People in the games industry are still reeling from one of the worst years in its history. But between impacts on hiring and production, gamers could start to see their favorite games and the teams behind them become unrecognizable.
If there is one way to sum up the state of the video game industry in 2023, it’s this: It was a great year for games but a terrible one for the people who make them.
In a year with “The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom” and “Baldur’s Gate 3,” the fantasy roleplaying game based on Dungeons & Dragons that became an unexpected breakaway success, there was no shortage of incredible games pushing the medium forward. At the same time, there was an immense human cost behind the scenes: an estimated 9,000 game developers were laid off from companies throughout the industry.
Fox Zarow, a game designer and assistant teaching professor of game design at Northeastern University, says 2023 was a “devastating” year for the gaming industry. Between the seismic impact left by these layoffs and the increased presence of generative AI in the industry, Zarow says 2024 will be a year of reckoning for the industry.
“It feels, especially this year with economic conditions being what they are, just a cruelty to this industry and the people in it that is difficult to sit with,” Zarow says. “This year having so many studios that lost or got rid of people, I really think we’ll see those effects cascade in the next year or years.”
The most immediate impact on the industry will be in hiring, Zarow says. Thousands of developers are now searching for jobs alongside industry newcomers, making “the competition in an already highly competitive industry even tighter.”
It isn’t just junior level developers with a few years of experience who were hit by layoffs in 2023. Seemingly no one was safe.
Microsoft laid off 10,000 employees, including those working at Bethesda, the company behind “Starfield,” and the team at Halo developer 343 Studios. “Fortnite” maker Epic Games laid off 870 people. For “Destiny” studio Bungie and even the team at Zarow’s favorite studio, Bioware — creators of the “Mass Effect” and “Dragon Age” games — developers who had been there since the very beginning suddenly found themselves without jobs.
The loss of veteran talent leaves a massive hole at the center of not just individual studios but the industry.
“When you lose senior staff, then you have to take on folks who need to be trained up,” Zarow says. “And if there is not an attitude that’s invested in training up juniors, you get people who burn out really quickly, and then there’s this vicious cycle.”
Zarow is concerned about the uncertain future so many talented developers in the industry face and the impact this “vicious cycle” could have on the teams that are left to produce games.
“I’m worried ‘Dragon Age 4’ will be unrecognizable as a Bioware game and then spell the end of that studio,” Zarow says. “To feel like we’re losing these studios and these people who really created the games industry as we know it, it’s really tough.”
Could there be a silver lining amid all the disaster? Zarow says there has been some chatter in the industry about the potential for the rise of new independent studios forming out of “super teams” made up of experienced developers who were laid off. Although it could result in opportunities for more experienced developers, Zarow is doubtful those “prestige indie projects” will benefit the large pool of junior developers now looking for jobs.
At a time when so many developers are already out of work, Zarow also has concerns about how generative AI could cannibalize the work being done by developers who still have jobs. Some studios, like Ubisoft, are already embracing generative AI as a way to automate the early stages of writing dialogue for non-player characters and even concept art creation.
“That concerns me a lot as someone who cares about the dignity of labor and also someone from an arts background,” Zarow says. “I’m really waiting for the day when we galvanize around not letting this happen and protecting our creatives, so I’m hopeful we’ll see that. Although, I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets worse before it gets better.”
It’s hard to say for sure whether generative AI will take over the industry since studios are just starting to experiment with it. But Zarow says there is one sign that game design with an emphasis on the human touch isn’t going anywhere: the success of “Baldur’s Gate 3.”
With 400 developers bringing the fantasy roleplaying game to life through countless art assets, 200,000 lines of dialogue and hundreds of voice actors, the surprise hit of 2023 was a game with no shortage of human touches. Could that be what inspires the next few years of the gaming industry, in spite of a push toward generative AI?
“With the success of ‘Baldur’s Gate 3,’ the human impact is so tangibly felt that I’m hopeful we can see a prioritization of the human impact,” Zarow says. “I hope that we can see an emphasis and a focus away from that and into games that have this intrinsic human-to-human connection. That’s my favorite part of the industry and why I do what I do.”