When I told my mother I was dating a guy who made video games, there was a long pause on the other end of the phone.
“Is that a good way to make a living?” she asked.
She needn’t have worried. That guy, who became my husband, has a great job in a booming industry. His colleagues are smart and talented. And the salaries are nothing to sneeze at. According to Game Developer Magazine’s annual salary survey, the median salary in the video game biz is $73,000.
That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? These folks aren’t saving lives or even doing your taxes. So why would the typical game developer — whose average age is somewhere between 31 and 35 — make twice as much as the average social worker?
“Because the industry as a whole makes a lot of money,” says Matthew Tateishi, a San Francisco-based game designer with nearly 13 years of experience. “And for the most part, a lot of that gets passed on to the employees.”
Big business, big salaries
Of course you’ve read the stories about game-industry revenues topping $12.5 billion in the United States last year. Video games are big business. I know my mom read that story. It’s bragging ammo when her friends look skeptical about her son-in-law’s profession.
But if you think game-makers spend all day playing “Quake,” think again. This is a fast-paced, competitive business with inflexible ship dates and punishing hours.
“If you want to work nine to five, this is the wrong industry,” says David Riley of the NPD Group. “Deadlines are fierce.”
So are the pressures. Only about 10 percent of games released in a given year will make any real money. And every few years, the technology changes — new hardware, new software.
“Who knows how to program for the PS3 right now? Nobody.” says Marc Mencher, president of GameRecruiter.com. “It’s a limited talent pool.”
Steep learning curve
To stay cutting edge, development teams need to learn all new systems every couple of years. Artist, programmers, designers — nobody’s exempt from the steep learning curve. And the fan base can be punishing if a game doesn’t meet expectations.
This tends to translate into some pretty long hours — called “crunch” in the game biz. The industry is rife with horror stories that sound like urban legends: Two years worth of 70-hour weeks, no weekends. Postponed weddings until ship dates. Guys phoning the office from the delivery room.
“Full-time game developers in most states are classified as exempt, meaning they're not eligible for overtime,” says Jill Duffy, managing editor of Game Developer Magazine and the principal researcher on the salary survey. “Developers do work immense amounts of overtime.”
Game Developer’s survey cuts across all disciplines in the industry: art, design, programming, business and quality assurance. And it’s a national average, pulling in salaries earned by developers in places like North Carolina as well as high-rent areas like San Francisco.
High cost of living
With a few notable exceptions, most game development hubs are in expensive areas like the Bay Area, Los Angeles and Seattle. So when you factor in cost of living, says Marc Mencher, president of gamerecruiter.com, that average salary just isn’t that high.
“That might be the average across America,” he says. “But who’s going to be able to live on $73,000 in San Francisco?”
One of the most telling metrics of the survey, says Duffy, are the home-ownership numbers. While California game-makers pull in the most money — a median of $79,000 per year — only 36 percent of those surveyed own a home.
“The outdated American standard of having a wife and a kid and a house is pretty hard in the Bay Area,” says Dan Chao, a producer and designer with PlayFirst in San Francisco.
Chao, who got a degree in computer science, worked as a programmer in the “core” games industry — the one that gives you PlayStation, “World of Warcraft” and “Final Fantasy.” A few years ago, he switched gears out of programming, and then into the more relaxed casual games industry.
“People are getting paid less in casual games,” he says. “But you can really leave work at 6 or 5:30 and you’re not sitting there working until 2 in the morning.”
Wanted: Better quality of life
Quality of life issues are coming to the fore in game development, says Mencher. As game developers move from their 20s into their 30s, they want more stable jobs — and are even willing to trade life in the hubs for lower-cost areas.
“Five or six years ago, it was impossible to pull people from San Francisco and L.A.,” he says. “Now I call and they say ‘get me out of here.’”
Some developers “age out,” tired of the long hours, the constant pressure and the ever-present fear of the pink slip. Which is why it’s so important, says Duffy, for young people looking at games as a career to know what they’re in for — and have a backup plan. “You’re very likely to get fed up with the game industry,” she says.
Such was the case with Ron Little, a senior-level programmer from Half Moon Bay, Calif., who left the business altogether in 2001.
“I took a salary cut to go out of game industry, but I was tired of the volatility,” he says. “I wanted more time with family.”
But after programming tools for a civil engineering company for nearly six years, he accepted a position as a senior software engineer at Sony — back in games, with a significant salary bump.
But Little says he’s motivated to jump back into the fray for reasons other than money.
“It’s enticing to have your work be appreciated by a lot of people,” he says. “And it’s a rush to see your product on store shelves.”
Christine Miller, a Seattle-based level designer with seven years of experience, agrees. “$73,000 sounds great until you realize you've just spent 6 months or more working 80 hour weeks, your friends forgot who you are and you haven’t seen your new niece or nephew yet,” she says.
“But I can't picture doing anything else.”