Experienced Points: So You Want To Be a Game Developer?

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Mar 3, 2015

Filed under: Column 93 comments

My column this week is some advice to the young people considering a career in AAA videogame-making.

Something I really wanted to put in the column:

A couple of years ago I saw an ad for Full Sail University or one of the other game colleges. It said something like, “80% of graduates find a job in the industry within a year!” I was dumbfounded. Given the cost of going to one of these places (the price of a house and a couple of the most valuable years of your life) those are horrendous odds. The cynic in me read that as, “1 in 5 of the people who come to our school find the whole thing was for nothing.” I would never risk two precious years of my life on anything that risky.

I didn’t put it in the column because I can’t find the source anywhere. The game colleges apparently no longer offer post-grad placement info beyond, “We will help you!”

Also the anecdotes suggest a system where the college develops a relationship with a studio (stuff owned by EA, usually) where they just send them waves of grads who will work crunch-mode hours (80+) for months on end until they burn out, at which point there’s another wave of grads chomping at the bit, waiting for their turn at living the dream. So even if the placement rate was 98%, it would still be a horrible gamble, since leaving the industry in disgust and disillusionment is arguable worse than not getting a job at all. The actual success rate – the number of people who find good jobs with hours and pay that allow for a normal life – is probably really tiny.

But I can’t begin to back any of that up, and I didn’t want to build a point around a single barely-recalled data point. I mean, I can’t back any of it up, but I tried to stick with stuff that’s more or less accepted as common knowledge.

Also: If you DO work in the industry then please tell your story. If it was awesome, say so. If it was horrible, say so. Young people are making life-changing decisions and the only information we have are the gushing promises of game colleges and the occasional “development hell” scandal. Your story might change someone’s life.


From The Archives:

93 thoughts on “Experienced Points: So You Want To Be a Game Developer?

  1. gresman says:

    Dear Shamus and everyone reading this!

    I did not read your column yet but you asked for stories. So I will provide my little piece of insider knowledge here.

    I studied Game Engineering for two years. I go my Masters Degree. I was not easy and I do not regret it. Currently I am employed at a small studio in Austria. I am working in the lower ranks. Maybe this is an exaggeration but most people would see it that way. I am a QA dude. I like my job and the hours are mostly good. I was lucky to get the job and environment at work is mostly good.
    Sometimes everyone in the office has to work overtime but everyone is fully behind what we are doing. It is now my fifth year in QA and I worked with colleagues who started in QA but moved on to other departments. Sometimes I get frustrated over such a fact especially if everything seems to be stacked against the QA and we do not get the time or ressources we need to do our jobs properly, but we do the best we can. But the important thing is I am happy to do the job and I am happy to work with the people I work with.
    It is great to work in a place where everyone wants to create the best product possible given the circumstances. This leads to a weird rollercoaster ride where the highs get higher and setbacks hit that harder.

    Yes it is not triple A development or any other great name stuff but most colleagues do the job because they love it and that is a great feeling. Often it feels like a weird family. Including all the baggage like the friction between people or close friendships. For me it is the best that could have happened to me and there are a lot of stories there especially with the colleagues who worked with me for a long time or I worked with them for a long time.

    I hope I could make my self sort of clear. I am a bit tired and on my way to bed but I wanted to add something to the discussion. maybe someone finds it inspriring or interesting what I had to say.

    1. MichaelGC says:

      Definitely! – both, and I’m some decades-past being the nominal target audience. (“Not triple A” might well be the key phrase, as you’ll probably see later.)

      PS This week’s column might be a good candidate for the absent ‘crank’ hyperlink!

      (Not that I would personally endorse that as a descriptor. Particularly not these days. But that’s just me.)

    2. Joe Informatico says:

      Just out of curiosity, did you have to pay for your tuition, or did you attend school in a place where post-secondary education is paid for or heavily subsidized by the state?

      If you had to pay for all or part of your tuition, do you know if your degree was significantly more expensive than a comparable degree in a non-gaming discipline? Say something like computer science or software engineering?

      Thanks for sharing!

      1. gresman says:

        I studied in Austria and had to pay the same tuition all students at semi private universities do.

        In Austria you do not have to pay tuition when visiting public universities unless you take to long to get your degree.

        The tuition was about 900$ a year i would guess(I am converting here from Euro). But this is the same tuition at every university.

        There are some private institution that offer courses which are way more expensive than the universities (about 6000$ per year) and are not as good. But this information is only second hand.

        Thank you for your question. If there are any more questions I am happy to answer them all.

        1. Tizzy says:

          Yeah.. so not quite the price of a house yet. Good!

        2. guy says:

          In the US tuition tends to be considerably higher. Even for public universities, $900 a year is tiny. Private universities can have tuition around $40,000. There’s a stupidly overcomplicated system for getting scholarships and extremely generous loan terms, but even for people who get lucky with that it’ll usually cost thousands of dollars.

        3. Cuthalion says:

          Yeah… I went to a mid-tier private college in the US, and it was $2100… per class. Per semester. Full-year expenses came to about $30,000 on the recommended course load, including books, food, etc. (Tuition was about $22,400 of that.) You’re expected to do 4 years for the standard American bachelor’s degree. In the US, either you’re rich, or you borrow a lot of money and get all the government grants you can. (The end is that I graduated with about $17,000 debt for 3 years at that school. My previous schooling had been at much cheaper schools: a tiny religious college for a year and a decent community college for two years, the latter for free through a government program for high schoolers.)

          College/university costs vary wildly in the US based on your previous grades, your income level, and the school you’re attending.

        4. CJ Kerr says:

          The tuition was about 900$ a year i would guess(I am converting here from Euro). But this is the same tuition at every university.

          As others have noted, this is very cheap compared to much of the world. Here in Australia courses are subsidised quite heavily, and still come out more than $900 (well, about that much at the current exchange rate) – around $1100 AUD per class per semester, or over $30,000 AUD for my engineering degree.

          (We do get a government loan with very generous terms, though – no “real” interest, just indexed to inflation, and not payable until you earn over about $55,000 per annum.)

          1. gresman says:

            Yes i know that this is very cheap and I am quite happy that we have that here in Austria. i am personally quite vocal each time someone in the government wants to raise the fees for studying. I see it as some kind of give everyone who wants the chance to better himself the chance to do so.
            I see it as the population pays my tuition so I can better myself and that I am able to earn more which will pay for someone else’s tuition or whatever else. This even allows persons who do not have that much money to get better and to be the best they can be.

            I have a few annotations left: Lodging and food is not included in my calculations as well as books, scripts and hardware needed to study. But even there there are options for students to get that cheaper.

            Someone in the comments mentioned the “just learn how to do it” teaching approach. This one is quite prevalent at the public universities. It never sat well with me and did not help me that much. There always was a weird discord between what was taught and what was needed for exercises. Always felt somewhat as a way to flush out students who did not have the prerequisite knowledge. It gets worse if a lot of students do not want to share their knowledge to help because “you have to find the answer yourself”.
            At the university where I got my degree it was better but if the teachers did not like you you had to work twice or thrice as hard to get worse grades than the rest.

            My whole point being that the system is in general quite rigid and is not able to give students the challenge they need and the way they could learn best.

            Sorry for sidetracking here but I wanted to say it to adjust the perspective a bit.

    3. Galad says:

      As a game QA, does your pay allow you to live comfortably, even saving a little? That’s the one important criticism I’ve heard of this branch in my part of the world (South-Eastern Europe)

      1. gresman says:

        My master’s degree and me working for 4 years now helps a lot. With a bit of saving and not going overboard with expenses and knowing how to get additional funds it is easy to live comfortably.

        Having experience and having a degree increases your salary a bit. But compared to other branches you will earn less as QA as say a programmer, producer or artist. But not significantly.

        That is another nice thing to have that all salaries are comparatively close together.

  2. Ilseroth says:

    I actually was going to RIT for Information Tech a few years back, just before Game Dev programs were actually a thing (they were developing one at the time, but didn’t actually offer it as a major) and I managed to get disillusioned prior to even graduating. I went to college because I wanted to go into game development and didn’t really do too much research into the *industry* of Game Development.

    I did modding and level design while in high school and thought it would be great to take it to the next level as a career.

    But when I got into college I took a step back and actually looked at the industry… keep in mind this was also before the big Indie boom on the PC or I might have just stuck it out. All I saw was the Triple A grindhouse and I just was so staggered that I dropped out.

    I still code and do random dev stuff from time to time, but I am currently going back to school for Biology… Even if the field I am interested in is… not likely to be economically viable… oh well.

