Layoffs suck. From developers to publishers, they are one of the worst experiences you can have in this industry. Yet, for anyone making games, it is something that you will probably come in contact with. How to keep them from happening is a business management and leadership discussion that I am not the most qualified to talk about, even though that is the most important discussion to be had on this topic. No, what I am qualified to talk about is how to be prepared for them if they do happen. Every time I have personally come in contact with the possibility of layoffs, I go back to my Boy Scout Training.
The first step towards being prepared is to be aware that it can happen to you. Yes, you. I’ve seen amazing people let go, yet sub par devs kept on. Layoffs are a cruel beast that knows not the meaning of “fair.” Instead of trying to fight the why, it is best to steel yourself in case you may find yourself in the cold, harsh wasteland of layoff land. For all you experienced Eagle Scout devs, this is probably just going to bring about somber head nods. But for all you young Cub Scouts, just getting started on your journey, sit down next to my digital campfire. This could keep you alive out there.
The next step is to always, I mean ALWAYS, keep backups of your work. If the worst happens, you want to be able to apply for a new gig right away, and if you have to wait a few weeks for the studio to get you copies of your work, it is only going to make the job hunt more stressful. You want to strike while the iron is hot, and as crappy as this sounds, you will be competing against all the awesome people you worked with that were also laid off. It is best to be ahead of the maelstrom, and not surrounded by it. You don’t need to have your reel or portfolio completely up to date at all times, but you should always have everything you need ready, so that if it comes down to it, you can have it all together within a moment’s notice. This is a grey area however depending on the studio you work at. Some are completely open to you having your work saved for personal use, some have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy, and some will only allow work that they personally sanction or watermark to leave the building. Make sure you know which boat you are in before you fill up your inflatable life raft with screenshots or videos of your work. In those cases you are unable to have personal copies of your work beforehand, save local files of everything you want at an easy to get to place on your work computer. Nothing compounds the stress of finding out you are about to be out of a job by trying to track down all the source files of everything you have worked on. It will also make the job of whoever has to get those files to you a lot easier, which could translate in you getting them sooner.
After you have your survival gear, the next step is to know your environment. If someone is surprised that their studio is having layoffs, then there is a good chance they haven’t been paying attention. There are warning signs if you are vigilant. If you are new to the event, the easiest way to recognize the possibility is by how busy you and those around you are. If everyone is perpetually behind on their tasks, up to their neck in work, and it has always been that way, then there are some serious management issues. Obviously projects haven’t been planned out, which will reflect in the quality of the work, which then impacts how attractive the studio is to publishers. The other end of the spectrum is if there are a lot of people sitting around with not much to do. That means there is a good chance the studio overstaffed on the last project, and if you don’t see another project about to start into full production immediately, “restructuring” probably isn’t that far behind.
Next, get to know your lead and other seniors/veterans of the studio. Beyond just helping you learn more about your craft, they can be your wilderness guide when it comes to surviving layoffs. They’ve got their finger on the cultural pulse, and have for quite some time, which allows them to gauge far better than anyone what the atmosphere is. Stay close to them, and keep your ears open. By their tone and disposition you can learn everything you need to know about what is going on up top even if they don’t explicitly say so. Much like trying to earn your Wilderness Tracking Badge, be aware of what changes are taking place in your working environment and how they move. Has something large, burly and destructive moved through there recently? Does something smell rotten or foul? Does it feel like you are being watched by the eyes of a predator? This is why you need to have your senses primed, something you can learn from your seniors, you can get a feel for how publisher and project relations are going. If you get that feeling that something bad could happen, listen to your instincts. Those instincts can give you the time to decide between fight or flight.
Choosing to fight is about as noble a choice as a game developer can make. If you are in a position to be able to do so, go for it. There is a good chance that if you are capable of making a difference or grabbing hold of the reigns and righting the ship, then short of a complete studio shutdown, you are probably safer than most from being laid off. Of course, that also means you are in the unenviable position of potentially having to tell co-workers they are being laid off if things go bad. But that is again a topic that I’m not qualified talking about as it is a burden I’ve never had to shoulder thankfully. How someone deals with this is the sort of dark quandary best discussed with some beer instead of s’mores.
So what if you choose flight? There are a variety of reasons you may choose to go that route. It could be that you know layoffs are coming and you don’t feel safe. Possibly you see them coming and know that the people being kept on are not ones you would enjoy working with. Or maybe you are just tired of the atmosphere and the constant threat of layoffs, even if they may never come. Whatever your reason, there are some ways to go about it without burning down your entire campsite and the surrounding forest.
Be smart. Don’t promote the fact you are looking to leave, as it will do no favors to anyone around you. Don’t slack off at work or be completely transparent to the fact that you are applying elsewhere, because if layoffs do come, you are only sealing your fate even more. You also don’t know who else is applying to where, and may find that you work with some of them again. Last thing you want is for them to speak poorly of you.
Be aware of the studios you are interested in and if they have your position available. If things aren’t going well at your current studio, but you see one of your preferred options looking, you don’t necessarily want to wait. That job could be gone by the time you need it. You could also find out that you don’t really click with that new studio, which is good to know when you still have other options. Always best to scout out the next digs while you have your old ones to keep you warm.
When you are getting your reel or portfolio together, and begin to send it out, what are you going to do with work that is so far unreleased to the general public? This is another potential sand trap that developers both new and senior fall into. First off, and this should be common sense yet ALWAYS seems to happen, is to not post anything confidential on LinkedIn, Vimeo or Youtube. If your resume is public, and your last title is unreleased, don’t list the name of the project on your CV. If the game isn’t announced, and you have some of it on your reel, do not post it for anyone to see. Because someone from a gaming website will find it, and your name will be part of the story. Leaking a project is not something that will make you more attractive to your next employer. Again, common sense, but it happens all the time.
So how do you show off all that hard work, especially since it is your most recent experience? You can create two reels or portfolios, one that is public, with NDA safe work and another that has additional unreleased work that you have hidden or password protected on your website, which you can link potential employers to. Another method is to let the employer know newer work exists, but you are only willing to show it in person and not able to give out any copies. It is your decision on which best suits your purposes. If your work is strong enough without it, then you can go with the in person approach. If you believe that without the new work you are going to be in a hard position to find a new job, then having a hidden/protected link is your best bet. But be aware, that can also bite you in the butt. Most studios understand or don’t seem to care about you having that work on your reel, but I have heard of a studio being turned off by an applicant including work of an unreleased project. Like everything concerning this topic, there is no perfect answer. The best you can do is be smart and use your common sense for what is best.
Preparing for layoffs suck. Making games is hard enough without having to watch your back out there. Just discussing layoffs can suck the optimism out of the conversation, and the hope is that as game development grows, they become less of a reality. But if you are prepared for the worst, it means you don’t have to worry about what you would do if things do take a dark turn. You can continue on the road towards being a kick ass game dev, knowing that you are able to take on whatever comes your way. Ultimately, if you are smart enough to know or practice what I’ve talked about, your preparedness also comes through in your work and how you tackle all the challenges of game development.
I’ll leave you with this quote from the Boy Scouts webpage:
“Be prepared for what?” someone once asked Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting,
“Why, for any old thing.” said Baden-Powell.
Baden-Powell wasn’t thinking just of being ready for emergencies. His idea was that all Scouts should prepare themselves to become productive citizens and to give happiness to other people. He wanted each Scout to be ready in mind and body for any struggles, and to meet with a strong heart whatever challenges might lie ahead.
Be prepared for life - to live happily and without regret, knowing that you have done your best. That’s what the Scout motto means.