On September 12th earlier this year, 175 people at Blitz Game Studios in Leamington Spa lost their jobs. Okay, I had to look up the name too but it was a pretty close-to-home example. There are a huge number of development companies across the European continent, the USA and Japan too, and it’s not just about the lesser-known firms either. In October, EA (Electronic Arts) canceled their revamp of Command & Conquer, shutting down Victory Games, the studio (no longer) making it. Capcom were reported to intend on laying off nearly half of their European employees, having announced the company was “undergoing a major restructure following a difficult year”. Web giant Zynga got rid of hundreds in early 2013, and LucasArts seceded from the games world. Many more cases can be found, what with websites like www.GameJobWatch.com that have been set up in reaction to this trend. It’s worth pointing out that it’s been a difficult past few years for Western economies in all industries thanks to that financial mishap in 2008 which you might be vaguely familiar with. People have to be let go in whatever industry you slide under the microscope – so is there anything out of the ordinary actually occurring here?
Well, yeah. Gaming as a whole has been booming in recent years – it’s bigger than ever before and while incomes have dramatically changed, markets have readjusted and industries all but lost, people today have more technology in their homes, inside their pockets and at their disposal than ever before. I’m confident enough to make an assumption that many unemployed who’ve fallen foul of tough conditions do spend time playing games, for example. If we assume things are on the up – and they are – then the question begs, why the layoffs? The general consensus here seems a sensible one: restructuring. Not simply internal restructuring of companies who’ve lost power and had to readjust to their new positions, but restructuring of an entire industry built upon flawed foundations. Now our question develops to considering from what the video games industry is restructuring from, and what into? The plot thickens.
It’s little wonder development appears alien to people at times when many aspects of its culture is perplexing to say the least. Like other white-collar sectors, it faces issues such as under-represented women and ethnic minorities, with an inexplicable wage drop between genders, though the symptoms are somewhat more severe in gaming. Technical levels of jobs range from programmers and testers to more tangible creatives like concept artists and often under-supported creatives such as the writers. Areas such as testers are more entry-level, and as such filled with people for whom it’s essentially a dream come true to be working in the gaming industry. Workers can be mistreated and abused by the parent of their umbilical cord of love tying them to their jobs, and as was the case with a quarter of Pandemic Studios, they might feel completely secure with their jobs before being dropped right out of the blue.
There are two types of person made recently-redundant: the first type has skills used in the gaming industry that are applicable to other vocations and so hold the threat of changing their context of work, while the second are trained in more or less industry-specific activities and thus may be at an immediate disadvantage to the rest of the resource pool if not hired for a similar gig soon. If job security is all but false, things could be pretty volatile as far as employment is concerned. There has been a turn away from the traditional by some – namely Irrational Games (and others’) embrace of the creative side, Valve’s pro-active, anti-hierarchy culture and of course the mass of independent development studios that litter the market. Unfortunately, the majority of indies seem to be doomed to fail for various reasons, while those that do make it encounter dangerous issues and have risked everything on the line. Meanwhile, the brunt of coverage exposed to the masses of gamers that don’t dig deeper than surface level is corporate-driven and stereotype-reinforcing – the symptoms are aggravated, the polarities extended.
Sure, gaming might be growing but core aspects of it could be shrinking. How well can models react to a changing world of rapid technological development, when there is a focus on unresponsive product such as video games consoles? The previous console generation cycle lasted seven years or so, a peak figure. The change needs to take place in many ways, from multiple angles. Certainly, it’s important to recognise gaming is a serious player in the media and technology industries, and is here to stay. There needs to be more education highlighting how the industry works, so that it may learn from itself while prospective employees have a better idea of what’s involved. There needs to be recognition of how the industry and its companies are far from homogenous, as in the gaming industry there are more vastly different company cultures than between firms of other disciplines, and strategies and analysis of one environment cannot be applied to another without adaptation.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s important to recognise the lust for money annexed by the corporate giants spawned from gaming’s rise also haemorrhaged the industry. If reform comes about in a way that concentrates on efficiently and effectively maximising profit at all costs, it will have failed. This is because the people that build the games are the ones that love games, love their product – it’s rare for an industry to be propped up on both company and consumer sides by the same people who are so connected to and so invested in that which they are making. There needs to be love. There’s magic in the creation and innovation that must not be lost whatever the cost, and if it means sacrificing consumer base for running costs to redefine the meaning of a ‘better’ product, then so be it.
Here are some reads I recommend that were used as sources and go further in-depth about the topics covered: