GDC survey exposes game dev views of GenAI and layoffs

Game developers are concerned about layoffs, AI ethics, game engine changes and return-to-work policies, according to a survey by the Game Developers Conference (GDC).

The 12th annual State of the Game Industry Survey gathered insights from more than 3,000 developers ahead of GDC 2024, which takes place in San Francisco from March 18 to March 22. The survey was conducted with research firm Omdia, which analyzed qualitative sentiment from the survey.

This year’s survey results spotlight key industry trends mentioned above. The data also emphasizes an increased focus on accessibility features, mixed sentiments toward Twitter/X for marketing, and insights into developers’ return-to-office policies.

Layoffs cause fear among developers

GDC survey results show 35% of devs were affected by layoffs.

A significant revelation from the survey indicates that one-third of developers (35%) have encountered layoffs or expressed concerns about potential layoffs within their companies. This means that they were either laid off, had colleagues laid off, or saw layoffs in their company.

Quality assurance developers were notably impacted, with 22% reporting layoffs, compared to an industry average of 7%. The apprehension extends to the future, with 56% expressing concerns about possible layoffs in the next 12 months, said Alissa McAloon, publisher and editorial director at Game Developer, in an interview with GamesBeat. Business and finance professionals reported the least layoffs (2%).

The survey, conducted in October 2023, precedes the industry-wide layoffs that occurred at the end of 2023 and early 2024.

When asked to share their thoughts on the rise of layoffs in the game industry, many developers cited post-pandemic course correction, studio conglomeration, and economic uncertainty as possible explanations, and some expressed a desire for unionization to better protect workers.

Some developers said this felt like a bubble bursting, a post-pandemic correction, or this was part of a normal cycle, McAloon said. Interestingly, people in game roles at platforms were included in the survey, but the impact of layoffs on them wasn’t recorded in the results.

Game engine dilemmas; Unity faces scrutiny

Unity logo

The survey delves into the choices of game engines, highlighting Unreal Engine and Unity as the most utilized, each favored by 33% of developers.

However, Unity’s announcement of a “Runtime Fee” based on the number of game installs led to considerable backlash and prompted developers to consider switching engines. One-third of respondents admitted to contemplating or executing such a shift, with concerns about Unity’s policies being a driving factor. The analysis indicates a potential migration to the open-source engine Godot.

One-third of respondents said they’ve either considered switching game engines within the past year or they’ve already done so, while almost half said they haven’t considered switching. When asked to explain their reasons for possibly switching game engines, many developers cited Unity’s policies as their main motivator. According to an analysis of open responses conducted by Omdia, 51% said they were interested in switching specifically to Godot, either from Unity or Unreal Engine.

Ethical concerns surrounding AI usage

Generative AI app Plaiday thinks this is what Dean's experience at CES will be like.
Generative AI app Plaiday thinks this is what Dean’s experience at CES was like.

Generative AI usage exploded in the last year. But its usage in the gaming industry has sparked ethical concerns among developers. Four out of five developers are worried.

While opinions on its impact vary, with business, marketing, and programming professionals expressing optimism, others in narrative, visual arts, and quality assurance anticipate a negative impact.

Even though many developers seem to be uncertain about the industry impact of Generative AI, they are quite certain about the ethical impact. A large majority (84%) of developers indicated they were somewhat or very concerned about the ethics of using Generative AI, while only 12% stated they had no concerns.

Developers shared a range of potential issues regarding the technology. Some worried that Generative AI usage could lead to more layoffs at game companies whereas others expressed concerns about how the tools could supercharge copyright infringement of intellectual property and whether AI toolmakers would train their models using data obtained without the creator’s consent.

“Developers want to slow down, basically,” said McAloon. “Generative AI is a technology that just landed and hit the ground running. And when technology moves that fast, and when it makes things simple and easy to adopt, it can be difficult to keep up.”

Over half (51%) of developers said their companies have instituted some sort of policy regarding the use of Generative AI in the workplace, with many of them saying their companies have made use optional. Only 2% said Generative AI tools are mandated in their workplace, while 12% said they’re not allowed to use any of them.

Triple-A studios were more likely than indie studios to have company policies regarding the use of Generative AI tools, especially when it comes to restricting them. One-fifth (21%) of triple-A developers said their companies have banned the use of such tools, compared to 9% of indie developers.

Increased focus on accessibility features

Keywords is working with Player Research
Keywords is working with Player Research

Almost half (48%) of respondents said their companies have implemented accessibility measures into their current projects (up from 38% in 2023), while 27% said their companies have not implemented any of those features (down from 32%).

The most popular accessibility features being added were industry standards like closed captioning, colorblind mode, and control remapping. Other notable features included content warnings, accessible hardware and controls, and phobia accommodations.

Marketing challenges on Twitter/X

A 3D-printed logo for Twitter is seen in this picture illustration made in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Social media, particularly Twitter/X, remains a prominent marketing tool, with 76% of developers utilizing these platforms.

When respondents explained how their use of social media marketing has changed in the past year, 97% of the ones who mentioned Twitter/X expressed negative views about the platform, according to an analysis of open responses conducted by Omdia.

Responses included frustration about Twitter/X and its owner Elon Musk, the sheer number of apps and platforms companies must navigate, and a general lack of knowledge or interest in social media marketing.

“This year, we chronicled how developers are getting frustrated with social media how a certain Twitter implosion might be making life difficult specifically for indie developers,” McAloon said.

Return-to-office policies vary

Only six of Activision Blizzard's 10,000 employees caught the coronavirus.
Activision Blizzard’s old headquarters.

One-fourth (26%) of developers said they have some form of mandatory return-to-office (RTO) policy at their company, either working full-time in the office or a hybrid schedule, while the rest (74%) either don’t have an RTO policy or say the ones they have make in-office work optional.

Triple-A developers appear to be far more impacted: 40% of them said they currently have mandatory return-to-office policies (most of them being hybrid), compared to 15% of indie developers and 28% of double-A developers. Respondents working in business and finance were most likely to say they work a hybrid or five-day in-office schedule, while those working in narrative reported the most remote flexibility.

According to an analysis of open responses conducted by Omdia, developers with the option to work from home reported the most satisfaction with their arrangement, while those with mandatory RTO schedules (especially hybrid schedules) reported the most dissatisfaction.

“Generally, those who have the option currently to work from home reported the most satisfaction and have the most positive things to say, McAloon said. “All those who have been whose workplace has a mandatory RTO schedule had more negative comments to say in the writing section.”

Those in favor of mandatory RTO noted how in-office work is better for productivity and team collaboration, while those opposed said the practice has led to mass resentment and contributes to employee attrition.

“It is kind of a transitional year where we see a lot of people both in games and outside of games even
facing some sort of mandate from employers to go back to their office or return to the office way of life after we’ve been very remote in a lot of fields last couple years,” McAloon said.

The comprehensive survey provides further insights into these topics and more, offering a detailed snapshot of the gaming industry’s current landscape. Developers and industry enthusiasts can access the complete State of the Game Industry Survey here. The GDC is expected to draw 30,000 people this year.

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