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Tim Schafer: Stop laying off your employees once a game is done
Tim Schafer: Stop laying off your employees once a game is done
October 23, 2012 | By Mike Rose

October 23, 2012 | By Mike Rose
Comments
    49 comments
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing



"Instead of being allowed to apply all those lessons to a better, more efficiently produced second game, they are scattered to the winds and all that wisdom is lost."
- Double Fine Productions president Tim Schafer argues that laying off staff following the completion of a game's development is a big mistake.

"One of the most frustrating things about the games industry is that teams of people come together to make a game, and maybe they struggle and make mistakes along the way, but by the end of the game they've learned a lot - and this is usually when they are disbanded," he continues.

Schafer notes that after the conclusion of Double Fine's own Psychonauts, he very well could have laid staff off, such that the studio would have more money and time to put into Brutal Legend.

"But doing so would have meant breaking up a team that had just learned how to work well together. And what message would that have sent to our employees? It would say that we're not loyal to them, and that we don't care."

"Which would make them wonder," he adds, "'Why should we be loyal to this company?' If you're not loyal to your team you can get by for a while, but eventually you will need to rely on their loyalty to you and it just won’t be there."

Schafer's thoughts on layoffs in the industry come as Tantalus CEO Tom Crago recently said that, due to the volatile nature of the video game industry at the moment, it's impossible for any studio to say that its staff will be secure in their jobs in the coming years.


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Comments


Mike Murray
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I can agree with what Tim's saying, but doesn't it always come down to money? In Tantalus' case, they couldn't afford to pay some of their staff so they were let go.

Jeff Lee
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My sentiment exactly. I love me some Tim Schafer, but it's my impression that you can only afford to make the choice he's describing if you're already breaking even or better, which is probably only true for a small portion of studios.

Benjamin Quintero
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Mike, there may be some twisting of words here. I'm not sure Tim was responding to that article, I think he just happen to be reflecting on the industry at the same time as the article. That's how I interpreted it anyhow. I think Mike Rose was just trying to tie these two articles together, nothing more.

Besides, I can't help but completely agree with Tim. I recently wrote a blog about exactly this; the fact that I choose to make games outside of the industry because I'd like to have one job for longer than 18 months.

Rik Spruitenburg
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@Jeff Lee Maybe you have the cause and effect backwards. Maybe most companies are not breaking even because they never build a team. Instead they create a series of teams each having to spend a lot of energy getting to know each other and how to work together and at this company. So not only is each game a roll of the dice on if it will be profitable, but you never get any better. Tim Schafer also mentions in the linked article that this creates a workplace with no loyalty. You know they will fire you the second they don't have a pressing need for you, then hope they can hire you or someone like you in 3-6 months when they do you need another warm body.

Kristafer Vale
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@Rik Spruitenburg But the distinction should be noted that there is a real difference between laying someone off because "you don't have a pressing need" and "we don't have any money left to keep your paychecks from bouncing."

I think what @Mike Murray said is probably right, in that every company especially small ones want to keep their teams together as Tim Schafer suggests but that sometimes the money just isn't there and there's no way to do it even with the best of intentions.

That said, I do think that keeping the team together should be the MOST important goal for companies and if sacrifices need to be made they should be made ANYWHERE else before layoffs are considered.

Nathan Zufelt
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This sounds exactly like what Tantalus CEO Tom Crago was saying. He was forced into some layoffs due to the fact that the studio could no longer afford to pay everyone.

John Woznack
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I agree with Tim Schafer's sentiment, but until video game developers stop trying to fund their companies with unstable and unpredictable revenue streams (such as publishing contracts or video game sales profits), this cycle will probably continue.

Lyon Medina
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Honestly in a perfect world I agree that no one should be have to be go through a lay-off but it’s a very situational kind of thing. If you have 200 employees and 50 of that is only helping to "finish" a game of course there should be lay-offs.

Smaller studios have the opportunity to hold onto the entire staff as their costs are already relatively low compared to a large studio, but I think there needs to be a happy medium. Lay-off but re-hire after the break and when it’s needed again. Which I think is already being implemented.

