28 May 2012

It's Over Until It's Not

Being laid off is a very personal experience. This is the second time I've lost my job in three years, a risk that seems to go with the territory of game design. Is such a risk acceptable for a man with two small children to take? Should I turn my back on an industry I love in order to eke out a false sense of security in another, less volatile one?

Yes, 38 Studios is done, as is my time there. People have read the news, they've seen the clips on television. And if they haven't, well, they're probably not living in New England. It was a big deal here in Rhode Island, hearkening back to the days just over a year ago when we moved the entire studio from Maynard, Massachusetts to Providence. Back then, the folks around here were skeptical of us... and when I say "us," I mean the employees, too, not the company as a whole (though that's certainly been the case, as I don't know if ProJo has ever published a story about 38 that didn't try to make us look bad).

I was never personally affected by public opinion in a negative way, though I know some others who were. With me, it was my neighbors seeing my 38 studios t-shirt and asking if I worked for Curt Schilling. It was a minor (and fleeting) feeling of celebrity, little else. And to be honest, I was proud to work for 38, and I still am. 38 Studios was filled with the best people in the industry... some of the best people, period... and I was one of them.

I know people will have questions about the weeks leading up to the lay off. I can't really answer those. I only know how I felt, knowing that I wasn't being paid, not knowing how I'd make ends meet or keep the kids fed or pay the landlord. Simultaneously, there was the news, often being reported before we knew what was happening. It wasn't always accurate, but people will draw their own conclusions based on what they are told. We were in the news again, and in some cases, we were the bad guys.

I mentioned I'd been laid off before. While that was a frightening experience I'll not soon forget, it was also, in retrospect, a gentler one. It was November of 2009 and I was working for EA Mythic (now BioWare Mythic) in Fairfax, VA. We'd launched the Warhammer MMO, and it wasn't performing to EA's expectations. We'd already experienced two rounds of layoffs prior to that one, and I'd somehow survived the cut each time. Information was scarce; we knew it was coming, but the secrecy surrounding it was ironclad.

Despite everyone I asked telling me that I shouldn't be worried about my job, I was. No one is indispensable. I may be good at what I do, but at the end of the day I'm just a number on a spreadsheet like everyone else. I found out about my own termination a day or two early, confirming it with a friend who shall remain nameless. EA doesn't do these sorts of things without planning ahead, though, so there was a severance package.

It was close to the holidays, and it didn't seem like anyone was hiring. I sent my resume out to a dozen companies, reached out to friends and recruiters, but I got nowhere. And there I was, thousands of miles from home and not knowing what tomorrow would hold... Yet, thanks to the severance, I was still drawing a paycheck, still insured, still able to pay my bills and my rent and keep the kids fed.

I did find a new job fairly quickly... at 38 Studios. I'd never heard of them before. Heck, I'd never even heard of Curt Schilling before, not being a sports fan. I did my research and learned what I could about them (which, at the time, wasn't much). Still, the interview sold me and even if I hadn't desperately needed the job, I would've wanted to work there all the same.

Here I am nearly two and a half years later, once more without a job, three thousand miles from home. The experience is a lot different in many ways. Whereas at Mythic, we knew the storm was coming, the events at 38 came out of left field. No one knew the wave was coming until it was on top of us, and no one was spared. Each day was a painful experience of waiting for news, checking email, and trying to concentrate on the job at hand.

Over the two weeks following 5/15, days filled with stress and gloom were occasionally punctuated by days of hope and optimism. But the former definitely outnumbered the latter, and by the time the email went out on 5/24, it was almost a relief. I certainly wasn't spending the days waiting for the end like a deer caught in a spotlight. I was looking for work right away, though I wasn't exactly crowing about it. The longer it went on, the more certain I was that we'd gone past a point of no return.

I'm a father of two, as I mentioned earlier, and I have no clear means to support my family at the present time. I have some irons in the fire, sure, and I'm hoping one of them pays off. I'm sure one of them will, but it's tough to speak of such things in absolutes due to the superstitious fear that I may somehow be wrong. I don't want to go through this again, but in this industry, lay offs are about as common as elves and dwarfs. What kind of stupid am I to stick with this sort of job?

Can we make the same mistake twice, being that the second incident is a conscious choice on our own behalf?

I love games. I've been playing games of all kinds since junior high school. Tabletop games in the beginning, computer games after I begged my grandparents to buy me a Commodore 128 when I was in middle school. Games are such a part of me that I can't imagine life without them. Now, making games--writing for games--is a dream come true. I could (maybe) go back to a purchasing job, but I'd never make what I was making at 38 (or even at Mythic) doing that. To top it off, no job is 100% secure, and lay offs aren't restricted to slaves of the games industry.

In this industry, it's passion that drives us. The passion to create worlds, the passion to play in them, the passion to learn and become better and chart new territory. The passion to prove that we can do it, and the passion to show that we can stand up after being kicked to the curb and do it all over again. It's not easy, no, and nothing we do is guaranteed to succeed. It's a gamble, yes, but so is every other decision we make in life.

So I'm sticking with it. My days at 38 Studios might be over, but I'm not done with this roller coaster ride just yet. You can't know what it's like until you've done it, and while there are many parallels out there that compare to the thrill of launching a game, there's nothing quite like it. Maybe someday I'll throw in the hat, but not yet.