Today we've got another roundup of stories from people who have gone through the layoff cycles that have become oh-so-common in the world of video games.
For months now we've been covering the way game publishers and development studios treat their employees in an attempt to spotlight the painful and unstable environment behind many of the games we love. (See our companion feature for a look at why layoffs happen so often in gaming.)
This, our fourth volume of game development layoff stories, shares accounts from people who have been laid off across the globe, who were the victims of mismanagement and draconian policies. One story actually recounts a layoff that turned out positive—or at least as positive as one can get when he or she is losing a job.
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.
Stories have been edited for clarity and brevity. Names have been redacted upon request.
A positive layoff story
My name is Nick Popovich. I'm an independent game designer, formerly of Three Rings where I created Spiral Knights. I wanted to share a personal layoff story that differs from the norm. Most importantly, I think it was a 'positive' one (if that's even possible with layoffs).
Back in 2004 I was a newly minted member of the games industry, moving out from the midwest to the bay Area for my first job at Castaway Entertainment. They were some ex-Blizzard North-ers who were working on a Diablo-style game. They had a publishing deal with EA. Seemed like a solid start.
Unfortunately, about a month after I started, EA dropped us, canceling the deal. This was during one of the many times 'PC gaming was dying' and EA wanted to move away from PC entirely, save for cash cows like The Sims franchise. I was crestfallen.
In the wake of all this were about 25 employees and some money in the bank left over from the deal. What my bosses should have done, if following the industry standard, was to lay everyone off but a select few and try to spin up something new, pitch it to publishers and hope it works out, all the while using that leftover cash to last a long time if need be. Instead, the heads of the company opted out of pay and continued to pay all employees who stuck around for a year. They even told us how long everything would last. We weren't in the dark.
For a year we pitched our game to other publishers, dreamed up smaller projects and tried new things all in a desperate hope to snag a new deal. It didn't work out.
In hindsight, perhaps my bosses squandered an opportunity and wasted their money, I don't know. But I know they felt an obligation to the people they hired. They weren't just employees to them; they were the team, their friends. Over the course of that year the checks never bounced and I never felt like one day I'd arrive to work with chains on the doors. In fact, our very last day of work before we were all finally let go was a catered Christmas party.
I know something like this isn't the norm. I know why other studios choose to go the other way. But I'll never forget what those guys did for a me back then. It's how I got my start, which lead me to create Spiral Knights and finally create my own company today.
'They told the media before they told us'
I saw you were looking for people to share their stories regarding layoffs in the games industry, so I thought I'd share my experience at [LARGE STUDIO], which laid off the bulk of its staff in 2012, and subsequently closed right before Christmas of that year.
I feel some back-story is required here, as this was not the first round of layoffs at this studio,. They had laid off a small number of staff previously in that year as well.
During all of the project's development, we were constantly crunching (a lot of us were doing 90+ hour weeks). Though the publisher gave us two years to develop the game, the studio's management of the situation was so bad we only properly started development of the game during the last 8-9 months. This resulted in an extremely poor environment to work in.
During the spring of 2012, the company announced it had to lay off around 10% of the current staff due to financial difficulties that were the result of a planned sequel to another project falling through.
During the evaluation period for the initial layoffs, job descriptions were made more specific in order to protect low-cost junior roles from redundancy.
This would obviously lead to further problems regarding our main project's development, as we had laid off a number of very experienced staff and replaced them with people who were inexperienced with our engine or how the company worked. I have no criticism of those juniors, though—they worked extremely hard trying to salvage what they had been given.
After that main project was released (and deservedly panned for being awful and unfinished), the entire company was scrambling to pitch new projects. There was talk of doing another project for that same publisher (which seemed unlikely given how bad our just released game was), an attempt to pitch our company as the studio to develop a game for a well-known IP, and various other small projects which should have gone through the pre-production stage long before this point.
Towards the end of the year, one of the directors sent a company-wide email announcing there may be more layoffs (the implication being that it would be similar to what happened previously).
Towards the end of that month, the majority of the workforce (including myself) was laid off due to severe financial difficulties.
