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The Problem With Gaming Isn't Developers' Salaries.. But Malicious 'Journalism' Doesn't Help
by Kaleb Aylsworth on 07/12/13 02:18:00 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.


It is no secret that there has been a shift in monetization efforts for video games as the end of this console generation draws near. Where a game used to cost $60, and that was it, we have witnessed an ever increasing push toward delivery models such as ‘Free to Play’ (where the game is free to get in but the player is under pressure to pay for content as they progress), ‘Episodic’ (where a game is released as a series of smaller chunks that the player pays for individually), ‘Downloadable Content or PDLC’ (where extra content, such as extended story, and additional maps or modes, is sold to the player several weeks after the game ships), and ‘Digital Rights Management or DRM’ (where the player is required to enter a unique online passcode before the game can be played). There have even been efforts to minimize or completely do away with the player’s ability to sell and purchase used copies of their games, ultimately culminating in the XboxOneEighty debacle, where Microsoft attempted to block used games on their next-gen console, and were inevitably forced to change their policies due to consumer protest.

Also, apparently happening in parallel, there has been a perceptible rise in negative events within the industry itself. Stories about cancellations of sequels to beloved franchises and even full scale studio closures seem more and more commonplace in recent months.

Naturally, all of these efforts to seemingly squeeze more and more hard-earned dollars out of the gaming public, as well as doing away with fan favorites, have not exactly gone over so well (just ask Microsoft’s Don Mattrick), but the industry’s response has always been the same: that these monetization tactics are all necessary, and in fact, completely unavoidable, as the cost of modern video games has been steadily increasing, and it is the only way to ensure that gamers continue to receive the quality of games they have become accustomed to.

Then, not a few days ago, an article surfaced on, by one (since let go) Alex Hinkley, titled ‘The Problem The Gaming Industry Is That Developers Make Too Much’ , and though the piece is comprised purely of distorted facts, sweeping generalizations, and defamatory conjecture, Mr. Hinkley’s hypothesis (namely that it is because of the game developers’ own overly inflated salaries that we are seeing a rise in so called ‘anti-consumer’ monetization tactics, and sequel cancellations or studio closures) is potentially very damaging to the already strained relationship between gamers and the gaming industry if it is believed.

It is because of my intense desire to protect, and hopefully even mend this relationship, that I feel I have an obligation to respond to these allegations today.

So, let’s examine Hinkley’s claim then shall we? ‘The problem with the gaming industry (aka recent monetization tactics and studio closures etc..) is that game developers make too much’. So, in order for this to be true, he would need to prove at least two things: First, that the developers do, in fact, make ‘too much’ (whatever that means), and second, that these purportedly inflated salaries are the direct cause of the recent changes in monetization efforts.

First, why don’t we begin with digging into whether game devs actually do make ‘too much’, and then we can look into whether or not there is any correlation between that and the negative trends that are occurring within the industry.

Now let’s pretend for a moment that we, Mr. Hinkley, or anyone other than the employer and the employee for that matter, have the right to decide what that employee ought to be paid for their job (which we clearly do not). How then would we arrive at this decision? Well the conventional wisdom would be to apply a series of criteria (education, experience, rarity of the skill set etc.) against the candidate, in order to assess their relative value, while also taking into consideration other more global factors such as standard market value for the role, cost of living in the area, and the organization’s ability to pay said salary. But, and this is only if we wanted to get really technical, we could always go with Mr. Hinkley’s method of simply comparing the average salary across all disciplines and levels of experience for the candidate’s entire industry, against the overall average salaries of various other completely unrelated industries.

Now, of course I’m being sarcastic here, because that would be silly, but since Mr. Hinkley decided to take this approach, we might as well see if we can use it too.

Before we can compare average salaries, however, we must first examine the concept of an ‘average’, or ‘arithmetic mean’. Wikipedia describes it as ‘the sum of a collection of numbers divided by the number of numbers in the collection’, or again in English, you add up all of the different salaries and then divide the total sum by the number of salaries you added up. The description then goes on to state, however, that the ‘average’ can often be an inaccurate representation of the ‘middle’ value in group, most notably for ‘skewed distributions, such as the distribution of income for which a few people's incomes are substantially greater than most people's’. Simply put, the use of an ‘average salary’ becomes misleading when one or more members of the group (say executives or those with equity in the company for instance) make a significantly higher pay than the rest of the group. This is because the handful of higher salaries will pull the average way up, until it is much higher than what the majority of the other salaries actually are.

With this in mind, let’s take another look at Hinkley’s numbers. In his article, Hinkley compares the average game developer salary of $81,000 per year with the average annual salary for a police officer of just $51,000 (as well as to those of a teacher and CIA agent). He then goes on to ask ‘Why are developers making so much?’

As it is presented, however, this juxtaposition is extremely misleading. The reason for this goes back to the problem with using averages for salaries, and how they can be dramatically skewed by high earners in a group.

For demonstration’s sake, let’s use Hinkley’s police officer example. First of all, the police force is public sector employment. Their salaries are paid by our taxes, they have no CEOs or CFOs, and their salaries, whether they be a rookie or Chief, are all within the same ball park more or less. Game development studios and publishers, on the other hand, are private sector. They do have executive management and developer founders with equity, who make significantly higher salaries than the rest of the developers in their organization, and therefore, distort the average salary to a much higher number than what most, if not all, of the other employees make.

