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Layoffs and annual AI game developers conference: “The mood is rancid”

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Layoffs and annual AI game developers conference: “The mood is rancid”

DDespite sunny spring skies in San Francisco this week, the mood was somber among nearly 30,000 video game industry professionals as they descended on the city for the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC). Some were so frustrated with their company’s situation that they organized a group shouting session in a park.

“Those of us who have jobs and can afford to be here are going through the motions and trying to have a good time,” said Maxi Molina, a game developer from Spain who was at the event. . “But the mood is stale in the industry right now.”

The gaming industry saw more than 10,000 workers laid off in 2023, up from 8,500 in 2022, according to the Projected layoffs in the gaming industry, which tracks job losses of game developers and publishers globally. The layoffs have affected studios ranging from small independent game publishers to industry titans like Fortnite maker Epic Games, which laid off 830 employees in September 2023; Microsoft, which cut 1,900 employees at Activision Blizzard and Xbox in January; And Sony, which announced in February the layoffs of 900 people in its studios around the world. The trend is only accelerating, with 2,000 video game industry professionals losing their jobs in February, a five-fold increase year-over-year, according to the layoff tracker .

In addition to continued layoffs, a recent resurgence of the “anti-woke” ideology that sparked the Gamergate controversy and harassment campaign 10 years ago has further discouraged those who have worked to increase diversity and safety in the video game industry.

“It’s a constant in the industry,” said Molina, who also works as a diversity consultant in the video game industry. “I think in the years after Gamergate emerged, people didn’t want to talk about it – but that doesn’t make it go away.”

Citing these and other grievances, former Epic Games producer Caryl Shaw and Fortnite Festival designer Scott Jon Siegel staged a collective primal cry in the park across from the Moscone Center, where GDC was taking place.

“The gaming industry is collapsing around us, and we’re all flocking to San Francisco for a week to pretend everything’s okay,” organizers said on an event page for the scream, attended by dozens of members of the gaming industry joined. “Let’s take a minute to stop pretending and express how it feels to be a game developer in 2024.”

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Developers expressed their frustration with layoffs in the video game industry with lengthy shouting matches #GDC2024.

GDScream is a "collective moment of catharsis, camaraderie and meows": https://t.co/WanmY9G0Zq#Games #gamingnews #video games #GDC

Video by @TenaciousChi pic.twitter.com/0DMYMUn5dH

– 80 LEVEL (@80Level) March 21, 2024

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“More and more people need support right now”

While some GDC attendees described a pressure to have a good time despite the dire environment in general, GDC organizers chose to confront the problem head-on – tailoring this year’s programming to address unemployment and layoffs, said Stephenie Hawkins, GDC event director.

“With the industry changing and all the layoffs, I think people need support more than ever right now,” she said. “Bringing people together has been the most important priority for us. »

To this end, GDC provided lower-cost tickets to out-of-work participants and created job sites for employers and those looking for work. Organizers scheduled speed-networking events and increased the number of lounges and common spaces to allow people to meet naturally. She launched a “Travel Together” program that connects participants who stay next to each other so they can talk while walking to events.

Hawkins, GDC event director since 2021, said the game’s existential moment also prompted organizers to implement a retrospective theme at this year’s conference. The exhibit featured a booth from the Oakland-based company Museum of Digital Art and Entertainment where attendees could play refurbished classic games on vintage systems, and GDC hosted a number of “post-mortem” panels reflecting on classic games like Karateka (released in 1984) and Chapter 1 of the Elder Scrolls (released in 1994).

“We wanted to celebrate and honor the legacy of the games industry and reflect on how we got here as we look to the future,” she said.

“AI is a big consideration”

The future of the video game industry – as with most aspects of technology in recent years – is steeped in discussions of artificial intelligence and its potential impacts. A survey released by GDC in January found that 84% of respondents, primarily those working in the video game industry, said they were “somewhat” or “very concerned” about the ethics of using AI generative.

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These concerns were reflected at the conference, with most of GDC’s AI-focused panels reaching capacity – as developers, investors and other industry experts lined up snaking around the conference center to take a seat. Outside a panel on The AI ​​Revolution featuring speakers from EA Games and Roblox, Kyle Gordon, a Sony employee who works with Playstation, said he was cautiously optimistic about AI’s applications. AI in games.

“AI is an important consideration – things are changing very quickly,” he said. “I’m interested in how we can integrate this technology into the development of tools to reduce costs and reduce some publication times.”

Hawkins, the GDC organizer, said research from the conference showed that more independent developers were using AI tools than big studios — in part because it allows them to accomplish more with fewer resources.

Potential applications of AI to ease developer workload have been a topic of discussion among years of worry on video game “crunch” culture – the idea that workers are expected to work intense overtime hours – often unpaid – to get a game out before launch. Some argue that AI could automate the more tedious aspects of development, while others worry about creative ownership – an issue affecting all industries as applications of AI have expanded in recent times. years.

“It’s difficult to do, but we make sure we only use clean data and data that we have a license to use,” said Nico Perony, director of AI research at Unity Games, during the panel on AI in games. “Game creators have a responsibility to do this, as many artists are concerned about whether their work will feed into generative models, and for good reason.”

“We can protect ourselves”

With layoffs and looming AI issues, organizers in the gaming world are encouraging more workers to unionize and fight for better protections. During a panel titled Now is the time! Games workers are ready to form unions, advocates say, the overall challenging environment has created an ideal time to organize.

“Workers are being laid off no matter how long they have dedicated their lives to working at a company and regardless of their results,” said Chrissy Fellmeth, a representative for the International Alliance of Performing Employees. “People are afraid that their livelihoods will be taken away at any time. And that’s exactly why we should form unions now.”

Video game industry unionization efforts gain momentum, with Microsoft volunteering recognize a union of 600 Activision QA workers this month – the largest video game union in the United States to date. Games unions in the UK have seen a sharp increase in membership since redundancies accelerated in 2023. The GDC sector survey found that only 5% of developers surveyed were unionized, while 57% believe that workers in the sector should be unionized.

“We can be strong together and protect ourselves from unilateral changes that are made without our input,” Fellmeth said. “Why should we continue to live our lives in fear of mass layoffs? »

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