September 23, 2005

So you want to major in video games?

You certainly can. Your parents might think it's self-indulgent compared to traditional majors, so you might have to explain economic realities to them. It's a $10 billion-a-year industry, and it needs people trained in the complex technology and design it takes to make a game.

IN THE COMMENTS: Warnings that employees do poorly in the video game industry.

17 comments:

Steve Lewis said...

You could, but since everybody wants to be a rockstar game maker, the pay is low, the hours are horrible, and the risk is high.

Be said...

Steve: that's exactly what most all my developer friends say - they'd love to work in that realm, but they like to have some disposable income and a life.

Recently I heard that in the UK game production is considered so potentially profitable that subsidy is available for people who want to start those sorts of companies.

DaveG said...

Steve is exactly right. It may be a $10 billion industry, but it is not one that benefits the workers. I'm not particularly fond of unions, but those developers really need to form a guild and insist that the types of royalties paid to the voice actors go to the heads down, in the trenches developers too.

Matthew said...

I have two friends who work for two different video game companies here in Madison. To put it diplomatically, you have to want to make video games pretty badly.

Oh, the hell with diplomacy. These guys regularly put in 50 hour weeks, but when deadlines loom they have to settle for catching two or three hours of sleep on an office couch. One of my friends took a $15,000 pay cut to go from commercial software development (graphic user interfaces) to do basically the same work on video games, many more hours a week.

Even so, I have a third friend who, knowing all this, wants to break into the business.

Jack said...

Matthew: Exactly. That is why no guild is necessary and why any attempt to start one would fail. People don't go into this field for the money, they do it because they love gaming. I have a freind who says the same thing. I probably make twice what he does in my "traditional" programming job, but he wouldn't trade places for anything. When you think of game programming, the relevant metaphor is painter or poet, not accountant.

Eli Blake said...

So that gives people a right to screw them over?

I agree with the guild (or heck, call it a union if that's what it is) idea. Here is why:

Let me tell you about a man named Jim. He loved what he did. And he was very, very good at it. He created something beautiful, and wanted to share it with the world. And he found some people in the right industry and he did share it with the world.

Later, Jim's work was so popular that he was known the world over. And he was still living just above the poverty line because he wasn't an accountant, and the people who made millions off of Jim barely gave him enough to eat. In fact, Jim once owned a collection of antique instruments, and delighted in playing old songs on instruments from the same time. But he had to hock them before he started selling records.

Jim tragically died in a plane crash at age 30, and his family still doesn't get any royalties from his creations.

Operator, let's forget about this call
There's no one there I really wanted to talk to
Thank you for your time
Oh you've been so much more than kind
And you can keep the dime


Jim Croce, 1943-1973.

Not everybody's talents run to finances.

A Professional organization would prevent these people from being taken advantage of.

Bruce Hayden said...

One problem here is that a lot of the gaming programming has gone off-shore, to, for example, India, where you have a lot of very talented programmers willing to work for a lot less than they would here (and still live better than most others in that country).

Be said...

Not to mention that if Britain's subsidising the industry, we might end up with a 'dumping' situation not completely unlike what got us into the whole steel tariff ugliness.

downtownlad said...

That's completely misleading Bruce.

Yes - tech jobs have moved to India, but the pay continues to rise quite steadily.

Sure - it stalled or went down a little during the dot com bust, but that had nothing to do with India.

Tech is bouncing back again and salaries are rising.

I'm somewhat of an expert in this area. I work in the field and I have plenty of people who work for me in India too.

Sure - we're hiring a lot there. But the price for programmers here in New York keeps going up, up, up.

It's pure supply and demand. More programmers would rather be coding for video game companies than insurance companies. Shocker.

Revenant said...

I don't see how this is any different from going to college with the intention of being a writer or an artist. Your hourly pay is going to suck, sure, but you get to do something creative and enjoyable.

OddD said...

Besides which, you can make a game yourself and sell it yourself. And it can become the bestselling game of all time.

http://www.gamespot.com/pc/strategy/rollercoastertycoon/index.html?q=RollerCoast+tYCOON

I don't know a single professional who wants unions anywhere in their business. Part of what makes programming so great is that it's largely a meritocracy. There are a lot of mediocre programmers, people who do it because it's something to do ("it's a living") but they're not well-respected and they're not rewarded as the greats are (nor should they be).

In addition, game-making, like movie-making stands to become a field that could explode with creativity (despite the Big Players' love of not doing anything different ever) if children are given the right tools at the right time.

Coppola once said (roughly) that the next generation of great filmmakers was going to spring from some 14-year-old girl with a camcorder somewhere in Ohio. The next generation of great game-makers will emerge from the same neighborhoods, as gaming tools and artistic resources are made more and more accessible.

OddD said...

Besides which, you can make a game yourself and sell it yourself. And it can become the bestselling game of all time.

http://www.gamespot.com/pc/strategy/rollercoastertycoon/index.html?q=RollerCoast+tYCOON

I don't know a single professional who wants unions anywhere in their business. Part of what makes programming so great is that it's largely a meritocracy. There are a lot of mediocre programmers, people who do it because it's something to do ("it's a living") but they're not well-respected and they're not rewarded as the greats are (nor should they be).

In addition, game-making, like movie-making stands to become a field that could explode with creativity (despite the Big Players' love of not doing anything different ever) if children are given the right tools at the right time.

