Finding a New Path: How I Survived a Game Industry Layoff
“Hey, I’m grabbing a bagel on my way in. Want one?” I cheerily answered an unexpected call from a coworker on what seemed like an ordinary Tuesday morning.
“I just got laid off.”
He related this information without any greeting, without giving details, and without trying to hide how he was feeling.
At the time, we were both designers at Blizzard Entertainment, working on the recently released World of Warcraft. Blizzard was an amazing place to work; we knew it to be different, special even, an anomaly within an industry that was rife with studio closures and layoffs. I was completely convinced that I had the best job in the whole world, and I was excited to get to work every day.
But on that morning, standing next to my car with phone in hand, I was suddenly confused and anxious.
“I’m coming right now.”
I met my friend in the back parking lot of the (now former) nondescript building that housed Blizzard Entertainment HQ at 131 Theory in Irvine, California. He explained that only a short time after he had arrived at work, he had been taken to a conference room and told that the company was doing some “streamlining,” resulting in several roles being cut from the team. His was one of them.
Soon others joined us in the parking lot, deposited outside the building as he had been. Each held a white folder with their name printed on it, and each had the same story.
I was terrified to go inside; not knowing what awaited me.
It was February 8, 2005. WoW had been released not even 3 months prior, and while it was very early in its life, it was already a wild success. Since launch, the 60-person WoW team had been hard at work on a major content patch.
I had joined the team as a Quest Designer around a year prior, and it had been the best day of my life, moving up from Quality Assurance to my dream job on the dev team. My main contribution to this patch was to be an elaborate quest line that earned players a cloak made from the scales of Onyxia, a black dragon (and at the time, one of the most challenging boss fights in the game). I had been enjoying it immensely and was looking forward to doing more work on it that day.
And so I summoned all my courage and ventured inside. Walking through the building past rows of offices, I scanned for anything out of the ordinary, but noticed nothing amiss. I arrived in my own office to find one of my teammates working quietly at his desk. It could have been any other morning.
“There’s something going on,” I told him. “People are getting laid off today.” He looked at me as if he didn’t quite believe me. I can’t say I blamed him; for the entirety of my career there, Blizzard treated their employees like family. Team 2 had become a very a close-knit group after months and months of crunch on WoW. We worked hard, but we loved the work, we felt appreciated, and above all we felt safe. This wasn’t just a company; this was our home.
I set my backpack down at my desk and headed immediately to the office of one of the other designers. Thankfully, he was there at his desk working, or at least maintaining the pretense of working.
“I don’t know exactly what’s happening, but look, you’re a great designer. I’m sure you’re safe.” It was an incredibly kind thing for him to say when it’s quite possible he was as worried as I was. And I wish he had been right. Not more than two minutes later, the Lead Designer on WoW (my manager), showed up, looking for me.
“Let’s go,” he said quietly.
I followed him out of the door and to the stairs, my mind racing, in an absolute panic. I barely felt my feet touching the ground. How could I stop this? There were no answers. We started down the steps.
“Wait,” I said, as we approached the landing between the first and second floors. This wasn’t over yet; we hadn’t made it to that room yet, so right now, I still had a job. He turned back and looked at me.
“What’s my move here? What can I do? What would you do if you were me?” Fight or flight in full effect, the questions spilled out on top of one another. Looking back now, I think it was just a very wordy way of saying, “Please, help me.” It was probably more effective than just screaming, which is what I really felt like doing.
He sighed, looked down at the floor, and then back at me. He reluctantly told me that I had been the last one added to the list, that it hadn’t been an easy decision. He advised me to let the dust settle, and then to call him, and he would help me in any way he could. In that moment, he showed me the only kindness he had to give, and I was grateful.
We arrived at a small conference room on the first floor. Inside I found the Blizzard CEO and a woman from Vivendi Universal HR whom I had never seen before. (At the time, Vivendi Universal was the parent company of Blizzard Entertainment.) She instructed me to take a seat.
A white folder slid across the table and was opened. The complete stranger proceeded to thank me for my hard work, say words like “streamlining” and “no longer needed” and then methodically explain my severance package.
I could barely process what she was saying as the world closed in around me. Both furious and on the verge of tears, I knew that if I opened my mouth I might end up saying something I’d regret later. So I maintained my silence throughout the entire meeting, only nodding when prompted to acknowledge I understood. I signed my name on the line.
The CEO stood to one side of the small room, looking deeply upset. I think he may have said something to me as I got up and made my way out of the room, but I can’t really remember. At that moment, it felt like any appreciation for the work I had done was nonexistent. Everything was a blur. I was led to the door, folder in hand.
