Yesterday, the game development studio Daybreak went through massive layoffs, culling a large number of jobs in order to stay "profitable." That's just business as usual in the video game industry, where it seems like there's a new round of layoffs every single week.
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.)
In this, our fifth (and likely final) volume of layoff stories, we've got anecdotes from people across the world who have lost their jobs at video game companies. There are stories about forced relocations, about unexpected studio closures, about pizza parties that go horribly wrong. The last story, which is very long, might be the most heartbreaking layoff story we 've published so far. Give it a read.
The stories, which are recounted in first-person, have been edited for clarity and brevity. Names have been redacted upon request.
The Pizza Party From Hell
The testers at [MAJOR PUBLISHER] had just finished wrapping up testing on a project we'll call "Biolands". And to congratulate them, the man in charge arranged a huge bowling/pizza party for the end of the week. Of course everyone is hyped for the event. So the day finally arrives and all the testers show up. They all start bowling and eating pizza. After a few hours of everyone enjoying themselves, the VP asks for everyone's attention. When he does manage to get the team to listen, he begins to thank them for their hard work and has the leads hand them their termination papers.
After that event, the crew could no longer throw events without scaring everyone to death.
We Were In The Wrong Building
I was a game analyst for [SOCIAL GAME COMPANY], working out of the Seattle satellite office from 2012 through 2014. We had produced two profitable Facebook games and launched our third title in July of 2013. As soon as it went live, everyone in the studio who reported up to someone in headquarters started getting negative feedback during review cycles. Nothing seriously negative, but nothing we did seemed to please our superiors down in San Francisco.
Right before the holidays in 2013, our game turned the corner from "still working out the bugs" to "retaining players and making money" and started to grow. Development settled into a reliable content cadence and we started thinking about what would be next for the studio.
In January, the studio was informed that we would be closed down permanently and the game would instead be supported from San Francisco. Only two people from an office of 30 were offered positions in San Francisco. Headquarters was pretty callous about it, labelling the move as one necessary for the company to cut costs and maintain profitable games. The severance package was ok — one month of salary per year of service and an extra month on top of that of healthcare.
Perhaps what stung the most was our title being given to a team at headquarters that hadn't been able to make a profitable game in years. Always hurts to see failing teams keeps their jobs simply because they're in the right building.
5000 Miles Away
I was hired by this huge studio in early 2014 to work as a Game Designer on one of their free-to-play titles. They recruited me because they wanted someone to help revamp the game to make it profitable again. The recruitment was very fast: there was a single interview, and the next day, I was informed they wanted me to fill the spot.
So my wife and I started to pack on, ready for a new adventure 5000 miles away from home. To be completely honest, the global offer was pretty neat: decent salary, relocation package, all working permit fees covered, accommodation paid for one month upon arrival to give us some time to find our own place. All of this, plus the promise of a fresh start in a new country.
One month after I started working, the studio head informed us that for profitability reasons, they were abandoning the project. Well, apart from the disappointment that I didn't have time to *really* work on the project and bring it back from the dead (which is why they had recruited me initially), I wasn't that worried: these things happen everyday, and they would not have asked me to relocate and give up everything I had unless they had long-term plans for me. They surely knew the project could go either way and had something else in store that would use my skills.
Except they didn't.
At first, when I told them I was slightly worried about my future in the company, they immediately reassured me that they knew what I was going to do next. The team was slowly dismantled, with some people moving on to another project very quickly, and others staying a little longer (myself included). At first I thought it was fine, as different departments might start at different times depending how advanced a new project is, but I was a little bugged by the fact I wasn't told how long this downtime would last.
Well, it didn't last long.
Two weeks later, at 11am on a Tuesday, I was summoned by an HR counsellor for a "10-minute meeting". I went there, convinced I was going to learn more about my new assignment date. When I entered the room and found the head of HR at the table as well, I immediately understood what was going to happen. They told me the project I was supposed to work on had not been approved by HQ and that as a result, there was nothing for me to do in the company any longer. I was stunned. Stunned to be laid off, of course, but also stunned that they would have someone travel across the globe with no contingency plan.
