Last month (January 2009), I was laid off from my job as a game programmer at Klei Entertainment. We were working on Sugar Rush, a game for Nexon North America (Humanature Studios). When Nexon Global closed the studio completely, Klei's project furthest in development no longer had a publisher.
Completely understandably, the CEO of Klei had to tighten the belt and, being that I was the most recent person to be hired, I was let go.
While large companies such as Nexon and Disney seem to be laying people off to placate nervous shareholders rather than out of legitimate financial necessity, smaller organizations often have to cut staff just to stay afloat.
Klei is a fantastic organization with absolutely awesome people. I learned so much in the three months that I worked there, and I don't hold it against the company that I had to be let go.
But personally, it was a particularly horrifying experience to lose my job.
Hundreds of other game developers in Vancouver have been laid off recently, too. A local recruiter I spoke with told me that in that last six months, nearing 900 game developers in the city had lost their jobs. Open positions are scarce and fiercely competitive. This is probably the worst time in quite a while to be looking for a job in game development in Vancouver.
Re-employed Within the Week
Despite the grim outlook, I began talking to people I knew in the local industry almost immediately after being laid off. Two days after I was laid off, I had an interview. And within a week, I had accepted an offer from Hothead Games.
I had actually spoken to Hothead over a year and half previous at the Penny Arcade Expo, shortly after I graduated with my master degree. I had already accepted a position at a non-gaming start-up (being an American in Canada, I had a "get a job or get deported" deadline after graduation), but I still made a point to have a conversation with the company.
I chatted with various Hothead folks at local events and generally stayed in touch. When I was laid off from Klei and Hothead serendipitously had a new position open up at the same time, I wasn't an anonymous resume.
I don't doubt this groundwork helped demonstrate that my skills and passion warranted an interview. I had also been working on a number of personal projects that ensured I'd have something substantial to discuss during that interview.
What Went Right for Me
Considering how many good folks have lost their jobs recently, I thought I would write about my experience and try to pinpoint some of the things that I did to help me land on my feet again quickly. Many of the things that come to mind aren't things I did in the week between losing my job and finding a new one, but rather are habits I've developed. They are little things I do daily, weekly, and monthly that, in a time of crisis, have paid off immeasurably.
I won't pretend to be some kind of authority, with a list of "do this and don't do that." But to have moved from one dream job to another with such expediency, I must have done something right.
What I can do is relate my tale in the hope that someone will find it useful, particularly people who are currently in the job market, as well as greener game developers who, like me, sit a little too close to the axe due to their lack of experience.
Do, Speak, Listen
In my humble opinion, to succeed in the game development business and survive being laid off requires three things:
It sounds trivial to the point of naiveté, but I honestly believe these three things to be true.
Doing great work. Doing great work doesn't just include what you do between 9 and 5. It also means seeking ways to improve the things you do outside the office.
When playing video games, for example, instead of zoning out, think about what works in the game and more importantly, why it's compelling. When playing board games or tabletop RPGs, pay attention to what makes them tick and what others enjoy about the experience of playing them. What makes the game fun? As a game developer, you often have to let go of your role as someone who plays games just for enjoyment to take on the act of thinking critically about them.
Another way you can do great work is to have a few side projects in development at all times. For programmers, this might mean working with a new language or framework.
Before I started at Hothead, I had never done any 3D game programming, and this felt like a pretty glaring deficiency. I checked out a book on the subject from the Vancouver public library and created a simple 3D game using DirectX.
When that was finished, I experimented with a more complicated game using Panda3D [http://panda3d.org], a free game engine developed by Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center. I created all the "art" (and I use that term in the loosest sense of the word) using Blender [http://www.blender.org], an open source 3D modeling application. There is a wealth of resources available for anyone interested, and many of them are free, so there's really no reason not to try and expand your skill set.
And no matter how busy your day job is, you can always squeeze in an hour or even a half hour every day to pursue these things. I get up at 5 a.m. most days to play games, or write and read about games, programming, or other things of interest.
Telling others about your work. Doing great work means little if other people don't know about it. Most game developers know how important networking is, and it's not terribly difficult to meet people in the game industry.
When you hear the advice that you must be "passionate" about games or game development to work in the industry, this is what people mean. Be passionate by carrying out a side project or writing about the things you're interested, and then prove that passion by sharing with other people the things that you do.
To connect with other developers, get involved with the local game dev scene in your area. Go to IGDA events and pub nights with other industry folks. But while you're doing this, remember to talk about the things that truly interest you. Talk about how you're pursuing those interests. Tell them about the great work you do. This doesn't mean you have free reign to be a braggart. You're having a conversation about something all the parties involved should care about. This means you also need to care about what they have to say.
Taking an interest in other people's work. Take an interest in the projects that other people are working on, too. Talk to them both about their work projects, as much as confidentiality will allow anyway, and their personal projects and interests.
In addition to attending IGDA events and game developer get-togethers, blogs are a great resource. I've learned a ton through conversations I've had with bloggers who write critically about games. Michael Abbott, Iroquois Pliskin, Steve Gaynor, and many others have provided incredible insight and challenged my thinking on a host of topics related to games. I can't begin to list all the excellent game bloggers out there, but Daniel Golding did compile a solid list -- that should be enough to get you started.
You have to be genuinely interested in what other people do, though, not just as a means to an end. This sounds like something out of How to Win Friends and Influence People, but it's true. Almost anyone can tell when someone is just looking to use them.
Public events, like the Global Game Jam, are good venues for this kind of networking as well. I recently participated in the Global Game Jam in Vancouver, and it was a tremendously valuable experience. But it was pretty disappointing that, aside from about four people -- myself, another programmer, a designer and one faculty member -- everyone at the Game Jam was a student or had recently graduated and was not employed yet. I understand that the last thing many developers want to do after a week of work is basically do more work (not to mention that the 48-hour sprint is especially exhausting and isn't attached to a paycheck), but the opportunity to get together with a group of people, go through an entire game's lifecycle with them, and learn their tricks to game development is very rare.
See and Be Seen
The importance of these three tips is this: Should you lose your job (or just be looking for a change), people will help you land your next gig -- just as much as having a great resume will help you find that new job. These people you meet will tell their co-workers that you're a solid and capable person, actively pursuing the things you're passionate about, and that the company would be making a grave mistake to let someone else get a hold of your skills. They might let you know about other opportunities. Hell, they might even join you to form a new studio.
Obviously, luck in terms of timing will always be a major factor. And there are circumstances that will always be beyond your control. But the best approach is to make the most of the things you can control.
I realize much of my advice is tremendously obvious, but I'm always shocked to hear just how content some folks are to keep their heads down and not be noticed. Most game developers I know are incredibly passionate about what they do, but it's vital that you're vocal about that passion and dedicated to making it more refined. If you're not willing to invest the time to become truly great at what you do, it might be hard to outshine those that have.
Nels Anderson is a game programmer at Hothead Games. He's probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. A version of this article was originally published on his blog, Above49.ca.