Wait…what? Break out? Isn’t that the wrong direction? I’d say that depends on your experience, but that’s really for a different post. This one is actually about the ways in which game employment seems to be changing…and the ways in which it perhaps should be changing but isn’t.

As a consultant, I’m always looking for new clients. That means I keep checking places like gamejobhunter.com and #gamejobs and the like.  I’ve probably been checking these locations more often than most – or at least for more consecutive months than most – and I’ve started to notice a few interesting trends.

It used to be that if you needed an artist, you put out an ad for “artist”. As the employer, the understanding was that you needed an artist for the current project so you’d hire one. Then, after the project started to wind down, you’d probably look for ways to trim headcount and that new artist is back looking for work again. Or maybe she turned out to be a superstar and that other artist – you know, the one who’d been slow to pick up Z-brush and complained about crunch – that guy is out on the street. Nowadays, though, you might very well see positions such as “Artist (Temporary)” or “Contract Artist”. What do these job descriptions say to you?

On the one hand, this could be misconstrued as somewhat demeaning. If you view games as art, and any contributing developer is on par with classical composers and Renaissance painters, then a temporary role for an existing project could be taken as undervaluing your work. “Hey, Michelangelo. We’ve got Vasari over here working on a painting but he’s not going to get it done on time. Could you take care of the bottom left corner for him?”

On the other hand, you could view these positions as refreshingly forthright. “We have 8 weeks of work for you, likely to be just assembly line stuff like poly reduction or downsampling spec maps, then you’re gone. This won’t be a career for you.” At least you know where you stand, right? Isn’t that better than applying for “artist” only to find out 8 weeks later that they only intended to keep you for a short period of time?

The next question I’d like you to ponder is this: if every employer were perfectly transparent about every position they’re hiring for, what percentage of game job openings would say “temporary”?

As I start to see “contract” and “temporary” show up more often, I’m led to wonder a few more things. If you only cast off the least desirable employee at the end of the project (like that artist who didn’t learn Z-brush quickly enough), what kind of an overall pool of contract employees are you generating for your next project and the rest of the industry? What’s the likelihood of any of the “we should form Hollywood-style guilds” discussions ever coming to fruition if the folks encouraged to do contract work are then also enticed to stay on at the end while someone else hits the bricks? What makes a “contract artist” more appealing than an outsourcer? Is the only difference that you have to find a desk for one of them?

Keep in mind that this topic doesn’t just apply to artists. All of the programmers and animators and level designers out there who think you’re safe…what if a “temporary” gets hired next month who – at the end of the project – turns out to be better than you?

Admittedly, this idea of employee churn is really more of an issue for the bigger organizations.  In fact, this is likely a key contributor to the upsurge in social and mobile mini-companies that are springing up all over the place. In the “5-person team” space your job is more secure because you’re not 1 of 30 fx artists, you are the fx artist. And the audio guy and UI expert.

Maybe this is hastening the downfall of A/AA/AAA projects, broadening the gap between stereotypical Facebook production values and AAAA Call of Duty games. Although I firmly believe everything’s cyclical and we’ll someday see a resurgence of 40-person teams on 18-month dev cycles, I think that day will keep getting pushed out as long as our industry keeps struggling to determine the value of an employee.