Television ads tell people they can make money playing videogames. Sounds like a dream job, right? The truth is, making games is a job like any other. It takes a lot of work and probably won’t make you rich.
“Just because you talk about elves all day doesn’t mean you aren’t working – negotiating, documenting, planning and researching,” said Sanya Weathers, the Director of Community Relations for Fairfax, Virginia’s EA Mythic.
In recent years, the price of creating a videogame has skyrocketed. Like many industries, what was once a one-man job now requires dozens of full-time developers, the backing of major corporations and, according to a recent report on GameDaily BIZ, as much as a $25 million budget.
“Designer” is the most sought-after position. These are the people who invent games. At their core, designers are responsible for making things fun. Yet, getting there requires a lot of tedium.
“I don’t play the game all day long while I’m at work,” said Jen Ortiz, a designer on EA Mythic’s Dark Age of Camelot. “Seriously, I’m usually [too] buried in Excel sheets, product quality reports, poll results, team lead reports, emails and document writing of my own to even look at the game at work.”
The computer science department of any university is chock-full of kids who say they would love to program games. Once again, the reality is not that different from any other job.
“A game company runs exactly the same as any software company,” said Steve Pope, a Software Engineer at EA in Burnaby, British Columbia. He explained how only the end product differs. The work that goes in is much the same in any software field.
Sometimes, the role of producer is promoted as a good target for those who are not artists or programmers. The producers run the ship, keep things balanced and, while they may not be the masters of any aspect of gaming, they are often veterans who fully understand the realities and interplay of them all.
“I manage project senior staff to ensure high-level teamwork and effectiveness,” explained Daron Stinnett, the Executive Producer of Perpetual Entertainment’s upcoming Star Trek Online. “I set overall project direction and, when necessary, make decisions between conflicting goals.” Stinnett also explained how the producer must be aware of the market as a whole to make sure that the vision of his team stays in line with what the average gamer wants.
Despite the growth of the game industry over the last few years, paychecks are also not quite what people expect.
“People also think we’re all rich. In reality, we make less money than we would [by] doing the same job anywhere else,” said Weathers. She went on to explain how the sheer popularity of the industry means that game companies can offer candidates less money than competitors – such as the government – who have less desirable job descriptions. Most game industry professionals across all job categories echoed Weathers.
“I could make more money, live in areas with a better cost of living, and work less in another industry,” says Stephen House, a Software Engineer who works for game titan EA in Los Angeles. “It’s fair, no doubt, but I turned down money to be here.”
Programming is also far and away the highest paid entry-level position in the game industry. New artists can expect a salary of $45,675.
Game developers also have to deal with the reality of deadlines and large overtime demands.
Michael Kimball, an Emmy- and Academy Award-winning sound editor, currently serves as the Studio Audio Director for Midway Games Los Angeles. He explained how typically people at his studio work 45-hour weeks, at least until “crunch time.”
Crunch time is an industry term for the last few weeks, or months, before a product ships to stores. This is when the title has to be completed by a certain date no matter what. To ship an incomplete or bug-ridden product could sink a game. In an industry where many smaller studios rely on success to fund the next project, crunch time means job security.
“It takes what it takes to get it done,” Kimball said simply.
While most developers would not say exactly how much extra time is typically required, Sanya Weathers summed it up. “Everyone puts in overtime. Sometimes a lot of overtime.”
The amount of time the typical videogame production demands can be a major hurdle for new recruits. What’s more, almost all industry jobs are salaried, with no extra dollars for those who stay late. All they earn is their continued employment.
In 2004, the issue of extreme work hours became national news when the spouse of an EA employee posted an anonymous online blog that explained exactly what was expected of her husband.
“The current mandatory hours are 9am to 10pm – seven days a week – with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30pm),” wrote the blogger who went by the pen-name “ea_spouse“. [Read “EA Spouse” Erin Hoffman’s followup on working in the industry in this week’s Escapist HERE]
A few weeks before, EA had been accused of similar abuses in a class action lawsuit filed by some of its employees. The suit was eventually settled.
Despite the drawbacks, no one interviewed was unhappy with the career path they’d taken.
“It’s work, and a lot of it, but Jesus, I talk about elves all day,” laughed Weathers. “I’m surrounded by people who like all of the stuff I like.”
Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Lead Content Editor for MMORPG.com and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.