May 242014
 

Why I’m writing this

Catching up with an old friend recently, he suggested I write a post about losing my job a few years ago. I’m not somebody who enjoys speaking about themselves, however, I was very close to “giving” up and leaving the industry a few years ago after an unfortunate series of events. With all the recent industry layoffs and the upheaval caused by various studio closures, I suppose this is as good a time as any to share my experiences in the hope that someone out there who can relate will not give up.

 

My Background

Like many who work in games, I got into the industry by accident. A struggling musician in the middle of my music degree, I needed to make extra money and an opportunity arose to make some “easy cash” doing “a dream job”… Yep, I became a QA tester.

Of course, as everyone in the industry knows being a QA tester is not a “dream job”. It was pretty shit. We worked 16+ hour working days for low pay, testing N-Gage games on zero-hour contracts (we didn’t know if we had paid work from one day to the next and sometimes we didn’t get paid for weeks at a time) But, I relished working in the industry, worked hard and soon enough I was a QA Lead/Coordinator.

After finishing my degree I briefly continued with music, but my graduation coincided with the rise of file sharing and the years during which from a business perspective the music industry tried to pretend the Internet didn’t exist, whilst trying to sue their customers. Within a year of my graduation, all of the major labels in London either closed their doors, moved into much smaller offices with fewer staff, or merged (which as anyone who’s been part of a merger will tell you, is much the same as firing people and moving the survivors into a smaller space). The situation for smaller labels was even bleaker back then (though things have turned around since). I realised that the only way I could make a decent living as a musician lay in teaching. Unfortunately, I hated teaching almost as much as I hated being broke.

I was lucky enough to have a “Plan B”. I decided to use (or some might say “spin”) my 3+ years lead QA experience to land a Producer role. Fast forward a couple of years: I was 25, working as a Producer for an established Publisher/Developer, having a riot in London and my personal life was going great.

Gradually things began to unravel. First, the girl I had decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life with decided she didn’t want to spend any more of hers with me. After which I began drinking heavily and losing it in private, though I was keeping it together at work.

Round this time, the global financial crisis began to hit various different businesses. Murmurings began at work about cash flow problems. Things became more acute following the collapse of distributor which was holding almost all of our physical stock. Then we started receiving pay early (it later came to light they were paying us as soon as cash was paid in to the account, before it could be debited to pay other companies they owed money to). Then one pay day we weren’t paid. The MD didn’t show his face for a few days and then surfaced. His line was that the difficulties were temporary and no-one need worry, we would be paid.

Over the coming days people became more and more agitated. At this point, the MD announced the company was looking for a buyer and there were a few interested parties. However, we needed to keep coming into work to keep things going! Plus, if we were to quit we wouldn’t be entitled to benefits as we had voluntarily left our jobs (despite the fact we weren’t being paid).

To this day I still consider him to be a total scum bag. He basically hung the sword of Damocles over 60 people’s heads by ensuring they wouldn’t be eligible for benefits if they quit voluntarily, whilst not paying them whilst they remained.

This went on for about 3 months. In the final cruel act, some execs came by to appraise the studio and bought pizza and champagne for everyone to celebrate our imminent purchase and the saving of everyone’s jobs… only for the publisher to finally close its doors a week later.

We were all out of work with 3 months of unpaid salary and financial obligations to meet. Not a penny in compensation was ever received by any of us as the sale of the company’s assets would later fail to cover its debts.*

*The MD’s new company would go on to acquire many of our IP and assets, with many of the same individuals who were involved in the closing and administration of the previous company later appearing at the new, much smaller publisher which coincidentally happened to purchase our assets and IP. Not that I would imply that anything untoward took place, but it must have been terribly, terribly difficult to maintain the discipline required to ensure they were getting the best deal possible for publisher and the staff who had lost their jobs, when the new buyer they were facilitating was in effect, themselves.

London is an expensive city and as a young Producer I wasn’t earning huge sums of money. Like most 25 year-olds I was living month-to-month and by the time the three months of unpaid salary were up, I was pretty much at my credit limit and overdraft limit and had to go cap in hand to my father just have enough money to eat and pay the rent. It was not the proudest moment of my adult life.

The only bright spot in this whole period was when a UK games industry hero (a very well-known figure who shall remain nameless to avoid embarrassing him) took it upon himself to organise a “wake” for the staff of the newly defunct company. Out his own pocket he paid for us to all meet up in the pub, reminisce, laugh and drown our sorrows. He never let one of us pay a single drink all afternoon. He didn’t really know any of us, but he heard about what had happened and took it upon himself to make this kind gesture. I still feel touched when I think about it.

 

Go away, we're closed.

Go away, we’re closed.

Life on the Dole

In 2009, the UK games industry was fucked. Large devs were following the tax breaks and relocating to Canada and smaller devs weren’t quite stepping up to F2P, iOS and digital yet. Basically they were all dying out. Worse still, retail was just as fucked (I’ll explain why this was a problem in a second).

The next 7 months were without doubt the most difficult I’ve faced. Throughout this period I spent 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, alone in my room applying for jobs. Throughout this period I must have applied for hundreds of jobs. At first, I started with similar jobs to my previous one in my local area. I got a few expressions of interest and interviews initially, but then the trail would go cold as studios realised they weren’t in a position to hire. In a couple of instances the studios even closed during the interview process! After three or four weeks I was getting desperate, so I widened the net to companies outside of London. It was the same story, no hiring capacity or a change of heart about being able to hire. During these 7 months I verbally accepted three different job offers only to have them all cancelled at the last minute. The worst instance being a company which paid to fly me all the way to China, agreed a deal with me (including salary and pension contribution) and told me to come in to sign the contract next day. When I came in the next day, they had decided they not to fill the role. I spent a very drunk and angry night in Shanghai before catching a flight home.

