Fear, Trembling, and Harsh Reality

A veteran IT programmer finds new meaning in life as a game programmer.
If you've followed the news in the game industry for any time, then you already know it's a volatile industry. Studios open and close at the the drop of a hat. People get hire to meet the needs of the current project then get let go when the project is complete. And then there is the spectre of outsourcing--the job that gets outsourced could be yours. In short, if you are serious about making a living in the game industry, you had better be prepared for a little excitement, and I! not talking about the good kind!

I'm going through an exciting time right now. The studio I have been working for has laid off over 50% of their workforce in the last year, I survived the first wave of layoffs back in July, but in January the remaining production staff was let go. So, just less than one year after breaking in to the game industry, I find myself broken out.

The reality if the game industry is this: if a studio can't make a profit, they will cease to exist. Unfortunately, the easiest way for any company to cut costs is to cut employees.

Although no industry is "layoff" proof, the games industry carries a much higher risk. Part of the reason is the nature of a game project. A game may only needs a few people in the beginning, but this may grow to 20, 50, ire even hundreds of employees when in full production. When the game is done, the company may find itself with a glut of employees and no work to do. This scenario is a human resource nightmare. Most studios try to have multiple projects in the works and then try to schedule those projects so the low time in one project corresponds with the high time of another, but sometimes it just doesn't work out.

Another tool used by many companies use to cope with the variable nature of game projects is outsourcing. This may range from subcontracting with a local art studio to create some assets to contracting with a team of programmers in another country. If a company can get the same quality of work for less cost, then who can blame them? Sure there are a lot of pros and cons to outsourcing, but it often boils down to the bottom line.

Several factors combined that led to the layoffs at my last studio: changes in the casual games market, a slow economy, poor holiday sales, and access to lower-cost labor oversees. Even the big companies such as Microsoft and EA have announced layoffs. The bottom line is that no one in the industry is immune.

There are some steps you can take to prepare yourself should for the worst. The key is to always be prepared to quickly find that next job:

* Keep networking. You should keep track of every single person you meet while you are employed. People move around a lot in the game industry, and your present coworkers might be the one who helps you find your next job.
* Get active on LinkedIn or other such networks.
* Don't burn your bridges. Prior employers are an excellent resource when you find yourself without a job (as long as you didn't shaft them on your way out the door).
* Keep your portfolio current. The day you get fired isn't the best time to decide to gather samples of your work.
* Keep your website and other professional profiles current.
* Keep up with the latest technologies changes in your profession.

It's also a good idea to have a plan for how you might survive a few months between jobs. Examples include:

* Always have some money saved or invested that you can gain immediate access to.
* Avoid long-term commitments such as leases and large loans as much as possible.
* You might consider getting job-loss insurance on loans you do have if it is available. Such coverage could pay off your debt if you lose your job.
* In the United States, make sure you file your unemployment claim on your last day of work.

I'm not saying - did all if these things, but I did most of them. I'm a little anxious about finding my next job, but I'm not devastated and I have some resources in the meantime.

One more thing: be flexible. If you're not prepared to move across the country a few times during your career, the game industry might not be the right choice for you.

Wish me luck!

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