So you want to leave the games industry?
DICE and Rovio veteran Patrick Liu is no longer working in games. Here's his advice if you've thought about switching careers too
You know when you've announced at your work that you're leaving, and some colleagues approach you to ask why, and they confess they've also had similar thoughts? Now imagine the same thing, but you're taking a sharper turn to change industries and people across a whole industry make those confessions in private. My personal jump to Spotify may not be that big; it's still within tech and consumer services, just not with games. I could've started a bakery for instance - that would have really raised more eyebrows.
I've spoken to a lot of people since my change, and it's clearly taboo to talk about it. I can absolutely sympathize with that; you don't want your colleagues to know you've considered another company. There's a fear you would burn your bridges not just with one company, but with an entire industry. That's the nature of change, the fear of missing out.
That said, it's quite normal to have an urge to try your hand at something different after a career with the same types of jobs. This is especially true for today's industry veterans, where many are self-taught and have done it since their teens. Ultimately, it's not as much about wanting to leave where you are as it is wanting to go somewhere else, just to see what else is out there.
Why would you want to leave?
There are many reasons why someone would want to leave. We've heard plenty of stories of the long work hours, people being burned out and other horror stories. While they are mostly true, the industry as a whole has matured and improved over the years. As an entire generation of developers grow up, get a family, find other interests, there's a natural movement towards a healthier work-life balance. There's still a long way to go, and it will probably never go away completely, so it's a justified reason still.
Maybe you came into games with a slightly romanticized view of the industry, a would-be auteur with grand ideas. However, unless you're actually one of the best in the industry, chances are that you will end up working on someone else's ideas. It's also very likely that you get pigeonholed into a niche that's not quite what you were looking for, but you are doing a good enough job to keep you there for good.
"Because it's still moving very fast, the industry outpaces the personal development of many individuals. You get the feeling you're still on a bike while everyone else is on high speed trains"
In the last few years I've also had plenty of industry friends that grew tired of working for someone else's cause, or making money for someone else, and went off to start their own thing. Especially with the advent of VR, there's a revitalization of creative energy that we haven't seen for a long time amongst game industry veterans. Some old wolves simply leave because of creative stagnation in general - either personal, or as businesses grow they become more risk averse. There's a lot of debate around how much risk is good balance, but it's the nature of things; as stakes get higher, incumbents will be disrupted by innovative start-ups eventually.
The train has left the station
The most discussed reason for leaving the games industry that I've seen though is the development of the business as a whole. Because it's still moving very fast, the industry outpaces the personal development of many individuals. You get the feeling you're still on a bike while everyone else is on high speed trains. It's extremely rare that someone that was at their peak 15-20 years ago is on the cutting edge today. A simple example: you were completely fine as a games artist in the earlier days when resolutions were low and 3D graphics were low poly, but as the industry shifted towards higher fidelity and realism you simply can't keep up. That is the crux. There are usually a few options: you change your role (e.g. become a manager), you change your profession (leave the industry), or you adapt to the new order in your current job (keep up with the best).
A common critique has been that it's so 'business driven' now, but what does that really mean? That it's all about the money? If you have ever run your own business you will understand why, because that's what businesses do. My start-up friends spend a lot of time chasing funding. In the ideal case, economic stability is an enabler for innovation and creativity. Suppose you agree with the money making; you may still disagree with how it's made, i.e. the business model. The thing is that the business model has always had an immense effect on the core product.
Looking back at the arcade era, the coin-up model had a huge impact on the nature of those games: that's why they keep high-scores, why they aren't story driven (no, really), are always action games and extremely hard (but not too hard to make you churn and not leave any more coins).
Premium boxed products shaped the games in a new way, however. As the ocean reddened, the scope increased to justify the price point of the contents on the disc. Piracy and second sales pushed a lot of games to include (crappy) on-line multiplayer. Increasing production costs forced our hands to develop paid DLC content to maintain a return on investment, etc.
And of course, the freemium business has pushed in the direction back to the days of coin-ops. Democratization of games creation has also changed the market completely, and married with digital distribution has created a much more diverse market both in terms of innovation and consumer choice. That in turn has created tremendous problems with discoverability - as seen in mobile app stores and surely increasing on Steam - and is pushing games in new directions. It's very likely there are elements of this development that you don't agree with; and if that feeling is strong enough, it could be reason enough to look around for an environment where you feel more at home. And again, it may be a case of you being outrun by the business.
"The perception that the business focus has made games worse (enough to drive away players and some workers) is mostly not true"
Another oft-cited observation is that games development is too data driven now, with the perception that market surveys would drive the direction of what games to make. That may be true for some companies, but I don't expect them to be very successful in the long run. A better way to put it is that development is indeed data informed to a much higher degree, which is just another tool at the disposal for designers and product owners. It's a way to validate your instincts, assuming you've realized that you're making games for hundreds of thousands or millions of people, not just yourself. A concrete example is that a level designer can see data on how players behave to validate puzzles or difficulty levels, and is therefore able to tweak designs accordingly. You either learn how to work data informed, or you will quickly lose to those who do.
So, why haven't you left already?
The perception that the business focus has made games worse (enough to drive away players and some workers) is mostly not true. The entire cake has grown a lot since the '90s, but the share that existed then hasn't grown nearly as much. In fact, today it's a niche share, even if it's still a substantial size in itself that some developers thrive on. And I think both workers and players are starting to come to terms with that fact. We should be happy and be inclusive of the new 'gamers' out there that like other types of games that the 'business driven' practices have gained us. Arcade games will remain arcade games, old-school RPGs will remain old-school RPGs, and new games will grow the industry as a whole. Don't fret.
Change is tough. For a lot of people their profession is a big part of their identity. For some, there's the fear of being seen as weak, the fear of failing. It's obviously tough to learn something new and perhaps start your career over, but many times it's a good thing and may increase quality of life overall. Many of my friends haven't done anything else in their life. It's a huge hurdle to overcome. How hard it is to leave games entirely depends on what your current skill-set is and what you'd like to do instead. In my own case, I'm actually doing something very similar at its core, but the industry is very different, so in a sense I'm applying a set of skills in a new context and learning a lot of new skills while doing it. It's a way of parachuting your change; take one step at a time.
At the end of the day, there are probably as many reasons for change as there are individuals doing it. One of my old industry colleagues that's on his second act away from games described games industry workers in a very nice way:
"... badass problem-solvers forged in an environment of high uncertainty and stress."
Take that with you as you pitch yourself outside of games. And if the new thing doesn't work out, you can always go back.
Patrick Liu recently joined music service Spotify after over a decade in games. He was most recently Creative Director and Head of Studio at Rovio Sweden, and formerly producer at Starbreeze and DICE, with franchises such as Battlefield, Medal of Honor and Angry Birds under his belt.