    1. cognimancer says:

      Oh hey, I also went to RIT! I minored in Game Design & Development (majored in CS) with the intention of going into the industry. Partway through I started doing games journalism as a newswriter, just as a side job. I don’t think I’d say I was “disillusioned” by that experience, but it was a combination of a lot of things – hearing about the AAA downsides, learning how comfortable life could be at a more traditional software development job, and discovering that I could find satisfaction making smaller games in my free time with the ever-increasing availability of dev tools. So that’s what I did – I may not be making games full-time, but if I have the freedom to pursue it as a hobby with much more livable hours and salary.

      1. Ilseroth says:

        This is… pretty much what I do, except I decided to go back to school into another field but with the same concept. Since Unity (and Unreal Engine now, but I haven’t fiddled with that yet) are free to mess with; it lets me get my dev kick in prototyping stuff out and then go back to what I was doing. Sure I don’t make money from it, but every project I do teaches me something new about Unity, coding and development and maybe I’ll get one that feels good enough to push past… that point.

        (That point being the point where I actually have to do 3D Modeling/Animating to make art assets to continue forward with development… I know I could just make box figures, but when you put a certain level of work into one facet of the game it feels awkward to put no effort into the other. It is like you building a great foundation, then setting up a Lean-to)

    2. Hal says:

      A background in coding will make you a rockstar in the genomics field. Or you can go into many of the various computational biology fields; I’m not sure what their employment is like. Many of the instrument manufacturers make their own software as well, so that’s still a good way to go.

      If you want to get into biology without the coding . . . good luck. The field is utterly saturated; many employers have moved to contract work, and your value is entirely defined by the number of years you have spent on specific techniques and protocols. The specific combinations of techniques required can be very difficult to achieve for most people.

      1. Zak McKracken says:

        What Hal says, basically:
        A career in biology is not easy if you want to stay in research at least (it’s either underpaid, overworked academic jobs with a looong cue for funding or big pharma industry)

        Except: Even knowing that you cannot downscale a jpeg, upscale it again and retain good printing quality is not standard knowledge for many biologists I know, and biology is having more and more intersections with image analysis and systems theory, so there might well be a very nice niche for someone who can code and knows biology. Either in research or in one of the companies offering analysis tools, both software and hardware (the latter running software, too).

        And the mandatory note: What someone studies should not be determined solely by where the money is. If your heart’s not in it it’ll be harder, and if it’s the thing you like and want to know, then by all means do it while you can.

        1. Hal says:

          What someone studies should not be determined solely by where the money is. If your heart's not in it it'll be harder, and if it's the thing you like and want to know, then by all means do it while you can.

          I don’t disagree with this, but I just wanted to give fair warning; when someone decides to leave one deeply dysfunctional employment field for another deeply dysfunctional employment field, it seems warranted.

          The employment saturation of the biosciences is sort of an elephant in the room: It’s obvious to anyone who is paying attention, but there’s almost zero acknowledgment of it, at least from the places that really matter. Academics don’t talk about it (and your cell biology professor is likely to be entirely ignorant of it, unless he’s an underpaid adjunct. Even then.) Industry heads enjoy it because it means cheap labor in a field where money is always tight. Universities take advantage of cheap labor, too, in the form of grad students and post-docs. Politicians love preening about the need for more STEM workers. People write endless articles and columns about ways of solving the problem, but most are ignored because of expense and momentum.

          This is not to say it’s a field bereft of opportunity, but like game design, it is becoming increasingly difficult to capitalize on said opportunities. I live in a regional biotech hub, and I’ve tried for three years, unsuccessfully, to find a different job.

          This is just “full disclosure” for someone who might not have realized that the life sciences are not an employment land of milk and honey.

  3. Phill says:

    I used to work in the games industry as a programmer. I was hired on a low salary with the vague promise that I’d see it go up once I had proved myself (coming from an academic science background doing programming as a hobby, rather than any kind of real coding experience or training). No-one is going to be surprised to learn that that vague promise wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, but it was the best option I had at the time.

    It started out okay, with a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, and a company policy of ‘overtime is optional, but if you could help out, it would be appreciated’.

    A few years later, the old managing director left due to personality clashes, and a new guy bought his share out. His first act was to sack about 20% of the workforce, because he reckoned he could outsource their work more cheaply. It transpired that a) he couldn’t and b) more people left because they started looking for other jobs when they weren’t sure if they were on the chopping block or not.

    Then stupid management decisions started turning up: work hour flexibility was reduced (meaning I got home to my family almost an hour later), lunch break was a fixed time rather than being flexible, anyone who didn’t do ‘enough’ overtime started being called in to meeting to discuss their lack of commitment, we moved to new (cheaper) offices where we were crammed in with about 3-4 times as many people in the same space as before, we no longer had a company gym and break room (since the ‘break room’ was usually in use for meetings.

    Every few months someone got fired, which is unusual in the UK where you can’t fire someone at will like you can in the US. A lot of people left (quite a few to a new branch of a major studio, which stayed open for about 2 years before being shut down again). This was all in the name of ‘bringing our working practices in line with industry standards’. Sadly, that’s probably true. It went from being a poorly paid job with a decent working culture to a really crappy one where the management philosophy was that everyone worked their hardest when in fear of losing their job at any moment. Morale? It’s a foreign word.

    Eventually I got so miserable that after discussing it with my wife, I quit without having a new job to go to. I wasn’t the first or the last person there to do this – they’ve acquired something of a staff retention problem.

    The good news is that I got a job 6 weeks later outside the games industry, in a mmuch happier environment, with a shorter commute, more flexible hours, better working conditions and benefits, better job security and about 1/3 more pay. Hard to think of a downside really…

    I think the started trying to adopt the “burn and churn” strategy of microsoft – hire cheap graduates, get them to work stupidly long hours (because for your average nerdy comp sci graduate, spending your evenings working on games with your friends is better than a ‘real’ social life anyway), and then when they wise up and start expecting to have better pay or a life outside work, then get rid of them and replace them with more graduates. But now they’ve started doing more and more publishing of indie games, since they can get stuff on to steam easily enough, and I imagine that appeals to the bosses more. Even dumb graduates expect some kind of salary. Indie developers on the other hand work 90 hour weeks in their bedrooms for money that works out way, way below the minimum hourly wage (say hi to Rutskarn ;) ) and you have no employee/employer obligations to them. And with a bit of QA and polish, they’ll probably sell just as well, for a fraction of the cost.

    The managament are doing pretty well out of it all I think. I just took exception at basically being told that we had to work more unpaid overtime to make sure the boss got more money. If I wanted to do charity work, it wouldn’t be for his benefit.

    My only regret is not leaving sooner.

    1. Matt Downie says:

      What sort of non-games job? My programming skills seem so specialized I sometimes wonder if I could get work doing anything else…

      1. Phill says:

        In my case, it was software for set top boxes for satellite and cable TV.

        Not, perhaps the best example though: their recruitment visibility is pretty poor, so they are chronically looking for programmers, and the developers in the same area I know who were looking for jobs mostly didn’t know this company existed.

        I’m also not an entirely typical example, since I have a hard-science PhD, and the combination of a degree or PhD in a numerate subject (maths, engineering, physics, chemistry etc.) and decent programming skills is in short supply and high demand. If I’d been willing to move my family, I could have doubled my previous salary more or less on demand (albeit in a very high cost of living area).

        My opinions, below, take with a suitably large grain of salt.

        Coders are generally in demand, but there is a large under-supply of coders with additional technical expertise. Which might not help anyone looking to move on from games, but the more technical science or R&D stuff is probably a good area to look anyway, since a) they are more likely to be using C++ (or similar) than ‘typical’ programming jobs and b) the kind of general technical development is probably most similar to games development anyway, so the broad skills are transferable. Plus such companies tend to put a higher value on employees and so will appreciate someone who has learned good coding practices by experience, and they tend to be staffed by people who are technicicans first and who learned coding later, rather than out-and-out programmers. So they are more open to finding coding skills in unexpected places.

        The jobs you probably should’t waste time looking at are business / SQL development, devops, etc. Anything that involves java, databases, admin systems, web coding, PHP. That’s the sort of thing a shiny new comp sci graduate can do perfectly well, and probably better than someone who has been in games for a while.

        (EDIT to add: embedded software development might also be worth a look; you can draw parallels between console development and embedded development, although you might need specific language experience such as “Embedded C” before they’ll consider you except at entry level)

  4. Spammy says:

    My cousin went to DeVry or one of those other schools heavily advertising “You can make video games!” years ago. After graduating he struggled to find a job he could apply his education to. Now he works at a hospital doing programming and server maintenance stuff for them.

