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The Cost of Making Games
by Benjamin Quintero on 10/09/12 11:35:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[Reprinted from...]

Living the indie life often means living two lives, the boring and safe day job followed by your moonlight gig as an indie developer.  To be honest, I live this life because I've never been much of a gambling man.  I learned a long time ago that the house always wins.

I do question myself a lot, and typically while working my boring day job.  I question if it's worth it, if years of failures and mediocre successes under the unnatural constraints of a lone developer are worth the grief of being indie.  Why not combine my enthusiasm for game development and my sun-lit hours and just work in the games industry?

It seems reasonable to simplify ones life by combining similar interests into one activity.  Working for a game company would mean that I could come home and decompress; that's it, no shuffling off to job #2.  It is very tempting and I don't know if it is an offer that will ever be off the table, but in simplifying ones life it only seems to complicate it elsewhere.

Working for a game company implies many things that can be avoided when working for a boring and safe software company (B&S Co).  Sure, no job is safe but some are safer than others. 

Video games demand long hours and are designed much like Hollywood cycles.  The larger developers may have a plan for their staff after the curtain closes on a game, but many do not.  Many new deals can only be signed a couple months before the end of the current projects.  The concept of having a backlog of contracts waiting to be done is rare and practically non-existent for small business game studios.  What this means is that you often have very little notice of layoffs in spite of the writing on the walls existing throughout the entire development cycle.

In the past 7 years of working for B&S Co. I have been cold-called, interviewed, and offered at least 3 jobs for game developers across the United States, big and small.  After some recent news of a studio closure, I decided to check in on these companies...  They don't exist anymore, not in any sense of the word. 

I then tread on, searching for various companies who I was curious about in these past 7 years; they are also gone or diminished or re-sized and re-branded as a work-for-hire boutique with nothing to their name.  Overall there is a lot of money in the industry but it keeps changing hands and it's being spread very thin in places.

I think about all that has happened to me in these past years; home ownership, marriage, child, and much more.  All of these are costly and time consuming events that are absolutely possible under any conditions, including game development, but it would have been so much harder between moving 3 or 4 times to go where the work is.  It would have been impossible to consider buying a home while burning up my savings between jobs and wondering if my next job would be in Boston or Seattle and anywhere in between.

I would be thrilled at the day that I can decouple game development from the inevitable layoffs that seem to roll in at the end of a cycle.  But given the fate of the last dozen developers I've looked into it seems like B&S Co. might be the place to be for now.  Maybe I'm just ​really​ unlucky but I'm kind of glad that I haven't tempted fate just yet... 

With the next generation of consoles on the horizon, it's almost too easy to see another groundswell just before it shrinks once again and more casualties are lost in the money shuffle.

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Pascal van der Heiden
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Funny to read this, because I am in the same situation. I would also love to work in the game development industry again, as a professional job, but not under those circumstances. The game industry has a lot to learn and I think not only the game developers, but also the publishers (and/or financiers) have a big role in this.

Mihai Cozma
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Absolutely the same here. Had a job, now family, kids, house and high risk is out of the table. Having a daily job or even freelancing for non-gaming industry is in many ways much safer than the other one. So working late at night on indie games is my way too.

I would also add that working as an employee in the gaming industry could feel like a normal shitty job if you don't work in the sub-field of game development that you enjoy working. On the other hand having free reign over your solo developed game is very satisfying because you can design without thinking your future and your family's future depends on your game.

Tom Baird
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I work in a very large mobile studio for a major publisher.

I don't work long hours (over-time is rare), since it's small projects(Last release was 5 months Pre-Prod to Launch) and there is always a team looking for people. There was a round of layoffs a while ago, but all the people I know got new jobs in new companies, although this could be related to the fact that I live in a major hub of game development and there are tons of game development jobs and companies here. Some went to larger studios, some started startups in groups, but there was plenty of work to be found. Some of these larger studios also have quite good retention strategies for their staff, because there is always another project that could use the man-power.

Layoffs occur, but there is always someone else looking to hire experienced game developers. And if you don't want the long hour, Hollywood cycles, apply for a mobile or social company or branch of a larger publisher. Not all game development companies are making 3-4 year blockbuster projects. that require very aggressive schedules and over-staffing.

It feels like you may be taking the worst reports of the industry (horrible hours, no job security, constant moving cross-country, constant instability), and relating that to the industry as a whole, which is certainly not the case.

Benjamin Quintero
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@Tom, I'm not trying to clump the entire industry into one basket, but you do have to admit that working 40hrs is a luxury that most game developers don't see, including some mobile studios. Still, my focus was not so much the hours as it is the instability of the business. I only included the hours to help stress the fact that I'd be giving up on the indie dream since my two jobs would be dedicated to just one, and I probably wouldn't have the time or brain power to continue.

I'm just expressing the experience that I've had over these years. Obviously living in the south east, it's not easy to just cross the street and find a new game job. But with that convenience comes the expense of living in those cities. Last time I checked there was nothing cheap about living anywhere near the Bay Area, So Cal, Seattle, Boston, or NY and salaries to match the cost of living in the south east are hard to come by. Finding my equivalent life in one of those cities would require a ludicrous pay hike.

Cost of living is probably off topic, but since you brought up living in the center of a game hub I thought it might be appropriate.

Evan Combs
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For me this brings up the question of what is the solution? Possibly break up each specialty into separate companies (or divisions within one large company) and when a small core group comes together with an idea they can contract the work out to those companies so when the project is done they can immediately switch over to another project? Or is the solution better planning and organization? Or possibly a complete overhaul of the whole process that limits the down time of employees that aren't necessary to the whole process, either through people being more cross-discipline or just a better more inclusive cycle?

Ali Afshari
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Benjamin, I feel the same about working in the industry. While I understand it's not all as bad as how it seems with constant stories of studio closures, crunch, missing credits, etc., these things do happen and it can make it a much more stressful endeavor than just having a "safe" job. I've been laid off 6 times in a row being "safe", so nothing is really guaranteed. Honestly, some days I just want to rip my face off because of the people and tasks I have to deal with at my 9-to-5.

In a way, I'm kind of lucky at 35 (some may look at it as a sad situation) that I don't care about having a spouse or children. I don't have a mortgage either, so that is another thing I don't have to worry about. If I ever get the chance to work in the industry, I'm already a little prepared for moving after the inevitable layoff period. I've already burned myself out somewhat by crunching through school assignments (I don't intend any disrespect by associating my school work to a real game project with investor money and studio/developer success on the line), and I really have no desire to deal with it constantly with new projects.

There definitely needs to be some sort of change. I'm not in this for the promise of wealth, just the satisfaction of working on some cool stuff with some cool and smart people while getting paid enough to live a reasonably comfortable life. The people creating games need to be valued more than the money the industry generates, or the publishers/investors that fund these crazy projects.

Roderick Hossack
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I knew from a young age that I wanted to work in the game industry, and guided myself down that path right up until graduating from college with a game development degree. By that time, however, I had read one too many game studio obituaries, so I got a job in the simulation industry. I scratch my game development itch on the side, but like Benjamin said; going home to a second job really sucks sometimes, even though I love it.

There is a possibility of getting a job in the game industry, but Mihai brought up a very good point; working at Kojima Productions probably loses its luster if all you're doing is programming the dust that falls on Solid Snake's nose. And even then, you might get laid off anyway if your marketing team didn't pay enough game journalists to raise your Metacritic score above the bonus rate. "Stable" game studios are laying people off left and right.

The alternative is working at a small indie studio, which will either sell its soul releasing social games that are mathematically and psychologically engineered to make money, or make one great game that nobody hears about before shutting down.

Whether that's the actual state of things or not, that's how I see it, and that's probably how most game developers who aren't making money from the game industry see it.

At the very least, if you're developing games on the side, you have all the time in the world to make the games you want to make, and at the standards you hold yourself to.

Curtiss Murphy
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@OP - I'm with ya.

Derek Reynolds
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Yep, I feel this kind of thing nearly every day, right now in fact. Sometimes it's very difficult to jump into programming when I get home after writing code all day. I've thought about what it would be like if I went into the game industry working for someone else, but like you, I don't think that's where I want to be. It would be too close to my own game development and possibly a conflict of interest.

If I was going to take that kind of chance, I'd rather take the chance of working full time on my own games, where I could at least be in control of my creative output. As long as my wife didn't mind being the sole source of income for a while 8)

Best of luck to you, and us all.

Cordero W
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I'm currently working a minimum wage job to try to pay my way back into college. On the side, I continue to study and practice video games, from programming to learning various design concepts. I don't have a girlfriend to put time into nor any other obligations other than this. Sometimes, I question what my worth is with the accumulation of my computer science, artistic, and game design skills, then I realize the type of industry I'm in.

I actually like the feeling of having to work hard to be noticed. It's what the entertainment business is built on. For instance, Jim Carrey started out working day and night in nightclubs. He practically lived in them. Sometimes, he ended up not being paid for his work when he was asked to perform. His payment was simply getting noticed. Now look where he is. A lot of people who risk going into the entertainment industry do it because they are striving for something: that fame, that money, and most of all, the capacity to do what you feel passionate about. You're only as good as your determination. I don't have the luck of networking, growing up with a lot of money, or being in the vicinity of a concentration of video game jobs. But I'm working to fill those gaps quickly.

So yes, the video game industry is about gambling because it's a creative entertainment industry just like movies, books, plays, and other performances. One day, you'll hit that comfortable position where you are finally stable. Until then, you can choose to either go to the safe job and get a good salary, or risk it to pursue the more passionate position. Life is about making risks. You won't get any rewards without doing anything out of the ordinary. That's what keeps me going.

Jane Castle
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While I agree with what you write this is not limited to the entertainment industry. Anyone who goes into business for themselves faces the same odds and obstacles. The guy that starts his own plumbing company faces the same challenges and risks as Jim Carrey and any developer for that matter.

Mihai Cozma
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It is a risky stuff indeed going on your own, however that doesn't mean that if you have obligations you should not, it's just that you have to take lesser risks/baby steps, one at a time, while fulfilling all obligations along the way. A normal software developer job yields way more money than a game dev job if you take into consideration the risks/working hours involved by the later, not to mention possible "no-income" periods between jobs, moving where the studio is and so on.

james sadler
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These are a lot of the same considerations I've had with the game industry. I've been a sound engineer for half my life now in both music and films. If anyone has paid attention to some of my other postings/comments I relate the game industry closer to the music industry than the movie industry in many ways. I've traveled all over the country for gigs and to do one-off productions. I've been offered to move here or there for a full time position, but recording studios are rarely a stable gig. To fill space between jobs I've worked retail, I was an electrician, I worked at UPS, and was even a courier for "lost" airline luggage. Now I work at a college in Audio Visual because I needed more stability and those nice little things called benefits. A few years ago I got into programming and wanted to start developing my own games. I've thought many many many times about going to work for a larger games company, and even applied and been interviewed for a couple, but this kind of pondering has always kept me from taking the leap. I can say that all but a couple of the recording studios I worked or did freelance gigs at are now closed. The economy, and even technology, had a lot to do with it, just like with a lot of game studios. Things still aren't back to 100% in either industry and I'm not sure they ever will be back to where they were 5+ years ago.

There's another part of me that really questions whether or not I'd even want to work at a game studio. I've worked a lot of my life for myself and there are real possibilities for making a good living as an indie studio. Some real basic strategies have to made to do this right. For our studio it goes like this:
Work the day job
Release game
Once profit from game(s) equals enough to pay off all our debt, buy reasonable houses, and pay an annual income of at least $50k for 10 years we can quit our jobs (yes that's a lot of money)
Work on next game without the day job
Release game
Once profits from game(s) equals enough to pay two employee's salaries + benefits for three years hire two additional employees
Rinse and repeat

Really long term planning. Means not buying a mansion or a Ferrari for awhile but would keep us as a studio financially stable enough to withstand at least 1-3 failure games before needing to shutter. $50k a year might sound like a really small amount of money to most people, but we figure that with our debts wiped out and buying reasonable houses that its more than enough to live off of. Most likely will take 2-3 games to get there if things go the way we plan. We're in a good place for this to work though since we can take our time getting there since we both have full time jobs and understanding families. I often work 10-12 hour days at my day job then come home to spend another 4-8 hours working on our game. Every now and then I take a week or so break from my second job to keep me sane. During this time I work on my classic car, play one of the still shrink wrapped games in my stack, or just catch up on TV shows on our DVR. Yes it takes away from launch dates a little, but if I weren't to do this then the quality of my work would only get worse and my desire to continue doing this would dwindle. Its one of the reasons I've stopped working in recording studios. Now I've venting. I'll stop.

Clinton Keith
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Benjamin, thanks for writing this. I almost left the GD industry 13 years ago when my second son was born and I missed more of his first year that I liked.

Two thoughts:
1 - This problem is self-perpetuating. Experienced people leaving the industry leaves fewer people around that can provide the experienced leadership and vision to avoid these conditions. If there is any one thing I'll hang my hat on, it's that death-marches are not a *necessary* part of game development.

2- It's important not to make yourself unhappy to provide family security. It's my observation that creative people don't sit well with B&S jobs for the long term. I don't believe it's a binary choice between doing what you want to do and providing security for your family. My father taught me that "good people who can work hard will always be able to put a roof over their head". It's true. We've taken a few chances from time-to-time and it's usually worked out. To me, it's not taking blind chances, but going into something with your eyes open and having a safe exit strategy if things don't work out.

Best of Luck,