Game studio firings are a hellish race against time for immigrant developers

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The layoffs happened suddenly. One day Jose Abalos got a job and worked on Disney Infinity 4The next day he wasn’t. “It was something that turned everything, everything, all kinds of security upside down,” he says The edge“Everything just went up in one day.”

In May 2016, Disney Interactive nearly closed its in-house studio, Avalanche Software 300 employees without work. There was an additional complication for Abalos. He worked in the United States on an H-1B1 visa, a restricted program for employees in Singapore and Chile, which must be renewed every year. Abalos only had a month for his visa to expire. Not only would he not receive unemployment benefits after that date for anything after that date, but his visa would soon become invalid, forcing him to leave the country. His life was like, “‘Hey, we’re working on Infinity 4, and this is great, ‘to’ Oh, shit. I have to find a job now, ” he says.

Every year, developers emigrate to the United States to pursue careers in game development. For some people, like Abalos who grew up in Chile, the US offers more opportunities than their home countries, where developing communities can be small. According to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2020 economic impact report, the U.S. industry alone supports 143,000 jobs. It is home to major developers such as Electronic Arts, Valve, and Activision Blizzard in cities and towns, including New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, and Raleigh.

However, regardless of location, it is always a challenge to maintain a successful career in game development. Every year, studios undergo major layoffs, uprooting the lives of their employees. The problem is more complex for guest workers. They don’t just lose a job. They may be forced to give up their lives completely and leave the country. This fear trickles down into various aspects of their careers, allowing developers to afford to take jobs and how much leverage they have to ask for better pay or working conditions once in.

“It was every day, just desperate for job openings,” said Abalos. “Whoever wants to take me, I’ll do it.”

For developers here with visas, time is of the essence. In October 2020, Jennifer Scheurle suddenly lost her job after the project she had been working on was canceled. Under her O-1 visa, which is given to people with “extraordinary ability or achievement,” she had only 60 days to transfer her visa to another company or leave the country. That day she started her job search. “Particularly within the games industry, hiring within two to three months is just not something, or really rare and difficult to do,” she said. The edge

Her health insurance would expire in about two weeks. “I lost my ability to go to my therapist because I was out of coverage, which is difficult when you’re trying to figure out how to get your life in order,” she says. The project she had put her heart into for years had suddenly disappeared. Her life was put under pressure in a timeline of just 60 days, which she just doesn’t think is enough. ‘You don’t have time to process what just happened to you. You don’t have time to just understand what that means for your life. “

The process can – and usually can – take months. Recruiters typically wait to attract a wide pool of candidates, who then go through an intensive screening and interview process. Developers can ask a candidate to meet large parts of their teams, which amounts to hours of interviews. (Pre-COVID usually meant personal gloves where a potential candidate could come to the company’s campus for an eight-hour day. Since the industry works from home, more of that process is now being relegated to video calls.) taking years means that companies must carefully consider who they want to bring on board.

Scheurle describes a loss of freedom of choice in her own life. “I felt like it wasn’t on my own terms,” she says. “I was forced into terms and decisions dictated by this timeline and the [US visa process], instead of having a moment to think about what I want now. “

Contributions from immigrant developers are crucial for maintaining a diverse and therefore strong workforce. Employers want to cast a wide net, says a recruiter in the games industry The edgeIt is in a company’s interest to discover talents, technical and artistic, that are vastly different from what they could only find in the US. It is impossible to immediately track how this loss of talent is affecting projects, both projects that are being created now and those that are yet to come. But that loss does exist.

Problems do not only affect developers who are in the middle of their career, but also young developers who want to find a job after their studies. Raj * came to the United States as a student and was on a successful path in every way. His play was nominated for student awards and received media attention and awards. With a strong portfolio and plans to publish his game, he hoped to start a visa process that would help him stay in the country. However, his team’s dreams of publishing through Nintendo, and later a crowdfunding effort, fell through.

It was late April and his visa was due to expire in May. He was recently engaged. At the urging of his lawyers, he was told not to leave the country, but rather to start the green card process and try parole that would allow him to stay in the country after his visa expired. “We dropped everything to get this done within the two weeks we had,” says Raj. Rather than spend the whole year planning his wedding, he and his fiancé held a short ceremony in his in-laws’ backyard. His parents couldn’t attend, but Skyped came in instead. “We had to get everyone on the same page so quickly, but somehow it worked and we got the application submitted in time. Now I just had to wait. “

And he did, for nearly seven months. The initial three-month estimate had passed, as complications arose from Trump’s policies. In the meantime, he could not accept a job. He was told “to stay indoors as much as possible to stay away from ICE agents. There was a very real concern on my attorney’s side that I could accidentally end up in a border camp. “

That time was a challenge for Raj, a self-proclaimed nervous wreckage who was “essentially under house arrest” for fear of being deported. “I had been in the US for months with an expired visa and we were terrified that there was a knock on the door and that it would be an ICE agent,” he says. ‘I had no idea how long this would take or when we ran out of money. I knew things were not going well mentally at this point, but we could not afford the therapy, and I no longer had access to or apply for any kind of insurance. “

The problem is compounded by the need for many developers who come to the US on visas to already have senior-level experience or positions, the recruiter said. The edgeTheir paper qualifications and even country of origin greatly influence the type of visa they could apply for. Even with a job offer, some developers have had to give up those positions because the company was unable to resolve visa issues. Contract work is often inaccessible to developers who cannot work in the US. “It’s an impossible fucking process where we lose talent on such a massive scale,” says Scheurle. Developers with less experience should not work in positions that can give them the skills they need to progress to senior talent.

It also prevents developers from seeking out smaller companies that could provide them with better or more creative opportunities in favor of a larger developer with a larger bank. Getting a visa, a visa, costs thousands of dollars and the help of a good immigration attorney; some visas, such as H-1B, follow strict timelines and approval limits. There is little margin for error.

“At the end of the day, the company also has to apply for a visa, and the smaller companies just don’t know how to deal with it,” says Abalos. “While a large company, such as Activision or Ubisoft, has entire departments that only deal with that. That is their sole purpose. “

It’s an exhausting amount of pressure. “There were points such as: why do I keep trying?” Abalos says. “I mean, should I just start concentrating on packing everything up and leaving.” Scheurle says the experience made her doubt whether she would ever want to return to the United States. “I like the US and the people as a place,” she says. ‘I never want to experience that again. I want to be somewhere people appreciate humanity and what it means to move countries. “

Abalos was able to find a job and stay in the country, while Scheurle took a job in Vancouver. Raj still works in games, but says the trauma from his visa battle still strikes him. “I still have occasional episodes, and I can’t handle high-pressure environments like I used to,” he says.

Lots of developers The edge spoke to still regard themselves as privileged cases, whether because of their race, education or financial status. They call themselves examples of best-case scenarios: people who managed to stay in the country or find lucrative jobs elsewhere.

Reflecting on his own experience, Raj also sees what he considers privileges. “I would have been deported a hundred times without all the benefits I had,” he says, noting such things as his industry awards, financial support from his family, and access to an immigration attorney. He calls his ordeal a hellish experience, but still one with positive results, including a happy marriage. “From hearing what friends have been through, I know the stories we don’t hear are even more terrifying, even more tragic.” Especially in the US, it became more difficult for any immigrant to work under Trump.

“I hope that by sharing my story,” says Raj, “a story where things ‘worked out’ will help people to gain more understanding and empathy for those who didn’t.”

* Name has been changed to protect individual’s identity.