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Analysis: Is The Game Industry A Happy Place?
Analysis: Is The Game Industry A Happy Place? Exclusive
July 23, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

[Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander peels back the lid on an industry built around play, and finds problematic toxicity and unhappiness in the games business, from developers to media to the audience they both serve.]

"So you just get to play video games all day?"

You’ve probably heard that one before, whether you’re a developer or a member of the games media. And you got pretty annoyed, or at least you did after the fifth or sixth time someone said so.

Not only is it a bit frustrating that your career seems so inexplicable to so many people, but we take our work pretty seriously, and resent having it distilled down to a pointless pursuit by some common cohort that still correlates the game industry with bleeping asteroid-blasting (and there still exists a frustrating volume of those buggers, doesn’t there?) .

Drill down past the surface irritation at being misunderstood, though, and find a little latent resentment. Just about anyone who’s longed for a career in their favorite medium has gone through it – the crucial phase wherein the luster’s buffed off and you realize that this biz is a lot of goddamned work. No, the awesome mascot-based space platformer you cheerily sketched on graph paper when you were supposed to be focused on math homework is not going straight to production.

No, in fact, there are not a million page views at the ready for your exhaustive essay on the themes of Silent Hill 2. You will probably enter the biz doing, as the grim adage goes, bug testing for a Dora the Explorer tie in; you will probably enter games journalism blogging on UberGam3rzHell dot com for free, glad when you get one comment that says "tl;dr" because at least it means someone clicked on your headline.

Okay, so maybe it’s not always quite that extreme, but the fact is that the game industry is actually quite a deceptively-stressful place, and fresh-faced younguns with dreams of "playing video games all day" are in for it. And there are some difficulties that are not exaggerations: unfortunately, there are major-title studios where an 80-hour week isn’t a melodramatic legend, but a light schedule. And when that game ships? A sea of arbitrary, tepid reviews from an apparently-jaded reviews corps, and endless forum threads stuffed with one-liners from an audience comfortable contributing only "failget" to the discussion.

Some game journalists work their asses off for little pay, begging for scraps of interview access from a looming wall of corporate marketing, only to receive snide lectures from bloggers on how they’re not "real" journalists, to be privy to swaths of peanut-gallery essays about how they’re not "real" writers. Writers, reviewers and critics of all stripes cope with being made largely-lambasted "personalities" by a consumer base that often seems more interested in the writers than they do about the work being done in the field the writers cover.

The Audience

Of course, the common stressor that developers and journalists together face is the video game consumer, primarily the core gamer. But the audience has a bone to pick, too – they’ve been promised revolution and given merely low-risk iteration. They watch helplessly while the industry seeks new ways to monetize them, casualizes their beloved properties so that a disinterested "everyone" can play (whether a game whose audience is as specific and passionate as StarCraft II’s needs to worry about "accessibility" is a fair question for the traditional audience to ask, for example).

User policies are implemented without too much apparent regard for enormous swaths of feedback, and gamers are consistently told by a more mainstream culture that their hobby is irrelevant, cannibalized in big gulps by Facebook and iPhone.

In this vicious cycle, where each of three parties continually fails to satisfy the others on which it most crucially depends, it’s easy to see the seeds of bitterness sown – angry developers lash out at one another in the public forum, fatigued of rivalries or disillusioned by the likelihood that they will be jettisoned from their home base like so much depleted material when their project doesn’t make targets.

Games media resents and condescends to its audience, and in many cases even develops aggressive vendettas against aspects of the industry it feels make appropriate targets. And the consumer seems terminally unhappy with them both.

"Playing all day" is what brought us all together; the liberal joy of interactive entertainment is why we’re all here. Which is why it’s so strange to be asking this question: Is the games industry really a happy place?

Problems In Developer Culture

"A lot of game developers have an ‘are you man enough to run with us’ attitude," one anonymous veteran developer tells Gamasutra. "It’s like a wolf pack or a gang or something. Instead of taking the time to get everyone working in a team together, it's ‘see if he can survive our harsh environment’." So few people in the industry had a smooth or comfortable transition into their work, they become invested in making sure the "proving ground" is tough for others, too.

It's easy to blame others for failures in "dog-eat-dog" type working conditions, the developer continues: "Game developers are trained to think competitively -- partially because of the assumptions of games themselves, and partially because of the crowded job market -- there's tens of dozens of talented graduates who are willing to take the lower salary and all the crap just to be able to do what the established professionals are doing," he adds. This sort of hiring environment has to make the career culture in game development hostile more often than not.

"I’m lucky enough to be at a company that really values developer happiness, but there are some shops that view non-senior developers as disposable assets," agrees Fred Zeleny, narrative designer at Big Huge Games. "They’ll work new employees until they burn out and then replace them with another fresh face who’s eager to prove themselves in the industry - working harder for less money."

"This is one of the reasons for the industry’s high burnout and turnover rates, and it means the developers that work their way up at these studios are either the most determined or the most stubborn – but not necessarily the most creative or the most fulfilled," he adds.

More and more developer sources I talked to suggested that fatigue, hostility, being at odds with one’s employer and questioning one’s career course is frighteningly common in the game industry. That being the case, it seems natural that elements like emotional detachment, anxiety and a lack of fulfillment make their way, even subtly, into the products the industry creates and into the ecosystem around the industry and its audience.

"Because of the secrecy and competition, a lot of development teams end up having a siege mentality - batten down the hatches and refuse to come up for air until the game's done," says the anonymous developer. "Game development has a way of taking over your life, because there's always more that can be done to improve perceived quality. I've seen a lot of divorces in my time in the game industry. I feel like it's much greater than average, but I have no statistical evidence."

The average end user might not have any idea how games are made, but they may, on some level, be reacting to a thread of unhappiness on the creator’s side when they respond with constant negativity or dissatisfaction. Or not. Games media and developers alike know that gamers couldn’t give a damn.

Gamers and the Media

They want big explosions and they wanted them yesterday. Give it to them simply and immediately and they complain it’s too shallow or slapshod; take your time and they whine it’s too slow and too overwrought. They are a distractible breed, easily confused, and thus the success of a title has less to do with how hard developers worked on it and more to do with how good marketing teams are at manipulating them.

Core gamers are demanding, entitled, obnoxious, sexist forum trolls. Of course, that’s not entirely true, and it’s probably not even a small part of the picture. But it sure seems like a sufficient summary sometimes from the view of a games journalist, who’s tasked with navigating the gap between an unhappy developer culture and a consumer culture that seems equally toxic.

"I thought I was talking to people who were like me," one of my colleagues said to me recently about the decision to do the work we do. "Like I could do my childhood friends a service somehow by going in this world we loved and bringing information back out. But sometimes it feels like I’m being attacked every day by commenters and I realize these people aren’t like me at all."

Like it or not, though, consumer hostility points to important facts: the audience isn’t being served well by the products it buys or by the media tasked with addressing it. Just as many developers are thrown young and underqualified into a pressure cooker, so are many writers.

The malleable nature of content on the internet means that no distinction’s ever been broadly and decisively drawn between a news site and a community site, between game reviews and game criticism, and there are incendiary, ignorant brats writing spew on blogs alongside the writers that are trying to do their best, and no one can tell the difference. "There are actually people out there who will make fun of you if you say you’re trying to do real journalism," says my colleague. "Yet these people get into E3 for free [on press badges] just like you and I do."

The Evil Overlords

It’d be great if you could point to the rusty link in this cyclical chain, the causal element that, if replaced or repaired, would create a happier, healthier ecosystem for the video game industry. Of course, all three parties – developers, gamers and consumers – can glance in the general direction of "up the ladder" to the industry’s investor-driven corporate side.

It’s the Men In Suits, after all, who make the decision to treat their studio staff as expendable. They’re the ones who determine that it’s time to clamp their lips shut when the media wants information, who manipulate an often young and inexperienced press corps with shameless ease. They’re the ones who make the decisions to charge for incremental content, to gently nudge up the prices of console titles over the years based on what they think gamers will tolerate.

A different anonymous developer – this isn’t an industry where people find it wise to put their names out there – describes having run into some fellow developers from Civ house Firaxis drinking at the bar one day during lunch. Noticing they "looked pretty tipsy", one of this developer’s coworkers went over to greet their colleagues and find out what they were celebrating.

The response was "sorry, we can’t tell you" – assuming the team was at work on Civ 5, or maybe the X-Com reboot, the developer and his coworkers gave congratulations to the Firaxis developers, looking forward to seeing what they're working on.

"As you can probably guess, when we got back from lunch, we learned that they were the folks that Firaxis had 'streamlined' out the door," the developer said. "So not only did that suck for our friends… we felt like heels for our misplaced congratulations. I just wish they had felt like they could tell us in person - I can only assume someone higher in the chain wanted the news to stay quiet for as long as possible."

The culture of secrecy and opportunism was born at the top among the publishing execs – but even then, "blame our dark corporate overlords" is too simple and largely misplaced. Executives have a job to do, too. In fact, a CEO has only one: add value for shareholders. And as irrelevant as that objective seems at a glance to everyone else in the industry ecosystem, it’s actually crucial – unhappy gamers are jerks, unhappy games media are lazy and unprofessional, and unhappy developers make crappy games. But unhappy investors mean a company can’t survive.

That’s probably why the indies seem so happy whenever you see them all together at GDC, and why one of the only things that seems to make them mad is if you tell them they’ll be working for Zynga someday. Nonetheless, "Independence and art is good and big corporate is bad" is a familiar (and arguably tired) adage in any context – and more importantly, if there is indeed a broad deep-running fault line of ill health in the game industry, it won’t help.

Who knows what will? One thing’s for sure – nobody’s just playing games all day. But to start, those developers who are happy should be free to speak up and speak out about what's making their jobs work, so that others can learn. Happy writers should apply their energy to developing positively-toned dialogue with the community, so that the community, in turn, doesn't just speak up when it's pissed off.

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Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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Interesting article, makes the corporate game industry seem like a pretty bleak place. I hope it's not that bad in all that many companies. It should be clear that good working conditions almost automatically translate into higher quality work (especially in the games industry, where people work out of their passion).

Those "Core" gamers trolling in the forums should also change attitude. It doesn't help anybody.

And yeah indie developers have found their own little paradise niche it seems. I'm hoping that more indie projects not only push the envelope with innovation, but also that indie developers figure out a way to actually rival big business game productions, though I'm not too confident in that.

Would be great to see the games industry entirely in the hands of those who have a passion for it and aren't just in for the money

Giordano Contestabile
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It's a business, and most of us in the industry treat it as such. All the stuff that makes headlines is common in most other industries, but treated differently here because of the emotional attachment that people have to games. But look at FMCG, banking or any other industry, and you'll find the same. No reason to think that the game industry should be different, since it's a for-profit, and by now mature, industry, where public companies have to manage for shareholder's benefit. Any fantasy of an happy place where people make cool games unencumbered by business rules is just that, a fantasy. And a juvenile one, I'd say

Mike G
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*standing ovation*

Excellent article.

David Beaudoin
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@Dolgion: Agreed on all points. A friend of mine once said to me, "that's why it's called work. If it were fun, it'd be a hobby." I think to an extent he's right, but in my mind, working hard doesn't necessarily make something *not* fun. Getting to work on something that you're passionate about can be highly rewarding; a lot more so than working on something you could care less about but have a good time doing it (be it perks or co-workers you like).

I've been hoping to one day "break into the industry," but horror stories like the anonymous developers describe make it seem slightly less desirable. Adding to that are personal friends of mine who work in the industry and never seem to have a positive outlook on it. One has even said, "if I could go back in time, I'd have chosen a different line of work."

I feel like it shouldn't be that way, and yeah, I suppose for every one person who hates their job at a company, there's several who love it. Maybe it's a matter of finding the *right* developer to work for with a culture that would allow you to thrive? It's a mystery, it seems.

Anthony Gowland
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Just one paragraph on how poor games journalism is?

I do feel sorry for anyone working in games that doesn't ever have a positive outlook on their job though. That must be soul crushing.

Zack Hiwiller
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What was the point of this article? To depress me as I trod along at work? Thanks Leigh/Gamasutra. :(

Mark Harris
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"But to start, those developers who are happy should be free to speak up and speak out about what's making their jobs work, so that others can learn"

Bingo. Lets celebrate the winners, get the word out about which companies have the best working culture and how they produce that.

Also have to give a +1 to Giordano. Game development is a business first and foremost, and just like any other industry there are company culture winners and losers. Know and manage your tradeoffs. Indie is less encumbered by "the man" but lacks resources. Corporate game development has the resources but those come with the "suits" tasked with protecting that investment. You can't have your cake and eat it too, unfortunately.

andre bobbitt
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tl;dr...just kidding good read.

John McMahon
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Good article, I'm a hobbyist and I think that's the best place for me. I'm more interested in learning more about the mechanics than creating my own epic blockbuster. Course that also means my schedule for development is dependent on work and other issues.

I haven't really seen negative comments to the writers on gamasutra and this is where I prefer to read my news instead of IGN or some other site due to the increase in spam posts and flame wars that pop up.

driver 01z
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I would definitely like an article or something that showcases games companies that are healthy places to work (if there are any). Like this article mentions a guy at Big Huge Games - he says his company really values developer happiness - that's awesome, I'm glad to hear that, and I now want to support Big Huge Games in the future if they make something of interest to me (on PS3 please?)

Also: "Executives have a job to do, too."

Really? Like what, besides speak to the press and tell others what to do? I definitely have the view that they are Evil Overlords...

I'm a consumer by the way, I'm not directly involved with the industry.

Carlo Delallana
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Put me into the "finally, happy..." column. I've been in games for almost 10 years holding positions in QA, Business Development, Production and finally Design across 3 companies (including my current one). I've gone through the rollercoaster of optimism and pessimism, and eventually you reach that Shakespearian of all conclusions:

"To thine own self be true"

I need to work on AAA games with million dollar budgets to be happy, I need the security of a large publisher to be happy, The only way I can realize my creativity is to be independent. Sometimes these "career statements" tend to be career shackles if you don't take a good look at yourself and really understand what makes you "you". If you take time to be introspective about your priorities then go forth and "find the fit". I've spent...actually, wasted years without realizing I was in the Square Peg meet Round Hole cliché.

There are people happy working in large studios, there are people happy working on casual hidden object games, there are people happy creating the next sequel to a long running franchise. These developers have found their square hole.

And when the time comes that you change or the environment changes, take time to dive back into yourself and evaluate what's important to you. Happiness has to start somewhere, why not with yourself?

Rob Wright
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Great article, Leigh. Very accurate portrayal of the industry. As someone who worked as a gaming journalist for several years, I was constantly amazed at the complete and utter lack of passion, enthusiasm and caring about the industry from the "gaming media." It's one thing to lack professionalism -- I can understand that with young, inexperience people who have a gaming background but no journalism training -- but I was always shocked at how cynical and callous even the young folks were in covering the business. Many well-known game writers would brazenly and openly talk about what a joke the whole gaming biz is and how they don't even bother to play the games they review (they pass much of the levels off to interns and lower level staff). I came to the conclusion that the negative sentiment of the media reflected the mood of the development/publishing side; the same way that small devs are forced into cranking out content on unrealistic cycles, writers are forced into churning out too many reviews and news bits at a furious pace all for the sake of being "first" on the web. It was awfully depressing, and I wonder what kind of attitude I would have had if I worked in the game biz for 10 years instead of just three or four.

Eben Sullivan
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That Penny Arcade strip really hit home, since one of the first titles I got to tackle in QA was a Dora the Explorer title as well as a Sesame Street/Elmo title. No matter how many times I told people what I did, it got distilled down into "oh, you play games all day" followed by the person musing on how easy/awesome/fun that must be. Nowadays I just roll with it and make them think that the QA pits in the industry are magical, joyous wonderlands.

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

Tejas Oza
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This was a really nice article and quite a reality check... I'll admit its a bit depressive (for someone who aspires to get into the industry) and I can see how it can be frustrating to be in the middle of all of that. I'm glad you chose to write about it and share your insights/views.

Ted Brown
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My kids want to be game designers, just like their father. I will pocket this article for later. =)

Joel Payne
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Two decades making games. I've seen a computer fly through a window, I've seen an ex employee trying to sledgehammer through from one companies adjoining wall to ours so he can get to his office and get his "stuff" back, I've seen one of my friends, a long time game vet kill himself on his birthday because nobody would listen to his brilliance . I've seen a barefoot art director tromp down the hallway like a baby to complain to his bosses when his concept art failed to look like the real-time model he expected when the limits of technology at the time wouldn't permit the level of detail he expected. I've had someone say he wanted to kill me and eat me, I've had anonymous threats when I attempted to suggest that we work together and share better ways to make the game better but.. because I was an "artist" my opinion was considered destructive to the game design hierarchy. I've had CEO's and coworkers claim my ideas without mentioning the source. I've had artist apply for a job with my artwork featured in their portfolios when I was the interviewer. I've been told that I had to work a 48 hour day, sleep on a company couch at work or "families will suffer when the company can't pay it's bills when the deliverable isn't met, Joel we're counting on you" I've been a part of countless layoffs, herded into a room with 300 brilliant talents and told that "**blank*** has F*'d us so we have to lay you all off effective immediately.... now" I've shown up to work and handed a glad trash bag and told that our 200K payroll had been stolen and that I’d have 15 minutes to collect my stuff before the company closes forever. I've seen an employee rob another when he was at lunch, deny it, and the discover he was being video taped.. I saw a a man lose his career, his wife and his company when he opened the door of his company to a guy who knew nothing about the game industry offering to help the company go public, but turned out to be a criminal connect to the mafia who ultimately fired every executive, robed the companies payroll and stole the workstations taking them to Florida where they were later found on bails of hay in a barn on his ranch. I've see racism, sexism and some of the most egotistical people in the world in the game industry and yet..... through it all I always remembered something Chuck Jones told me.. "Joel, the entertainment industry is 90% pain and suffering and 10% pleasure, Just make sure the pleasure shows in your work and you'll be fine." He was right.

