Tuesday, May 22, 2012

For the Fallen

It seems like lay-offs are an inevitability in game development these days. I personally have never worked for a company that hasn’t had to deal with them as part of the reality of this business. In my experience there are two simple reasons why this is a fact: 1) Every year it seems to take more and more money to make the kind of triple-A entertainment the public demands and 2) It takes more people to finish a project than it does to maintain one after launch or to pre-produce the next, meaning that at some point you're going to have more people than you have actual work. While the cold, hard facts may add up to logic in the end it doesn't change how much it sucks for everyone involved. 

In the grand scope of things It wasn't so long ago that I found myself on the losing end of the lay-off equation. It was late April, 2001 and I had been working for Turbine Entertainment in Norwood, MA for almost 3 months. I had spent the previous 2 years both finishing my film degree at the Massachusetts College of Art and working via the internet for then fledgling Crytek Studios on a project that would ultimately never see the light of day. With my “If we ever make any money you get significant royalties” contract for Crytek running out that February and the future still uncertain for them, I decided to go the route of my buddy Scott (who is currently a big deal art guy at Bungie) and try to find a real game development job. Scott had landed a gig at Turbine a few months after graduation and he let me know that they were looking for designers. To make a long story short, I applied for an entry-level design position on Asheron’s Call 2 and somehow (thanks a lot to Scott, a lot to my future lead, and a little bit to luck) landed it.

There was no formal training program at Turbine at that time, my lead was INCREDIBLY busy and maybe just a little bit in over her head and I didn’t know who/how to ask for help, so I spent quite a bit of time familiarizing myself with docs and teaching myself the AC1 tools. You see, we were so early in development on AC2 that our tools were virtually non-existent. Heck, I can still remember the day we got a flat, featureless world running in a server-based version of the engine for the first time. During my brief time at Turbine I did what I was told and I did it well (or so they told me) and I even took the new Lugian player race under my wing and developed a sprawling pre-Asheron’s Call 1 backstory for them. And even though they only kept about 0.1% of the material I wrote in the final game, I’m still rather proud of it.

The sad fact of the matter is that the Turbine I had joined at that point in 2001 was in a bit of a pickle. At the time AC1 (and AC2) were still under the watchful eye of Microsoft and while I wasn’t there long enough to grasp the nuance of the situation, I understood that it was no fun. About 1.5 months into my employment, Turbine ousted its current CEO and installed a new one; someone who I will not name, but I think most people who had to deal with him would agree was an ass and while I suppose at the time it seemed like the right move, time makes fools of us all. To round out this cul-de-sac of kismet, Tubine had been working on a project that would have been a PS2 MMO, but due to a number of circumstances had to cancel the development.

This all brings us to the aforementioned late April in 2001. I was almost 3 months into my first paying game development job and I was finally feel like I was getting the hang of it and really starting to contribute. That morning, my lead grabbed me shortly after I arrived and told me she needed me in a meeting. This wasn’t entirely unexpected because, even though I had only been there a short time, I knew that impromptu meetings often sprung up and as one of only 4 designers dedicated to AC2 at the time I might be needed. I entered our largest meeting room and took a seat around the rectangular arrangement of tables with a bunch of other people. Once everyone was seated and the doors were closed we were told that everyone in the room was being laid off. I can remember feeling like the blood had completely drained from my head. The last thing I expected that morning was to come into work, only to leave with a box of my belongings and a severance package. In fact it had been only a week or two before that my carpool buddy had remarked (on the cancellation of the PS2 project) that “at any other company those people would be out of jobs right now.”