Their handling of the mass layoffs was abysmal.
First, they told the media before they told us, meaning that some people had already seen the news that they were about to lose their jobs before they even set foot into work that morning. The company's logic was to disable everyone's internet connection in the studio in order to suppress the information, as if smartphones don't exist.
Second, we were taken off-site for the announcement, as we couldn't be trusted (despite many of us having heard the news unofficially by this point).
Third, they couldn't pay us. No notice pay, no redundancy pay, and no wages for that month either. Eventually we managed to claim a fraction of what we were owed from the government instead; however, this process took months.
Finally, there were severe communication issues. A bunch of people were off work during that period, and weren't told by the company that they'd lost their jobs until the following Monday (this happened on a Friday morning). So they found out via various articles and us raging on Facebook.
I feel it's worth noting that the response from the rest of the industry was fantastic. It is easy to get bogged down with all the negative stories regarding the games industry, but those of us who were part of the mass layoffs received a lot of support from companies across the UK and the rest of Europe. These consisted of events organized by the companies themselves (it was a bit amusing having a chat with representatives from large publishers in nearby pubs).
'They said they'd mail me my stuff'
Okay, first the layoff.
Once upon a time I worked for a small social game company that did not have a name. At the time I was their head of community and support, though my department was one person. We scaled up the company, and eventually I was leading a team of about 15 people. I was still making the same money as when I started, even though this was about a year later and nearly everyone had gone through multiple raises as our company hit milestones. That said, this was hands-down one of my favorite companies to work for. We were scrappy, we tried hard, and we actually cared what our players had to say. The support team had a ton of leeway in how to address player issues, and we did everything we could to influence things to make players happy.
Eventually we found out that were were being purchased by a bigger social game company. Part of what we sold to that company was our expertise and that we treated our employees exceptionally well. This I guess led to someone finding out I still hadn't been given a raise, which led to me getting my pay doubled and getting a bunch of stock (yay me!). They also found that in the year I'd been with the company I had been working seven days a week and never took a day off, so they gave me a ton of PTO.
Once we were bought out, I transitioned to just leading the community team and said goodbye to my support pals. I asked if I could use some of my PTO as I was at the cap, but they declined and instead just paid me out. I started working to build up the community team and take charge of the nearly dozen games they had that had never had a community team in the first place. I also found out that the company had no idea what a community team was or what it did. Every two weeks my KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) were changed, and I had to relay our new focus to the team. Suffice to say it was frustrating.
Towards the end of my second year I decided to cash in the rest of my vacation time and take a month off, as two years without a single day off was causing me to get headaches from stress, and I even started to pass out. My vacation time was approved in the first week of December, and I happily told my pals I'd see them next year. A few days before Christmas I received a call from the head of marketing telling me that the whole community team was laid off, most of marketing was laid off, and that they'd mail me my stuff (some of it never got here). They also told me I wouldn't be getting my stock, but after some blustering on my part they were happy to comply. Terrible timing, but at least I walked out of it whole.
Now for the collapse.
After working in social gaming for a few years I decided to take a job with some industry folks I knew and respected at a tiny startup. We were a "very lean" team of about seven people, but our game was fantastic. To this day I think it's one of the most innovative games I've worked on in the social space. I was our sole community and support person, though we already had plans in place to fill out a team.
Due to a lack of funding I was not drawing a salary, and I was paying for all of my software/licenses/hardware/etc out of pocket. This got to be pretty expensive, but I hoped it would pay off in the end. I put my nose to the grindstone and did everything I could to make us successful. After about six months of that I was told that we were completely out of funding and that we'd be closing doors. I agreed to continue working in my spare time while we went into sunset, and managed their customer support/forums/social media for another two months as I was looking for a job (okay, I took a month to not really look for a job).
After some time one of our executives reached out to me and did his best to repay me a bit to take the sting away. There's no bad blood between me and the team, just a lot of sadness that it didn't work out.
'We risk everything'
I was hired to work on a social game. I was the sole representative for two entire departments, so my days were very delirious and chaotic. The company was 58 kilometers [36 miles] away from the city where I lived: I took the train every day Monday through Friday (and some weekends) by 7am and I normally returned at home by 8pm.
