What It’s Really Like To Work In The Videogame Industry
When I ask my incoming game students why they want to work in the videogame industry, they usually say it’s because they like playing games (and presumably, they think that making a game mostly involves playing that game all day long). Or, they tell me that they want to make a lot of money. But what is working in the videogame industry really like?
The game industry is growing at a rate four times faster than the general U.S. economy, but as with most other creative professions, there are more people interested in game careers than there are jobs available. So, there is a lot of competition for jobs — hundreds of people my apply for a single job opening.
While the industry overall is growing, fewer AAA games are being made, because the big game publishers are taking fewer risks and relying more on established game franchises. One game industry recruiter told me that there are only about 26 independent students in the world making AAA games. However, there are many other opportunities than AAA work — mobile games, serious games, educational games, online gambling, advertgames, and, of course, indie games.
However, even if you do find a job, it might not last long. According to the IGDA’s 2014 Employee Satisfaction Survey, the average game developer has worked at 4 jobs in the past 5 years. The majority of games do not make a profit, and when a company has a poor year, it may lay off staff or even go out of business. Even the large publishers are not immune to this — an Activision or Electronic Arts may lay off hundreds of people at a time, and then slowly bring on staff as they get new projects started. Most companies, large or small, cannot afford to maintain staff during the time when there are no projects to work on. Staff may also be laid off when a company changes directions (such as focusing on a different platform), since many companies would rather replace people with others with the right experience rather than retrain them.
Now, let’s say you find a position. It’s very exciting at the start of a new project. People are coming up with ideas, and there’s a feeling of shared creativity that binds people together. As the project shifts from a preproduction planning stage to preproduction, more developers may join the project (especially on big project) and days become very busy. Game development is a team sport, and that means that much of the time is taken up with meetings. While it can be great interacting with other team members, there’s always a gnawing frustration about needing to get back to your workstation and get some “real work” done.
As the project’s deadline increases, everyone starts to become anxious about all the work that’s still left to do. There’s a lot of tension in the office, and if the project isn’t well-managed, frenzy too. Often teams will feel the need for (or be forced into) crunch time — overtime involving working 60, 80, or more hours a week to meet the delivery deadline. This is when tempers can flare or mistakes get made. Fortunately, crunch time is not quite as bad a problem as it used to be a few years ago, but it still happens.
Overall, working in game development can be thrilling, but it’s not all fun and games. It’s serious work, with a lot of pressure, and sometimes, disappointment. The pay and benefits can be good, especially if you are working for a well-established studio or publisher, but for many people, there are also periods where you are out of work.
There are a lot easier ways to make a living, and so I can only recommend it as a career if you, like me, can’t imagine doing anything else. You really need to have a devotion and passion for game development to survive in the industry, as well as a strong work ethic and ability to work as part of a team to achieve a common goal.