Here are six more stories of people involved in the painful job cuts that happen in the games business all the time. Five from people who were fired. One from someone who did the firing. We urge you to read their accounts.
For the past few months we've taken a close look at layoffs in the video game industry, examining why job losses are so common in game development and sharing stories from game developers who have been through the cuts.
Our second volume of layoff stories here includes tales from across the game industry, and there's an overall sense of worry that things just won't get better. Game developers believe that, if something's going to change, it needs to start from the top.
If you've been through layoffs in the world of video games and would like to share a story, e-mail me. All stories will remain anonymous, and personal details will be redacted.
'Sure enough, it was all over the Twitterverse.'
I learned that my company was getting shut down over Twitter. One late morning I came into work, and we had just finished a massive crunch to reach a milestone. I was having my coffee and chatting with one of my friends when a coworker came into the kitchen and asked if we've started to back up our work. I asked why. He said he saw on Twitter that we were getting shut down and ran off.
"What?" My buddy and I were shocked. He ran off and I went back to my office. I discovered that the network drives had been locked off. I went to my Twitter feed and looked up rumours of our shutdown. Sure enough, it was all over the Twitterverse: Sony was shutting down three studios today. Apparently the rumour got started by the president of 3D Realms. I soon learned that we were one of three Sony Online Studios that were getting the axe.
It was then I then saw one of the lead developers walking into the building in a suit jacket and holding a manilla envelope. He never wore jackets, and he was late getting to work. "Ah shit," I thought. People all over the office were starting to get the deer-in-the-headlights look. Some were feverishly loading their external drives with local copies of their work, and the most common thing I was hearing in the halls was "What the fuck is going on!?"
Within the hour we all gathered in the common area for the formal announcement: That it was true, and we were getting shut down along with two other studios. The studio head said that Sony was very sorry that we had to find out about this via Twitter, that it was not supposed to happen that way. It was supposed to happen formally the next day.
On April 1st. April Fools. Yeah.
At least Sony was very generous with the severance package and extended benefits. They even held a job fair. It was surreal to have an interview for another job in my old office.
Our badges stopped working.
I wanted to share with you an experience I had, working for a Ubisoft subsidiary in North Carolina, Red Storm Entertainment.
On a hot summer morning in August, 2010, an e-mail was sent out a little after 10am (our flex-hours required us to be in by then at the latest), saying a company-wide meeting would occur at 11:30. Myself and my team members didn't think too much about it at the time, but in hindsight I could feel tension among some of the upper-ranking developers.
When the time came, all of the Senior Producers went room-to-room, ushering developer after developer into our motion-capture area, stating that this was a required meeting. Being the cheeky bunch we were, many of us made jokes about how it's a surprise party with beer, while others (like myself), joked about layoffs and using a paintball gun as a deciding mechanism. That was a stupid comment to make.
After the studio was quickly herded into the large room, the large doors were slid shut behind us, reminding me of cows being herded to the entrance of the slaughterhouse. Within seconds, the Studio Director appeared with a piece of paper. His nervousness was palpable while reading from that scripted piece of paper, which he seldom did.
"With a history of eight years of no layoffs, and a consistent track record of delivering quality products on time; I'm announcing that today we will be making employment concessions in order to deal with changing expectations." I had no idea what that meant, other than we were on the chopping block.
Of course, being in QA, I knew my fate was sealed. Along with all of the smokers, and ex-smokers, many of us headed outside for a quick stress-relieving burner. After a group of 20 or so people finished their quick cigarette, we headed back upstairs only to find that many of our badges didn't work. They had deactivated many of our badges before even having our exit-interview. Frantically, one by one, many of us swiped our badge on the reader, the first six or seven finding theirs did not work. The next person's worked, and we were able to walk to meet our managers, head in hands.
At the time of layoffs, Red Storm had roughly 90 people employed, making its only layoff a rather large one.
'The meat grinder'
Nearly a year ago, I was laid off with around 200 other developers at Sony Online Entertainment. It surely came to a shock to me because the people I was sharing the room with were highly skilled developers like myself; not temps or part time testers. Many of us kept thinking, "They must be moving us over to a new title or something. I mean they can't be letting go of these people, right?"
People who had been at the company for over a decade were being handed their pink slips. I'd managed to dodge the last few big layoffs at the company for the nine years I worked there, but eventually the law of averages caught up with me. Like you mentioned in your article, many of us who were laid off suddenly had zero access to our computers. We couldn't log into them without an IT person standing behind us, and we sure as shit couldn't take anything unless there was (in my case) an Art Director standing behind me telling which art I could and couldn't take for my portfolio (This royally sucked by the way).
