Lay Off Post-Mortem

This is the story of my first lay off, what I learned from it, and how I recovered. I recently received a job offer; this story now has an ending, so the time has come to tell it!

Exeunt Max

In the summer of 2014 we were deeply entrenched in a new F2P service game that had gone into open beta a few months prior. The game was in a precarious position, a topic that our project leadership was very open with us about. We resolved to turn it around that summer, and set some very ambitious goals. And we succeeded! We built an excellent game: tightly balanced, responsive, polished, and great looking.

In the middle of this process, we learned that there were going to be some publisher-wide layoffs hitting our parent company and its devs at about the same time we were wrapping up this summer push. We knew layoffs were coming, and we knew that our project was at risk. We even knew the date that they were going to happen. The team handled it well, and we still built a great game: we were proud of it and wanted it to succeed, with or without us. But the weeks leading up to the layoffs were still tense with worry: we didn’t know who or how many were on the chopping block.

I was convinced that I was safe: I was an associate who should have been a rank higher, so I was underpaid for the work I did. I had a couple less experienced designers that were in more danger than I was. Thinking about your friends and colleagues as a layoff buffer is a bit mercenary, not something I was proud of, but I can’t deny that the thought crossed my mind. But the day before the layoffs I backed up all my personal files, just in case!

Of course, when the day came, I was informed that I was hit. That wasn’t a good morning: tears were shed, goodbyes were said. I had been very happy there, and learned a lot. I had intended to leave soon anyways, but I wanted to do it on my own terms. A huge group of us flooded a nearby Mexican restaurant for a cathartic farewell lunch where passion-fueled speeches about starting indie companies filled the air. (One of those speeches turned into a successful kickstarter!).

Four years before my first layoff was a pretty good run, well above average. I do not begrudge anyone for what happened. I understand the pressures that caused this, and my employer treated me very well: I was technically employed and paid my normal paycheck for a few weeks after I stopped working, I had months of severance pay, and I still received a portion of my bonus the next year.

Enter Unemployment

One of the first things I did was learn the Massachusetts unemployment system. It was pretty easy: fill out a few forms, mail some proof, and bam, you’re in the system. There was a bit of a learning curve, but nothing dire. As long as you fulfill the requirements and submit your info every week, you get a direct deposit check based on how much you were paid before being laid off. It can even stack with severance pay if conditions are right, so for several months I was on both. Occasionally I had to attend mandatory workshops to qualify, but it was a small price to pay.

The most important thing was that to qualify for unemployment, you must be actively seeking out a job, you must be documenting your activities, and these activities must occur on at least 3 days each week. The definition of a valid activity is pretty broad: applying to jobs, attending networking events, reaching out to colleagues at companies to ask about jobs, browsing job listings on company websites, doing design tests, etc. At first I was hesitant to track certain activities, like studying the games of a company I was applying to, but a specialist at a career center convinced me that that counted.

As long as I was actively seeking out employment, I easily qualified. I spent six months on unemployment. I never had financial problems, or felt pressure to take a minimum wage job. Part of that is because my wife was working at a decent job. I was lucky to have her, and lucky to be in a state with a decent unemployment system. It allowed me to focus on my job hunt with minimal disruption to my life.

Job Hunt

When I was first laid off, I wanted to stay in the Boston area to accommodate my wife’s job. She had recently gotten her foot in the door in a competitive industry, and couldn’t afford to move yet. So I scoured the local area for work. There were very few design jobs out there. With the collapse of Irrational, 38 Studios, and Seven45, and big layoffs at Turbine and Harmonix, there were many devs to compete with.

I applied to a few small mobile companies, played some of their games, and waited.

Eventually, my wife and I decided that it would be acceptable – though hard – to apply to west coast jobs and spend a year apart, so I turned my gaze to California and Washington. I was very selective, applying only to my top-choice companies: Bungie because I had MMO experience and lots of friends there, Blizzard because I had MOBA champion design experience and they were hiring designers for Heroes of the Storm.

Anyways, to make a long story short, I applied at a ton of game companies, and interviewed at a few. Here are some of the things I learned:

Your Network is Everything

My network of friends and colleagues around the game industry was invaluable. Between my old classmates, various ex-coworkers, and people I worked with as a GDC volunteer, I had contacts at most of the large west coast game companies, and all of the local ones. This was the moment that my years of networking was for!

I had friends informing me about jobs pretty frequently. When I applied or thought about applying to a company, I went through my linkedin contacts and asked for insider info about company culture, work/life balance, morale, etc. I lost track of the number of friends who helped me out during these six months.

Last but not least, every single interview I did was at a company where a friend worked, or where a friend recommended me to company leadership. And whenever these interviews happened, I was able to ask these friends for an inside scoop on the personalities and history of the interviewers.

Experience Loses Value Across Genre Lines

For years I had this romantic notion that game design experience would open doors throughout the industry, across genres and markets. I always thought that my years of experience working on PC MMOs and MOBAs would easily be applicable to jobs in the mobile space or in single player console games.

This is not the case.

Competition is high, and many lessons in game design are genre or market-specific. Crossing from one genre or market to another is tough. You’re competing with people that have experience in that genre, and that experience really does go a long way. The industry at large is not a friendly place for design generalists. This was a hard lesson for me to learn, because I want to be a generalist designer who can do great work in any genre or specialization you put in front of me, and I didn’t really want to work in a traditional MMO or MOBA again.

You Still Have to Fight Tooth and Nail for Design Jobs

Similar to the above lesson: just because you have “made it” and have a few years of design experience under your belt, doesn’t mean that future employment is going to be easy. I grew a little bit complacent and overconfident at my previous job, and that bit me in the ass. I needed to scramble to rebuild a new portfolio site, learn the intricacies of new genres, learn some new tools, and learn some humbling lessons about how competitive I really was. It is also relevant to me being laid off in the first place: there are things I could and should have done to make myself more valuable and less vulnerable in my job. There were valid reasons to lay me off, instead of someone else.

Be Up Front About Your Weaknesses

This one is simple: I went into every interview knowing what my weaknesses were, and knowing why they might choose to not hire me. When I tried to hide or cover those weaknesses they always found out, because you can’t fake knowledge or experience that you don’t have. When I readily admitted them, I got good responses – or saved my time and the interviewer’s time. This flies in the face of a lot of interview advice I’ve read or gotten over the years, which is all about presenting an immaculately constructed persona and hiding flaws in your candidacy. Screw that, I’m going to present myself as I am, because I know that what I am is valuable, and acknowledging flaws demonstrates self-awareness and an intent to improve. And interviewers know it.

Conclusions

I was super grateful for my years at my last company, I have a huge support network, I regret nothing, and I learned a lot from this process. If I am ever laid off again, I will be much better prepared for it!

Comments:

  1. When it comes to hiring anyone below senior level as a designer I believe most interviewers want to find a candidate who seems like they can learn. Seeing candidates that present themselves as being fully polished and knowing everything is counter to that.
    Personally I think design interviews work best as an open conversation. Both the interviewer and interviewee should be in situations where they don’t have the answers but want to work to figure out what they might be.

  2. I agree with this. For anything short of lead- I want passion and learning potential above all. No ego’s and good team players.

    Yes I can figure out all of this in a 5 minute conversation.

    Max I’m so proud of you. You will shine brightly at your next gig. I honestly have a tear in my eye that so many of you ended up at such an awesome company. -C

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