Tuesday, February 3, 2009

How to Survive Losing Your Job in the Games Industry

I hope you will forgive that it has been nearly two weeks since my last post. Things have been ... busy, to say the least. Last Tuesday, the 27th, I was laid off from my job as a programmer at Klei Entertainment. We were working on Sugar Rush, a game for Nexon North America (Humanature Studios) and when Nexon Global closed the studio completely, Klei's project furthest in development no longer had a publisher. Completely understandably, our CEO had to tighten the belt and being the newest hire, I was let go. While large companies ala Disney or Nexon seem to be laying people off to placate nervous shareholders rather than out of legitimate financial necessity, I understand that at small organizations layoffs are sometimes unfortunately necessary. Klei is a fantastic organization with absolutely awesome people, and I learned tons while I was there.

I don't fault Klei for what had to be done, but it was a particularly horrifying experience in that countless other Vancouver game developers have been laid off recently. Talking to a local recruiter, he said that in that last six months, nearing 900 game developers in Vancouver have lost their jobs. Open positions are scarce and fiercely competitive. This is probably the worst time in quite a while to be looking for a job in game development in Vancouver. Despite this, two days after I was laid off I had an interview at an awesome studio and yesterday I accepted an offer from Hothead Games (yes, that means I'm going to be working with Ron Gilbert. Needless to say, I'm excited out of my skull).

Considering how many good folks have lost their jobs recently, I thought I would write up my experience and the things I felt helped me land on my feet. I'm not going to pretend to be some kind of authority, saying "do this, don't do that." I'm just relating my tale and hoping someone(s) will find it useful. I figure I've got to be doing something right if I was able to move from one dream job to another with such expediency. These adages probably apply to other industries as well, and I don't think there's much that's terribly game dev-specific here.

In my humble opinion, to succeed in the game development business and survive being laid off requires two things:

1) Doing great work
2) Let others know about this and take interest in their great work

(An optional rule 0 could be the one that adorns the cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "Don't Panic.")

It sounds trivial to the point of naiveté, but I honestly believe it to be true. For the former, doing great work doesn't just include what you do between 9 and 5, it also means seeking ways to improve what you do outside of work. When playing games, instead of just zoning out, think about what works in the game and more importantly, why it's compelling. Try playing some boardgames or tabletop RPGs and see how they tick. Work on some side programming projects with a new language or framework. I get up at 5 AM to play games, write or read about games/programming/other things of interest (see my rants about The Devil in the White City).

For the latter, get involved with the local game dev scene in your area. Go to IGDA events, pub nights with other industry folk, take an interest in their projects. Help out with Child's Play charity events. Blogs are a great resource too; I've learned tons in conversations I've had with bloggers who write critically about games. You have to be genuinely interested in others though, not just as a means to an end. This sounds like something out of How to Win Friends and Influence People, but it's true that almost anyone can tell when someone is just looking to use them.

Events like the Global GameJam are a chance to do both of these at once. I participated in Vancouver's last weekend and it was a tremendously valuable experience (upcoming post on that specifically soon). I must say that was pretty disappointed by the fact that aside from myself, one other industry programmer and one faculty member, everyone at Vancouver's GameJam was a student or recently graduated and not working. I understand that the last thing many want to do after a week of work is basically more work that's especially exhausting and without pay, but opportunities to just get together with a group of people and go through an entire game's lifecycle are very rare.

The importance of these two things is should you lose your job (or just be looking for a change), these are the people that will help you land your next gig. They'll tell their coworkers that you're a solid, capable person and the company would be making a grave mistake to let someone else get a hold of your skills. They might let you know about other opportunities. Hell, they might even leave their jobs to form a new studio with you.

Obviously, luck is always going to factor in. There are circumstances that are always beyond one's control, but what you want to do is try to make the most of the things you can control. I realize all of this is tremendously obvious, but I'm always shocked by how content some folks are just to keep their heads down and not be noticed. But if you're not willing to take the time to become really good at what you, it might be hard to compete against those that have.

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Blogger Squinky said...

Not much to add. Just wanted to say hello and pre-emptively welcome you to the Hothead club.

February 4, 2009 at 10:35 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

Thanks! As I mentioned, I'm quite stoked. I'll be coming in tomorrow, so I'll see y'all then =)

February 4, 2009 at 10:59 AM  
Blogger Sande Chen said...

Sounds like great advice.

Good luck on your job search.

February 7, 2009 at 2:44 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

Hey Sande, thanks for stopping by. Fortunately, I landed the job at Hothead, so no further search is necessary =)

February 7, 2009 at 4:13 PM  
Blogger Iroquois Pliskin said...

Hi Nels!

I'm super-late to the party here but I wanted to give you congratulations on landing the job!

February 15, 2009 at 11:46 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

Much appreciated Iroquois. It was a pretty crazy period, the rest of the year is more than welcome to chill out.

February 16, 2009 at 9:17 AM  

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