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Accidental Journalism: Tracking Game Industry Layoffs with GameJobWatch.com
by Ben Serviss on 09/03/13 09:10:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This article originally appeared on dashjump.com.

zynga-layoffs
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.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.

Holden Link Austin Walterman Cory Johnson
Holden Link Austin Walterman Cory Johnson

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.

“Accidental Journalism”

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.

fs
The Texas Tribune makes use of data journalism to present stories in effective ways. This feature is a visualization of disposal wells used for fracking. (Source: Texas Tribune)

“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.”

Ben Serviss is a game designer and producer at NYC indie developer collective Studio Mercato. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.


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Comments


NICK LAING
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Fascinating stuff Ben. I wonder if it would be possible to dig up hiring reports too? "How many positions did "X" developer fill this year?"

Ben Serviss
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Thanks Nick! Though that might be trickier since that information isn't publicly available. Although I can see how it might be in some big studios' best interests to compile reports of all jobs created in a year and make them open to the public.

NICK LAING
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Few other things these guys could think of. All lay offs aren't reported - I think there is a legal number that can be released without a press statement of conformation.
Additionally - I've know hundreds of people who have been laid off in the last decade-plus but they all seem to find work in short order if they live in a place with multiple studios or are willing to move. This isn't ideal but it's worth people knowing that being laid off is not the end of a career just an artifact of a very fluid industry
The Games industry isn't like the garment industry, it's growing not shrinking. Not all the Jobs created in the next 5 years will look like the jobs we had in the last 5 years but it's still part of the same industry.

Brian Canary
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Thanks for putting this together. Until slash and burn becomes an artifact, we all need as much leverage as we can get!

Ben Serviss
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Thanks Brian- if you like what they're doing, helping get the word out is the best way to make things happen.

Jay Anne
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Fantastic site! This data is definitely something to keep tabs on

I've noticed layoffs only become public news when they are very big cuts or when they are for higher profile companies. I wonder if it'd be possible to scrape LinkedIn profiles to detect multiple people leaving a company as a potential red flag.

Ben Serviss
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Good idea! I'm sure there are lots of opportunities to track more of this stuff. The more data we can collect and track, the better informed the developer community will be.

Chris Lowe
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It's kinda sorta possible. If you have a LinkedIn Recruiter account you can run a search for people who worked at Company X in the past (and are not currently at that company) AND have been in their current job less than a year. It's not a perfect search because it's possible someone was at Company X two or three jobs ago but it does get you in the ballpark.

NICK LAING
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Bummer, the website seems to no longer be updated.


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