Mass Video Game Layoffs - Cause & Effect

By Christian Scarlato, writer for Northern Lights - A Media Retrospective
In this ever-changing economy, can there exist a thriving job economy for aspiring video game developers & creators?

As a Media Production student at Toronto Metropolitan University, I’ve been fortunate to take plenty of classes taught by professionals still practicing their craft, ranging from scriptwriting to television production. It helps give insight into certain aspects of each industry while informing students of any trends and how to make yourself stand out. However, I found myself conflicted in one of my video game classes (yes, those exist). We usually start every lecture with an “industry update”, but most stories coming out of the video game industry revolve around job cuts and the fact that most companies aren’t looking to hire. It’s extremely disheartening as a potential developer, and it potentially shows how fragile a job in this industry could potentially be, yet how can that be? With the ever-growing interest & player numbers for the current generation of gaming, how can the industry (especially in Canada) be in such a state of constant disarray & dismissals?

We all remember back in 2020 when a fun little virus called COVID-19 kept us stuck at home, keeping us away from social interactions. While it seemed bleak for the foreseeable future, it allowed the video game industry to explode in a way that no one expected. Since everybody was home, it allowed more and more people time to sit down and enjoy their favourite video games. Right at the pinnacle of rising cases of COVID-19, Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons released and became one of the best-selling games of the year, while becoming a social phenomenon for the better half of 2020. Why? Because more people could dedicate time to New Horizons since they were stuck at home. Developers also realized the change, moving most of their development process to a “work from home” model, allowing their workers to stay home, while still developing amazing games. Hence, these studios started hiring more and more people to work on their projects and strike when the figurative iron was hot. This continued until 2022, when most COVID-19 restrictions were lifted but the studios still had more than enough developers. Most of these bigger companies were allowing developers to return to the studios to work but were left with a big flux of extra developers & not accommodating the extra hands anymore.

Thus, the layoffs soon began in 2023 & into 2024. From small independent teams to bigger studios like Riot Games, Unity, and Sega. If you could name a company, then they were letting people go. The number of layoffs could range from about 10 people to almost 2000 lost jobs if you worked somewhere like Microsoft Studios. And now with PlayStation planning its round of layoffs, it makes you truly think, is there a future for aspiring developers in Canada?

Well, I’d like to point your attention towards one of Canada’s biggest developers, Ubisoft. If you’re not familiar with Ubisoft, they’ve developed some of the biggest sandbox and open-world experiences for modern-day consoles. They’re known for creating the Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Watch Dogs franchises, alongside hosting a whole catalogue of studios located worldwide. As of January 2024, it’s projected that Ubisoft’s Toronto studio has more than 575 hands currently working on future Ubisoft titles, yet how long until people start falling? Even though Ubisoft is a big company, most of their recent projects haven’t been successful critically and financially. Recently, Ubisoft launched their long-awaited pirate epic, Skull & Bones, to a mass reception of “meh”. Though official sales numbers for the game aren’t out yet, it’s been estimated that the game had a peak player base of 850,000 players, but that a good chunk of them came from a free trial instead of a purchased copy of the game. It also doesn’t help that Ubisoft’s older pirate game, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, saw more of a rise in overall players than Ubisoft’s brand-new franchise. I could also talk about how many players see Ubisoft as nothing more than a recycling factory for most of their games, with most of them playing the same while skipping out on any innovations, but I digress. It’s practices like this that leave plenty of developers in the figurative ether, where their status as the developer can go away on a whim.

But that’s just one company. How about we talk about the more favourable developers of Toronto? For example, why not look to a team contributing to one of the most anticipated video game releases ever, with Rockstar Toronto & Grand Theft Auto VI? I don’t have to say that this game will make a lot of money because it seems obvious at this point, and the team at Rockstar Toronto has been hectically coordinating with the other Rockstar teams. Yet, when the game drops, who used to say that Rockstar will need those developers anymore? We also have the Quebec-based developer, Beenox. Alongside helping develop plenty of the newer Crash Bandicoot games & assisting with the yearly Call of Duty installments, they’ve been a prized jewel in Activision’s massive crown. Yet, now that they’re owned by Microsoft, they’ve got no control over who and what gets cut, ranging from staff to whole projects. It sucks to say this, but it’s becoming an unfortunate practice in the video game industry, regardless of how much money your games rake in. If you look at other companies, including the previously mentioned, Microsoft Studios, it becomes brazenly apparent that security is as futile as any other career, regardless if you’re making money or not.

So what can you do?

With interest in video games rising, plenty of developers have started moving to independent projects either created independently or with a small team. Games like Pizza Tower & Neon White prove that you don’t need a large team to push the needle. In rare cases, projects like Undertale & Five Nights at Freddy’s have taken the world by storm and were only developed by a singular person. Even looking at Helldivers 2, which is probably the most popular game at the time of writing, the development team at Swedish-owned Arrowhead Studios only has a team of about 100 people. Yet the quality of the finished project far exceeds anything I’ve played from Ubisoft recently. To those still studying to become the next developers of tomorrow, I implore you to start making connections with your friends. Try to build up a small team that you can start networking with, and start developing your passion projects. Not only will it look amazing on a resume, but if you do hit it with your audience, then you might have the next Hades or Cuphead on your hands, and then you get to make the decisions around the office.

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