The Closure of Irrational Games: Is Now the Time For Game Developers to Organize?

Forget for a moment your preference of PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, consoles or PC, and think of one thing: at the end of the day, one of the worst feelings in the world to have is that of sitting at home and wondering how you’re going to pay for your stuff. Unfortunately, employees of Irrational Games may have to be in this situation very soon, following the announcement that Co-Founder Ken Levine would be leaving to work with Take-Two Interactive (conglomerate of 2K Games and Irrational Games), while the staff of Irrational Games would be downsized to a mere 15 employees.

Despite this news and short-term fallout, the gaming industry will continue until the next closure. It is something that we have all become used to, it is a symptom of a slew of issues, and it needs to stop.

We live in a world where the gaming industry has consistently surpassed the film industry in growth in recent years. The film industry took in nearly $11 billion last year domestically. The gaming industry took in nearly 30% more domestic gross revenue, close to $16 billion last year.

Despite the gap in gross revenue, the gaming and film industries are often compared to one another due to their plentiful similarities. Both industries employ hundreds of employees, all of whom are part of a huge project with a budget in the millions, and when that project is over, the employees either stick around for the next one or move on to other things. Both industries have productions that entail long hours on the job. Both industries are populated by employees that have training in specific skills – film has its grips, carpenters, and set dressers, among many others, while the gaming industry has programmers, designers, and producers, among many others.

Why is it then that when a film ceases production, we hear next to nothing of its employees scrambling for work? When the closure of a gaming studio (which characteristically takes place after the shipment of a title) occurs, there are industry employees and gaming journalists tweeting more than the Arab Spring.

Ken Levine

I believe one of the reasons this occurs is because there is one aspect of the film industry that is absent in the gaming industry: a union. Among many other perks, unions provide job security and regulations regarding overtime. These two benefits are sorely needed in an industry where it has become acceptable to close down studios seemingly on a whim. An industry where it has become commonplace for developers to work through the weekend for weeks or months on end with little to no overtime compensation. Both of these attributes are stitched in the tapestry of the gaming industry by the mantra that anyone interested in working in the industry should get with the program and keep their head down. This is simply not acceptable.

As I mentioned before, it is extremely common for the industry to band together amidst the closure of a studio big or small. Google documents are shared and tweeted among social networks detailing the availability of jobs. This is all noble and admirable, and it is something that you do not see in every industry, however it is still akin to placing a band-aid on a laceration.

How do we know that these campaigns on Twitter help every single worker that’s affected? What does it do for those who lose their benefits or get short-term severance? What about those who get no severance at all? How does an employee who is being laid off every two or five years manage to save for their future when their income is consistently being interrupted?

Those lists only go so far, and they do not prevent the next studio closure. We all know there will be another. They are a symptom of an industry that has become too accustomed to the sight of people losing their jobs, and too used to having a reactionary response to the problem than forming a preventative one. I am included this, along with my editorial – the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the developers.

Would a union fix all the problems? Probably not, but there should be one objective for the industry as a whole going forward in 2014: Stop the bleeding.

Join the Discussion

  • Red Foxx

    It’s a highly complicated problem in gaming, but it exists many places as well. One bad idea that gets thrown out can mean another year of development as we’ve seen with things like Bioshock Infinite. That’s another year of paying people and another year of refocusing, another year that a publisher pits you into a corner about your development costs and how much it will take to recoup investments. I don’t think you can truly counter studio closure without trying to solve a problem there is no solution for and that is the human element within these procedures.

    The answer to this problem is one most elusive because the answer to this problem is that we must save creatives from themselves. You can’t do that without restricting options, which is what everyone argues they want less of in this creative sphere. The bleeding only stops if everything makes money, but the efficiency machine says you only make money if you make these products efficiently. Which, with something like gaming is very difficult when the early stages of development would require a pencil thin focus to get a game out in two years. Not even that anymore, now even the most efficient machine of the industry, Call of Duty, is planning to push games out from one studio every three years. It’s an untenable situation to be a middle class developer without a giant publisher attached that makes enough money to fund your ventures that aren’t as huge profit vehicles.

    It is a very difficult concept. because you want games out in good time. You want developers to stay on hand to fix any issues that may crop up after the fact. Folks like the additional story DLC and maps. It’s exceptionally difficult to do all that without a huge profit vehicle. Best way to combat it is an efficient company because the biggest foil for all our creative ventures and just life in general is time. Time is money.