Epic Games Says It Needs More Programmers — After Firing Dozens of Them

Layoffs are a ticking time bomb for developers.

screenshot from Fortnite
Epic Games

With more than 9,000 layoffs in the games industry this year, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read a statement of practiced contrition from the people responsible. It was a tough decision, we’re told again and again, but don’t worry, it’s being done for the health of the company. It’s hard to imagine a person who’s comforted by that idea, but that’s the cold logic supposedly at play. Yet, as it turns out, working with a staff that you’ve just gutted, with the survivors now unsure if they’ll be next on the chopping block, may not be the best way to make games.

Epic Games’ contribution to the 9,000 lost industry jobs came in September when it laid off 830 employees across gaming and other areas of its business. That made one particular quote from CEO Tim Sweeney in a recent interview with The Verge stand out.

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney recently lamented a lack of programmers for Fortnite, just months after the company laid off 830 employees.

Rachel Luna/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

When asked about the possibility of adding Steam Deck compatibility to Fortnite, Sweeney’s response began, “If we only had a few more programmers.”

Remap Radio’s Patrick Klepek brought attention to the irony of the statement, tweeting, “A hell of a thing for Tim Sweeney to say after laying off 830 people this year.”

And, yeah, it is a hell of a thing to say. What the line in Sweeney’s interview and the statements accompanying every layoff have in common is the sense of inevitability. It’s always “If only we had a few more programmers” and never “If only we hadn’t fired all those people.” Always “we still ended up far short of financial sustainability” (as Sweeney wrote in an email to staff) and not “we made poor choices and other people are paying for them.”

Inverse reached out to Epic, which declined to comment.

The irony of Sweeney’s statement was not lost on everyone.

It’s no surprise that keeping the Fortnite money fountain running is more important to Epic’s executives than keeping the people who made it employed. If there’s a way to squeeze more money out of a successful title right now, companies will take it without a second thought. As Sweeney has pointed out, the layoffs didn’t come because Fortnite was in trouble — they came because Fortnite can keep making money in a way that requires fewer employees on Epic’s payroll.

“While Fortnite is starting to grow again, the growth is driven primarily by creator content with significant revenue sharing, and this is a lower margin business than we had when Fortnite Battle Royale took off and began funding our expansion,” Sweeney told employees in an email.

That creator content comes from Fortnite’s Creator Portal, which lets anyone sell their own creations in an Epic-run marketplace. A portion of sales go to the company, meaning it’s making money without actually having to keep people on staff to make new creations. So, sorry folks, but employing you is just more expensive than taking a cut from content made by players.

The lack Fortnite on Steam Deck is likely to be the least of the games industry’s worries.

Epic Games

The problem for people with a sense of empathy is the mechanical calculation costing workers their livelihoods. And the problem for game developers is that this is no way to make games. Sweeney’s off-hand comment points to a relatively low-stakes scenario — it would be nice to have Fortnite on Steam Deck, but it’s a successful game either way.

But the games industry could be in for a grimmer future when the time comes to reap what it’s sown. One reason even some of the most successful game developers are struggling for financial stability is the ballooning cost of development. The industry has locked itself into a cycle of constant expansion, with better graphics, longer games, and more spectacular setpieces becoming the eternal goal of AAA.

All of that demands longer development times, more specialized roles for workers, and more intensive quality assurance. In other words, expensive processes that take time, money, and, crucially, talent. The games industry has bled itself dry this year in pursuit of short-term financial goals. It’s hard to see any way that that doesn’t result in delays and disappointment for games currently in production — and we all know which workers will be made to pay the price once again.

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