The great video game exodus
The story of how Frank D’Angelo came to join the video game industry is both sweet and typical.
When he was ten years old he would write letters to his favorite game developers and publishers describing his love for their games and seeking advice on how to become a game maker. Every now and again he would receive a heartfelt, personal reply and these missives from the world of professional game development had a magical, luring quality.
As a classically trained pianist, D’Angelo thought about how he might combine his hobbies into a career, and he began participating in online game music forums, transcribing more than 200 pieces of video game music and posting the sheet music online. In his final year of his Audio Engineering degree, in 2010, he was hired as an intern at Volition, working on Saint’s Row and Red Faction Armageddon. “It was my dream career,” he says. “Probably my happiest moment, looking back -- the result of years working towards a goal and finally accomplishing the goal.”
With hindsight, however, D’Angelo says that what he thought was an end to his struggles, was only the beginning. “I was naïve; I thought that once I got my foot in the door everything else would fall into place,” he says. “In fact, getting my foot in the door was the easy part.”
At Volition, D’Angelo began working his way up the ladder. Then, after two years he moved to a video game start-up, where he worked as a Lead Sound Designer, leading a team of engineers. The perks were plentiful (“free food, drinks, and snacks!”). He felt fulfilled (“like this is what I was meant to do,”) and was generally treated like an adult, free to manage his time freely during the week. But there was a constant low-level hum of anxiety, as not one of his roles came with the security of permanent contracts. The threat of redundancy always loomed, and layoffs were as regular an occurrence as late night office orders of pizza.
“The game industry is cyclical, constantly churning employees in and out depending on the needs of a project,” he recalls. Around the watercooler, D’Angelo would hear of hugely experienced employees who had been forced to spend up to a year looking for new work after being let go the moment that a game shipped.
“Very few people in this industry get to feel stable,” he says. “You’re constantly having to think about will the project be cancelled, or will the studio lay off staff after the project ships, or will they cut us if they happen to have short term money issues?”
In five years, every job that D’Angelo took came with, at most, a fixed twelve-month contract. “I was happy with these contract roles as I built up my resume, but around the three-year mark I started getting really upset; that full-time exempt position eluded me.”
"Very few people in this industry get to feel stable."
For all the media talk of how much money the video game industry makes, the number of major studios in America is vanishingly small, and far flung. When it comes to blockbuster studios most towns, so the saying goes, aren’t big enough for the both of them. In five years, D’Angelo was forced to move between states no fewer than four times. “Some folks might be more comfortable with this type of lifestyle, bouncing around the country every year, but it wasn’t for me,” he says. At one low point, D’Angelo relocated his family to a more expensive part of the country for a contract role only to be laid off two months after arriving, in a sweep of cost-cutting redundancies. Locked into a rental agreement based on previous earnings, he burned through the family’s savings. In the twelve months it took to find another position in the area, he was forced to moonlight at a job in a local warehouse.
As time went on, D’Angelo saw more and more permanent positions transition into unstable contract roles, as teams tried to get by with less manpower. With fewer roles to go around, D’Angelo saw increasing evidence of nepotism. “It was frustrating to see some good talent be passed up on because the studio wanted to hire their friends or family instead.” The final straw came when a manager urged D’Angelo to apply for one of two permanent senior roles in the audio team, only to reach the end of the process and be told that there was now only one role, and it was going to one manager’s friend, who was new to the video game industry. “I felt betrayed and lied to,” D’Angelo says. “I had put in dozens of hours on rigorous audio tests, and it was all for nothing.”
Finally, in his late twenties, D’Angelo left the industry which he had longed to be a part of since childhood. In 2015 he reapplied to college to study Accounting. For the past three years, after graduating with an MBA, he has worked in various finance roles at large corporate companies.
Just as D’Angelo’s entry into the industry is typical, so too is the story of his retreat. Thirty-two percent of respondents – the largest group -- to the 2018 GDC State of the Industry survey have worked in the industry fewer than six years, with a major drop-off in those who have stayed for longer. Only seventeen percent of the 30,000 attendees to this year’s Game Developers Conference worked in the industry for seven to ten years, and just thirteen percent for between eleven and fifteen years.
Long-term careers in the video game industry are uncommon and are, from the perspective of folks like D'Angelo, becoming rarer as the years progress. The figures from this year's State of the Industry survey, which are in line with previous GDC surveys, paint a picture of a tumultuous, unstable industry from which employees are fleeing in search of stability and security.