Jonathan Jennings
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I love you more, and seriously I would love to read a book about all these events you witnessed.

Bryan OHara
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Happiness is what you make it.

One of the better articles I've read in a while. Well done.

Peter Saumur
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Write a book. Seriously.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Nothing in this article is supported by more than hearsay.

"but I have no statistical evidence"

Exactly. *People like to complain*. If you think the game industry is worst than a comparable industry, dont ask random people's opinion, but prove it in a serious manner.

Simon Ludgate
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I've had several jobs in game companies, and several non-game jobs too. The biggest difference I've noticed is that outside the game industry it feels like co-workers, managers, etc. are actually happy to see you at work. Outside the games industry there seems to be a strong sense of networking, a sense that people want to find good workers they can build a team with so they can all move up the company ladder. In the game industry, everyone else in the industry is like a competitor, someone who might steal that job you want.

I'll use a video game example to contrast "other" industry to "games" industry. In Asheron's Call, the game had an "allegiance" system whereby you can swear allegiance to another player, thereby boosting their rank. You can only have a fixed number of vassals (12 if I recall? I last played in 2001), but more importantly your own rank only goes up when you have two vassals of the same rank. So, if you want to be rank 10, you need two vassals of rank 9, so they each need two of rank 8, etc. So, if you have two vassals, your interest isn't just to get more vassals of your own, but to help your vassals get their own vassals, and so forth, down the tree. In order to make yourself more successful, you have to make your followers more successful. Self-interest breeds cooperation and top-down assistance.

On the other hand, the games industry is like FFXI, where there's one rare mob that spawns once every 2 days and it may or may not drop a rare piece of loot that everyone wants. Everyone is camping the spawn point, everyone dives on the mob hoping to tag it, and one lucky person might walk away with the loot while everyone else is stuck waiting 48 hours for another chance to try. Many people give up and walk away, many more hopefuls come to take their spot, but ultimately the vast majority of people are left miserable whilst very few become successful.

Simon Ludgate
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Just wanted to add one last thing about forum trolls. Always rememeber the golden rule of gamer forums: the gamers who are enjoying the games are too busy playing them to waste time posting on the forums.

Ariel Banks
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Hehehe, that's a pretty good rule. Add on top of that - the people that are posting on forums are probably doing so during work hours. There you have it - discontented forum trolls. :)

Anthony Charles
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problem is summarized in the beginning of the article. games, like sports, fashion, etc. is a passion for many people. because of that, there is a glut of employees in every sector. simple supply & demand insists that labor must be devalued. There's really not enough $ in this industry to keep everyone fed.

Rob Wright
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@ Bob Dillan

You reminded me of one thing that Leigh didn't discuss in her section on "The Audience," and that is piracy. As poor working conditions are relfected in poor content, more and more gamer, whether hardcore or more casual, feel justified in ripping games for torrent sites by arguing that the content isn't worth paying for (no, but playing said content is another story). The fact is that piracy can add an extra layer of pressure on developers, which makes the situation even worse.

So no, Bob, gamers are sadly NOT always paying and supporting the industry. In fact, many are hurting it.

kevin wright
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I took to heart Leigh's comments about the industry having a self-fulfilling lagacy of "I had it tough- so will you (new guy/gal); let's see if you can hack running with the big dogs". And though there is some truth in this, the motivation is not one of simple dissection to: it hard/competitive/ruthless/ego-crushing/etc., all for the point of ensuring a collectively-fulfilled prophecy of unhappiness unending. I admittedly have been demanding of both peers and subordinates (and even superiors) in my past, but out of love of and FOR what we do- and wanting to instill that passion in current and future contributors is something I don't see needing any apology. I see multiple posters mentioning this word 'passion'. And why not? It's a good word. So should we require that visionaries (Einstein, Disney, Gates, etc., etc.,) and supporters of passion feel bad for being demanding and fostering that? What we do is not trivial; it isn't just a remarkable hobby. So it requires dedication, and discipline, and, oh no- hard work?!? So what? And sometimes it is inane, chaotic, or unsatisfying. So, again? This is what makes it interesting and fun; and there are also points of happiness to be found in all this. So on levels inspiring to soul crushing- all of the above!

Also, let’s not forget this is a profession, and a business, and with that comes all that success in a profession and business entails. You want happiness and self-fulfillment? Then apply yourself. To be honest, I grow weary of all the whining I hear of late from persona non-grata, academia, theologians, journalists, analysts, lawyers and other persons not even IN the industry in the capacity being whined about. Telling why and how we are broken, lost, insensitive, or self-destructive; complaining about it, and liberally; and then telling how or why we should fix it. Snore + middle finger.

Back on topic though; Look- Happy (or even satisfaction, which should be the term used here) should never be the requirement for a position or employer in any industry- happy should be a goal in life. But no one should expect the workplace to build that for you. Sure they can assist you in the capacity of culture/environment, but they are not REQUIRED to- Just as you are not REQUIRED to work for them. The onus is on us to build it for ourselves, by fostering with passion, respect, fairness, honesty, etc., and by trying to assist others in their efforts for the same if we are earnest. This is attainable, and some happiness will lie in its procurement. But there is no such thing as a gauranteed Zen like happiness for the masses as a constant. Now that’s just silly.

Sean Parton
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@Rob Wright: Dangit; it was looking like we were going to go a whole discussion without touching the piracy topic. It's like the video game-equivalent of Godwin's Law.

Michael Tiambeng
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This article is very insightful. Albeit a bit depressing, but it is someone's life that they've lived. I'm no artist or author, but I'm studying the business ends of things to get into the field. In my classes, the focus has always been placed on consumers and shareholders since they are the ones that pay the bills.

I'm just a little worried that something I have a passion for ends up being something I'm happy to get away from at the end of the day.

@ Simon

That last comment I totally agree with =^^=

Tony Downey
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I always find these "state of the industry" articles interesting, and this one is one of the best I've read in some time. It asks for the community to start analyzing what it will take for this entrenched ill health across all sectors to be remedied. From my vantage point, I have to wonder if we need more 'happy indies'.

Leigh, you dismissed the argument that 'big corporate is bad, small indie is good' because it's tired (across every industry) and frankly kind of obnoxious to bring up. I'll make a change to that argument then - "Small Indie is natural - Big Corporate isn't".

For hundreds, thousands of years, the burden of entertainment was left to insanely small communities. A local theatre troupe performing in the Colosseum two thousand years ago might have involved 50 people at its peak times. A travelling acting troupe five hundred years ago would have been closer to a dozen. The largest number of entertainers working together for centuries was the advent of the orchestra. Nobody ran multiple theatre troupes, or handled multiple orchestras, or represented entire generations of musicians. And the vast, vast majority of entertainment was still handled by people working solo - musicians, mistrels, bards, or just families and friends telling stories or playing games together. No outside involvement - just a community of self-entertainers.

Radio, Movies, TV and Video Games came along and suddenly stripped the job of entertaining our own communities right out of our hands and into the few hands of major studios. For almost a hundred years, we practically forgot how to entertain ourselves. We became consumers of entertainment instead of producers - a major cultural shift, just devastating. But far from irreversible.

We've been swinging the other way for years now - the creation of entertainment is coming back into the hands of the masses. Any one of us is no more than a few hundred dollars away from programming our own video games, shooting our own movies, telling our own stories. And almost all of it can be done for free with some ingenuity, or at least a local school. And more recently, distributing it to millions is literally effortless.

Our generation grew up in a society where the burden of entertainment was handed to "someone else". The generation after us is quite content entertaining themselves, and their (much larger) community. We're coming into an era of far more 'happy indies' entering the entertainment industry, a generation that has a much higher value on their own creativity and ideas. Granted, every graduate comes out of their school naive and enthusastic, and a great deal of that dies working at the bottom rungs of a company - but they're starting out at a much better psychological place than we ever did, with a lot more demand for creative fulfillment. If they aren't getting it at work, they'll get it at home, working on their own projects. Happiness will come for them, naturally, easily.

So, if you're wondering how to 'fix' the industry - just give it some time.

