Should working in games be more fun?
by Francois Dominic Laramee

Yeah, we've all seen 'em.  The bright-eyed, eager kids who, upon learning that we work in the interactive entertainment industry, drop to their hands and knees and beg us for our secret.  How did we do it?  How did we manage to get someone to pay us for this?

There are millions of them.  Mostly guys, but the number of girls is getting surprisingly high.  They're kind of naive, and maybe a little annoying, but in a charming kind of way, since they worship the week-old leftover pizza crusts we reluctantly throw out.  They'd do anything to be like us, up to and including pledging their souls to the denizen of the fuming tar pits of Hades of our choice.  Sure, they feign to listen when we warn them about the crazy hours or the lousy pay.  But nothing registers.  To their untrained eyes, making games seems to be somewhat akin to a mild all-day orgasm.

And then, something terrible happens to them.  They finally get a job in the industry.

Time-Dilation and Other Relativistic Catastrophes

First things first: let's get rid of the overwhelming subliminal assumption beneath this fascination for the game industry, i.e., that making games and playing games are mere variations on the same theme.  Believe me, they have nothing in common.  Thank God for that, too.

Think about it for a minute.  These days, the typical game is considered a success if it provides the player with about 40 hours of enjoyment.  Forty hours.  About a week.  Now, developing that very same game will take, on average, two years.

Please reflect on the staggering implications of what you just read.

Unless you are a tester, or you happen to be designing chess or Civilization III, you will work on your game one hundred times longer than your customer will play it.  O-N-E  H-U-N-D-R-E-D.

Please imagine how much fun it would be to play the same game, and only that game, every single day, eight (twelve) hours a day, for two years.  Yep, that's right, wouldn't be any fun at all.  After a month, you'd be hopelessly bored.  Two months, and you'd grow warts at the mere mention of it.  By the time you'd be ready to ship the sucker, you...  Well, you would have killed everyone else on the team long before, so you never would ship.

Developing games has its own rewards, of course; otherwise, no one would bother.  But it is hard work, and nothing, nothing like playing games all the time.  Get that through your thick skulls!

Causal Relationships of Wishful Thinking

Now that we have established that developing games is real work, an interesting question arises: since the final product is so much fun, shouldn't the process of creating it be just as great?  Well, it's possible to have a blast in a game studio, but the final product will only be part of the reason.  And not necessarily a big part, either.  Should we expect, because we are producing entertainment, to have more satisfying jobs than people in other industries?  Unfortunately, no.  Anyone who has worked a day on a movie set knows it.  We should, too.

The game industry is just that, an industry.  And not a particularly profitable one, either.  The sad truth is that, to break even, a game must outsell the industry average by a ridiculous margin; most PC games sell between 15,000 and 40,000, while it is difficult to make money on sales of less than 150,000 units.  The consequences of this are manifold, and include the following:

  • Salaries in games are typically lower than anywhere else in the software industry.
  • Work weeks in the game industry tend to be very long.
  • Job security is very, very limited.

I will touch on these in more detail in the next couple of sections.  Meanwhile, remember this: most of us experience constant pressures from publishers or bosses who are worried they'll go out of business, or that the profits they contribute to the parent company will not be high enough (or higher than last year's by a margin that outperforms the competition) to avoid being the targets of the next layoff.

So, if you care to join us, don't expect a 24-hour a day party, because you won't get it, and you won't last long in the industry.

The Incredible Coolness of Workaholism

Next time you're at a newsstand, pick up a copy of Fortune, Forbes or any number of other big-business papers and magazines.  (Wear gloves, because that stuff can burn your skin).  One thing you'll notice is that every single article on the software industry uses buzzwords like "fast-paced environment", "Jolt Cola" and "competitive work ethic".  What they mean is that everyone there works harder than a Roman galley slave.  And for some reason, the writers seem to think it's the coolest thing in the world.

Apart from the fact that bosses who are workaholics demand the same from their underlings, the main reason why the press has made 60-hour work weeks "in" can be summed up in the following:

  • Most business folk believe (rightly or wrongly) that the average joe will consistently achieve more in 60 hours than in 40, and that if he falls off the pace, he can always be replaced by someone who'll do better.
  • Since the average joe is usually not paid extra for these 20 hours, the additional production is free.
  • Free work makes rich folk get richer faster.
  • The press is owned by rich folk, who would like nothing more than if their own employees (in and out of their press holdings) would just say: "Gee, it seems so manly [or womanly] of all these computer geeks to spend all this extra time at work instead of raising families or growing bonzais; why don't I do the same?"

