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The downward salary slope for game artists
The downward salary slope for game artists Exclusive GDMag Exclusive
April 23, 2013 | By Steve Theodore

April 23, 2013 | By Steve Theodore
More: GD Mag, Design, GD Mag Exclusive

A reprint from Gamasutra's sister publication Game Developer magazine, this article from Steve Theodore, technical art director at Undead Labs, explores the history of game artist salaries, and where they're headed next.

The annual Game Developer Salary Survey always makes interesting reading. As of last year, the average annual salary for game artists was about $75,000. That's a pretty respectable average - it compares favorably with the average salary for teachers in the U.S. (around $55,000).

It's also notably higher than the average given by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for "multimedia animators" - which includes film and games but also web, advertising, and other kinds of computer animations, and is quoted as $58,000. So, it's hardly a terrible number.

"Our wage picture is not improving"

But averages are always suspect. There's no such thing as an "average" artist - these numbers include both successful veterans with fat profit-sharing checks, and struggling indies living off of Kickstarter and Visa cards. However, there is one thing you really can see by looking at those averages: Overall, our wage picture is not improving.

Back in 2001, the average artist salary was close to $61,000. In the last decade the average has increased by 16% or so, and when you adjust for inflation, the comparison isn't so rosy: $61,000 in 2001 dollars is around $79,000 today. In other words, the average salary has actually slipped by almost 10% in real terms from where it was a decade ago.

Artist salaries have been increasing. However, adjusted for inflation, they're actually falling.

It's tempting to blame the decline on the recession, but the trend is actually consistent across the whole decade. The biggest dip doesn't appear in 2009 or 2010 (as you might expect if the recession were to blame); it's actually in 2003. Moreover, that trend line goes back even further. Most veterans of the premillennial days (your humble columnist included) can tell you that the market for CG artists was a lot hotter back in the closing years of the 20th century.

I started in games in 1995, and my starting salary back in those distant days works out to just over $77,000 in today's dollars. The Game Developer survey puts today's starting salary's average at around $45,000. That's a decline of over 45% in real terms over the last couple of decades.


Double ouch

Now, you might think that cushy starting salary of mine was a recognition of my sheer artistic genius... or perhaps I might like you to think that. The truth, however, is that the going rate in those heady days was a lot heftier than it is today.

For comparison's sake, the Animators Guild (the Hollywood union that covers CG artists) started doing their own salary surveys in 1997, and they report an average weekly rate that works out to a whopping $96,000 for that year, equivalent to $137,000 today - just about twice today's average for games. (Of course, before you book your tickets to L.A., remember that film work comes with a high cost of living, union dues, and frequent periods without work.)

The really interesting (or rather, really depressing) point here is that the latest number in their data, for 2008, works out to about $93,000 in today's dollars. Sure, it's still higher than our average, but it's a drop of more than one-third in a decade. Double ouch.

Hollywood CG animator salaries, as reported by the Animator's Guild, have fallen by nearly a third over the last 15 years when you take inflation into account.

As an individual artist, when you're trying to make sense of the business you're in and build a career, it's hard to get a good view of the macro trends that are shaping your economic life. We see the details: We remember our struggles and our triumphs, the successful gambles and the jobs that looked like sure things but turned out to be disasters. We remember companies that paid stupid money and the shady chiselers who bought Porsches while laying off our friends.

What we don't always see is the way that larger shifts in the business are driving our futures. Averages, surveys, and the like help us make sense of all those hidden forces so we can plan more effectively for ourselves and our careers. In this case, the averages tell us a pretty scary tale.

The blog entry on the Animator's Guild web site that posted the Hollywood CG salary numbers ended with this laconic observation from Steve Hulett, the business representative of the animator's union:

"Soak them in and draw your conclusions. (The one I draw is: 'The laws of supply and demand have weight and meaning.')"

This is, sad to say, a profound meditation on our situation.

