On Friday, November 4, 2011, mere days after the release of their long-awaited title, The Lord Of The Rings: War In The North, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment broke the news to a whole lot of people at WB Games Seattle that their services were no longer required.
The actual numbers are not-yet confirmed as I write this, but my sources put them in the range of 40-80 full-time artists, designers, programmers and testers. That very morning, I happened to find my Snowblind Studios t-shirt – the black one with the penguin logo on the chest – and decided to wear it to work.
What was meant to be a personal tribute to my former employer ended up being a surprise memorial just hours later as I discovered the fate of so many of my former coworkers.
Over the course of the last couple of years, I observed from up close and afar WBIE’s careful dismantling of Snowblind as part of its building up and carving up of an ever-expanding video game empire. Along with several others who didn’t like where things were going, I decided to get the hell out of there while the getting was good.
What remains of Snowblind has now been lost in the game goliath that is WB Games Seattle. War In The North is the last game that will bear the Snowblind name, as its culture and people have either been swallowed up or spit out by the Warner Bros. corporate beast.
An animator in the games industry since 2004, I started at Snowblind Studios in January of 2007, well before WB Games acquired the studio. At the time, Snowblind was a very different place. It was independently owned and had built its reputation on the strength of games like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Champions: Return To Arms.
The studio had just shipped its final PS2 title, Justice League Heroes, and was gearing up for a strong debut on the next-gen consoles, but I would soon discover that the studio was actually in the throes of what would be a tragic transition from PlayStation2 development to making games for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation3 for two different publishers.
My first day marked Snowblind’s first day in its new large office space in Bothell, WA – about a quarter-mile from the office were my interview was held just a month before. My arrival kicked off a hiring spree during which our staff more than doubled in size. This rapid growth disguised the fact that Snowblind was actually losing its way, however, as canceled projects and mismanagement over my entire time at the studio began to threaten its very existence.
In stepped Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, who already had taken over Monolith Productions in nearby Kirkland and would soon do the same with Surreal Software in Seattle. From the latter part of 2008 to early 2009, there were a lot of strangers walking around our studio. There were a lot of meetings behind closed doors.
In February of 2009, WB’s acquisition of Snowblind was made official. In a company-wide meeting given by our new bosses, we were told we were to be a major part of WBIE’s new strategy to become an industry heavyweight and were to get right to work on a new Lord Of The Rings game. Oh, and some people, just a few here and there, were going to be laid off as we got things going.
A great many of us survived that first round of cuts, or “necessary reductions” as I believe they were called. Indeed, I think less than 20 of the production staff across Snowblind, Monolith and Surreal were let go, leaving a more than large enough group of professional game developers to commence with LOTR. There were those, like me, who reacted to all of this with some degree of skepticism and dread.
Others were thrilled at the chance to make a Lord Of The Rings game while having the resources of a company like Warner Bros. behind them. Maybe I was just being cynical. After all, we still had our jobs and would even be given official titles. Associate Producer. Director of Development. Artist/Animator (me).
Then again, Snowblind’s original owners had already started going their separate ways, and suddenly in their place were up-and-coming execs hand-picked by WB – bringing with them a whole lot of bullshit that I just couldn’t take anymore. I left the very next year to take a job at a growing studio founded by a bunch of ex-Snowblinders. Several more followed me. I was at Snowblind for three and a half years during which time no game project even came close to completion.
Lord Of The Rings: War In The North is now in stores. A whole lot of people worked on this game for three years. The credits in the online game manual give a clue as to how many people came and went during WITN’s long production. Those of us who were either fired, laid off or left for greener pastures are credited in the large Additional Art/Design/Engineering section.
Those who stuck it out until the end had three days to enjoy the release of their game to the masses before being rewarded with the termination of their jobs. Those who managed to hang on to their jobs get the distinct pleasure of waiting to see what WBIE has in store for them.
I must acknowledge that it wasn’t all pain and suffering. To be fair, WB did treat its employees and a guest to occasional private screenings of blockbuster movies, complete with $10 gift cards for concessions (it’s how I saw several of the Harry Potter films). They also gave us free copies of DVDs like Terminator: Salvation and Yes Man.
In general, the new people who came in were polite, told us we were great and tried like hell to convince themselves they knew what they were talking about. I even received a small bonus and raise while they were in charge. But when the new bosses allow a group of outsiders to secretly take the art assets your team made for a canceled project and present them back to you as a pitch for a classic ‘80s Midway arcade title with a new zombie twist (let your imagination run wild), you know something is amiss.
Long development cycles frequently end nowadays with the laying off of staff. How the unfortunate ones are chosen is only for the schemers at the corporate level to know. An official WBIE statement gives the “continual review of our business operations and fluctuating market conditions” as the reason for “reductions in our WB Games Seattle workforce.”
Those “reductions” in question include many who now have to figure out how they’re going to take care of their families two months before the holidays. Some of them will have no problem finding work elsewhere. Others will no doubt have a hard time ahead of them. However, all will have learned the hard way that shipping a game doesn’t necessarily mean it’s Miller Time, that is unless Miller is the name of the guy signing your unemployment check.
So rest in peace, OG Snowblind. Though it didn’t work out the way we all had hoped, my career wouldn’t be where it is today without you giving me that chance to work on something cool, which is really all any of us wants to do at the end of the day. Most importantly, I always felt like I was appreciated and generously rewarded for the work I did. What else can you ask for in this industry?
WB Games Seattle has now risen from the ashes of Snowblind, Monolith and Surreal. Snowblind will no longer make compelling action role-playing games. Monolith’s formerly consistent output of fun, original titles like No One Lives Forever and Condemned has come to a screeching halt. Surreal’s This Is Vegas will never see the light of day. A job well done for the many producers and execs at Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Christmas bonuses must be in order. Get ready for a lot of Batman games.