  5. cavalier says:

    You can find the actual details of graduation rates, employment, etc., from any school of higher education by looking at the Consumer Disclosure link. It’s usually small but it has to be there. It’s a little confusing because it has to be broken up by variations of the program. But yes, it is an 80% placement for their Game Design program.

  6. Blake says:

    I’ve spent the last 7-8 years working for an independant studio in Australia that has around 30 people (started straight out of university). We do niche titles on a not-huge budget (but for all the modern platforms) and that keeps everyone steadily employed.
    We’ve had a few projects that have had nasty crunch times, and deal with the usual amounts of getting underpaid for our qualifications but we make things we are proud of and on the whole it’s not that bad.

    Nobody is surprised when somebody decides to leave though as (at least on the programming side) we could all get much better deals outside of the industry.

    Working for an independant studio means I haven’t had to deal with the AAA industry cycle, and honestly the idea is a bit horrifying. I think faced with that proposition I’d probably just leave games and get a job that pays better.

  7. DaMage says:

    I am currently in a degree that would be the closest equivalent my university has to a gaming degree, which is a double degree in IT and Multimedia. However I have moved away from games and towards research and am looking to getting into a paid phd study. From other people I know that have been through the same path as me and into games I have some observations. Note, this is in Australia.

    Just getting your passing grades through uni and getting out the end will make it really hard to get a job, standout grades and solid portfolio can make up for the lack of experience when applying for your first job. Most of the people I know that complain about not being able to get a job with their degree are the ones that never put much effort into uni.

    Stay away from targetted ‘Game Design’ courses, and instead focus on more general 3D design, Programming or Management courses. The good thing about these more general IT courses is they tend to be run better and provide skills that are useful no matter what job area you end up in.

    If you can afford to do it, internships and vacation programs are a good why to get that much needed experience before you graduate, it just they tend to pay terrible. Doing one early enough may also allow you to reconsider what area of IT you are actually interested in and adjust your degree accordingly.

    Always have a backup plan. There is no guarantee that you will get that job in games development, so have a second area you would like to get into. Even if your first job is a code monkey at generic software developer, as long as you have the skills in software development you’ll be fine and it will give you more time to find your ‘dream’ job in games.

  8. mewse says:

    Here’s mine.

    I knew I wanted to be a game developer since I was seven. That’s when my father brought home an Apple ][+ computer, taught me to program it using AppleBasic. My father wasn’t a programmer or an engineer — he was a junior lawyer. And he tended to work 60-hour weeks, and had a long commute. I’d hardly see him during the week, since he’d leave for work before I woke up, and would often return home after I’d gone to bed. It occurs to me now that he must have been teaching himself to program in the evenings, just so he could spend time with me on the weekends, teaching me what he’d taught himself only a few nights before. But I didn’t know that at the time. At the time, it only seemed natural that Dads know everything, more or less automatically.

    Within a few weeks or months, I surpassed my father’s knowledge, and began to self-teach programming. I was making simple games for my friends at a very young age. I made my first commercial sale at 18 (for more money than I could even conceive of at the time; approximately what I’d currently consider “one month’s rent”. Or at the time, “several years of allowance”).

    All of which is just laying groundwork to explain this first little gotcha in my career path; when I went to university, I’d already been programming (and occasionally making money programming) for the majority of my life. I’d already been using C++ for four years. And so the introductory computer science courses they insisted I take were the most boring things I’d ever had to sit through. And so I dropped out of computer science, and majored in psychology instead.

    Soon after graduation, I started looking for a game programming job, and discovered that the lack of a computer science degree was more of a problem than I’d expected (3DO didn’t want to hire me as a programmer, but thought I might do great at tracking their office supplies. Really). I eventually landed myself a QA job with Maxis, before the EA buyout. There are plenty of stories at Maxis (early peeks at nascent ‘The Sims’, the Greek Tragedy-like inevitable fall of the company, the aftermath of the EA buyout, etc), but I’m going to skip ahead; After six months, I jumped to my first real game programming job, which involved moving overseas. I was hired by Melbourne House, sometimes known as Beam Software. So I packed my things, kissed my parents goodbye, and moved to Australia. (I was hired because of a killer portfolio, despite my lack of a computer science degree. I got *extremely* lucky. I can’t recommend others follow my path, although having the background in psychology also proved extremely useful)

    And this is where the meat of the story is. Melbourne House was a brilliant place for a young programmer. The studio was one of the Grand Old Dames of the games industry, having started up in 1978, and with many of its employees still present from way back then. Having access to *so many* brilliant minds was amazing, and something that you quickly learn to rely upon. The studio changed hands a few times, after 2000, first to Infogrames (who then acquired rights to the Atari trademark and switched their name), and then to Krome Studios, but the studio remained largely unchanged; it remained in the same building for most of its life, with the same core staff. I worked there for 14 years before the studio finally was shut down, and I wasn’t in the top ten list of longest-serving programmers.

    I am who I am today in large part because of Melbourne House, and the friends and colleagues I met while working there.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. Melbourne House was a fantastic place for a programmer to work, but it was also often aggravating due to mandated crunch times, etc. And it was much less fantastic if you weren’t a programmer. Game studios can often be defined by the personalities of their founders. Melbourne House was founded and managed by programmers. So they preferred to work in a programmer-centered way; artists and designers were there to serve the programmers. Krome was founded and managed by artists, and so viewed programmers and designers as being there to serve the artists. Maxis was founded by designers. You get the idea. I had a fantastic time at Melbourne House, but less so at Krome. Whereas some artist friends of mine had real problems at Melbourne House, which were alleviated when Krome bought the studio and development practices changed.

    So Melbourne House has been gone for several years, now, and I’ve had a few other jobs. I spent some time at an EA studio. I spent some time at a few non-gaming industry jobs. And I’m currently working for myself, making an indie game (something I’ve wanted to do for years). But one thing has been the same ever since Melbourne House shut down.

    At Melbourne House, even at the end, I always felt like a small fish in a big pond. There were a dozen programmers there who were smarter than me, faster than me, who knew things I didn’t know, and who had interesting alternate perspectives on problems. When I ran into troubles, there were all sorts of authorities I could go to for help.

    But wherever I go now, I’m always the most experienced programmer in the room. I might have a few knowledgeable colleagues, and definitely some specialists in areas I don’t know about, but nobody with the same breadth and depth of experience, and certainly nobody who would be called a ‘mentor’. And making that sudden switch from feeling like a novice to being the absolute authority was, for me, the hardest thing about leaving Melbourne House.

    So I’m one of the “actual successes” in Shamus’s writeup. There weren’t a lot of us, I imagine. I just happened to land at exactly the right studio to have a good time. (Imagine if I’d successfully become a programmer at 3DO, or at Maxis; knowing what happened at those companies, either one would have been a far less pleasant ride!) There was crunch (including one absolute death march), but not the consistent problems that you hear about from other studios. The company kept its talent close, and didn’t follow the “work people until they burn out, then get new university graduates” trend. Even our junior programmers would have been called senior programmers anywhere else.

    Of course, the company eventually went bankrupt. So it’s not an option any more (or I’d still be working there today). These days, virtually all the mid-sized studios are gone. There are a few ‘AAA’ behemoths still lumbering around (where you’re a vanishingly small cog in a huge machine), but mostly these days we’re seeing lots of small development companies forming; companies of one to eight people, where there’s unlikely to be a chance to find a mentor to help hone your skills.

    I don’t know what I’d recommend for someone who wanted to go into games, today. The opportunities simply don’t seem to be there any more, the way that they were when I was starting out. From my point of view, I absolutely hit the jackpot. But I’m not sure if there’s still a jackpot to be hit, any more. At least, if you’re thinking about game development as a long-term career.

    1. krellen says:

      I remember Melbourne House. They made the wonderful War in Middle Earth game I spent far too much time playing in my youth.

      1. Joshua says:

        My first ever PC game! I’ve found download sites here and there, but the game never seems to run as well. My wife and I now play Lord of the Rings Online (since Beta), and I know a lot of the geography from playing War in Middle Earth, not just from reading the books.

      2. mewse says:

        Oh dear lord. I loved that game, and it wasn’t until this very comment that I realised that it was released by Melbourne House.

        I probably worked beside people who worked on it, and never knew it.

        (checks credits for the game)

        Ah, nope. Melbourne House only published it; it was developed in Seattle by Synergistic Software, who also developed Thexder and Silpheed.