That was it: I would hand over my badge, and the HR staff would retrieve my belongings from my desk. I couldn't even say goodbye to my co-workers. It was noon, and I had all my stuff in a box, ready to come back home and inform my lovely wife that 1) I lost my job, 2) I had NO right to work anywhere else because my working permit was strictly attached to the company, unless another employer agreed to pay for and wait two months for another working permit. On a side note, I was not the only one from my team to be made redundant during the month, but none of my former coworkers were in my particular situation.
They knew what they were doing when they laid me off. They knew I had only been here for a few months and that I was not entitled to any compensation. They knew I would have to go through the working permit process all over again and that it would make the search for another job much more difficult. We could not go back to our previous life simply because there was nothing left from it. And yet, they did it anyway.
'I wasn't allowed to say anything'
Until a few years ago, I'd worked at one studio for about six years, mostly on console games. The company itself wasn't anything spectacular. They didn't seem to care about making great games, or innovation, or original ideas in general. Their games were exactly the sort that would instantly be compared to something similar and better, and then disregarded. Even when we got to work on a major [intellectual property], it was usually on the last-gen port of a current-gen game. Still, playing it safe meant that the company managed to keep about 80 people employed for a while.
The company's culture was very programmer-centric — if you were a programmer, you were one of the 'cool' kids. If you were an artist, as I was, you were practically seen as less important than the janitor. If anything art-related didn't work in game, it was automatically your fault, because it certainly couldn't be a bug in the exporter or the engine. On one game, our animations looked terrible and jerky. This time, the programmers knew it was a bug on their end but didn't have time to fix it. A month after the game shipped, they finally fixed the bug, but by that point the game had already been doomed by bad reviews.
Some time later, there was talk of a much larger company buying the studio. Everyone was excited because this company was buying smaller studios left and right at the time, and we all really wanted their name on our resumes. The buyout offer vanished after our CEO passed away.
My last year at the company seemed to drag on forever. Many people complain about being overworked, but in my case it was the opposite — the game (a port of a next-gen title) was so mismanaged that we rarely had anything to work on. The animation team would get an assignment, with the expectation (or hope) that it would take us at least two weeks to complete. It often took closer to two days. Between assignments, eventually there was this dread that everyone knew there wasn't enough work, and sooner or later we'd be let go. It took several months, but in the end it finally happened.
One day, I was called into a meeting. I noticed the rest of my team wasn't getting up, so I took my time. I never got called into meetings on my own, unless it was a one-on-one with my boss. "We're waiting for you," I heard a couple minutes later. I walk into the conference room, and seated at the table were several people I recognised but had never worked with directly, if at all. The door was closed behind me... I knew what was happening before I even sat down. The boss confirmed our fears, but with a bit of good news — we would all be getting two months' severance pay, plus our [paid time off] time would be paid out. I was the only person smiling. The others hadn't been working on the same game that I had, so they had no idea that this felt like a blessing to me.
At the end of the meeting, things got awkward. We were allowed to return to our desks — supervised, of course — to collect whatever belongings we could carry out by hand. I picked up my bag, and waved good-bye to my team, who only then realised that I had just been laid off. I wasn't allowed to say anything, which confused them even more.
Some time later, I learned from my former teammates that there were more rounds of layoffs. More than that, I'd learned that I was one of the lucky ones. My supervisor was one of the last to be let go, and by then he not only didn't get any severance pay, but the company also hadn't been paying him at all for several months.
The kicker? Not only had the final round of layoffs occurred just before the holidays, it had happened just before the royalty payments were due for one of their most successful titles. Since royalties were only shared with current employees, this meant the remaining staff — about five people — were going to have a very merry Christmas.
'Daddy's job in video games was no longer a cool thing they liked to brag about'
My husband has worked in the video game industry for just about 14 years. It was always his dream to make video games, and it was a goal he's worked towards since he began learning to program at 12 years old. One day on a whim, he applied to a major console game developer, and three weeks later our family of five was moving to California.
The company my husband was working for was really great. The benefits were amazing, he was paid well, and we had a good life — but we would never be able to afford to buy a house in California. We loved it there, but owning our own home has always been a huge dream of ours, and there was no way we would be able to work out having both. We decided to keep an eye out for positions in other states and entertain the thought of moving somewhere else with a lower cost of living, hopefully enabling us to purchase our own home.
