Thursday, February 5, 2009

Game company layoffs

Directly after the news of disappointing subscription numbers comes the new of a new round of layoffs at Mythic. And other game companies like THQ. Getting laid off can be a personal catastrophe, and I feel sorry for all those affected. Nevertheless I don't share Scott Jennings feeling of betrayal. Because I don't buy the line that all of the hundreds of people who worked on a game that failed are completely innocent and unaware of that failure, and that all the blame is due to high management.

Companies run on money, and that money belongs to people, and not all of these people have a surplus of it. Via pension funds and shares and other financial instruments people like you and me own tiny slices of various companies. If a company makes a good product, which is profitable, all the stakeholders, that is employees as well as shareholders, somehow get a slice of that profit. Wages, bonuses, dividends, share price increases. One can argue whether who gets what share of the profit is totally fair (it usually isn't), but normally everyone profits in some way. So if a company makes a bad product, which makes a loss, the pain has to be shared as well. You can't just say "let the shareholders take all the loss". Not only would that be not very fair, but also it is not a viable path into a better future. Layoffs and restructuring are painful, but they are less painful than the company going belly up. People are fired so the company shrinks to a size where the earnings match the expenditures, and the company can survive.

And yes, that is hard on those who get fired. And no, I don't claim that companies are very good at firing exactly those people who are most responsible for creating the bad product that made a loss. But if all of the employees in one of the game companies now firing people would have done their job perfectly, and created the perfect game, perfect game design, no bugs, perfect quality control, perfect customer service, and so on, the layoffs wouldn't be happening. Take just one example: How many players did Age of Conan lose due to the bug that female characters dealt less damage than male characters due to slower combat animation? Remember the huge outcry, people quitting in disgust, bad publicity? Does anyone really think that the CEO of Funcom or the game director of AoC planned that? That he purposely instructed his underlings to make a game with that bug? And in that case it was the game director who ended up being fired. There are certainly cases where somebody in high management decides to rush an unfinished game through the door. But quite often the fact that the game is unfinished is related to the performance of the people who worked on it. We don't live in a society any more where employees are just mindless working drones following orders, completely unaware about and innocent of the quality of the product they are helping to make. The responsability for a game that failed is shared to varying degrees amongst hundreds of people, and most of them were quite aware they failed long before the pink slip arrived. That may be a tragedy, but it isn't betrayal. I'm not telling anyone that it is his own fault for getting fired, but please don't tell me that none of those people could have seen this coming.

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