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What's An Out-Of-A-Job Developer To Do?

March 8, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[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."

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Glenn Storm
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The "Jed" story is heartbreaking. I have seen this before, as I used to work in another industry that became rather saturated. The feelings of security in your job is what you tell yourself, so you can quit worrying and focus on work, but honestly, no job is truly safe. That should be lesson number one for all students about to enter the job market: remember this trade of your time for a living wage is always a temporary agreement based on current conditions.

I am compelled, as I'm sure many other readers are, to help those like Jed. "You'll never get honest feedback [from those you apply to]." I agree. And I encourage those in this position, frustrated by a lack of communication with potential employers to change the game; you may be asking the wrong people the right questions. Use your network, _your_ network of trusted and respected industry professionals, to review your portfolio, resume, pitch, presentation style, current skill set, etc. You want honest feedback, yes, to be able to improve. So, seek out those with an interest in giving you an honest, actionable and professional critique. Guess what? There's a large pool of folks described in this article that have such time and interest to do so. Just ask. :)

Ray Johannessen
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Good advice. I find it interesting that Canada is doing as well as it is...I know I was kicking around the idea of going "up" there. But the reality is, if you look hard enough and put the hard work into the right areas you'll find something.

Eric Schwarz
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As someone who lives in Canada trying to get into the games industry, it sure doesn't seem any easier here. I've sent out a couple dozen applications over the last two or three months and haven't received a single message back. Maybe it's just a case of me being utterly talentless and deluding myself of my ability, or maybe it's a case of far more talented people applying for the same positions and companies picking up people with experience rather than not. Just need to keep trying to be productive, because the moment you slow down it gets harder and harder to get back into the swing of things. Being unemployed straight out of university for the last year has taught me as much.

Glenn Storm
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It's interesting, because the one very powerful thing everyone seems to learn only _after_ leaving a formal education is how to be adaptive and intentionally break out of the rigid discipline in which you've been trained. Even while being asked to perform within your expertise, this kind of flexibility is key.

Rebecca Phoa
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Count me in the same boat--I graduated from a game artist program 1 year ago and it's really been difficult finding a job (I live in Toronto). I'm trying almost everything--created a new demo reel, working on my writings, trying to pick up learning Storytron, seeing if I can work in data entry as a holdover. Hopefully, the economy will stabilize soon and we can all get hired.

Tonya Payne
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///"That surprised me because I wasn't making cold calls; I was replying to listings about jobs that were supposedly available."///

See, this is bullshit if you ask me. I personally don't believe a lot of these jobs even *exist.* We've speculated that companies are posting ghost positions just to make it look like they're profitable or up to something. And if these jobs really do exist, the companies posting them really ought to think about paying someone a pittance to set up an auto-responder at the very least. There is nothing more frustrating than to spend an hour tailoring your stuff to a certain company that has a job posted that fits you perfectly and then never hear back from them. And what pisses me off even more, is when I try to follow up and they don't even bother to respond to my emails about whether or not they got my resume. It's simply just rude.

The other thing is, if the jobs do exist, I think they're hiring their friends. I'm not sure why they even bother posting them. I've seen quite a few jobs that I thought I'd be great at, and *if* I got a rejection letter (without them even bothering to call and interview me on the phone) it always said I wasn't suited to their position. Like how would they even know, since they haven't even talked to me and my resume, skill set and experience matched the position on paper.

You could say that I'm very disenchanted with this whole industry, and not because of the economy and the difficulty finding a job, but the attitude that so many of these companies take, that we don't even deserve a response when we've spent time responding to a job that *they* posted. I can understand that some companies get a massive amount of resumes, but they should still find time to respond to EVERYONE when they're the ones that posted the position in the first place.

Tim Carter
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Tonya, if I were you I would assume from the get-go that you won't get a response, but send it out anyway. This way if you *do* get a response, you will be pleasantly surprised.

You're projecting expectations, which isn't going to help your job search. I hate to say it, but they don't owe anyone a response. They get flooded with applications usually.

Ideally, yes, from a position of common courtesy they would respond to all applicants - and I agree that you can't really tell what a person can be in the future from looking exclusively at their past. But then "realism" does tend to push things in a certain direction.

Better to go out and try building a demo or something in the meantime.

Cate Ericsson
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The idea of ghost job postings is not unique to the games industry. But I can also assure you, it's not necessarily done to intentionally mislead candidates.

Say a developer lists three positions on their website, all working on the same team. We all know how collaborative game development can be. Say they fill Open Position #1, with someone higher-level than they were expecting... or lower-level, but talented in an area they didn't really anticipate. That new person, in that new role, will change how (or if) they fill Open Positions #2 and #3. And there's no way to effectively communicate that on their website, or to all the thousands of individuals who applied online or through networking.