PS - yes, a lot of my argument is stripped from many books on crowdsourcing. I suggest you read some!

Jane Castle
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@Joel Payne

Alas I let out a big sigh of reality and depression at reading what you wrote. I have had similar experiences as yours while working in the game industry. From rampant unchecked drug use, suicides, paychecks bouncing, egos that even rock stars would be ashamed to have etc. etc. What's worse is that I work with some very talented and skilled people but it just doesn't seem to matter anymore. If anything this article has got me thinking that I need to leave this industry for both the preservation of my health and sanity.

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Thank you for the article! I've been an artist in this industry for nearly a decade, and these issues are very much on my mind these days. I think it's important to openly discuss our happiness in this endeavor, as a way to come to terms with the realities of the industry ourselves, and as a cautionary tale to all who seek to enter. I think all you people coming into the industry need to be honest with yourselves about what it is that truly motivates you. If you can only be happy making your game, you should seriously reconsider the mainstream industry. If you can live with making somebody else's game, according to their wishes, in exchange for pretty good money and very little security, then you may be ok. This industry is time in exchange for money for 99% of us. Consider the music industry as an analogy; I'm the guy up on stage with Justin Bieber, playing a song some producer wrote, and trying to act like I'm having a good time. I collect my paycheck, and go home to my family. I imagined it to be something quite different, like the indie band playing in a bar for a few people, playing music that is honest, and somehow making it big some day. It happens, but not to everybody. Eventually people give up or become studio musicians. The question I keep asking myself is, can I be ok with that? For some people the answer will be an easy yes, but for me I wrestle with it constantly. I had certain (unrealistic) expectations coming in, and even after 9+ years I'm unable to reconcile the differences.

Anton Maslennikov
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I wouldn't say that our industry will fix itself over time. We aren't exactly being proactive in address issues that come up- chances are low that anything will change when you aren't actively trying to change.

As already pointed out, the reason why things are this way stems largely from how we have collectively let them take root. The industry's decentralized nature creates and environment where proper lobbying, marketing, and development practices are difficult to grow and take root systematically. As more and more platforms become available to develop on it's probably only going to get worse.

Sherman Luong
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Through past experience a lot of unhappiness could how things are run. How managers help keep the staff happy and healthy and motivated. A lot of times I have seen upper management yelling and the managers in return goes down the chain. This type of behavior for a good manager needs to control the situation and not kill morale but yet convey the message what they did wrong. You can punish but do not kill the morale and productivity of your staff. In the gaming industry there are a lot more bad managers than good ones.

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Robert Anderson
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I suspect that we who make a living entertaining others for money have a masochistic element built into our dna.

Why do we endure?

Is it to have our names in the credits?

Is it the admiration we seek from those that know nothing of the challenges we face?

Is it because we really hate the idea of working hanging drywall or digging out sewers or repairing bridges? You know, hard work?

I suspect there must be some fundamental reason other than madness of one form or another.

Joel Payne
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@Jane You don't need to leave the industry to be happy, you just have to start your own company like I did and do things right. The game industry should be about fun and getting creative people like yourself to enjoy the birthing process of the dreams. One major issue with our industry is it's dominated by violent titles. I think with the success of games like farmville the industry is starting to wake up to he fact that there is a much larger market out there. I mean who knew 80 million people wanted to be farmers?!? and yet if you turn on G4 TV all you get is what appears to be an endless war going on because those are the only things the game biz can think of making. Yes that market has made them money, those games are easy to make because you don't have to think about a new "formula" but when you're in an industry driven and run by by the male ego.. you'd be hard pressed to explain away the obvious reasons as to why it's full of these stress related environments... The good thing is a revolution is in the mix and the casual market and indie game makers are showing us up. I love it!

Maurício Gomes
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Great article.

The sad part is: Sometimes the "fresh" people have no choice too...

I AM making my indie game, but that bothers my parents (that currently, pay my bills), they want me to work in a corporation, no matter how bad it is... I described all the issues with Activision, and after they heard, what they said was: "If you get the change to work there, do it, does not matter if you get fucked, if you get money, you are a winner"


@Joel, that is utterly scary O.o I tought that it was bad, but not THAT freak...

And I agree with the article! And it makes all the sense of the world to me (specially after I nearly died myself working like hell, only to my game result into some utterly crap because co-workers did not wanted to work like I did... And when I say nearly died, this is literal, I slept only 3 hours day and got 20kg fatter in one month, now I am going to doctors every week to fix several issues, results from that "Adventure" finishing university... And then next year I will have to pay the 30.000 USD that I borrowed to pay the university... Yet I insist in remain in the industry, I must be a idiot...)

Lo Pan
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For me, I have been in games since 1993 and have seen the shift from hobby/cottage industry to the bottom-line driven Hollywood studio model. A necessary but sad progression. I think what saps the fun out of the AAA game productions is the risk/reward for the team (including the Publisher's production team). In many cases the team's only financial reward is delivering a great, high selling game...when they succeed. Failure usually brings firings on both sides for the line troops...rarely for the management.

The fun on AAA projects is dead for me because (Production side) I have little direct design/creative input...that is done by committee these days. A committee that is often not focused on the big goal and on team work...but their own self interest.

I joke with friends that in the 90s game Producers were Captain Kirk. From 2000 on we more like Michael Scott.

Rob Wright
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Godwin's Law has been invoked! Yeah, I just opened a can of worms...and now I have to eat it.

@Bob Dillan

We can agree to disagree on how piracy is actually affecting sales, but I think one thing we can both agree on is that publishers BELIEVE piracy hurts sales and therefore that affects the business model negatively. For example, pubs see the torrent sites and project lost sales and react by installing user-unfriendly DRM like SecuROM, which can hurt brands and turn off fans. Or they lower the budgets because they anticipate losing a significant percentage of sales to piracy, which hurts the quality of the game. Or in the cases of Crysis, Crytek says "we got hosed by going PC only, let's move to the consoles to hedge out bet," and with more platforms comes more development work and longer hours and more pressure. Whether or not publishers ARE losing a significant percentage of sales to piracy is another debate altogether. But the perceived threat does exist, and it does have a negative affect on the overall business.

Carlos Mijares
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Tony Downey said:

"Radio, Movies, TV and Video Games came along and suddenly stripped the job of entertaining our own communities right out of our hands and into the few hands of major studios. For almost a hundred years, we practically forgot how to entertain ourselves. We became consumers of entertainment instead of producers - a major cultural shift, just devastating. But far from irreversible."

Did we forget to entertain ourselves, or did we just start to seek better, more complex entertainment that could only be achieved with many people working together on it (at least in the case of videogames)? Either way, you're correct about that last part. We consume entertainment. We certainly aren't buying "art" off of XBLA or GameStop, but that should not be looked on negatively.

Tony Downey said:

"We're coming into an era of far more 'happy indies' entering the entertainment industry, a generation that has a much higher value on their own creativity and ideas. Granted, every graduate comes out of their school naive and enthusastic, and a great deal of that dies working at the bottom rungs of a company - but they're starting out at a much better psychological place than we ever did, with a lot more demand for creative fulfillment. If they aren't getting it at work, they'll get it at home, working on their own projects. Happiness will come for them, naturally, easily."

I'm confused about this paragraph, because you seem to allude to the argument that anyone that puts a high value in their "creativity and ideas" would only want to make games by himself, or with just a few other people (personal projects, indy games, etc.) Yet, there's only so much a single person, or a small group of people, can do to make a great game, since technology is a crucial part of it.

For example, I have a game I daydream about making (well, I have many, but one is more ambitious than the others). However, this game is just not feasible with the current technology available to us developers, and even when technology catches up I'd need to work with tons of peers to be able to create the environment art, character models, animations, VFX, code, level design, AI design, player mechanics and audio to make that dream game a reality, to allow the player to do all these actions and interact with all these things, and provide a visually and aurally impressive experience that can only be achieved if many talented people made the game on great tech. I could never make these dream games with a small group of people, unless these few were all geniuses at what they do and I wouldn't mind taking over a decade to develop the game.

Essentially, there are many creative games that creative minds can dream up that can't possibly be done with a small group of people, let alone someone in their house, no matter how talented and creative they are. Not all of us are happy with making pretty-looking 2D platformers and puzzle games, or the growingly common "hybrid" of the two, and not all of us want to provide just that experience.

Thomas Lo
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If you work under Bobby Kotick, the answer would be a resounding no, the industry is not a happy place.

Kain Shin
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For the record, I am a happy game developer.

I fear that I might be in the minority, but I know plenty of people outside the games industry who do not have an opportunity to make a decent living wage doing something that might be counted as an expression of creativity.

The grass can be a lot less green on the other side in many circumstances.