I was so desperate to be back in work that I was also looking for anything just to keep things going financially in the short-term. As retail chains were imploding left and right in the UK during this time, I wasn’t even being considered for minimum wage retail roles, as they had dozens of newly redundant candidates with relevant experience. I was also turned down for cleaning jobs (“no relevant experience”, really that was the reason given…) and a job in a local cinema (over qualified). I was so poor I couldn’t afford to ride the bus, so once or twice a week I would head to the library to use their free printer and then walk literally dozens of miles across London giving my CV to shops and restaurants, and trying to hand it in person at game development studios.

Most recruiters weren’t much help. Pre-2009 the job market was good and I couldn’t keep them off. Then when I lost my job and was struggling to find new work, I really discovered which of them were actually decent people. One guy who had been all “pally” (and had helped place me in the company which went bust) started refusing to take my calls about 4 weeks after I lost my job, I found out that another falsified interview feedback, but the absolute worst was a recruiter who told me that I probably would never find another job in games as I had my previous employer on my CV. In hindsight, I can’t believe someone would say that to someone who’s out of work and struggling to find a new job. Needless to say he’s no longer a recruiter.*

*There are a handful of really decent people out there though who put up with my calls and tried to help (if you want names of good recruiters then drop me a PM on Twitter @bearvsgames)

When I was unemployed, job seekers allowance and housing benefit combined for a single young person just about covered the rent for a room in a shared apartment in London. This didn’t go as far as covering costs like electricity, food, heating, let alone anything like a phone or Internet (I understand the situation is even worse today). Basically, benefits allowed me to pay my rent, but not feed myself or pay my bills. Moving back in with my family was not an option either due to unfortunate circumstances.

So, the only options I had during this period to cover the shortfall were maxing out two credit cards and two overdrafts and doing what I could to get by. I was also aided by the goodwill of my wonderful friends (who bought me drinks in the pub, took me to Nando’s once in a while, and in one case bought me to tears by showing up at my doorstep with shopping bags full of wonderful food when all I had in the cupboard for the rest of the week was a bag of brown rice and some curry paste). My grandmother would help out with a bit of money here and there when it was possible, and on a handful of occasions I took on some slightly dubious “cash in hand” work. I’m not proud of it, but when you have to choose between not starving or not paying the electricity bill, your morals become a bit more “wobbly”.

When you spend day after day, month after month apply for hundreds of jobs and no-one wants you, not even for the most menial job, it is an utterly soul destroying experience. This coupled with the stress, anger and upheaval of the collapse of my previous employer and relationship, left me in a very bad way. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and I was drinking every day.

One of my best friends wasn’t very well either and I was his accomplice. He would buy my drinks, we’d be out getting drunk and angry almost every night of the week. After a while I began to think that I’d never find my way back into work and that my best days were already behind me at 26. It was illogical, but when everything seems hopeless you start to lose hope. I even began to question what the point of carrying on was. Life appeared to be a fruitless struggle with no reward. Thankfully, it was the beginning of the end of that period.

 

Back In Action

During this period I’d frequently go for long walks to clear my head and because there was little else I could afford to do. One day I walked past a series of interesting looking buildings in London’s financial district with cool-looking people stood in the doorways taking their cigarette breaks. I remember feeling a pang envy at the fact that when they stepped back inside they’d be back at work. When I got home I started looking up all the digital agencies in the area and identifying those which were connected to the games industry, so that I could try and use my industry experience and knowledge to land a role. My plan worked. Within 3 weeks I was back in work and in Christmas 2009 I received the best present I could have ever hoped for, my first pay cheque in almost a year.

Life was getting good again, and things became much more stable and settled. Sure, working at an agency wasn’t necessarily what I’d always had in mind, but I made friends there and the pay was enough for me to start getting my life back in order again.

After 9 months, I was headhunted off the back of the some of the projects the agency had been shipping and was flown out to Germany to eventually head up one of the most profitable browser games in history. Since then, things have gone from strength to strength. I have lectured at GDC, featured in Develop Magazine’s annual “30-under-30” list (though sadly I am no longer eligible!) and established myself in a senior position on a leading online title at a major international publisher. Not bad for someone who was told to give up by a recruiter…

Nowadays when I receive CVs from people who have recently been made redundant, I put them straight at the top of the pile for consideration. My own experiences completely changed my outlook on life and work. When you’re young and things are really working out, you naturally assume that it’s always going to be that way. I even allowed myself to believe that I “deserved” what I had achieved through my own hard work. Of course, I was wrong. You don’t “deserve” anything, to think as much is a form of entitlement. Everything you do “earn” is as much an accident of birth, and luck, as it is “hard work”.  I learnt through my own experiences that this line of thinking is little more than bullshit which politicians espouse as a means to ostracise the needy and not address social ills.

Life (like the labour market), is cyclical. Some cycles are shorter some are longer, some are good and some are bad, but eventually all things must pass. So even if you’re at rock bottom, don’t lose hope because ultimately “this too will pass”.