So yes, there is some phantom aspect to even completely viable positions posted on a company's website, or being advertised. But it's not most companies' goal to intentionally mislead candidates, or investors.

Albert Meranda
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Most studios keep open positions for roles that they would like to fill with an ideal candidate, but don't necessarily need to fill immediately. It's not a conspiracy.

Michael Wenk
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I'm willing to bet that they do exist. Normally what happens is for every job they get X applicants. During a downturn, that X number becomes extremely large. So for Job A you may get 200 applicants. And in very few cases there's always someone that is better than you. So what happens is out of the 200, they may phone screen 3-4 and in person interview 1 or 2 of those screened. So in this hypothetical case you have at most 2% chance to get even a call. And a 1% chance shot at getting an in person interview. Basically they can get the cream of the crop and they know it and use it to their advantage.

And your remark about hiring their friends is correct in a loose sense. Most people hire people they know either directly or indirectly. What's the best way to improve your chances of being hired? Get your resume/app in by either knowing the hiring manager or knowing someone who does. And that chain must include people that actually have respect for their work. So if you have worked with George and George worked with hiring manager Sarah and there's respect for work between all links, then that's the best way. In private companies hiring managers will not generally hire a friend unless they think that friend can get the job done. Remember that manager has stake in it, He/She will either lose face or could possibly lose their own job.

So lets say you don't know anyone even indirectly and you still try to apply. Well your resume must match perfectly to what the job description. And I mean perfectly. When I was involved with hiring I remember asking a manager why he rejected a certain applicant. We already had the 8 resumes HR forwarded out of the 40 that submitted. We were looking for X, Y, and Z skill and to my eye the resume had it. It listed out Y, X, and Z. He said that order the person put it in their resume indicated that they had differing preferences than what he wanted. So what I'm saying is nuances are very important.

And it doesn't matter if you agree or disagree with such ways of deciding who to interview, the point is you have to deal with it, and the best way is to conform. Of course if you want to remain unemployed because of your pride that is certainly an option.

And finally the point about getting a rejection notification. Well I agree, but to a point. If I just send a resume, then I don't think its necessary or polite. However if I interview and I don't hear, well that is IMO impolite.

Jerry Pritchard
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Ive been in the biz for 11 yrs, 6 of which as a contractor. It's a typical cycle, just give it time and the jobs will start to come back. But only for those who stay on top of their skill sets or seek to learn new things.

The best advice is seriously to find something to do and don't become another idle unemployed person that let's the depression and frustration get to them. I'm surprised about social, there's tons of jobs out there in that area, but for some reason it seems they dont want the console folks with tons of experience. There does reach a point I believe that you become TOO qualified, as silly as it sounds.

james sadler
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I started my education (late in life by some) into game programming and design right at the peak of the economic downturn. Many asked why I would even do this with all the news about how this company was shutting down and that was just laid off half its work force. I just said that the industry is not going to die. This is a culling of the heard type of time and eventually when the money comes back things will start to look up. Ideally this would all happen around the time I finished school. Until then though I had a great job and didn't need to worry about it that much.

Of course the best made plans usually end in failure. I left school after about a year, tired of a poor curriculum and bad teachers, and also because of my own financial issues. I still have my job, and even that is getting stressful, so I am left to think about trying to get into the industry now.

My biggest thought though is that I need something to show I am not just another fanboy graduate, but someone who works. I am working with one of my former classmates to develop our own game and hopefully that will help sow our skills to employers.

Robert Madsen
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I got my first game programming job in April 2008. By January 2009 I had been laid off. I got my next job in August 2009 and got laid off in July 2010...almost made it a year! The first time I was laid off I spend all of my energy trying to find that next job. This time, I'm spending most of my time working on my own game and some time applying for jobs. I decided that it didn't make sense to pour my whole life into trying to get that next job for someone else when there is absolutely no security in it. I love to make games, and I'll make games whether or not someone hires me to do it.

I wrote an article titled "Indie by Default" in the February 2011 IGDA Perspectives. I have decided to repost that article in my blog, so check it out for the whole story.


Daniel Brogan
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That's a very good blog post, logical and well-written. Especially this paragraph:-

"After the second layoff, I decided to turn my disadvantage into opportunity. Given the current economy, I realized that finding another job would be a multi-month adventure. This time, I wanted to do more with that time than just look for the next job. I also wanted to continue working at what I love: making games. After all, thatís why I got into the industry!"

That paragraph, more than any, illustrates to me the most important thing to know. It's okay for some of us to have studied or even obtained qualifications, but its the passion that will ultimately get you where you want to be.

