Ex-Halo developers get real about hiring and firing in the game industry

Ever wonder why layoffs seem so common among game studios? Two ex-Bungie developers get into one of the major reasons why it happens.

Speaking alongside fellow Bungie alumnus Marty O'Donnell in a recent interview with Playboy, veteran Halo and Destiny designer Jaime Griesemer says many large studios suffer from a well-defined workforce problem -- one that is now so common, large-scale layoffs have now become "part of the budget" on shipping a title.

"They know it’s coming, they just don’t tell their employees until the game is in the box," Griesemer tells Playboy. "[Companies] just are not up front about it, so they get to the end of the project and lay off half the team. And it’s always the sort of mainline art production staff that they lay off, because they just don’t want those guys sitting around for the next nine months or year while they figure out what game they’re making next. [...] To me, that’s kind of treating people like cogs, like a resource. It’s not respecting them as professionals."

O'Donnell, a composer who is well known for his Halo and Destiny soundtracks (and won a hard-fought lawsuit over them versus his former employer), echoes Griesemer in adding, "There’s always this plan to dovetail. So as we’re finishing post-production on this game, we’ll be starting pre-production on the next game. Well, that almost never happens, because as you’re screaming to the deadline of post-production on a game you keep sucking all these people in that should be on the next project already. Then at the end, it’s like, oh, now we need to fire you because we have nothing for you to do."

See, videogame production bears more than a few similarities with the film business, in that there's a planning stage (pre-production), a major ramp-up in the workforce where the game is being built, coded, rendered and so on, and then an even more frantic period where bugs are squashed, promotional campaigns are run, and the whole thing gets printed to disc or released onto a digital storefront. By the time players buy their copies of a game at Target or on Steam, many years of labor have already gone into its making -- that's especially true of huge titles like Bungie's Destiny, which cost a reported $500 million to develop and deliver.

"The layoff is part of the budget. I mean, it happens before the game even is out the door. So they know it’s coming, they just don’t tell their employees until the game is in the box." - Halo designer Jaime Griesemer

And titles like Destiny involve hundreds and hundreds of people, not all of whom are full-time employees of Bungie. But even though contracted labor is a major part of the game industry (an extremely fraught part, at that), many big studios still employ a lot of new hands during the ramp-up portion of development, only for many of those workers to be out of things to do months before the game even ships. That's what O'Donnell means by studios making plans to "dovetail" -- to have two titles in the works at once in different stages, so that when a worker's done on one game they can transition smoothly to the next one. But that's difficult to accomplish when you don't always know how long things are going to take to finish. And so, as O'Donnell puts it, those plans collapse, and people get laid off in such droves that in my time writing for industry-focused publication Gamasutra, I probably wrote about dismissals or studio closures about once a week.

Factor in that many developers uproot their families to move across country -- or to other countries -- for these positions, on the promise of stability and (often) great benefits packages, and you can imagine why the game industry's rapid turnover of its workforce (the most recent data from Gamasutra's annual Salary Survey says 14% of industry respondents were laid off in 2013) is such a sore point for those in it.

According to O'Donnell and Griesemer, this wouldn't be such a problem if studios were simply up front about the short-term nature of their projects.

"If you bring somebody in and say, look, we’re not going to be able to pay you after the project ships, so you should be reaching out [to find future projects], but please do stay and help us ship the game. Ninety-five percent of the industry would do the right thing and stay until the game is shipped," says Griesemer. "And then they’d already have something lined up."

Playboy's interviewer, Steve Haske, then asks if the solution is to rely more heavily on contracted labor -- which is more flexible for both worker and employer, to be sure, but has some big disadvantages this interview doesn't really touch on. For one thing, contracted workers almost never qualify for employee health benefits, and that's a big issue in the United States at the moment. 

The other solution O'Donnell and Griesemer offer is to scale back teams. Their current studio, Highwire, has just nine people, all working on a new VR game called Golem. That's a big shift from the enormous workforce of a Halo or Destiny.

From Golem's 2015 announcement trailer. From Golem's 2015 announcement trailer.

"It’s not just a matter of knowing everybody’s names," says Griesemer. "It’s really easy to get into a situation [in a large company where] there’s a line of like seven people waiting for me to tell them what to do, I guess I will just -- as fast as I can -- make something up. And that’s crisis mode. [...] Now we’re planned well in advance of what our production is capable of doing so we’re actually sort of having a problem the other way, like we have more plans than we can take action on. So we’re trying to increase the size of the team a little bit to get it more balanced."

There's plenty more in the complete interview over at Playboy. Many thanks to Kotaku's Jason Schreier for pointing this one out.

(Top image: O'Donnell [left] and Griesemer [right] together with Highwire co-founder Jared Noftle, with a prototype of the upcoming Playstation VR headset. Photo from VentureBeat.)

Kris Ligman is the News Editor of ZAM. They are a pretty cool dude, eh kill aliens and doesn't afraid of anything. Find them on Twitter @KrisLigman.