Coppola once said (roughly) that the next generation of great filmmakers was going to spring from some 14-year-old girl with a camcorder somewhere in Ohio. The next generation of great game-makers will emerge from the same neighborhoods, as gaming tools and artistic resources are made more and more accessible.

Unions will only hinder that.

XWL said...

Can't you say the same about studying Law or Medicine, the investment in time and effort and the strains these disciplines place on new hires and interns are legendary.

No job is worth it if your hearts not in it, all jobs have horror stories and tales of worker exploitation.

Is anyone really going to mention the hours spent reading blogs, playing fantasy football or looking at porn while on the clock, no I think not, but on the other hand an employer demands that you work a 90 hour week to finish a project and that story will last years.

The videogame industry is well compensated, the main problem is that much of the work is highly repetitive, technical and not creative, the game designers get the fun, creative bits of the job, but they are few and far between the rest are glorified data entry clerks and debuggers (albeit specialized, well trained, and often talented in their own right, and decently compensated).

Now if you wanna discuss an industry that needs unionizing what about the $20Billion per annum adult entertainment industry (more than film and video games combined)?

OddD said...

LeRoy--

I've always been suspicous of that adult entertainment figure. Seems to me that they basically lump all the sex trade together (where numbers are poorly reported) and compare the figure to movies (or here, you've summed movies and video games).

It's not apples-to-apples even when you get honest figures. So let's compare apples-to-apples: Adult BO compared to mainstream or even art-house BO?

Forbes puts the actual number for the main adult media somewhere between $2.6 and $3.9B:

http://www.forbes.com/2001/05/25/0524porn.html

That's video, internet, PPV, and magazines combined. Adult vids make up a substantial fraction of total sales, but are not larger. Same with magazine sales. I don't know about PPV, and I'm not sure how you'd compare internet sex-business with internet non-sex business. But $1B doesn't seem like very much even if it's just limited to entertainment.

Those in the adult industry are often seeking to legitimize what they do, and this is one of their most unchallenged tactics.

And sometimes, as in the case of "Deep Throat", the amount apparently concocted by the FBI, it's used to legitimize what others want to do.

G. Bob said...

I worked in the game industry for a number of years, and I would not recommend the job to anyone. Yeah, you get to work doing some really cool stuff and you'll enjoy the hell out of what you do. The flip side is the low pay, bad hours, and the gypsy lifestyle. You're the ultimate in disposable employee. For a developer, cash flow is a major issue so when your project ends, odds are you'll be looking for another job. You'll put two years into a project and in return you get a pink slip, a pat on the back the the free time on unemployment to watch the publisher rake in the big bucks off the sweat of your labors.

There is a great amount of money in games, but not in the development of them. The only winners in the business are the publishers. Here's the economics of the situation. Developers are paid like writers. You get a percentage of the profit....in theory. unlike a writer, however, development costs money. Lot's of it. The average video game costs between 3 and 6 million dollars. As a developer you don't have that revenue so the publisher will front you the cash to keep you afloat. By the time the project is done you would need to sell 100,000 units to make a profit beyond what the publisher fronted you. The average game sells about 50,000 units. You see the problem. With the average development contract, if you don't make your sales mark you'll be forced to develop another project for that publisher, and this time they'll be calling the tunes. The "company store" may not exist anymore, except in the video game industry.

If you're lucky your company will be purchased by the publisher and you'll finally see some profit...at the cost of selling everything you worked for.

Unions aren't the answer. The solution is more basic. The relationship between developer and publisher needs to change, and the only way for that to happen is to create alternate means of distribution where the publisher no longer plays a role. Once the developers are able to operate in a stable economic environment, then pay for workers can be addressed.

If anyone is seriosuly considering this as a carrer choice, drop me an e-mail. Happy to give anyone the scoop.

APF said...

There's an interesting take on the emergence of these programs on the VG newsblog Joystiq:

"”Just like when rock and roll came of age everybody wanted to be a rock star, as video games have come of age, everyone wants to be a developer” said Carolyn Rauch, senior vice president of the Entertainment Software Association, in an AP story on the subject.

"Those are valid interpretations of the phenomenon, but still only part of the big picture. Enrollment in computer science programs around the country has been dropping precipitously thanks in part to the crash of the dot-com boom and in part due to increased fears about outsourcing. In fact, one recent study revealed that 60% fewer college freshmen said they planned to major in Computer Science in 2004 versus 2000. Students are steering clear of CompSci because they see a shrinking job market.

"So what’s a computer science department to do when enrollments plummet and faculty sit around with nobody to teach? Retool to teach the hot new thing, of course. At least part of the interest in video game curriculum around the country can be attributed to this retooling process. Just one note of caution: make hay while the sun shines, folks, because outsourcing is coming to video games, too."

somross said...

My son is a film editor in the television business, and they did recently unionize: the only way they could get medical benefits to carry from one job to the next. Those expensive editing machines often run 24 hours a day, in three shifts. Jobs start and end constantly. (Every time a show is cancelled, like Ann's favorite Comeback, that's a whole slew of people out of work, at least temporarily, all of whom are scrambling as we speak to find new work). And the people who own the shows make mints of money, as do plenty of others at the upper level. But there is not much incentive to treat their workers well, even the highly skilled ones, unless they are required to do it.