Rick Kolesar
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That's fixing a broken system with a less broken system. But in the end, it's still broken. The game industry need smarter, more mature people in charge. People who can look farther down the road and plan for stuff like this.

Don't hire 3 temp artists to help get the game out the door and lay them off, hire 1 full time and think of other ways to optimize the pipeline or reuse content within the game.

Lyon Medina
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Of course it’s a short term solution, but sometimes that is what is necessary.

Problems will occur, issues will be brought up, and in the perfect world you can plan for everything. In this world you cannot. You are unable to plan for games doing badly, personnel issues or the infinite possibilities of bad things occurring.

I never want to hire to only lay-off, but that is the only thing that sometimes keep the business a-float to hire for future projects.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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"If you have 200 employees and 50 of that is only helping to "finish" a game of course there should be lay-offs."

Or, large studios can afford to have multiple teams working on projects with staggered schedules, so that the people who are done with a project can move on to the next. Its human ressources management, and its quite possible to do. Personally, the fact that there has never been a wave of layoffs here weighted heavily in my decision to work for my current employer.

"You are unable to plan for games doing badly, personnel issues or the infinite possibilities of bad things occurring"

Yes you can, in fact you SHOULD. Contingency plans anyone?

Lyon Medina
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I am not trying to bring down your position Mathieu or that companies should never lay-off. I want companies to have checks, contingency plans, to be accountable. More than all I never want Lay-offs to happen or to ever be an avenue that a company would consider.

I want the same thing as you.

But I realize that sometimes it happens. (Zynga is going through it right now as I type) you can prepare reports, research the market, make 10 contingency plans, but things will/still/can go wrong or not enough right.

I know it is easy to look back and see how things could be avoided. Hindsight will always be 20-20, but can you honestly tell me that you can prepare for everything the future holds? I know I can’t and as sad as it is to say some times the wrong choices have to be made for the greater good.

Again, I am not disagreeing with you. You have the way more correct answer to any situation to when it comes to people losing their jobs. I am just stating that sometimes it cannot be avoided. A business cannot survive on hopes and dreams alone.

Rick Kolesar
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I don't think Double Fine has ever been in the situation where they had money to burn. In fact, they could have closed their doors but the ideas from their Amnesia Fortnight saved the studios.

http://www.joystiq.com/2012/03/08/double-fine-remembers-amnesia-f
ortnight-in-gdc-postmortem/

Knowing that, I'm sure it was very hard NOT to layoff people and have some money in the bank. Tim showed he had faith in his employees and I don't see anyone leaving that studio under their own free will anytime soon.

A good team that loves where they work and trust their employer is priceless. All the money in the world can't buy that.

Jeremy Alessi
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Words of wisdom to live by.

Mark Hart
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The propensity of a company owner is likely to differ from that of an individual contributor (designer, developer, musician, tester, ...). An owner's drive may be dominated by metrics related to the viability of the company and profits. Since keeping the team together may not trump the other priorities, what is the best strategy for an individual contributor?

Is it better for an individual contributor to invest in developing themselves, the team, a process, or a specific game?

Perhaps, the answer is somehow related to productivity.

Over 30 years ago, Barry Boehn stated that the most important factor regarding productivity was team capability. Today, the composition of a team is not likely to be the same year-to-year so how does an individual contributor improve team capability?

An individual contributor can improve team capability by becoming more valuable to any project (current and future). A few of the specifics include:
- Become more proficient in your current roles using your current tools. For example, if one of your tasks is to create a new version of the login page, devote your energy to becoming a better code monkey than you were last year.
- Explore options to diversify your tool set to implement solutions. For example, become proficient in a new language.
- Transform from a primary reputation as a contributor in their silo to a contributor known for mutualism. Help others become more efficient and successful. Find ways to make your output integrate more smoothly with the contributions of others. Find more ways to shape the contributions of others for more cohesive team efforts
- Pursue happiness for yourself. It will be contagious. Your efforts will contribute to a virtuous circle that improves the development environment for others.

