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A Life Long Career In Game Development
by John Hahn on 04/21/09 02:43:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Games have been around since the 1970s (roughly), which means that if those early developers had made a lifelong career out of it, then they would be in their 50s today. 

Yet, most shops are full of people in their 20s and 30s.  It seems that very few developers have chosen to make a lifelong career in this industry.  I wonder why this is?

There's  a few possibilities.

  1. They became bored with creating games and left the industry.
  2. They got promoted to producer or other business related positions, and therefore they don't actively get involved in the nuts and bolts of the development anymore.
  3. They left the industry due to the working conditions (long hours, benefits, etc).
  4. They left the industry because of the pay (notoriously lower than software development in other sectors, from what I hear).

I'm looking at this as an oustider as I'm an aspiring developer who's never worked in a professional game development shop before.  Considering all of the startling news that's been made public in recent years (EA Spouse, etc), I'm betting that #3 is the reason many people leave the industry.

As an aspiring game developer who is planning on dropping $45k in tuition to go to the Guildhall at SMU, the idea of going into an industry that most people seem to leave after 5-10 years is a bit scary.

It seems that many of the early legendary game shops were started by a group of college kids who enjoyed staying up all hours of the day and night working on their games, which was fun to them, as you'd expect. 

It seems that even though games have become big business and are primarily created by working professionals (with families, lives, etc) instead of college kids, this frathouse mentality has never quite been extinguished. 

As a result, many talented developers seem to leave when they get into their 30s (because they start having families, priorities shift, etc).  At that point, your whole life doesn't revolve around work anymore (atleast it shouldn't).

Like I said, I'm looking at this from an outsider, and if this is all way offbase, I apologize.  Please set the record straight.  However, if there is any truth to what I'm saying, then I'd love to hear your comments about the future of this business. 

Do you believe that in the coming years things will begin to change to make the working conditions in this industry more standardized and willing to let employees have lives and families?  Do you think the nature of this industry is such that it SHOULD be primarily young people doing the development, and people SHOULD get out after 5-10 years? 


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John Hahn
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Can you elaborate on that? I'm not sure exactly how a free agency system would work in game development. If everyone is a free agent instead of an actual employee of a company, then how do benefits (insurance, 401k, etc) work? I'm guessing everyone would be hired by a particular company to make a particular game, just like in the movies. Once that game is finished, they are then free to go to any other company for their next game, just like in Hollywood the way a movie director is hired for a particular movie by a particular studio, and then once that movie is finished, that director is free to make their next movie at a different studio.

That model works in movies because in the movie business everything is based around Hollywood, so you can go from studio to studio w/out movie. Some scenes will be filmed on location somewhere and so the workers will have to temporarily travel, but everything is still based out of Hollywood basically. In the game industry, the studios are much more spread out. This means people would have to move all the time, I'm guessing. Plus there are games that don't really fit the movie model. For instance, MMOs don't ever really get finished. They are a living world that constantly gets updated with new content, expansion packs, etc. Somehow that doesn't seem like it would fit to well with the free agency model the way that movies do.

Ted Howard
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Games are a bit like trendy startups (.com, web 2.0, ...) in that a crowd of young people willingly work themselves silly for very little compensation. Most are motivated by their passion. Some dream of big rewards in the form of an IPO or huge game sales revenue, but such rewards are not common.

Should people only work in games for a few years? It's not good for any industry to drive its most experienced members away. The games industry, however, does tend to drive us away. Don't expect working conditions to change. There are always more people eager to make games. You, for instance. ;)

Mac Senour
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I've been making games professionally for 27, almost 28, years. I started as a programmer and then "evolved" to a Producer. I just can't imagine doing anything else! And I think there in lies the difference, games are my life and have been since I was 19.

One reason that people leave the industry is that companies want to hire younger talent because they think they're cheaper. One day companies will figure out: lower cost employee = lower experience = less quality product (sometimes) = lower sales. Its a simple fact that I can look at a game and tell you 2 or 3 games just like it over the last 20 years and what was good/bad about them. Something I couldn't have done at 19...

And then there's the "one hit wonder" problem. I talk about that in my blog...


Eric Scharf
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I applaud you for being one of the still-too-few people who are afraid of posting their concerns, about potentially joining the games industry, within such a high-traffic forum as

The games industry certainly has its warts, and it certainly struggles to evolve in a way that would provide more positive, mainstream recognition of its long-term employment viability, whether in reference to youthful or veteran work force.

While it is good to be furnished with examples of alternative business models that could possibly and successfully be applied to your business- or industry-of-interest, you may gleam more information by, first, reviewing the history behind those businesses and industries.