A lot of us felt numb at first and then later felt betrayed. We put all our sweat into the products this company produced and then they just cut us loose like faceless cogs in a machine—we didn't do anything wrong; we just ended up with shitty luck that morning.
There was some news going around that the layoffs of so many long-term employees were because of a financial issue, that the people who got sacked ended up on that unfortunate list because of how much they made. Who knows.
They did go above and beyond what was necessary for a company that just laid off a bunch of people. They let us go two months before the actual layoff date so that we could look for work while still being paid a salary and have benefits. They cashed out our PTO [paid time off] and also gave us pretty nice severance checks. They also sent out mass emails to help some of us find work.
But really, in this economy—and the challenges of facing off in a hyper-competitive industry—it was difficult for many of us veteran developers to find work.
I'm looking for work in the industry, but I'm also very open to leaving the industry altogether, if I can. I can't even start a family and plant roots because of the fear that I'm going to be jobless in the next fiscal quarter.
One thing I noticed with the industry today that wasn't how it was even 10 years ago, is the over-saturation of the workforce pool that's now so prevalent today. As soon as games went mainstream, art colleges began starting curriculums for games and for-profit 'academies' started sprouting like weeds all over the place.
"I can't even start a family and plant roots because of the fear that I'm going to be jobless in the next fiscal quarter."
On top of the fact that games are the new 'rockstar' profession for young teens, everyone who could remotely draw started flooding into these schools with hopes of making the next big game. Because of this, there's now a fuck-tonne of 'talent' out there all vying for the few openings that appear from studios willing to hire. This makes the competition, as I mentioned earlier, extremely rough.
I agree with you that something seriously needs to change in the way big publishers make their games. It's not healthy for developers to be hired and then discarded like a used tissue when a studio feels like it wants to save money over the emotional sanity of it's workforce.
I don't know what the answers for that are, but I do know that at its current state—and having been in 'the meat grinder' for 14 years—that the industry is definitely circling the drain.
We were understaffed... so we were laid off.
I worked for a first party studio at Microsoft. Soon after our game finished, about 10% of the full time employees were fired (designers, programmers and PMs, mostly part of a single team). This is Microsoft we are talking about, so there is probably no hope of stability in this industry.
We were given some poor excuses as to why: "We'll go with a different team structure from now on, and your team's duties will be absorbed elsewhere," and "It's nothing to do with your performance, or the game's performance in the market." No one, including people I trusted, could look us in the eye and tell us the real reason: the game didn't sell well at all, it was too costly to develop, and we were the easy targets.
Ironically, one of the main reasons why the game went through such troubled development was that we were understaffed. We hired some quality people towards the end, but it wasn't enough. We then brought in some external teams to help, at the last minute, and that must have been very expensive and introduced overheads.
Why was it allowed to get so bad? In my opinion, the game was ambitious for the wrong reasons: forced hardware and software gimmicks, games-as-a-service, etc. Management at all levels was afraid of any bad news and looked the other way most of the time. All the throwaway faked internal demos to higher management are good examples. I could go on.
As a result, we crunched a lot. We got 10 days off as a reward at the end, only to be fired soon after.
'Targets drive gaming decisions.'
EA is a great place to work. The people in that building, despite all the forum assumptions of evil, are great and passionate people. I have zero ill will towards any particular person involved in the layoffs. Those who have to carry them out are receiving orders to do so—all created by the system that gaming finds itself in. For companies like EA, it's an investor-driven industry and ultimately it is felt by everyone, day in and day out.
In terms of the targets, I don't want to share exact numbers (mainly because I don't recall them)—but internal percentage growth targets are probably higher than you'd expect even for healthy, steady franchises that can become more or less predictable sales-wise. Put it this way, there are plenty of times when I would read a press release or media report that is incredibly positive regarding sales yet internally I know there is negativity and aggressive plans in place to make up the difference in terms of a new marketing blitz.
And make no mistake: targets drive gaming decisions. I laugh every time I read a comment on how our developers weren't passionate or creative. These comments could not be further from the truth. Meanwhile business decisions have to be made. There has to be something on the back of that box that gives executives confidence that growth targets will be met.
