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Opinion: 'Is This How It's Always Going To Be?'
Opinion: 'Is This How It's Always Going To Be?'
November 25, 2011 | By Mike Jungbluth

November 25, 2011 | By Mike Jungbluth
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing

[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, Zenimax Online Studios' senior animator Mike Jungbluth reflects on layoffs and job instability in the game industry, asking, "Is this how it's always going to be?"]

As I sat in a car on the other side of the country, waiting to meet up with the property manager for a rental home, this was the question posed by my wife.

"Is this how it's always going to be?"

Just a day before, my studio, which I was about to give my two weeks notice to, had layoffs. It was a sobering reality that pretty much everyone in this industry has had some experience with. In fact, it is a top 7 reason NOT to work in games.

And while I have been around layoffs before, to have it happen as I was preparing to move and establish a new homestead sent chills down even my relatively cool spine. So it wasn't an entirely surprising question for my wife to ask.

"Is this how it's always going to be? Is this just our reality, having to move every couple of years?"

In our specific case, these moves have all been of our own choice, though their need often came from trying to get ahead of impending layoffs. But it seems like it is something that happens to a lot of developers who have come in during this current console generation.

It isn't uncommon to meet and work with people that have played state bingo on more than one occasion. And while that can be fun at first, it can certainly grow old when you want to set up roots somewhere.

In my years working I've met many developers who have a no house buying rule, having either been stuck with an out of state house themselves or seen it happen to too many friends. And while that certainly ties into a larger economic problem, to have people that are financially capable of buying a home, yet refuse to, equally feeds into the fear of layoffs.

"Is this how it's always going to be? Is this just our reality, having to move every couple of years? We are finally moving back close to home, and I don't want to have to do this again."

I don't want to have to do this again either. I am done moving. I want to set up roots and buy a home. I want to stop living by my Layoff Handbook and not have to look over my shoulder all the time. I want to live in an area that I really want to call home, and not just a "safe zone" city filled with a lot of studios so that I can have options.

I just want work really hard and will this all into reality. Honestly, that is all I CAN do. But that still only leads to reactionary solutions for the majority of game devs. And if that is all we have, then the answer I will have to give my wife is, "Yes, this IS how it is always going to be." And that is an answer I don't think anyone is looking forward to.

That means to give the answer we want, we need to put our faith with the management and business of the games industry. Scary, I know. These are areas that I don't have much expertise in, or honestly even care to take part of on a grand scale.

I hate the business side of game development. It is a reason I WANT to work for larger companies. I want to just create and let someone else handle the business side of things. I know that a basic understanding of the business model is necessary as it affects the design and scope of the game, but beyond that, I don't want to have to worry about it.

And I am guessing when I start spewing solutions to business problems, it is as annoying to them as when they try to dictate creative solutions to us. So I am sure whatever ideas I have on creating a better game business are probably flawed or pedestrian.

But I do want to ask all the business and management types reading this the question my wife posed to me.

"Is this how it's always going to be?"

Because if so, there are a lot of developers who don't see this as a sustainable life. And bleeding the talent that is the most passionate because they are constantly having to justify the industry they love to the rest of the world can't be a good business practice.

We already have to justify so much of the content, which is something we actually CAN fix on our own. But to justify the business is the last straw for many.

And that is where it becomes management's problem. Because for the business it means the loss of potential profits. And to the team it means we lose another team member on a few different levels. Which then leads to even more lost profits. Rinse. Repeat.

The next time management wonders what can be done to help the team out, this, more than anything, is what is wanted. Start giving us all the faith to be able to say NO when asked if this is how it is always going to be.

Both my wife and I, as well as families across the industry, will be eternally thankful.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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rex dickson
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There is way too much truth here. I often refer to my 16 year career in the game industry as the 'nomadic lifestyle'. I would add to this by discussing the elite studios in gaming, what my dev friends refer to as 'safe houses'. I'm talking about Bethesda Game Studios, Epic Games, Bioware, Valve and others. These studios make some of the best games on the market and are infamous for high retention rate. I think it's pretty clear the two are related. When people are happy and making good games, they don't leave their jobs. Making great games generates respect and credibility which in turn increases the level of talent. The studios can afford to be much more selective. Job openings are less frequent and notoriously competitive.

The results speak for themselves when contrasted with the ramp up/downsize model.

Chris Remo
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A big problem is how decentralized the industry is. That would be okay if there were good game studios in high density all over the place, but there obviously aren't. Most major metropolitan areas have a couple good dev houses, but in general, the scene is just scattered. (This is less true in Canada than in the US.) And because game studios are relatively small organizations most of the time, and it's such a competitive market, if you lose your job at one of them (a common occurrence in this industry), there's not necessarily a strong local ecosystem around you. Even though it might mean less variety in terms of the numbers of places to live, I feel quality of life would be better overall if studios were more concentrated around denser hubs. Just about everyone I know in this industry is constantly moving all over the place all the time. It's crazy.

Michael Jungbluth
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Centralized hubs are becoming the reality more and more, and it is the most common answer devs have for this problem. Which is fine for a large part of the developer population, since city living seems to go hand in hand with game developer personalities. But for those of us who prefer country living or a smaller metropolitan area, there aren't many options.