        1. JTippetts says:

          Thexder. You know, I played that game as a kid and loved it. LOVED it. But I couldn’t for the life of me remember the name. Periodically throughout my life I would think “that one game was pretty awesome. What was it called?” and come up blank. Google searches helped not at all. “game where you turn from a robot into a spaceship and shoot lasers” really doesn’t turn up much of use in this day and age. Or maybe it turns up TOO MUCH of use.

          When I read Thexder in your post, it literally was like getting lightly punched in the stomach. It was an “oh yeah!” moment that has been almost a lifetime in the making. You, sir/madam, can go throughout the rest of your day knowing that you resolved one of my life’s greatest mysteries.

          Now, if you could do me a favor and remind me of the name of that one adventure game where you can beat up dudes and take their stun sticks and when you fight they go all crazy with rotating around and up and down, and most of the time they kick your ass unless you already somehow have a stun stick. You know the game I’m talking about. It takes place in space or something, and it was AWESOME. Lemme have it.

  9. Matt Downie says:

    “Your story might change someone's life.”
    I’ve been working in games programming for most of the last 15 years or so.
    It’s all right I suppose.

    (Did I change anyone’s life yet?)

    1. lucky7 says:

      Yup. I’m going to become an actor, because it’s incredibly easy to get “discovered”! /snarkasm

  10. EmmEnnEff says:

    Second-hand anecdatapoint: Of the ~25 friends I stayed in touch with after university, 5 of them went into gaming. This was in 2008-2009.

    They’ve worked at a gamut of ‘Large gaming studio that starts with Electronic’, to ‘Large bankrupted gaming studio’, to ‘Medium sized sweatshop that ‘BBB’ console ports get subcontracted to’, to ‘Small, child-game-focused studio’.

    Six years later, the last one has quit. All of them now work for Mindbogglingly Large non-gaming firms.

    One of them, in the medium sized sweatshop years, after months of working Saturdays and Sundays got an offer from his employer to buy out his vacation days.

    That same employer also made him interrupt his vacation, and fly back to work, from a friend’s wedding, because of some ’emergency’.

    When said employer couldn’t secure a followup contract, they put ~60% of their staff on temporary layoff, for three months. (This means that you don’t get paid… But you are still employed. And if you find another job, you forego your severance.) Three months later, when the maximum legally permitted temporary layoff period expired, all of them were canned.

    1. Tizzy says:

      Somehow I doubt that the severance pay made up for the three unpaid months, too.

      1. EmmEnnEff says:

        Wages were poor, but compared to them, the severance wasn’t terrible (And you could start collecting unemployment insurance payments… Four weeks after you stopped getting paid), but they were definitely counting on some of those people to blink. I’m not sure if anyone did.

    2. Daemian Lucifer says:

      (This means that you don't get paid… But you are still employed. And if you find another job, you forego your severance.)

      Wait,what?Who the hell made that idiotic law?Seriously,I live in a crappy country with rampant corruption and terrible living conditions,yet even here we dont have any law as terrible as that.

      1. EmmEnnEff says:


        This little employment definition was more intended for seasonal industries – logging, fishing, some forms of mining, etc. It’s typically not used for the purposes of starving people out of severance (Since seasonal jobs have none).

        Mix of terrible management with a complete lack of scruples, and you’ll get the gaming industry.

      2. 4th Dimension says:

        No but here, at least in Montenegro, untill they actually get around to applying new laws, they would do a similar thing by keeping you on monthly contracts. This way they can “fire” you any month they want by simply not concluding a new contract with you.

        New laws are supposed to stop that by making it impossible for the employer to keep employing you via such “temp” employment contracts for more than a year or two if I remember, IF you don’t work in a field that is based on seasonal work (like let’s say a hotel which only works at 100% capacity during season) or contract work (like let’s say a construction company which might not need as many people for the next construction).

        But the problem is that if the employer is cozy with the goverment, he might be able to wiggle himself out of applying the meaning of the law in courts. Especially since the relevant section is poorly worded.

        Why do I know about this? Well I know people that are employed in ministries that work on monthly contracts and can hus be fired any time if they raise a stink about working contitions. Also in 2009 started dicking ower us teachers by forbiding schoold from permanently employing teachers (so you don’t have to work on contract and have some sort of job security). Than somebody had a BRILIANT idea that since pupils are not in school during JULY and AUGUST why should you pay the teachers during those months.

        So they tried to retroactivly cancel all “temp” contracts (helped by the fact that schools are a bit lax with the legal part of concluding contracts) and move the termination date from august 31st to june 30th. We were able to throw law back into their faces since the law explicitly states that Teachers can only have their 20 days of vacation during July, and if they don’t want to employ us then they will have to let us have our vacation some other month in the middle of school year. So they allowed us to be paid for the July. But they stood firm abour August.
        Thankfully my school has other means of funding other than those from the Ministry of Education and Sport, so it was able to cover our August paychecks out of it’s own purse.

        And later on we were practically first school to get our critical personell out from under “temp” contracts and into full time employment. But that option is only available to teachers that are fully employed in school and that have passed the teachers exam (can only be passed after a year of expirience). Also by fully employed I mean that they have enough classes weekly. So essentially if you are new, the first year you are likely to not get August pay, even though the school might need you since we have exams in August.

        1. I don’t get why it’s considered so bloody horrible that you “can” be fired. I love working at-will. I wouldn’t voluntarily work any other way. Every union or contract job I’ve ever had was a shit sandwich.

          What I find most interesting is that the majority of the time I see people getting fired on a whim is when they THINK they’re settling in to a nice, cozy, long-term position. (I got in trouble that way myself, once.) It’s when people think “oh, I’ll just be doing this for a few months” that you come back 15 years later and they still have the same job.

          1. 4th Dimension says:

            The problem is that it’s not at all certain you will be able to find any job in your area of work, and the unimployment benefits are nothing to write home about. So you definitelly don’t want to spend couple of months unemployed when your unemployment benefits might barely be able to cover your electricity bill, let alone the rest of teh bills, food etc.

  11. Stephen says:

    I pretty much totally agree with your post, with a mild disagreement that some programmers may be able to easily transition out into a non-game tech company for a vastly higher salary. At startups, programmers are the #1 difficulty for hiring and retaining when they could make much, much more doing similar work elsewhere.

    My experience is all on the 20-100 person small studio side, rather than the big corporations. IME, you’ll stay slightly longer between layoffs, but only because at a small studio management feels really terrible about letting anyone go until they absolutely have to (at which point, the delay on doing a partial layoff means the studio is out of money and probably has to lay everyone off and give up on the project).

    My general experience has been:
    * QA is famously terrible in big studios, and the budget is very limited for QA at studios that are better to work at as QA. If you have any kind of technical QA ability (i.e., the ability to code test cases in addition to manually playing the game), you will get dramatically more money and respect at non-game software firms. Most hiring is through cattle calls to put bodies in seats until you have enough experience that someone might think of you specifically for a new gig with limited QA.
    * Artists/Animators benefit the most from a game-dev-centric degree, and have the easiest time demonstrating their value to a company if they developed a good portfolio while in school. As you noted, they have virtually no creative control over the direction of the game, but can generally find new work relatively quickly if they’re good. Studios actually look at artist resumes for their posted positions.
    * Programmers are generally better off with a general Computer Science degree from a normal school. It would be weird to turn away a competent general programmer; most of the specifics for a studio are going to be different for each studio and have to be taught on the job anyway. A general CS degree means that you have an easier time going to work at a bank when you’re sick of all the crunch. Studios do actually look at programmer resumes and interview them, but to get the job you have to prove you think similarly enough to whoever’s the programming lead to pass the programming test.
    * Designers can potentially benefit from the networking/job placement potential of a game design school, and in particular might benefit from the ability to cross-train and learn a decent amount of scripting. But these are also things you can do on your own (my path into the industry was running live action games; when one member of the LARP community got into the industry, he started recommending everyone else he knew that ran a good game, and they recommended two friends, and so on). Hiring is almost exclusively nepotistic (or internal promotion) unless the studio really doesn’t know of any available designers that someone internally can recommend; job postings are required, but there is already a very select group of referrals vying for any seemingly “open” position.

    In general, there’s a five-year tolerance: a vast number of developers give up on the industry after five years in. If you still like it, warts and all, after that point, you suddenly have a competitive experience advantage since comparatively fewer people have five years of experience. But you’re also going to have a harder time switching jobs out of the game industry past that point.

  12. Mistwraithe says:

    I see the 80% placement, 20% failure statistic in a rather different light.

    In my experience in any serious course of study at least 20% of the people are not really smart enough or committed enough to be doing that subject. So I would expect at least 20% of people to not be able to get jobs in their study areas, simply because they aren’t worth employing in that area.

