What it's like to get laid off in the games industry

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

It’s easy to see game layoffs as a tragic but disconnected event. 150 people lost their jobs, but that’s easy to reduce to simple numbers. What does it mean? For many developers, it can be anything from the confusing loss of a dream job, to the sudden absence of treasured friends and colleagues. According to one person who requested anonymity—I’ll call him Jason—it meant a $25 Amazon gift card.

“In 2013,” Jason begins, “I got a job at one of the three largest third-party game publishers as a PR employee. It was my first real job in the games industry—a dream job to me. I was immediately blinded by how ‘honoured' I should be to work for said brand. So much so that I didn’t notice obvious problems from the outset. About five months in I was already burnt out. The hours and the pressure to perform got to me and my manager could not deal with the emotions involved with that level of stress. He put every small mistake I made under a microscope and every task was being micromanaged. There was no trust involved. If coverage of a game wasn’t positive it was my fault. Period.” In the spring of the next year, Jason was escorted into a room, and without warning told that the company “didn’t have time” for him. His contract would not be renewed. He was given a $25 Amazon gift card and pushed out of the building within a half-hour. 

This lack of warning isn’t atypical. Larz Smith has survived multiple layoffs as lead gameplay programmer at Daybreak, and can attest to the uncertainty that comes with a round of layoffs. “In many cases,” says Smith, “I’ve felt like our studio was doing good!” In fact, after one round of layoffs, Smith found himself planning out a schedule for people right until the day of the next layoffs. Detailing the process, Smith said, “You’ll get an impromptu meeting invite to one of two possible meetings: one for the people being fired and one for everybody else. I’ve never been in the meeting where people were let go, I can only imagine the anger and panic they feel. In the meeting for people who remain its just shock and sadness. The meeting is usually short, enough time to let this group of people know they still have jobs, assure them that this is a necessary evil for the ongoing stability of the company, and in fact to our remaining jobs, and to answer some brief questions.” 

Developer Dan Jordan found similar processes at work after suffering layoffs at Red 5 of Firefall, as well as Game of Thrones: Ascent developer Disruptor Beam. Two separate meetings, and the quiet realisation of which one you occupy. “Both times felt frustrating, demoralising, and humiliating,” says Jordan. “For both valid reasons like not having been able to secure a lifeboat and invalid reasons like not being able to save the studio single-handedly. Difficulty finding jobs at other studios only exacerbated things. 

“I still feel bitter and frustrated—with myself, the companies, the circumstances. Maybe devs who go through the wringer enough times get desensitised to it or end up at more stable places. I never got that chance.” Jordan is now working outside of the industry.

Survivor's guilt

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

The ramifications of a layoff can be wide-ranging. “Once people have found their motivation again, the effects of a layoff keep popping up,” Larz Smith says. “Did you fire somebody in the middle of a big task? We have their PC if the work is on there, but what if they hadn’t started on it yet? What if some of the code was left in an in-between state and things aren’t quite working? Did they have assets checked out and locked in version control? Do they have any documents on process or pipelines on their machines that haven’t been shared or uploaded?” 

That isn’t to mention the guilt cited by many of my sources following a layoff of any size. Gwen Frey, formerly of Irrational Games, addresses the survivorship bias that crops up when we discuss surviving a layoff, “When I go to GDC I run into old co-workers from Irrational all the time, and they are all doing really well and working on exciting new things! However, that is only because the people who never worked in games again don’t go to GDC. I honestly don’t know who didn’t cope with the closure well. I have no idea how many talented people decided that this industry is just too unstable for them.” 

It’s one of several things layoff numbers alone can never address. We can learn that 800 lost their jobs at Activison-Blizzard, but we can’t tell how many won’t come back.