Jason Schwenn
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One of the first things that has to change are these sycophantic 'game review sites/mags" that are just paid advertisers for the Big Publishers and their AAA titles.

EA is notorious for putting a huge emphasis on game reviews and sites like Metacritic. Yet, of all 3 entertainment mediums, the game industry is even worse than music or movies when it comes to the malleability of 'critics' and reviewers. A site is going to give a AAA game a bad review and lose/ruin their relationship with the huge multi-billion dollar game company that makes 10 titles or so a year? Hell no.

We really need more independent sites that really put an emphasis on giving mature, core gamers a place to depend on.

Tony Downey
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Carlos, I just mean to say that the mindset of the people who make up our industry is going to change fairly rapidly through the next ten to twenty years. Future developers that are in high school right now are growing up with these huge, varied toolsets with which to create content, and a social predilection to do so. "Content Creation" has gone from the few to the masses, and there's a lot of deeply layered social expectations that go along with that, expectations that will persist into their careers.

All it really means is that our industry as a whole is going to continue to get a more indie vibe to it. Employees will be expecting less NDAs, more openness with the community, greater cross-company collaboration, more communication with their audience, more content coming *from* their audience, more agility in their job, more freedom to experiment, less red tape... they won't get it all, but they'll get some of it. And the indie vibe will grow, even if the corporate structure doesn't change at all.

Tony Downey
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The gamer culture is a poison with no antidote though. They desperately plead for highly competitive online games which by their nature either cannibalize their own communities through competitive dominance (like FPS games), or grow the community in unhealthy ways (like MMORPGs).

Either way these games are left with players who are the very worst of customers, rabid hard-liners who dominate the conversation about the game in every forum, and bitter ex-players who were exiled from a community that didn't want them, either because they couldn't put in the hours or they just weren't good enough to compete.

Conversely, I've never met an Animal Crossing player I didn't like.

Matthew Cooper
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A link to your comment is currently #4 on the Reddit front page!

David Supina
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A fascinating article, and I'm inclined to side with Tony; the key to any successful business is a community in which the employs are motivated both by self-interest and communal interest. That's a lot easier to do when you know and like the people around you. I think that can be done in a larger corporate structure, but unless the company sets out to do that, it's not going to happen naturally, because you have to purposefully create sub-communities within a much larger company that are symbiotic.

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Jane Castle
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You can't be serious. You ACTUALLY think that the industry is too afraid to cut costs and outsource? I don't know of any large publisherdeveloper that DOES NOT do this. Now if you are saying move everything overseas. Well that will happen in a few years I should think.

Ted Martens
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"You don't need to leave the industry to be happy, you just have to start your own company like I did and do things right."

I slow clap to thee, Sir Joel Payne.

Andrew Calhoun
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This article should be required reading for many of the wannabe game design and art students out there. With so many people trying to break into the industry and schools, from legitimate universities with large endowments (such as UCLA, USC, DePauw, SMU, amongst others) to proprietary schools (many of these just want to seperate you from your cash) have or are establishing programs based on interactive media.

Now, I'm normally a very libertine guy, but I'm going to indulge my fascist side a bit here -- these schools should require that their students participate in forums, constructively. Respond with civility and dignity to trolls (Yes, pipe dream) and bring up legitimate criticisms and critiques of games. From what leaks I've gotten from the industry, many of the people who get interviewed are fawning fanboys/girls who have no real drive whatsoever. They played some game, thought it was awesome and applied. How they got an interview, is beyond me, but that's a different point altogether. Some studios revile these people and turn them away, while others hire them on the spot and quality gets further diluted.

I guess my whole point there was to engage gamers and game-creator-wannabes in the material and put them in a position to actually think about what they like, dislike, etc on a critical level, rather than just being... well, critical for the sake of it.

Mark Henderson
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It's kinda depressing to read stuff like this about the industry I'm in.... especially when you reference the company I work for as an indie's version of hell. I don't actually see much of the attitude you describe at Zynga, since we operate more like a web company (i.e. google, facebook) then a games company. More than 60 hours in a week is a rarity, and is usually followed by (forced) vacation time the next week.

Then again, I've never seen what Zynga will be like when the numbers are all looking bad. It's probably a lot easier to keep the employees happy when you're raking in the money.

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Jane Castle
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I wholeheartedly agree with the incompetence in this industry. I was working on a game where we had a "must have" feature list according to management. We setup a schedule based on said feature list. Halfway through the project we get orders to substancially add to the feature list. I blindly ask why weren't these additions brought up and planned for at the beginning of the project?

The response would shock anyone but I was told with a perfectly straight face: "Well our competitors didn't have these features at the beginning of the project and now they do, so we have to have them also...." No thought was given to extending the schedule or even if these additional features would even make our game better or hurt the game for that matter. The competitors had them so we had to have them also.

Never mind that our competitors didn't have some of the features we already had. That was irrelevant. Of course these additional tasks caused everyone to crunch and hurt the quality of the final product. Had we not tried to shoe horn these new features we would have been much better off. But hey what do I know about competent project management and scheduling, I work in the game industry.......

Steven Ulakovich
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It is a self fulfilling prophecy for any industry that is so ingrained to the concept of a hard release date. The gaming industry is still very young compared to the other mainstream entertainment industries, and there are still many growing pains that it will experience.

As for the gaming media, I have started to ween myself from the traditional mainstream sources, and go to places that bring more to table then the usual "Premier, preview, review" cycle.

Joe Claxton
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I've been a corporate business developer for over twenty five years in the U.K. and I've seen everyone of the negative scenarios described here. Not all stress is bad, competition can be great if its rewarded properly. What the bean counters really need to get their heads around is that creativity (and therefore profit) is slain by anxiety. 'Play safe' and in-fighting is the result of fear. I've been on three death marches in my time, been burned out and fired at the end of each one. I've also worked for some great places including the one I currently work at.

What really pays off is when people start to respect and benefit from each other's ideas and bully boy tactics are shown the door. Its not a silver bullet as Jane Castle's experience shows but I've genuinely seen testosterone pissing cultures transformed over night by the introduction of female developers that clearly know their stuff.

Psychometric profiling helps too, if done in a fun, non threatening way. Once folks in teams understand the strengths and weaknesses of each other's personality types and what works best for each, what you get is a whole that is most definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Khadyna R
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That is great to know.. Great comment.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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(Articles like this and the educated mature discussions following them are what makes Gamasutra THE place in the internet to read about the art of games.)

I find it wrong to just say that it's first and foremost business. This means the goal of making a game is making money. Which is bullshit. I mean, I believe there is not a single one of you who decided, when you were kids, playing Mario or Final Fantasy or something, that you want to make games yourself, and only because you thought that you could get stinking rich with it. This isn't the stock market, this isn't the banking sector, this is the freaking game "industry".

You as developers make games because you want to realize this crazy idea that you had after the muse french-kissed you this one time when you were sitting in the bus looking out the window.

It's work, no doubt about it. Engineering must be done. Textures must be drawn. But it's all just means to an end (not saying it's dull though). I have ideas, and I want to see them made into reality. Nobody is going to do that for me, so that's why I started learning programming when I was 11. It's been hard, frustrating, but for 10 years now, what's been driving me was this need inside me to see my idea realized.

What I'm trying to say is that at it's core, this industry is blessed with people who work for their passion.

I mean there are really few things that drive people to invest so much time and dedication into their work. I can currently only think of :

1.making tons of cash


2. a burning passion

Games are art, because those who make them are artists. A plumber doesn't work his ass off 12 hours a day. They go home and watch TV or smth. A game developer can't stop thinking about games. It's like a disease. It's like a state of mind.

The industry consists at its most inner core of 2 groups of people. Those who make them, and those you play them. Because people are willing to pay for good games, and because making them is real work that deserves to be paid for, it became an industry, with suits who don't know shit about games and so forth.

How can we make this industry a better place to work at? Of course it comes down to the personalities, attitude and competence of each single person working in it. But to improve the general structure and way of things I would say there are a few things that need to happen:

Game production budgets need to lower drastically. They became too bloated for their own good. It hurts innovation, and the overall quality of games. Studios will become smaller, more flexible. There is less bureaucracy and game prices become lower. Game reviews from bad journalists lose impact on public opinion because gamers are more willing to risk buying a game with a new daring idea. Gamers might not go trollin so much in the forums bashing developers because they didn't waste $60 on a bad game, they wasted $20 (or smth to that extent). There is less pressure from shareholders.

And what would games lose from having lower budget? High end graphics and huge marketing campaigns first and foremost. Not a bad trade off right?

What this means is basically that the industry has to become more indie, not because indies are trendy and cool, but because it's necessary for an industry that is built upon by the fruits of creative freedom.

Gamers should observe the impact of their own behavior too. I don't mean trolling primarily. Gamers whine that there is no innovation, but then they go and buy Modern Warfare 2.