In the Long Term, We'll All be Dead

What makes it worse in our case is that, given the very tight channel-to-market, the low royalties that development houses receive on unit sales and the high cost of producing games, very few titles actually make money.  So, the typical life cycle of a game studio looks a little like this:

  • When you work at a start-up, money is always short, so salaries have to be low and work weeks long, otherwise the product will never ship.  And when it does ship, in all likelihood, it won't break even, and the studio will either shut down or be bought out.  (The dream scenario, of course, is to manage to make enough money to keep the studio independent until the big break.  These things have been known to happen, but they are the exception.  If you are the insecure type who can't bear to change jobs, go look elsewhere.)
  • Now, the best case is that it will be bought out by a big game publisher.  However, big publishers have big overhead and lots of titles, not all of which will break even, so even if your product makes tons of money, not much (if any) of it will trickle down to the production staff.
  • The worst case is that the studio will NOT be bought out by a game publisher, but rather by some traditional media company thinking it would be just too cool to get into this internet thingy.  Unfortunately, traditional media folk are baffled by the concept of people under 40 making living wages, so the situation actually gets worse, no matter how much money the games earn.

Compared to games, a good programmer with a college degree can make 20%-50% more in any other field of the software industry.  True story: I make more as an AI researcher (with no responsibility for anything but myself and my own little projects) than I ever did as head of a game studio.

The bottom line: when you are in an industry where lots of young (i.e., cheap) people want to work, like games, you always have downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on workloads.  That's the law of capitalism.  I didn't say it was a good law, but it's the law.

Dilbert and Daikatana

No, I am not going to bash ION Storm.  They have enough problems.  What I will say, though, is that being in the game industry does not shield you from the realities of the corporate world.

I have worked in all kinds of companies, both in and out of the game industry, from a one-person shop to a multi-billion dollar transnational, in both the private and public sectors.  And if there is one thing that I can tell you, it is that you can have a boss who is a control freak, a workaholic and/or a hateful s.o.b. wherever you go.  I have had to live with all of the above, and the fact that we were making award-winning children's edutainment or PlayStation 3D platformers instead of lunch pails didn't make it one damn bit better.

In fact, I contend (as did a guy whose name I forget at an online developer's conference I attended about a year ago) that this industry is a bozo magnet, because there is the potential for quick riches and no real barriers to entry.  To set up shop as a doctor or an engineer, you must prove a certain level of competency, but anyone can proclaim themselves experts in interactive software.  I have seen big media companies buy successful game studios and replace the guys who used to run them by 42-year old bowling alley managers, just because the CEO believed that they'd look "safer" than 27-year old artists at the next shareholders' meetings.  Use your imagination to figure out the results.

Even if the boss is cool, the co-workers may not be.  And even if everyone is just dandy, the money may run out, and there may be layoffs.

A game company is a company.  Keep that in mind.

And one more thing: corporate culture rarely changes, so if a company sucks today, don't bother sticking around hoping it will get better on its own.  I mean, I was head of studio at one of my previous jobs, so I was theoretically in as good a position to influence the work environment as anyone could ever hope for.  Didn't work.  Unless you are in a position to start a new shop and mold it into your ideal, or you somehow stick to a job for 300 years, the company you go into is pretty much going to be the company you leave.  If it works for you, great.  If it doesn't, get out now and save yourself the aggravation.

Are you depressed yet?

The game industry can be a great place to work.  If you ever contribute to a hit game, the emotional highs will be unbelievable, and you may never need to worry about unemployment again.  If you are the ambitious type, you can get more responsibilities at a younger age than anywhere else.  If you are really good at what you do, no one will care where (or sometimes if) you went to college.  And, when all is said and done, coding a 3D engine or drawing a snappy cartoon intro still beats about 94.8765% of all the jobs in the Western World.

However, making fun and games isn't all fun and games.  It's serious work, harder than most.

Welcome to the unreal world.

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Date this article was posted to 11/23/1999
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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