The Electronic Entertainment Expo – better known as E3 – gets underway Tuesday at the Los Angeles Convention Center. This year’s video game industry trade show happens as video game sales continue to climb, but employment in the industry appears volatile.
The Entertainment Software Association, which puts on E3, says consumers spent $21.5 billion on video games, hardware and accessories in 2013, up from $20.77 billion the year before. Meanwhile, GameJobWatch.com reports at least 3400 employees with video game makers lost their jobs last year.
The contrast in the numbers may come from the cyclical nature of work in the video game industry, according to Mike Zyda, director of the GamePipe Laboratory at USC's Vitterbi School of Engineering. When a company is developing a new game, it hires engineers, artists, designers, support and marketing staff, but Zyda says it’s common for a company to make cuts once a game gets established in the marketplace. Nonetheless, Zyda says, there is a large and constant need for programmers in the video game industry.
"The game industry is dying for programmers," Zyda says. "If you're a good programmer, you've got a job."
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When an engineer graduate from his program gets laid off, they’re not idle for long, Zyda adds. They immediately post the news on their social media networks, and the next opportunity usually comes looking for them.
"Often one of their friends who built a game with them in a class will say, ‘Hey, that was a good guy. I’m gonna go talk to him and hire him for my company.' Next thing you know they’re somewhere else. Happens pretty quick," Zyda says.
He says almost every engineer in USC master’s program in video games has already lined up a job before graduation.
Still, layoffs are routine in the video gaming industry, as Jason Schreier reports at Kotaku.com. He checked in with 50 people who worked in various parts of game development and many of them had stories like this one:
Say you work for a video game studio. You and your team have just released a new game, and you’re damned proud of what you’ve just put out. It’s not perfect, but you did the best you could do with the budget and time constraints you had, and now you’re excited to take a nice long vacation...One day, you get called into a meeting. The company has to cut costs and will be “reducing headcount.” You — along with 20 other people — are no longer employed.
Celia Pearce, co-founder and chairwoman of Indiecade, a festival for independent video games, says she's seen a shift in the kind of jobs students of video game programs are looking for.
"Historically, a video game student is typically going to want to go to a place like Electronic Arts or Zynga," says Pearce, who is between teaching positions at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Northeastern University. "But increasingly, I'm finding my students either want to work for themselves and start their own studios or work as consultants and do games on their own."
Pearce compares the video game industry in recent years to the film industry in the 1930s: a corporate structure where studios own artists and employees.
"It's become increasingly expensive to create games under that model, which is one reason why publishers are starting to look to independent developers for innovation," Pearce says.