There’s this marvelous article on Kotaku at the moment explaining the cyclical nature of the game industry, and why we all get laid-0ff so frequently. Go check it out.
finish game–>launch game–>lay off devs–>develop game–>hire devs–>finish game…
I don’t need to explain this for folks in the game industry, but my non-industry friends always seem a little shocked when I casually say, “Yeah, got laid-off again.” It’s kinda insane as a business model. And short sighted. Which the article points out.
It would make sense, once you’ve built a team that works together well, to keep that team intact. It isn’t easy to find that many people who can work together and get shit done. And every time you build a team, there’s a ramp up phase while people figure out how to work together. But instead companies lay off large portions of their dev teams once a game launches because they’re trying to save money and, after all, they don’t *need* those people anymore. Nevermind six months later when they start in on serious development of the next game and they have to hire new devs. Because, of course, the devs they let go have gone on to find other jobs.
The thing that boggles my tech industry friends, and I totally get this, is how many man hours that wastes. You have to spend time finding candidates, grading candidate tests, interviewing, interviewing again… And many of your new hires will be unknown quantities. You don’t know how well they do their jobs, not really. Or how well they work with others.
I worked at one studio that had been a small, independent studio until they got purchased by a large corporate entity. And, just as the author of the Kotaku article says, corporate handed down strict budgets for each project. This was a bit more extreme than what he’s talking about, with trying to have a second project starting up already while you’re working on the first. They had to start up *multiple* new projects to justify keeping the devs. It was kind of ridiculous. If the main game under development didn’t need environment art at the moment, those artists would be shifted to another project. But then the main game would be finished with user interface art (for the moment) and need environment again, and those teams would get moved around. Again. It was a desperate juggle on the part of studio management, trying to do right by its employees while keeping corporate happy.
So morale suffers, big time. There’s no incentive to put your heart into a project when you know you’ll just be losing your job once it’s over.
The game industry gets away with treating its workforce like this because of the coolness factor, I think. Lots of people want to work in games. Lots of people will take crap pay in order to do that. Of course, the more experienced and senior you get, the less you’re willing to take crap pay. Which means you get fewer jobs. And there are always kids straight out of college who will gladly take those jobs. They won’t know what they’re doing. It’ll take a long time for them to build the skills.
There’s a reason the game industry skews young. The young don’t know what they’re worth, they won’t stand up for themselves as much, and they don’t have families to support. Moving to a new city for a job is still exciting, not a burden. Working until 9, 10, 11 at night is fun instead of exhausting.
As for me, and many other narrative designers, we’re even less valued than most other devs. Because everyone thinks they can write. So you end up with people whose specializations lie elsewhere writing your game. And then you have the company-wide playtests, or you bring in the mock reviewer, or you even go into Friends and Family Alpha, and you suddenly realize your story sucks. Often, it isn’t actually the story itself, but the execution that’s the problem. You have great ideas, but don’t know how to write dialog, so every character sounds the same and there’s lots of “As you know Bob, phase crystals work like this…” instead of fun story. And that’s when narrative designers get hired. Frequently on temporary contract, and primarily as firefighters. We get to fix the story, but we’re left with legacy stuff that no longer makes sense and we have to make it work.