They paid in average a measly $9 for the Humble Indie Bundle, which is actually worth $80, when none of the money even goes to middlemen, but to the developers and charity organizations.

It's pretty pathetic. Only if gamers would change that attitude, actually putting their money where their mouth is, only then can massive game production budgets become lower, bringing with it those changes I mentioned above.

It just makes me really sad that suits basically get the power to shackle developers creativity, while sucking them dry taking advantage of their passion.

And it looks like I'm not exaggerating, reading about the stuff Joel and others have been going through in this industry...

Ellis Kim
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You know, as someone who's been both a cynical and optimistic gamer/consumer/customer/forumgoer, I've come to learn that one of the best ways to really address customer cynicism is the creation of dialogue between the gamers and those behind the veil, whether they be journalists or developers.

Good PR and marketing is always instrumental in how a customer perceives an end product, but that's not to be confused with any sort of cold detachment, but the complete opposite. David Jaffe's a bit of an extreme example, and he walks a delicate line for it, but something like podcasts (both audio and video) can go a long way in cultivating the community, and breaking down invisible barriers that forum goers typically play behind.

But something that must be addressed, here and now, is that you shouldn't ever lump all "core" gamers together in the same pile. You can't say that all core gamers bought Modern Warfare 2, even though the numbers would like to insist so. You also can't say that all core gamers bought Super Mario Galaxy 2, either. What you have to realize, when it comes to the vocal audience, is you have the prominent minority who "uphold" traditional values (i.e. NeoGAF), you have the larger community who primarily traverse Youtube vlogs and Facebook more than Gamasutra or even Kotaku, yet also represents the Bejeweled/Madden/Modern Warfare crowd, and you finally have everyone in the middle: the Gamespot/FAQs/IGN/Gametrailers/whatever forum goers who more or less represent the larger swath of those egotistic, sexist, and plain stupid posters that are so quickly considered as the average internet poster and gamer. Your 11-22 year old racist sexist male bigot.

I feel that because this is considered the primary target demographic, game publishers should maybe start addressing the gamers themselves through this medium that we all love.

Maybe games should be the first to directly address the issues of today's youth. Maybe there should be a game that talks about the "N" word. If their history teacher couldn't get through to them, maybe games should. I'm not even talking about "serious" games, either.

Some developers have spoken out in the past about how the onus is on them to be mindful about what they put in their games when violence became an prominent "issue." Maybe instead of trying to put energy towards philosophical and conceptual naval gazing, developers and publishers should try Trojan-Horsing real topics and issues amongst the youth, and try maybe inciting a discussion through games.

Maurício Gomes
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Wow, awesome these comments about how to fix the industry!

Yes, I too think that piracy is just a symptom, I defend frequently, that piracy is just result of the behavior of the big companies, that tends to get worse, as bugets increase.

I wrote about it here:

Andrew Dobbs
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This statement in the article is just incorrect: In fact, a CEO has only one: add value for shareholders. That's really more the role of the board of directors. A good CEO is focused on the vision for the employees and the customers as much as they are on the shareholders.

It's too simple to blame big corporations. The primary reason that making games sucks is due to the nature of the business. Namely, game development is not a good way to make money. The costs outweigh the returns. We are an entertainment business subsidized by the losses of large companies like MS and Sony that are willing to lose money year after year. We are also subsidized by wealthy individuals that want to invest in the glamour of running a games biz.

It's like any other entertainment business, a few places make gobs of cash and the industry as a whole may appear to make more than it spends, but the reality is that most entities, whether companies or individuals, lose more than they put in.

Andrew Dobbs
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My personal story is that I quit a job at a insurance company and went to the SMU Guildhall. After almost two years of training as a designer and extensive job searching, I got a job at a small independent developer doing UI development. After a little over a year, I decided to quit.

I quit for a variety of reasons, but overall my experience sounds like it was much better than most when it comes to quality of life. That said, I wasn't willing to keep working on so-so games for terrible pay. I looked into doing indie development, and even tried to recruit an artist for a UDK project. However, an indie developer came out with an excellent article that showed the numbers behind doing indie development. They were similar to corporate development: almost no one makes a profit. As an indie, most good to great games you may make will not earn you enough to live on.

I've moved on to a career in education, and I have found it much more enjoyable for myself. I'm also starting up a web application development company focused on software to aid literacy. It's nice to be doing stuff a little more rewarding and motivating than working on average to below average games.

Would I still be in the industry if I got a design job at somewhere like Valve or ArenaNet like some of my friends? Probably, but I'm not sure I'd be as happy as I am now, and I know I'd have much less of a chance starting my own company if I stayed focused on entertainment.

Jacek Wesolowski
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While lack of profitability contributes to many issues, it's also made worse by those same issues. Here are a few example problems I witnessed myself, either as an employee or a friend thereof:

1. A team of several dozen working for several months had their entire work scrapped, because their results did not meet expectations. The failure was caused by a number of major design issues, all of which were identified by the team early on, but never addressed.

2. A CEO of a company had a habit of visiting his development team once in a month. Each visit would result in the project taking a rapid change in direction. Typically, about half of the work done so far could be recycled - the rest had to be redone. In between visits, the team worked largely on its own, without directions. All in all, the team's effective efficiency was about a third of what they were theoretically capable of.

3. Over the course of a year, a team consistently felt that the game they were developing was actually getting worse. Nothing was ever done about it, because the team and the leadership didn't really talk to each other. Eventually, the game got cancelled.

4. In one project, a large piece of code was in need of refactoring. This was proposed and postponed repeatedly, while difficulties kept mounting. After two years of suffering from a number of minor delays, refactoring was commenced - and it caused major disruption to the schedule, because the team had lost track of the real size of the task in question.

5. One team fostered a culture of "controlled chaos", leading to ca. 40% of all tasks going MIA. In other words, everything was always only 60 per cent done, and no one kept track of the other 40 per cent. Last time I saw their game, it had more individual features than most games from the same genre, but they were all incomplete and most didn't work at all. Even after they actually decided to focus on one thing at a time, they still ended up doing only 60% of it and then switching to something else. And it took them twice as long as they thought it would.

6. A team had trouble meeting their deadlines while working on a single game. The management decided to begin development of two other games without increasing the size of the team. The team basically fell apart within a year.

7. In a large team, the most senior producer and one of senior designers, who had a say in virtually every piece of game's design, worked off-site most of the time. The most apparent result was that round-trip times for feedback involving those two individuals were excessively long. This led to delays when the team had to wait for feedback before they could proceed.

8. I've also seen several teams suffer from turnover rates in excess of 10 per cent a year just because the project lead was a jerk -- and that's just people who actually quit or got fired. There are many coping mechanisms people adopt when dealing with asshole superiors, but the most common one is that they begin to procrastinate (since they work with their minds, it's hard for them to keep working when their minds are upset). It takes anywhere between two weeks and two years for an employer to take notice. It's also worth noting that the sheer process of firing someone and recruiting a replacement costs time and money. For instance, it takes between three and six months for a newcomer to fully integrate with the team, even if they are already proficient with all the tools.

The common theme of these examples is that poor development practice costs a shitload of money. Then a game sells a million copies, which is a lot, and it still fails to break even.

This is a vicious circle, since the most common response to failure seems to be "keep doing the same thing, only harder", rather than "try something else". For instance, when team is about to miss a deadline, the common response is to work harder, i.e. crunch, rather than trying to develop a better project management methodology.

Inefficiencies have been mounting for 30 years now. If you would rather be an indie, then you should rejoice, because at this rate, indie will become the new mainstream within five to ten years.

However, if you prefer the corporate side of the industry, and the values associated with it, such as job security or having a "career", then you have to help preserve it.

Things looked different ten or twenty years ago, when the industry was small but growing explosively. Now it's large, inert and on the verge of mass extinction. We can no longer afford to wait for things to clear up on their own. Either we find a new way now, or it will find us.

The reason why YOU should not tolerate poor practice in YOUR workplace is not because it hurts you (though it does), but because it hurts the business enterprise that you rely on for your income. If you speak up and thus disappoint your superiors, you'll risk losing your job and having to find a new one. But if you stay put and let them ruin their business, you'll risk losing your job and not being able to find a new one at all.

Maximilian Herkender
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I was all set to devote all my ambition to making big, AAA games. I got some bad premonitions (EA Spouse comes to mind), but I was unfazed. Then I started getting bombarded with them, so I reconsidered what my love of games meant to me.

The games industry is killing itself. I am (optimistically, anyway) young fresh talent and was lured away by the Bay Area through a promise of a job that wouldn't suck the life out of me.

Anyway, stuff like this makes me feel I made the right choice. It's not the games industry I love, but games.

