It has been a hard few weeks for the game developing community. Last week, we heard the unfortunate news that Irrational Games, the art-house yet mainstream development house that brought us System Shock 2 and the Bioshock Series, was going through a restructuring that would see the majority of its work force laid off. This news was later followed by Sony Santa Monica, another seemingly successful and strong studio paring down significant parts of its workforce one week later.
What is probably the most shocking is just how much we considered these studios to be invulnerable. How could two studios so renowned for their intellectual properties – Bioshock for Irrational and the God of War franchise for Sony Santa Monica – be in the financial position where significant cuts would need to be made? Both studios released games in 2013, and sales, while not stunning, were nevertheless okay. God of War: Ascension sold 1.74 million units according to vgchartz.com, while Bioshock Infinite sold a total of 3.36 million. I’m sure that Sony was hoping for better numbers out of their God of War franchise, God of War 3, afterall, sold a total of 4.65 million units in its lifetime. Approximately 3.5 million of those happened within the games first year after years of building anticipation. Numerous factors could have influenced the ‘weaker’ sales of Ascension. It was the lowest reviewed title in the franchise, but it was also an exclusive game coming out in the same year as a new console from Sony, released in a crowded month that already included Tomb Raider, Sim City, Star Craft 2, Gears of War: Judgement, and the aforementioned Bioshock Infinite. Coming out the same month, many of these same reasons could be applied to Bioshock Infinite (minus the console exclusivity). Yet 3.36 million units is nothing to sneeze at. Levine’s games have always carried somewhat of an avant garde style so it could have never been expected to sell at the levels of a Halo, GTA, or Call of Duty. The first Bioshock game has only sold 4.32 million units in its entire lifespan, and it was released back in 2007.
Yet despite the solid reputation of both development teams, the darkness of layoffs still reared its ugly head.
In his statement regarding the studio restructuring, Irrational Games head Ken Levine explained that the shift was one of new direction. In an open letter published on the Irrational Games website, Levine stated:
While I’m deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished together, my passion has turned to making a different kind of game than we’ve done before. To meet the challenge ahead, I need to refocus my energy on a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers. In many ways, it will be a return to how we started: a small team making games for the core gaming audience.
Sure, a larger studio size makes certain demands on economic turn-around. No one wants the cost of production to out pace the funds acquired from the final product. With respect to Irrational’s future, Levine laid out his vision:
In time we will announce a new endeavor with a new goal: To make narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable.
What is clear from statements like these is that Irrational Games, as far as Levine and 2K are concerned, is whatever Ken wants it to be. Now that is not to say that Levine is a megalomaniac and he is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his vision. No, in truth Irrational is his company and he has every right to focus it how ever he feels best. But that does not make the layoffs any less easy to swallow.
For those losing their jobs, Levine adds:
There’s no great way to lay people off, and our first concern is to make sure that the people who are leaving have as much support as we can give them during this transition.
Besides financial support, the staff will have access to the studio for a period of time to say their goodbyes and put together their portfolios. Other Take-Two studios will be on hand to discuss opportunities within the company, and we’ll be hosting a recruiting day where we’ll be giving 3rd party studios and publishers a chance to hold interviews with departing Irrational staff.
While I am sure the employees involved appreciate the efforts of 2K and Irrational to help them in their future prospects, words like these rarely aide one’s confidence after it is shaken by job displacement.
What was interesting was the lack of reaction toward the layoffs in the press and the more pro-Levine coverage that took place. Kotaku’s article post-announcement was titled: “Ken Levine’s New Game Could Be Really Fascinating”
The article begins with a half-handed attempt at consolation toward the recently retired work-force, but then quickly shifts to the happy news of future Irrational endeavours:
It really sucks that Irrational Games is shutting down, and I hope that everyone who was laid off finds new employment soon. It’s a bad situation, yes, but for gamers, there’s something to be optimistic about—a new digital game by Ken Levine. (emphasis is my own, not Kotaku’s)
The article summarizes the entire situation by saying:
In other words, Levine is no longer shackled by the AAA beast that BioShock has become. He’s working on a digital narrative game, and he’s taking a whole lot of time to make it happen. He’s free to be small, flexible, and creative, and if you don’t mind a little optimism on a day that’s rather sad for a lot of people, I’m excited to see what sort of experiments he has in mind.”
I admit, I too am fascinated by what is on the horizon for Irrational, but these are people we are referring to, not shackles. Yes, the shackles the article is reffering to is much broader than a 200 person team. It also includes publicity costs, promotion, production costs, and many other things, but ultimately the AAA games that have been produced by Irrational would not be of the high caliber they are had it not been for those ‘shackles’ previously mentioned.
