Today we've got another batch of stories from people who have been affected by the never-ending cycle of layoffs that hovers menacingly over the video game industry.
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 third volume of game development layoff stories, shares anecdotes from people who have been corralled like cattle into HR offices, who have worked never-ending slates of 12-hour days, who have experienced studio shutdowns out of the blue. One story gives us an idea of what it's like to be the person who has to tell people they no longer have jobs.
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.
'If I had to go to the bathroom, someone had to escort me.'
When my entire department was let go at [BIG SOCIAL GAMING COMPANY], it was the most disorganized thing I'd ever gone through in my career. I found out that layoffs were happening when one of the guys on my team texted me to let me know he'd been laid off. He sat right behind me.
Instead of doing it in groups, they did it individually throughout the day. They didn't tell us if we were safe or not, either. So we sat there all day wondering if it was going to happen to us. Those of us who were still there by lunch tried to carry on as usual. After lunch it seemed the excitement in the office had died down, so I thought maybe I was OK. I was typing a short message to my wife on Skype, letting her know that she might hear that layoffs were happening but that I was OK. I was just about to hit enter to send it when I got a tap on the shoulder...
I was alright with it. I had only stayed at the company out of loyalty to my boss, and he was let go too. So, when my time came, I was actually relieved. What happened next was a microcosm of what was wrong with the company in my opinion: Someone gets you, leads you into a conference room, tells you what is happening, and then takes you down to meet with [human resources]. Should be a quick transaction, right? Nope.
They took me down to HR, where I sat in an unventilated crowded room for the next five hours waiting for a five-minute meeting. They took my badge so I couldn't leave the cattle corral, and if I had to go to the bathroom, someone had to escort me. I understand them wanting to control the situation, but damn.
"I understand them wanting to control the situation, but damn."
They also locked out our computers from the network to prevent any tampering on the part of the soon-to-be-let-go. With some creativity, I was able to get myself back online and gather the contact info that I needed to take with me. Friends had already reached out to me asking for my resume, so my spirits remained high, even if my patience was wearing thin. Eventually my name was called. The HR person did their best to explain what happened next, and how the company would do all they could to help me land another job. That might have been the worst part of the whole ordeal. That is the most disingenuous thing that happens during layoffs. They have no intention of helping you. People you worked with, that know you, they will be the ones to help.
It wasn't as easy for everyone in the room. Lots of people were extremely upset. They had moved here from all over the country, or different parts of the world, and were now stranded. One guy sitting next to me said he had only been there six weeks. He wasn't that upset, but still frustrated. I saw some people crying, some yelled, and others drank. It's no fun for anyone.
I have had the pleasure of being laid off from [MAJOR GAME PUBLISHER] two times, once as a full time designer (layoffs) and once as a contract tester (contract not renewed). I worked there for eight years through many crunches of consecutive 90+ hour weeks, and the only time I saw my family in that time was when I happened to walk in late at night and someone had woken up to go to the bathroom. My career high was also 27 straight days worked—all more than eight hours each.
So you feel like you have been cheated when they call you in and some hatchet man they hired is letting you go several weeks before the holidays (guess that has to do with financial reasons for the following year, but it was a bad time to have that happen). This is all while you have been receiving "above-target" reviews and have been killing yourself to get the game done – and the games are often consecutive.
During one of my assignments when [GAMES] were in full swing, I was doing the job of at least two people and would work continually until dinner and run across the street and grab fast food. I would come back to several blinking IM's and a voicemail from a development director that is asking about resolutions to about the 10th most important thing on my to-do list. The stress level had me replying to people in 80-font when their tone wasn't just right. So I was constantly stressed out due to the hours, workload and not being able to leave at a decent hour ever.
They have done a lot to improve the work-life balance, but it used to be non-existent. I remember when [COMPETING GAME] moved up their release date several weeks. We were immediately called into a big meeting and told from that point on we would be working 10-10's (10am – 10 m) starting that day that eventually topped out at 10am-2am or later, depending on if a critical fix was in the works or if the builds were being made.
Combine that with the fact that most of the positions pay peanuts in comparison to other companies that need QAs, project managers or development. My first job after [MAJOR GAME PUBLISHER] my salary went up more than double and now I am making almost triple what I was paid near the end of my [PUBLISHER] tenure.
