Game companies enact callous layoffs, amid their own competence controversies

Colin Campbell, Wednesday, October 4th, 2023 11:49 am

Photo by Anna Shvets

Gaming workers are fed up with employers and contractors that treat them like nothing more than digits on a spreadsheet. Following a wave of layoffs and troubling reports of corporate callousness and incompetence, workers are coming together to aid one another, creating social media help centers, as well as organizing towards unionization.

One example is Christina Grace, a senior producer who currently works for developer Caged Element. She is running a Google Doc for unemployed gaming workers. Launched last month, it features people looking for work, a list of companies hiring, and a list of recruiters.

On September 28, she posted: “There are so many layoffs in the games industry lately, it’s heartbreaking to see my feed.” Yesterday, she added herself to the list. “I’ve sadly added my name to this list too due to unforeseen circumstances, so if anyone is looking for a Senior Producer/QA Lead/Manager etc. please feel free to poke me … I’ll be remaining at Caged Element until I secure a new role, but available almost immediately!”

Developers who suddenly find themselves in urgent need of a job are a common sight on places like Twitter. As often as not, they express surprise and sadness that their employment has been terminated. Of course, the game industry has always been like this, but nowadays, workers using their voices on social media, and increasing interest among gaming reporters, means we get to see these stories more often than in the past.

Quiet please

Kotaku reports today that Sony-owned Naughty Dog, one of the most successful first-party studios in the world, has shed 25 jobs, mainly among contractors. The reporting is sourced from people affected by the layoffs, and includes the startling line that “no severance is being offered for those currently laid off, and that impacted developers as well as remaining employees are being pressured to keep the news quiet”.

Last week Epic Games shed about 870 jobs – roughly 16 percent of its workforce. The company’s billionaire CEO Tim Sweeney sent a memo to staff saying that the company is “spending way more money than we earn”. According to the BBC, he added: “We concluded that layoffs are the only way, and that doing them now and on this scale will stabilize our finances. Epic folks around the world have been making ongoing efforts to reduce costs, including moving to net zero hiring and cutting operating spend on things like marketing and events.But we still ended up far short of financial sustainability.”

Meanwhile, Epic has apparently failed to pay Hatoful Boyfriend creator Hato Moa any royalties for the past two years. She posted on Twitter that “I’ve got no royalty payment for Hatoful Boyfriend from Epic since they acquired Mediatonic back in spring 2021. I don’t think the sales have been zero for two years?” She said that Epic had failed to respond to her requests for more information. Now that the news is public, Epic says it’s looking into the matter.

In August, Bioware laid off 50 workers. Now, seven of them are suing the company for a fairer severance package. In a statement, the seven said that “In light of the numerous recent industry layoffs and the fact that BioWare’s NDAs prevent us from showing any of our recent work on Dragon Age: Dreadwolf in our portfolios, we are very concerned about the difficulty many of us will have finding work as the holiday season approaches.”

Studio closures

North Carolina-based studio Puny Human just announced that it’s shutting down, after 14 years in which it worked on titles like The Callisto Protocol, and The Bard’s Tale 4. CEO Mike Sanders said the fault lay with unpaid royalties. “Unfortunately, a client refused previously agreed-upon payments, which deprived us of the cash flow to fully pitch our in-progress title and triggered successive failures in our operating income. I take full responsibility for not sufficiently preparing for this outcome.”

Dang, a small developer best known for mobile game Boomerang X announced yesterday that it is shutting down, due to an inability to find funding for its next project.

UK publisher Team 17 confirmed that it has “sadly entered into a period of consultation,” which almost certainly means layoffs. Eurogamer reports that much of the company’s quality assurance team are going to lose their jobs.

Here’s a line from that story that speaks volumes about corporate behavior. “These latest layoffs follow job losses at Team17 earlier in the year within the company’s internal development teams. At the time, staff were told further layoffs would not occur.”

Empty thanks

Kotaku’s Ethan Gach – who’s doing a sterling job reporting on game industry shenanigans -, recently broke the news that Activision Blizzard made ten people from its Hearthstone team redundant, blaming “organizational changes,” that affected “a small number of roles”. The company added: “We want to thank these employees for their many contributions.”

Last week, Ubisoft quietly laid off half a dozen members of its communications and social media team. The company told Polygon that it wants to “more effectively drive player-centric communications”. The news comes only a few weeks after Ubisoft closed its studio in London, with the loss of more than 50 jobs.

Other companies to have made layoffs just in the last couple of weeks include Roblox (30 people), and Crystal Dynamics (ten people), part of the Embracer Group, which has been ruthlessly slashing jobs for months.

Meanwhile, struggling game retailer GameStop – not known for its benevolence toward employees – has told workers to tighten their belts. Newly installed billionaire boss Ryan Cohen’s first email to staff (as reported by Kotaku) warned: “Every expense at the company must be scrutinized under a microscope and all waste eliminated. The company has no use for delegators and money wasters. I expect everyone to treat company money like their own and lead by example.”

As the number of unemployed workers grows – as well as those who decide working in games is not sustainable, and so quit – the difficulty grows for new talent to find their way into a creative and rewarding career.

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist. © 2024 | All Rights Reserved.