These suggestions are based on the Principle of Obliquity. When an individual contributor is more happy, effective, productive,... and pursues things like autonomy, mastery, and purpose, others benefit and tend to be positive in their contribution. As a bonus, a great game (product) is produced that delights customers and provides profits to the organization.

Christopher J
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We need more people who think like Tim in this industry. (The Suits) become so blindsided by $$$$ that they are incapable of thinking about anything else. Studios throw bodies at projects that are fads. They do not plan properly. The fad becomes irrelevant. Then people get laid off.

I think understanding the value of proper planning as well as the value of having a strong team that has been together for years requires imagination and patience. Which a lot of “MONEY NOW” people do not have. But having those things is how you create a longstanding brand (assuming the plan and the team are solid). Once the brand is established... The money comes ten fold. Consistency is a great way to build a strong brand. Consistency is lost with layoffs.

I think of it like the old days of the Chicago Bulls, or in the NFL, when teams stayed together for years. It might be rough in the beginning, but once it starts clicking, dynasties are built. But today, people get traded around so much that you never know who is going to win the championship.

Joe Morton
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Is this serious? Does he really think businesses do it for fun? Is nobody paying attention to the studios shutting down or massively downsizing or leaving AAA all together?

Schafer really bugs me sometimes - the fact that he went to Kickstarter for funding when he has a massive, expensive studio in arguably the most expensive city in the United States ... that doesn't really leave him a lot of room to tell others how to do business.

Maurício Gomes
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Except the fact that his business work and he has profits without laying people off?

Maurício Gomes
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Oh, and I forgot to mention, fan adoration too

Chris Johnson
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He's not saying they do it for fun, but I think he knows that too many companies do it for the wrong reasons.

Too many short-sighted "leaders" think their employees are interchangeable cogs, and getting rid of some in order to maximize profit off of a shipping bonus, or to make an earnings call look good is just a simple matter of culling costs short-term, then hiring back on, and then can't understand when there's no loyalty, or their products suck. Has nothing to do with fun, and has quite a lot to do with greed.

And no, this isn't saying that companies who are in dire straits are doing it out of greed, and I think Tim is far smarter than that.

As for your snipe at Tim, kickstarter doesn't play into it, and that's a nice red herring to throw out there (as is the location of his studio), But the fact of the matter is he hasn;t had to do massive layoffs, his studio is successful, and the product it puts out tends to be in the upper-tier of quality... not to mention the man has been in the industry longer than some of its employees have been alive. So yeah, he likely has a great deal of room to give advice.

Joe Morton
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And what does that mean, in a broad sense? How many developers could go begging to Kickstarter and get a cool million? Do you think the "Tim Schafer" model works for the average schlub, or your THQ's and so forth? Or do you think they are just businesses who, like everyone else, keep employees when times are good and cut employees when times are bad? This rant reads like a monocle-wearing millionaire asking why everyone can't have his perfectly manicured lawn.

I really mourn our educational system. All people learn now is a sense of entitlement and outrage. How about learning basic economics? With the possible exception of Evil Inc. companies don't generally lay people off to be jerks. They do it when they can't pay their salaries. Or they do it to prevent going out of business some short time down the road.

Stewart Spilkin
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Joe, you're only seeing this as bad for the employee, but it's actually often worse for the business. The employee can go on and find a job with no strings attached. The business owners have their lives and fortunes invested, and they often fail to see that their most valuable resource is their teams; not the aging equipment and rented office space. Sometimes, it's just bad luck, but more often it is through ignorance, short-sightedness, naiveté, secretiveness, and the belief that they (the owners) are the real value in the company, and everyone else is replaceable. While that last part is technically true, the cost and risk of building a high-functioning team from the ground up should always be a last resort, and often a sign of managerial incompetence.

If you have to sell your horse to the pet-food factory at the end of every cattle-drive, maybe you shouldn't be a cowboy.

