Funemployment: The Life of a Contract Employee

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This “Funemployment” blog post is a continuation of the “Video Game Tester” blog series. Check out the previous posts here:  “So You Want to be a Video Game Tester” and “So You Want to be a Video Game Tester: Part Deux

The first part: Unemployment.  Everyone will face this roadblock at some point in their careers, but it can be a constant struggle in the life of a video game industry contract employee.

Leading Up to Unemployment:
The first time I experienced unemployment was after my first taste of the industry at EA.  Medal of Honor: Airborne already launched and I was recently moved over to the new “top secret” (ultimately cancelled) RTS/FPS hybrid project, Tiberium.  A string of layoffs rolled into the QA floor every Friday since launch and all of my co-workers were telling me that I was safe and becoming a perm because I was an embedded tester on a new team. Well, after the 4th string of layoffs hit, that Monday I was randomly “moved” back to the QA floor to help assist with the third PC patch for Medal of Honor: Airborne as well as the second PC patch for Crysis.  Two hours later, I was called into a meeting.

I was seated along with three other excellent testers in a room with the QA Test Lead and QA Manager.  We were informed that there is a final round of cuts and they really didn’t want to let us go, and it was a very hard decision, blah blah blah. I started to zone out in the middle so I don’t remember everything said.  I did catch that Friday would be our last day so I guess it wasn’t as bad as the previous testers were informed the day of.  I went back to my desk and contemplated what to do.

Lucky for me, Treyarch was looking for testers and I promptly applied and was set up for an interview the next day.  I told my bosses straight up that I had to come in late the next day for an interview and they gave me no grief seeing I was already “laid off” by them the previous day.  Friday eventually rolled around and I was asked to collect my stuff. Management actually bought a cake for us as thanks so I was touched that they genuinely didn’t want to lay us off though I thought it was odd that we had to be escorted out of the building but that apparently was a common thing.  Once I gave EA’s campus one last gaze, I got into my car and proceeded to shed tears for the first time in over a decade.

My ending experience at Treyarch/Activision also was similarly crappy as I bounced around a lot. I went from being a tester, to UI artist, to tester again, to UI artist at Luxoflux for 3 days, back to tester at Treyarch, to squeezing me into the Call of Duty: Black Ops team only to find out the same day they have too many UI artists, back to tester for 2 days until the walk of shame. Granted, they tried to keep me and just couldn’t do it seeing that the Bond (Quantum of Solace) and Spiderman: Web of Shadows teams were “released” due to lacking sales.  They even tried to get me on board at recently merged studio Blizzard, but they weren’t looking for a UI artist either.  I won’t go into Pandemic Studios as I already explained that scenario here.

This humbling experience sucked.

You don’t know how to feel when you worked your ass off for over 80 hours a week, months straight, and still get shit-canned. I feel like I was the star of a rags to riches story only to have it stripped away and then teased in front of me like a cat owner shooting a laser pointer in circles.  You can’t dwell on what you did wrong or what “could have been.”  You didn’t do anything wrong. It is simply reality of the contract worker lifestyle.  All is not lost.  Enter the incredible world of funemployment!

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Funemployment:
The first day of funemployment should be spent filing for unemployment benefits.  No buts, this is a must if you want to be able to continue paying your bills and have food in your belly (unless you live with mommy and daddy).  Do not feel ashamed filing for unemployment.  You pay for it out of your paycheck. Once set up, you should take a mini vacation and catch up on all of that sleep you lost during crunch time and play a game or two.  Have fun for about two weeks, but not too much fun.  After 2 weeks, start a routine schedule for Monday – Friday that does not include drinking beer at 10:00AM.

My personal unemployment schedule went as such*:
8:00AM-9:00AM:  Wake up, take a dump, shower/freshen up and eat breakfast
9:00AM-11:00AM:  Look for jobs on the internet and apply to good fit positions
11:00AM-1:00PM:  Take a break, watch TV, play a game, snack a bit if hungry, check email for updates from job submissions
1:00PM-3:00PM:  Go to the gym and work out (Very important to stay physically active because all the crunch time and overtime dinners probably did a number on your manly/womanly figure)
3:00PM-6:30PM:  Eat lunch/dinner and check emails to see if you received any hits from job submissions.  Check if new jobs were posted and apply. Be sure to write follow ups to any correspondence.
6:30PM-????:  Have fun!!

The key during unemployment is to stay busy and have a solid routine.  It is very easy to become a couch potato and watch Netflix all day or become a hardcore raider in whatever MMO is the current fad. If you are an unemployed tester who has ambitions to progress into game development, begin to learn the trade.

Wanna be a game designer? Start tinkering with engines of games you really like.  For example, you like Call of Duty, so install CoDRadiant (part of the mod tools) which is a modified id Tech engine developed by Infinity Ward.  Build some maps and mess around with scripting events.  If you create a cool Single player map and level, use that as a demo to get your foot further into the door.

Is 3D modeling your cup of tea? Create unique weapon models and textures and build your portfolio up with hi quality renders.  The more — and diverse assets — the merrier!

Continue bettering your skills as you apply to positions and someone will eventually call.  It’s a little easier these days with unemployment rates lowering.  When I was between Treyarch and Pandemic, unemployment was at a historic high.  I had an interview one week after being laid off for a UI artist position at Heavy Iron Studios.  It was the longest interview known to man.  I came in a 9:00AM and did not leave until 3:00PM.  I had waves of interviews from different departments including production, art/ui, engineering, corporate and finally HR.  They technically hired me on the spot as they had me fill out HR paperwork and said they would give me final word the next day.  Long story short, corporate decided to go with the “other” candidate because they had more games under their belt.  I kept my head high and took a deep breath and exhaled.  The recruiter was really upset that they didn’t go for me that he set me up with an interview at Joe Madureira’s game studio Vigil Games to work on Darksiders.  I talked to their recruiter and did and art test, but ultimately wasn’t accepted because they were looking for a more senior artist.

I had about two more similar situations fall through afterwards, but you know how the saying goes: “Things happen for a reason.” Heavy Iron Studios was released from THQ 2 months later and Vigil games lasted through Darksiders and the sequel before THQ folded. Keep treading above water and don’t let rejection keep you down!

Landing a Job:
After sticking to a funemployment schedule and apply to every suitable job, you will eventually receive responses and interviews.  Make sure you are prepared.  Research the company and who your interviewer will be.  Many times, the HR/recruiter who you’ve been conversing with will give you the name of your interviewee.  Use this to your advantage and find info about them.  Sift through LinkedIn and Facebook stalk to locate any information about them.  It can be the difference of breaking the ice and having awkward silences. If you have bad luck finding positions on your own, there are other options.

A sure fire way to get an interview is through personal connections. They know of current openings at their job and would be happy to refer you (especially if there is a referral bonus). I personally reached out to a buddy at Pandemic Studios and tucked my tail between my legs to return to QA.  I really needed a job as my unemployment benefits were expiring so I bit the bullet and interviewed at Pandemic.  The interview was casual and more of a “what’s up” as I already knew 75% of the people in the room. Landing the job was a given at that point. I understand not everyone can be so lucky, but everyone who has ever worked in the industry, at any capacity, has made some industry connections. Use them.

If you royally mess up your interview, don’t sweat. There are many more to come.  Just learn from your mistakes and rally forward.  Don’t veer off your schedule as it can lead to wanting to drink massive amounts of booze and eating snicker bars for dinner.

*This is what worked for me and is in no way a correct path for everyone nor am I suggesting every unemployed person follow this schedule.

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by Steve Cantu, on August 30, 2013

I work at iBUYPOWER