Contract cycles are a weird animal. On one hand they are a great way to get in the door. On the other hand, nothing is guaranteed even if you exceed expectations. From what I remember, each contract was six months in length. After six months, it is a simple renewal for another six months. After that, you cannot renew without taking an unpaid three month "vacation." My best guess is this was created so that the company could not exploit a contract employee and would be forced to give them full-time employment if they wanted to keep them past a year. But because of all the layoffs, converting contract employees to full-time was damn near impossible. Headcount was the biggest battle internally.
I'm sure you can read that and see it as an internship or something similar, but, honestly, the investor-driven model that forces the margins that forces the layoffs doesn't let the company keep great people—even if they want to or need to. The other fun thing about the contract situation is you are treated differently. Contract employees—no matter how many full-time hours they put in—aren't invited to company meetings or even the holiday party. It is a weird dynamic to have in a workplace. But, at the end of the day, good people create good environments, and the individual teams seem to get along well (at least the ones I have been exposed to). It just sucks that people can get discouraged and the industry can let go of great talent this way. But the bottom line looks better when you aren't paying benefits to everyone working full-time.
Overall, the industry is definitely losing great talent that simply isn't willing to work with the notion that you can lose your job for creating a great AND profitable product. It is a hard proposition but a very rewarding one if you can hang on and avoid an axe that you have little to no control over. I loved it there, but I'm glad I moved on.
'They hadn't done anything wrong.'
The way that staffing worked for [REDACTED] (and a lot of other publisher-owned studios) was that we had a target headcount negotiated with corporate every year. Who we hired was irrelevant to the higher-ups, as long as we were at or below our headcount numbers. Increasing headcount required approvals, because personnel costs make up over half of the costs of development (roughly speaking, it's about 60% salary, 20% benefits and taxes, and 20% misc. overhead, like rent, computers, software licenses, travel, etc.).
So, when we went through the first layoff, I worked with [REDACTED] to decide who was going to stay and who was going to go. He had the final say, but I put together the lists, made the arguments justifying each person, and was responsible for having a functional team after all was said and done. We had a hard limit, which was about half the existing studio, so we had to cut deep.
"It breaks your heart, but it's a Sophie's Choice moment: fire 20 of your friends, or close the studio and put all 40 out of work."
For example, we had three guys doing VFX (two were also animating); all of them were talented, hardworking guys; they had done incredible work with mesh FX, doing things you would swear were particle systems, and the game looked great. But, the team that was going forward wasn't going to be adding a lot of assets, so we cut all three of them. They hadn't done anything wrong; in fact, they had done amazing work, but we had to let them go, including one guy who had three young kids, at least one of whom was special-needs. It breaks your heart, but it's a Sophie's Choice moment: fire 20 of your friends, or close the studio and put all 40 out of work.
From the business side, you can understand it. On those terms, layoffs are almost always justified. It's a simple calculus of burn rate (how much your studio costs to keep open every month) vs. revenue. Remember, salaries and staffing-related costs are the vast majority of your expenses. Anyone who runs a P&L [profit and loss statement] knows where the break-even point is, and if you can't hit it with revenue, pretty much your only option is to cut back on staff.
There's a certain mechanical, mathematical logic that you can lean on in those times. Your headcount is fixed, so you figure out how to make the best team out of what you have left, and the rest have to go. It's a problem that can be solved.
What's hard is the personal dimension. It's knowing how much it's going to suck for your people, for their families. It's showing up for work every day and not letting on what's happening. It's lying to people's faces, people who trust you, by pretending that the work they're doing matters. You still have to give feedback, approvals. You still have to go into sprint planning meetings and make sure everyone has a full book. You still have to keep the team motivated and moving forward, even though half of them are already dead in the water, they just don't know it yet. It sucks. No way around it. It sucks for them. It sucks for you.
And, at some level, that's business. You start with a dream and a hope (we call it "vision" so it seems less corny), and you work your ass off to get funding, and you hire as many people as you can afford and push them to be their best selves, every day. And, if your game doesn't survive the coliseum, the dream dies, and the people have to go.
This isn't going to change. It's a hit-driven industry; the vast majority of games aren't going to recoup their development costs. What's truly scary–to me, anyway–is that this logic is going to hit the indie development scene soon, and it's going to hit hard. It's not going to be as newsworthy, because the studio names aren't going to be recognizable, and the games aren't going to be ones that people played. But the human cost is going to be just as severe; in many cases, it will be worse, because the funding isn't coming from big publishers or VC [venture capital]. It's coming out of people's savings or their families.
Image by Tara Jacoby.