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In the fight for job stability, Stardock finds its own solution
In the fight for job stability, Stardock finds its own solution Exclusive
December 5, 2013 | By Kris Graft

Earlier this year, Galactic Civilizations developer Stardock announced a multi-million dollar Stardock Investment Fund that it would use to invest in promising, small companies.

Now, the company has told Gamasutra it is using part of the $35 million fund to help alleviate the job instability that is so typical in the games industry, as projects ramp up and ramp down.

Dubbed the Stardock Staffing Company (SSC), the new unit, comprising a small network of studios that Stardock has invested in, is essentially a professional employer organization, or PEO, for game developers.

Here's an example of how it would work: Say a game studio is making an RPG, and the studio's team of artists is working on the game. As the game winds down and wraps up, the artists are left with nothing much to do.

Instead of laying off those artists, Stardock Staffing Company would find work for the artists within its coalition of studios. In SSC's case, the artists would still be based out of their "home" studio, so no jumping from city to city would be necessary. Likewise, if a studio is in need of talent, it can go through SSC to "lease" an individual who needs new work. The PEO takes care of the duties and regulations related to human resources that small startups don't have time to deal with.

Currently, SSC serves Stardock, Mohawk, Oxide and other unannounced companies that are part of Stardock's investment fund.

Stardock CEO Brad Wardell told us in a phone interview that the impetus behind founding the SSC was simple: to retain the most experienced and talented game developers by giving them more job security.

Commonly, a bright-eyed game developer is at first just happy to be making games. But as game developers grow older, they may tire of moving from job to job, city to city. Game development burnout happens.

"Then we lose them," said Wardell, often to other, more stable industries. "That talent and that knowledge is now gone. It's one of the reasons our games cost so much. We have to throw so many bodies at these games because we're largely dealing with relatively-inexperienced 20-somethings, and not that they're not talented, but they don't have the experience yet. But then they get experience into their 30s and 40s, and we lose them."

Highly-experienced game developers can do the same amount of work as multiple less-experienced developers, Wardell said. And while an experienced game designer might have a salary that's double of a less-experienced designer, for example, it's still less expensive than hiring four less-experienced designers.

"From a business point of view, [retaining veteran talent] allows you to make much, much better games, with much fewer resources," he said. Higher wages, more stability and a better portfolio of games also will help with recruiting higher-end talent, Wardell expects.

Stardock is already putting SSC into practice. Wardell said Stardock artists are currently working for Maryland-based strategy game studio Oxide, out of Stardock's Plymouth, Michigan offices. Meanwhile, artists out of Mohawk's Maryland studio are working for Stardock on an unannounced game, as Mohawk concentrates on finishing engine work on its upcoming game.

"This lets us have a much more stable environment, because no one has to be laid off. Before they're done with their projects, [staff] can just be assigned to something else, without having to move," Wardell said.

Having a geographically distributed workforce is nothing new to Wardell. He said half of Stardock's work on games is already done with companies that are located elsewhere in the world. "We're very experienced with doing that sort of thing," he said. "That's increasingly becoming common. We're just taking the next step with that," he said.

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David Paris
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Clearly there are a lot of issues to solve, but I'd love to see this get polished and work well. Good luck!

Ben Sly
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That's certainly an interesting approach to the problem, and one that I like. I worry that the coherency of the games' vision will be negatively affected with developers coming on and off projects so much, but probably not moreso than having four times as many developers.

One issue I do have is that now developers can be locked into eternal crunch time: once a crunch marathon for one game finishes up, another game hoovers them up for its own crunch marathon. I don't know much about the Stardock corporate culture or whether they plan to combat that, but this idea can easily backfire if it results in a bunch of burned-out talent.

Kain Shin
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This is a beautiful concept. I've always wondered why we do not see more "Tribal Relationships" between studios with different project cycles. I suppose the main problems to solve would be the perception of company secrecy as well as potential geographical issues. But I do want to see this succeed.

This is essentially the model that I see amongst independent game developers who have left the AAA space... They are the swingers of game development.

Armando Marini
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Where do I sign up?

Eric McConnell
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The other alternative is to pick a big mass of land where most of the business is done, i.e. LA for the film industry. That way jumping from company to company doesn't require relocation

Curtiss Murphy
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It's been years since anyone has talked about the loss of seniority in our industry. This seems a clever approach and I hope it bears fruit.

John Trauger
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It doesn't cure perennial overtime but if it stabilizes employment that's still huge.

Rasmus Rasmussen
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I applaud any effort to stabilize this industry. Not just for the sake of retaining talent or job security, but because it might eventually lead to an overhaul of how games - especially AAA titles - are made. Burnout seems inevitable when everyone involved has to go through weeks or months of crunch time (after which getting laid off seems almost like insult added to injury). Doubly so when you get a little older, might have a family and other non-work related responsibilites.

This is a great start. I wish them the best of luck, and hope others follow their example. And building on this, we might find ways to solve more of the issues plaguing the industry.

Ray Dahlia
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Wonderful idea. I wish more studios would value their seasoned employees (not to mention the benefits of having a team that knows how to work well together.)

Michael Mollo
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A great idea. Would love to know more about the implementation of it.