Migrant Developers

There is a lot of buzz in forums and the blogosphere about the recent layoffs from Mythic (and later THQ).  The extremes can be found at Broken Toys (sympathetic view from the inside) and Tobold’s MMORPG Blog (harsh view from the outside).  What I want to comment on comes from the statement from Mark Jacobs (top boss of Mythic) concerning the layoffs at Mythic after the launch of Warhammer Online.

With respect to customer service, quality assurance and play testing, prior to the launch of WAR, we hired additional people to deal with the rush of demand associated with an MMO launch and to insure the best possible experience for our players.

This seems to be commonplace with the development of MMO’s these days.  Age of Conan had to have layoffs from their pre-launch bloat as well.  Is the MMO development culture now one filled with migrant developers?

The two most recent posts at one of my new favorite blogs, Eating Bees, sets an interesting stage.  Sanya writes that many people who were laid off were people that figured they would retire with Mythic, but in the same breath endorses EA’s (and thereby Mythic’s) quality of life.  Earlier she wrote about how the industry seems to be cannibalizing talent by taking cheap, “passionate” labor over experienced, “expensive” labor.  (By the way, if you are hiring give her a buzz regarding the recently affected.)

This leads directly into the Cheyenne Mountain incident (current developers of Stargate Worlds), where the company could not pay their developers right before the holidays.  A company that is not EA (or Mythic), and probably had to buy a bunch of “passionate” labor.  I read rumors that Cheyenne Mountain was actually trying to help some of their employees find other jobs.

These are incidents we know of.  How many start-up MMOs get shut down forcing the employees to emigrate before we even hear whispers of the game?  One must assume that the person has to know what they are getting in to on some level, but Mythic’s front man makes it seem like even the big, stable companies unabashedly pull a bait and switch on the migrant population.  Anybody getting hired for Mythic likely felt they just hit the golden handcuffs of job stability.

It’s a dour thought that there is a large group of migrant developers floating out there trying to land on a successful MMO.  Players, I think, want a human face to their service, and the concept of layoffs is a very inhuman ideal, as rational as it may be.  That is the main problem with Mark Jacobs’ post.  It is chock-full-o-rational in the creation of this migrant workforce, but he doesn’t apologize for the masses he let go once.

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14 thoughts on “Migrant Developers”

  1. This is the general, understood, nature of the game industry as a whole. Everybody knows there’s regular layoffs before, and after, a launch of a title… MMO or not.

    This is NOT new, it’s just recently becoming slightly more public.

  2. While I hesitate to speak for Sanya, she knows how to find me to smack me if I’m wrong.

    EA is NOT equivalent to Mythic. She was only endorsing one of those two things.

  3. I was very surprised to see that she thought anyone would think they had a job for life anywhere any more. My experience of developer jobs has been that the average time at any company for the average developer is 2-3 years. Maybe game companies are different (but not sure any of them have been around for long enough to know that). Did anyone seriously think they would retire with Mythic? Maybe the US job market is very different to ours.

    I think this is also a generic software engineering issue. There is always a shift in focus from development to maintenance somewhere along the line. And a lot of software engineering projects never go live, ever. The figure I was given was about 70% (for not going live).

  4. “we hired additional people to deal with the rush of demand associated with an MMO launch”

    Makes sense to me. It obviously doesn’t take as many people to maintain a game (and add a bit of new content) than it does to make the entire game from scratch. As long as employers are up front about that with people, all seems fair to me.

  5. It’s hard to comment directly on some of the reasonings here, because I don’t believe the answers given in that press release were honest ones. EA is doing what they think will make their stocks look attractive this quarter.

    EA has been running through their plans for layoffs in multiple departments and studios, they’ve been clear-cutting to match shareholder expectations. It’s absurd to think that Mythic’s portion of the cuts were precsion and based on pre-planned launch strategy.

    These kind of cuts are not standard fare, good grief this is a recent trend. Apologies to CaesarsGhost and Melf_Himself above but “makes sense” seems to me you bought into the BS press release. It’s meant to sound reasonable, but it’s PR and image. EA needs to sell themselves as an agile corporation right now.

    Since when does a game launch and you let people go? That’s a pretty freaking new concept to me. Decades in the industry and generally I’ve seen teams get axed if game is either a disastrous mess (Age of Conan), a huge financial loss (Tabula Rasa), or they’ve just plain run out of operating funds (at EA? um, no). Generally it’s wait and see how well the game does and the potential for the next one. They shuffle a few people around on teams and get back to making the next game, or in the case of MMOs making ongoing content + expansion(s).

    And I’m not just talking about the layoffs at Mythic, I’m talking the scorched earth that just went through Black Box and other successful studios too. Commenting on the cuts at Mythic as if they’re an island, well it’s missing a big part of the picture.