For J Allard, a former CTO at Microsoft who helped launch the original Xbox before leaving the industry in 2010, the key factor in driving passionate employees away from games is the lack of predictability in scheduling.
“The writing, planning, budgeting and execution of three-act-narrative, whether TV show, movie, book, is far more predictable than modern games,” he says. “Video games have always been a more fluid medium with fewer rules and lower expectations on structure. Because of this, a pre-production phase for a game is far less predictable indicator of the schedule, budget and effort to build. A top-tier producer working on say, Project Gotham Racing that moves to Grand Theft Auto is going to need to push a very different pre-production phase, even though both games have similar elements.”
A concatenation of factors conspires to increase the pressure on blockbuster video game teams, says Allard. The quick-shifting sands of technology year-on-year (“the difference in process and cost between creating Gears of War and Pac Man is much larger than say, Happy Days and The Goldbergs”), and the scheduling pressure of ‘seasonaility’, which requires a blockbuster game to be on budget and ready for holiday season, with great reviews and a post-launch plan, make it almost impossible, Allard says, for even an experienced team to stick to a launch date and budget.
“Since the game studio doesn’t have the pockets to self-fund the title, they often are subject to pretty aggressive 'haircutting' during negotiations which puts massive amounts of pressure on them to deliver on their vision with a smaller team than they predicted,” he says. “And, the developer's predictions were probably a little optimistic to begin with, and if unproven will receive another 'discount' on the budget, or on the royalties, or both.”
This leads to team members “digging deep,” as Allard diplomatically terms the often-grueling working conditions involved in completing a major game.
“Staff will often sacrifice much more than should be required of them,” he says. “While the team might work well together and find the work highly satisfying, if the work/life balance isn’t healthy, they will naturally grow to resent the dynamic.” Add to this, the relatively new requirement of supporting the game post-launch by managing servers, cheats, bots, DLC, microtransactions, patches, and exhausted teams who thought they were ‘done’, are often shocked to find that what they thought was the end of the road is merely the beginning. “Sure, actors need to do a few TV interviews and appearances during lead-up to a film’s release, but Matt Damon is doing two to six months of principle photography and then he is ‘done’. There’s no equivalent ‘done’ for the Halo team.”
"Staff will often sacrifice much more than should be required of them. While the team might work well together and find the work highly satisfying, if the work/life balance isn’t healthy, they will naturally grow to resent the dynamic."
When the time comes to begin production on the next game, which employees intuitively believe should have less pressure (“we’re a known, successful team”, “we made them a ton of money”, “we’re using the same IP”), the industry has moved just enough to render much of their previous experience irrelevant. New factors conspire to complicate the process, be it a platform shift, new ambition for the next title or unexpected support levels required for current version, Allard says. “This results in a similar under-funded, over-scheduled dynamic that pulls members away from their families and life goals.”
Aside from the psychological strain and pressure on family life that comes with working on major video games, there is also the comparative lack of financial reward, even at the more senior levels of a team. “Mediocre 15-year software engineers at Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook are millionaires that complain about too many meetings and teams being too big,” says Allard. “Average programmers hopping from VC-backed failed start-ups can be making $250,000 a year without having ever shipped a successful product to market or sticking with one team for more than two years. Just contrast those earning alternatives to above-average 15-year game creators...”
Those studios that have managed to manage these issues, improving working conditions and salary structure to be more predictable may benefit in terms of seeing less staff turnover, Allard says, but there are costs too. “You also will tend to see less innovation, risk taking and cutting-edge work from those types of teams, which is a real point-of-tension for highly creative people,” he says. “Creatives love the cutting edge, and the cutting edge in the games business is risky, unpredictable and generally, financially unrewarding. This all leads to burnout.”
Allard, who worked at the most senior level of Microsoft’s video game division 'til his departure in 2010, was not subject to crunch, poor compensation, or some of the other factors that lead to developer burnout. But he still saw elements to the industry that ultimately pushed him away. “I felt that the publisher / developer relationships lacked empathy, in both ways, to their mutual detriment,” he said. “I guess I found the points of tension and greed in the industry to be distasteful, and also felt that it held the industry back.”
Allard’s decision to leave the industry was driven by higher level concerns than it is for many more junior employees – but he still experienced the common feeling of having his original vision compromised.