We found some possibilities and, after interviewing, he received a great offer from a wonderful and stable company, in a state where we already had friends and family. We purchased a home and relocated our (now) family of six, leaving California for good. This was a really exciting move for us. Each child had their own room (they had to share in California), and they could paint or decorate their rooms however they liked. Our in-laws were in a position to buy a second home in the area, so they could be closer to the grandchildren. It was a ranch, and the kids loved to explore it. Life was looking very good, and we were all very excited about the future.
The following summer was when we experienced our first layoff. It was devastating and extremely scary. My income wasn't enough to cover the mortgage, even with the unemployment. We received no severance, and our health benefits would run out at the end of the month.
We tried applying for positions at numerous gaming companies (and non-gaming companies) in the area, but no one was looking for my husband's skilset at that time (in addition to there being a mass layoff and the market being flooded with great talent of all levels). In the end, we were forced to relocate. We chose a studio that had been around for many years and had survived through releases of games both good and bad. We had friends in that area, and the entire situation looked like a pretty good fit for us.
We continued paying for the house while it was on the market, and we were once again put up in temporary housing. This time, the six of us had to stay in a hotel for a month, until an apartment that would fit us all became available. Once we moved into the temporary apartment, it was time for the children to start school again. We registered them knowing they would only be in the school for a month or so, and then they would move to a more permanent school once we found our own apartment to rent.
This time, our stay in temporary housing was extended due to the amount of overtime my husband had to work, and we were not able to transfer the children to their new school until they were between semesters. As was inevitable, they had begun making friendships and establishing roots, even though they knew they wouldn't be staying. It wasn't easy for them, but we had prepared them well from the start, and they knew they could keep in contact with their friends and maintain those friendships if they wanted to. I think that made it a little bit easier on them.
After we were settled and a couple of years had passed, I received notice that my appeal for in-state tuition was being granted and that I was able to register for classes at the local college. My son had been very sick for the past few months, and our family paediatrician told us that he felt our next step was surgery. He said it was probably best to do it sooner rather than later. We got him scheduled and started preparing for it. My husband requested some time off so he could be there. It was approved and we were all set.
Two days later, my husband was laid off again. He called me and told me not to freak out, but that he would be home soon. He had been laid off, but we had a great severance package, and we would be able to figure things out. My heart broke, and after I hung up the phone, I cried. I cried until I heard him come home, and then I didn't shed another tear. We would get through this, and we would be fine. I had to be strong for the kids, my husband, and myself.
The company he had been working for was wonderful about everything, and they did give us a great severance package. I think we received paychecks for 60 days, and our insurance was covered for 60 or 90 days, I don't quite remember. At this point, I don't think we would have been able to survive if they hadn't. It took him approximately 40 days to find a position with another company — and we would have to relocate again.
This particular company would not pay for relocation or assist with temporary housing. We were not offered a trip out to find a home. All of those expenses had to come out of our own pocket. Our home still had not sold, and we started renting it out, but our tenants caught it on fire and then abandoned the home. Our property management company gave up trying to help us; we were drowning in debt and eventually headed into foreclosure. We didn't have the finances, strength, or energy to keep going after the tenants ourselves, so we completed a Deed in Lieu of Foreclosure instead (apparently, this is not any better than a foreclosure itself, but we did not understand it at the time).
My husband began work at the new studio, and within months was working 100+ hour weeks, often times not coming home at all. He did not have days off. Sometimes he would manage to come home for two hours, and the most he was ever home was five hours a day. If I wanted to see him, I had to watch him sleep.
After the game came out, he was given a week of compensation time for all of the hours he had been putting in. Even though he was on a break, he wanted to keep up on how the game was doing, so he attempted to check his email and see how everything was going on. His login failed. He tried again thinking he'd typed the password wrong. It failed again.
He called in to find out what was going on and after only having worked there for 10 months, he was told he had been laid off, yet again. There had been no phone call, no email to his work or personal account. There was no notification. There would be no severance, and he would not be paid for his compensation time. Our insurance ended at midnight that evening — not the end of the month like most places.
When my husband was laid off, our oldest daughter was in ninth grade attending her ninth school, my fourth grader was attending her fourth school, and my second grader was attending his second. All of the children had just really begun making close friends and getting settled in. It seemed like with each move, it was taking long and longer for them to get settled. It was really sad to watch, but at the same time completely understandable. This time, they really loved their schools, the neighbourhood, and the city we lived in. With each move, you hope it will be the last — that your luck will finally change, but that just never happens.