    WAR may not have done as well as they’d hoped, but I doubt it’s unprofitable at 300k subs. You don’t start bleeding developer talent out of a studio that’s turning a profit, that’s not normal operations. So look at the other reasons.

  6. @spinks: I would say IT development and game development are two entirely different beasts, with much different approaches. Even at Microsoft, they treat their games division very differently.

    Software-wise, most IT companies will create one main product and once it ships, they move to support and upgrades.

    Game companies are studios, which create titles. This is why most emerging game studios will actually grow when they ship a title, because they actually need more people because they’re adding support, but development does not decline.

    MMOs could probably fit a bit more into the IT model, but given the legacy of the industry they’re more likely to stick with the studio model and develop large (hopefully, lol) expansions.

    As for the age of the companies themselves, both EA and Mythic (depending on how you count the company iterations) have been around since the 80’s.

  7. @Rog
    I don’t buy into their press release, but I have been laid off from 2 studios. And going through that process, have talked to people who have been laid of from half a dozen, or more, studios…

    VERY rarely will you see any Low or Mid-level employee stay with a studio, MMO or not, longer then 2 or 3 years.

    Big names stay, the rest of us move on to a new city to get a new chance with a new startup.

  8. One word: “Bullshit”.

    You don’t hire and lay off temporary employees to help with a push. You hire contractors who know there is a limited work term. If you hire people without letting them know it’s “just short term for the release” then it isn’t a “lay off” it’s a contract.

    If you knew it was going to be temporary and they weren’t told that? Well, that’s just shitty.

    Either way, it’s full of shit.

  9. @CaesarsGhost: Thanks for your comments. I guess if it is the way it’s always been then consumers will get used to it. I think people do want to feel good about the service they subscribe to, and things like this do not help.

    @Rog: I mostly agree with your reactions.

    @Jeremy Preacher: If you read some of the comments of those posts, Sanya seems to say that EA’s “good practices” seemed to have been bleeding in to Mythic after Mythic was bought. Maybe I read it wrong?

  10. And this is why I prefer to be an armchair developer…

    Seriously though, game developers can be among the most passionate people around and yet their profession is so risky because of factors like competition and development costs. In a perfect world, they could fun their own startups without having to answer to and be screwed over by “the man.”

  11. MMOs have more opportunity for retention, but think about single-player titles that are 3-4 years between dev cycles.

    The Elder Scrolls series is a good example. Between Elder Scrolls 3 (original PC release May 1, 2002) and Elder Scrolls 4 (March 20, 2006) you will see that the only name (practically) that’s the same between the two games is Todd Howard (Project Leader) and Ken Rolston (Lead Designer).

    Most of the devs at Bethesda were let go or went on to other companies to work on other projects instead of staying on for Oblivion even though Morrowind was wildly successful and put Bethesda back on the map.

    The mentality of game development has always been that when a project is completed you move onto something else and go to a different company. Only the lead designers and big name programmers typically stay behind.

    MMOs are a rather recent development and offer a unique opportunity for retention. But it can take hundreds of people to development a game- especially one as big in scope as an MMORPG- but it only really takes a few dozen (besides CS staff) to maintain the game programatically and supply new small-scale content on a regular basis.

    I think it’s rational and logical that Mythic let people go, that game studios everywhere let people go. It does suck, but it’s also the nature of the beast. The good news is that gaming continues to grow as an industry, and despite the economic downturns there are still a wealth of positions opening up across the board.

  12. @CaesarsGhost & pseudonatural: What you’re describing has not been my experience in the Vancouver development community. Most of the people I know have migrated between teams within the same studio, or they’ve been headhunted by other studios or formed a team to create their own. So it’s true that most haven’t stayed in one place longer than 3-4 years, but not usually via layoffs.

    This round is deep and wide. It does not seem like normal shuffling to me, I think it’s ridiculous to call it that. There’s a big stack of resumes floating around in the industry this month.

  13. Please excuse me if I come across strongly here, I don’t mean to denigrate anyone else’s personal experience. Just when something dramatic happens and it smells bad, having people comment “business as usual” doesn’t seem very helpful.

  14. It sounds basically like contract work without a timeline. Instead of “you’ll work from x-2008 to x-2009” or “until x milestone is reached / project completed”, companies hire people on as contract labor without any clear definition of when the contract ends. If there’s a better way, I’m not sure what it is.

    I don’t really have an opinion on lay-offs as a whole because I’m sure the reasons and methods vary greatly from company to company. But the game industry seems to have trouble figuring out what the best employment models are, since it is unlike any other industry, including films.

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