Secondly, police are a public service. That means that they are employed literally everywhere in the entire country. This is significant because not all cities are created equal when it comes to the cost of living, one of the most influential factors in determining salary. Of course some cities have a higher cost of living, and the police officers who are employed there would obviously get paid a higher salary, but one look at any cost of living map will show that the majority of the cities in America actually have a comparatively much lower cost of living, and thus the police officers that are employed there would naturally make a much lower salary, thereby skewing the overall average toward the lower end of the pay spectrum. Game developers, on the other hand, are concentrated in the larger, higher cost of living cities, and if you look at (a geographical database of game development studios around the world) you will notice that it looks very similar to the cost of living map. Where the cost of living is highest in one map, there is the highest concentration of developers on the other. We can discuss the reasons behind this in another forum, but suffice it to say that that’s the way it is for now.

It would appear then that the only way to get a truly accurate comparison between the salary of a police officer, and that of a game developer, would be to exclude the salaries of executives from the game development average, and to also use a sample location where both game developers and police officers are in equal supply. Since shows that the city of San Francisco has one of the highest concentrations of game developers for the whole country (roughly 175 studios), and it doubtlessly has a very high concentration of police officers too, then it would appear to be a fairly safe test bed for the sake of our comparisons going forward.

So what then does a police officer in San Francisco make? Well, according to the official SFPD website, the average entry level salary for a police officer is between $88,842 and a whopping $112,164 per year. That’s right, the entry-level salary for a police officer in San Francisco is higher than the overall average salary for game developers!

But there’s more… Remember Hinkley’s number of $82,000? Well that was the average for all experience levels, disciplines, AND included executives. So in order for our comparison to be truly accurate, we need to look at the entry-level salary for game developers too. According to the Game Developer Survey of 2012 (the very same survey where Hinkley’s source, Game Developer Magazine, took their numbers), the average entry-level salary for a Programmer was $66,116, while new Artists made only $49,481.

So to summarize, most game developers actually make about half of what a police officer with the same experience and in the same geographical location would make. That’s a essentially a complete reversal of the $81000 (game dev) to $51000 (police officer) comparison that Hinkley’s ‘math’ produced.

Now, comparing game developer’s salaries to other random professions is all well and good, but before we make a final decision on whether or not developers really do ‘make too much’, maybe we ought to take a quick look at some of the criteria that actual employers consider when attempting to make the same decision? Well, according to the number one and two factors that influence what someone will be paid, apart from the employers ability to pay and the location that is, are the candidates’ skills/education and experience.

While I am certain no one can argue that being a police officer does not require a significant level of skill (in fact, a candidate must pass a rigorous physical evaluation AND written test before they are even admitted onto the force), and similarly, it is certain that the number of years a good police officer spends on the force will only increase their earning potential, we must, once again, look at the numbers in order to have a truly accurate picture of how things stack up.

According to (an online guide on how to become a police officer), you must have a high school education and one year in a Police Academy, before you can become a police officer. They do recommend that you have additional education, like an Associate or Bachelor’s degree, but it is not prerequisite. So as long as you have your high school diploma and pass the exams, you can be a police office. Furthermore, police officers are needed everywhere, which means that you are almost guaranteed to get a job as long as you graduate.

As for becoming a game developer, you actually do not need any education at all to get a job in the industry. This is because game development is a purely skill based industry, similar to being a professional athlete, actor, or musician. If you apply for a job, your skills and talents will be assessed against thousands of other applicants, and you will either be accepted or rejected. That said, having an education in such a highly competitive and technical field does have its advantages, as it will teach you the up-to-date skills needed to be successful, give companies more confidence in you during the hiring process, and most immigration processes require it if you want to work in another country (which is often necessary in the game industry). For example, one quick look through my contact list on LinkedIn shows that over 90% of my 342 game industry contacts have a higher education.

In addition to this, however, it is important to note that the gaming industry is a notoriously difficult one to break into. You need to have passion, talent, and (in most cases) an education to even be considered for a job. But even then, AAA blockbuster video games are massive, technical, and inexplicably complex undertakings that require literally hundreds of highly skilled artist, programmers, and designers to all work together as team in order to go off smoothly. For this reason, only the best of the best applicants are chosen, and the sad truth is that most people who try to get a job in the industry are not successful.

So where does that leave us? Well we know that both jobs are difficult and require a very specific set of skills to be successful. We know that neither police officers, nor game developers are required to have a higher education to find employment, though the statistics show that those who do have a much higher rate of success when applying for a job in game development. And we know that the success rate of finding a job is much higher for police officers as a rule than it is for game developers. But what does that tell us at the end of the day? It would seem to me all we’ve learned is that both industries are skilled and challenging, and that both deserved to be paid decently for their services, right? And if anything, police officers are actually getting paid more than game developers anyway.

Either way though, based on the statistics that we’ve seen from Game Developer Survey of 2012 and elsewhere, I’d say that a salary of somewhere between $49,000 (less than three years of experience), and $135,000 (10+ years Technical Director or Similar) is not completely unreasonable, and certainly not high enough for devs to be able to afford exotic sports cars or cause entire studios to be closed down. Wouldn’t you agree?

