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, email 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, cancelling 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 organised 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'
OK, 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 favourite 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