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Layoffs in the games industry tell a tale of companies that do not care

With the recent mass layoffs from Telltale Games in mind, Ash Gomez investigates the culture surrounding the game development industry. 

On the 21st of September, Telltale Games released a statement which read: “Today Telltale Games made the difficult decision to begin a majority studio closure following a year marked by insurmountable challenges. A majority of the company’s employees were dismissed earlier this morning, with a small group of 25 employees staying on to fulfill the company’s obligations to its board and partners.”

Around 250 people were reported to have lost their jobs at Telltale. Some of these former employees were quick to take to Twitter to explain the situation and the mounting pressure they felt while working at Telltale Games. Brandon Cebenka tweeted: “None of my sleepless nights or long hours on weekends trying to ship a game on time got me severance today. Don’t work overtime unless you’re paid for it, y’all. Protect your health. Companies don’t care about you.”

The video games industry is notorious for overworking its employees. Developers have consistently reported stressful working environments and few, if any, benefits. There is a recurring pattern within many gaming companies in which staff will be hired in order to meet a deadline, and then excess employees will be dismissed after the deadline is met. Forced to accept this temporary work, many developers find themselves constantly moving from one studio to the next, with very little security.

“Companies don’t care about you.”

While games themselves can be one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling types of media available, the companies behind the production do not seem to promote the positive ethos manufactured into their games. These companies have realised that fun sells, while they make their working environments anything but.

All of this begs the question: is it ethical to allow companies to control creativity? Even the most progressive companies have an inherent desire to make money, and the easiest way to make money is to produce surplus labour. Surplus labour is present in every aspect of capitalist society, but it is most noticeable in the realm of creative pursuits. Creativity does not operate on a 9-5 basis, let alone during the sleepless nights and long weekends described by Cebenka. Yet these companies still work the creative minds at their disposal into overtime.

“These companies have realised that fun sells, while they make their working environments anything but.”

When Telltale announced its closure, there was an immediate reaction from fans who were wondering about the games still in production. While the reaction is understandable, these fans are failing to realise that the games they love can never truly be finished. There are 250 people who were inserting their own creative energies into favourites like The Walking Dead, who will never be able to impact that story again. Even if Telltale manages to release new titles with its limited number of staff, the stories will never be the same.

Furthermore, if these new titles are released, they will do so at the expense of the 250 employees who sacrificed so much time and energy only to be fired. The promise of hours playing a new game can be appealing, but that limited amount of fun pales in comparison to the hundreds who are now scrambling for new jobs.

Fortunately, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for some of Telltale’s former employees in the form of a class-action lawsuit, started by ex-developer Vernie Roberts. In the lawsuit, Roberts claims that Telltale’s dismissal violates state and federal labour laws. While the claim could result in a small amount of justice for the former developers, no court can fix the problematic culture found in games companies overnight.