But most of these hubs though have grown just as much out of a successful developer starting there as the area itself I would say. Sure, places like L.A., San Fran and Seattle are largely associated with tech or entertainment fields already, but places like Raleigh and Austin have more to do with the people that created successful studios living there to begin with, then anything significant about the city itself. There is no reason Portland shouldn't be a hub, other than nobody with any dev cred decided to start a studio there. And if being a center of culture, art and business was the significant factor, there is no reason that NYC shouldn't be a bigger hub for large developers.

Maybe it just isn't as possible now for spontaneous studio locations to happen, as those studios that created the hubs usually started over a decade ago when costs were lower. But it still leads me to believe that all it takes is the right people, creative and business minded, to make a studio work from anywhere.

Jen Bauer
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Telecommuting can help with this problem... but it's not a perfect solution. I did so out of an economic choice for about a year. Freelancing itself, in my experience, didn't contribute to feeling stable although it did work for a time. Changing projects and people are difficult to cope with financially. I'm glad someone has had the honesty to share that, even if you're working in-house, you just never know what will happen, either.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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The studio I work for, and others I know, haven't had a wave of layoffs in like, ever. Its though in the beginning, but after you have some experience you will have a choice in employers, if you're willing to relocate. Thats the key. You can't expect to have a good, stable job in the industry just anywhere. Its the same for most specialized industries. Whether you want to work in games, fashion, movies or space technology, you probably wont be able to do it from your hometown. Its your choice. Even inside the game industry, stability is something you have to tradeoff with something else. I refused offers of a better salary from some employers because they have a bad reputation of "headcount management". I dont need to stress about layoffs.

Also layoffs are usually a sign of bad management. Be weary of employers than have unstable management (VPs changing every few months), they also tend to have unstable employement. Learn the signs and always have an exit strategy.

Is it unappropriate to mention we have an opening we can't fill for an AI programmer on my team? Its just nuts in Montreal.

Chris Proctor
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Thanks for posting this Mike.

I'm in the midst of my fifth move for games industry reasons, and my third international one. Exciting though it is living in new cities, it's also exhausting and unsustainable for me in the long term. I don't want to keep doing this every couple of years.

Gregory Guertin-Jr
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After getting my degree in video game art and design and working on my portfolio in between sleep, work, and family time (wife and two young kids) I am feeling more and more regret about practically wasting my time in college. While I am completely fine moving all over the place, my wife and kids need a stable home. They need to have some roots. It has always been my dream to work in the industry. I love creating mods and learning as much as I can. This is a depressing article. I do have a clear view of what I have to do though for my families future.

My Port

Joe McGinn
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Best thing these days is to go indie, ideally before you have a family. If you can establish a profitable business that way you should be in good shape.

Otherwise you just put Allied Pickfords on your speed dial and live with it. I'm lucky in a way, my wife and daughter are both resilient types who love travelling, and can appreciate living in a new place. Still very stressful on them every time though.

Joe McGinn
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Multi-STATE bingo, Mike? Luxury. Puuuuure luxery. ;-) Lived in four different countries in the last four years.

Paul Szczepanek
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My career has been quite peaceful and steady in comparison but after using a calculator I averaged 2.25 years in a studio. To be honest - I don't mind. If this is an issue for you make sure you do your research before joining a company - it's pretty easy to find out what the churn factor is and keep looking until you find one that hangs onto their employees. Although as you well know there are no guarantees. Companies don't do it out of malice - it's usually just external factors.

Avery Alix
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Thank you for writing this piece, it really resonated with me. As a recent, first-time homeowner I really grappled with the possibility of having to relocate in the next decade. I live in Seattle and work with a reputable company, both of which offer a lot of promise for staying put - but even then I felt significant apprehension in my stomach. For my own peace of mind I had to choose a property in a strong rental market, even with the safety net of working for PopCap/EA and living in a game development hub.

Mike Sellers
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The short answer to your question is: yes, it will always be this way.

I have been in the games industry since 1995. In that time I have worked for medium and big developers (3DO, EA, now Kabam), and I have started three game companies. Two were acquired, and one of them I have rebooted - twice.

I have been through more layoffs than I can easily remember; have survived some and been hit by others. I have hired people. I have had to lay people off. I have had more projects canceled than I care to remember.

Oh, and I've been married the whole time, and have raised a large family through all this. I've had the same "is this how it's always going to be?" conversation with my wife too.

Now, the reasons why it will always be this way center on a few key and inescapable facts:

* We are in the entertainment business, which is inherently fickle and unpredictable. Unlike the large majority of "working actors" (not counting waiting-tables-while-auditioning) at least people in our industry generally get paid. And when laid off get severance.

* We are in the business of doing something new, which means failure is *always* an option. When game development companies become risk-averse, we castigate them for a lack of originality, creating me-too games, etc. But originality = risk, and risk = layoffs.

* There is far more supply than demand - people are constantly clamoring to get into the industry (as with movies, music, etc.) meaning there is no pressure for 'reform'

* We are in globally dynamic times, economically. No job is safe. As one sobering example, a friend who was a VP at K-Mart for decades lost his job and and entire pension when they went bankrupt. He's now an Assistant Manager at Best Buy.

I don't mean to sound elitist or anything like that, but game development truly is not for everyone. If job security is most important to you, I would point you elsewhere (though where exactly these days is a difficult question to answer). It is however compelling enough that many of us stick it out, year after year and layoff after layoff, just for the opportunity to *make something.*

That opportunity is never cheap or easy. No one is entitled to it, and it always exacts a toll. And if often doesn't work out as those who put their whole hearts into a project or company desire. As far as I can tell, there is no way around these hard (sometimes very hard) truths.