So now that we’ve discussed at length whether or not game developers salaries are really so high, and whether or not they ‘deserve’ the salaries that they are given, let’s take a look at Mr Hinkley’s second claim that game developer’s salaries are ‘the problem with the gaming industry’.

In order to prove (or disprove) a correlation between present monetization schemes, studio closures, and developer salaries, we need to go back and look at the industry explanation for the monetization schemes. In Hinkley’s own writing he states that ‘nowadays they (publishers) are disappointed when games sell 3.4 million copies in just one month because the costs are so much higher now.’ So according to Hinkley, the reason for the changing landscape of the gaming industry is the ever increasing budgets of the games. Sounds reasonable enough.

It would appear then that all we need to do is discern whether or not it is the ever increasing salaries of developers that are responsible for the increase in the budgets of the games, and therefore the change in approach to monetization. Great!

For a timeline, let us use a sample period of between the year 2006 (the year the Playstation 3 launched, and long before the letters DRM, FTP, and DLC were even whispers in Publishers dreams), and 2011 (the year that such schemes really began to take traction). According to our now very familiar Game Developer Salary Survey, the average salary for an American game developer in 2006 was $75,039.00. That was, however, the average across all disciplines. If we break it down even further, it looks a little more like this: $37k for Quality Assurance, $65k for Artists and Animators, $80k for Software Engineers, and $95k for Business and Legal.

Now, the same survey taken for 2011 shows that the average salary for an American game developer in that year was $81,192.. the exact same number that Hinkley cited in his own article! Good for him J But once again, if we break it down by discipline, it looks something like this: $48k for Quality Assurance, $76k for Artists and Animators, $93k for Software Engineers, and $102k for Business and Legal.

So that’s a raise of $6000.00 over the course of five years, on average, or roughly $1200.00 per year for the average game developer. If you do the math using the US Inflation Calculator, that’s not even enough to cover the rate of inflation. If in fact the average annual raise for game developers had been enough to cover the rate of inflation only, then the average salary should have been $86,827.00 by the year 2011, not the $81,192 cited by Hinkely.

So, if the developers' salaries are not increasing (at least not in any astronomical way), then does that mean that the game budgets are not increasing either? Well, according to, the AAA blockbuster games: Gears of War, Assassin’s Creed, and Crysis (all from 2006-2007) cost around 10, 20, and 22 million to make respectively. The very same chart, however, shows that the equally notable blockbusters : Crysis 3 and Skyrim (2011-2012) cost around $60 and $85 million to make. That’s anywhere from 3 to 8 times as expensive to produce as their 2006 counterparts!

But, if the games really are getting more expensive to make, and the developers salaries are not increasing, then where is the extra expense coming from? Well let’s do an experiment, shall we? Go get your copy of Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, or Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, put it in your console, and play it for a bit. Ok, now go get your copy of The Last of Us, Assassin’s Creed 3, or Skyrim, and pop that sucker in your console and play it for a bit. Can you tell me where the extra expense is coming from?

Two words: Higher. Quality. With every year that passes, and with every new release, games are getting bigger, more mechanically complex, and better looking. What’s more, they are getting this way because we, the hardcore gaming fans, expect.. nay demand it. Simply put, the games are becoming more expensive to produce because they are getting better.

So, if you’re a Publisher, then what do you do? On one hand you’ve got to deliver to the expectations of the fans in order for them to be happy and actually buy the game, and that means giving the projects bigger and bigger budgets, but on the other hand you also have to make the game profitable for your company’s shareholders, which means getting more money to make up for the bigger budgets. Well there’s really only three options, isn’t there? You can either raise the price of the packaged product, which we (the fans) have made pretty clear we will not accept; You can decrease the quality or content of the game from we have become conditioned to expect, but we’ve also made it fairly clear (through reviews and comments) that we will not accept that; Or you can figure out other ways of getting more money while also providing extra value in the process.

I don’t know about you, but no matter whether I’m a publisher, gamer, or both, I’m fairly confident on which of the three options I’d prefer.

Which, at long last, brings me to my final point, and it’s one that hinges entirely on you (and me).. the consumer. To put things bluntly, we live in a capitalist society, and at the end of the day, video games are a business, nothing more. So yes, publishers may have arrived at these new approaches to monetization because of the prohibitive nature of modern game development budgets, but they continue to apply them for one reason and one reason alone.. because we continue to pay for them.

It is a proven fact that DLC, Free to Play, and micro-transactions work. Mr Hinkley himself states ‘Using micro-transactions can be a very profitable model. Valve recently announced they have sold over $10 million worth of hats on Team Fortress 2.’ So why on earth would a publisher (who is legally bound to increase profits for their shareholders) stop using a method that has proven to be so unbelievably profitable? They would kinda be the worst executives in the world at their job if they did. Wouldn’t they?

The bottom line is this: Are some game executives and those rare few developers who have a stake in the company getting rich enough to drive fancy sports cars? Sure. But those few Cliff Blezinskis and Bobby Koticks are by all means the exception, and certainly not the rule. Furthermore, they are not getting rich because they are robbing the public of their hard earned money. They are getting rich because the public is telling them (with their wallets) that they are not only ok with it, but they actually want more.