“I wasn’t burned out, just not the right person to get excited about Kinect, Windows gaming and VR,” Allard says. “I’ve seen too many situations where founders stay on ‘too long’ and didn’t want that to be the case with me. Plus, somewhere along the way, the agenda shifted from changing the world through software to ‘selling more Windows’. It was time for me to go. There were plenty of people that were excited by that challenge. And, hey, they’ve sold more Windows…”
In the past ten years, faced with challenging working conditions, many experienced developers have left positions at major studios to pursue the indie dream. Rick Kelly, 34-year-old programmer from Maryland, left ZeniMax, where he worked as a programmer for the Elder Scrolls Online, in 2014 to start his own company.
In his early teens, using a $50 computer his father bought from a yard sale, Kelly taught himself BASIC from a book borrowed from the library. “My family couldn't afford much – even the PC was a stretch -- and so when I asked my parents to buy me a Tamagotchi pet, it was out of the question.” Instead, Kelly made his own Tamagotchi, complete with animations. After he graduated West Virginia University Institute of Technology with a Computer Science degree, Kelly joined the defense contractor Lockheed Martin, where he worked for seven years before deciding that he wanted a change.
A recruiter found an old resume in which he had mentioned an ambition to work in the games industry and told Kelly about a role at ZeniMax Online Studios. “Before I took the job, I explained the possible lifestyle and instability that often came with the game industry to my wife,” he says. “I promised that if it was too stressful I'd look for other opportunities after a year or so. She was very supportive and more than approved of this possible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Kelly worked in the services team for Elder Scrolls Online, principally on the system that allowed players to log in to the game. “I was thrilled and scared beyond reason,” he recalls. “It was an exciting position and, most importantly, I got to work with the game and its engineering team as well.” Kelly worked alongside veteran programmers whose books he’d read, asking them to sign them for him. He soon settled into the rhythms of working for a major game studio and found the work-life balance that worked for him.
While his ambition was to work on game design, his role whisked him from different areas of development. “The day that I joined I had to sign a contract that basically said anything I created during or outside of company time is owned by ZeniMax. Even on my own hardware, or at a game jam.” Kelly wavered for a few moments – signing the contract would limit any chance to work on side projects -- then decided to sign regardless. “To be clear, many people worked on personal projects and for the most part ZeniMax didn’t care,” he says. “I think it was more on principle [that] I had a problem.”
"Creating a new world, a new dimension, a history that people are going to get invested in is absolutely the best feeling in the world. But the environment for making games is worse than ever."
After the game’s launch, Kelly began to consider leaving the company to work on his own projects. “I decided to wait several months until I had completed some key work for console integration - wanting to leave the team and company in a good position after I had left,” he says. The company had, he says, a “No Rehire” policy – “Once you leave you are effectively black-listed”. Despite this, when Kelly handed in his notice, his bosses made clear that the door would remain open if ever he wanted to return.
The weekend after he left ZeniMax, Kelly created a company name, website, and registered as a limited company. “I bought a new Mac, licenses, and a drawing tablet. I was so eager to be doing it full time I'd wake up at the crack of dawn, no need for an alarm.” While he admits that poor leadership and working conditions are the reason that many developers fail to last in major studios, it’s also due to the kind of people who are attracted to the industry, which makes it inevitable that some will leave to pursue their own work, rather than building someone else’s empire.
Despite his success as an indie developer -- his debut self-made game reached top 100 in two iOS categories and placed #34 in Top New Paid Games on Google Play, Kelly left the video game industry in 2016, joining a computer security company in order to prise his hobby apart from his profession.
“I’ve had opportunities to go back,” he says. “But unfortunately, it isn’t a good fit for me. Even if making games ends up being nothing more than an expensive hobby, I want my work to be... well, my work.”
Alejandro Scrivano, a 30-year old producer from Argentina, who worked on an MMORPG, shares D’Angelo and Kelly’s conflicted views of the games industry. “Creating a new world, a new dimension, a history that people are going to get invested in is absolutely the best feeling in the world,” he says. “But the environment for making games is worse than ever. There’s too much ego, too low salaries, too much extended overtime, and pettiness in general.”
Video games, as perhaps the most multi-disciplinary medium yet created, attract different temperaments and personalities, according to the roles. For producers like Scrivano, this can make the business of shepherding everyone toward a shared goal immensely wearying. “Programmers, artist, and business people tend to have very different personalities,” he says. “Dealing with that is hard, while making them understand each other is even harder.”