    1. Tizzy says:

      This may be true of the population at large, but it doesn’t have to be the case when the school is selective enough and the student population is self-motivated.

    2. Felblood says:

      So an alternate read could be, ” One fifth of the people we allow to graduate don’t actually deserve this degree!”

      I don’t see how that reflects better on the program.

  13. I think many people here may already know my story, so I’ll keep it brief…

    I worked for almost a year at Bioware-Austin, doing QA on Star Wars: The Old Republic.

    I also briefly worked for Stoic on The Banner Saga, also doing QA.

    I loved the work that I did at Bioware – it was both challenging and rewarding. I was embedded with the cinematic group and spent most of my time doing complicated test cases for the in-game cut scenes.

    Sadly, I found the work environment to be rather miserable. Roughly 2/3 of the employees were contract, with 9 month rotations. It was a CONSTANT merry-go-round of employees coming and going, which was incredibly demoralizing.

    There was also the bizarre “separate but equal” requirement for the contract employees. We were not allowed to attend parties or meetings that were intended for the full time staff. Nothing demoralizes quite like being forced to remain at your desk working while you hear your coworkers partying it up in a room down the hall.

    At the time that I worked there I was 44 – old by industry standards. I was not interested in jeopardizing my health and well-being for a job with low pay and no benefits. When I raised ethical objections to the mandatory 12-hour days, 7 days a week schedule during “crunch time”, my contract was terminated.

    PS A colleague of mine at both Bioware and Stoic has a degree from Full Sail University. I’ve since lost touch with him, but last I knew he was doing independent game development, creating mobile games.

    1. wumpus says:

      “When I raised ethical objections to the mandatory 12-hour days, 7 days a week schedule during “crunch time”, my contract was terminated.”

      If there’s one thing that’s likely to get programmers/software engineers to organize, this is it: the farcical assertion that ‘white collar’ workers’ interests are aligned with ownership, and thus they are not eligible for overtime pay. I’ve had HR screening interviews in which they basically asked me about how I felt about working for free. (“We have very busy schedules and require a lot of overtime – would that be a problem for you?”) Far too many companies aspire to hire kids straight out of college and work them to the death of their engineering careers <7 years later.

  14. Bropocalypse says:

    The games industry might be the one place where you have starving would-be artists working on projects that run millions and millions of dollars.

    Actually, Hollywood comes to mind, too.

    1. MrGuy says:

      Reminds me of a quote about Wall Street – “A place where billionaires come to ask the advice of people who ride the subway.”

      1. Purple Library Guy says:

        Not any more. Anyone gets work in Wall Street nowadays is in it to make sure that some of the rivers of money flowing by stick to them. Very few of them are riding any subways–at least, not because of income.

  15. nerdpride says:

    Can I add a little bit even though I don’t work with videogames? I graduated from SDSU in 2012 with a BS in electrical engineering and had various tech-related jobs.

    The thing that really ticks me off is the repetitive or derivative work. It’s not as bad as when I’m working with something I’ve made to some satisfaction, but revisiting rushed things or cleaning someone else’s mess really puts me off. It leads to a nasty cycle when time is limited.

    Anyway, a few things amaze me about these stories.

    I don’t do anything near 80 hours a week. I do 50 hours sometimes and my brain is toast. Sometimes I’ll tinker at home too, but meh. After the 50 hour point I’m very likely to be wasting time. Is it the same with programming? Do you just cope with it somehow?

    Most of what I’ve ever done has been making real things, i.e. some electronics in a plastic and/or metal case with a program loaded onto a little processor. You’d think more development would go into it to make sure it’s good, but mostly people just want it out the door. I hardly ever work with more than half a dozen technical people. I wish I had a better feel of the gigantic teams before deciding on future jobs.

    1. Trix2000 says:

      Yeah, as much as I’ve worked a little extra here and there (I’m salaried but tend to stay extra fairly often to make sure I get things done), I can’t fathom doing anything approaching 60+ hour weeks. I hardly feel like I get enough free time as it is, and the place I work is pretty good at sticking to the normal 40!

      Course, I’m also an engineer, not a programmer or game developer (not counting my hobby indie game development), and my limited impression on that employment space is that standard working conditions/benefits are pretty well established… even the pseudo-startup I used to work for was fairly structured and regular about that sort of thing.

      Not to say getting a job was easy, though…

  16. Decius says:

    Look into App Academy. While not games-industry specific, they have the best tuition/job placement policy I can imagine:

    App Academy does not charge any tuition. Instead, you pay us a placement fee only if you find a job as a developer after the program. In that case, the fee is 18% of your first year salary, payable over the first 6 months after you start working.


    Disclaimer: I am not a paid shill.

    1. mewse says:

      They charge you a percentage of your annual income, before you’ve actually earned that annual income? Sounds potentially disastrous, to me.

      I mean, if you land a $100,000-per-year job, 18% of the first year salary comes to $18,000. At the six month mark, you have earned $50,000 so far. About 30% of that goes to taxes, so you’ve actually only actually taken home $35,000 in total.

      App Academy’s $18,000 out of $35,000 leaves you with only $17,000 left to cover your living expenses for the first six months of your job; that’s well over half of your post-tax pay gone, for half a year. I don’t live in either SF or NY, but aren’t those typically rather expensive places to live?

      1. Purple Library Guy says:

        This is perhaps true, but no more true than the potentially disastrous nature of paying high tuition at the beginning of your course of study, long before you ever seek a job in your field let alone land one. Presumably you could take out a student loan just as you would with normal tuition?
        It certainly gives the place incentive to not only make sure you find a job, but try to make it as lucrative as possible–the bigger your paycheck, the bigger their 18%.

      2. Trix2000 says:

        You could live for 6 months on $17k in San Jose at least (I think my expenses per 6mo might be less than that), but I don’t know how much saving you could do. At the very least, you wouldn’t need to go into debt.

        San Francisco, on the other hand… might still be able to, but expenses would be very tight and rely a lot on finding a good deal on a place to live.

        Either way, it still sounds a better than having a mountain of student loans, which you could probably cut out that much from paychecks for a while anyways.

    2. Alexander The 1st says:

      My initial instinct is that treats the symptom, not the disease.

      Especially since that’s effectively 36% of your income over the payable period that you can pay it, which given how much the industry churns through people, could be the entire time you get paid in the industry before either your contract ends or your team gets laid off, etc.

      It helps, but it mildly alleviates the problem with student loans (Since if you go here after going to university and you have student loans, you can’t use the money you make to pay off those student loans until after this period effectively.), not the developer burn-out problem of the industry. Still an interesting solution.

    3. Zak McKracken says:

      I think such conditional student fees are generally a good thing because it brings down the risk to the student, while giving the university an incentive to help their students to be successful — those terms, though, are terrible.
      You have to pay those 18% of your first year’s salary before you’ve actually made that salary, so really it’s 36% of your first half-year’s salary. With taxes and all, depending where you live and what taxes are there, it may be well above 50% of your net income. And interestingly, that becomes much harder to pay if you earn less, because the minimum subsistence (rent, food, commute…) is roughly constant, and if that’s more than half your net income, you’re in trouble.

      Much better solution: 9% of your first two yearly (actual) salaries, payable over five years. This means the amount is known before you have to pay, and you can still have a life while paying it.

  17. Eric says:

    As a game developer (albeit a relatively inexperienced one) wearing multiple hats of design, production, support, community management and PR:

    It’s pretty damn awesome, but only if you end up at a place that’s right for you. I’m very fortunate and lucky I did. It was a combination of right place at the right time, right skill set, and knowing the right people.

    If you asked me five years ago if I’d expected to be basically working on my dream games, with some of the most talented , influential, and frankly, friendly and human people out there… I’d have called you a crazy person. And yet here I am, and it’s awesome.

    But, I don’t delude myself into thinking it’s the same way everywhere, or even most places. And I also don’t delude myself into thinking that my experience may not last forever.

    As generic advice (which doesn’t necessarily apply to me), you should think twice about working as a developer if you value:

    – A social or family life.
    – Job security and stability.
    – Making the same money you could make in other industries.
    – Enjoying games as a player instead of a developer.

    I’m not trying to downplay it too much, and for some people all this stuff already applies. There’s fantastic studios to work at out there, and there are probably some pretty bad ones. If you have the courage, the charisma, the PR and business sense, I’d say go indie and be your own boss, or find someone who can do that for you.