Thanks, but get out.
I asked to go retrieve my backpack from my desk and was informed that I was no longer allowed in the building, effective immediately. While employed by Blizzard, I had been nothing but a loyal employee, so proud of the company I worked for. Out of everything that happened that day, this callous display of distrust was by far the most dehumanizing; the worst betrayal I had ever felt.
I arrived back out in the parking lot, sans backpack. As word had started to travel, teammates that hadn’t been affected trickled outside in small groups to express their sadness and to say farewell to those of us who had been let go. We were all in disbelief that such a thing could have happened at this place we all loved so very much.
In the end, there was nothing to do except say goodbye; to the colleagues that felt like family, to the best job I had ever known, and the place that had felt like home. My time at Blizzard was over.
This happened fourteen years ago. In 2005, social media didn’t exist to the extent it does now, and the game industry news wasn’t nearly as mainstream, so layoff announcements were not typically blasted on the internet. This particular layoff went largely unnoticed by anyone that didn’t work at Blizzard at the time. In terms of numbers, it pales in comparison to the magnitude of the recent Activision Blizzard layoff (~800) or the ArenaNet layoff this week (labeled only as “big”), or the layoff at EA studio FireMonkeys (~50), also this week. So why am I writing this now?
Reading articles about these layoffs, and scrolling through my news feed to see friends affected, my own story kept playing over and over in my head. I couldn’t stop thinking about all of us; the people impacted by a single decision that was made by the company they worked for. In the span of only a few hours, all of our lives changed dramatically, and we have all had to deal with the aftermath.
We are all part of a story that doesn’t change, whether it happened today or fourteen years ago. (It’s a story that happens far too often in games.)
I know how alone I felt in the days after I had been laid off, and while I was lucky enough to have some amazing, supportive friends that did their best to lift me up, there was a lot for me to work through before I could really process what had happened, understand how to deal with it, and come up with a plan for what to do next.
There’s no way for me to know how each individual has been impacted and how they might be dealing with their own situation — and that makes offering advice difficult. Sure, I can suggest you find clever ways to save money, compare replacement health plans, or point to the best sites to find job postings. But those things are the easy things. The biggest challenge I faced after being laid off was dealing with the emotional impact.
So what I can offer is my own personal experience — the complex feelings I had about the layoff itself, how I worked through them, and how I got myself back on the path and moving forward, back when it happened to me.
The Day After
Well over a decade later, the day I was laid off is still the worst day I can remember. (There’s a reason it’s taken me fourteen years to put this story into words.) But after that single day ended, I found that I wasn’t at all prepared for the days that followed; I didn’t yet know how long it would take me to process what had happened, how far-reaching its impact would be in my life, or that I would actually end up learning a great deal as a result.
Directly after it happened, it was so painful that I could barely talk about it, but simultaneously wanted desperately to talk about it — as if talking about it would somehow make it right and release me from the horrible feelings of loss that I carried. But it didn’t. Speaking about it seemed to help in the moment, but then afterwards I’d be again reminded that nothing had changed, and I was stuck with my situation, with all the feelings that I just really wanted to forget.
As the days passed, left alone with my thoughts, I started to fall into some unhealthy but predictable patterns. I began to wonder if the “streamlining” was actually just a way to hide what was more of just a personal hit list for the project leads. What if it was personal? While I worked at Blizzard, I had never been given a negative review, but what if getting rid of me (and the others) was just a reflection of some unknown mistake we had made?
My mind kept brainstorming ridiculous solutions to this unsolvable problem. What could I have done better? What if I had written more quests? Had more ideas? Fixed more bugs? Produced fewer bugs to begin with? What if I had come into work earlier? Stayed later? What if I had gotten along better with that one designer that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to win over? My mind wrestled with these and other questions endlessly. I became convinced that what had happened to me was my fault. I felt ashamed and miserable.
So I did the only thing I could do at the time to give myself a break from the storm constantly swirling in my head — I found a distraction. For me, this meant throwing myself wholeheartedly into searching for a new job. Each morning I’d open my laptop and get to work, spending hours polishing my resume, hunting down job postings, and writing individualized cover letters to each potential employer. I kept a detailed spreadsheet of the companies I had applied to (like any good game designer would).
This distraction gave me a break from the negative feelings that just wouldn’t quit. I didn’t have time to think about how bad I felt because I kept myself busy with small goals. I could be successful at finding job postings. I could be successful at summarizing my skills into bullet points. I could be successful at typing words into the body of an email. These little successes helped me feel like I had at least a tiny bit of agency in a situation where I was, in reality, so powerless.
