[As studios close and the job market shifts, what are developers to do? Gamasutra speaks to people on various sides of the issue to find out what is happening out there in the real world and what picture both personal experiences and data paint.]
Call it "the perfect storm" -- studio layoffs and shutdowns continue to kick developers to the curb while, at the same time, the traditional AAA-title skills are in less of a demand than are social network/mobile game skills. What's an out-of-work developer to do?
Gamasutra talked to a few of them -- plus an industry analyst and the CEO of a recruiting firm -- to learn how job seekers have been handling the situation.
Believe it or not, the employment scene is doing better than a year ago when, in January 2010, Wanda Meloni wrote that the final count for layoffs since the economic meltdown in late 2008 reached 11,488 worldwide, with the majority of the losses coming in 2009.
All the major publishers were impacted by the layoffs -- Electronic Arts, THQ, Activision, Sega, SCEA, Midway, Disney, Eidos, and LucasArts.
Meloni, an industry analyst who tracks employment trends and is president of Encinitas, CA-based M2 Research, is currently doing research to update her numbers. But, she says, things are looking up -- sort of.
"A recent survey found that Australia's game development industry shrunk by over 50 percent since 2008; there are now 931 full-time game developers working in Australia in 126 studios compared to over 2,000 full-time employees in almost 50 studios in 2008," she says. "So when I say that things are getting better, well, they had been pretty bad."
While layoffs continue, mainly at the larger and mid-sized studios, observes Meloni, they seem to have less to do with the economy and more to do with a shift in the industry -- from the more traditional retail "box games" where "the cost of development became unbearable" to newer, more economic sectors like social network and mobile games.
"That is clear in markets such as Hamburg, Germany," she says, "where they just hosted the Casual Games Conference. The city now employs 3,000 and has openings for 500 more."
For developers looking for work, she adds, that means retooling, being creative, and perhaps looking at startups or studios that have gone with the flow. It might also mean relocating to places like Quebec, which continues to grow substantially with large studio openings. Or to smaller Canadian provinces like Nova Scotia, which is aggressively looking to bring industry to its region by supporting smaller studios and development teams.
"Just take a look at the GDC show floor this year," says Meloni. "Almost every Canadian province has its own booth urging game developers -- in practically every job category -- to relocate. There's a clear sign that there are jobs available -- not just in Canada but the Bay Area and Seattle seem to be heating up again. I see lots of startups coming to those areas, many of them funded with the severance packages of laid-off developers."
Mary-Margaret Walker sees hiring activity as well, although it is being negatively affected by consumers who are economizing on their game-playing habits.
In LA, Mary-Margaret Walker is CEO of recruiter Mary-Margaret Network.
"We are moving very quickly from a niche market to an 'every household' market in which gaming isn't as much a priority as previously," she explains. "And, at the same time, instead of paying $60 for a game in a store, people are voting with their pocketbooks on 'free-to-play' games and micro-transactions. As companies were making decisions on which direction to head, it was the smaller studios who, as always, were more nimble. Which is why they are hiring while the 'box market' is becoming smaller and smaller."
From a recruitment perspective, Walker reports seeing about 60 percent "active" -- or unemployed -- job seekers in today's market versus 40 percent "passive" -- or employed, "just looking" -- seekers. In a good economy, she adds, the percentages are typically reversed -- 60 percent passive/40 percent active.
Walker instructs unemployed job seekers to "do something... even if you're doing it for free. Continue to grow your resume. If you have to take a job outside the industry -- and still do something on the side so that you're growing your game development skills -- do it! If you're committed to staying in the industry, these are the things you must do... in addition to considering relocation."
In terms of which professions are most in demand, Walker says programmers are always scarce. "If their skills are current and they're able to relocate, there is almost certainly a job out there for them," she says.
Traditionally, she says, her firm sees more producers than producer positions, and that is as true today as ever. In addition, she is hearing from a lot of middle managers and executives who were the first to go when companies began their layoffs.
"There are jobs out there for them," says Walker. "It just takes time and effort, willingness to relocate, and lots and lots of networking."
The situation job seekers face today is the same as when the industry launches a new platform, she says. "Everybody wants to hire somebody who has five years experience on the new technology that just came out. Sure, that's unreasonable, but it's true that social gaming companies want people with lots of social gaming expertise. Which is why I focus on career enlightenment, which is the key to staying employable.
"Keep your skills sharp. Whether you're an artist or a programmer, whether you're in sales and marketing or finance, stay on top of what's happening in the industry. If you lose your job today, it could take anywhere from three to six months to find something depending on your skills. But if you're not willing to relocate, if your skills aren't sharp, chances are it'll take longer."