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The Bittersweet Feeling Of Seeing Your Game Revealed After Getting Laid Off

"Seeing the trailer go up and the title get announced made me feel empty inside"

Going into this year’s Summer Game Fest, the vibes were rancid. Over 10,000 game developers have been laid off since the start of 2024, more than in all of 2023. How, with such a dark cloud hanging over the industry, do you strike up the band and roll out the annual hype parade? Geoff Keighley did it with a smile – or at least an unnerving rictus grin. Laid-off game developers watching along at home had a much harder time, especially as their own work appeared on screen.

Nearly half the companies involved with Keighley’s flagship show this year suffered layoffs of some kind, while adjacent showcases like Microsoft’s were haunted by the specter of historically brutal cuts. Even surprises – like a tease of Destiny 2’s future following its exceedingly well-received The Final Shape expansion – were colored by this unfortunate trend. Developers who worked on many of the projects shown were forced to confront uncomfortable, bittersweet emotions as their work was celebrated by fans and companies alike.

"I want to celebrate my friends and their efforts going live, but [that’s] also coupled with the knowledge of the pain they went through to get stuff out the door being understaffed," Uriah Belletto, an ex-dungeon/raids test lead at Bungie who was laid off earlier this year, told Aftermath. "It's like a bad breakup, and my friends are hanging with my ex. I can't really engage without hurt." 

It's like a bad breakup, and my friends are hanging with my ex. I can't really engage without hurt.

A former artist at Blizzard, who was granted anonymity over concerns that speaking out could jeopardize future job prospects, found themselves battling a slightly different set of mixed emotions: On one hand, they’re proud of the work they did on Diablo IV, a gruesome trailer for which wound up being one of the standout moments of Microsoft’s showcase. On the other hand, those feelings will always be tinged with anger toward the company.

“I’m still really connected to the project, and I feel like some of my best work is in the expansion, but there’s some kind of bitterness there that’s associated with the layoffs and the callous way Microsoft went about them,” the artist told Aftermath. “They came in promising to bring back the old Blizzard and enable teams to do great things, but then one morning I woke up to a group meeting with HR and a slow, cascading shut down of all my accounts and access. Diablo still means a lot to me, and the people who work on it are some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met, but now it’s associated with a feeling of loss, and seeing the celebrations around it – and other games, for that matter – just makes me feel tired instead of excited.” 

Microsoft

Shayna Moon, an engine producer on the newly-announced Gears of War: E-Day before she was laid off in 2023, came away from the game’s Microsoft showcase debut feeling similarly. 

“Seeing the trailer go up and the title get announced made me feel empty inside,” Moon told Aftermath. “It was a reminder that after I got laid off my team kept going without me. I am genuinely happy for the coworkers I was close with while I was there. But I'm still extremely angry about what Microsoft has done these last two years. My layoff in January 2023 was sandwiched between Microsoft executives having a private concert from Sting and then them shelling out $69 billion for the Activision merger.”

Nicholas Kole, an artist who spent the past three years working on an unannounced project at Phoenix Labs, arguably ended up in the worst of all worlds. His game was set to debut right after Summer Game Fest. Then, just a few weeks beforehand, Phoenix Labs canceled the game and laid off his whole team.

“It's been a very painful and confusing month for myself and my former colleagues,” Kole told Aftermath. “There is some comfort in knowing we're not alone, but it's hard to hold both realities in check: that what is a personal creative tragedy is also, at the same time, just a small part of a much larger industry statistic. ... In a year with so much to mourn across the industry, I truly treasure the rare opportunities to celebrate someone's win and I know that, with better luck, that could one day be my team and I tweeting excitedly about our hard-won debut. I won't lie: It is still hard to muster the desire to watch the shows live.”

Developers who’ve been laid off recently have also found themselves facing larger questions: How do you bounce back from getting to work on your dream project, only to be rejected before it even crosses the finish line? Some have taken to creating necessary emotional space between themselves and their art; in an industry that’s proven exceedingly fickle, the alternative is too painful.

“Regarding my work, yeah, I have had to put distance between myself and it,” said Moon, who explained that her priorities have shifted from pouring as much of herself as possible into projects to ensuring that teams aren’t neglecting their own needs the way she used to. “I have just as much passion, but at work that passion goes into making sure the team I support is as well-taken care of as possible. I still want to make a great game, but my piece of that is making sure people – including me – don't burn out.”

A developer who was recently laid off from Deck Nine, which debuted Life Is Strange: Double Exposure during Xbox's Summer Game Fest-adjacent showcase, considers themselves fortunate in a sort of perverse sense. They followed the video game industry before they started working in it. They knew what they were getting into and, as a result, carved out some of that distance for themselves before they were forced to learn lessons the hard way.