Johnny LaVie
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I don't know, Joe. You sound outraged..

Judy Tyrer
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I think the full time employee model for everyone on the team is what we need to step away from. The film industry doesn't use that and in this one way I think we could do well to emulate them. It takes a bit more work to hire jobs out to independent contractors, but if you think about it, what you are really doing is specifying the work clearly before starting it and what game company couldn't improve on that? It also gets management away from the thought that "I pay these people, they will do whatever I tell them to and I can treat them anyway I want" because it creates logical places for the two players to just part ways, no foul. And it gets us away from this whole "at will" employment that does nothing but create insecurity for both parties.

As the finances change, I'm still not sure how many people I'll take on as employees. I like the specificity that contracting gives me. It forces communication in areas that we in the industry have been notoriously bad about. I am finding it even clarifies how much creative freedom each person has. I start nit-picking my artists over little things and they start nickle-and-dimeing for the pain.

This also allows teams that work well together to continue to work together as often in film people take one another with them to jobs so designer and programmer teams would be common in the same way that director and cinematographer teams are. And those teams may only work for a couple of different companies but that way they can always get work as they juggle their schedules with the schedules of the companies they work for.

And that means that we have to actually make our deadlines because if we don't we lose the people to the next project. Think for a moment how that would impact our development budgets and schedules. No more runaways.

There are some downsides and I haven't addressed them all in my thinking on this. But this article gave me the excuse to put this out there and see what people think.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Except that games and films are made in vastly different ways. For example, iteration is terribly important for a game, and minimal for a movie once you start filming. Also, tools are mostly standardized in the film industry, where they tend to be very customized in the game industry. This lead to a considerable ramp-up time when a programmer joins a new studio. Also, I dont think years of non-interrupted filming is the norm in the movie industry.

Its just apples and oranges, really.

Stewart Spilkin
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Also Judy, the film industry has a tradition and infrastructure to handle those situations (like guilds and unions) which the game industry has to this point never seriously considered. They take care of the in-between times so people like Scott below can have health insurance and take a few vacations during their lives.

Many of the film/tv contractors are co-located for relatively short periods of time with roles, technology, and methodologies all pretty much established. The people who do the longer term work (sfx) are usually employees of a company, and that company contracts with the film producers.

Johnny LaVie
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Well, if we had a game union with a standardized pay scale that would fight for it's members against company exploitation, I'd be all for it. Unfortunately the odds of that happening are the same odds that full timers will get pensions and stay with a company for more than 5 years.

Also, the fact that most contractors in companies don't get treated very well, they are only hired at the last minute to relieve the crunch..and the person next to you who is full time with benefits will most likely get a bonus which you won't be getting..even if you think you built that into your hourly salary (which you probably didn't because they wouldn't of hired you if you really did) doesn't make this line of work the most attractive thing.

Sande Chen
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I think there are some similarities in business model where it would make sense to follow the freelance model of Hollywood. Yes, it would help to have a strong advocacy group or "union" or guild.

Scott Woodbury
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The people who created what you sell are not a disposable asset.

I have been bouncing from contract to contract in the Manufacturing Tech field and leave a wake of successful projects that is doing nothing to improve my bottom line. The companies I contract for make millions a year but quote the mantra of "lean manufacturing" and can't afford to hire me while the senior mangers get bonuses for every successful project.

I have worked on successful projects for the military, space industry and medical equipment industry yet I have not had health insurance for years nor have I had a paid holiday or paid vacation.

Tell me this shit's not messed up!

Daniel Sawitzki
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Every company has an interest to keep the members of an experienced production team. But when projects are much bigger than they use to be at Double Fine, the team size has to be variable. In the context of big multi-project studios, people or whole sub-teams can switch among projects, where small independent companies cannot afford that.

So it's convenient to make popular statements like this for Schafer, but there are project workers in lower positions who cannot be kept permanently by a small or medium size company. In fact that has been the death for some companies in the past.