Anyway, before I go into essay mode, again a very insightful blog post there Mr Madsen and I enjoyed reading it.

Daniel Brogan
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As others have said, "fake job adverts" are rife everywhere but more on that later. Take my example though, my main work is in administration (specifically legal) and 3 years ago, the number of people applying for such roles could be anywhere from 5 to 30 applicants depending on the job spec, location and wage.

Nowadays you could be looking from 25 to as many as 400 applicants per job, and that isn't an exaggeration.

But as regards the "fake job adverts", I often find these on recruitment agency websites and in their branch windows. Remember that the consultant will get money for getting your name on their books, and the more people they have at their disposal, the more choice they have when a role does come through. Some consultants will be honest with you up-front and say "just to get you registered", others won't and others will get your name on their books and *then* announce "but we've filled the job already". I'll let you draw your own conclusions on that one.

Now I do have something to share with my fellow unemployed brethren, and if these following pearls of wisdom are what you already know, then that's great. If not, then I hope they're of some use to you.

As it is, I'd go so far as to say that because of the sheer number of applicants (and repeated news stories of how graduates, those over the age of 35 etc) sending their CVs in for advertised jobs, it's fruitless to send your CV in then. Of course, if the job is really specific and you meet most, if not all, of the job specification and it would be acceptable to walk or even get on your pushbike to the workplace, then by all means you may just make it to interview stage.

Unless the office junior gets a hold of your CV and deletes it from the e-mail inbox or otherwise bins it.

I'd also seriously recommend hunting down the head of HR departments and basically - and this isn't going to sound nice - prostituting yourself. Call them, don't e-mail (why send an e-mail to a stranger?), establish why you're calling, who you're about and take it from there. If you can, send the CV via e-mail as you're talking to them (SkypeOut ftw!) should it be requested and go through it with them over the phone right then and there. If things go well, let them suggest a time to meet for a face-to-face.

Also, if you do happen to visit a place of business in search of a job, don't just leave your CV with the receptionist as more than likely it'll get put aside and forgotten. Politely insist on handing it to someone of standing in the HR department, it's gotten me interviews before and even the job. That's not to say its easy, with my way of doing things, it is a heck of a lot more demanding, but seeing as you're here, wanting to develop or help develop games, you know what you want to do with your life.

And that at least negates the question "why should I hire you?".

Anyway, back to early-morning jobhunting so I can fire phasers later on (its currently 4:20am here at the time of typing)!

Steven Halls
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Where do unemployed game coders go looking for jobs, anyway? What are the most popular venues for looking for jobs? I interest is from the perspective of a small employer of graphics coders.

Rey Samonte
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If I found myself in this position, I would contact all my old co-workers and see if their studio is hiring. Another great tool would be LinkedIn if you have a profile set up with them. This is like the Facebook for professionals. Finding new contacts is pretty quick through it. I've also had some luck getting in touch with small studios through the job boards on this site. Lastly, if that doesn't help...find a recruiter who specializes in the game scene, and be open to relocation as the article states.

But like others have said, if you are in a situation where you're your own thing. Set up a blog page for your project or your work and use that to post videos or screenshots of your current work. In turn, you can send out your link to prospective employers when sending out your resume to them. Even if your work only includes small demos or proof of concepts, it can only help in showing your passion and drive for developing games.

Nicholas DiMucci
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If you are a game coder, you have the skills to basically do anything else in software development. You may actually be in a better a position than most job seeking software developers because GOOD C++ programmers are hard to come by. As a result, non-game related companies will pay through the nose for them (that's assuming the company needs C++ programmers).

Steven Yau
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Ghost job postings can be due to local law requiring a job to be advertised externally before allowing an awarding an internal person that role (or something along those lines, I can't remember the wording).

Keith Fuller
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I'm a production consultant who is always looking for more clients. If you're looking for work in the industry I would recommend IGDA involvement. The leadership currently in place and the community manager are working to support and advocate for the members in game development. It's been abundantly helpful to me to get involved in IGDA special interest groups that share my specific passions, and everyone from the national level on down has been quick to aid in my networking.

An excellent tool they've put in place recently is #gamejobs on Twitter (and #gamehires). If you haven't already, install Tweetdeck and open up a column for each of these hashtags. It's simple, free, and gives you great, realtime visibility into industry job openings.

John Austin
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Here's an idea for those with a great game idea and an entrepreneurial mindset. I head up an accelerator/incubator for independent game teams. We provide $$, space, and mentoring to teams who want to start up their own studio - but need some coaching and help on the business side. We take a small stake in your company and a share of your first game's royalties. We are accepting applications for our summer program - check out