Where game developers are concerned, on the other hand, by and large we are the gaming public. We make regular salaries, have families, and enjoy playing the same games as everyone else when we get home after a long day in the office. In fact, most of us are only in the gaming industry because we love games so much, and if we just wanted a fat paycheck, would probably all go work for Google or Zynga.

So if we, the gamers of the world, are unhappy with the status quo, then we need to get off of the forums and comments, and go out there and vote with our money. Let’s tell the publishers what type of games we want, and exactly what types of content we will not pay for. And as for all the Alex Hinkleys that are out there, maybe if they tried to be part of the solution, instead of the problem, the developers and consumers alike would have an easier time realizing that we all just want the same thing: To play awesome games.

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Kujel s
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Awesome, very well researched, and wriiten piece. This Mr Hinkley sounds like kind of a tool but I've come to expect that from english majors (the only course other then physical education I truely hated in school).

With budgets raising as well as expectations but a resistence to paying more something has to give and I'd wager in a couple of years the AAA side of the industry will buckle under the pressure and implode leaving only a small singularity (of big budget games) pulling in most of the mass market money :(

Lars Doucet
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Seriously dude.

Kris Graft
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I have an English degree.

...but I also MIGHT be a tool.

Brian Schaeflein
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Wow, I don't know how I missed his original article. But if he has in fact been fired from that job, I'd say he deserved it. If his job was to be a journalist, he failed completely.

Kaleb, you do an excellent job laying out the where and when of how he lost his job due to one poorly written article.

Scott Grill
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I write at Examiner and can confirm that he has was let go.

Excellent rebuttal by Kaleb and highlighted every reason why I was left shaking my head when I found out what was written after returning from a vacation.

Kaitlyn Kaid
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When I got into game development I took a 33% pay cut. I have friends who left the industry and doubled their salary overnight.

to say we are making "too much" is ignorance.

Caulder Bradford
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This is an excellent and highly factual article! Thanks for writing it. There needs to be more of this kind of stuff in the public, so people do not get this distorted idea that all game developers are driving Teslas, and living mansions. Most just scrape by like everyone else, while douche-nozzles like Don Mattrick get 8 figures.

Kujel s
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I think Steve Balmer is a bigger concern then Don Mattrick, though he's not a very good person either.

Jane Castle
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Steve "I like to throw chairs" Balmer...... Sorry I had to say it....

Tommy Hearns
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Excellent article. The original by Hinkley was a disgrace. "Too much" to him was basically "more than I make". I'm actually tired of this attitude in our country of people thinking others shouldn't be allowed to make more than they do. They believe others should be brought down to their level instead of having the inspiration to work harder and earn their way to making what they think they should be making. They never consider the amount of demand for the field or the amount of work required to survive in certain industries. They just think that their industry should automatically pay out more without regard for how over-saturated that industry might be with candidates. Rarity of skill is never considered.

I'm a developer (not in games, though) and the reaction I typically get when people learn that my job involves a decent amount of math is "Ewww Math!". Ya, exactly. That's why my skill is in demand and the compensation is pretty solid. Because few others want or can do what we do. The demand of work outweighs the amount of talent capable of performing said work. Supply and demand. It's not complicated.

Marvin Papin
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Here :

He said the average salary for a journalist is 31k
He probably earned more since that's the examiner
He has a degree in criminology
What about an engineer (in programming) with 81K who's working hard
I wanna say : That's justified (mainly compared to a 51k $ of a police officer)

I think he does not know that a big part of the money do not go into devs pocket. In fact, i think he was just gathering informations about industry but does not know about devs work conditions.

Rich Chatwin
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I started watching that video until about a minute in when 'HipHop Gamer' couldn't even get the name of the guy he was DEFENDING right!

If you can't be bothered to do your research, I can't be bothered to watch.

Jonathan Jennings
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Great Article Kaleb, whenever I read something that someone said along the lines of developers making too much it always frustrates me a bit. As your article states if people could perceive the effort ,energy, and focus required for us to produce games or even better if they tried to do it themselves I don't think for a second they would continue to maintain that opinion .

not to mention all the other factors you mention including how competitive it is to break in, I almost feel like all the Extra Curricular hours many of us dedicate to our craft should be considered too. we invest a lot into developing our games and unlike other professions many of us take our jobs with us everywhere we go !

Eric Robertson
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Summary of the division in Salaries:
Computer Science Degree = Producer
Liberal Arts Degree = Consumer

Kelly Kleider
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You don't come off as smug at all, no sir.

Janette Goering
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The entire time I was reading Hinkley's piece, all I could think of was him saying "this guy has an expensive sport car and makes video games! Clearly he's making too much money!" and being upset that he wasn't making that kind of money. I can only wonder if he's upset that celebrities and athletes make absurd amounts of money. I wish we lived in a world where game devs made too much money. Might help justify crunch time.

Mike Machowski
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Well written article. Let me add my $0.02....

