Layoffs and AI sour annual Game Developers Conference: ‘The vibe is rancid’

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Despite the sunny spring skies in San Francisco this week, the mood among nearly 30,000 video game industry professionals was gloomy as they descended upon the city for the yearly Game Developers Conference (GDC). Some were so frustrated with the state of affairs in their business that they organized a group screaming session in a park.

“Those of us who have a job and can afford to be here are going through the motions and trying to have a good time,” said Maxi Molina, a game developer attending the event from Spain. “But the vibe is rancid 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 Game Industry Layoffs project, which tracks game developer and publisher job losses globally. Layoffs have hit studios ranging in size from tiny independent game publishers to titans of the industry 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 it was laying off 900 people globally across its studios. The trend is only accelerating, with 2,000 games industry professionals losing their jobs in February – a five-time increase year over year, according to the layoff tracker.

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

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

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

“The game industry is falling apart around us, and we’re all flocking to San Francisco for a week to pretend like this is fine,” the organizers said on an event page for the scream, which dozens of game industry members joined. “Let’s take a minute where we all stop pretending, and express just how it feels to be a game developer in 2024.”

‘More people need support right now’

While some GDC attendees described a pressure to have a good time despite the dire environment at large, organizers of GDC opted to face the issue head on – catering this year’s programming to unemployment and layoffs, said Stephenie Hawkins, GDC’s event director.

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

To that end, GDC provided lower-cost tickets to out-of-work attendees and created job boards for employers and those seeking work. Organizers programmed speed-networking events and increased the number of lounges and communal seating spaces to allow people to naturally meet one another. It launched a “travel together” program that connects attendees staying near one another so they can speak while walking to events.

Hawkins, who has been the GDC event director since 2021, said the existential moment in gaming also prompted organizers to implement a retrospective theme at this year’s conference. The expo floor featured a booth from the Oakland-based Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment where attendees could play refurbished classic games on vintage systems, and GDC hosted a number of “postmortem” 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 gaming industry, and reflect on how we got here as we look to the future,” she said.

‘AI is a big consideration’

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

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Those concerns were reflected at the conference, with most AI-focused panels at GDC reaching capacity – as developers, investors and other industry experts waited in lines snaking around the conference center to grab a seat. Outside a panel called The AI Revolution, featuring speakers from EA Games and Roblox, Kyle Gordon, a Sony employee who works with PlayStation, said he is cautiously optimistic about applications of AI in gaming.

“AI is a big consideration – things are changing really fast,” he said. “I’m interested in how we can integrate this technology into developing tools to get costs down and reduce some of the timelines for release.”

Hawkins, the GDC organizer, stated that the conference’s research showed that more independent developers than larger studios were using AI tools – in part because it allows them to accomplish more with fewer resources.

Potential applications of AI to ease the workload for developers has been a topic of discussion amid years of concern over “crunch” culture in gaming – the idea that workers are expected to take on intense, and often unpaid, overtime to push a game out ahead of launch. Some argue that AI could automate the more tedious aspects of development, while others raise concerns about creative ownership – an issue across industries as AI’s applications have expanded in recent years.

“It’s difficult to do, but we make sure we only use clean data and data that we have a license to use,” Nico Perony, director of AI research at Unity Games said during the panel on AI in gaming. “Game creators have a responsibility to do this because a lot of artists worry about whether their work is going to feed generative models, with good reason.”

‘We can protect ourselves’

With layoffs and AI concerns looming, organizers in the gaming world are encouraging more workers to unionize and fight for better protections. At a panel titled Now Is the Time! Workers in Games Are Ready to Form Unions, advocates said the difficult broader environment has created an ideal moment to organize.

“Workers are getting cut from their jobs, regardless of how long they’ve dedicated their life to working at a company and how well they performed,” said Chrissy Fellmeth, a representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. “People are scared their livelihood could be taken away at any time. And that is exactly why we should form unions now.”

Efforts to unionize in gaming are gaining steam, with Microsoft voluntarily recognizing a union of 600 Activision QA workers this month – the largest video game union in the US to date. Gaming unions in the UK have seen a huge surge in membership since layoffs accelerated in 2023. The GDC industry survey found that only 5% of developers polled were unionized, while 57% think workers in the industry should be unionized.

“We can stand strong together and protect ourselves from the unilateral changes that get made without our input,” Fellmeth said. “Why should we continue to live our lives in fear of a layoff hammer coming down?”

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