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What's An Out-Of-A-Job Developer To Do?

As studios close and the job market shifts, what are developers to do? Gamasutra speaks to people on various sides of the issue to find out what is happening out there in the real world and what picture both personal experiences and data paint.

Game Developer, Staff

March 8, 2011

12 Min Read

[As studios close and the job market shifts, what are developers to do? Gamasutra speaks to people on various sides of the issue to find out what is happening out there in the real world and what picture both personal experiences and data paint.]

Call it "the perfect storm" -- studio layoffs and shutdowns continue to kick developers to the curb while, at the same time, the traditional AAA-title skills are in less of a demand than are social network/mobile game skills. What's an out-of-work developer to do?

Gamasutra talked to a few of them -- plus an industry analyst and the CEO of a recruiting firm -- to learn how job seekers have been handling the situation.

Believe it or not, the employment scene is doing better than a year ago when, in January 2010, Wanda Meloni wrote that the final count for layoffs since the economic meltdown in late 2008 reached 11,488 worldwide, with the majority of the losses coming in 2009.

All the major publishers were impacted by the layoffs -- Electronic Arts, THQ, Activision, Sega, SCEA, Midway, Disney, Eidos, and LucasArts.

Meloni, an industry analyst who tracks employment trends and is president of Encinitas, CA-based M2 Research, is currently doing research to update her numbers. But, she says, things are looking up -- sort of.

"A recent survey found that Australia's game development industry shrunk by over 50 percent since 2008; there are now 931 full-time game developers working in Australia in 126 studios compared to over 2,000 full-time employees in almost 50 studios in 2008," she says. "So when I say that things are getting better, well, they had been pretty bad."

While layoffs continue, mainly at the larger and mid-sized studios, observes Meloni, they seem to have less to do with the economy and more to do with a shift in the industry -- from the more traditional retail "box games" where "the cost of development became unbearable" to newer, more economic sectors like social network and mobile games.

"That is clear in markets such as Hamburg, Germany," she says, "where they just hosted the Casual Games Conference. The city now employs 3,000 and has openings for 500 more."

For developers looking for work, she adds, that means retooling, being creative, and perhaps looking at startups or studios that have gone with the flow. It might also mean relocating to places like Quebec, which continues to grow substantially with large studio openings. Or to smaller Canadian provinces like Nova Scotia, which is aggressively looking to bring industry to its region by supporting smaller studios and development teams.

"Just take a look at the GDC show floor this year," says Meloni. "Almost every Canadian province has its own booth urging game developers -- in practically every job category -- to relocate. There's a clear sign that there are jobs available -- not just in Canada but the Bay Area and Seattle seem to be heating up again. I see lots of startups coming to those areas, many of them funded with the severance packages of laid-off developers."

Mary-Margaret Walker sees hiring activity as well, although it is being negatively affected by consumers who are economizing on their game-playing habits.

In LA, Mary-Margaret Walker is CEO of recruiter Mary-Margaret Network.

"We are moving very quickly from a niche market to an 'every household' market in which gaming isn't as much a priority as previously," she explains. "And, at the same time, instead of paying $60 for a game in a store, people are voting with their pocketbooks on 'free-to-play' games and micro-transactions. As companies were making decisions on which direction to head, it was the smaller studios who, as always, were more nimble. Which is why they are hiring while the 'box market' is becoming smaller and smaller."

From a recruitment perspective, Walker reports seeing about 60 percent "active" -- or unemployed -- job seekers in today's market versus 40 percent "passive" -- or employed, "just looking" -- seekers. In a good economy, she adds, the percentages are typically reversed -- 60 percent passive/40 percent active.

Walker instructs unemployed job seekers to "do something... even if you're doing it for free. Continue to grow your resume. If you have to take a job outside the industry -- and still do something on the side so that you're growing your game development skills -- do it! If you're committed to staying in the industry, these are the things you must do... in addition to considering relocation."

In terms of which professions are most in demand, Walker says programmers are always scarce. "If their skills are current and they're able to relocate, there is almost certainly a job out there for them," she says.

Traditionally, she says, her firm sees more producers than producer positions, and that is as true today as ever. In addition, she is hearing from a lot of middle managers and executives who were the first to go when companies began their layoffs.

"There are jobs out there for them," says Walker. "It just takes time and effort, willingness to relocate, and lots and lots of networking."

The situation job seekers face today is the same as when the industry launches a new platform, she says. "Everybody wants to hire somebody who has five years experience on the new technology that just came out. Sure, that's unreasonable, but it's true that social gaming companies want people with lots of social gaming expertise. Which is why I focus on career enlightenment, which is the key to staying employable.

"Keep your skills sharp. Whether you're an artist or a programmer, whether you're in sales and marketing or finance, stay on top of what's happening in the industry. If you lose your job today, it could take anywhere from three to six months to find something depending on your skills. But if you're not willing to relocate, if your skills aren't sharp, chances are it'll take longer."

Speaking from personal experience, Zack Hiwiller can confirm that it can take longer.

Hiwiller has almost six years of experience in the industry -- beginning as a design/production intern at Electronic Arts (working on NFL Street 2), becoming a designer at EA Tiburon, and then moving to a designer slot at Gameloft (where he worked on Military Aircraft and War In The Pacific, both for the iPad).

Today, after being laid off from both EA Tiburon and Gameloft, he is a course director at Full Sail University in Winter Park, FL and has been doing that since January. He is one of the many who, after the pink slips came, chose to leave game development.

"At EA, the layoff came as a total surprise," he recalls. "I thought I was doing a good job. I knew the economy wasn't good, but I really didn't expect to be laid off. You could say I was really shocked; I felt really betrayed by the whole thing."

After EA, it took him six months of job hunting before the Gameloft opportunity arose which required relocation from Central Florida to Manhattan. After eight months, he was laid off again.

"All of a sudden, I was in the same boat, sending out maybe 100 applications with just one or two replying and not a word from the other 98," he says. "That surprised me because I wasn't making cold calls; I was replying to listings about jobs that were supposedly available."

Hiwiller says he was in contact with many other former co-workers who were in the same boat, and discovered that not getting replies from prospective employers wasn't unusual.

"I had a lot of respect for companies that responded promptly with a short note saying that they were sorry that I wasn't a match for the skills they needed," he says. "It showed a lot more respect than those that ignored you completely."

Then, remembering advice he'd heard about networking, he began contacting people he knew back in Orlando, and one of them suggested applying to Full Sail, a private school that offers programs in game production. To his surprise, he got an offer.

"I didn't feel like I was giving up on the industry," he says. "My fiancée is from Central Florida, and she has friends and family down here. So it seemed perfect -- she'd be happy and so would I. Even though I'd be teaching game production instead of doing it, it seemed to be a great match. I mean, design is a lot about communication -- and so is education."

He admits that he doesn't intend to return to game production full-time. "Yes, I'm kind of looking for side projects," he says, "but I'm really happy with where I am right now. It's definitely been a positive career change for me, one that I consider to be permanent."

What then does he tell his students when they ask about the current job market -- and whether it's difficult to get hired?

Hiwiller says he is "straightforward with them. I say that while playing games is fun, making games is a job that, while enjoyable, is challenging, requires a lot of effort, and is not easy to find these days."

"If they're not ready to move across the country to get work somewhere, if they aren't prepared to put a lot of effort into finding that first job, then they ought to change careers before they spend a ton of money on their education -- and then decide it wasn't worth it. What I haven't brought up is my own job-hunting experiences."

His best advice to industry veterans having the same difficulties that he had landing a job is not to give up. If he hadn't found his current position at Full Sail, he says, he would have kept on looking: "Not being able to find work won't be a permanent situation; you just have to keep your skills honed and spend your time as effectively as you can.

"Like I tried to learn Flash while I was unemployed. Just keep reminding yourself that there's a job out there for you, that your skills are valuable to somebody, it's just a matter of finding out who."

But some job searches take longer than others. Take "Jed," for instance. That's not his real name but he doesn't want to be identified here, mainly because he still has high hopes of finding something in the industry and he believes that some of his comments might hinder his progress. We'll let him tell his own story:

"I worked as a senior sound designer at a studio that once had a staff of 400, then had several layoffs, and finally shut its doors. It went from a place where you never felt scared for your job -- to one where no one felt safe. It was a work-for-hire place for the most part, one that very few people gave a shit about when we shut down.

"I can't go into detail about the circumstances of what happened. All I can say is that I went on vacation, picked up my iPad to read the news on a gaming site one morning, and learned that my job of 11 years was gone. I had expected the place to close but, honestly, I thought we had at least a few more months. I guess I was wrong.

"My first reaction? I was numb. I spent most of the next two to three weeks not doing much of anything other than working on my resume and show reels. When I got home, I went straight to the office, which was a ghost town. A few people were still there collecting their things, tying up loose ends, saying goodbye.

"I knew the industry in my home country was more or less just iPhone and casual games, so it wasn't likely there would be a position for my skills there. I decided to look for work elsewhere. But all the layoffs have increased the pool of talented people fighting for the same jobs. The competition is especially harder if you're looking to get into a country that already has all of the skilled, experienced people going after the jobs you want.

"What I'm finding is that, if you're not already a U.S. citizen, you can more or less forget about working in the States unless you have a lot of experience, fantastic work history, or folio since you need sponsorship. The U.K. is also hard to crack since it's practically impossible to get in without an EU passport.

"The only place that seems to be hiring more than firing is Montreal. If you want to work there, start learning French. You don't need to know French in Montreal, but anywhere else in Quebec you will get stoned by the locals if you don't try.

"So what am I doing? I'm looking to move overseas if I want to continue my career. I love what I do/did and I'm good at it. I've applied for jobs at a lower level than where I was but I'm only getting nibbles from companies wanting me to do what I did previously. Most companies aren't looking to import people for mid-level positions, only senior.

"Why haven't I found anything? It's almost impossible to say. Maybe I just have an awful show reel. Maybe I have a terrible gameography. Maybe I've just been an SOB to too many people and this is karma biting me on the rear-end. Maybe I'm just meant for something else. You'll never get honest feedback.

"Although it hasn't netted me anything yet, my best advice to others is to keep working on your show reel and your resume. Don't just sit at home and feel sorry for yourself. Give yourself projects to do so you feel like you're working. The time you have unemployed shouldn't just be a gap on your resume; it should involve getting your skills up-to-date, learning, experimenting, improving your marketability, and networking. And, whatever you do, don't watch 'Up In The Air.'

"How long can I continue like this? Until my wife wakes up one day and says 'Get a job, you bum!' She's been fantastically supportive throughout this whole ordeal, but I know I don't have forever if I'm to continue to work in games."

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