The culture and outlook of the game business in general, and of game artists in particular, formed in a unique historical moment. In the 1990s, the demand for people who could work with the clunky software and arcane processes of 3D modeling and animation vastly outstripped the supply. Computer graphics had only just emerged from academic research into the entertainment realm; although cult favorite TRON debuted in 1982, computer-generated imagery really captured the public imagination with Terminator 2 (1992), Jurassic Park (1993), and of course Toy Story (1995).

Back then, there were few schools that taught the tools of the trade - and even when the schools could find the money for exotic workstations and pricey software, there were few experienced users to teach the courses. I recall, with particular secondhand embarrassment, an "Advanced Computer Graphics Workshop" at the Rhode Island School of Design circa 1992, which consisted mostly of watching the professor rifling nervously through a thick Wavefront manual.

Outside the schools, hobbyists and enthusiasts were hard-pressed to find tools that would let them learn on their own: a fully tricked-out seat of Alias PowerAnimator (the predecessor to Maya) ran in the same price range as a brand-new Cadillac, and it required a Unix workstation that cost about the same as a new Mustang convertible.

Unsurprisingly, with few opportunities for formal education or informal self-teaching, computer artists were a rare breed. Anybody who could master the esoterica of running an SGI workstation or had the patience to wrestle the beastly programs of the era could find a job with companies who were grappling with the new and unfamiliar technology.

The meat markets of the CG business - particularly SIGGRAPH, where Hollywood and big TV production houses did the bulk of their recruiting - were as competitive as the NBA draft. Anybody who could produce a reasonable reel was aggressively pursued with swanky hospitality suites, lavish parties, and signing bonuses. The only dark lining to this silvery cloud was that many artists had to labor (not always unjustly) under the perception that they were merely software jockeys and not "real artists." All in all, though, it was a pretty good time to be in CG.

High competition

Fast-forward a decade or two, though, and the picture is a lot less rosy. Wages, as we've said, are slowly falling relative to inflation. It's harder to imagine yourself becoming an overnight millionaire as artist #356 working on the seventh iteration of a triple-A behemoth (though, to be fair there are a lot of mobile and casual devs imagining how it will feel to be the next Angry Birds or League of Legends). Above all, there's no shortage of talented computer artists any more - just ask any former colleague who's had to hit the job market recently.

It used to be hard to find artists because there just weren't that many of us. Not only was the field itself new, it was quite hard to get into. Old-school game artists were largely self-taught, scrounging for information wherever it could be found; they operated on trial-and-error and learned on the job.

Today, though, there's a huge (and growing) educational industry that offers coursework, access to the right software, and of course official credentials - which are rapidly becoming a necessity for young artists looking to break into the business. Some schools provide a solid foundation in traditional art and the most up-to-date tech, while others are little more than diploma mills making bank off of cheap student loans and the eagerness of kids who have grown up on games to get into a business they idolize.

It's easy for game industry vets to be cynical about the art-education business, particularly given the cost - at $60,000 for a two-year program, a degree in computer animation from a mediocre vocational school isn't a huge bargain compared to the luxury-car level cost of setting up your own workstation back in the 1990s.

Like them or not, though, the schools have changed the landscape: There are a lot of young artists out there with reasonable reels and decent technical skills. That makes it easier for employers to be picky and, if you're a game consumer, it means better-looking games. Unfortunately for us, it also keeps wages down. That's the law of supply and demand for you.

Traditionally, we have not been a degree-heavy business; a lot of us are here because we love games and taught ourselves how to make them. The wannabe factor gives game art enthusiasm and drive - and it also expands the supply of would-be artists. Games have become infinitely more accessible to hobbyists, enthusiasts, and indies.

It's easy to find after-school programs and camps that teach the rudiments of 3D and game creation to middle schoolers. Ambitious and motivated kids don't even need to go to school - the internet offers an unimaginable bounty of tutorials, discussion sites, and online classes for every piece of software and genre of art. There are plenty of free, high-quality tools to learn with, from Source Filmmaker to Sketchup to the Unreal SDK.


Today's vibrant and sophisticated hobbyist communities produce amazing artists and innovative work. Unfortunately this, too, raises the bar for us working schlubs who have to pay the mortgage. Most of us professionals have had to do some soul-searching when we compare our portfolios - done under deadline pressure, technical constraints, and sometimes under debatable art direction - with the highly polished work of enthusiasts who can spend six months perfecting a single sculpt. There is a lot more high-quality CG artwork around now than there was a decade ago - and once again, the iron law of supply and demand keeps prices down.

Depressed yet? We haven't even mentioned automation, outsourcing, or the shift from big console games to smaller, less content-intensive mobile and social titles. Oy vey.

The fact is, the Wild-West boom days are behind us. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting that the employment in computer graphics and animation will grow by about 8% over the next decade - compared to 16% overall. We're not a growth field anymore. The game industry is changing quickly, as smaller studios and smaller projects are replacing the triple-A behemoths of the last decade.

Even so, losing the bull market mentality that is built into the game industry's DNA is difficult. Optimism and ambition are such a basic part of what we do that it's emotionally quite hard to face up to the fact that our cozy little niche is a lot more crowded - and hence a lot less lucrative - than it used to be.

Now, this does not mean your job is going to disappear overnight, or that there is no future for the products of all those new computer art degree programs. It does mean prospective students ought to think long and hard about the wisdom of spending $60,000 or more on a degree!

Stock watchers and industry analysts think that the business side of games will start picking up again over the next few years. There will be jobs and opportunities in the future (though a lot of the growth is going to be in the new frontiers of mobile and web gaming, where salaries are lower and triple-A cred counts for less). However, even an upturn in game sales isn't going to reset the clock and push wages back to the level they were in the boom days.

The upshot is that we have to be realistic about our prospects in an increasingly crowded field. Trusting in luck and a vague sense that games are "big business" isn't a viable strategy under today's conditions. This can be especially hard for vets whose emotional ties to the business were forged in headier times.

"Kick enough ass, and things will work out

The artists of the next decade will have to be constantly upgrading their skills, keeping up with changing tech and trends in games, and thinking hard about how to market themselves. They'll need to have a clear-eyed approach to things like crunch time; as the rewards of working on a game become smaller for many of us, our willingness to sacrifice family and health for the cause diminishes apace. Many will seek the higher risks and higher rewards of indie and mobile games. Some will throw in the towel and go on to careers that pay better or demand less.

It will be interesting to see how much old-school game culture survives in the less-expansive times ahead. We can hope that the optimism, humor, and enthusiasm that typify game artists won't succumb to the gray fog of lowered expectations. Casual, mobile, and social games still retain a lot of the shoot-from-the-hip gusto of earlier times. Let's hope they keep game culture from getting stale.

Even triple-A dinosaurs need to remember that it's pretty damn awesome to spend your days painting scales on dragons and adding fins to spaceships compared to, say, preparing tax forms for a living. And never forget: There's no such thing as an average artist or an average game. We didn't get into this crazy art form to do average work. Kick enough ass, and things will work out.

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Gil Salvado
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What bothers me the most are the requirements of mediocre game studios for even an internship. And even if you get a job as an artist at a indie/mobile studio you have a lot of skills, but you're underchallenged due to the low skillset of highly-paid programmers.

No offense against coders in general, but it's easier to get a job as a game programmer with less skills these days, than as a game artist with a high skill set, due to today's supply and demand.

That's what I hate about my current situation. I could do realtime 3D, which in same cases has a faster workflow and easier pipeline than high-quality 2D art. And guess who earns twice as much as I do.

Still, I love what I do for a living. And I don't regret to have come into this industry. Call me a stubborn optimist, but I believe things will change. Supply will decline and demand will arise. But it may need another decade. And I'll have to continue to improve.

Aaron Haaf
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@Gil Salvado

High-quality 2D, because it is a pain to work with anybody who doesn't know how to do format it due to the pipeline.

Do you know the skills of entry level programmers? I feel that this is a sweeping statement, and involves further investigation.

@Cameron King
I believe a part of it's because the camel has two humps.

I see many, many bad coders (or people who think they can code), but ones who do to even a standard degree are treasured beyond measure. Coders are also almost the be-all end-all for what actually get's put into a game, and is most likely one of the largest bottlenecks a project can have. You can have any number of artists working on a project, but if there is no programmer, you will not have a game.

Any technically minded person is highly valued because they contribute directly to the end product and the actual content of the game. Any experience technically is a great asset to have as an artist (WHY DO NO ARTISTS FOLLOW THE THINGS I TOLD THEM TO DO TO GET THEIR MODEL IN THE GAME!!!).

Not to be confrontational, but have you coded any large and extensible system in a way that is easy to maintain? Are you the one reviewing their code? As socially/reality inept most of the stupid neckbeards are, their digital code might shine in a way that betrays their not pleasant reality.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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"Game artist" is really broad. Also, whats the R2 on that "trend line" ?

Oscar Gonzalez
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I think all schools offering a game art degree need to tell their students that this is a very difficult field to be into and possibly give them a test before the consider becoming a game artist, while this may sound good, in reality this is no good for schools. In my case, I went to a school where only 3 out of 120 students that graduated same year I did got an industry job, while others have crazy debt while working for walmart or some kind of fast food chain. I hate the fact that some people dreams where crushed and possibly some lives where ruin, but before and after you enter this field focus on your human anatomy skills, stop drawing anime!, and stop playing video games and focus your energy into game art.

"Some will throw in the towel and go on to careers that pay better or demand less". - I wouldn't call this throw in the towel, I would call this a choice. Some of us can't afford to just make an indie, some of us need a company job to make an indie game.

Gary LaRochelle
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The average salary for artists is going down because studios would rather hire rookie artists as opposed to hiring experienced artists.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Terry Matthes
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@Dave Smith
Talk to Capcom about how well outsourcing works...

Jane Castle
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@Matthes... Talk to the outsourcers to see how well Capcom works.....

Jonathan Murphy
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I saw a massive drop in quality animators looking for work starting in 2009. An American game animator in 2013 is no longer dime a dozen. The lake is now a pond full of small fish. The big studios are to blame for enforcing strict standards, formula, and playing it excessively safe. While many future animators are nailed so hard with initial college debt the ball drags them to the bottom. Average 3d animation degree is $65k.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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But the same degree is almost free in Canada! Damn those commies!

Thomas Symonds
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Great Article, very accurate to the conditions today. I have worked in the Industry for 10 years, was recently laid off from one of the biggest game companies in the world, and have taught 3d game art at a prestigious Art School. Yes, part of the problem is supply and demand, the lifestyle of a game artist is appealing to so many. Colleges are offering curriculum because the students want it, even if there are only 1 job available for every 100 applicants. On top of that, the technical expertise demanded for a AAA job is extreme, and the students are competing with a huge pool of professional game artists already looking for jobs. But, I think the bigger problem is with Game Development (and the VFX industry) is Management. I have seen extreme waste and inefficiency in the game industry from bad communication and ethically bad business practice, mostly driven by greed at the top. There are endemic failures of creating constant and stable revenue, project planning, pre-producting, team rotation, long-term vision, scope and release schedules, and crunch. However, the demand for games is there! The Public loves and craves new and good games and are willing to pay $10-$30 for good games, and $50-$60 for great games. There should be enough jobs to create the products the public wants. Also, Overseas outsourcing is not good for our industry, It's frustrating for the art directors, it demoralizes the art team, kills creativity, and doesn't even provide that much value because of time-lost critiquing and fixing outsource-made assets. We are killing local jobs and our own economy by sending this money overseas and training their people, but that's another debate.

TC Weidner
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I think the other huge issue is job security. When you have a job things are fine, but its not like you land a good job and its yours for 30 years. Hard to settle down and create a life when you dont know what if anything you'll be making in a few years when your current project is over.

Tough to be young these days, aint no picnic to be old either, but that's another story.

Jonathan Jennings
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I think this is just a really acute observation of the industry as a whole. I am a junior programmer who went to a so- called diploma mill , graduated, and managed to actually get a junior programming job at a few studios after playing with a couple of game engines in my free time and self- teaching to a certain degree . and while I couldn't be happier about being able to work in my dream job and field as far as finances are concerned what the game dev salary survey says I should make , what my teachers told me to expect to make , and what I actually make are all drastically different things.

At my first studio I worked among a very well structured team but once I left that studio I saw that lots of small studios were expecting to hire someone at my salary but with the knowledge and experience of a senior programmer and expect me to be the core if not only component of their development team. It just seems like more small development spaces and teams are aiming to be the next angry birds and trying to invest as little as possible to do it.

I know programming is a bit different but I feel like a similar fate awaits. I see so many hobbyists programmers jockeying for positions and other young devs like myself as we'll offering their services for contract work and it seems like soon programming to will be very crowded and for the person who just wants someone to do it and isn't looking for quality they will have a ton of options even if one does not pan out.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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If someone isnt looking for quality when it comes to programmers, you dont want to be working for them. Not long term anyway.

Ramin Shokrizade
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The part I found most interesting about the article was how in the earlier years (20th Century) most artists were self-taught and as such they were probably highly motivated. They were scarce, not existing in numbers to meet demand. Thus their incomes were high. Now we have two major factors at play:

1. Globalization means that if your job can be done in a satisfactory way somewhere else for a lot less, your job is seriously at risk. There is some great art coming out of Asia for instance. Most of the companies I work with have farmed at least part of their art resources there. This effect is by no means specific to artists. Globalization means high unemployment for all industrialized nations, unless you have a rare skill that can't easily be replaced.

2. Now that schools are pumping out artists and programmers, we have enough of them. Making a game today requires a balance of various skill sets. The skill set that seems in shortest supply is those who know how to create monetization models, and various other quantitative and economic design skills. This is because no school can train people who do these things, and these positions only started appearing two years ago.

The ability to field a successful team is going to be limited by the weakest link. If you don't have enough quants, and you got plenty of artists, the value of the former is going to be really high, and the value of the latter is going to be really low. Interestingly, the people that legitimately know how to do quantitative design are all self-taught and are thus in the same position that artists were twenty years ago. In twenty years what will be in demand is something we can't even imagine needing now. It all comes down to adaptation. I didn't start out doing what I am doing now. I started as an exercise physiologist and Olympic track coach. That may sound glamorous, but it did not pay a living wage. I really had to do some serious adaptation to end up where I am now.

Per Micael Nyberg
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I would like to chime in and second what Ramin said about having various skill sets. For the big AAA productions there are 'room' and need for individuals specialized in one area (rigger, high res modeler, texture artist, VFX artist etc) but once you step outside that space you'll be better off with a wider range of skills. In the current state of the game industry indie studios and entrepreneurial bravado (Notch/Minecraft, Supergiant games/Bastion, Supercell/Clash of Clans) can trump many AAA games in terms of business-sense, profit and also being more instrumental in evolving our industry as a whole. When students or young colleagues come to me for career advice they're often dazzled by and dreaming of the Halo's, GTA's, COD's etc and while I dont want to be a killjoy I make sure to point out other areas of the industry as well. Be that different indie console/PC/phone/tablet game development paths, edutainment, virtual worlds, eSports, middle-ware, branding/marketing, localizing, consulting, dev relations etc. It's a delight seeing their perspectives expand every time. From that view the industry really isn't as gloomy as game media sometimes make it out to be. Sure, not everyone are comfortable wearing the entrepreneur hat but you'll be better off in the long run if you can.