On the Sony side, many more people were blindsided by the decision to layoff significant portions of the Santa Monica staff. Much of this had to do with the ground-swelling of information about the studio hiring new people, the moving of Santa Monica to a newer, larger facility, and rumblings of a new science fiction IP. The move to a new facility even made hollywood trade magazine Variety, January 28th of this year. Discussing the move, Sony Santa Monica studio founder and head, Shannon Studstill, said:
It’s four or five times the size we have now[…] We’re going to drive traffic to that space, and hopefully create more of a culture of sharing. With the new space we will have more to offer[…] We’re building on what we know.
Yet, on Tuesday, February 25, Sony issued the following announcement:
SCEA can confirm that we have completed a reduction in workforce at Santa Monica Studio[…] This is a result of a cycle of resource re-alignment against priority growth areas within [Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios]. We do not take these decisions lightly. However, sometimes it is necessary to make changes to better serve the future projects of the studio. We have offered outplacement services and severance packages to ease transition for those impacted.
While little has been revealed by Sony itself with respect to what these staff members were working on, some recent comments by ex-Santa Monica staff have shed some light. According to Jonathan Hawkin, a former lead level designer for the studio, it was to be a “AAA, new IP”, and when asked if it was possible the game was still in development, Hawkin responded “Cancelled. I’m sorry.”
Rocket Chainsaw had reported recently that the title was too similar to Activision/Bungie title “Destiny” and that the difficulties that occurred in shifting the title from such obvious comparisons, resulted in a somewhat rocky development that lead to its ultimate cancellation. Whether this is true or purely speculation, it nevertheless points to a property that was new coming out of a studio that had become synonymous with one particular franchise, and that sadly now will not see the light of day.
Now ultimately, this is a bad time of year for a lot of companies, not just those in video games. The fiscal year is wrapping up, and budgets need to be balanced while future fiscal projections must be made. As these occur, layoffs are bound to take place at operations looking to improve their book keeping. Yet, there is a human angle (to borrow a term from Polygon) that shouldn’t be under-emphasized when we discuss layoffs.
Take for instance Jonathan Hawkin, the aforementioned level designer for Sony Santa Monica. Discussing his sadness at his everpresent reality, Hawking states:
The saddest part of waking up today is I no longer get to work with my family. Secondly, the pain that I feel for my friends who have lost their jobs. The saddest and most important part is the game I was creating for the player that will never be played. I’m sorry that I’ve failed you.
The beauty of Twitter is sometimes you are forwarded to an article you might have missed in the never ending deluge of content the web provides. One such article in the wake of the Irrational Games announcement that I came across courtesy of Marty Silva at IGN was Bendan Keogh’s “Games by Humans” for The Conversation. In the article, Keogh, a PhD Candidate at RMIT University, discussed having spend some time with developers from Yager Studios (the makers of Spec Ops: The Line). In the article he explains:
The people I was talking to were, predominately, the grunts of the studio. Not the lead designers or producers or creative directors, but the ones making the game in the most literal sense: creating the models and typing the code and applying the textures. They were, predominately, exactly the kind of people that a game journalist or player such as myself rarely, if ever, is able to communicate with.”
He goes on to explain the typical journalistic model in the video game industry, that is if you wish to speak to a games developer, you speak to the lead developer. Otherwise, you ware likely speaking to PR personnel on behalf of the publisher. It is true that rarely are people ever given a glimpse of who the actual workhorses are for the games we love so dearly.
I think the part of the article that summed it up the best was what followed:
It’s not something I had ever really appreciated before, and hearing these fascinatingly mundane stories about making games in a AAA studio was eye-opening. Nothing scandalous or corrupt or horrendous – just … mundane and everyday events leading to particular creative decision. It got me thinking about how we – players, critics, journalists – really struggle to appreciate that these games are created not just by the one or two people we see in a dozen pre-release interviews and profiles, but by dozens if not hundreds of people, each with some small say in what the final creative work will look like.
And that is the truth at the heart of the issue. Yes Ken Levine is the man of vision that inspired the creation of Rapture and Columbia, but that perfect reflection of light off of the wet stone lighthouse in BioShock, or that gorgeous blue skybox and the sun shinging on the cobblestone streets of Columbia were put their not by Levine, but by a talented staff of personnel all playing a part in making that game as close to perfect as possible. We must not forget that when a studio lets go of people.
I must reiterate that I do not feel blame must be leveled at the studios when jobs must be cut, because more often than not these cuts are mandated from the top. The point of this article is simply to stress that though this is the nature of the business, that doesn’t make the loss any easier to swallow.
We at Refined Geekery hope that all of those who have lost their jobs due to these cutbacks and restructurings find new careers as soon as possible with the least amount of turmoil in their changing paths. Best wishes.
Follow Tom on Twitter @thomaskagar