Even if Mr. Hinkley had normalized the game dev salary information properly so that he was comparing reported game-dev pay to non-game dev (e.g. police officer) pay accounting for experience, cost-of-living, etc. it would still be a pointless comparison. GameDev magazine's salary survey, while interesting, is not a statistically sound, meaningful survey. That is, the salary numbers reported there are not verified, verifiable and are not collected systematically. The salaries reported are from a self-selected group of respondents who may or may not be accurately reporting their salaries, their experience, their position; they may not even really work as game developers. This is an unscientific poll and therefore any professional journalist would steer clear of it. For all we know the average game developer survey (with "average" as defined by Mr. Hinkley) might be significantly higher than $81k/yr. It might be a lot lower. We have no real idea; consequentially Mr. Hinkley finds himself without a leg to stand on.

One additional interesting thing I'll add: Police officer salaries are frequently misleading. What is often reported is an cop's base salary, not their actual net pay. Many, many officers receive substantial additional pay for overtime worked (and a lot of cops work a lot of overtime), pay for additional training (you have SWAT training = you get more money), or sometimes for additional incentives (Need to staff up an especially understaffed or dangerous precinct? You can attract personnel with "hazardous duty/gang unit" type bonuses in their pay-checks.) It's not uncommon for police officers to net significantly more money than their reported base pay.

Steven Christian
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I don't know how it works overseas, but cops in Australia are also provided cars and petrol for personal use, in addition to the other benefits they get.

David Serrano
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Well, let's be clear: an article on a website does not a journalist make. And when have objectivity or facts ever gone hand in hand with game industry analysis? While there's a laundry list of legitimate complaints one can make about the business or design practices of studios and publishers.... development team salaries isn't one of them.

You shouldn't let one troll get you so rilled up!

Brendan Gallagher
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One day....soon, Alex's defensive pasture will wain, and he'll realized a few things. First, he was wrong, by the numbers. Second, that his 'angle' was wrong spirited. To suggest a kid standing in GameStop is being punished because a hardworking professional enjoys some fruits of his or her labor, that probably cost him 100+ hours a week for years, as well as most of his social life and God forbid his married life... Kinda not Alex Hinkley's business or is it particularly accurate. The movie industry is about to implode... is it really the VFX artist's salaries to blame there as well?

Alex may not be a bad guy, or maybe he is a tool, I have no idea. But folk should earn what they can, give their families whatever advantage and opportunity they can. It's going to take him a while to swallow how wrong his assertions and intentions were, and be okay with that. It has already cost him his job which I imagine is stressful. But Alex is more like those sad politicians that say something insanely stupid then try to respond, then re-respond and then clarify, and re-clarify than I think he gets. The poor bastard needs to go to a waterpark, slip n slide and be quiet for a bit.

james sadler
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I love how the original dev was that Alex referenced in the original article is never researched beyond the fact that their girlfriend wrecked a fancy sports car and that they worked on a f2p game. The immediate questions that came to my mind were "what position in the company does this dev have, what did they do before working for this company, and what kind of financial background do they come from?" I ask these things because they affect the response immensely. If this dev is a stakeholder in the company then it is pretty obvious that they make a good deal of money over the average developer, so affording a 70k sports car is not out of reach. If the dev once worked at a small indie studio that was bought by a larger studio and they received a large payout then again, a 70k sports car isn't out of reach. And lastly if they come from a wealthy family then there is nothing to say that they didn't purchase the car with non-developer made money. These are pretty simple questions to ask that should have happened before flying off the handle and writing an article about how lavish the game industry is. The truth is that most people in the industry that I have talked to try to talk a lot of people out of entering the industry because of how grueling and unstable it is. There is this illusion that people outside the industry have about it where they think we just sit around playing video games all day and it is extremely fun and well paying. They don't see the hours of staring at pages of code and crunch. Most of us go home and still try to mentally debug a piece of code or similar so that when we go in the next day we can try to fix it. It is a rough job, but one that we do because of the passion and not for the money. If money is there it just makes dealing with the constant stress more manageable.

Sean Sang
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This is the point I was thinking of when Alex mentioned this mystery developer in his ill conceived opinion piece. You really don't know how this person accumulated his wealth as it may never have been made in the game industry or from his current job. You also don't know if this person can even afford such a car as there are many people living beyond their means.

Zach Grant
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A couple who I'm friend with, who both work low paying jobs in the service industry, bought brand new 350z and an Rx-8 right out of college as their everyday cars. They are broke all the time because of their poor money management. Anyone can buy a nice car regardless of what your salary happens to be.

Brian Linville
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Having read the original article, I'm pretty happy to hear he got fired for writing it.

Dan Porter
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Where's my sportscar? ;)

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Zach Grant
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Entry level jobs could probably drop in price, since there are so many people vying to get them. Heck I would have taken $10/hr to be a game dev right out of college.

Actually finding experienced, smart senior developers is not so easy. Most leave for steadier business jobs without heavy crunches and continual layoffs. Senior devs have to be paid well because finding them is not easy.

Andrew Sega
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You're insane. It's very hard to find good, experienced developers, and they are simply getting paid what the market thinks they're worth. Mid-level engineers in NYC can easily make $80K, often $100K+. And by the way, salaries were high well before anyone started using "deceit in your monetization methods", don't blame it on that.

Vicki Smith
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Where do you live that there's a lack of competition for game development jobs? I need to move there.

