assertion that, as freelance contractors, the writers can’t actually form a union within Voltage since they are not employees. By the letter of the law, they are correct, a point which the NLRB regional office for San Francisco confirmed when I reached out to them. If they’re contractors and not employees, they can’t initiate the process for NLRB elections. The second point is basically moot in light of the first point, but it’s worth a moment’s thought to consider whether the writers have sufficient numbers to make up the 30% of the workers to initiate proceedings with the NLRB if they could have in the first place. Looking just at the LinkedIn page for Voltage Entertainment, it indicates 39 people have profiles on the site. Not a definitive number, but a decent enough ballpark. Voltage’s statement page indicates that the in-house team for Lovestruck numbers 24 people. Part of the 30% requirement is that the workers are from all areas of the company which are not management, which would mean any IT staff, HR, legal, customer service, sales, and other areas, and it is those individuals which prevent a firm head count from being calculated from the outside. The number of writers making up VOW stands at 21 (so far.) That would put it roughly at the required 30%, assuming the ballpark number of workers is fairly close. If the ballpark is low, and there are more workers at Voltage than what are represented by the writers, then VOW drops below the 30% threshold, which would preclude them from organizing under the NLRB’s auspices. And given the way things have played out over Reddit and social media, the well has likely been so thoroughly poisoned that VOW wouldn’t be able to produce the majority number of union authorization cards required for Voltage’s voluntary acceptance of a union. But, again, entirely moot given the writers’ contractor status.

Another unknown, and this one is perhaps the single biggest hitch Voltage is likely to stumble upon, is connected to those contracts the freelancers are operating under. It relates to the concept of control as it’s reckoned in common law. In short, the amount of control an employer exerts over a worker determines whether that worker can be considered a contractor or an employee. If the employer exercises a sufficiently high degree of control over the worker’s activities, the worker is considered an employee. Otherwise, and assuming both the employer and the worker agree, they are considered a contractor. From their statement, the system Voltage uses to hand out work does not quite sound like they are giving Lovestruck writers much in the way of actual creative control over narratives and character development. More importantly, that one line in Voltage’s official statement seems to potentially undermine (or at least cast doubt upon) the assertion that the writers are contractors. A typical freelance arrangement would be what is termed “work for hire.” The employer offers terms for a specific project making up a piece, or even a series of pieces, and the freelancer basically either accepts or declines the contract for that particular project. There are a number of “marketplace” sites out there which serve as intermediaries and brokers between companies and freelancers to help facilitate such works and ensure smooth delivery of both product and pay, though they are not an absolute necessity if the company and the freelancer have an established relationship. What Voltage is describing sounds more like a writer’s room on a TV series. There, the writers are part of the production staff, which would make them employees of the production company. The tech sector has a long history of mislabeling workers as “independent contractors” when they are functionally employees, and both the NLRB and the IRS tend to take a dim view of companies who do so. Probably the biggest example of this sort of “clerical error” was twenty years ago when Microsoft tried to pass off a number of personnel as contractors when they weren’t.

What Next?

Voltage Entertainment Dispute 4
This is the closest anybody is going to get to a happy ending. (Image from “Lovestruck” trailer)

From my perspective, there are no good guys in this story. Just two sides of a labor dispute which has garnered a disproportionate amount of attention. In the best case, you have a group of freelancers who couldn’t be bothered to do even a cursory search on “how to form a union” and a subsidiary which is such a typical example of the San Francisco tech scene that it’s scarcely worth notice. A more cynical read puts the freelancers as trying to exploit the current (and momentary) atmosphere of extreme hostility against corporations, combined with the heightened awareness of marginalized communities, to strongarm a company in order to cover their own collective stupidity and individual inability to negotiate a contract. An equally cynical read puts the company preying on the ill-informed, subjecting their freelancers to a torturous and never-ending project cycle while twisting the notion of a “contractor” up to (if not past) the breaking point before spitting them out for a fresh crop of comparably ignorant talent.

Shortly before this story was published, word came out that the writers were getting a pay raise, an average of 6.5 cents per word.  The immediate situation seems to have been resolved, but how that resolution translates out to better games is completely unknown, as is whether the current crop of writers will even be kept beyond the current storylines.  VOW believed that they were making progress in their “negotiations,” but Voltage seemed to have written them off, and may yet do so. Since VOW really isn’t a union formed in accordance with federal law, the only way it’s going to get that status is by doing long, ugly, grinding work on top of what they should have done in the first place. It will mean multiple rounds of hearings, arcane arguments in court, and a very real risk that the NLRB will not find in their favor. While Voltage may have softened their position with regards to pay for incoming writers, there’s no guarantee it will clean up its act with regards to freelancers to avoid a potential federal case and stiff penalties being applied.  Indeed, Voltage may decide that they can pay the VOW writers their new rate until the current VNs are finished, then simply terminate the contracts.  As long as Voltage declines to say anything more than, “We’re exercising the termination clauses in your contract,” the only thing the writers will be able to do is avoid the door hitting them on the way out.

In the romance stories, the scumbag rivals lose, the hero and their paramour win, basking in the afterglow of their story. There is no romance in this story, and nobody is likely to come out ahead at the end.  The final chapter just hasn’t been written yet.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments