We hear about video game studios closing down - and people losing their jobs as a result - all the time. But have you ever wondered what it's like to be one of those affected? To work through the job uncertainty, survive a round of layoffs, get the sack and try and find new work? This great feature from Kotaku Australia's Tracey Lien examines just what happens when there's a disturbance in the workforce.
The past few years have seen the closure of some of Australia's biggest studios. This year alone we've lost two THQ-owned studios and just last week we heard that EA would be closing Visercal Games. Most of the talk surrounding the closures has been about the state of the industry, which is an important discussion to have, but what about the developers themselves? What do all these closures mean for them? Kotaku spoke to some Aussie game devs to find out.
When the news comes, it comes hard…
Morgan Jaffit, lead designer of Pandemic Studios in Brisbane, was standing on a train platform in rural Victoria on Christmas Day, 2008 when he received a phone call from studio president Josh Resnick: EA was closing the studio.
It was Jaffit's job to take the news back to his staff.
"It was tough," says Jaffit, who has since founded independent games studio Defiant Development.
Jaffit had to tell his staff that the studio they had worked so hard for was being shut down; it didn't matter that they had already spent months working on a new IP, that some of the staff had been at the studio for years, or that Pandemic was one of the biggest studios in Brisbane. The plug was being pulled and that was that.
"The main thing going through my mind was that I was sad for the people: Pandemic was a good family, there were a lot of people there who had been there a lot longer than I had. They were really committed to the studio and I thought then and I think now that it was unfortunate that that value is lost."
But Christmas Day 2008 was not the beginning or the end of a stressful period for Pandemic staff. Rewind a few months earlier to mid-2008: the then-production assistant of Pandemic (who later went on to be associate producer at Blue Tongue on De Blob 2), Jen Timms, says that developers at the studio knew something was wrong when Josh Resnick was in town. There was no warning given and few people knew why the head of Pandemic, who was mostly based in the US, was suddenly in the Brisbane studio. That day marked the first round of redundancies, the loss of most of their contractors, and the cancellation of an unannounced project they were working on at the time.
"Then they started to split the remaining team up," she says.
"Some joined the other team on a Wii game that had been in development for just over a year, some were sent to Pandemic LA to help out with The Saboteur, and a small group stayed on to figure out the next move and to start pitching new IP."
It wasn't long before another round of surprise redundancies hit. It was October 31 and no one saw this round coming. Spirits were high enough for there to be a Halloween bake-off in the studio – Timms had even made spooky cupcakes with edible nougat "bones" for the bake-off. Again, without warning, the entire new IP team was let go, leaving just the team who were working on the Wii project.
"We floated along for a little bit longer, still focusing on developing our secret, super fun Wii game… but by now it felt really unstable," says Timms.
"No one felt safe. When would the next round of layoffs be coming? What would happen to Pandemic?"
Pulling the plug…
Then came Christmas Day. After being dragged along for months, EA decided that they were no longer supporting Pandemic Brisbane. In an unusual move, they allowed Pandemic to keep the IP they were working on and gave them the opportunity to find a new publisher. While this led to a surge in hope within the studio, it ultimately meant that the developers would be living in a stressful limbo for the coming months.
"As it turns out, it was a very bad time in the middle of the global financial crisis to try and get interest in a new project," says Jaffit.
"As a result, it was never a clean separation, it wasn't a case of what happened with THQ (Studio Oz and Blue Tongue) where they effectively called everyone in on Monday and said the studio was closed, don't come in Tuesday, which is pretty sudden."
"Pandemic bled slowly to death over the course of multiple months and that was a very hard process."
Some developers decided to take Pandemic's redundancy packages and leave, while others hoped to stay on as the heads of the Pandemic that was now free from EA tried to find a new publisher for their IP.
"I decided to stay on and see if I could be a part of the new company," says Timms.
"If we found a publisher to support us, it sounded like a great opportunity and a fresh start. This was a very memorable day – we were called into the room with Christie Cooper (Pandemic's business director) and Morgan Jaffit, one by one, and told our fate. We never knew when we were going to be called in, and we sat within view of the room watching our friends and colleagues go in, and watching even more closely when they came out," she says.
"If they were carrying a yellow Pandemic folder, we knew they sadly weren't going to be joining us. We lost quite a few people that day, but luckily I was chosen to join the new company."
Unfortunately, it was only a matter of time before those yellow folders made another appearance. By February 2009 Pandemic was still unable to find a new publisher – EA could no longer float the company while it pitched its IP to publishers around the world and, with the global economic crisis worsening, the studio finally closed its doors for good.
A swift and sudden end…
Not every studio closure is a drawn-out process, and even fewer are given the hope that they will be able to keep their IP and try their luck with a different publisher. Andy Symons (who now works for Big Ant Games) was at Melbourne's Transmission Studios when it closed. He was the lead developer on Heroes Over Europe and says that while there was some writing on the wall in the way of earlier redundancies, he did not expect that the studio would close.
"I came into work and people were sitting around not working," Symons says.
"One of the producers said that it might be a good idea to start backing up work. No one was sure what was going on. Then at around 10am there was a meeting with the CEO who said that the company was going into liquidation but entitlements would be covered by the government's GEERS system (General Employee Entitlements and Redundancy Scheme)."
"There had been two rounds of staff lay-offs leading up to the closure… at the time I was working on a fully-funded project that was meeting its milestones, [so] I didn't see it coming. There was some writing on the wall for sure but not enough for me to start updating my LinkedIn profile."
Robert Walkley was also a game developer at Transmission when it closed in 2009. The studio had just released Ashes Cricket 2009 and Heroes Over Europe; he says that the latter sold poorly against IL-2 Sturmovik, so the studio experienced some losses.
"While our games reviewed reasonably well, they didn't achieve reviews high enough to generate sufficient enthusiasm from publishers," he says.
"In addition to this, very few new projects were being green lit in the wake of the global financial crisis. Add to this, you could see the Australian dollar was on a sharp upward trajectory against the US dollar… I'm sure this would have frightened anyone doing due diligence in looking at signing an Australian developer," he says.
The company was dealt with a round of redundancies that Walkley describes as being very difficult for all involved, but because the company had cut costs he believed this was enough to keep the studio open. As he went back to working on patches for Ashes Cricket 2009, the sad news came that the studio would be no more.
"Around 8 or 9pm [the night before the announcement was made], my studio manager came past to say hello after a meeting with the board of directors. I remember at the time he advised me to go home; he had an air of resignation that was out of the ordinary for him," says Walkley.
"At the time I didn't think an awful lot about the conversation, but in hindsight it's now clear that something significant must have taken place. As it turns out, the reason why the company hadn't made deeper cuts in the previous weeks was simply because it did not have the funds to pay the entitlement of any staff who were made redundant."
The next morning a meeting was called to break the news to the staff, but the administrators were already on the way. Walkley recalls that a few people representing the administrators were present, with a few guarding the door to ensure that no one left with any items – personal or otherwise – until they had been signed off.
"I remember I left some of my own items there because I wasn't in the mood to be squabbling with them over random personal junk," he says.
"It was a strange feeling to now be effectively unwelcome in what was our own workplace."
The rumours that bubble…
Craig Duturbure, former lead designer at Krome Studios and now lead designer of Melbourne's Fiasco Studios, has been at a number of studios when redundancies have hit, and was at Krome when the doors finally closed. He says that sometimes the first rumours to go around about a possible studio closure don't come from within the studio but from other companies.
"With the redundancies, the rumours usually fly around before the announcements [and] they often come from other companies entirely as they suddenly receive desperate phone calls, asking for jobs, from other branches of our company interstate," says Duturbure.
"How do these events go down? There's always two meetings and you hope to be in the second," he says.
"For the first, the boss goes around and invites all those to be made redundant to a meeting, where they're all told. You wait for the dreaded hand on your shoulder and the quiet invitation in that first round. It's awful."
"Then there's the second meeting, for those who will stay, where the situation is explained and everyone has the chance to talk about it all. In the case of the Krome redundancies, before the big fall, these meetings were handled very well because the head of the Melbourne studio, Kurt Busch, really cared for all his employees as people."
According to Duturbure, it is usually easier for those who are let go first to find work than for those who stay until a studio closes completely. Duturbure says that during the earlier redundancies there were more jobs on the market, but when the final wave of employees were made redundant the market had already been flooded by the previous wave of game developers and there were fewer opportunities.
The immediate aftermath…
So what happens then? Duturbure says that some developers at Krome saw the writing on the wall well before any redundancies were made and had been seeking other employment for months. Others saw it coming and, while it was sudden, it was not unexpected. Those who were hardest hit were the ones on international visas, and those with families and couldn't afford to be out of work for too long.
For Timms, the closure of Pandemic ended up being an enormous relief after the months of uncertainty.
"It had been so stressful, full of ups and downs and change, and feeling like a big, dark cloud was constantly hanging over our heads," she says.
"So by the time I finally received that yellow folder, it was almost a big relief - finally being cut free from this constant state of not knowing and questioning my job security."
But despite finally getting closure after a drawn-out period of stress, things weren't about to get easier. Timms found herself doing the "unemployment shuffle", constantly updating her LinkedIn profile, checking her email, updating her contacts list, waiting by the phone, updating her LinkedIn profile, and so forth.
"It's a constant state of highs (when the phone rings), lows (when it's just a telemarketer), and disappointments (‘We currently do not have any production vacancies at this time, but…')," she says.
After four months she found work at the now defunct Blue Tongue Entertainment working on De Blob 2. Others were also able to find work, with Walkley picking up contract work at the newly formed Trickstar Games and also lecturing at QANTM College, Symons moving onto Big Ant Games, and Duturbure and Jaffit joining and creating independent studios.
Coping with closure…
The experience of a studio closure is different for everyone and, while some developers managed to get work right away and others had to play the waiting game, there is little doubt that opportunities in Australia at big studios are no where near as available as they once were.
"There was a time when developers were much more secure in their jobs," says Jaffit.
"But overall the games industry has never been a secure blue chip industry. The fact of the matter is it has been much more turbulent as we've seen the transition to the next generation of consoles, then through to mobile over the last four years."
"The last four years have been the most catastrophic in the games industry since I've been involved. The flip-side is when I first entered the games industry little over a decade ago, from that point the whole industry was in growth year on year every year I was involved. So every year there were more jobs, more positions, more opportunities and for a couple of years that hasn't really been the case, and that's been a really tough transition for people to wrap their head around."
Jaffit says that one of the biggest losses to come from Australia's many studio closures is that there are now fewer opportunities for people who want to work at big studios.
"One of the advantages I have is early on I had the advantage of working in Vancouver. Vancouver suffered the repercussions of large cuts at a large EA Canada branch, which had resulted in thriving smaller studios like Relic and Barking Dog, so there is not a doubt in my mind that the overall repercussions [in Australia] will be to get up more independent developers."
"That said, it would be really nice if we had a large studio in town because a large studio provides training grounds for new staff - they can accommodate more students and more people to get into the industry and learn. There would be a lot of things that would be in our favour in terms of having that ability and growth," he says.
Ideally there would be a healthy mix of large studios with independent development teams, but given the current situation in Australia, with another EA studio closing just last week, what is a developer to do after a studio closure? Is it a cue to leave the country for greener pastures? Do developers who have spent their entire careers making titles for current-gen consoles suddenly make the switch to mobile games? Or is it time to throw in the towel and opt for a career change?
"Everybody responds to turbulence in different ways," says Jaffit.
"I can speak to my attitude as a developer and, broadly speaking, [the closure] brought the focus for me to quality. I think there's always a market for quality and by focusing on only doing good things we help to embrace that market for quality. It's made me realise that life's too short to work on stuff that you're not passionate about."
The current landscape…
Symons believes that despite the success of Firemint, Half-Brick, Iron Monkey and The Voxel Agents, he doesn't see the iOS market as a magical pill that will solve all of Australia's game development woes.
"The entry level nature of it means that it's going to get harder to be noticed, and soon you'll need greater fidelity, marketing, and up go your costs," he says.
"I think console development in Australia is not in great shape and realistically we should have an industry that is healthy in all areas. I have a lot of friends who saw game development as a bit of a crazy love affair and put up with its ‘quirks' because it was fun. Now they're a bit tired of the craziness and are moving on to something a little more stable. I get it, but that's a lot of great experience lost to stockbroking databases. At Big Ant I am really blessed to have an a really experienced team who understand the importance of achievable goals and, even though we're not critically darlings, we're producing the best games I've worked on."
Duturbure, who now works at Fiasco Studios making small-scale, quality games, says that the old model of game development may no longer be viable in Australia, but this should not stop game developers from making the games they want to make.
"Watching the big games studios in Australia has been like watching a polar bear clutching at a melting ice floe," he says.
"With a high dollar and no original IP, companies just don't have the value to overseas publishers they had a few years back, so closure are inevitable."
"There is the other side of the coin, though. For those who change their thinking and adapt to the new environment, this can be a time of hope. More and more, the push is towards smaller indie companies making small-scale, quality games, based on original IP. It's like a reboot of the early Commodore 64 days, only now there is an abundance of free and powerful tools with which small teams can create polished, quality games."
"For those in the industry and those looking to get in, so long as they break from the idea that big companies are the only option, they could actually do a lot towards an excellent career filled with more creativity and originality than was possible under the old model."
Matt Ditton, a game developer who worked for Krome and was at Pandemic Studios when it closed echoes Duturbure's sentiments. He believes the devastating closures of the past few years will usher in a new game development scene, one that will lead to Australia making better games.
"The foreign owned studio system in this country is really shrinking, but the independent system is blooming. That's not to be confused with the ‘indie' scene - I'm talking about small teams working full-time to develop games and intellectual property that can grow their business or just make the business sustainable," he says.
"On a quality standpoint, I think we're better than ever. We aren't making the same games we were, and that's a good thing. I think there has been a lot of soul searching and a lot of people in a lot of companies are trying to figure out how to not let the last three years happen again."
For many developers, one of the things they take away form a studio closure is the need to work on projects they're passionate about. Jaffit has taken this lesson and applied it to his independent studio, Defiant Development, who are taking a risk with a game that has not been attempted before. But the closures have also taught him something else.
"The one thing you learn through studio closures is the worst that could happen is they'll shut down the studio, and you don't die, and you wake up and if you're like me you spend three months not really being able to focus on what you want to do next, just getting over the whole thing, but then you dust yourself off and you work out what you want to do next and you put yourself together and you make it happen," he says.
"If you've lived through the worst case scenario, you no longer fear the worst case scenario and you can dp what you want to do without fear."
For Ditton and many others, it's about a renewed focus on quality and making the games they want to make without working to the creative restrictions of a large, foreign-owned publisher.
"I've learned a lot from studio closures, and it's really changed the entire way I look at and think about working in the industry," he says.
"If there's one thing, it's that we've started a whole new chapter of the Australian industry, and at the start of that chapter we have to stand on our own and make damn good games."
This article originally appeared on Kotaku Australia.