Look, the market decides how much a job is worth. Full stop. Salary has nothing to do with "making a serious contribution to society" A dev is a commodity -- they get paid according to the laws of supply and demand. The only way someone gets paid "too much" is if their jobs are somehow protected from market forces. Since the game industry, unlike the movie industry, has no union, devs get paid as much and no more than the market will bear.

There's no "trickery and deceit," at least none out of the ordinary -- publishers are playing with money-making strategies, just as all businesses do. You don't think the clothes you buy on sale are actually marked down, do you? You might not like microtransactions. episodes, or DLC but people aren't usually "tricked" into buying them. As for DRM, where's the deceit? Publishers think -- or rather know -- that lots of people are stealing their product, and they have every legal right to try to stop that.

Asking devs to take some sort of voluntary pay cut so that gamers can pay less for their toys is ridiculous. If it offends you so much that games are costly frivolities, don't buy them. Make sure you never watch a Hollywood movie again, too. God, what is up with gamers and entitlement? Make our games, make them good -- God help you if you get the ending wrong -- and make them cheaper, you society-detracting overpaid bastards.

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Maxim Zogheib
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Rant mode ON }=]

"And yet so many things compete, and within this small selection of American and/or world wide past time video games are detractive fun."

I'm sorry, but this is just such an incredibly uninformed claim.

First off - entertainment is recreation. And the need for recreation is an integral part of the human psyche, and by definition IS conducive to mental, if not always physical, wellbeing. Furthermore, recreation is almost impossible to separate from the general concept of PLAY. And there's very little that does "play" better than video games, aside from some forms of competitive sports disciplines (which have a far more prohibitive entry level than video games both in terms of time and money), and children's play (which most players have actually grown out of). So, (near)clinical cases aside, any statement suggesting that a video game is any less "useful" or more "harmful" than other forms of recreational activity is, at the very least, arrogant and more than slightly old-fashioned.

"This is above avg for everything from waitress to plumber, to candlestick maker."

And you are suggesting it shouldn't be?

You are attempting to compare trade skill level expertise with engineering level expertise. The skill and coordination required to pull off even a small game requires professionalism far exceeding that of a standard small business. And building something like a AAA title is about as complex as putting together an air liner, with the added disadvantage of having to build a new model of plane every single time without schematics <_<

Which brings me to the next point. Obviously AAA studios will attempt to recycle as much content, infrastructure and code as humanly possible, considering the expenses. And more power to them. Some of my favorite gaming series are incrementally iterative. Assassin's Creed, Disgaea, Mass Effect, Demon's/Dark Souls, MGS, the stuff Quantic does... bah, I can go on for a while listing these. And there's nothing wrong with this, it's one of the better ways to deliver a quality game on a regular basis.

"If you want to be more than toy makers and be valued above that of one of Santa's elves by the public you are going to have to make a serious contribution to society ~ at this point you are a detractor."

Hollywood makes 99% popcorn blockbuster crap. And the big screen is STILL one of the largest and most highly-regarded forms of entertainment medium in the world. The percentage of crap in books is even higher, so don't hate the players, hate the game (no pun intended). It's just how these thing work, really. For every Journey, that pushes the envelope there will be ten "blockbuster" games with little meaning beyond the visceral, a hundred uninspired B-class cash-grab attempts the likes of Ride to Hell (
tion-review ) and literally thousands of tiny corpses of would-be games littering the ground underfoot (some of which might actually surprise you if you give them a chance).

And finally, as an attempt to put the "developers make too much, hence the exploitive monetization" argument to rest - I know for a fact that a decent number of successful, high-profile F2P projects earn back their budgets (BEFORE they even reach the players) via partnership contracts. And profits on F2P (especially coercive models) may reach astronomical numbers. And do you know where all this money ends up? That's right - the stakeholder's bank accounts. Actual developers do not benefit from these models.

There are very few large companies capable of operating outside this model. Valve's a prime example.

Rant mode OFF

You know... just sayin'

Jonathan Jou
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I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt here and not explain to you the rare and valuable skill set that every competent programmer brings to the table, and instead try to explain who Game Studios are competing with when they hire programmers:

1. Google, Microsoft, Apple: Software engineering companies, which pay starting salaries of $80k to stay competitive with each other. I don't think you really have any way to argue that these sorts of companies aren't generating enough "value" to be more than a bubble. They've also been around for kind of a long time, and have no sign of being replaced by something new.

2. Goldman Sachs, Fidelity Investments, Bank of America: There's an incredible demand for programmers who can write (proprietary, trade secret) algorithms to predict market performance, build online services for customers, and reduce clerical error in the banking system. Depending on what you've signed up for, you easily make $40k and often more.

3. Every Company Ever: IT, it turns out, is a huge field for which (again, competent) programmers are often overqualified. Our skill set, which is to build elaborate logical systems, diagnose seemingly inscrutable inconsistencies, and find the pattern from which the problem can be solved (translating roughly into: writing code, fixing bugs, and designing business solutions) mean that any company that tries to have some sort of computer system running often benefits from keeping at least one or two software-savvy individuals around.

These are entirely different tiers of pay, and the last one varies wildly, giving entry level jobs possibly less but unsung heroes quite potentially more than your big software company salary.

The result is that game development studios have to ask themselves "what sort of talent are we looking for?" and compensate competitively. The field has been literally clamoring for more computer scientists for decades now, and even now the shortage starts in high school. Are you pointing to a new educational pipeline to generate more programmers that will somehow replace the intellectual demand of writing *good* code? Are you expecting a giant "software bust" as computers are replaced by something bigger, better, and so free of logical programming that it doesn't need a trained technician to program it? Programmers aren't toymakers—the same brilliance that goes into novel networking algorithms, facial recognition software, and smarter AI in games applies to search engine infrastructure, reconnaissance technology, and smarter devices.

Tell us a bit more about yourself! It's clear that you think games aren't a worthwhile use of our time, and that you aren't familiar with career trajectories in software. Do you code? Do you have friends who are paid to code? Have you successfully identified other signs that we're in a "bubble" and are that our skills are grossly overvalued? Have you figured out the precise value of software products, and put together a detailed, thoughtful discussion on the nature of value, productivity, and how poorly it correlates with demand? I want to respect your views about what people like us do for a living, but you're not really giving yourself a leg to stand on here. I'm definitely hoping you'll respond, though, as I won't pretend my perspective is ground truth. It'll be interesting to hear about what it looks like from the outside.


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Jonathan Jou
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Thanks, Joshua! That definitely answers my question. I will tell you the following things:

1. I write games entirely as a hobby, and am a full time graduate student at the moment. My day-to-day contributions are theorems, corollaries, and math, which means that my job is actually surprisingly secure. I have total respect for the people who have skills in other areas, and hope that you can appreciate that it takes really smart, talented people to make the toys you see so little value in, just as I'm sure many people might take the advanced, specialized knowledge in many trades for granted.

2. To go carefully into the economics and financial rationale that explain how publishing on Steam and publishing through brick and mortar shops make for rather different business models is probably outside of my expertise, so I'll describe it in broad strokes from what I've read and my friend's short venture into developing an iPhone game. When your standard $60 AAA console title is purchased, the developers get $7. For the same model, Valve can price a game at $10 and take a cut comparable to Apple's 30% and the developer gets the exact same amount. In fact, there are developers who are happy to take $0.69 for the apps they develop on the App Store, since there's no publisher funding that they have to recoup before they even start getting money, sales trends don't buck into the used game market after a few months, and it's possible to make successful games for less and sell them accordingly.


3. You may not have read it in the other comments, but switching over to game development tends to come with a huge pay cut. I think the vast majority of game developers who are programmers do what they do out of passion, not because there aren't better offers for their skill set. The common story I hear for game programmers is that the turnover is tremendous, the burnout is tragic, and most people leave for greener (see also: better paying) pastures. I don't believe that a programmer worth hiring is scarce, or that the programmers of rarer talent are the ones the game development industry is hiring away from giants like Google.

4. It should come as no surprise to you that Joe Public's view of many things correlates inconsistently with market value, and frequently worse with rationalized utility, but if video game development is a $50 billion dollar industry and I have to wonder who Joe Public is if he's not the investors who back these ventures or the consumers who drive the sales.

5. Finally, I think a better analogy would be that all chickens lay eggs, so if the demand for eggs is high, the cost of a chicken goes up whether you're making scrambled eggs or cakes. I can imagine a world where video games might not sell as well as they do, but I can't imagine a world (with computers) where programmers will be paid less (by companies—indies often fund themselves), regardless of what they do. While your views on programmers who work on games may be different from programmers who work on search engines, I would caution heavily against leveraging your personal experience as a basis for value comparison, just as I don't think programmers should assume they're worth more because they're paid accordingly. On the other hand, I can see why the person who made Windows crash 1,000,000 times less frequently around the world might be able to substantiate how they're contributing, just as I honestly do think the people you call toymakers believe in the entertainment value they provide.

Thanks for an interesting discussion! I won't comment again here and further distract from a well-intending article, but I hope you learned as much as I did, if not more.

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Samuel Hayward
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I disagree with the point of where the money is going.

You say quality, but honestly games like Crysis feel more quality to me, and substantial in design, than games like Crysis 3. Sure minor stuff like various gameplay mechanics, tweaked shaders, etc all feel more "tight" in Crysis 3, but none of this has anything to do with the quality required to make the product, but its more or less an effect of the same design problems being iterated to where the kinks are ironed out.

Skyrim is a similar story - many fans of the series recognize Skyrim as the weakest overall in the series, but it does small stuff like the first impression, moment-to-moment mechanics, etc all better than any other game in the series.

The problem with game budgets is largely instead due to simply that - over-inflated budgets, teams that are too big for a single project (Kingdoms of Amalur is a famous example of how large teams are NOT good), and way too much money being spent on marketing, fancy E3 booths, etc. For example, half of Lost Planet's ENTIRE DEVELOPMENT BUDGET of $40m was spent on marketing alone - this is completely absurd.

Large teams tend to make budgets massive and the games have a better level of "initial wow factor" but then end up being shorter/worse/less in quality in many other aspects of the design because it's simply too hard to orchestrate a well-made design for a product with a team so big. Back to Kingdoms, its an example of over-inflated budgets for games killing companies with little payoff, both in profit and the design of the game. Sure it's an extreme example, but a little bit a lot of the time goes a long way. There's only so many small returns on large-team game projects you can do before things start getting out of hand and you have THQ happen to you (a company that would famously blow tons of money on marketing costs as well).