Phil RA
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I always hear about these horror stories, yet after years in the industry I have yet to know anyone personally who ever got fired or burned out. The only people who got close to a burnout that I know are people who are highly insecure about their work, let themselves be run over by bad managers (if you're good they can't ask anything more from you, especially not to come in on the weekend!), or people who never try to take on new responsibilities and end up with low raises and no promotion so they become depressed and wonder why they aren't loving their job.

In the end if you're not cut for the job you will be cut for not being cut for it. If you're good at what you do, all's good.

The only reason the industry can be as some have described it here is because they are part of the problem. Next time someone tries to force you into slave labor tell them off. This isn't pre-civil war America. If you're not happy get out, find another place to work.

Matt Cratty
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This article hit the nail on the head.

I still wouldn't do anything else, but you need to REALLY love it before you get into this line of work.

Joel Payne
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@ Johann Ly what did I say to the kid that had my art in his portfolio? well... I had fun with him. i asked him how he came up with it, I complimented his efforts and then I told him my name. He left without saying a word to me, I think it really scared him to death. I almost felt bad for him.

@Matthew Cooper #4 on the Reddit not sure why my comments mattered that much, just enjoyed talking about the wild world of games that made me.

@Peter Saumur write a book? I wouldn't now how to avoid the death threats....

@Ted Martens Walt Disney had his far share of cynic surround him. I can take it ;) but my point was if you don't like the company you're at, make your own. I need no pats on the back, anyone can have a company, few have a company they can be proud of. The industry is filled with people that point out flaws but they hardly offer up the solutions.

@Maurício Gomes freaky doesn't cut it..

Holden Link
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Excellent article.

I'm rising college senior, and I've seen a bit of both worlds through internships for the big guys and collaborative indie projects. Seeing what bloggers and forum users have to say about the things you pour your heart and soul into can be both simultaneously fulfilling, frightening, and infuriating.

One thing I will add is that I haven't been exposed to the part about "your co-workers don't want to see you" in games versus other lines of work. In my limited experience, I've found it to be the opposite - I get along with my co-workers amazingly well and we frequently spend time together outside of work, and I never found that in other jobs.

Gesine Fischer
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Very insightful article - and not just for my own worn soul. You point to something that each of us will easily forget: The folks from other parts of the same puzzle you work on.

Looking back, I now see the emails I got while in Community, asking for an interview, in a different light; realizing that I "did not get it" when someone from a fan site or smaller media outlet 'pestered' me for an interview. Talk about feeling like a jerk. And still, I don't think I can react differently. Why?

Pressure is passed on down the chain, from the Publisher's CEOs downwards to the newbie GM or QA who just started a week ago. Sometimes it is hard to understand for someone from Press that you only can give so much or that, no, I do not want you on my LinkedIn because I never worked with you as a colleague. What little private time we have is eaten up by work as well.

The result often then is a snide comment in a review and you sit at your desk, tasks piling up and waste a few minutes going though a number of cuss words in your head.

Jeffrey Kessler
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@Jacek Lack of professional project management is a problem in the game industry. It isn't just the project managers though. Agile methodologies require that the team decide what they are going to work on during the sprint and it's management's job to prioritize the work so the team is only working on high priority work.

Having managers that change the scope of the project monthly is ridiculous and if the producer doesn't negotiate limits to the changes to scope, then they are not doing their job. Producers (and their teams) need to learn to say no.

Jason Lee
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If you are a truly a talented game developer, you should jump into the world of algorithmic trading, instead of working for places where meritocracy is stripped away by sociopath asshole managers. I'm much happier now working in the hedge fund industry than in the gaming industry.

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

Jacek Wesolowski
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Bob Dillan, Jeffrey Kessler - I completely agree that management is *not* the only side guilty. I also disagree that investors are the root of all evil, though I empathise with the sentiment. Those business guys sure are kind of stupid -- but they have a point, too. It's a pity that the business side and the creative side of the industry have so much trouble talking to each other.

On one hand, few things are as annoying as a project manager working for the publisher, who doesn't even stay on-site most of the time, but who thinks they have a better idea for the game's main features than the actual design staff working on them full time.

On the other hand, I did witness two different teams do everything they could in order to cover their mistakes and fool investors into thinking everything was going fine. I have seen them bullshit their investors in cold blood. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the so-called vertical slice is the biggest known hoax aimed at giving the investor a false sense of security.

My "favourite" trick is when developer creates a non-interactive faux gameplay demo, and then reverse-engineers design artifacts such as concept art, so that it seems like someone actually did a design, whereas in fact the demo is just a cool-looking movie representing someone's wishful thinking.

On yet another hand, I did see developer (theoretically - publisher's contractor) and project manager (theoretically - publisher's employee) work hand in hand, covering major issues so that the project could continue even though it wasn't meeting publisher's internal standard at the time. The project manager is actually in a conflict of interest - if the project fails, he will be seen as ineffective and his career will suffer (even though he should be seen as someone capable of enforcing the standard).

The reason why I focus on management and leadership is that all teams I've worked with so far had the wolf pack mentality. The alpha male gives orders, and the pack follows. This mentality is extremely harmful, not least because it teaches the team that their own agency is and should be next to none. And when the sense of agency is gone, so is the sense of responsibility.

In an autocratic team, it does all depend on project management and design leadership. In a more efficient team with a more distributed decision structure, the entire team needs to assume responsibility.

Lewis Pulsipher
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The goal of game creators is to entertain (in most cases). The goal of large game companies is to make lots of money. The goal of (some) small game companies is to entertain AND make sufficient money to stay in business.

In the big game company, marketing determines what happens. Marketing focuses on features and atmosphere, not on entertaining gameplay. Smaller companies can focus on making games that actually play well, hoping that will be enough to keep them in business.

Good advice I've seen elsewhere: if you're at a company small enough that you know the owner (and he knows you), you have much better prospects of being happy with your work and job situation than otherwise. (The "owner" can be the equivalent of the owner (such as president of a small college), the person who can usually say "the buck stops here", the one who truly makes almost all of the decisions.)

It appears that small companies have a lot less influence in the industry than in the past. The vast increase in budgets brought on partly by techno-fetishism or techno-lust has something to do with this. And it must be said, reviewers (and hard core players) have a lot to do with techno-fetishism.

Mario Di Pesa
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Wow, it's been a while since I've seen an article here generate so many comments! I guess it shows you've hit a note that concerns a lot of people!

I agree with a lot of what you said, but no matter how bad it gets I still believe I'd rather do that than work in a bank! Yes it can be a roller-coaster ride with moments of great stress, insecurity and frustration! But then again there's also those great moment when you manage to get something working really well in your game, and it make it super fun! Or you create a nice little unique moment that you get to be very proud of..., and hopefully that makes dealing with all the other crap worthwhile.

Still, great job on the article!

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Since so many people are making lists here is mine, finely crafted and based on years of experience:

1) Leadership does not understand modern games

Roderick Franklin
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The door definitely isn't wide open as far as opportunity is concerned, there can be a few clicks out there where friends get the opportunity as well. Where there isn't an opportunity, gotta make one for yourself though because its no one else's priority to make sure that you are able to make ends meet.

This is definitely an honest article, no glitz and glam. If games didn't come out so often (and cost of living wasn't so high), then developers could take it down a notch with the 80 hour work weeks because greed wouldn't be there pushing for a release dates. This would include spoil brat gamers that need a sequel soon after the first title.

A lot of school that lack credibility are trying to jump on the bandwagon of offering game development programs as well, giving graduates just enough to be a joke (and having to go else where to learn more). Do you research before you take a swan dive into investing in anything involving this field, there are ways of starting free without a debt after graduation. Plenty of books teach what is taught in the classroom, not to mention free sites.

Rock on,

Rod | Miami FPS Examiner

Brian Garrigan
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This is exactly what I experienced in the games industry. Which is why I left after five miserable years. The work environment was hostile and UNNECESSARILY hard. The amount of time and money wasted due to this inefficient mentality was shocking. My employers often seemed to be working against the staff rather than with them for a common goal and then we were given lame speeches about "teamwork" that went in one ear and out the other. My coworkers all felt trapped and miserable. Their bitterness was extreme. So when I got the chance to bail I did with no regrets.

John Ratcliff
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I think this article was quite valuable. As a co-incidence, I just received yet one more email from someone asking me to council their child about getting into the industry. Now, I can just send them a copy of this article instead of having to repeat myself again.

(As an aside, this topic would make a great article too. The sheer absurdity of all of those kids who think they can make it into the game industry; presumably they imagine they get to design and play games all day. It's become quite predatory as there are even tech-schools ripping off kids and parents in one and two year programs that provide zero opportunity for a job in the industry. When I have a kid ask me about getting into game development the first question I ask them is how good are they in their calculus class. When they respond with a dazed look going, 'hmm..I'm not too good at math', is how I usually shut them down. People generally don't realize that game developers require the same eduction one would expect of a software engineer writing flight simulators for Boeing or code for other advanced military systems. In some respect our job is harder because we often have to work with more limited hardware constraints.)