    There’s a lot that’s romantic and exciting about working as a game developer… but you can work in games without necessarily being in the trenches as well. Working for a publisher, or as a contractor that does work for other studios might be less glamorous, but it’s probably more stable.

  18. Noah Lesgold says:

    So, I’m completely outside the game dev world, but given Shamus’s horrified reaction to the 80% figure, I figured it was worth throwing up a comparison. I’m a registered nurse in the U.S., and my nursing program was technically a 2-year community college ASN (I say technically because the combination of prerequisites and an absurdly high credit load for the “recommended” path meant that most people took 2.5 to 3 years). We had 96 students in Nursing 101 when I started. There were 44 students in my graduating class; based on what I’ve heard from people who went to other programs, graduation rates of only 50-60% are pretty common in nursing. I just looked up the licensing exam passing rates for 2008, which is when I graduated: 86.7% nationally. On the upside, nearly everyone who gets an RN license can get a nursing job, though not necessarily the one they want. However, rates of people leaving the field (due to burnout, finding out the job isn’t something they like, injury, etc) are high – I’ve read anywhere from 30-50% of new RNs leaving nursing within 5 years of graduation.

    My point, such as it is, is that aiming for a particular field is pretty much always fraught with the risk of failure for one or more of a variety of reasons. It’s good to be informed about the implications of trying to get into a given field, and to know that not only might you not get what you want, but that you might not like it if you did. That said, it’s hard for me to think that game development specifically is that far out of the ordinary in terms of those risks.

    1. nerdpride says:

      I can agree with that. About half of the people going into electrical engineering in college would change majors or dropped out. Sometimes engineers get jobs as teachers instead. Some EE degreed people I work with do nothing but technician repair work.

      Pretty important to think about what you’ll be doing for the rest of life, no?

    2. Tizzy says:

      Well, the low graduation rate is tied to the rather high passing rate for licensing. (85% *is* a high passing rate for licensing exams: CPA is below 50%.

      Nursing programs tend to encourage students to drop out before they crash at licensing time. It’s the merciful thing to do, really.

  19. MaxEd says:

    My own higher education was free, courtesy of remains of Soviet system. There wasn’t any degrees directly related to game development, or even computer science, so I got a degree in Applied Math. I wanted to be a game developer from since I was 6 year old, so there was no questions about choice of profession after university. I posted my CV on several gamedev-related sites and soon was hired as a tools programmer by a new company developing AAA MMO, yet another “WoW-killer”. The pay was small, but I did not mind, since I still had another year of study, and had to go to lectures in the evening some of the days, so I figured it was a wonder they paid me at all.

    It also turned out, I did not really know C++. I thought I did – I even wrote multiplayer space shooter as a part of coursework – but I didn’t even know how to manage memory properly. But I was in luck, since my first assignment – a tool for game designers to edit parameters of game entities in database was just an internal tool, and nobody minded much if it crashes occasionally. At lease, I’ve learned a lot about memory management, leaks detection and debugging (my colleagues say they value me a lot for those skills).

    The worst part of my job experience for the past 8 years was the fact that you can spend 3 or 4 years of your life on a project that will end up being closed. That’s what happened with that MMO I began working on. Boom – 3 years of life gone with no visible result (but much useful experience). Then, another company hired me to write game mechanics code for another, smaller MMO, which should have been a quick, half-year gig. This, too, turned out to be a bust. Development dragged on for 2 years, and the project was put on hold, never to be revived.

    Then, we switched to mobile games and released a Runner. “Infinity Run” became my first released game, and it flopped, because there was not much ads for it (our publicity partners failed their job and disappeared, or something like that).

    During all that time, I experienced very few cases of overtime (and even fewer cases of PAID overtime). Somehow, all companies I worked for were never in a hurry. Maybe that’s why they mostly failed to release anything. The pay in gamedev is certainly lower than in bizdev, so you just have to love games. On the other hand, where else they would let you come in at 11am and wear flip-flops in the office? (On my first job interview, I saw CTO wearing flip-flops; that’s when I knew this company is for me!)

    The biggest disappointment for me was the fact that I simply can’t work professionally on the kind of games I like. Nobody develops anything, but MMOs, clones of popular mobile or social games and shooters in Moscow. I’d love to work on an interesting RPG. Hell, I’d give up first few months of pay just to work on a game I could love, not despise. So far, no luck, though.

  20. Bubble181 says:

    A) For those who don’t know about it and are interested, the “Tales from the Trenches” on the website of the webcomic “The Trenches” (http://trenchescomic.com/) are a whole lot of stories by people who worked in QA and testing of (mostly) AAA game developers. Most are horror stories, some are positive, some are just funny or quirky…And the writing quality is, luckily, higher than that of the comic itself.
    B) The resemblance between “young coders/gamers” “trying to make it” and young “pretty girls who can act and sing” “trying to make it” are staggering. The gaming industry really and truly is a carbon copy of Hollywood from the ’90s, and the part of the innocent doe-eyed girl who ends up a waitress in New York or LA is now played by the nerds with ideals and hopes of being lead designer because they have a great idea.
    C) The AAA gaming industry is toxic, “true” indie development is crippling, but there’s an ever-growing….errr…AA gaming industry where you *can* actually achieve something and live a normal life. I mean, there’s still some crunch, but not as badly. You won’t get rich, but you won’t burn out.
    D) As a nurse said higher-up, 80% success in placement after a higher education is actually *high*. Few other job-specific degrees can get there. Care to guess the number of people who go to a wrestling school who make it in pro wrestling? The number of people who go to a conservatory who can live off of their music? The number of people with an acting degree who are professional actors? IT in general is always needed and asked for. “Game developer” or “game designer” or the like absolutely isn’t. It’s the “art” variety of IT/computer studies. It’s like getting a degree in creative writing, compared to a degree as a translator. It’s both “language”, but one is an arty degree you take out of interest and because you have High Hopes, the other’s a practical one that can pretty much guarantee you a job in the field, even if it isn’t a very shiny and spectacular one.

    1. Sleeping Dragon says:

      Regarding “C)” I think the employment thing is part of the larger gangrene that’s rotting the AAA industry: the pressure for rapid fire franchises, the focus on mass appeal over depth and marketing over polish, the giant budget titles with teams so big that individual qualities of most people on the team become diluted to the point of non-visibility.

      It’s not even just the individual people that suffer from the “fire and hire” issue, though those have the empathic appeal of being personal stories. The big publishers will buy or create a dev studio, usually throw it further parts of franchises (becase hey, if they don’t do that great of a job the game will still sell as a followup to a succesful title) then close them down when they fumble something.

  21. Steve C says:

    I’ll talk about my roommate who is has been a lead programmer for AAA games you’ve heard about and played. I don’t believe “the games industry” was ever his specific goal only a decent computer job. He got a Honors Computer Science degree from a university offering the full range of degrees. Comp-Sci was a tiny program though.

    One of things that originally got him to go this university over others was the standard highschool pitch of % of grads who found employment. 100% of grads found work is what he was told. That was a lie. They had 0 graduates. (0 divided by 0 is apparently 100%.) Everyone failed, burned out, dropped out, or got a General Comp-Sci degree instead. So even the big schools play fast and loose with those kinds of claims.

    At a homecoming reunion he said the stuff in school he learned was completely useless and worthless. What was useful was the sink-or-swim way of teaching that forced him to learn how to learn. IE “Do this but we aren’t going to tell you how. Just figure it out because you’ll fail if you don’t.” Which ended up being his job conditions. I do know that he worked his ass off in school with ridiculous hours and bad teachers. So I guessed it prepared him for a life in the AAA games industry.

    He was front and center for the collapse of one major studio. He’s now a lead engine programmer for another AAA studio. I would love to hear all the behind-the-scenes stuff he’s seen because he’s seen some shit. I know he wouldn’t tell me even if I asked though.

    1. Ooh ooh, is he working on Cryengine, Unreal, Source 2? Because in that case send kudos to him and his team for making those engines “freely” available for non-profits/amateurs/indies.

      I’m not surprised “game school” isn’t working that well.
      After all what “is” a game developer.

      People working on a game are either a supervisor/manager, editor/writer, musician/sound engineer, graphical artist/painter, CG modeler/designer, programmer/coder.

      And I’m overly generalizing here. The point I’m making is that there are so many fields involved in making a game that a “Game School” would actually need to be a Game School which did nothing but teach all the branches of knowledge needed to make games.
      This mean graphics on Monday, sound on Tuesday, etc.
      You would need to learn 6-7 fields, and you would spend 6-7 times longer in school than somebody who study only arts or only programming, etc.

