A Call to Arms

As everyone who’s been following the game industry knows by now, it’s been another rough fall on the employment front.

Electronic Arts has once again laid off over 100 people from their EA Canada studio, but they aren’t the only ones releasing people just prior to the holidays. Disney-owned Propaganda Games has canceled a major project and let go the entire team.  LucasArts “adjusted” 50 people. Activision-Blizzard “stream-lined” an entire studio, Budcat, losing 88 people. There seems to be an increasing tone from publishers that this is the new normal for game development…

As you know, seasonal roll-offs that follow game launches are common and vital to maintaining a healthy business. Because so many of our games ship in the holiday quarter, the team size adjustments tend to follow in the same timeframe. However, EA is growing and several of our studios are looking to hire talented people.

~ Jeff Brown, EA corporate communication spokesperson

I call bullshit on this.

Most of the game developers I know, including many who were just laid off this past month, are still operating under the ‘old rules’. These ‘rules’ weren’t written down, but more of a gentleman’s agreement. We, the people hired to build the games, were willing to work months of unpaid overtime, knowing that this was in exchange for a measure of security, flexible work hours, time-in-lieu and the possibility of a bonus. We developers have always been passionate about what we do and have been willing to endure these sacrifices because we knew it would make the games better. We all want to be proud of our work.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line this social contract broke down. Overtime became a standard, rather than an exception. You can’t feel that secure in your job when most places lean heavily on outsourcing, contract, and part-time workers. Flex hours dissolve into nothing if you are at the office seven days a week. Rather than offering time-in-lieu, you receive a pink slip. And bonuses? Well, they remain a fantasy much as it always was. Publishers must have a good reason for operating in this fashion, right? Is it to sell more units? Is it to raise the quality of the games, so that the franchises don’t go stagnant?

Obviously, this isn’t the case when you look at the numbers. Ubisoft stock just dropped by 22%, the biggest decline in a decade.The latest release of Guitar Hero, a franchise only five years old that once sold 1.5 Million copies in its first five days, recently sold less than 250,000 units in total, worldwide, to date. Rock Band 3 is selling even worse and in turn Viacom is selling off Harmonix. The industry as a whole has been declining in sales. Year over year from April there was a 26% decline in sales, another 8% in September, followed by another 4% in October, in total 7 months in a row has seen declining sales. If you look at Metacritic scores for franchises, you will also notice if you look at the publishers titles, the sequels rarely do better. This is in spite of the fact that it is often the same team making it with existing technology!

The new reality is that we are working longer and harder for less of everything. The product we are turning is out is becoming uninspiring and turnkey. Our industry is dying and we are sitting around doing nothing because we feel we have lost our voice. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change things.

Over the next couple of posts I am going to talk about some possible solutions, their pros and cons, and hopefully get a debate started.

2 thoughts on “A Call to Arms

  1. The only solution to this serious problem is to unionize. Someone (you?) should approach IASTE. If every studio has the same contracts, rules and power the studios will have to treat their employees with respect.

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