So it's not about "the team" which a company should be loyal to. But on the other hand: If your company has grown a core team during a successful project, this should be tried to keep stable as long as possible - even if their full capacity is not needed directly after the project. There is always something to improve or prepare, and finding new people for the next project often turns out to be harder than expected. Then, the companies tend to make desperate moves like hiring freelancers from agencies and paying for their accomodation. In the end, this is more expensive while not being as effective as having an experienced team at hand.

My conclusion is: There is no easy soluton to this difficult topic as Schafer's statement seems to suggest. But it is true that many companies do suffer from not understanding the value of their employees, resulting in inefficiency, over-time and mediocre product quality in the end.

Justin Leeper
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Tim makes a heartfelt point. The easy opposition to that is, "Well, the movie industry doesn't do that. After a film wraps, the crew all goes their separate ways."
To that I say: You get paid a hell of a lot more being on a movie than on a game. I know from experience. If a movie goes into "crunch," everybody's making fat bank. In games, it's just expected; you maybe get some pizza and a 2-liter.
It's crap like this which is why I left the game industry after 3 years. (to write my action/scifi novel, Still Man Fights, in paperback and Kindle on Amazon)

mike madden
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Sadly the point he made to me in this is being lost in the discussion. Better games often times to come from a teams second effort. We as consumers would benefit from teams sticking together more.

No its not always a viable option for a business, but there are plenty of cases where a team does make enough money to earn a second title, but its not given to them for a number of reasons.

Perhaps companies doing a better job of being realistic and honest with themselves and employees is the way the future will work. Contracts for project terms, rather than calling someone an employee then laying them off at end of the project. It's what ends up happening anyhow. Just be honest to the team, never know they might actually respect you for it...

Jonathan Jennings
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Agreed Mike I think the bigger overlooked point is that the cohesion and polished development process a team works through can be applied and improved on iterating project. "it's always hardest the first time " is a mantra i have heard often and i myself have experienced how much the development process improves when you can keep core developers who work together.

A better more cohesive development experience means better games, a better team, and it can be hard to take these lessons into a new environment especially if you aren't cast as a lead.

Jonathan Murphy
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Been in this situation most of my career in the game industry. Job is done, I get laid off. If you feel you can do better, then save up, quit and go indie. Job stability in the entertainment industry is probably an oxymoron.

Joe Wreschnig
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"Job stability in the entertainment industry is probably an oxymoron."

The difference is that every other part of the entertainment industry has recognized that cycle, and built in compensatory measures for it. Unions and other professional organizations make sure you have things like health care even on the downswing, and make sure you get fair contracts with proportional recompense if the thing you worked on does well after the team is formally dissolved. Many people work remotely and for those who don't nearby temporary housing and transportation is built into contract costs so you don't need to pick up and move your life and family each new project.

We've got none of that. The closest thing games has is the IGDA, and its quality-of-life advocacy may well have had a negative impact overall.

Stewart Spilkin
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Joe is right on point. Slightly off topic, but even with the IGDA nudging (which is all they can really do) we can't even get a basic agreement on credit for work done. How many of us have spent years on shipped projects without credit, because developers and publishers use credits as a retention threat, punishment, or are just plain sloppy? That kind of thing rarely, if ever, happens in other parts of the entertainment industry, where such things are spelled out before hand and protected by unions and contracts.

We are still a young industry, and have a lot of growing up to do, but there is plenty of history to learn from, if anyone cares to do so.

Jonathan Murphy
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At the moment it's a unstable market that relies heavily on franchises, sequels, and often the furthest thing from creativity. I'm referring to the US market since it's the one I have experience with.

Eventually a new direction will take hold. Smarter, faster, and less naive. We hope.

Greg Wondra
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He's dead on right. Tim Schafer, I salute you, good sir.

Jorge Diaz
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Listen to that rambling, that man is a lunatic, a danger to himself and society. Someone get Schafer back on his meds.

Justin Sawchuk
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You know whats sad is they can chew you up and spit out, used and abused working what 12 hour days some executive can get rich off your work. Dont worry though there are literally kids lining up round the block all pining for the chance to take your place. Like cows lining up to go through the slaughter house, getting a degree from bovine university.