      Oh and then there is the dark side of games development, sure a company may hire like 100 developers to make a AAA game, yay you got a job at a big company making a big game. Then the game goes gold and ships and 89 of those people get laid off and the rest are stuck working on fixing launch bugs or salvaging cut content or art into DLCs they can sell.

      Few other industries are like this, the only exception is possibly construction, but normally they tend to move people from project to project instead of “hire and fire” to handle projects.

      There are a few game companies that do hire and keep people and then move them from project to project, but those are far between (from what I’ve noticed) and good luck getting a job at those (I assume they get flooded with CVs all the time).

      1. Sleeping Dragon says:

        While I wasn’t really planning on applying and never did any serious research I always found the “game dev school” thing suspect. It sounds too much like a bait for young people who want to do something they think is gonna be fun, like advertising a “racing car mechanic” or “people you see on TV doctor” education. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there is a lot of specifics for game design but it sounds like something you should specialize in after getting a broader education in the field.

        Unless that’s something of a difference in education here and abroad…

  22. Daemian Lucifer says:

    My advice is this:

    Don’t do it.

    This is the case of “greener grass”.Seriously,everyone has given me this advice about everything since my childhood.My father told me not to do chemistry,because even though he was doing ok in it,he knew a bunch of people that werent.My mother told me the same about medicine.Then there was one professor that told me the same about philosophy.Then the one that told me the same about physics.Then all the lets players and internet reviewers that say the same thing about their jobs.

    The thing is,no matter what you pick,chances are small that you will land a satisfying job on your first go,and you will have to bust your ass to do something amazing.Yes,some industries have terrible conventions in them,some have better conventions,but ultimately all the industries have their share of dicks and their share of good companies,so you wont magically be better off just because you picked the correct industry.

    I think its really unproductive to talk this way about anything,except maybe in an obvious joking fashion.A much better thing to do is to share your experience about some avoidable mistakes that should be looked for.

    1. Shamus says:

      Did you stop reading right there? Because I made a really good case as for why GameDev is uniquely bad. In fact, this is the opposite of a “greener grass” argument. I was in a related field (general non-gaming comp-sci) and I’m comparing that to gamedev, and concluding that gamedev is a horrible deal. Yes, all fields have risk, but that doesn’t mean they’re all equally risky.

      I’m not saying, “Don’t go into my field.” I’m saying, “Sure, go into my field. It’s not perfect, but it’s staggeringly superior to gamedev”.

      And I made it pretty clear I wasn’t saying “Don’t go into gamedev at all”. I was saying “DON’T GO TO GAME COLLEGE AND THEN THROW YOURSELF INTO THE JAWS OF THE AAA MEATGRINDER!

      “I think its really unproductive to talk this way about anything,except maybe in an obvious joking fashion.”

      I think it’s really unproductive to tell kids they should join the fun and exciting world of working for Electronic Arts.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        Thats just the thing:Its possible to work on games,even aaa games,and still not be tortured by your boss for peanuts before you get fired.A much better advice than “dont do it” would be how to find and get hired by a company with healthy work environment.

        Plus,there are some benefits to working in one of the games sweatshops.After a year,when you get fired/quite,your resume will look much better if it has “Worked at ea for a year” than if it has “Worked at mcdonalds for a year”.Neither is ideal,but one will give you better opportunities in the future.

        1. Thomas says:

          That’s best-case scenario thinking though, which doesn’t really often turn out well. There are probably hundreds of thousands of people trying to break into the games industry globally. All of them want to be working for the nice companies. Every person who wants to get into a nice company but can’t is an excuse for the bad companies to stay bad.

          If you don’t want to think in terms of worst-case scenario planning, at least aim for a middle ground. Get a computer science degree and try to find a nice well managed gaming company, but if you can’t there are plenty of other non-gaming companies who are looking for decent programmers and have humane working conditions.

          1. Tizzy says:

            It’s like marginally talented high school athletes who want to become professionals in their sport. Some people do it, but the odds are really against it. You will never make it unless you try, but don’t count on it: you haven’t faced real competition yet. And be sure to have a fall-back plan.

            1. You know, one thing that the professionals could do to push back against this kind of behavior by gaming companies would be to form their own companies that employ designers/coders/animators/QA out on a contract basis. The game companies would be getting vetted professionals and the vetted professionals would (potentially) have the benefit of a larger organization at their back for negotiation purposes. A LOT of people in creative fields use this kind of contracting/consulting framework instead of trying to find a “steady” job. And it looks great on the ol’ CV because you’re nominally working for the same place while getting experience and expertise in constantly changing environments.

              1. If the “game universities” were really interested in the development of game professionals, this sort of thing would be ideal. But it’s easier to suck money out of people by charging them for “education” and then throwing them to the wolves.

        2. EmmEnnEff says:

          One of my friends (not one I went to school with) had a ‘game dev’ degree, and was working at the medium-sized sweatshop I mentioned.

          He spent ~three years there, got pretty good at C++ development, had his name on the credits of three titles, got paid next to nothing, got hit by the temporary layoff thing. He then tried interviewing at non-game places.

          Oddly enough… He could not land a non-gaming job. He’s since gone back to school.

        3. Sleeping Dragon says:

          On the other hand “worked at 8 places in half as many years” doesn’t look good on the resume either. Which is something that was mentioned in, I think, diecast.

  23. Ian says:

    I spent a good few years almost fresh out of university working in the gaming industry.

    I got a placement testing at Lionhead back when they were working on Black and White. I remember turning up on my first day stressed and apologetic that I was late because it was 9:30 and I’d got lost on the way there. The receptionists just laughed because I was the first one in that day.

    That set me up to get a job as a programmer working on PS2 titles. None of them good. If you ever had the misfortune to spend money on Ninja Bread man I am truly sorry.

    We were producing shovelware at this point churning out as many near identical engined games as we could. While the hours weren’t dreadful I think I was only ever paid on time half the months I worked there.

    After leaving there (owed 3 months pay) I moved to work in the games for Casinos business.

  24. purf says:

    My story is very short and from long ago. I happened to know people who knew people who were working on a follow-up to a fairly successful PS1 title and needed more 3D/texture artists. Which I totally wasn’t at this point but apparently I became good enough quickly enough that now there is an antiquity of a game out there that has my cannon fodder flying around.
    Fun times. Get up whenever, chill a bit, go to office, chill a bit, have a recreational *cough*, do some gfx, go home whenever. Good payment for easy hours. That i didn’t count because I had nothing else to do except to live in a shared house with some dudes.
    But, the show was run by 6 partners who were the proverbial too many cooks who started to not get along very well. Development suffered so, when publisher Ocean suffered too, they were quite quick to cut the money – to the point that I never saw the completion of the game as remaining development went to Manchester and the company – ultimately – the way of the Dodo.

    As for Learning Game Development, however:

    I program and design somewhat largescale applications and installations for events and trade fairs and stuff (sometimes, that is) – and I damn wish I had better knowledge in, as a very recent example, the Unreal Engine.
    All of this interactive or reactive real-time design stuff that is in game development has only just begun to be a thing outside of gaming. A friend of mine works as the head technician for an event company and he/they/those are completely unaware of current possibilities. But it’s dawning on them. And when what’s now a niche becomes a gap needing to be filled, the skills from game development, programming and design fit right in.

  25. Rainer says:

    Ok, I just graduated from a Game Dev School, so I think this advice runs a little late for me. I’m a little older than the average (I’m 26) because my son was born in the meantime – Needless to say, this talk about how the game industry is bad is terrifying me. You see, I’m not American, I’m from Brazil, but even though the industry here is not great (it is growing slowly, thought) and the pay is poor (compared to the same jobs in other countries), I don’t think there is this culture of laying people off after projects (there are severe worker laws against that).

    What concerns me most is that I always planned to live in another country to get a better quality of life, so I heard Canada has a big game dev industry and they are also welcoming immigrants – but right now I don’t want to risk all my savings and my stable job here to get there and live this miserable life of a game dev.

    So, I have a question to Canadian people that read my comment – Shamus says that this fact is more common in the US, but is this a problem in Canada?

    Sincerly, a concerned game dev citizen.

    1. Purple Library Guy says:

      Yeah, I think it probably is. I live in Vancouver, where there is a fairly strong game dev industry along with a fairly strong animation-and-cgi-for-movies industry (and near as I can figure, a certain amount of crossover between the two). I don’t know anyone in AAA game development, but I know a couple people who work as programmers. Also my son-in-law works locally for Sony doing animation.

