The recent major layoffs at Mythic have caused quite a buzz. Here’s what Mark Jacobs had to say about them:
With respect to customer service, quality assurance and play testing, prior to the launch of WAR, we hired additional people to deal with the rush of demand associated with an MMO launch and to insure the best possible experience for our players. We accomplished that goal and as a result we had the smoothest-ever launch of a major MMO. Since the launch last year, the demand for customer service has gone down as players become more familiar with the game. Obviously, demand for a large QA and play-testing staff also falls after launch. As a result, we saw a staff reduction which is in line with the company-wide initiative. In no way does this conflict with our commitment to customer service. Staffing numbers will always map to consumer needs – it goes up when we launch new products and expand popular ones, and comes back down as players become familiar with the game.
What’s interesting here is that he suggests the layoffs only involved QA and customer service staff, but in fact it appears to have also involved large numbers of designers as well. Does design quality also “map to consumer needs”?
But let’s leave that aside. What he explicitly said here was that he fully intended to fire a lot of people he hired. Those people did not, contrary to popular belief, know that they were going to get laid off after the game shipped. You don’t get high-quality people to QA your game for minimum wage by telling them that they have no future. You let them believe they are “paying their dues” before they can move up the company ladder.
If a company makes a good product, which is profitable, all the stakeholders, that is employees as well as shareholders, somehow get a slice of that profit.
So if a company makes a bad product, which makes a loss, the pain has to be shared as well. You can’t just say “let the shareholders take all the loss”. Not only would that be not very fair, but also it is not a viable path into a better future. Layoffs and restructuring are painful, but they are less painful than the company going belly up.
First, I want to know what company besides SOE gives their employees ANY financial reward for success. EverQuest 1 developers got fat bonuses for a while. They were the exception, not the norm. Nobody else has ever gotten regular bonuses for good work. There’s not even a promise of reward! These employees all know up front that they will get jack squat if they succeed, and they will probably get fired if they fail. And then, here’s the real kicker: they may get fired if they succeed, too, if the company needs to down-size or “meet consumer needs” or shit-can or whatever you want to call it.
But it’s okay, right, because they had to know they were just temps who would lose their jobs, right? I mean, how could they NOT know they were being abused? So of course they deserve the abuse! Nice logic.
I don’t buy the line that all of the hundreds of people who worked on a game that failed are completely innocent and unaware of that failure, and that all the blame is due to high management.
Unaware of the failure? No. Incapable of fixing it? Yes. But Tobold doesn’t believe that. Not deep down. And he’s certainly not alone in that. What Tobold really, really wants to say is that, in the aggregate, barring occasional errors of judgment, employees who get laid off deserve what they get.
But if all of the employees in one of the game companies now firing people would have done their job perfectly, and created the perfect game, perfect game design, no bugs, perfect quality control, perfect customer service, and so on, the layoffs wouldn’t be happening.
An MMO development team is a machine full of cogs. That’s crucial to its success… if every one of those 100 employees had real power over the future of the game, there’d never be any consensus, and hence no game. Most employees have to give up control to a small number of people who lead the development on behalf of everyone. Those leaders are responsible for their underling’s jobs.
Tobold’s examples betray the typical misunderstanding of how the MMO industry works: he doesn’t realize that the industry’s miserable management practices are the root cause of almost all game failings. Tobold mentions how animation problems caused a major fuss in Age of Conan, and he implicates the artists responsible. But actually, the artists should have been following direction from the design team. If the design team failed to give the artists enough direction, that’s management’s fault for not facilitating inter-department communication correctly.
The real kicker in the Age of Conan example is that a proper triage team should have been able to discern the dramatic effect this bug was having and get the engineering team to hack in a temporary fix, rather than waiting for the art team to redo all the affected animations. Again, this was a failure of management. The buck has to stop where the decisions are made. Those people are the ones responsible for the vast majority of the success or failure of the game.
I am the first one to tell people that they need to rise up out of their “cog” positions and try to fix their game before it’s too late. But the reason I need to say that is because it’s hard. It’s not the norm. It’s a firing offense. Remember that at Mythic, people who speak out are fired and publicly humiliated (“burned at the stake”).
Tobold, can you tell me with a straight face that developers who must follow strict orders or be fired are just as responsible as the people who gave the orders? It’s insulting to blame the cogs. (I want the cogs to stand up for themselves even if it means getting fired, but that doesn’t mean they’re not cogs.)
So here’s the bottom line. Tobold may not have the balls to say this outright, but I will. If you get laid off by an MMO company, you completely deserve it. You bought into the broken and unmaintainable development process, you knew full well that you were being taken advantage of and that when you’d done your best work you would be fired. And if you didn’t know that, you deserve to be fired for not doing your homework before you got into the industry.