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Great job! You're fired!

Weekly recap: The gaming industry routinely asks too much of developers and then thinks too little about throwing them aside

Earlier this week, we saw one of the cruelest games industry "facts of life" play out for the umpteenth time when Sony laid off developers at its London and San Diego studios. Layoffs are sadly common in most fields these days, but there were a couple of compounding factors to make these cuts particularly bothersome.

First, there was the reason Sony gave for letting the unspecified number of developers go. Here are the key parts of the two official statements given about the layoffs.

In English, the Sony London statement roughly translates to "Great job! You're fired." The San Diego comment is similar, but without the first part.

"London Studio have done a great job in leading the way in VR development, and as their first project nears completion it is time to plan for the next VR project. The team will take all their learnings and experience as they move forward, however in order to achieve its ambitious goals, the Studio will need to restructure around the needs of the new projects."

And for the San Diego explanation, "As projects are completed, it is natural to review and restructure teams around current and future needs. We wish our departing team members success as they pursue new opportunities and we have nothing but heart-felt thanks for their contributions to PlayStation."

In English, the Sony London statement roughly translates to "Great job! You're fired." The San Diego comment is similar, but without the first part. It's tough to say which one would be worse for a developer to hear.

In the case of Sony London, you had a team of developers exploring a cutting edge frontier of gaming with PlayStation VR Worlds, a five-game collection aiming to show off what VR can do in the same way Wii Sports made people understand the appeal of Nintendo's motion controller. It launches October 13, alongside the PlayStation VR headset. But these developers, who by Sony's own admission did "a great job" and almost certainly put in long hours to deliver on time, are being sacked just before the big payoff of having people actually play their game and appreciate their efforts.

Sony was less direct about what the laid off developers in San Diego were working on, only confirming it wasn't the MLB: The Show franchise. That leaves downloadable games-as-a-service titles like Kill Strain, or possibly other VR projects, as the studio head had hinted the San Diego team was extensively involved in VR earlier this year.

It's a bit concerning what these moves say about Sony's faith in PSVR, but it's more troubling that a phenomenally successful gaming company feels its workers are so utterly disposable. It's downright haunting that this sort of treatment is par for the course in the industry.

Earlier this week, I wrote a story about IGDA survey results underscoring racial and gender disparities in the games industry. The press release for the survey also included a factoid about disabilities in the industry, but I left it out of the story since there was no accompanying information about pay or equal opportunity, as there had been with race and gender.

This industry is nothing without its employees, and they deserve better than this.

"31 percent of respondents also reported some sort of disability, predominantly in the area of mental health, whereas only 19 percent of all US citizens and 14 percent of Canadians report having disability," the IGDA said.

That factoid presents a Gordian knot of questions about causality and correlations, and I don't have answers that would pass peer review for a scientific journal. What I do have are friends and acquaintances who broke themselves to make games, who spent years burning the candle at both ends and sacrificing enormously at the behest of successful publishers. I look at what they gave up mentally and emotionally to be a small part of a big game and I can't possibly view the trade-off as being worth it. I don't believe they do, either. And they were the "lucky" ones who got to keep their jobs after shipping.

Layoffs may be a necessity at times, but with a new VR platform that will need games, a booming console business, and a thriving bottom line, I can't fathom why this would have been one of those times. Could these cuts save some money and help Sony maintain its profitability? Sure. Are there kinder and potentially more effective ways to work toward the same results without discarding quality people, sapping institutional knowledge and experience, hurting morale for those who remain, and perpetuating one of the ugliest "facts of life" for game developers? There must be. This industry is nothing without its employees, and they deserve better than this.

Elsewhere on GamesIndustry.biz this week

Related to the above, Disney laid off 250 people from a division posting $1.54 billion in operating profits through the first three quarters of the year

Failbetter Games founder Alexis Kennedy made Valve's user reviews the subject of his first regular column for GI.biz

EEDAR's Patrick Walker lays out the reasons why Pokemon Go is a hit (AR is not one of them)

Will Luton looks at the problem of inflation in free-to-play economies

Mike Jennings sizes up what the PS4 Pro means for developers

In other news

Razer launched zVentures, a $30 million fund for startups and emerging tech

Riot estimates that 100 million people play League of Legends each month

The Assassin's Creed franchise hit 100 million copies sold this month

Keywords Studios announced half-year results were ahead of expectations

Ubisoft has delayed the release of South Park: The Fractured But Whole until the first quarter of 2017

Related stories

Sony open to PC versions of PlayStation exclusives

Shawn Layden says some first-party titles "may need to lean into a wider installed base"

By Brendan Sinclair

Microsoft and Sony reportedly scaling back console production in China

President Trump's trade war causing further disruption in tech sector manufacturing

By Haydn Taylor

Latest comments (4)

Jay Moore Founder, The Alacrity Group3 years ago
This is a systemic issue with the types of content we produce. Hollywood at the impetus of unions created a more sustainable mostly what we consider contract outsourced method to bring talent to projects and then recombine for new projects. The process of employment search and recruitment is antiquated and time consuming, but valuable to getting the right talent on the right projects.
Alternatively putting a secure network of peer reviewed professionals combined with a well trained DNN could greatly improve the efficiency - getting the gap between new gigs to a minimum.
The arcane concept of having job security rewarded by performance by being an employee with benefits in today's game labor market is a myth, especially in production teams - core creatives have minor amount more.
This inefficiency hurts product quality, people and profits. A network like this would be a very ambitious industry wide play, but is the only solution I see to our 19th century approach to managing the talent for what is possibly the most difficult content in the world to produce - fun making.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Jay Moore on 19th September 2016 5:38pm

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It is so easy to misconstrue the approach of SCE on the VR teams let go - but once you know they did the same to the HMZ team in Japan, and you start to see the issue of controlled thiefdom rather than kicking out developers when they get too big for their britches, as the issues at the heart of the problem.

As a specialist in a certain field, it became clear that I would only ever do three-year stints in position before the accountant became concerned of the 'big ticket' item they had to fund on the project. The same is now true of game dev, and more importantly, retained skills. Letting people go before they know more than is acceptable on a particular project as a non-executive role.

How many of you have seen the interview with MarkZ of Facebook stating he paid too much for Oculus, and wishes he created that in-house - and then look at how Magic Leap are protecting their assets! Enjoy our future!
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee3 years ago
This is nothing new, the real question is how do we move forward in the industry? I hope with the recent increase in studios and jobs everyone manages to relocate quickly!
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Robert Bantin Expert Audio Programmer, Massive Entertainment3 years ago
It's usually cash burn that makes Sony hit the red button at project completion.

I heard on the grapevine that Microsoft Studios scooped up most of the Sony London leavers, which begs the question of why Sony thinks it's OK to subsidise its main competitor's VR/AR development programme?
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