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The use of AI and layoffs at the annual Game Developers Conference has created a negative atmosphere: 'The overall feeling is unpleasant'.
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The use of AI and layoffs at the annual Game Developers Conference has created a negative atmosphere: ‘The overall feeling is unpleasant’.

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Despite the sunny skies of Spring in San Francisco this week, there was a gloomy atmosphere among the 30,000 attending the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC). Some were dissatisfied with the current state of the video game industry and even arranged a group shouting session in a park.

Maxi Molina, a game developer from Spain, stated that those of us who are employed and able to attend are simply going through the motions and attempting to enjoy ourselves. However, the atmosphere in the industry is currently negative.

According to data from the Game Industry Layoffs project, there was an increase in the number of workers laid off in the gaming industry, with over 10,000 job losses in 2023 compared to 8,500 in 2022. The layoffs have affected companies of all sizes, from small independent game publishers to major players like Epic Games, which let go of 830 employees in September 2023. Other big names such as Microsoft and Sony have also announced significant layoffs of 1,900 and 900 employees respectively. This trend is ongoing, with a significant increase of 2,000 job losses in the gaming industry in February, as reported by the layoff tracker.

Besides the ongoing job terminations, a recent surge in “anti-woke” beliefs, which instigated the Gamergate dispute and aggressive campaign a decade ago, has additionally demoralized those who have strived to promote inclusivity and security in the gaming field.

“It’s a prevalent factor in this field,” stated Molina, who is also employed as a diversity advisor in the gaming industry. “I believe that in the time since Gamergate surfaced, individuals avoided addressing it – however, that does not make it disappear.”

Caryl Shaw, a former producer at Epic Games, and Scott Jon Siegel, the designer of Fortnite Festival, coordinated a group shouting in a nearby park in response to these and other complaints. This occurred during the Game Developers Conference at the Moscone Center.

The organizers of a scream event, joined by numerous game industry members, stated on their event page that the game industry is collapsing and people are avoiding the reality by coming to San Francisco for a week. They suggested taking a moment to stop pretending and openly share the state of being a game developer in 2024.

There is currently a greater need for people to receive support.

Some people who attended GDC felt pressure to enjoy themselves despite the challenging overall environment. But according to Stephenie Hawkins, the event director of GDC, the organizers chose to directly address the issue by focusing this year’s programming on topics of unemployment and layoffs.

Due to changes in the industry and recent layoffs, the speaker believes that support is crucial for people during this time. The main priority for them is to bring individuals together.

GDC offered discounted tickets to unemployed attendees and set up job boards for employers and job seekers. They also hosted speed-networking events and added more lounges and seating areas for people to interact. Additionally, a “travel together” program was implemented to facilitate conversation among attendees who are staying close to each other.

Hawkins, who assumed the role of GDC event director in 2021, stated that the pivotal moment in the gaming industry motivated organizers to incorporate a retrospective focus into this year’s conference. The exhibition area showcased a booth by the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment in Oakland, where guests could experience revamped classic games on older consoles. GDC also hosted several “postmortem” discussions that delved into the history and impact of timeless games such as Karateka (released in 1984) and Chapter 1 of the Elder Scrolls (released in 1994).

She stated that we desired to commemorate and pay tribute to the history of the gaming sector, and contemplate on our journey as we move towards the future.

AI is a significant factor to consider.

The future of the gaming industry, similar to other areas of technology, is heavily focused on the potential effects of artificial intelligence. A recent survey conducted by GDC revealed that 84% of respondents, specifically those involved in the gaming industry, expressed concerns about the ethical implications of utilizing generative AI.

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Attendees at the conference expressed concerns about the popularity of AI-focused panels, as lines formed around the conference center with developers, investors, and other industry professionals eagerly attempting to secure a seat. A panel titled “The AI Revolution,” showcasing speakers from EA Games and Roblox, drew a particularly large crowd. Kyle Gordon, a Sony employee working with PlayStation, shared that he maintains a guarded optimism towards the integration of AI in gaming.

The speaker expressed the significance of AI and the rapidly evolving landscape. They are curious about incorporating this technology into creating cost-effective tools and shortening release timelines.

According to Hawkins, the GDC organizer, findings from the conference revealed that a greater number of independent developers are utilizing AI tools compared to larger studios. This is due, in part, to the benefits of being able to achieve more with limited resources.

AI’s potential to decrease the burden on developers has been a commonly discussed topic in light of the ongoing concern surrounding the culture of “crunch” in the gaming industry. This culture demands workers to work long, arduous hours, often without compensation, in order to meet launch deadlines. Certain individuals believe that AI could streamline the more mundane tasks in development, while others express worries about potential challenges to creative ownership, a concern present in various fields as AI continues to advance.

According to Nico Perony, director of AI research at Unity Games, ensuring the use of clean and licensed data is challenging but necessary. He expressed this during a discussion on AI in gaming, emphasizing the responsibility of game creators to ethically source data, as many artists are concerned about their work being used in generative models.

“We have the ability to safeguard ourselves”

Amidst the threat of layoffs and worries about the impact of AI, leaders in the gaming industry are urging employees to come together and push for stronger safeguards. During a discussion called “The Time is Now: Game Industry Workers are Prepared to Unionize,” proponents noted that the challenging industry climate has created a prime opportunity for hopeful workers to mobilize.

Employees are being let go from their jobs, regardless of the length of time they have been committed to a company and their job performance,” stated Chrissy Fellmeth, a spokesperson for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. “Individuals are concerned about the possibility of losing their means of making a living at any moment. This is precisely why it is imperative to establish unions immediately.”

The push for unionization in the gaming industry is growing, as Microsoft has recently agreed to recognize a union representing 600 Activision QA employees – the largest gaming union in the US so far. In the UK, gaming unions have seen a significant increase in membership due to a rise in layoffs since 2023. According to a GDC industry survey, only 5% of developers surveyed were part of a union, but 57% believe that workers in the industry should be unionized.

“We can unite and defend ourselves against unexpected changes that are made without our consent,” stated Fellmeth. “Why should we live in constant fear of losing our jobs?”

Source: theguardian.com