New research shows that game developers are very concerned about layoffs and AI

Game developers are overwhelmingly concerned about the ethics of using AI. The organizers of the Game Developers Conference (GDC) have released their annual State of the Game Industry survey, in which 84 percent of more than 3,000 respondents said they were somewhat or very concerned about the ethics of using generative AI.

The survey results delved deeper into why developers are concerned, citing reasons such as the potential for AI to replace workers and exacerbate layoffs or expose developers to potential copyright infringement complaints. Developers are also concerned that AI programs could scrape data from their own games without their consent.

GDC’s research also analyzed developers’ sentiments towards AI depending on the type of job. Respondents in more technical fields such as marketing, programming and business generally thought AI would have a positive impact on their jobs, while respondents in creative jobs such as art, story and quality assurance believed AI would have a negative impact on their track.

“[AI] should be used to increase capabilities, not reduce workforces.”

“I think completely replacing someone’s job is a genuine concern,” said one anonymous comment. “It should be used to increase capabilities, not reduce workforces.”

Beyond AI, developers also had strong feelings about the industry’s layoff crisis, how return-to-work mandates are impacting morale, and how Unity’s recent runtime debacle is affecting developers’ choice of game engines.

The choice of video game engine software was one of the key topics covered in the survey. Thirty-three percent of respondents use Unity or Unreal Engine in development. Around the same time the study was conducted, Unity announced its disastrous runtime reimbursement policy, which angered a large number of indie developers, before returning parts of it. In light of these events, a third of developers surveyed said they have considered switching or have already switched to game engine software, with Unity’s pricing model news being one of the top motivating reasons.

“We’ve been thinking about switching to Godot – or making our own [game engine] – not to have to worry about shady business practices or the whims of shareholders,” said an anonymous response from the survey.

As employers worry about the easing of the pandemic, companies are instituting return-to-office (RTO) mandates, which some developers say are having a negative impact on morale and the industry as a whole.

More than a quarter of developers have some sort of mandatory return-to-the-office policy. Of that quarter, 40 percent reported working at a AAA studio, compared to 16 percent at indie studios. While return-to-office policies range from a full five-day work week to a hybrid schedule, the survey found that having some form of mandatory RTO resulted in developer dissatisfaction.

“The vast majority were against a mandatory three-day-a-week RTO, but company leadership felt it knew best,” said one anonymous response. “Waves after waves of layoffs, loss of morale. This is because we have proven that we are capable of making a game from scratch, while working from home during the pandemic, and people don’t understand why the proof is not enough.”

In May of last year, Activision Blizzard instituted a return-to-the-office policy that caused a similar exodus of talent.

More than a third of respondents reported being affected by layoffs personally or at their company. However, this survey was conducted in September 2023 – right around the time Epic Games announced it would be laying off more than 800 employees and before layoffs at Unity, Embracer Group studios, and Bungie. Fifty-six percent of respondents believe layoffs are coming to their own studios, and respondents say the preponderance of layoffs is the result of “post-pandemic course correction.”

“Studios grew too fast during the pandemic and people are spending less on games during a cost-of-living crisis,” said one anonymous comment.

Dom Tait, research director at Omdia, GDC’s research partner for the study, wrote that the current wave of layoffs comes as employers adjust spending levels to return to pre-pandemic levels.

“But,” Tait wrote in the study, “with the forecast returning to steady growth through 2027, this should provide a more stable picture for employment going forward.”

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