The gratification of completing a game is so short-lived, because next year's game has already been started on before the current years is done. In short, the best part of working at [PUBLISHER] is the lax dress code, the free cereal and working on video games. The rest of it is not as good as other jobs you can find, and I am not sure they value talent as much as other companies do (as stupid as that sounds).
Back in 2010 I worked for Budcat Creation in Iowa, a company owned by Activision. It started like any other day. Around 10:30-11am the entire company got an email telling us that we would all be meeting in different areas of the studio: This group of people meet here, that group of people meet there, and so on.
At first we all thought we were going to be ramping up on new projects. At the time we were just finishing up a project, and we were working on prototypes for new IPs. We had figured we were starting full development on one or more of those. That wasn't the case. At the meeting we were told we were shutting down, and that we were all being laid off. This was then followed up by an Activision rep entering the room to give us packets and information about severance and insurance.
At this point, my stomach was somewhere near my feet. I was numb. But things got worse, and almost hostile. We were told that sometime during the meeting we were losing access to our computers. We were being locked out of everything. I was extremely lucky. I kept an external hard drive connected to my PC. I used it for storing and listening to music. I used it for saving personal projects. And I used it to save assets I worked on from past projects.
We were told that we would have to put in a request to retrieve any information we wanted from our hard drives. The request would go through a committee, and would take about three months to get a response. (Three months was also the length of our severance packages.) To this day, no one has heard anything from Activision on the matter. I was the only one to get anything out of Budcat that could help me obtain new employment.
Along with being told that we no longer had access to our PCs, we were told we had to be out of the building in five minutes and we couldn't take anything with us except our coats. If we did not comply, we would be considered trespassers and would be forcibly removed. Activision hired eight massive bouncers to make sure we didn't do anything too crazy. This meant that all of our personal belongings: toys, figurines, Nerf weapons, family photos, etc had to be left behind. In our packet we found a return date. On that date and time we would be allowed to re-enter the building where we would have an exit interview with one of our HR reps. After that we would be given 15 minutes to collect our things.
The entire time I was packing my stuff I had two bouncers standing near me. Of course they were nice and helped me pack up, but I knew why they were there.
Budcat was my first game industry job. I loved it! Loved being able to do something I was really great at. It didn't matter what project we were working on. I was there almost three years. In one day, I was made to feel like a criminal, like I had done something unforgivably evil.
Work longer hours for no extra pay… or quit.
When I arrived at [SMALL GAMING STUDIO], I realized that out of the 30 people there, I was the most experienced, even though I had only five years in interactive entertainment at the time. The CEO was in his early 20s, and had a habit of hiring attractive young women fresh out of college with no relevant degree or experience and quickly promoting them to top management roles within the company. Much of the leadership team would not show up at the office until 2-3pm, and they would routinely schedule mandatory meetings for us at 9pm. When I approached the recruiter (in lieu of an actual HR department) about my concerns, she broke down and told me that she was going to quit, because she was afraid of being sued.... the CEO had asked her to do things she considered unethical, and she feared for her career if she were to be further associated with the company.
Over time, a pattern of scapegoating appeared..... someone would bring up a problem within the company and then they would be gone, and the leadership team would talk about how that person had been "poisoning morale." I started receiving long, rambling, passive-aggressive emails from my immediate supervisor, escalating to direct threats like "if you continue like this, I won't be able to protect you any longer." I saved the emails and forwarded them up the chain, and while things calmed for a bit, I learned after I quit that this person and several others were attempting to push me out.
We had a number of interns working there on international visas..... whom we later learned were pressured to work 80+hour weeks (no overtime paid) under the threat of their visas being revoked. For a brief time, the company employed an executive who would frequently take the team out for wildly expensive meals, then loudly insult the waiting staff at the restaurant with blatantly racist remarks. I and many of my co-workers stopped attending these events out of embarrassment.
"I want to testify as a character witness for the woman being sued, but I can't afford for this unscrupulous company to come after me, too."