When we had to tell the children the news about the layoff, they were in tears before we finished. They asked us if we'd have to move and begged us to find a way to stay. It was at this point that Daddy's job in video games was no longer a cool thing they liked to brag about, but instead a source of heartache and pain they didn't like to mention or talk about.
We tried our best to find a job in the local area, even outside of the video game industry, but yet again, it didn't work out for a variety of reasons. This go round, we had a lot of offers from all over the nation (we have always felt incredibly blessed about this — a lot of people have trouble getting any offers, much less multiple ones).
I had several company owners and directors ask to speak to me directly to assure me of their stability and address any of my fears and concerns over their job offers. Out of character for me, I actually did speak to most of them and voiced my fears about layoffs, and accepting offers only to be laid off when the project was complete. I explained how my ex was threatening to file for custody of my daughter because we weren't stable, and my children weren't as young as they used to be. We needed to find them a home, not another temporary place to stay.
We really took our time making our decision and picked the most stable company we could. It was another company he had worked with in the past, who had been around for many years, and the entire team was really down to earth. We promised our oldest that with this next move, once we found a home to rent and were settled, we would do everything we could to make sure she could finish out High School wherever we landed.
With this next relocation, we had to live in a hotel for 45 days. It was the middle of the school year, and because we lived in a hotel, my children were classified as homeless. Their bus stop was located outside of the homeless shelter. This new school didn't offer the same foreign language my daughter had been taking, so she had to switch to a different one. Most of the classes she had been taking weren't offered, so she had to pick new classes and was very behind in most of them. She spent most of winter break catching up, and we spent that Christmas in a strange city, in a hotel.
A year and a half later, we were told he would be laid off in two months. I was seven months pregnant. Our insurance would end two weeks before the baby was due.
This was the first time we'd ever had notice, and that was extremely helpful. They even tried to get him interviews at other local studios, find contractor work, and finagle ways to extend our insurance so that the birth would be covered. They tried everything they could in order to help us in any way possible. It's weird to say, but it was the best layoff situation we'd ever gone through. I will never forget everything they did for us.
In the end, we were able to negotiate a deal with a company in California that would allow him to work from home where we were living at the time. My children would not have to change schools, and my daughter could finish her last two years of high school with her friends. They knew about the baby, and due to circumstance, we had a scheduled caesarean section so we worked out a bit of paternity leave into the deal, and everything was all set. We couldn't believe it! Our daughter was so happy that we'd been able to keep our promise, she really would graduate from the same high school after all. I felt like I could breathe again, and that our luck had finally changed.
I really can't put into words how excited and relieved we were. He was finally working for a truly stable company who had been around since the beginning. They were amazing to us, and they made sure we were all taken care of and covered by insurance in time for the baby to be born, and tried to make sure we didn't worry about a thing.
It was at this point we really felt like life was solid. We decided to actually unpack everything and make a home out of the house we were staying in. This was something we hadn't done since we left the house we had purchased. We hung pictures on the walls. We invested money in decorating the kids' rooms, as best we could in a rental. We took the time to really settle in, and even talked to the owners about purchasing the home in the next few years, if they'd consider selling it.
That company was LucasArts.
He started working in the spring of 2012, and Disney shut down the studio in April of 2013.
That year, my husband couldn't fly out and attend my stepson's graduation, because we had to move instead. We couldn't afford for him to go, or to send him any decent graduation gift.
My oldest daughter just graduated from her 14th school, where when we registered her for classes, the school forced her to take almost all freshman classes because she didn't meet this state graduation requirements. It didn't matter that she took equivalent or more difficult classes, or that she'd taken some of the requirements in middle school, and it didn't matter that they were preventing her from taking AP classes. In the state we left, she only needed two credits to graduate. I had to appeal all the way up to the Board of Education and threaten to go to the state level, so that the school here could allow her to take more difficult classes than they were trying to make her take. They conceded on three of her eight classes and allowed her to take AP Government as an independent study course for the fourth. My daughter did not bother to make any friends or walk at graduation, because, "what's the point". She had no ties to this school, and her senior year was a disaster.
