BioWare laid off 50 employees at the end of August. Mary Kirby was one of them. A 17-year veteran of the studio beloved for its story-driven RPGs, Kirby has worked on every Dragon Age game, and her contributions have shown up in some of the series’ most memorable characters and questlines. The franchise is estimated to have sold over 10 million copies, with the next game, Dragon Age: Dreadwolf, planned to release in the years ahead. Now her and six other recently laid-off developers are suing BioWare claiming it and parent company Electronic Arts are trying to welsh on their legally owed severance.
A notice of the lawsuit was shared on Twitter yesterday by former BioWare developer Jon Renish. In its statement of facts, which were reviewed by Kotaku, an attorney for the group claims that BioWare was only willing to offer laid-off employees two weeks of severance per year of service, rather than the one month commonly awarded under other recent labor cases. The lawsuit also claims that BioWare was unwilling to include the value of health benefits in the severance package, further shortchanging the departing developers who average 14 years of service each. EA reported over $400 million in net income in August, up 23 percent from the year prior. The company bought back $325 million in stock the same month.
BioWare’s announcement of the layoffs was vague, and it remains unclear why a studio, which is currently in the midst of developing Dreadwolf and planning out Mass Effect 4, a long-awaited sequel to its hit sci-fi shooter, would cut so many developers, including ones with such a long and storied track record. Fans went into crisis mode. BioWare general manager Gary McKay wrote at the time that the cuts would be carried out with “empathy, respect, and clear communication.”
However, a lawyer for the seven laid-off employees, Alex Kennedy, told Kotaku in a phone call that BioWare has so far refused to negotiate better severance packages. He said that the laid-off employees wanted the development of Dreadwolf, a game that’s already had to be reworked and is reportedly overdue, to succeed, but also wanted what they’re owed. “While we remain supportive of the game we worked so hard on, and of our colleagues continuing that work, we are struggling to understand why BioWare is shortchanging us in this challenging time,” said one of the laid-off employees in a press release.
Kennedy told Kotaku that he originally had over 15 laid-off BioWare employees who were part of the lawsuit, but many bailed, worried about their ability to pay bills and even buy presents for their kids come Christmastime. The existing severance packages, while measly, would still be money in the bank compared to the prospect of a long and drawn out legal fight. It could be a month before BioWare and EA respond to the group’s legal filing, and even longer before the case gets in front of a judge, especially if the companies deploy delay tactics. Kennedy said he’s still hopeful that BioWare will eventually “see the light” and negotiate a settlement.
Interestingly, EA’s proprietary game engine Frostbite is specifically called out in the lawsuit as an important factor in determining how much severance employees are owed. Things like age, years of service, and the difficulty of finding a similar new job are all taken into account under Canadian common law. Kennedy argues that the fact that BioWare’s developers are forced to use EA’s inhouse toolset, which has long been blamed for issues with some of its biggest releases like Mass Effect Andromeda and Anthem, means it could be harder for them to find a new job than developers using third-party tool sets like Unreal Engine and Unity.
The job prospects for game developers are also especially grim-looking right now. A big wave of layoffs has hit the gaming industry in 2023, with companies ranging from Microsoft to Ubisoft shedding staff. Just since the BioWare layoffs in August, several new studios and companies announced cuts. Epic Games announced just last week that it will be laying off over 800 employees. The Fortnite maker has, however, promised them six months of severance and extended health benefits.
“To everyone who has reached out: Thank you. It means a lot,” Kirby tweeted when she was laid off. “It’s bittersweet that Dreadwolf is my last DA game, but I still hope you all love it as much as I do.”
EA did not respond to a request for comment.
Update 10/10/2023 3:06 p.m. ET: Kennedy clarified in a post-publication email that EA did not imply to laid off devs that better severance terms might hurt Dreadwolf’s development, but rather that his clients initially didn’t want to seek the maximum settlement if it might harm the studio.