Should I Keep Making Games For A Studio?

Posted December 7, 2012 in: Game Development, Uncategorized

A look at the positive and negative aspects of working for an established game studio, as opposed to going indie or leaving the industry.

Disclaimer: This is a programmers perspective, some applies generally.

Upsides

You know the people you work with love games.

In a normal office setting your fellow employees can seem like they’re from a different world. They talk about families, home ownership, sports, the weather, last nights episode of <insert popular show here>. They’re just regular guys doing a job. They may or may not give a damn about the latest installment of the Assassin’s Creed franchise and the odds of them hearing about a game like Limbo or Bastion are kinda slim. You’ll meet gamers, don’t get me wrong, but the odds are similar to a random person on the street.

When you make games, everyone is a gamer. Even the marketing types are to some degree so they know the competition. You can really easily bond over a shared experience, get new insights and give tips and recommendations. You can be yourself and open up to people through a unified history and culture. It’s like Ken Levine said at PAX, you’ve found your “tribe”.

You get to see how an established developer does things

Coming straight out of school you’ll discover quickly that you have no idea what you’re doing. The sheer magnitude of steps involved in making a game is foreign to you. You’ll have worked on projects with classmates before, but none match the scope of a commercial game release. By working for an established company you can absorb process though osmosis. Taking notes like crazy, and writing articles about what you’re learning will help it sink in even faster. Treat it like an apprenticeship and after a few years you’ll have a surprising amount of insight into the industry.

The chance to meet childhood heroes

You never know who you could end up working with or seeing at a conference. As an addition, you never know what new friends you’ll make at a conference, or connections. If you make games in any capacity, go to conferences. That said, the average developer leaves games after only a few years. From what I hear, everyone knows everyone eventually, because there are so few that last.

I’ve yet to meet anyone I would consider a childhood hero, but to be honest I don’t have many, and don’t follow my own advice on conferences. GDC is really expensive, in case you didn’t know.

Constantly changing technology

Even on an established franchise, companies constantly change their internal technology. They want better tools for faster development and better libraries for faster games. Depending on the type of studio, the change can happen as often as once a year. This means you’ll see new stuff all the time and as a result gain an ability that most developers don’t. You learn how to learn new systems quickly. Not only is that a marketable skill, but novelty is fun. The tech is one thing that games have over traditional business software.

You make games? WOW!!!

There is a certain amount of street cred that comes from just being a developer. When you tell people that you make games they’ll sometimes look amazed, or ask questions about how you do it. It doesn’t happen as much as you would assume, yet feels awesome when it does. You wear a piece of company branded clothing for long enough, and no matter what you make, eventually someone will recognize it. Treasure those moments.

Downsides

The hours are crazy and unpredictable.

We’ve all heard of crunch. It’s an inevitability of the current setup between publishers and developers. This is changing and getting better all the time. Though I haven’t heard of a studio without crunch, it wouldn’t surprise me that they exist these days. That said we are miles and miles away from the current setup of most software development houses.

Many non-game positions offer flex time and do next to no overtime. As long as your work is done they don’t care if you work a few extra hours and take off Friday. Some let you work from home every once in a while, eliminating the painful commutes that are found in most cities. Our industry tends to be very strict on time because we don’t give ourselves enough to get the job done.

The pay isn’t great compared to other industries.

This claim can only be anecdotal and word of mouth, because it’s a touchy issue. Between looking at various positions, getting offers from non-game companies, and talking to friends who have switched careers, it’s impossible not to notice the amount of money that’s left on the table. I assume this to be general across the industry from what I’ve read online. The exception being a huge hit, though the odds are against you.

Your own IP is a constant concern.

No secret here, managers of software companies are obsessed with IP. The difference being that IP for a game is useless to a non-game company. They may care about some library you cook up and that’s about it. Any game company will have a clause in the contract saying they own everything you produce while employed with them. Even if they say the policy is that they don’t mind you doing stuff on the side, there can exist a nagging fear that your project will be taken and made without you, or worse, left to languish.

It’s not the game you want to make.

When you start out odds are that you’ll end up at a contractor for, or working for, one of the big publishers, EA, Activision, or Ubisoft. They have mountains more of crappy games than the awesome games you and I love. That’s just the way publishing works, you gotta reach all audiences and the hits fund the flops.

This means that you get to work on the team that makes Dora the Explorer, or the PSP and Wii ports of Tiger Woods, or Hollywood Squares, congrats. Those are fine once or twice and in some cases really educational. After a few years though, it’ll weigh you down and you’ll want to make your own dreams a reality. Sad to say they aren’t going to want to help with your revival of Oregon Trail set on the moons of Ouroboros V.

Employment Insecurity

They say you never forget your first studio closure, and from what I can tell this is true. They can be the start of a phoenix like rise to new heights, but are usually the most stressful period of your young life. You may have a house, be starting a family, or have huge debts to pay when it happens. They come out of nowhere and throw all your future plans out the window.

You may have to uproot your whole life to find another game job, causing arguments with your significant other. The most common result is people just stop making games and find something that they can build a future around. If you stick with it, be prepared to move around a lot, and save for the down times. With how much news there is about studio closures, I can’t stress preparedness enough.

Conclusion:

Making games for an established company is great when you start out. Getting straight into making games, seeing how it’s done, will give you valuable insights. The friends you make will be like family after the hours you’ll spend together in crunch. You’ll learn how to learn new technologies and code-bases very quickly.

After the excitement wears off though, you’re left with an industry that leeches off you. Passion is the fuel for games to come out earlier than they should and at some point your reserves run out. You realize you’re making another iterative such and such, or crappy free to play game, and so is everyone else. There are few exceptions and too bad they’re full up on employees at the moment.

So what’s the answer? Once you’ve been burnt out, get a stable higher paying job, hope you find one of the rare quality studios, or live off savings and make your own game. As long as you’re actually working on it, you’ll still be a game developer. Plus, odds are good that your past experience will mean the first game won’t be complete crap.

This conclusion goes against the gut feeling that you have to make games, that passion is enough to get through the hard times. Not long ago I would have thought this way, but I can’t be blinded by passion anymore. At some point, you have to use passion to get to where you need to be, not let it drive you where it wants to go.


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