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Rockstar Vienna closes its doors

This morning, as I came into work, I was greeted by security guards. It turned out Take-Two has closed their Rockstar Vienna office, effective immediately, "due to the challenging environment facing the video game business and our Company during this platform transition".

This is the first time in 15 years that I've been laid off, or have had the place where I work shut down. Before now, I have always seen the writing on the wall in time and have gotten out before anything drastic happened. So this is kind of a new experience for me.

This being Europe, I am not going to be living under a bridge tomorrow, but nevertheless this is a big upheaval. As far as I know, Rockstar Vienna was the biggest game development studio in Germany and Austria, with over a hundred employees.

Many of my coworkers - those with families and houses, those with roots in Vienna, those who invested many years of their lives in this company, those who moved here from abroad - are in difficult positions. There are few game development companies in Vienna. In the last year or so, several have let people go, merged or closed down. One hundred people will not easily find new jobs in the games business here.

For me, it comes as a relief. From January till October of 2004, I was the producer on a project here. In May 2005, I rejoined that project as a level designer. This was supposed to last a few months at most, but the project took longer and longer, and over time, I grew more and more unhappy. I cannot explain why in detail, as I cannot reveal the nature of the project (and I may never be able to), but my responsibility for the work I was doing was reduced bit by bit, until the work became utterly meaningless. Although I barely worked 8 hours a day, and usually less, this drained me both physically and emotionally. (And it also made me very crabby, which can not always have been easy for my poor coworkers.) I don't blame anyone in the studio for this, but I am glad it's over, even if nearly two years of effort was for nothing.

Obviously, I could not have talked about this on this blog, not even if I had left, which I had been seriously considering. So this explains my reduced posting frequency on this blog over the last few months. I guess by now I can say that if I am not posting, I am probably not happy. It is hard to be enthusiastic about your medium and your profession when your work is deeply unsatisfying, and it is hard to talk about what could be done in games if you feel absolutely powerless to implement any idea you have.

About a month ago, Dan Cook of Lost Garden wrote an excellent post on the joys of leaving the games industry. And for the first time in fifteen years I seriously considered it. Not all of the reasons Dan lists applied to my situation. Rockstar Vienna was better run than most game development studios. The first factor that really resonated with me was:

A general lack of exciting projects: The chance of working on a truly meaningful game project that changes the world is slim. I’m an oddball in that I enjoy making games with interesting new game mechanics. Churning out sequels with mildly upgraded graphics does not seem like a worthwhile way to spend my life. This isn’t insurmountable, but it does reduce the number of viable opportunities.

This may seem strange. Rockstar Games! They have the hottest brands in the industry. That was exciting for a while. But I wanted to do things that push the medium, and that was just not happening for me. Ironically so, since Sam Houser really wants to push the medium too, and I respect him for it. Somewhere in between, something got lost.

The second factor was:

Making the world a better place: The applications I build now help people in a very concrete way. I like that warm fuzzy feeling. I was talking to a fellow lapsed game developer who now works in 3d imaging in the medical field. He told me “The work I do now saves people’s lives. You can’t beat that.” There is a moral core that is missing from the game development community that exists in other industries, even in other entertainment sectors. In movies, you can still make documentaries that right past wrongs. In books, you can seek to help and enlighten. In games? I wonder.

This is hopefully a bit more understandable. The Hot Coffee brouhaha, ridiculous as it was in many respects, did nothing to increase the popularity of Rockstar Games both inside and outside of the industry. Whichever way you look at it, game development has become a bit harder for everyone because of that incident.

About a year ago, I was sitting in a taxi with three other people, on our way back from a wedding party. One of them worked for the UN agency that runs the worldwide monitoring network that can detect whether someone is doing underground nuclear tests. One of them was a domestic violence counselor. One of them was a teacher in one of the toughest high schools in New York. And one of them was making violent video games. That was me.

Last Friday, I was at the FMX in Stuttgart. I had the good fortune of sitting next to Dr. Paul Ekman at dinner. I like to think I can make a decent contribution to most discussions, but in this case I was happy to sit there and listen to him talk about psychology and ethics and his conversations with the Dalai Lama. The dinner was sponsored by Nvidia, and at some point their worldwide marketing manager for film came over to say hi. She introduced herself to Dr. Ekman, who asked her who she was. Upon being told, he asked: 'And what does your company do?". This made me laugh. Not at Dr. Ekman, nor at the lady from Nvidia, who took it gracefully. It was a funny reminder that there is more than our tiny little industry.

Will I leave the industry? I don't know. So far, having my place of work shut down has given me energy. It's time to roll up my sleeves and start looking for something new.

If you know someone who could use someone like me, do let me know. I will work almost anywhere, but I can be a bit picky about projects and companies. And if you know someone who is looking for good people in Germany or Austria, let me know too. I know several who are looking for a job.

Update: My blog is read by more people than I suspected :). After writing this, I went to an outside beer garden here in Vienna to have a drink or two with my former coworkers. It turned out people had browsed to my site on their cell phones and had read this entry out loud to the others. I guess my need to blab about stuff as soon as possible was wider known than I thought.

It's also been linked to on Gamasutra and Wikipedia (and no, I didn't put that in myself).

I've also gotten several head-hunting emails.

(If you're reading this and you used to work at Rockstar Vienna: there's a bulletin board for former employees. Contact me if you want to know the URL.)

Update 2: Criminy, this is on Gamespot now too. And for once most of my incoming links are not Google searches on 'WoW nude patch'. Rockstar Games so does not like not having control over outgoing information. Under different circumstances, I'd worry about losing my job.

(To the guy who said the closure was no great loss cause we never made games for Nintendo platforms: I actually thought that was funny.)

Here is some commentary from Leander Schock, another former coworker and a great guy.

Still no official press release (as of 1 AM).

Update 3: I'm moving some info from the comments here, so they don't get lost and because it's hard to see who wrote what (which no-one ever pointed out to me before, grmbl).

A couple of notes: Austrian labor law basically doesn't allow one to put people on the streets right away. We're getting paid for a while yet. From what I've seen and heard, the two founders of the studio are bending over backwards to make this process more humane than is absolutely required. We did receive information on possible jobs in other T2 studios, on recruiters, etc. It's not the most lavish process, but it's something.

I think the way the layoff was handled makes sense, within the context of a typical public company. You want to make the transition quick - it'll be a shock anyway, so why not make it as short as possible? Imagine if you'd known about it for weeks but couldn't have told anyone... terrible. You want to make sure people don't do anything stupid and you want to protect your assets, hence the security guards. It's assuming the worst of people, but at least you're safe.

On a higher level, you want to make sure the company is run efficiently, and you want to be seen running the company efficiently by shareholders. Capitalism at work - T2 opening a studio in Shanghai fits nicely somehow.

Naturally, down in the trenches it feels different, and it would've been nice to work for a company that handles this differently. But very few do.

The only criticism I can make is that this is a very drastic solution - if there was a problem, couldn't this have been foreseen earlier, and dealt with differently?

The closure has been officially confirmed now by Take 2. And that's all true from where I'm sitting.

Thanks for all the kind messages. I never imagined this blog post would hit pretty much every major gaming news site, as well as several Austrian mainstream news sites.