I worked adjacent to the games industry for over 15 years. I spent all of those years at the same company. (I usually describe our company thus: We were to Second Life as EverQuest is to World of Warcraft.) It was a small company and I wore a lot of hats. I made 3D models and textures. I built game space. I programmed. I even maintained the website for a little while. So while my work was very much the same as your typical game development work, the company culture was actually a lot closer to a more traditional software company. We worked normal hours in regular cubicles for industry-standard pay.
So while I’ve been a “game developer” in the sense that I made 3D entertainment software, I’ve never been a “game developer” in the sense that I worked at a big-name studio that pushed out a new title every couple of years. I eventually gave that up and now I write about videogames and make simple graphics engines and game prototypes as a hobby.
But I see a lot of young people headed in the direction of AAA game development. And so I thought I’d offer my perspective and advice to anyone planning to sign up to GameDev college and take the plunge. This applies particularly to people in the United States. My advice is this:
Don’t do it.
Really. I know how it is. You’re young. You’re creative. More than any previous generation, you grew up with videogames and you’re full of new ideas about where the medium can go next. It’s exactly for these reasons that I’m advising you to avoid the AAA gaming industry. This industry is sick and mean and it doesn’t deserve you.
Still not convinced? Here is what the next decade has in store for you:
You’ll spend a few years in one of those game colleges, mostly learning stuff you could teach yourself at home using Google. While you’re at it, you’ll be racking up serious debt. When the schooling is over, you’ll move to one of the expensive, high-pressure urban centers where the videogame industry is based. You’ll commute for an hour to reach a job where you’ll work long hours for pay that’s well below the industry standard. You will not be respected and your creative opinion will not be valued. You will be there to work on the assembly line to make code or art assets and nobody will want your opinion on how the game could be made more fun.
And all the while you’ll see a large portion of your hard-earned wages eaten by those ravenous student loans.
You won’t have time to look for a spouse. If you already have a spouse (maybe you met in college?) you won’t get to spend much time with them, which puts you way above the average person for risk of divorce. (Or a plain old messy, complicated break-up, if you’re not into the whole marriage thing.) When the project ends (or just before the game ships) you’ll be fired as a cost-cutting measure.
You’ll struggle to pay the bills (maybe you’ll run up your credit cards?) until you can land another job in the industry. Maybe it will be for another company across town. Maybe it’ll be for the same company that fired you five months ago, now that they’re ramping up the next project. In either case, you’ll be entering on the ground floor again. You might gain experience and you’re certainly gaining age, but your pay isn’t likely to go up very much since you can’t stay in any place long enough to build any kind of seniority.
After a few years of this you’ll be cured of your desire to work on video games, and more than anything else you’ll just want a steady job where you can work less than 60 hours a week, pay the bills, and not have to go job hunting every 18 months. But then you’ll discover that your skills have very little utility outside of computer games. A regular software company doesn’t need you.
And before you argue, “That’s just what life is like in corporate America!” No, no it isn’t. Sure, some companies overwork and under-pay their employees. But in other industries that’s the exception. In video games, it’s the norm. I ran into a lot of computer science types in my days as a professional, and I never met (or even heard of!) anybody who worked the kind of hours they work you at a AAA studio. And never for so little pay.
Sometime around your 30th birthday you’ll leave the industry in disgust and start over elsewhere, with nothing to show for the last decade of your life except unhealthy weight gain, a crippling pile of debt, and your name in the credits of a bunch of 6-out-of-10 video games. The industry will not miss you. Every year, thousands more kids march out the front doors of that same game college where you went, like a never-ending parade of clone troopers. The big publishers will be happy to hire them and let you wander off to figure out what to do with the rest of your life.
I admit, everything I wrote above is based entirely on anecdotes. The thing is, anecdotes are all we have to go on. The only time we see inside this industry is when someone leaves. Everyone else is bound by company policy and non-disclosure agreements to keep their mouth shut. You can argue that it’s possible that all those silent people are getting rich and having fun making video games, but that sounds ridiculously unlikely to me. Based on what we’ve seen and heard, things are at least this bad. And given the never-ending tide of game college grads, I don’t see an end in sight. It’s supply-and-demand. And right now the supply of desperate new grads is so high that publishers don’t need to treat them well.
I’m not saying don’t go into video games. I’m just saying you should avoid the very obvious path to the front door of a AAA developer. I’m not saying that there aren’t happy endings. I’m sure some people have made it. And not all companies are heartless meat-grinders. (Gossip says working for Valve is pretty nice.) But you asked for my advice (not really, but this is how columns work) and so I gave it. Your odds of success are low, the cost is high, and your life is shorter than you think. (The gap between 20 and 30 feels nothing like the gap between 10 and 20.)
I know this sounds pretty grim. Next week I’ll have more concrete (and less depressing) advice if you’re still interested in making games.
Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank. You can read more of his work here.