And that's just what happened while I was there. Here's what happened after I left: five more people (notably, all women except for one) quit within a month. One of them was then sued by the company for supposed embezzlement, which I am certain is untrue because I was aware of several of the charges in question, and it's also extremely out-of-character for her. The stress of the situation contributed to her having a stroke at a young age, but the company continued to press their suit over a year later, even as she had to relearn how to walk and talk. Later, when more people quit, they threatened suit against a different former employee, which has had what I assume was the desired effect of convincing the rest of us to keep our mouths shut. I want to testify as a character witness for the woman being sued, but I can't afford for this unscrupulous company to come after me, too.
When the company was losing so much money that they decided they needed to cut staff, they did it by inviting each employee into a private meeting, where a number of critiques of their work were brought up that had never been previously mentioned. They were then told that they were expected to "prove themselves" by working much longer hours for no additional pay. Faced with this, many quit on the spot, which I imagine the company had hoped for to avoid paying unemployment.
To my knowledge, of the 30-40 people who were there at the same time as me, only five remained after a year (plus anyone they've hired since then). The original company has started a spin-off under a different name, and somehow, they are still in business.
'We cannot continue to fund this game'
I started at a small publishing company and on my first day I'm given a tablet with an early slice of a turn-based strategy game we're publishing as well as access to all the documents associated with it. I read through the docs to get a sense of what the game is about, and already my spidey sense is tingling—something is off. I've been in the industry long enough to know that docs and how well they are maintained varies from team to team, so I make no judgments just yet. I boot up the game, and it's terrible. The concept is a muddled mess, and does not match the docs I had just read through, besides that it's a TBS. Everything is totally different. It's a different theme and art style. At this phase, the core loop of the game is supposedly implemented, meaning that everything from then on would be built to support this basic gameplay mechanic. I should be able to play a complete round of the game, but it's not there. I grab my new boss and tell him that I have some serious concerns already.
I spend the next month working closely with the developer to iron out these issues, but there is one issue we cannot fix: the game is just not fun to play. The executive producer on the game is let go, and he blames me. I didn't advocate for him to be fired, but that doesn't matter. I'm the guy that came in and upset the apple cart. I understand his anger.
A new producer takes over and is given one more month to turn things around. To his credit, he does an amazing job of cleaning things up, but it isn't enough. I meet with upper management on all sides and deliver my recommendations, saying we need to stop production on this game immediately. When I say we should fund, kill, or make any decision, I have to come prepared. We don't make business decisions on a whim—we're talking about large sums of money, and they want solid intel. In this case, I outline the problems with the game in depth and also show them how other games in the genre had fared. After a grueling and at times heated Q&A session, we all agree we cannot continue to fund this game.
"I hate this part of the job, but I do it because it needs to be done."
Soon after, they book me a flight to visit the developer and deliver the bad news. Some might ask: why was I sent, and not someone higher up? It's a fair question. The answer is because I asked to be sent. I won't make these decisions, then hide under my desk and let someone else do the dirty work. I know all the reasons why this decision was made and can answer them better than upper management.
So I'm sitting in a conference room, me on one side, six people on the other all with their arms crossed trying to hold in their emotions. They know why I'm there. It's not a secret. I'd been very open about the direction this was likely heading. I spend the next couple of hours going through something that is not too dissimilar to the five stages of grief. First there is a certain amount of shock, even if they know it's coming. They get mad. Then they try to negotiate for more time and money. Then they want answers, and I do my best to give them. Finally there is acceptance. Most of the people in the room get it, but there is one that seems like he is ready to pop. His voice is getting louder, to the point where he is practically shouting at me. His boss eventually calls him out into the hallway. He doesn't return. I hate this part of the job, but I do it because it needs to be done. By not funding that game, I was able to fund another game that saw some real success and also do two prototypes one of which might get fully funded as a result. If I hadn't spoken up and killed that game, this might be another story about how I was let go or how my company went under.
Another time, we had a game that was already live but performing very badly. The CEO of the company would get on the phone with us almost daily and say, if we didn't push X amount of users in the game… he would shut down the company. The numbers were so bad that we couldn't justify spending the money on marketing to get more users. It would be money flushed down the toilet. We'd spend a lot so he could make a little. No business person in their right mind would do that. The funny part of this was how lavishly the CEO spent money. In one sentence he would be begging us for more money to keep his company afloat, and then tell us about how he was having a brand new fully-decked-out Tesla shipped in that he just bought. He eventually shut the studio down, but I presume he's still driving his Tesla.
Image by Tara Jacoby