['EA Spouse' Erin Hoffman revealed bad working conditions at game developer EA several years ago. Very little has changed]
Every so often, as today, we see stories on Game Coverage sites about the relatively appalling conditions that game developers must work in. High chances of being laid off, extremely long working hours during crunch periods (which can stretch on for months), and frequently having to move across the country to find jobs, are just some of the many reasons listed why devs have it hard.
I am not a game developer. I am a banker, a profession that is probably hated almost as much as an EA employee by the average gamer. However, I enjoy my job, despite the long hours it takes. One of the fun things I get to do is travel around the world, learning about many different companies and businesses to decide whether we can or should do business with them. Some of these companies are game companies, including a couple of the biggest in the world. I have toured studios, met executives, and even got the occasional sneak peek (after begging and signing about 50 NDAs) at a few cool upcoming games, because of my job. I have also learnt a lot about the industry and where it's headed. I thought I would share some of that today.
1. High salaries mean things aren't so bad
The first reason why working conditions are bad is that Game Development is, despite long working hours, not a *bad* job to have. The average game developer's salary in 2013 was apparently around $85,000, which while not exactly rich, is a solid, comfortable, middle class salary that is well above the national average in almost every Western country. That figure also included QA workers and self-employed dirt-poor indie developer people, who bring the numbers down significantly. The average programmer, level designer, or even senior writer at a prestigious studio like Ubisoft working on Assassin's Creed V, or at Bioware working on Dragon Age: Inquisition, is easily earning $100,000-$110,000 per year. Mid level producers and team leaders (like lead artists, lead programmers etc..) can earn $140k+ at a good studio, and senior managers like Studio Heads, Executive Producers, Creative Directors, Game Directors and so on have been known to earn $250k-$400k salaries at good studios. In some places this includes bonuses, but at others, bonuses are extra. At successful studios, this can once again top up someone's salary quite considerably. Senior executives at Studio HQ are often paid less than the 'talent', but can also earn in the high hundreds of thousands if they are good at their jobs or the company's value goes up.
So Game Developers, despite bad working conditions, are far from poor. Most are comfortably middle or even upper-middle class, and in cheaper cities like Montreal they can live good lives on such incomes. Game development also offers speedy career advancement. Look at someone like Jade Raymond, who after something like 8 or 9 years in the industry had worked her way up to a Studio Head (and given that she built Assassin's Creed, probably earning many millions in the process). This discounts those who strike it out on their own and make millions selling indie games or starting studios, and the 'strike it rich' motivation is certainly a big one amongst almost anyone who likes stuff.
Let's be clear here, no-one deserves to be mistreated simply because they are earning good money, but much like our interns at the bank work 100 hour weeks because they want to 'get rich' (by the way kids, I've worked here for 11 years and I'm not rich yet), game developers are perhaps more lenient on their employers because they're making good money for, well, making games. Which brings us to the next point-
2. Everyone wants to be a game developer
The second reason game developers are paid poorly is because so many people want the job. One of the basic economic laws is that if you have a high supply of workers but a low demand for them, they either get paid less or employers get to be very picky. As shown by the high salaries, developers have managed to avoid the first option. But the second is true. Upon suggesting that if 'EA Spouse' like conditions continued, good developers might no longer want to work in AAA development, an HR executive who I bumped into on my way out from a meeting (always good to network) practically laughed me out of the room. With an infinite pool of workers and more joining the industry looking for a job all the time, employees can be used, abused and then dumped, and new ones can be hired to fill the gaps. Only at the very senior level will developers sometimes be treated better, and even then only if they toe the company line and keep bringing in the money.
So how does this happen? Well, in my opinion (and this bit is just opinion) it is extremely simple. Millions of kids (mostly boys) grow up playing games obsessively their whole lives. They don't have many friends in real life, they aren't great academically, they might not have good social skills/a girlfriend or whatever, and they don't really have many ambitions in life except to game. Even if this hardcore who come home from school to play CoD/WoW/LoL all day is just a tiny proportion of all gamers, it's still a large number of people, especially when in the grand scheme of things not *that* many people actually work in the industry worldwide (perhaps 300,000-400,000 was the last I heard, which given there are about 3,000,000,000 actively employed people in the world is pretty low). When Mum and Dad tell little Johnny to pick a college degree, he picks game development. Of course he does, because games are his only interest, his one hobby, and the one thing he cares about. This, unfortunately, leads to a ridiculous supply of labour that far outstrips demand, leading the scenario above. Hordes of young kids can be abused by the industry for 8 years, dragged and uprooted across the world as they're forced to work ridiculous hours, and then spit out. Hopefully they have a good portfolio.
3. Developers in public view aren't the ones being abused
The world's big name studios are what we would call 'Prestige Developers'- the studios that you know the names of. Riot, Blizzard, Valve, Bioware, Dice, Rockstar North, Bungie and so on. These are the money spinners, studios that bring in the big money on a consistent basis, and thus are generally left alone. Some employees at these studios may be treated badly, but generally they are left to their own devices, which means often times they have far better conditions than smaller, more abused teams. I have heard that in particular Bioware Edmonton and Valve's main campus, as well as the Blizzard team, are some of the best places to work in the industry.
The problem is that these are also the developers who speak in public view. They're the guys we know about, the people whose GDC talks we watch, the people we read interviews of, the studios we *care about*. It doesn't matter if the guy making MLB Baseball simulator is being treated like shit because David Gaider isn't. In this way, the devs we hear from, and who are given publicity, often can't share the same stories we can. In any case, Creative Directors and Executive Producers may not even be aware of the conditions of lower level workers directly.
So really game development is faced with several major problems. There are others, like publisher/console manufacturer deadlines, bad planning, short-term financial thinking, the decline of the AA games industry, the shift toward emerging markets and the game they like etc etc.. among many other things, but I hope that gave a little insight into the process.