While I found comfort in spreadsheets and wordsmithing, I know there were also a couple of people that spent a few weeks just playing WoW. And that worked for them. We all need to find something that helps us get out of bed each morning, no matter what it might be.
If you’ve been laid off, take some time for yourself without judgement, and do it in the way that feels right for you. If you want to be productive, do that. If you want to be lazy, do that. But don’t sit around just thinking about how terrible you feel about getting laid off. What you need to do is to get yourself through those first few days when everything is raw and you are adjusting to a new reality.
Moving On & Letting Go
For a very long time after the layoff, I continued to carry the weight of that moment with me, and it was heavy. It was an ever-present feeling that made me feel like I had a dagger stuck in my heart, a vice around my chest. I can still remember the feeling of that emotional pain, manifesting physically. And my swirling thoughts were so complex; comprised of sadness, loss, betrayal, anger, and shame. On the outside, I think I appeared to bounce back quickly, but on the inside, I hadn’t figured anything out.
I missed my coworkers immensely; they had grown to be my friends over the time I worked with them. But after I was laid off, talking with them was a painful reminder of the life I no longer had. That they’d casually mention that they’d received WoW bonus checks the size of their yearly salary probably didn’t help either.
By maintaining contact with them, I was well aware of what I was missing. I’d meet them for lunch and things would be just like they were — but then we would part, and they went back inside the office to work on the game we all loved, and I didn’t. I felt like an outcast, exiled and forbidden to return.
What ended up being necessary for me was to put some space between me and all those people I loved at Blizzard. I found that I couldn’t talk to them about what I was going through — it was awkward, they either felt guilty or couldn’t relate, and there were too many reminders of what I was missing out on. They unintentionally bummed me out. I remember this being very confusing for me at the time.
I ended up leaning on friends that had either been through the same experience at another company, or were not connected to Blizzard at all. They reassured me when I was full of self doubt about my own abilities, comforted me when I was having a particularly rough day, or simply listened when I needed to vent about WoW team members buying exotic cars with their bonus checks. (Yes, that happened.)
My friends were essential to my healing process. Find yours, and ask for help when you need it.
The Shame of Failure
Layoffs have a way of making you feel personally shamed. Everyone will tell you not to take it personally, and that it’s not your fault, that it’s just about numbers. It rarely ever helps when someone points this out, though. Being laid off impacts your life in a major way — it feels very personal!
If your entire team has been made redundant or your parent company is doing some cutbacks and you are all leaving together, then things are pretty clear: it’s not about you. There wasn’t anything you could have done differently to prevent the situation you’re in, short of never working there to begin with. Being laid off isn’t ever easy, but if you are able to understand why it’s happened, it is easier to move on to your next big thing.
But things start to get complicated if some of the team is cut and some of it isn’t — and some layoffs are like this. It’s really easy for a company use terms like “streamlining” or “budget cuts.” Reasons like that don’t explain anything about why specific people were cut and others weren’t. The truth is that if you were cut and one of your coworkers was not, at least some percentage of that decision was personally about you (your skills, experience, work ethic, or personality) and that reality can be tough to deal with.
Compounding this, it can be hard to find closure and move on because there isn’t a way to get the whole story. When I was laid off, yet others weren’t, I suspected that I wasn’t being given the entire truth. There was no one for me to ask, no one that was willing to give me a truthful answer, or possibly, no one that really had a good answer to begin with. And this was frustrating for me because I just really wanted to know — if only to understand what I could have done better. But that never happened.
The good news is that I long ago stopped wondering about it, and have accepted the reality that we don’t always get answers, even if we deserve them. I can’t even say that if I had been given an answer, that it would have helped me find closure, the way I assumed it would.
However, what finally allowed me to move on was a shift in my mindset regarding the way I view failure. Early on in my career, I viewed being laid off as my fault, my personal failure. I was ashamed of what had happened to me, and avoided mentioning it whenever possible. At the time I assumed I would be judged; that people would somehow hold it against me, that it would always be a negative mark on my pristine record. I imagined that it would somehow prevent me from attaining the career I hoped to have.
Over the years I’ve come to realize that failure is really just a step on a longer path of learning. Failures are the teaching moments that help us to become better, and internalizing this viewpoint has removed the stigma of talking about my experience. Being laid off is part of my journey, and it’s a moment that taught me many lessons.
It’s Just Business
My first learning was something very simple: A business is just that, a business.
