Nov 27, 2023 - Technology

In a brutal year for game developers, how one studio made it through

Photo illustration of Chelsea Blasko surrounded by abstract lines and circles.

Iron Galaxy Studios co-CEO Chelsea Blasko. Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Jamie Loren

In a year of bad news for many video game studios, Chelsea Blasko has a more upbeat story to share, about how her team made it through.

Why it matters: Iron Galaxy Studios, where Blasko is co-CEO, has actually grown in 2023. That's despite taking the kind of hard hit near the start of the year that knocked down so many other studios.

  • The company, which began in Chicago 15 years ago, operates primarily as a work-for-hire studio that has co-developed or supported projects from Activision, Bethesda, Xbox, PlayStation and more.
  • After weathering a major game cancellation, it will end the year with headcount up by more than 30 people.
  • "It's definitely been an odd year," Blasko tells Axios.

Details: In January, Iron Galaxy and publisher Epic Games announced they were shutting down Rumbleverse, a live-service wrestling battle royale that Blasko's team had spent a few years developing. The game had launched with expansive plans for continued operation just the prior August.

  • "We had millions of people playing it. We just didn't have people spending money on it," Blasko remembers.
  • Epic told Iron Galaxy of the looming closure in late 2022, sending the studio scrambling to find work for about 65 developers — a third of the company — who'd been on the game.
  • "Obviously, the holidays are not the ideal time to be trying to get a bunch of deals," Blasko says. The studio turned to development partners it had been too busy to accept offers from, reconnected with prior partners like Sony's Naughty Dog studio and recommitted to work-for-hire gigs after Rumbleverse's failure.
  • The outreach worked and resulted in zero layoffs, Blasko says. "We've gotten most of the people placed on projects."

State of play: Despite an unusually loaded calendar of excellent new video games, 2023 has been brutal for the video game industry.

The big picture: Blasko says Rumbleverse's cancellation could have been "devastating" to the studio a decade ago, but she highlights a few factors that made a difference.

  • Diversification of risk, by taking on multiple projects at once, helped soften the blow. Iron Galaxy's in-house rule, bent during the peak of Rumbleverse's development, is to not put more than a third of the studio on any project.
  • Maintaining relationships with business partners led to new or expanded work in a pinch. One example: Iron Galaxy was able to take on a more expansive role this year in the 10th anniversary update to Killer Instinct, a fighting game it worked on for Microsoft a decade ago.
  • Keeping costs down. "We're not going to be the highest salary you can ever make in games," Blasko says. "We are going to pay you a competitive salary. We hope that our benefits and our culture, our values also play into that for people."
  • Keeping teams together. "We don't have that turnover where we have to hire people again and retrain them over and over again. That also just kind of leads to more stability. The teams know each other."

What's next: Iron Galaxy is building a physical studio in Nashville, Tennessee, but is delaying opening a location in Austin, Texas, until after 2024.

  • "We've been able to pick up some of the people who have been let go, which we feel good about," Blasko says, acknowledging the broader cuts in the industry.
  • "We were able to recover and continue into the next year. And the next year will definitely be stronger."

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