Bryan Provencher
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After working in this industry for a little while, it can be easy to fall into this line of thinking, and there are certainly companies that operate this way. But in my experience, exceptional artists and designers are not a dime a dozen; they are needles in a haystack, and it takes time and work for them to integrate and actualize their skills within a team. You are correct that there are kids lining up around the block (I have an HR inbox that would confirm this), but only a small portion of them have both the skill and commitment necessary.

Schafer is correct in saying that once a developer has grown into a team, they become an integral part of it. You can't expect to hot-swap the relational and experiential aspects of their role through the layoff/hire cycle and not loose something. Others in this thread have stated that it's not always possible to keep a team together after ship. They are correct. But it's also true that you loose experience and community when a team is partially or wholly disassembled; these two things are incredibly important, and take considerable amounts of time and work to rebuild.

Finding ways to retain whole teams makes sense, and it's also part of a more essential issue: treating your people well and providing them with stability. Maybe I'm overly sentimental, but I think that's a worthwhile goal on a humanitarian basis alone. I think it comes down to what a company values. Are you here to turn the biggest profits you possibly can? Or do you also value providing quality-of-life and stability for those you employ? There are companies in our industry who pursue the latter in addition to the former, and I think they're better off for it.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I think with careful game design, at least with online games, you can plan to have expansions and additional content to keep your crew busy after launch. This allows you to retain your staff and make productive use of them at the same time. Obviously, if your product is a decisive commercial failure, there won't be any additional content required.

James Barnette
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I think there are 2 sides to this. On one side you have developers that have such short deadlines placed on them by big publishers that they must grow the team to a size that cannot be maintained in the downtime between projected. I development cycles could be longer and perhaps also have multiple project going with multiple smaller Teams. the need to lay people off between projects would decrease as the level of revenue for the company would be much more stable. this also Cost a lot less and produces a better product. Put Publishers are ofter short sighted and more concerned with what quarter the profits are going to fall into in order to maximize their bottom line. This is something I'm sorta hoping that the crowd-funding wave can somewhat fix.

Marc Merrill
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Well said Tim!

Wylie Garvin
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I agree with Tim's view, though its also true smaller companies have a big practical problem of how to pay all those salaries when they aren't ready yet with another project for them to work on, and they might simply have no choice but to lay those people off. But that's bad for the company too, its a problem the industry should be trying to solve.

"It's a curious thing about our industry: not only do we not learn from our mistakes, we also don't learn from our successes." --Keith Braithwaite

He was talking about software in general, but I think it applies here too. I guess its hard for a business to capitalize on hard-won lessons from a project (successful or otherwise), if it lays off most of the people who learned those lessons.

Tony Dormanesh
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Seriously! Go Timmay!! \m\ /m/

Ramon Carroll
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.

Roger E Pedersen
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First as a developer, the company should be working on 2-3 projects at various stages so the team members can finish one project and start a new one or join an existing team.

More important, the trend of layoffs will soon destroy the gaming industry as good game employees will leave due to either bun-out (over-worked) and the instability. Who wants to look for work every 2-3 years.
At some point the entire industry will be consultants working at a high hourly rate or new to the industry with dreams of working on a game which will produce poor products and soon to hit the reality wall becoming the next generation of ex-industry members.

I realize that the game business is a business and that money is important especially to the stockholders (do gamers really care about the bottomline or great, fun games) but this will eventually destroy itself. We once had small start-ups then they got bought out by the huge companies and now we are back to small companies competing with the large ones in the Internet, digital store world.

That's my personal take on our industry, layoffs and more.


Roger E Pedersen

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAEf5rfyCvw

http://www.gamecareerguide.com/features/1055/can_game_mechanics_c
ontrol_and_.php

Robert Polzin
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I would imagine these fired after completions would be because certain companies that practice this kind of policy tend to suck the life from their employees and throw their hollowed out husks into a ditch upon completion.


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