No matter how warm and fuzzy your workplace feels, no matter how much you love your coworkers, and no matter how much your manager expresses appreciation for your hard work, a business is a soulless entity and it does not care about you. If a business is being run well, leadership will make decisions that are in the best interest of that business, regardless of their own personal feelings about you.
The company you work for is never going to choose you, advocate for you, or maintain loyalty towards you if doing any of those things poses a potential risk to the success or profitability of that business. Sometimes, you really are just a line in a spreadsheet, a single head in your department headcount, a box on the org chart.
When I worked at Blizzard, we believed we were all part of the family. When some of us were removed from that family swiftly and suddenly, we had to come to terms with the reality that what we had been told wasn’t actually true. Getting laid off was that much worse because we never expected it — and then we had to deal with feeling gullible as well. I’m sure we weren’t being actively lied to for nefarious purposes — but at the time, yeah, that’s definitely what it felt like.
At the point when the layoff occurred, I (and many others) had been working overtime for months (10–12 hour days, 6 days a week). My personal life had taken a backseat to the grueling pre-launch schedule that got WoW out the door. This is what we were asked to do, and I did it willingly, without hesitation. A few months later, I found myself jobless. I was loyal to a company that in the end felt no loyalty to me in return.
This was a harsh reality, but it helped me recognize that I had unrealistic expectations for what my employer and my job could provide to me. I assumed that my loyalty and hard work would be taken into account in all situations; that simply performing my job duties enthusiastically somehow guaranteed my eternal safety and inclusion. But business doesn’t work that way, and when I got laid off, I got the message, loud and clear.
How things ended for me at Blizzard wasn’t fair, but that’s because business isn’t fair. It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me since that day: to keep my expectations realistic, no matter the company or the role.
Bad Experiences Can Motivate
Being laid off was both the worst and best thing for me. I was completely destroyed when I lost that job — being a Quest Designer on WoW was my dream come true, and it was all I ever wanted to do. When I arrived at work each morning, I was still in disbelief that they paid me for working on a game I adored. I gladly worked overtime during crunch, I wore geeky Blizzard t-shirts to work almost every day, and I loved talking to WoW fans.
Having that all ripped away suddenly in such a harsh manner left a wound that took a long time to heal. But (and here’s why I say it was also the best) it also provided me with all the motivation in the world, driving me like an engine toward excellence, because I was determined to prove my worth in every role I accepted afterward.
The first design role I took after Blizzard was at a scrappy little game company in Colorado called NetDevil, where I worked on a game called Auto Assault. I walked through the door, committed to making it as a game designer — committed to proving to myself that Blizzard and its leadership had been wrong, committed to finding success in a new place.
“That will NEVER happen to me again,” I would think as I threw myself into my new responsibilities. I regularly delivered more content than I was asked to create, I stayed at work late every day, and I wrote up feedback and suggestions for the game on a weekly basis. I worked frantically to provide value to my new employer, running as fast as I could away from the ghost that was always right behind me — I was haunted every day by the thought that the job I loved could be taken from me at any moment.
An interesting thing started to happen over the course of that year. Fueled by my determination, all those little things I was doing started to add up, and those in charge began to take notice of my efforts. I found that when I spoke up in meetings, they listened to what I had to say. I became a contributor to the direction of the game; I was consulted when there were important decisions to be made and eventually I was offered a lead role on one particular area of the game. In contrast to being laid off less than a year prior, I was elated that I had found success in this new place.
My experience at NetDevil was a stark difference from my time at Blizzard, where being heard in meetings typically meant I would have to yell over the voices of alpha males who left few pauses in their design discussions for someone like me to join in. I was a brand new designer, and I was one of the only women working at Blizzard at the time. Although I was very excited to be on the dev team, I felt incredibly intimidated. My confidence in my own abilities was pretty low.
In contrast, once I dove in at NetDevil, I found that I could actually make valuable contributions by using skills and knowledge I had learned at Blizzard. Even better, my contributions were valued, so I began to have faith in myself and my ideas. After Blizzard, I realized that no one was going to wait around for me to feel the courage to speak up, and if I didn’t speak up, I wasn’t providing value to my employer.
As much as I don’t want to admit this, being laid off ultimately helped me find my voice and my confidence, and it started at NetDevil — a place I never imagined I would be when I began my career in games.
Before I was laid off, I had never, not even once in my life, ever seriously considered living anywhere except Orange County, California. I had grown up there, my family was there, and up until that day in February, my dream job was there. Once that was taken away, I realized that if I wanted to continue working in games, I had to apply at any company I could find, no matter where they were located.