She was accepted into the state university here but assigned out of state tuition because we hadn't been here for a year when she applied. We're working on getting that fixed and so far, it looks like it will be — but if it isn't, her tuition will be $US20,000 more than it would be if she were a resident.
Our current state won't accept her out of state driving permit, so she has to get a new one and hold it for a year before she can get her licence. We didn't realise this until a few months ago. Her college is an hour and a half to two hours away depending on traffic, and I don't have four to six hours a day to drive her back and forth. It takes three hours one way via public transportation. Instead, she'll have to live in the dorms, so that's another $US10,000 for college we weren't expecting.
My middle daughter has recently been diagnosed with extreme depression and anxiety. She has started hurting herself. She has a few close friends but absolutely hates her new school. She had her first therapy appointment recently, but I'm almost afraid to take her because I know it will take a lot of time for her to get comfortable before she opens up and then she may get too attached to that particular therapist.
I'd like to repeat that — I need to get my daughter therapy to help with the trauma and stress from all of these moves, but I'm afraid to because I'm terrified she'll become attached to her therapist, and we'll have to move again.
My son was recently diagnosed with Autism, is severely ADHD, and has a heart condition. He's been put on a six month cardiologist schedule so he can be watched for surgery, because his heart defect is deteriorating faster than it should be. We always knew he would need this surgery, but he wasn't supposed to need it until he was around 50-60 years old. I'm terrified we'll lose our insurance and he won't be covered when he needs it.
He has no friends at school and is picked on, not only by the students, but the teachers as well. To get them into better schools, we'd have to move again, and I don't have the heart to do that to them.
We just hit the one-year mark in our new state, and I am terrified every time my husband calls during the work day, or that he'll walk in the door one day while he's supposed to be at work, to tell me we have to move again. I don't know how long it would take for that feeling to go away, or if it ever will. I literally think about it every single day, and base most of my decisions on the fact that we are only here temporarily.
I paid off all of our debt from all of the moves just last month. We have no savings, and no retirement. We would love nothing more than to buy a home, but even if we were in the financial position to do so, I'd be too afraid to actually do it.
I don't bother making friends, trying to go back to school anymore, or starting a career — with as much as we move, it would only bring more heartache and stress the next time we have to leave.
Everyone asks us why we move so much, but no one outside of the industry understands or can make any sense of it. Everyone thinks or assumes we're military, but we've been told we move more than they do.
After the first couple of layoffs, companies would ask about the one to two-year stints at different companies on my husband's resume. Now, it's become so common, they don't even bother to bring it up.
By now, I have a routine when he's laid off. We immediately file for unemployment and get the children free lunches at school. We fill out the paperwork for food stamps and state health insurance, luckily we have never needed TANF, but we fill out that paperwork too just in case. If we get a severance, I don't submit any of it, but if we don't, I submit it immediately. Next, I cancel Netflix, cable, and downgrade to the cheapest internet connection we can get. I cancel any other optional services and bills we have, like pest control, etc. We no longer throw away our moving boxes, instead we put them in a safe dry place for the next move.
With our last move we decided that when we arrive in a new home, we'll give ourselves one month to unpack everything that isn't seasonal or isn't going to stay in a storage area. We're tired of living in homes with empty walls, so we make sure to hang things up on them, because, when we don't, everyday life is much more depressing. Right now instead of waiting until we're in between jobs and have to pack in a rush, we're trying to weed down our belongings as much as possible. That's our project over the summer.
That protection that insurance dealerships try to sell you when you buy a car, and no one ever buys? The kind where if your car is totalled and you're upside on the loan, it covers it — but it also covers payments when you lose your job? We buy that. It may be stupid or not worth it in the long run, but it makes me feel a little more secure and stable. It's worth it to me to know that in the worst case, I at least won't lose my car.
Private mortgage insurance when you buy a house? The insurance everyone says to avoid getting if you can? Anything that protects us when he loses his job, or takes care of bills when he's out of work, I welcome with open arms at this point.
Every time we accepted a job offer, we were offered promises of stability and plenty of funding. We were told about the "project after this one," and no offer was given as temporary, or "for this project only." Instead of companies asking us if we'd stay for the long haul, we began asking them instead.
Illustration: Jim Cooke