Eventually, however, it was corruption that led Scrivano to leave the industry, after one of his studio’s investors stole the majority of the company’s funds and disappeared without trace. “This is not that unusual in Argentina, especially in the game development industry,” he says. “So while we were extremely angry, we weren’t surprised.” The studio closed a week later.
This incident, combined with the challenges of working on an MMORPG with a relatively small team, caused Scrivano to quit the industry and take a job in marketing. “Many people saw me as a traitor,” he says. “It was like I had sold out Jesus for thirty silver coins. But it was the right change for me. The low salaries, big egos, crazy overtimes, bad bosses: it’s a combination of a lot of factors."
“Making games today is like having a garage band, most of them are kind of bad, but you get fun doing it, some of them are good, and less than 1 percent are going to be discovered and make it. From a business and professional point the situation is horrible. But I don’t know if it can be changed.”
For D’Angelo, the classically trained pianist who worked in games and left to study accounting, life after video games has been far healthier, but tinged with regret.
"Truthfully, I don't love my work anymore. But my life has been so much more comfortable. Ultimately, [leaving the game industry] was the right choice."
“It’s been over three years since that day, and I’m still coming to terms with it,” he says. “I’m not someone that gives up easily and persistence is one of my best strengths, so deciding to call it quits on the game audio career was very difficult. But my career in accounting and finance has been much healthier than the time I spent in games: I’ve been steadily employed, able to find new roles easily, and am now able to own a home, start a family, and invest into a retirement plan.”
For women, the pressures can be still greater. As well as the challenges involved in working in a predominantly male workforce, people who work in video games, perhaps more than any other entertainment industry, are often subject to online harassment from disgruntled fans. Many women report that the harassment experienced by their male colleagues is further amplified when its directed toward them by misogyny and sexism.
Kristen Koster was one of the first women to join the Ultima Online development team, in the late 1990s. Kristen and her husband, Raph, joined the team at the same time, and she recalls often feeling as though she was in his shadow, despite the pair being hired at an equivalent level, with equivalent responsibilities, and often found her ideas criticized by male colleagues.
"Many times, especially after the team grew unwieldy in size, my skills, experience and competency were questioned or ignored by male programmers and fellow designers with less multiplayer game experience."
“Many times, especially after the team grew unwieldy in size, my skills, experience and competency were questioned or ignored by male programmers and fellow designers with less multiplayer game experience,” she says. “There’s nothing like trying to figure out why a data-driven system you’ve designed doesn't respond to changes in the database because it’s been hardcoded to bypass that database by someone who thought they knew better.”
Management eventually wanted to promote Raph to Lead Designer, and that meant Kristen couldn't keep her place on the Design team since she couldn't report directly to him.
“Origin did offer a position on the LIVE Support team as a community manager, a glorified customer service position,” she says. “Why they thought a new mother would jump at the chance to work crazy hours with a shifting ‘weekend’ while reporting back to the dev team with insights into what players wanted out of the game, I still don't know.”
Two-and-a-half years after joining the industry, Kristen quit to become a stay-at-home-mom and continued volunteering with design, programming and community management on LegendMUD. She notes the industry as a whole has unreasonable professional expectations. “Some of the programmers were given pagers and expected to be on-call 24/7/365. The programmers had them in case the servers went down or some other ‘catastrophic’ event occurred. It wasn't unusual to put in 14-16 hour days including weekends. All-nighters happened more than were healthy. Asking for time off was fine as long as you never tried to schedule it. I don't know how many times we were told, ‘Uh, bad timing.’”
The problems, from the long working hours, employee churn and burnout, are deeply ingrained and systemic. “The industry has not really figured out how to make it all work properly,” says D’Angelo. “I believe it’s entirely possible to run a fully staffed game studio non-stop, even though labor needs are cyclical in the industry by nature. This might mean running two projects simultaneously so employees can jump on to other teams when their project slows down. Maybe it’s using employees to develop proprietary tools and engines during those slow periods. Maybe it’s just training or being able to prototype new ideas during the slow periods. Right now, however, it’s just become acceptable to get rid of staff.”
“A passion for games can only carry a person so far when you take into account all the potential risks, or having to constantly relocate every six months,” he says.
“Truthfully, I don’t love my work anymore. But my life has been so much more comfortable. Ultimately, it was the right choice.”