So when I was offered that job at NetDevil, I took it, despite the fact that I had never been to Colorado before. I packed up my stuff and drove across a few states to my new home. Three weeks prior, I had been designing quests on WoW, eating lunch at our regular hangouts, and playing tower defense with coworkers; part of a team that had felt so magical to me. That was all gone, and I was in a new office building, working with people I hadn’t yet gotten to know, and it was snowing outside my window. Life changes that quickly.
Somehow well over a decade has gone by since I made that first jump. And that jump led to several more. From NetDevil, I joined a startup in San Francisco as the Lead World Designer on (yet another) MMO. After that, I joined The Sims team to work on The Sims 4. A number of years later, EA sent me to London to manage The Sims Social design team at Playfish. And since 2013, I’ve been running my own business.
My point in bringing this all up is that if I hadn’t been laid off, I never would have had the experiences I’ve had in the game industry over the last fourteen years. I’ve worked closely with people that I respect and admire; people that are varied and unique and have vastly different viewpoints of the game industry and of the world. I’ve had the opportunity to work at different types of companies from small startups to huge corporations; I have lived in so many interesting places. And I am positive that my path will lead me to many more. Being laid off opened the door to the world for me, and I’m incredibly grateful.
I will be completely honest here; had I not been laid off, I would never would have left Blizzard on my own. I was one of those die-hard employees that would have remained there forever, happy to be a part of a company I respected, and working on games I loved to play.
I sometimes wonder if I’d be happy or fulfilled with my career if my story had gone in the opposite direction. It’s quite possible that at Blizzard, with the dynamic that existed at the time (a total boys’ club), my skill level in navigating that particular environment (low), and the lack of a good mentor or manager that cared about my well being and success (which despite the love I had for that team, I did not have there), I may not have been able to reach my potential. At the very least, I doubt I’d be the designer or the manager I am today, had I not had the opportunity to do something different.
It’s taken me years to be able to recognize these things, and to reflect on them in this way. Truly, there is no way to know where I would be now, had I not been laid off that day in 2005. But I wouldn’t give up the experiences or the connections I’ve gained along the way for anything, and that’s the important bit.
Please know… I’m not trying to say that layoffs are ever a good thing. They aren’t; they are terrible for those that lose their jobs as well as those that remain. I won’t ever try to paint a silver lining on the situation. It’s awful, 100%.
What I am saying is that sometimes when unexpected things happen, you may be forced out of your comfort zone and it’s up to you to decide what you’ll do in that moment.
We can’t control when bad things happen. But what we can control is our own actions. There are always options, always opportunities, if you’re looking for them.
Choose to learn new skills. Choose to go places you’ve never been. Choose to work on projects you find fulfilling. Choose to find people you love and treasure and can’t imagine not being part of your life.
And know that in hindsight, you can credit a horrible moment in your life as the critical first step on the path to the wonderful place you’re at now. It is like this, for me. It turns out my career was only getting started at Blizzard, and the best was yet to come.
What They Can’t Take
A few months after the layoff, I attended a party at the house of a former Blizzard coworker. As things began to wrap up for the night, the two of us began to talk about the time we worked together. Although the conversation was filled with happy memories, it became very bittersweet for me. I think I must have looked sad, because in that moment, my friend reminded me of something very important: that my work, my creations, they will always be a part of the game I loved working on.
They can take your job, but they cannot take the work you’ve done, the skills you’ve gained, or the connections you’ve made. Those things are yours, forever, no matter where your path leads you. It is such a simple thought — but it was the one I needed to hear then. So I’m sharing it, in case it’s what you need to hear too. The work you’ve done matters. Your teammates appreciated you. You will carry what you’ve learned with you, and you will move on, stronger, and better than ever.
A Note for Survivors
If you’ve experienced a layoff as a survivor, it can be difficult to manage your own feelings about what has happened. You may feel guilty about having a job when others do not; I know I felt this way when I found myself in that position in 2006 and again in 2007, when the company I worked for at the time did two different rounds of layoffs in two years, and I was one of the ones left standing. Team morale overall often takes a hit for quite some time, as the survivors learn to function with gaps in their team and a new dynamic.
As a survivor, there is one thing you can do that is incredibly important. Reach out to your former coworkers that have been laid off. Tell the people that you worked with that they are valuable, they are appreciated, and they didn’t deserve what happened to them.
When I was in the dark, feeling all alone, there were an important few that did this for me, and it made all the difference. It is one of the things that allowed me to move on with what small shred of confidence I had left and have the courage to start over. So take a minute, and write a quick note. Never forget that one tiny action can make a huge difference to someone else.