As in any industry, layoffs in the games business are an accepted reality. Anyone working in development or production today is acutely aware of the tumultuous state of games as the dominance of consoles gives way to a touchscreen-driven order, as the costs to produce triple-A titles climb higher into the stratosphere, and as the first major console transition in seven years quickly approaches.
For most developers affected by layoffs, your options are few. You can suck it up and go indie. You can try to survive on freelance work. Worst case, you can leave the industry altogether and get a (shudder) real job.
Instead, three college friends-turned game developers chose a fourth path:
They decided to do something about it.
“I came up with the concept for the site after seeing a ton of friends lose their jobs at the beginning of this year. I was amazed by the efforts of people on Twitter (a movement that peaked with #38jobs) but noticed that with each new layoff, the last was somewhat overshadowed. We wanted to see if we could help address that problem by giving every studio layoff ongoing exposure.” –Holden Link
Holden Link, Austin Walterman and Cory Johnson met as undergrads at Georgia Tech, where they made a habit of working on game, web and interactive projects together. One was a 2D “fall forever” game called Blarf. Another was a rhythm game designed for guitar controllers called Audiball. As each one went on to work in the games industry, they stayed friends and kept up the collaborations.
Then in February of 2013, a friend got laid off from EA’s Danger Close studio, makers of the 2010 Medal of Honor reboot and 2012’s Medal of Honor: Warfighter. That hurt – but it was EA executive Frank Gibeau’s open letter breaking the news titled “Transition Is Our Friend” that provided the spark. The subject of layoffs dominated the group’s discussions until they felt compelled to take control of the topic before it faded yet again from the headlines.
The goal wasn’t to create a depressing reminder of the fragile state of the industry. Instead, the group aimed to present information regarding layoffs in a way that was blunt, yet also respectful, with the intent of giving recruiters and studios looking for people another way to source experienced talent.
After six months of part-time development, GameJobWatch launched this August.
The site keeps meticulous track of studio layoffs as they happen, with a total counter tracking all industry-wide layoffs for that year. Users can view layoffs by studio or by the date of their most recent layoff. Start-ups looking for developers in specific cities can easily skim the site to see if there have been any layoffs in that area. Recruiters can zero in on employees that have just been let go.
“The response has been, this is a thing that people feel needs to exist,” says Link.
For a venture made to serve the public interest, the journalistic aspirations of GameJobWatch are far from intentional. “I think you could call it accidental journalism,” says Link. “I don’t think we knew that it would end up the way that it did when we started by any means.” Adds Johnson, “We saw the symptoms. There was something missing from a lack of reporting or data.” For the group, filling in the gaps was more of a bug fix than anything else.
And that’s when the data journalism angle of GameJobWatch hits you. Forward-thinking publications like The Texas Tribune have made a name for themselves by harvesting vast amounts of publically accessible data for interactive journalism features, like tracking the average Texan’s life expectancy or visualizing the contributors to notable Super PACs. Used creatively, the data that GameJobWatch is collecting could lead to game-changing dynamics between the employer/employee relationship.
“A lot of the [site] feedback was not about the emotional impact of it, which was surprising, but about what we could do with this data,” says Link. “I almost had a problem thinking of people getting laid off as data when we started this, and started warming up to all of the good that could come out of this… if this can be a tool that in any way discourages the seasonal layoff culture then that would be incredible.”
Data is Power – And the Power is Yours
Imagine you’re working at a game company, and looking to make a lateral move to a new studio. You have three offers on the table. Imagine if you could look up each company’s layoff history to help make an informed decision on where to go next.
Or, say you’re a college student about to hit the workforce. You’re willing to move anywhere for your first break. What if you could search game companies’ layoff records by geographic region to see what part of the world makes the most sense to move to?
Or, what if you’re expecting your first child in six months, but according to your current company’s layoff history, you see that there’s an 87% chance you’ll be laid off in the next three months. Instead of waiting for the axe to fall, you find a new job, give your notice and prepare for the new arrival without having layoffs upend your entire life.
Once armed with a few years of data, the altruistic possibilities of GameJobWatch start to emerge. Acting as an impartial advocate for developers, the industry’s rockstars and ninjas might start to avoid companies that take a slash-and-burn approach to their workforce, leaving the worst companies to crumble under the weight of their own careless practices.
But these scenarios are far off in the future. For right now, what does the group hope to achieve with the site? What’s the goal?
According to Johnson, the focus is on helping people in the present. “I would love for a studio to never have another layoff, but if they do, I would love to place 50% of those people, or be able to place 100% of those people [at new jobs].”
Link has another opinion, true to the blunt nature of the site.
“I’d like it to shut down. I’d like it not to exist.”