As the lay-off meeting proceeded there was a short explanation of Turbine’s financial situation and why the lay-offs were necessary. I don’t remember the details, but it all amounted to something along the lines of: if they didn’t get rid of people by that June, they’d be out of money. We all waited in that conference room watched over by our leads and senior staff while they called a couple people at a time to speak with HR and to sign the severance paperwork. I can remember one of the senior people - a producer maybe - asking me what was going through my head. I can only assume that the question was raised due to my looking as shocked as I felt at the time. I remember saying something about trying to recall my personal philosophy, which is the kind of dumb thing a 22 year old, idealistic kid says in a situation like that. Incidentally the philosophy I was trying to recall was “What is, is”, which any decent X-Men fan will recognize as the prime tenet of the Clan Askani. Anyway, eventually my time came and I went through the HR process, cleaned out my desk, went to lunch with a bunch of people from work and then went home. I had spent half my life to that point dreaming of making games and had even spent 2 years doing it with no recognition or pay and then less than 3 months after landing my first paying, professional gig … I was let go.

They told me they would try to get me back, but as an older, smarter, and much more in the loop person now at the age of 33, I realize that this had been a pipe dream at best. My former lead did try to set me up with another local company, but the interview went badly (my own damn fault really) and nothing came of it. I spent the rest of the summer trying to get my portfolio together. MMO’s were fine, but at the time it was a 3 dog race and I had just gotten cut from the guys bringing up the rear. I figured I needed to re-dedicate myself to getting into FPS development, which is what I had been doing for Crytek. I ended up wasting about 2 years in that direction before turning back to RPG’s, but this time for writing, yet another wrong move.

During the next few years I moved back to Connecticut to live with my parents and then back to Boston, all the while spending too much time trying to get a so-called portfolio together than applying for development jobs. Eventually by the time 2006 rolled around I knew it was time to get serious. The previous summer I had been disavowed of any notion that I had the chops at the time to write dialogue for games and eventually refocused my efforts to what I was actually good at: quests and game design. I worked up a slick Neverwinter Nights Mod to use as a portfolio piece, spent some money to have my resume professionally done, and that summer I sent out a shotgun blast of applications. It worked and 6 years later I’m in Austin working for a developer I idolize and alongside the best people in this industry.

To make a long story short: I got myself a job in game development right out of college, got laid off, and took the long way to break back in. The point is that even though I only had 3 months of actual professional experience on my resume and even though I had never shipped a title, I was able to prove myself as someone worth hiring and within a year of my return to game development I was leading a team and I’ve never looked back since.

It’s easy to blame your publisher, your studio, your fellow devs, the fans, yourself or anyone else for getting laid-off. I’ve seen my fair share of people let go both in person at studios I’ve worked at and peripherally via friends at other locations and you can spend a lot of time looking for someone to blame. In the end it’s just how things work at this point in time. Even at a studio and on a project that is doing well, it is often the price of doing business. The thing to remember is that getting laid off is not the end. It sucks, but it’s not the end and for those of you who find yourselves divorced from their former jobs right now, you owe it to yourselves not to give up hope. If there's one thing I know it's that game developers are a community and when we get hit by hard times we tend to band together. If I can give any advice it would be this: don't hesitate to get your resume out there. If someone is hiring you should be applying. My other advice would be to not be afraid or hesitant about relying on your friends and former teammates. It's at times like this that I like to recall the following:
This guy's walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can't get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it's me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.’ The friend says, “Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out”1
I know the instinct a lot of people have in these situations is to just quit games altogether and for some, maybe that’s the right call. For me, it was never an option and for those of your who lost your jobs today, for my friends here and elsewhere, know that I will do whatever is in my power in order to help you find a new job in game development. I will be your reference, your advocate, and your friend; not out of some kind of survivor’s guilt, and not out of some holier-than-thou altruism, but simply because you deserve it and I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.
1The West Wing “Noel”, dir. Thomas Schlamme, writ. Aaron Sorkin, perf. John Spencer, DVD, Warner Bros., 2000.
The views expressed on Plenty For All are purely the opinions of Brian J. Audette and are not at all affiliated with, representative of, endorsed or supported by BioWare, EA, it's shareholders, partners, or subsidiaries.

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