      What I get from them is that generally, the long hours and overtime especially near crunch-time deadlines are definitely a thing. And certainly the “nobody wants your creative input” is true in the big shops; the son-in-law at Sony really wishes he could do some independent stuff, but I’d say there’s rather less money in independent animation than in independent games; without distribution you are dead, and there’s no equivalent to Steam in the movie business–good luck getting your Indie animated feature or short on Netflix, eh?
      I’m not quite so clear about the mass layoffs; the local industry seems as I say pretty prosperous and generally growing, so typically if one outfit is dumping another may well be hiring. I also hadn’t heard about wages being bad, but since Vancouver is one of the most expensive places in the world to live they better not be.
      On Canada being immigrant friendly . . . I dunno. By comparison to the US, I guess. Certainly I think there’s less public anger/hatred/prejudice against immigrants. A bit of unease or grumpiness, but not a lot of over-the-top howling about the alien hordes. But when it comes to becoming a permanent resident and moving towards citizenship and stuff . . . there are a lot of annoying and often expensive bureaucratic hoops. My other son-in-law is from Mexico and he put in years and quite a few thousand dollars slogging through the system before he finally got his permanent resident status and could stop going from work visa to work visa. Similarly, cops seem kind of anti-immigrant; the Vancouver ones may be somewhat (only somewhat) less dangerous than many American cops, but I’ve heard Toronto cops are pretty bad news. All in all, as a new arrival from Latin America, I’d say the system’s still stacked against you in Canada, just not as hard as in the US.

      1. Rainer says:

        Well, coincidentally, Vancouver is the city we are planning to go. You say the industry there in Canada is not as bad as the US, specially on the subject of the layoffs – I’m a programmer, and this profession is specially stated on the “skills needed” list for immigrants – you kinda confirm that the industry is growing and there are people hiring, so that’s a relief.

        About the rest of the issues – on job postings online in Vancouver there are jobs with salaries of $40k to $70k. I’m not sure what is the industry standard for games and other programming jobs, but here in Brazil it’s hard to find something better than 24k to 30k Reais for game programming (The Real is, as of right now, worth a third of the American Dollar), so I’m really happy with that. I don’t really mind the overtime at the end of a project, since this is also common here.

        About the immigration – There are certanly a lot of advertisement about Canada Immigration, not to mention events and recruitment missions that Canadian Government do here every now and then. There is even a public announcement from the Canadian Prime Minister (I think) saying that they need over 200k immigrants every year.

        I know some people that have gone to live in Canada, and I don’t think I know a single person that didn’t regret it. In the end, I think everything is about perspective – you think you live in hell? try to live in a third world country =P.

        1. Purple Library Guy says:

          Well, I wasn’t saying don’t do it. My son in law has no regrets; he thinks it’s worth it for the relative lack of corruption alone. I’m just saying it’s not the land of milk and honey. Consider that apparently there isn’t a house in greater Vancouver selling for less than $700,000. A cool million is more common, especially closer in to town. Even a couple-bedroom condo somewhere OK could easily run in the 500k range. With the mortgage from that suddenly 40 to 70 k doesn’t go as far as you might expect.

  26. Nevermind says:

    If you DO work in the industry then please tell your story.

    I do actually work in the industry. However, it’s Russian industry, so my experience is not entirely relevant. Having said that, though:
    I’ve been here for almost 10 years, and I’ve NEVER seen a company where crunch time and overworking was the norm. I mean, yeah, when the milestone is tomorrow and we have game-breaking bugs or something, people would stay well into the night working. But that’s an exception, it happens once, maybe twice a year. And it’s inevitably followed by days off, either formally or informally. I’ve heard my share of anecdotes, too, but I never experienced this. And I’m pretty sure none of my friends ever worked like that.

    The “lower-than-average compensation” is true though. Especially if you’re NOT a programmer. Programmer skills tend to be quite transferable between gamedev and more “traditional” software industry; artists may have it harder, and game designers, well… no one needs those.

    1. Phill says:

      One reason artists have it harder mostly because the number of steady jobs for artists who create, texture and light 3d computer models outside of the games industry is pretty small. The actual skill set is very transferable, if anyone actually wanted it.

      Go look up all the jobs advertised in your area and try and guess how many of them need one or more permanent 3-d artists on the payroll. Unless you live next door to pixar, it’s going to be pretty close to zero.

  27. kikito says:

    I wanted to work in the videogames industry when I was young. I could not – in my country (Spain) videogames are almost not done, and competition for the posts is ferocious.

    After finishing my Computer Science school, I landed a job in Consultancy.

    I hated it. Yet I stayed there for 5 years. These guys know how to structure their incentives.

    At the end, the crisis came, and they got rid of me. Fortunately the severance package was substantial, so I had plenty of wiggle room to do what I wanted.

    And no, I did not become indie. I became a web developer.

    Web development is like the opposite of videogames. There’s more posts than people to cover them. So you get a good enough salary, reasonable working hours, etc. Especially if you know how to work in a team, and have spent some time learning the tech (of which there’re plenty of free courses online).

    And you also get some free time. Which you can invest in making videogames as a hobby, if you so desire.

    So, that’s my advice: do web stuff as a regular job, and videogames as a hobbyist. You get the best of both worlds.

  28. Patrick the Abstract Capitalist says:

    I am not a programmer. I’m a hockey player that earns his money as industrial purchasing agent, which isn’t nearly as interesting or fun as it sounds. But only because I’m not very good at skating. Or stick handling. Or actually, you know, actually playing hockey. Anyway….

    I’ve had this conversation with Shamus a few times, and while I don’t have experience in the field personally, I have watched Shamus join, build and operate a succesful software studio. Succesful being relevant to the industry of course. The whole thing made everyone millions (literally) before crashing and burning a decade later and makeing everyone invovled poor and unemployed. Such stories are commonplace in the software game. As John Romero once said: “Get rich or die tryin!!”

    Maybe that was 50 cent….I don’t know, you get the idea.

    My observation has always been the dichotomy of the industry name itself:Game Industry.

    It’s the very definition of contradiction in terms. I’ve always felt that those graduating from The design School of Whatever probably believe, or more insidiously taught to believe, that the first word is more important than the second. This is very obviously not true.

    Most people who graduate from college with elementary education degrees have an image in their head of sitting in a circle with a group of attentive 6 year olds, quietly listening with open ears and wide eyes to their teacher reading them “The Giving Tree”, when the reality is that they will be dealing with a group of sickly cry-babies that shit their pants and smell like sour milk.

    Most people think being a doctor means being a hero and saving lives. In reality they are little more than high priced pill-dispensers. Think spending 2 years at coding school is rough? Imagine spending 10 years training to be a doctor, only to spend the rest of your life in constant fear of a career ending malpractice lawsuit.

    Point is; The Games Industry is just like any other Industry. I think Shamus’ intent of this is to make everyone aware of what they are getting into, rather than have some unrealistic fantasy of launching rockets with Carmack at lunch.

  29. Jonathan says:

    The first half of that column describes within 10% the ‘career track’ a friend of mine has taken.

  30. Blackbird71 says:

    Regarding the 80% post-graduation employment rate, I’m not sure that the electronic engineering program I graduated from could boast numbers that high. As I recall, there was (and I assume still is) a significant number of students in technical fields who finish their degrees, then for one reason or another decided that it wasn’t really what they wanted to spend their time doing. The end result was a large portion of graduates taking jobs in different industries.

    I don’t mean to claim that the reasons for the 80% rate among game development grads is similar, just that the rate itself isn’t necessarily surprising or unusual.

    1. Blackbird71 says:

      I’m not sure why my previous post showed up in reply to the parent comment; it was meant to be below the article itself.

      I think the new layout is messing with me!

  31. Patrick Reece says:

    I’m young, joined the games industry less than a year ago straight into EA as a Technical Artist after finishing university in the UK. I have Shamus’ articles to thank for the motivation and technical knowledge especially in first year! I have had a wonderful time so far, working on 3 exciting projects with various nice people – I do a roughly 45 hour week (no crunch so far). I love the variety of things I can get involved in: I am allowed to code, make art and shaders, and have been in design meetings, production meetings, art reviews, software reviews, new techniques lectures and frequent game reviews. I prefer it to university (which I loved), and I’m getting paid decently too, with fantastic benefits! I hope all my jobs are like this one :)

  32. Sleeping Dragon says:

    Completely unrelated to the subject at hand but I do find it amusing that the link to the column ended up being “13576-Reasons-to-NOT-Choose-Game-Development-as-a-Profession”.

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Which is a blatant lie.I counted only 13563 reasons.

  33. It’s times like this that I really wish I could remember what exactly I can and cannot say as outlined by the non-disclosure agreement I signed three years ago.

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