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New survey shows game developers are very worried about layoffs and AI

New survey shows game developers are very worried about layoffs and AI

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GDC has released its annual State of the Game Industry survey. Among the results, the developers surveyed are also concerned about mandatory return-to-office policies and game engine choice.

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Inside The Game Developers Conference

Game developers are overwhelmingly concerned about the ethics of using AI. The organizers of the Game Developers Conference (GDC) have released their annual State of the Game Industry survey, in which 84 percent of the 3,000-plus respondents said they were somewhat or very concerned about the ethics of using generative AI.

The survey’s results elaborated on why developers are concerned, citing reasons that include the potential for AI to replace workers and exacerbate layoffs or expose developers to possible copyright infringement complaints. Developers are also worried that AI programs could scrape data from their own games without their consent.

GDC’s survey also broke down developer sentiment regarding AI according to job type. Respondents in more technical fields like marketing, programming, and business generally thought AI would have a positive impact on their jobs, while those with creative job types like art, narrative, and quality assurance felt AI would negatively impact their jobs.

“[AI] should be used to enhance capabilities, not reduce the workforce.”

“I think completely replacing someone’s job is a genuine concern,” read an anonymous response. “It should be used to enhance capabilities, not reduce the workforce.”

In addition to AI, developers also had strong feelings regarding the industry’s layoff crisis, how return-to-work mandates affect morale, and how Unity’s recent runtime debacle is impacting developers’ game engine choice.

Choice of video game engine software was one of the major topics covered by the survey. Thirty-three percent of those surveyed use either Unity or Unreal Engine in development. Around the same time the survey was being conducted, Unity announced its disastrous runtime fee policy, angering a host of indie developers, before walking parts of it back. In light of these events, one-third of surveyed developers said they either have considered switching or have already switched game engine software, with Unity’s pricing model news as one of the primary motivating reasons.

“We’ve thought about switching to Godot — or making our own [game engine] — to not have to worry about shady business practices or the whims of shareholders,” read one anonymous response quoted in the survey.

With employer concerns about the pandemic easing, companies are instituting return-to-office (RTO) mandates, which some developers believe are having a negative impact on morale and the industry at large.

Over one-fourth of developers have some kind of mandatory return-to-office policy. Of that quarter, 40 percent reported working at a AAA studio versus 16 percent at indie studios. While the return-to-office policies range from a full five-day work week to a hybrid schedule, the survey found that having any kind of mandatory RTO resulted in developer dissatisfaction.

“The vast majority were opposed to a mandated RTO for 3 days per week, but the company’s leadership felt it knew best,” read an anonymous response. “Waves upon waves of resignations, loss of morale. This is because we had proven we’re able to make a game from scratch, while working from home during the pandemic, and people don’t understand why the proof isn’t enough.”

In May of last year, Activision Blizzard mandated a return-to-office policy that caused a similar exodus of talent.

Over one-third of respondents reported that they were impacted by layoffs either personally or at their company. However, this survey was conducted in September 2023 — right around the time Epic Games announced it was laying off over 800 employees and before layoffs at Unity, Embracer Group studios, and Bungie. Fifty-six percent of respondents feel that layoffs are coming to their own studios and, according to those surveyed, the preponderance of layoffs is the result of “post-pandemic course correction.”

“Studios grew too quickly during the pandemic and people are spending less money on games during a cost-of-living crisis,” read an anonymous response.

Dom Tait, research director at Omdia, GDC’s research partner for the survey, wrote that the current wave of layoffs is coming from employers adjusting spending levels to return to their pre-pandemic levels.

“However,” Tait wrote in the survey, “with the forecast returning to steady growth to 2027, this ought to present a more stable picture for employment levels in future.”