But..this comment is supposed to be about 'the industry'. Just so as not to be anonymous, my name is John W. Ratcliff and I have been in the game industry for over 25 years. I originally worked for Electronic Arts back in the Trip Hawkins days and have also worked for Sony Online Entertainment.

The horror stories about the game industry are largely true. I've worked outside of the game industry and I assure you that while 'work is work' the emotional and psychological abuse in this industry is truly exceptional.

One thing I try to explain to people is that this industry is project oriented. It has more in common with film-making than anything else. We may say we 'have a job with Electronic Arts' but the reality is that we are simply working on a project at Electronic Arts. Developers, designers, and artists, are temporary workers while the project is in development and disposable if the project is canceled or fails.

In what other industry is your reward for releasing a hugely successful product getting laid off? We know this isn't hyperbole, just look at the history of brutal layoffs that have occurred in this unstable industry.

It's just how this industry works. There is a corporate culture of taking advantage of young people. They design their offices so that no sane young person would ever want to leave. In most studios, these young people are expected for work long hours and weekends too.

If you are young, there probably isn't anything wrong with that. You are doing something exciting, and creative, and really how appealing is your apartment? But, if you are married, and have children, and would like to, I don't know, have a life, then the game industry is just plain toxic.

About a year ago I landed my dream job. I now work as a developer support engineer at NVIDIA. NVIDIA is a large corporation with a lot of stability (compared to most game projects). I don't work on 'one project' but instead support lots of projects and lots of games. I get to work with developers all over the world, I get to contribute technology to lots of game engines, and I get to have a life too.

This is by far the greatest job I have ever had in the game industry and I hope I can stay here for a long time. Working for a large corporation is great. NVIDIA does a ton of different things and if I were to not be needed for a particular game project there are many technology areas I could move into immediately.

If I had it to do all over again, I absolutely would not have gone into the game industry. Instead I would have gone to work for Boeing, Lockheed, or some other big defense contractor. The work would have been just as exciting, just as rewarding, and I would have actually spent time with my children when they grew up.

The game industry is fine for a young person, and I also think it is a fantastic opportunity for graphic artists who can make a pretty decent wage doing purely creative work. But, if you want to have a life, a marriage, or be a father/mother to your children, I absolutely do not recommend it unless you find a company which has a corporate culture that supports that kind of lifestyle.

John W. Ratcliff


John Ratcliff
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Heck, apparently I wasn't finished with all I wanted to say. When I say that the game industry is emotionally abusive and toxic, I want to be quite specific what I mean by example.

In general, management in the game industry rules by fear. Developers are constantly threatened that they will lose their jobs if the game doesn't ship on time. The game industry, generally, does not use good software management practices. What happens is that a date is chosen and they say 'The game will ship on this date.' Since that date is unmovable (in the minds of management) then what happens is that the developers are required to work as long as it takes, as hard as it takes, to meet that goal, even if it is physically impossible to do so.

Each day, management brings up more threats and ratchets up more fear. This management by fear is used, not just in the game industry, but wherever it happens it is always unpleasant.

Being motivated by fear is not good. But, what makes matters worse, is when schedules are being made without your control or input. If someone asks you, 'how long will this take', and you say 'two weeks', and the boss gives you two weeks, and you fail to deliver, or have to work long hours or some weekends to deliver it, that's one thing. You gave the time estimate and you should have to live up to that estimate as a professional. To get accurate estimates there are various project management processes which can make you do this kind of planning better. We needn't get into how these things are done the 'correct' way, as they rarely happen in the game industry any way.

No, the way the game industry works is that your boss comes up to you and says 'this will be done by the end of the day tomorrow', without asking you how long it will take. You are told, that if it can't be done, frogs will fall from the sky, cats and dogs will live together in sin, and we will all lose our jobs.

Sorry, but that is just the way it works.

I cannot overstate how completely and utterly soul destroying it is to be given a task which is impossible to do, and then told if you don't do this impossible task you will lose your job.

Are companies in other industries poorly managed and use fear to motivate workers? I'm sure there are many. But, the game industry seems to think this is the defacto standard way to operate.

I know that this kind of pressure can be completely overwhelming, it can lead to depression, health issues, divorces, and raising children who don't even know who their father is (I know this for a fact from personal experience).


Jane Castle
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It can be said no better than John Ratcliff what it is like to work in the game industry. He has described the game industry perfectly and I have had similar experiences. What makes John's experiences even more depressing is that the industry makes no efforts to change the situation. I guess part of the reason is they have no need to since most employees are willing to put up with the toxic environment.

Wes Jenkins
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I was in the busy-ness for 30+ years. It was interesting voyage. 10 years ago I had to leave due to surgery and now I've been out too long to be welcomed back as I thought I would have been. I've been fortunate enough to be with some teams that "got it" and working around the clock was great fun and yes, hard work. All Art is like that-everyone not involved thinks what an easy job you have. "Why-You don't work at all.You just have fun" Of course, I've been with teams that didn't quite "get-it" and companies that want naive underpayed young-bloods to exploit. Most corporations are well, corporate. They use to have no understanding of a creative process and what's involved. It appears it's returning to it's roots. The history was interesting- and it took time to recognize that maybe art should be done by artists and maybe writing should be done by writers. I was lucky enough to do both and ended up as a creative director years ago. I was always amused by the machismo of some uh- programmers- "I pulled three all nighters". The teams that did great work noticed that sleep, food and a life really helps in a creating a good product...Oh, I've got a million cool war stories having worked with a lot of places. I am amused and touched by the young folks who naively believe how much they'll be appreciated if they dedicate their heart and soul to a company that really could care less behind closed doors and the bottom line $- "Hey, it's just business-nothing personal" I've heard a lot when teams and individuals were dropped with, at best, a 2 week notice. Don't forget you have a life, Kids. Yes- happiness is what you make it. If you're lucky enough to be with an enlightened company- enjoy with caution and save your me

Grace Aust
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This is good to know. I'm actually looking into being a project manager/ producer in the videogame industry. Looks like I got my work cut out for me.

Alan Kennedy
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Very interesting article, one that can be applied to the RPG industry just as easily. Being a Roleplaying gamer, more then a video gamer; it is interesting to see the parallels between them. On one hand you have the likes of Wizards of the Coast, who imo are just milking D&D fans for all their worth. Just this month alone they are releasing 3 books; at an average of $25 each. They also show respect to the 25+ years of history that accompanies it; adding things like tieflings and dragonborn. Meanwhile on the other side, you have a company like Privateer Press, that frankly can't do enough for the consumers of their products. They promote their business through happy players and good products/customer service.

Like most things in life though, you have good ones and bad ones. Its really up to the individual to decide who they want to support, if the consumer can't vote with their feet; then they are more the fool.

Jonathan Jennings
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Wow, incredible article and it says a lot that I myself have wanted to say. I am near graduation and have been questioning my professional standing as it is. I often times compare myself with other people near graduation in school, while I'm one of the top students in my class it always seems like the guy at the next school has done twice as much as I have in half the time. it creates a real sense of anxiety I will be honest. I work my tail off to improve but it always feels like i'm behind , and I haven't even entered the industry yet !!! but when all is said and done I can safely say that I not only know I belong in this industry I plan to prove to myself and anyone else who doubts that is wrong.

wow, you really do develop a dog - eat- dog mentality. in all honesty I feel articles like this need to be the first thing prospective developers ever see. I know many people who are studying to be game designers and have this same perspective. yet when classes get rough they don''t put two and two together and realize this is partially the reality. yes we get paid to make fun things but it takes a lot of work to make some thing fun, visually awe inducing, and innovative.

Game design is fun work but it is just that " WORK" ,labor , a job. people don't seem to understand that there is a reason that developers in general are paid so well and that's because of how tough, monotonous, and stressful the job can get.

Khadyna R
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All jobs are the same, I worked in a production team for an Architectural Firm and we were experiencing the same kind of frustration this article describe, all the extremes, I taught I was reading a complain from one of my co-workers, my Project Manager or from myself. You talk about repetition of games, yeahh.. or the ceiling glass that was above me, and somebody speak about testosterone level being to high ... yeahh tell me.

And Game Industries hasn't been wipe out with this recession, mine did... complete offices dissapear in a matter of months. One year later and I can't find a single job opening in my industry and when there is one, thousand of people run to it. So please...

If I take this article as it is, I will never want to do anything. And so far, I have decided to make the change to Game Design, and just let it be.. What do I have to lose anyway, I like the field.. what the heck..