It’s date night tonight, and my husband Max and I are — as usual — trying unsuccessfully to plan our future.
We’d like to buy a home, or at least sign a lease for more than one year at a time. We’d like to have kids. Not now, but someday. This is when the conversation usually takes a dark turn.
You see, Max and I are both game designers. We have our dream jobs, in theory. But neither one of us has ever worked for a company longer than three years, despite our best efforts. This means that it’s next to impossible to plan more than a year ahead. This situation isn’t unique in the world of video game development, it’s the normal state of affairs for so many of us.
How do you have a stable life in an industry which doesn’t seem to offer one?
Max and I met and started dating at Microsoft Game Studios in 2013. We were both part of a group of “new grad” employees who had been hired to bring fresh talent to departments throughout Xbox, with the goal that many of us would become lifetime employees. We all worked hard; this sort of job had always been the dream, and here we were. Things were fantastic for a few months.
It didn’t last. As the launch of the Xbox One grew closer, people began to whisper a new word around the office: “re-organization.” We didn’t know what it meant, but we knew enough to scared.
Management called our entire group of new grads into a conference room to let us know we would be let go at the end of our first year. Microsoft had funded this hiring program but then, somewhere in all those calculations and re-assessments of profit and loss in the following months, it had been scrapped.
I had turned down offers from other game companies like EA to come to Microsoft. We had been promised careers, growth, and mentorship. These days, most of that original group doesn’t work in games anymore.
That sort of experience sticks with you. It was my first time being laid off in the games industry.
I found a new job before my time at Microsoft had run out, but it was soon clear I had joined a new studio in a tough situation. Projects weren’t shaping up as expected, and there’d recently been a round of layoffs. Those who were left were spooked. I was determined to work hard, keep my head down, and hope for the best.
But it wasn’t enough. When a project spun down I was let go, along with the other newest hire, a few months later. The producer who delivered the news also escorted us out the front door immediately. We weren’t allowed to retrieve our belongings.
I sat in my car out in the parking lot, pressed my head against the steering wheel and cried. My coworkers had likewise been given no warning that I would be laid off, including the summer intern I’d hired and managed; it was like I had been abducted by a UFO and suddenly they had to pick up the work I had left behind.
I had no savings. I’d been pouring every bit of my paycheck into paying down my massive student loans before the interest piled up. It had felt responsible at the time.
Max stood by me, to his credit. We lived together and, although it was a struggle for him, he had a new job himself and was determined to cover my half of the rent until I found work. I was terrified of being a burden, so I hunted for a job obsessively, spending 12 hours a day doing everything I could to find another position. I took rare breaks to lay on the couch and stare at the ceiling, lost in a fog. I had gone through two layoffs in two years. Was this just how the industry worked? Surely everyone in games didn’t live this way, right?
Weeks later, a small developer offered me a role as a writer for one of its upcoming games. But my future manager pointed to the last two jobs on my resume during my final interview.
”We want to hire you, but we’re concerned,” he said. “This is a studio where people stick around. I’ve been here over ten years. The last writer was here for five, and the last one before him, nine. Are you going to commit to staying here?”
He might have been concerned, but I was relieved. I told him nothing would make me happier than to work at the developer for as long as I could. I wanted stability and commitment as much as they did. I signed the offer immediately. My start had been rocky, but surely this job — my next job — would be a good “forever home.”
And things were great, for a time. I formed close friendships with coworkers and shipped a game I had a major hand in shaping. Fall turned into winter, and we held office holiday parties. We played hackey sack in the parking lot. I finished writing the game I’d been hired to write, and began working on the story beats for the next. And I’d saved up some money to build a safety net, just in case. The fear in my gut slowly dissipated.
The new year brought rumors that the studio was switching to a new game engine for the next project. I had experience using this engine, but no one else did. Studios make changes to the technology that drives their games, it’s part of the business, but it often means they have to let people go and hire some new people to make sure they have enough developers who know how the next technology works without having to be retrained at the company’s expense.
I had a nagging sensation something bad was coming, but coworkers were adamant that everything would be fine. The studio had weathered a lot in 16 years. We’d be okay.
A month later my manager called me during a day I was working from home. He’d never called me before.
The news was grim. Just before lunchtime, the PCs of many employees all suddenly logged out at the same time. No one knew what was happening at first, but then management began calling people into a conference room, one by one. They were being let go.
I had somehow survived this round of cuts. The survivors gathered in the center of the empty office the next morning. We shared stories about the previous day and wandered around in a daze, not knowing what we were meant to be working on. What would happen to the game we’d been making?
I was overcome with guilt. Why hadn’t I been let go instead of them? Many of them had children, partners, or disabled family members to take care of. What would become of them now?
And I was left with an even worse feeling: I had been right. My paranoia about being laid off, my obsession about planning for what to do if it ever happened again, it was all telling me something. I should never have lost the fear in my gut. I should have let it drive me. It would have been safer.
Years later, I’ve realized that this fear and anxiety isn’t just common. It’s necessary if you want to have a long career. Games might fail fast and hard upon release, and studios can shutter overnight. There may not be obvious warning signs. It might even happen at companies with a large number of hit games.
I was once out with some friends when someone from Telltale Games informed our group that the company seemed to be in good spirits, projects were running smoothly, and morale was high. It was shut down a month later. Jam City, a mobile game developer, was aggressively hiring in Los Angeles up until the day it reported a layoff of roughly 25 percent of their workforce. Friends of mine from the Big Fish and Capcom Vancouver layoffs last September are still looking for work.
Some people try to keep their heads down, getting only their required work done and investing no extra time or emotional commitment to the game they work on. I don’t blame them for a second; a culture that makes workers expendable cannot expect those workers to perform above and beyond the call of duty under the guise of “passion.”
Others gather in bars after work to vent about the studios that have burned them the worst, sharing horror stories to help others know what to expect from certain companies. Some employees do their best to rise up the ranks into studio leadership, where things are a little more stable.
And some, like me, focus on making friends at other studios. We look out for each other the best we can, helping one another through tough times. I send multiple introductory emails, DMs, or Facebook messages each week trying to connect talented friends to other friends in search of their next stable gig. After all, I never know when I’m going to need to call in a favor for myself.
Other developers just leave. They go to regular tech companies, they return to school to learn new skills, they travel overseas, or they try something completely new. And they rarely come back. Video game development is remarkably efficient at chasing away talent; the industry often seems inhospitable to anyone who craves stability. Or health insurance, for that matter.
The recent Blizzard layoffs terrified seasoned game developers, myself included. Blizzard is known to be one of those rare stable places at which you can settle for life. It has been known to give developers gifts at the five and ten year mark; a sword and shield, respectively. The company treats its people like people, not like resources to be expended. It’s the kind of place nearly every developer dreams of ending up specifically because of that promise of stability. If even studios like these can go through layoffs, then is there such a thing as a “safe place” anymore?
For players, the worst part of this cycle may be that the most senior developers, the ones who compete for the best jobs at the “safest” companies, now have even more reason to leave the business entirely. Ambitious game teams struggle to hire the experienced, steady hands who know how to handle massive projects well. Game development is hard, complicated work, and often experienced folks can spot project-killing problems early or generate novel solutions to tough problems. In other words, senior developers help all of us make better games.
One thing is clear: Conditions around layoffs need to improve if the industry is to move forward. Many game developers are starting to discuss solutions such as unionizing, in the same way the film and TV industries have done in the past.
While it’s unlikely that unionization would perfectly solve all problems from the get-go, it’s a start. We all want a future full of inspirational games that continue to push new boundaries. Creating a better quality of life for the people who make them is the first step in paving that path.
Dream jobs are a funny thing. You can make money doing what you love. That’s pretty cool. But after multiple interstate, or intercontinental, moves for the sake of finding a new job, or rebooting your social life for the fifth time, or having to explain to your daughter why she’s changing schools and leaving her friends, the cool parts lose their luster.
And once that luster is gone, a dream job is just another job.