After all, if you are planning on joining an industry that, as a loose part of the entertainment sector, has some well-documented problems with infrastructure planning and job stability, then, would you not want to know more about how that industry began and trace its back-story up to this moment in time?

If so, I offer you an opinion piece that discusses several of the issues and fantasies that plague the games industry, as well as reasonable, initial suggestions and ultimate solutions . . . that may help new and existing games industry folk towards a longer-term path of employment.

You can allow yourself to fall victim to the debates of the moment, involving an industry you are keen to join, but concerned regarding what you have thus-far learned, or you can attempt to acquire an root-understanding of how these debates, and the problems discussed therein, came to be in the first place. Band-aids cover warts, but they do not cure them.

Good luck and best of success with your pursuit, John.

Eric Scharf
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Thanks to a colleague for pointing out, John, that I meant to say "who are NOT afraid of posting their concerns . . ." in reference to your efforts here. My apologies.

Mac - I appreciate your blog. Please keep it up.

John Hahn
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Thanks to everyone for your comments. I appreciate any information I can get.

Tim Carter: I apologize for making assumptions about the nature of the movie industry. That was silly on my part. However, you countered some of my points, then went on a rant that didn't appear to be a direct response to anything I said, and never actually answered my question for you. Can you elaborate on the free agent system? Perhaps provide an example of how that would work for a programmer such as myself and how it would be more beneficial to me than the current system. Forgive my ignorance and enlighten me, if you will.

And again, I ask everyone: Do you realistically see things changing in the future, or do you think that this is just the way it is, period. I mean, I don't mind the idea of working 50-60+ hrs. a week in short bursts here and there, but I just watched a video from the President of Epic (also a board member of the IGDA at the time of the video) basically saying that he doesn't think a good game can be made without crunch time, and that at Epic they actually schedule crunch time at the beginning of the project. I thought crunch was supposed to be something that happened as a result of an unforeseen event, not something pre-planned right from the beginning. Is this the status quo for the industry or an anomaly?

John Hahn
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@Mac Senour: Thanks for the link to your blog. It's good to see someone who has made game development a lifelong career. It looks like you fit into #2 on my list.

@Eric Scharf: I'll definitely read your article that you linked to, and thanks for the advice.

I think many would-be game developers are inspired by stores of companies like ID software where a group of buddies spends ridiculous amounts of their free time working on games together. Then the game becomes a huge success and they all become famous millionaires. People want to become the next John Carmack. The problem is that the days of a group of friends being able to create the next big thing are all but gone, and everything is corporate now. You get the same salary regardless of how many copies sell. You might get a bonus if the game does better than the studio expected it to (and the expectations are completely arbitrary).

There does seem to be the occasional anomaly like the World of Goo game, which was made by 2 people, and has become a big success story. Independent games in general do seem to be making a rise in the industry, which is certainly intriguing.

Reid Kimball
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The IGDA is starting a Quality of Life Special Interest Group and they have a strong position on the uselessness of crunch. If they are able to influence production practices then the average age of developers will increase.

I'll echo Tim's comments about technology development in the movie industry. During my time at LucasArts, we got to see dailies of CG shots on films that ILM was working on. They are developing tech and tools for every single one of their projects. As CG becomes used more and more in films, the tools they use start to look more and more like game development. In fact, on SW: The Force Unleashed, the level designers used ILM's in house proprietary modeling tools (Maya/Max equivalent).

Let's not kid ourselves, there's crunch in the movie industry, the difference is, they get compensated for it and are able to take long breaks to recoup and get reacquainted with their loved ones. Sometimes in games, a person may go from crunch on one project to crunch on another with little time off, if any.

John Hahn
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@Reid Kimball: That's the thing. I don't mind the idea of having to crunch for a while if I'm looking at a potential payoff in the end, and I am allowed to take an extended vacation after completion of the project. There are many different ways to factor quality of life. If you have to work 60-80 hrs. a week for 4 months, but then you are given 2-3 months of paid vacation when the game ships, then I think that would be a fair trade-off to many people.

Mac Senour
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@John, I don't exactly fit into #2. Since I have been doing this game thing so long, I really do involve myself in every nut and bolt. I have designed levels, done animation, written back story, you can even hear me in the background of a couple of my games as I redid the voice over.

I'm sure its not just MY style, but I think being a producer makes me even more responsible for, and therefore involved with, those nuts and bolts, not less.

@Eric, thank you and I promise I will.


Ted Brown
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@John: Hi, John. I'm a designer with four years of experience, four shipped titles, and I'm a graduate of the Guildhall. This should not be a surprise, but every studio is different.

In terms of a "return on investment" for your unpaid overtime, you will not find the game industry to be amenable, especially for new employees ("new" measured by years at the company relative to the most senior people). There are simply not that many breakout hits, and you can't plan for them. If it happens, consider it a blessing.

Paid overtime is virtually unheard of. I got to taste that once, for huge money, but the project was crap, management was awful, and they laid off the entire team just before it hit the shelves. Not worth it!

So why am I still here?

It's because I can't imagine a career doing anything else. I work with smart people. We tackle interesting problems. I'm paid enough to support a family. And I could work almost anywhere in the world.

Is it hard? Sure. Is there crunch? Sometimes. It depends on the project and the studio culture.

Is it worth it? Definitely.

Jason Weesner
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I've worked with an 80+ year old programmer, a 50+ year old environment artist, and a brain in a canopic jar that may have been hundreds of years old. I currently work with a 22 year old and a 41 year old and every age in between. Everybody I work with loves what they do and that's precisely why they do it! If you're one of those people who's becoming less creative and more stuck in your ways as you get older, then this is not the industry for you. If you're looking for a return on your personal investment that's substantially more than just the opportunity to make games, then this industry is not for you.

John Hahn
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@Jason Weesner: I appreciate your comment. It seems to me that your last sentence might actually be a mentality that is at the root of the problem with regards to the Quality of Life movement that seems to be going on right now. It seems that there are many game developers out there that believe that game developers should just shut up and be grateful that they get to make games for a living. The reality is that the games industry is a 70 billion dollar a year industry, and it makes lots of people rich... just not the grunts who work on the nuts and bolts. This is very different from other entertainment industries. If you are in a professional rock band, and you make 5 albums that sell 5 million copies each then you are going to amass a fair amount of money. If you're a professional actor and you make 5 movies in a row that make hundreds of millions of dollars, then you are going to amass a fair amount of money. If you are a game developer at a high profile studio and you make 5 games in a row that sell millions of copies (like the Madden franchise or something similar) you make the same salary regardless. Is it being ungrateful or unrealistic to take issue with that? I'm not making a judgment. I'm asking a question.

Curt Perry
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John, I think one of your initial assumptions is wrong. The fact that young people dominate game studios is not necessarily evidence that people leave the industry when they get older. You will find the same thing in any exponentially growing industry. Think about it: Back in the 70's, there were only handful of people making games. Now there are tens of thousands. If every one of them stayed in the industry, and if they were evenly distributed across studios, you might see only one or two at your studio. Further, most people entering the industry are straight out of college, and therefore young.

There are at least a few developers on my team that have been in the games industry 10+ years and they seem quite happy...

John Hahn
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@Curt Perry: Excellent point. I don't know why that never occurred to me.

Ted Brown
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"If you are in a professional rock band, and you make 5 albums that sell 5 million copies each then you are going to amass a fair amount of money. If you're a professional actor and you make 5 movies in a row that make hundreds of millions of dollars, then you are going to amass a fair amount of money."

John, repeat this in a mirror several times: "Game developers are not rock stars. Am I OK with that?"

The sound crew in the recording booth for that album didn't get a cut of the profits. The cameraman for those movies didn't get a cut of the profits, either. But I guarantee you that, afterwards, they were approached for better gigs, for better pay. If that cycle recurred a few times, then in a few years, they'd be doing pretty well.

This is a toe in the ocean of a much bigger conversation, and you seem to think there is a black and white sense to it. That is false. Big money comes from being independent, and having a big hit. Most big studios are publisher owned, and most games lose money.

A career is a long-term investment in yourself. If you expect to be rolling in a Ferrari in five years, bless you, it can happen. But if money is your only goal, and you think a creative endeavor is the only path for you, then you need to make an album. Or star in a movie.

John Hahn
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@Ted Brown: Point taken. It's just interesting that basically every form of entertainment has its "stars" except for game development. If you write a bunch of bestselling novels like Steven King, you become a household name and make millions of dollars. Sure there are editors and other people behind the scenes that make regular salaries and don't get a piece of the profits, and there are also publishing house executives that do make a cut of the profits, or at least very nice stock options.

The overall point I'm making is that in most forms of entertainment, there are 2 types of people that typically make a lot of money for bestselling products. The executives of the companies, and the artists themselves, whether it's music, movies, books, whatever. Games, on the other hand, don't work that way. The game studio executives become rich, just like in those other entertainment industries, but unlike the other industries, the artists themselves don't. I'm not saying I expect to become the next John Carmack or something. I'm just questioning the status quo. In an industry that makes more money than movies or music, don't the actual creators DESERVE a cut of the pie? I'm not saying game developers do get a cut of the pie, or that I would expect to. I understand that it's not something that should be expected at this point. I'm just asking why not?

John Hahn
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>The sound crew in the recording booth for that album didn't get a cut of the profits. The cameraman for those movies didn't get a cut of the profits, either. But I guarantee you that, afterwards, they were approached for better gigs, for better pay. If that cycle recurred a few times, then in a few years, they'd be doing pretty well.

So you are saying that game developers would be comparable to the sound crew in the music industry or the cameraman in a movie. Fair enough. So, following this analogy, who would be the actors in front of the camera, or the musicians in the sound booth? What is the game industry parallel to those positions? I guess that's my point. There are no "stars" in game development, and I think it's interesting that it's basically the only such form of entertainment.

Ted Brown
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When people watch a movie, or listen to an album, they are focused on the handful of artists they can see, or hear. As such, it is natural for them to collect interest and become famous.

When people play a game, they are the focus. They are the actor. Does that make sense? There is no "artist" that people associate with a game.

The people who are "rock stars" in game development are the ones who are extremely intelligent, technically savvy, artistically inclined, communicate well, and understand the medium. Visionaries, in other words. People who can guide a team of smart, opinionated developers to a finished product.

It's a short list to begin with. But only hardcore fans and other developers know who they are. They are elevated in a cloistered community. For example, Shigeru Miyamoto will never be as famous as Mario. Or Link. Or any of his myriad creations. But among his peers, there are few equals.

Money? Sure, there's money out there. It's sensible to be worried about it. But it's the one thing you can't control. If it's -that- important to you, and you are disappointed by "only" being able to get a good paying job that takes you anywhere, in an economy that's not looking so hot, then you will not be happy in this industry.

Good luck, regardless.

John Hahn
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@Ted Brown: Thanks for your feedback, and point taken. Though your analogy doesn't quite work with books. In a Steven King book, you don't see Steven King when you read the books. You see his creations ,much like game development (except you only see them in your mind's eye), and yet he (like many other authors) are very well known in pop culture. Their faces may not be as recognizable to the masses, but their names are. I think at some point games will be as mainstream and respected as other mediums, and at that point you might have situations where certain people become celebrities, much like authors.

Sure, there's certain examples like Shigeru Miyamota where many people know that name, but it's still not as recognizable to the masses as say, Steven King, for instance. I think that may change in the future.

I want to make it clear than I'm not some greedy snot nosed kid who only cares about money. It's very important to me to actually enjoy what I do for a living. I'm just curious and trying to learn more from people in the know.

Alan Jack
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The whole nature of games, and the "shared authorship" phenomenon that makes them what they are, means that games developers are never going to be famous, and that - in my opinion - makes this the most honest medium out there.

When you listen to an album - especially a modern pop/rock/indie album - you're often actually hearing the work 20+ musicians, as well as one or more producer who actually has far more say in the final sound than any of the artists named on the cover of the CD. Listen to a band's demo tape, then their finished CD, and you'll see the difference.

The same goes for films. George Lucas originally wanted an all-young cast for Star Wars. Can you imagine if Han Solo had been some annoying punk-kid, the same age as Luke? How about Princess Leia? Carrie Fisher acknowledged that, in the original script, she was just a vacuous wailing damsel-in-distress. It was Carrie Fisher's decision that, as a princess AND galactic senator in the time of war, she wouldn't be fazed by Darth Vader. Then you've got the Director of Photography, in charge of most of how things are shot and framed and lit ... in some cases, directors might be more hands-on than others, but generally films are not the product of one man's imagination.

Games are the most honest medium, because there's no hiding the fact that everyone in a team, be it 10 or 1,000 people, contributes to the finished product. Even then, the experience of play is shared between the games "authors" and the player.

If you want to be famous, be a rock star. If you want to be less famous but honest, be an author (but acknowledge your editor, who will also be responsible for your book). If you don't care about that, but want to work at the cutting edge of current thinking on entertainment, work in games.

So why do it? I had only a few years in the industry, but knowing that I helped contribute to something that entertained thousands is an incredible rush. As an indie developer in the past few years, seeing a page of code that you barely understand transform into something interactive on the screen is an experience I can't even begin to put into words.

In conclusion, stop comparing games to other media. We're not like them, we're our own thing, and we won't ever have a "hollywood" or an "oscars" ... if you want them, make movies. We don't need film-school drop-outs clogging up our industry, we need people who are in this industry because they want to entertain, move, and share experiences with people.

Oh, and - for the record - COMPUTER games have been around since the 70s. The Mayans centered their religion around a ball game, and the egyptian game of senet was played as a metaphor for the journey of the soul through the underworld. Technically, games are the oldest and most primal of communicative media. I hope you - and everyone else reading this - can see the connection.