"I was in a unique and relatively good position of going in with both eyes open,” they told Aftermath. “I feel like a lot of people come into the industry like 'I have always wanted to make games. I grew up playing games, and I have a specific studio in mind.' That wasn't the way that it was for me. ... I was told by teachers and just looking in on the industry, I saw how volatile it was. I saw that there were a bunch of layoffs happening. It's kind of been a staple. That's just the games industry. But what's wild about this current situation is, I was already going into it knowing, and it has never, as far as I can tell, been this bad."

I always wind up in love with the project, and I always wind up heartbroken and angry when something vast and money-hungry kicks over my sand castle.

But not everybody can turn off – or even tamp down – the part of themselves that gets lost in things they’re passionate about. Kole has experienced the heartbreak that comes with closures and cancellations on an alarming number of occasions, beginning his career at Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios, of all places. Now he’s up to five closures and cancellations in 15 years. Despite that, he can’t help but leave a piece of himself with every project he works on.

"I can never fault anyone who goes through this industry with an increasingly cynical, detached relationship to their work,” Kole said. “It's simple self preservation. I just don't know how to make that work for myself. I always wind up in love with the project, and I always wind up heartbroken and angry when something vast and money-hungry kicks over my sand castle. I don't know how else to keep doing this, except to just brace for the pain and keep trying to love it anyways. Everything I've loved and was influenced by was a miracle that somehow made it out to audiences with some of the love intact. And personally, I don't think I can make things players will love if I don't love it first and hardest."

For many developers, the heartbreak goes further than separation from any single project. They mourn what could have been.

"I was watching the trailer, and I was like 'For a good second, we really had something,'” said the former Deck Nine developer. “Best team I've ever been on. I think the project is fantastic because of us. I'm really proud of it. The fact that [the team] couldn't survive for even a full project [is a shame]. People are here for decades. You'll have the same core people, like the team that brought you Dragon Age or whatever. We could've had something like that. For a second, it was there. I would love to have that again, but it feels so rare." 

Laid-off developers are trying to find silver linings, lessons they can carry forward into future jobs and their lives beyond their careers. Despite everything, they haven’t given up hope for a brighter tomorrow. But for many, at this particular moment, the outlook is exceedingly grim. To wit, mere days after revealing a slew of new games at SGF-related events, Sumo Group announced that it will be axing 15 percent of its staff. Nobody is safe, even during times of celebration.

"It has definitely burned me out quite a bit," said the artist who worked on Diablo IV. "I thought I was prepared for this since I went in knowing how volatile games are, but it really is different when you’re let go into such a bleak future for the industry. The slow, industry-wide movement towards AA and indie is great and all, but there’s not enough room for everyone, and the thought of how much talent and passion will be pushed out of the industry entirely because of the decisions of these giant companies is uniquely devastating."

Deck Nine

Belletto is considering leaving the video game industry altogether.

“I'm trying to find the will to continue in games, but it's beyond brutal trying to get a job,” he said. “I've been unemployed for six months, and I don't know what else to do with myself. I love games, I love making games. I love what they can do for people. I just don't love what they've done to me and the people I care about.”

On the upside, while the industry has not had developers’ backs, other developers have. So have fans of the games in question, whose support has in some cases transcended merely getting excited about a trailer.

“There are definitely a fair share of clout chasers and LinkedIn influencers looking to profit off of this, but they’re easy to ignore in favor of people who genuinely want to help,” said the former Diablo artist. “Some of my greatest friends are from my team, and we’ve only grown closer after everything happened. When I posted my ‘Hey, please hire me’ post on Twitter, I was shocked at the response from people I didn’t even know. There were fans of the franchise commenting on my work saying how much they loved the stuff that I worked on and that the art was the best part of the game for them. It was really touching! Unfortunately, very little of that led to job leads or conversations with studios, but the sentiment still sticks with me.” 

There were fans of the franchise commenting on my work saying how much they loved the stuff that I worked on and that the art was the best part of the game for them. It was really touching.

More than anything else, Kole believes that this spirit of camaraderie and solidarity between artists is worth preserving.

"The two first weekends after the [cancellation] news hit, I had previously planned to support my wife at her booth at the local comic arts festival and to speak at the Playgrounds art festival in Berlin,” he said. “I was worried about showing up depressed and drained to both events, but instead I was reminded of why I fell in love with this work and surrounded by the best people in the world. Artists who love what they do, are trying hard to push themselves every day, are excited to meet each other and cheer for every comic, sticker, and sketch. Surrounded by people I really think of as 'my people,' I felt miles away from the venture capitalists who see our labor as expendable and our lives' work as a horse to bet on. I think that's a community and an ethos worth fighting for." 

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