The game performed very badly on the market, but our bosses told us that development was nearly at the end, and we were going to start a new game very soon.
However, things went differently. First they started to reduce the team without being honest about what was really happening. My contract was about to expire in one month and I asked one of my bosses if he could help out, because I hugely need money to pay the rent and I was hoping to have a notice period to start sending CV and try to spare money. He told me that he was in the dark, and that he would let me know as soon as he found something.
One week before the expiration of my contract, we were in crunch time. I fell sick and I kept working from home, as always, even if I was almost unable to type letters on the keyboard. But I made it, and I managed to complete the scheduled tasks. After two days, I returned at work, and my boss told me that the company was not willing to renew my contract. He admitted that the gaming department of the company was about to close, because the game's retention had never been positive. All because our CEO was too cowardly to give up on this game and start a new one before losing millions.
I just want to end by saying that we, the employees, do risk everything in this industry. Bosses lose some of their money, but they stay afloat, always.
We couldn't talk about the layoffs
While at a game company in the Bay Area, I got laid off by phone. I was on the train commuting home when I got a call from the Marketing Director and HR Director (in a three-way call). Not only was "today was my last day of work" (after I left and couldn't take any personal items), I was not allowed to come during business hours AT ALL (even to see friends) and I had to make arrangements to pickup my belongings before 7am during the week or on the weekend. Even after I got my stuff I was told that I should meet any friends "away from the building."
I was in the second wave of layoffs (out of three or four) and wasn't the only one in that wave. The first wave was the same way—everyone called at home. It was actually the company's policy to do ALL layoffs (and terminations) by phone.
They went so far as to have IT disable the external internet one evening when a project was being shut down (and the team was being laid off) so that everyone was forced to head home (instead of staying and playing games). As the calls started going out, the live producer of the game got wind of what was going on, so he just didn't answer his phone—so they would have to tell him face to face at the office. But by 7am the next day he was getting texts from the company lawyer saying that he needed to call them before he came to work that day.
Additionally, (at least for my layoff), if I wanted the severance pay they offered I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement—which is pretty normal, but this one included an entire section on not discussing or talking about the fact that the company had done layoffs except "in respect to looking for work." When I asked for clarification, they said I shouldn't post on Facebook, Twitter, etc that the company had done "layoffs" but I could say that I was "no longer with the company." Also, when I DID need to discuss my job situation while looking for work, that I shouldn't go into details about the company's layoff process and practices.
Being laid off is like being being dumped by someone you've been dating and having them say "it's not you, it's me." Trust me, being a computer geek and working in the gaming industry for more than a decade, I'm familiar with both.
Case in point, I've been laid off four times in the last five years, and each time there was one recurring message/phrase said to me, "You shouldn't take this as a reflection on you or your work."
Really? It certainly feels like a reflection on me or my work. Otherwise, I would have been considered too valuable to lose. Right? Especially given that none of the companies were closing completely. There had to be some sort of selection process—wouldn't my work be one of the first thing considered?
I will never know for sure.
After the fourth (and most recent) layoff, I started to examine the situation closer and I realized that phrases like, "You shouldn't take this as a reflection of your work" and "It's not you, it's me" are self-defense mechanisms on the part of the speaker. They feel bad for what is happening. They know you had no control over what is happening. And they are trying to find ways to make you feel a better (or relieve their guilt).
Whatever the reason, the end result is the same; you take a big shot right in your self-worth, and regardless of what they say (or how they phrase it) while doing it, nothing is going to prevent the pain.
You just have to remember, that like being dumped romantically, losing a job is an emotional injury as well as a professional one. It will take time to heal and for the sense of loss to go away.
Finally, I will end with this thought on my own choice of working in the gaming industry:
Working in the gaming industry is a lot like dating a really a hot girl (or guy) while in high school. All of your friends are really jealous, you wake up every morning amazed at your own luck, and deep down you know that one day it will probably all end.
You can reach the author of this article at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jasonschreier.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby