Creating video games is hard. Even the simplest of games takes a hell of a lot of time to design, create media for (images, video, sound effects), code, and test. There are all sorts of moving parts and difficult decisions to make, and if the various layers don’t sync up or play nice together, then congratulations: your game is horrifyingly broken.
So when I started checking out what peoples’ experiences working in the game industry were actually like, I didn’t expect comments like: Oh yeah, this job is really easy.
I didn’t even hope it was easy. I hoped for satisfying. I hoped for interesting. Maybe even fun.
But I also hoped for work-life-balance. Mid way through Year 4, I turned 26, and I felt like I’d done nothing but work for the previous three and a half years. I worked at an unsettling pace I hadn’t thought was possible. I worked late at night, sometimes dreamt in code, and traveled to customer sites on weekends (donating many of my my precious days away from work directly back into the company.) I couldn’t stomach the thought of willingly going into another company or industry where I would have zero time for myself.
So I did what I always did when I needed more information. I did some sleuthing around the outskirts of the scene. I scoured message boards and read people’s homepages. I took out a few books from the library written for game developers.
What did I find?
Making games sucks. Really. It was hard for me to accept at the time, because I wanted very badly to go down this path — I wanted to believe the opposite — but the evidence is fairly overwhelming.
From the outside, being involved in game creation seems wonderfully inventive. You can build whatever you want, after all: dragons, smurfs, short Italian plumbers that can leap tall pizzerias in a single bound. How could making that stuff be anything less than awesome?
The first myth that was shattered was the idea that producing games is a creative outlet. The truth is, unless you’re close to the top level of management, you have zero input on the design. Instead, your role is likely very highly specialized and silo-ed. If you do 3-D models, you’re doing that all day. If you work on motion capture, you’re moving wire frames around 24/7. Maybe you’re a texture mapper, and all you do all day is create images that look like real-life objects, which are then bound to the stuff that your 3-D modeler created. You take your orders and you implement them. The only creativity allowed is in the details of how you produce the tiny thing that you’re working on.
Let’s look at the screengrab above. That list of items that, as a player, you casually pass over and dimly register as “pretty cool,” had to be painstakingly created by folks in the dev shop. Helmet, wine bottle, candlestick holder, rock, two types of books, a gold bar, a gemstone, a leather pouch, and some gold and silver coins. That’s just the stuff on one table in one little hut in one tiny area of the game. If it were your sole job to work on item delivery, you would be doing nothing but modeling mundane things for years.
And that’s exactly what some members of a development team do. This is because of the way corporations work. You will be doing the same thing over and over again because people are more efficient when repeating an identical set of tasks ad nauseam. And capitalism demands efficiency because that’s how profits are grown. If profits are not grown, the company goes under, plain and simple.
Much like an insect that repeats a single task until it dies, so will you.
I also found that the same things I found distasteful about my own job — paperwork, politics, meetings, sales numbers and forecasts, layoffs, endless pressure from management — existed in exactly the same form in the game industry.
In addition, there was the added pressure of crunch time. All software gigs have periods where they’re up against deadlines and folks are expected to live in the office. I saw it at my own employer, folks sleeping under desks, bringing in air mattresses, cancelling plans for the weekend, doing whatever it took to ship a release on time. We all paid the price during these periods.
From my research, it seemed that the majority of gaming companies operated in something close to continual crunch mode.
We’re not even done with the negatives yet. A few more for good measure:
- Most folks in the software industry make less money than their regular-software-dev peers. This is due to the so-called glamorous nature of the job; the positions are highly coveted by job seekers. Basic laws of supply and demand come into play, then, making the balance of power always favor the employer, regardless of the company stock price or external market value.
- To go a bit further on the point above, employers seemingly intentionally burn out employees. There’s no concern at all over whether you’ll quit, because of full awareness that you are quickly replaced by the hordes of youngsters who are eager to do absolutely anything to get a job in the industry.
- You will almost certainly be working on a stunningly awful game with a lot of exclamation points in the title, like Barbie’s Dreamhouse Funtime! Scooby Doo: Snack Time Two!! or That’s So Raven!!! That’s actually not a horrible outcome. Nope, in a horrible outcome, you’re not even making a new game — you’re just doing a port, which means you’re moving a game from one system (say, PS3) to another (say, the Nintendo Wii). Leave your sense of wonder and creativity at home, kids — this is just work, plain and simple.
I realized I had absolutely zero desire to pay 220K for the ability to trade one crappy job for another. For that kind of investment, the return would have to be pretty much guaranteed. It wasn’t.
At the end of the day, video game creation is just an extension of the software industry, and I already had a job with SoftwareCompany. There didn’t seem to be any compelling reason to make a change.
Regarding career moves, options 1 and 2 were now officially out. What was our third choice again?
Oh yeah — toughing it out indefinitely.
I resigned myself to dealing with the current situation and stopped agonizing about it.
Around this time I also started to come up with my own personal theories about employment – specifically, that work sucks for very nearly everyone. I stopped feeling that there was some magical correct answer out there somewhere for me, when it came to work. You know, like I could find my “true” vocation if I only kept searching hard enough.
But I’ll get into these ideas more in next year’s post.