Developers at Google’s newly formed game studios were shocked on February 1 when they were told the studios were going to be shut down, according to four sources with knowledge of what happened. Just the week before, Google Stadia vice president and general manager Phil Harrison sent an email to staff praising the “great progress” the studios had made so far.
Mass layoffs were announced a few days later, as part of an apparent pattern of Stadia management not being honest and prior to the company’s developers, many of whom had improved their lives and careers to join the team.
“[Stadia Games and Entertainment] has made great strides in building a diverse and talented team and establishing a strong selection of exclusive Stadia games, ”writes Harrison’s email from January 27, according to sources. “We will confirm the SG&E investment envelope soon, which in turn will inform the SG&E strategy and 2021 [objectives and key results]. ”
Google declined to comment.
Five days later, Harrison seemed to turn the course around completely, announces in a public blog post that the head of Stadia Games and Entertainment, Jade Raymond, left the company, and Google would “not invest further in bringing exclusive content from our in-house development team SG&E.”
Stadia developers learned the news, first reported by Kotaku, almost at the same time as everyone else via an internal email and conference call with Harrison. The messy rollout came after an already tiring year of working through the pandemic. It reminded Stadia’s own launch, which seemed hasty and omitted many features that were marketed during the unveiling of the service, only to be added months later. In this case, however, Stadia’s own developers were the ones affected by the planned planning.
Released in November 2019, Stadia originally struggled due to its revenue generation model and lack of games. The technology was sound, but as a content platform it lacked. Maybe strong first-class games could have changed that. In 2019, Google announced the formation of Montreal- and Los Angeles-based game studios as well as the hiring of famous Assassin’s Creed producer and eventual general manager of EA Motive Studios Jade Raymond to monitor their development. It seemed like Google was in it for a long time, until it was not.
“I am proud of the team we built at Stadia Games and Entertainment and the groundbreaking work on exclusive games for the platform,” said Raymond Kotaku in a statement shortly after the closures were announced. “It was a difficult decision to take a new opportunity, and I will be eternally grateful to this team for everything we learned and achieved together.”
The developers had to wait three days after receiving the news to share their confusion and frustration directly with Harrison in another conference call on February 4. This conversation was followed by a controversial question and answer in which the Stadia manager was confronted with his e-mail from just the week before which indicated anything but a closure of the studios. Harrison regretted the misleading statements in his previous email, according to four sources with knowledge of the conversation. Asked what had changed from the week before, Harrison admitted that he had had nothing and said to those who were in the conversation, “We knew.”
A source described questions and answers as a ultimately unsuccessful attempt to extract some kind of responsibility from the Stadia management.
“I think people really just wanted the truth about what happened,” the source said. “They just want an explanation from management. If you started this studio and employed a hundred or so of these people, no one will start it just to disappear in a year or so, right? You can not make a game in such a long time … We had several years of insurance, and now we do not. ”
The source added that questions and answers “were not pretty.”
It is still not clear exactly why Google decided to leave the first-class studios they started building less than two years earlier. In his blog post, Harrison referred to the rising cost of game development as a factor.
“Making the best games in the class from scratch takes many years and significant investments, and the costs increase exponentially,” he wrote.
In his Thursday question and answer with employees, he pointed in particular to Microsoft’s acquisition and planned acquisition of Bethesda Software later this year as one of the factors that had led Google to decide to close the book on original game development. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is a nearly trillion dollar company and on a par with Microsoft in terms of revenue and profits, according to a 2020 survey of Forbes.
Elsewhere during questions and answers, Harrison seemed to suggest that the ongoing pandemic was partly to blame, according to a source. The effects of Covid-19 have been devastating, including nearly half a million deaths in the United States alone. But it has also led to many people finding relief in games while they are social distances and strengthened the bottom line of many large gaming companies as a result.
For some, the studio closures and how they were communicated to the employees were symbolic ways in which game development at Stadia had been mismanaged, three sources said Kotaku. This included a severe shortage of resources, difficulties in securing the necessary hardware and software, and a frozen number of employees through 2020 after the pandemic began, despite the goal of eventually sending more original exclusives in the coming years.
From now on, sources said, Google wants to find work for displaced employees elsewhere in the company. However, it has difficulty doing so as Google traditionally hires generalists, and game development requires a very specialized set of skills.
Developers hoped Stadia’s game studios would survive their problems, if for no other reason than that Google, at least in theory, could afford to burn through hundreds of millions to try to launch a new gaming platform with exclusive content. Instead, it ended up burning through the confidence of some of the around 150 developers who were affected by the sudden change of direction. Now the remaining Stadia employees have to pick the pieces while wondering how they can trust management and how someone can trust Stadia.