When one door closes…

This is how I remember it:

“The Vancouver Office is being shut down?!?!?” someone shouted.

“What?” we all thought.

I had been working for Big Fish Games in their Vancouver (Canada) office for almost 2 years. The night before we had a team BBQ to say goodbye to our Studio Manager who was moving on to start his own engineering company. We were sad to see him go, but happy for him to be moving on to something he was excited about. Today, we thought there was going to be a meeting to explain how the Vancouver office would be reorganized to deal with his departure. Turns out, the reorganization would shut us down.

I understood. We were a seven person satellite office in Canada for a company with a big office in Seattle. The lead design team of our current project was based in that Seattle office. It would be easier if we were all in the same building. And the expensive Yaletown rent want hard to justify for just the 7 of us. So they decided to shut us down.

We weren’t supposed to see that company wide email about our shutdown until after we had our meeting. So when the HR reps from Seattle walked into our office, we already knew what was coming. They did the best they could to deliver the bad news to us. They were sympathetic and offered to help us all in any way we could. Then we got a bit of good news. Our office was going to stay open for another three months, giving us lots of time to find new jobs. They’d also accommodate any job searching we were doing while finishing out the final three months. In the coming week, our VP would meet with us individually to let us know about our severance packages. With that, they left back to Seattle leaving us to absorb the news.

Obviously, we went straight to the bar across the street for the rest of the day. O

Oddly enough, I wasn’t scared. I had been through mass layoffs before. After I had been at EA for seven years I got caught up in one of their “seasonal roll-offs.” That one was scary because EA was the only gaming company I had ever worked for. I had started in QA and worked my up to be a Producer, Software Engineer and Designer. Because I started had started at the bottom of the game dev food chain, I wasn’t sure what opportunities would be available outside of EA. I was also surprised because even though everyone knew a round of layoffs was coming, I thought I would be safe because my performance reviews were great. At EA, they tell everyone that they only hire the very best, so On Target (OT) is a very good review. Above Target (AT) is rare, and Significantly Above Target (SAT) is all but impossible. I was coming off my 2nd consecutive SAT. Finally, my wife was 8 months pregnant with our second child at the time. That was a stressful layoff.

This time I had a better idea what to expect. By now I had been working in the games industry long enough, and for enough different companies, that I knew that getting a job wouldn’t be too hard. In fact, I knew I didn’t have to worry about anyone from our studio because they were all really talented and would find a safe place to land.

The next day we sauntered in. It was a strange feeling. For the first while we spent most of our time updating a shared document tracking all the open positions we knew about in the city. We updated our resumes, shared stories about about what we knew about different companies, some of us even considered new career paths. We were all swarmed with LinkedIn request from recruiters who clearly had head about our shutdown.

Eventually we met with our VP. Some of us were asked if we wanted to move to Seattle to keep working on our project. I was one of them. However, my wife works for a government owned corporation and we would be crazy to walk away from her pension. When I turned down the offer to move, our VP mentioned that we might be able to work out a contracting deal that would let me work from home. That sounded great. He said he’d look into it and get back to me.

The next 3 months was one of the strangest situations I’ve ever been in in the industry. We kept updating our job prospects doc. We took time off for interviews. We kept working on our project. It was strange, because everyone was excited and passionate about what we were building, but at the same time you could feel the sense of disappointment when we would make something cool then realize we wouldn’t be around as a team when the game was completed. Over time the office headcount dwindled down. As expected, people got new jobs and left.

I came close to accepting a few job offers to work for some exciting companies, but something kept nagging at me. When I left EA before, I started working on my own iPhone game. Because we had a kid on the way, I ended up taking a job before it was finished. I had always wanted to make my own games, and in some way I felt like I had missed my chance by taking a real job before I had taken my shot. You see, at every company I’ve ever worked for I’ve been required to sign a non-compete agreement, which basically made it impossible to pursue my personal game ideas. With the potential to work as a contractor, I would no longer be bound by a non-compete. Finally, a chance to make my own games on my own time with the added benefit of still earning some income!

And that’s how Little Dragon Games came to be. One door closed, and another new adventure started. This time, without a daily commute!

Next time, I’ll talk about balancing contract work, personal projects, a family and still having a life. Check back to see if I even come close to figuring out how to do it!