The solution to game development budgets is really simple - signifigantly cut down marketing costs (it really doesn't need to be that expensive), cut down your budgets and expectations per project, and suddenly games no longer cost too much money to make. When From Software, creator of the Dark souls series, feels like it has more money than it knows what to do with from 1m in sales for Dark Souls (a very "AAA" game in quality and scope) then you know companies that insist on shoving 300+ people on single projects with equal marketing budgets crying over 5m in sales are doing it wrong. Most of my favorite games, and games that played and looked the most polished tend to be from studios of 50-100 people at most, have a great vision behind them, etc. Even if it takes 2 extra years for 50-100 people to make the "perfect" game in quality, it's still going to be cheaper in resources than 300 people making the same game (with a higher chance of worse quality due to less cohesion) in half the time... and the funny thing is, often it ends up taking just as long.

It's all about how publishers and developers use their resources. The salaries are fine, what isn't fine is wasteful spending and games with needlessly over-inflated budgets. You don't even have to make a bunch of "AA" smaller titles if you were downsizing teams to be in smaller groups instead of one huge one - there are tons of excellent games that are AAA in quality made with small teams on equally small budgets. There's no need to ever have 300 people working on a single title, unless you literally are just pushing out the next CoD every year in a hyper-focused manner, where "more manpower" literally equals actual faster results.

james sadler
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I think you hit a lot of really good points there. A huge issue with budgets is mismanagement of those budgets. It happens a lot in almost every industry. This is where having a good/great producer comes in handy.

I also agree that the big companies actually kill their product by putting massive teams on a project. As an example I'll use Dead Space. The first DS was amazing. I haven't played an action horror like that in a very long time. The second DS was done by a much larger team and it really showed. The horror aspect was reduced in favor of more scripted action events. The DLC campaign which was again done by a smaller team was greater than the whole of DS2. When I heard that DS3 was coming out, and done by a larger team, I kind of shrugged instead of getting excited. It came out early this year and I didn't pick it up until May. I didn't end up actually opening it until a couple of weeks ago (and only because I had nothing else to play). Right away I could feel the "epic-ness" of the game, and what all those many many people threw at it. Of the 3 games of the franchise it was the least "horror" filled. The DLC campaign again was better than the whole of the game. These larger companies think that throwing more people and money at a project equals more profits, yet DS3 fell well below expectations. There are other reasons for that too that fall into another posting.

The problem is that the big studios operate the industry like a factory. Whatever they say to the opposite, it is still true. This is why few original IP's come out each year of AAA backing and instead we see more and more iterations of the same IP over and over and over and over and over and over and over. The sad thing is that the consumer just keeps asking for more. Because of this the cycle continues. It is only when we stop seeing 3 million day one copies of the next CoD title sold that the big companies will shift their model. Until then why would they? We forget so often that this is a business and people in business are there to make money. Its like asking Michael Bay to stop making Transformers crap and start making the next Clerks.

Michael Ball
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I can't agree with this enough. The development team has to be large enough to create a great game, but small enough that everyone on the team has a firm grasp on the original vision for the game; adding more people beyond that sweet spot only serves to dilute that vision.

It's basically an issue of diminishing returns.

Sean Sang
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I feel like we as an industry are making a false assumption that we have to continue on this course in order to please our customers - in this article referred to making games "higher quality". Gamers are buying games that they feel are strong in game play not on all the extras we deemed necessary as better graphics, more cinematic moments, etc. There are many games that excel in all those areas of being "higher quality" but falter on game play/design and have as such seen poor sales. Just read gamer's reaction to Ryse, it looks beautiful but gamers are discouraged by the qte nature of the game play. It's definitely easier to sell a game based on beautiful visuals but the games that have seen strong sales are also the ones with very strong game play. There's also been many examples of games with what some would call dated or ugly visuals but have sold extremely well off the back of their excellent game play/design. Lets not forget what makes our medium so different and great from all others - lets put the power of playing our games back in the hands of the players.

Jonathan Jennings
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I actually just purchased an OUYA and I feel it does a great job of offering "Game-play first" oriented games. I have really enjoyed playing all the titles developed for it so far. not many of them are very pretty but they have all been a lot of fun !

Alexander Symington
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If you 'missed out' on Hinkley's original article, it now seems to have been removed from The Examiner, but not before being reposted here:-

Lex Allen
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Executive pay and high salaries are easy targets in all industries and are quick to make headlines because they are easy to understand.

"This person makes $1,000,000 a year! For what? That's why my insurance is so high..."

However, the king salaries often have little to do with product pricing when looking at the entire picture (as hard as that is to believe). That being said, pay that is seemingly unfair is a hot button issue for consumers and will continue to make headlines.

Matthew Downey
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Great Read. Thanks.

Eric Robertson
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Monopolistic Doctor Lobbyists + Pharma + Health Insurances = Massive profit while putting families to poverty with just one disease, and folks complain about a few Game Makers who make a fraction of one Anesthesiologist?

Interesting priorities.