For video game developers, life can be tough. The working hours are long, with vicious bursts of so-called “crunch time,” in which developers may pull consecutive all-nighters in order to finish a project—all without overtime pay.
According to the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Developer Satisfaction Survey (PDF), many developers aren’t enduring those work conditions for the money: Nearly 50 percent of respondents earned less than $50,000 annually. Average time spent in the game industry was nine years, during which most respondents had worked on 16 different projects. Company failures are common, if not routine. On a game such as Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (screenshot above), a hard and much-publicized release date—in that case, the 11th of November, 2011—can result in a burst of stressful insanity that many other professions would struggle to match.
Eric Blomquist, founder and game director for Enlightened Games, describes the life of a video game developer as complicated and stressful, with a problematic work-life balance. “When you’re working on games, it’s always more satisfying,” he said. “It comes from the heart. I want to make art and have people experience something and have enjoyment from it. People are willing to make the sacrifice for that.”
The Layoff Phenomenon
Layoffs are common, Blomquist added, with companies often letting people go once a project is near completion. It’s a depressing pattern for developers who endure intense production schedules to complete games, and one that’s received increasing attention from pundits and analysts.
“The oft-used practice of quickly building up development teams and then laying off the majority when the project is complete isn’t conducive to a positive quality of life for individual game developers,” Kate Edwards, executive director of the IGDA, admitted, “even if the overall industry continues to see growth.”
Faced with what many perceive as draconian working conditions, many developers are taking their skills and leaving video games for another technology sector. As Edwards noted, “People who opt to leave the game industry have a lot of options where their skills can be utilized. Programmers and software engineers easily find jobs at a wide range of IT-related companies.”
Leaving the video-game industry doesn’t have to be a permanent exile, either: After working for video-game developer High Voltage Software, Blomquist spent some time toiling in the technology department of a retail marketing and strategy company, creating interactive displays. Yet even after working outside the industry, his attraction to making games continued.
The good news for those in the industry is a growing recognition of the problems related to working conditions. According to the IGDA report, the industry as a whole has experienced less crunch time during the past decade, although issues remain. “To be clear: although there is a downward trend in the number of hours worked per week in crunch, the weeks of crunch in a row, and the number of weeks per year in crunch,” Edwards said, “developers still feel that they are unfairly expected to work in crunch mode as a normal part of their job and this is something that needs to change.”
But for those who don’t want to deal with the crunch anymore, the hard and soft skills that go into producing video games—from knowledge of programming languages to aptitude for handling irate managers—will work just as well in many aspects of conventional software-building. For those who are passionate about games, it’s more about whether they’re willing to actually abandon their dream.