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Making a career in games more sustainable

Goodbye Kansas' Henrik Jonsson on how different corners of the games industry can stop driving away talent and support individuals long-term

Gaming has a reputation for being an unstable industry. There's no shortage of eager young developers coming into the games industry every year, but there's also no shortage of more experienced developers leaving the field at the same time.

In a presentation at the Montreal International Game Summit this week, Goodbye Kansas Game Invest executive producer Henrik Jonsson stressed that this churn in talent was detrimental to the overall health of the industry.

"We have a labor shortage in games, not necessarily on the entry level because junior developers are joining frequently, but we have a problem recruiting senior people," Jonsson said. "Companies have a problem finding lead, senior developers, or even directors. If you want to be really sad, check out how long director roles are posted online in the wanted sections. It goes on forever because there are no senior people available, because people leave."

Jonsson laid out a list of common complaints among developers, including abusive behavior in the workplace, toxic management, crunch, problematic publishers, over-the-top harsh reviews, and aggressive online comments.

"Every single item on this list contributes to people leaving the industry," Jonsson said. "This is bad, but we can fix it. We can solve these issues."

Jonsson went down the list beginning with abusive behavior, emphasizing that it encompasses not just horrific and outright criminal abuse, but "smaller things still contribute to a very nasty atmosphere." That includes name-calling, mocking, pressuring people to drink, hitting on co-workers, using peer pressure or guilt trips to enforce crunch culture, and questioning people's religion or dietary preferences.

"I know it's tricky to run a business; I don't care. Take care of your people"

Any of these behaviors can contribute to toxic management, he said, as well as others like denying employees' vacation requests, playing favorites, dating subordinates, or driving a team hard not because it's absolutely necessary but because they have a bonus tied to some milestone. Lack of clear processes, transparency, paper trails, and written agreements are all problems as well, Jonsson said, and contribute to people leaving the industry. He added that efforts to block union organization among developers are also detrimental in the long run.

"Being kind and supportive as an employer or a manger shouldn't be that hard," Jonsson said. "You can say the exact same things to someone without being abusive. If you can't express negative feedback without resorting to abusive language or ridicule, you should seek help and find someone else to manage those people. If you can't fire people without giving them a dignified face-to-face conversation on the way out and a decent severance package, maybe you shouldn't be hiring people in the first place. I know it's tricky to run a business; I don't care. Take care of your people."

Turning to shoddy treatment from publishers, Jonsson said the concern extends to investment outfits like Goodbye Kansas as well. There is always risk in publishing and investment deals, and many of them don't produce successful games, but that on its own doesn't mean they were bad relationships to start with. Jonsson offered a rule of thumb for when he believes such deals are bad.

"If a studio must shut down after release or must introduce layoffs while you make a profit, you have failed them," he said. "You have failed the team, and your next project will be harder because you have to find a new team. You broke the other one. You broke the team that made your game into a decent success and now you have to look for another team. Helping studios survive after a release is not free, but it will help your business in the long run."

When it comes to rough reviews, Jonsson has experience on the receiving end. He was a software engineer on 2017's Need for Speed: Payback, which received some hyperbolic write-ups.

"'Need for Speed Payback is worse than shitting your pants' was the Rock Paper Shotgun review on Twitter," Jonsson said. "This is a rough review. This is not a nice thing to read. I understand the game wasn't good. I understand they don't like it, but I think it's taking it too hard. It's been two years, I'm over it. I don't cry at night anymore. This is fine."

His personal experience aside, Jonsson asked game journalists to avoid that style of review, saying, "You can use your words without putting other people down."

"Companies can protect their employees. Leadership and HR must understand the climate on the outside and what it's like to be a game developer"

On the issue of hostility and abuse from the player base, Jonsson acknowledged that's a tougher thing to solve as the perpetrators aren't actually part of the industry.

"We can't fix this internally, but companies can protect their employees," Jonsson said. "Leadership and HR must understand the climate on the outside and what it's like to be a game developer. The leadership and HR must understand what it can be like to constantly face abuse on Twitter or whatever social media you're on."

While Jonsson didn't mention Riot Games, ArenaNet, or any other company by name, he did suggest understanding and supporting employees means not firing someone just because they had their fill of harassment and dared to snap back at a player.

The issues Jonsson mentioned to that point all revolved around how people in the industry treat others, but developers can also improve their chances of sticking in the industry with how they treat themselves. He advocated developers work regularly to broaden their knowledge of the industry, ideally fostering a deep understanding of one or two fields and surface familiarity with numerous others.

"Working on your craft and making it interesting to work is one of those things that will keep you interested in working in games. If you're interested in what you do, it will lead to engagement, and engagement is an important part of wanting to go to work."

"If you wake up one morning saying, 'How can I remain in games?' and the answer is, 'I have no idea,' then leaving is not a failure"

As important as engagement may be, Jonsson noted that it changes over the course of a career, calling that ebb and flow "pacing" and saying it's an important part of staying in games for the long run, right alongside the "passion" for games that so many job listings insist on.

"Passion without pacing is obsession, and this is something we don't want... Obsessed people will work 16-hour days because they want to do the one thing only. And this is a problem because obsessed people lose their focus on what's important. We need pacing. We need to be able to say, 'Yes, I'm very engaged in what I do, but today I'm doing something else.'"

He also suggested networking and mentorship as worthy pursuits if a developer has the time. Going to developer meet-ups and talking with other people is a good way to build connections that can help people navigate their way through a career in the industry.

But sometimes even with all that, a career in games simply may not be the right thing for someone, and that shouldn't reflect poorly on them.

"If you wake up one morning saying, 'How can I remain in games?' and the answer is, 'I have no idea,' then leaving is not a failure," Jonsson said. "You are not a failure if you walk out from the games industry. I will think it's sad -- unless you're leaving because you won a yacht or something -- but it's not a failure, and you should do what's right for you. And we'll be around. Games will be around; come back any time."

Disclosure: MIGS provided travel and accommodations for to attend the event.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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