A reprint from Gamasutra's sister publication Game Developer magazine, this article from Steve Theodore, technical art director at Undead Labs, explores the history of game artist salaries, and where they're headed next.
The annual Game Developer Salary Survey
always makes interesting reading. As of last year, the average annual salary for game artists was about $75,000. That's a pretty respectable average - it compares favorably with the average salary for teachers in the U.S. (around $55,000).
It's also notably higher than the average given by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for "multimedia animators" - which includes film and games but also web, advertising, and other kinds of computer animations, and is quoted as $58,000. So, it's hardly a terrible number.
"Our wage picture is not improving"
But averages are always suspect. There's no such thing as an "average" artist - these numbers include both successful veterans with fat profit-sharing checks, and struggling indies living off of Kickstarter and Visa cards. However, there is one thing you really can see by looking at those averages: Overall, our wage picture is not improving.
Back in 2001, the average artist salary was close to $61,000. In the last decade the average has increased by 16% or so, and when you adjust for inflation, the comparison isn't so rosy: $61,000 in 2001 dollars is around $79,000 today. In other words, the average salary has actually slipped by almost 10% in real terms from where it was a decade ago.
Artist salaries have been increasing. However, adjusted for inflation, they're actually falling.
It's tempting to blame the decline on the recession, but the trend is actually consistent across the whole decade. The biggest dip doesn't appear in 2009 or 2010 (as you might expect if the recession were to blame); it's actually in 2003. Moreover, that trend line goes back even further. Most veterans of the premillennial days (your humble columnist included) can tell you that the market for CG artists was a lot hotter back in the closing years of the 20th century.
I started in games in 1995, and my starting salary back in those distant days works out to just over $77,000 in today's dollars. The Game Developer survey puts today's starting salary's average at around $45,000. That's a decline of over 45% in real terms over the last couple of decades.
Now, you might think that cushy starting salary of mine was a recognition of my sheer artistic genius... or perhaps I might like you to think that. The truth, however, is that the going rate in those heady days was a lot heftier than it is today.
For comparison's sake, the Animators Guild (the Hollywood union that covers CG artists) started doing their own salary surveys in 1997, and they report an average weekly rate that works out to a whopping $96,000 for that year, equivalent to $137,000 today - just about twice today's average for games. (Of course, before you book your tickets to L.A., remember that film work comes with a high cost of living, union dues, and frequent periods without work.)
The really interesting (or rather, really depressing) point here is that the latest number in their data, for 2008, works out to about $93,000 in today's dollars. Sure, it's still higher than our average, but it's a drop of more than one-third in a decade. Double ouch.
Hollywood CG animator salaries, as reported by the Animator's Guild, have fallen by nearly a third over the last 15 years when you take inflation into account.
As an individual artist, when you're trying to make sense of the business you're in and build a career, it's hard to get a good view of the macro trends that are shaping your economic life. We see the details: We remember our struggles and our triumphs, the successful gambles and the jobs that looked like sure things but turned out to be disasters. We remember companies that paid stupid money and the shady chiselers who bought Porsches while laying off our friends.
What we don't always see is the way that larger shifts in the business are driving our futures. Averages, surveys, and the like help us make sense of all those hidden forces so we can plan more effectively for ourselves and our careers. In this case, the averages tell us a pretty scary tale.
The blog entry on the Animator's Guild web site that posted the Hollywood CG salary numbers ended with this laconic observation from Steve Hulett, the business representative of the animator's union:
"Soak them in and draw your conclusions. (The one I draw is: 'The laws of supply and demand have weight and meaning.')"
This is, sad to say, a profound meditation on our situation.
The culture and outlook of the game business in general, and of game artists in particular, formed in a unique historical moment. In the 1990s, the demand for people who could work with the clunky software and arcane processes of 3D modeling and animation vastly outstripped the supply. Computer graphics had only just emerged from academic research into the entertainment realm; although cult favorite TRON debuted in 1982, computer-generated imagery really captured the public imagination with Terminator 2 (1992), Jurassic Park (1993), and of course Toy Story (1995).
Back then, there were few schools that taught the tools of the trade - and even when the schools could find the money for exotic workstations and pricey software, there were few experienced users to teach the courses. I recall, with particular secondhand embarrassment, an "Advanced Computer Graphics Workshop" at the Rhode Island School of Design circa 1992, which consisted mostly of watching the professor rifling nervously through a thick Wavefront manual.
Outside the schools, hobbyists and enthusiasts were hard-pressed to find tools that would let them learn on their own: a fully tricked-out seat of Alias PowerAnimator (the predecessor to Maya) ran in the same price range as a brand-new Cadillac, and it required a Unix workstation that cost about the same as a new Mustang convertible.
Unsurprisingly, with few opportunities for formal education or informal self-teaching, computer artists were a rare breed. Anybody who could master the esoterica of running an SGI workstation or had the patience to wrestle the beastly programs of the era could find a job with companies who were grappling with the new and unfamiliar technology.
The meat markets of the CG business - particularly SIGGRAPH, where Hollywood and big TV production houses did the bulk of their recruiting - were as competitive as the NBA draft. Anybody who could produce a reasonable reel was aggressively pursued with swanky hospitality suites, lavish parties, and signing bonuses. The only dark lining to this silvery cloud was that many artists had to labor (not always unjustly) under the perception that they were merely software jockeys and not "real artists." All in all, though, it was a pretty good time to be in CG.
Fast-forward a decade or two, though, and the picture is a lot less rosy. Wages, as we've said, are slowly falling relative to inflation. It's harder to imagine yourself becoming an overnight millionaire as artist #356 working on the seventh iteration of a triple-A behemoth (though, to be fair there are a lot of mobile and casual devs imagining how it will feel to be the next Angry Birds
or League of Legends
). Above all, there's no shortage of talented computer artists any more - just ask any former colleague who's had to hit the job market recently.
It used to be hard to find artists because there just weren't that many of us. Not only was the field itself new, it was quite hard to get into. Old-school game artists were largely self-taught, scrounging for information wherever it could be found; they operated on trial-and-error and learned on the job.
Today, though, there's a huge (and growing) educational industry that offers coursework, access to the right software, and of course official credentials - which are rapidly becoming a necessity for young artists looking to break into the business. Some schools provide a solid foundation in traditional art and the most up-to-date tech, while others are little more than diploma mills making bank off of cheap student loans and the eagerness of kids who have grown up on games to get into a business they idolize.
It's easy for game industry vets to be cynical about the art-education business, particularly given the cost - at $60,000 for a two-year program, a degree in computer animation from a mediocre vocational school isn't a huge bargain compared to the luxury-car level cost of setting up your own workstation back in the 1990s.
Like them or not, though, the schools have changed the landscape: There are a lot of young artists out there with reasonable reels and decent technical skills. That makes it easier for employers to be picky and, if you're a game consumer, it means better-looking games. Unfortunately for us, it also keeps wages down. That's the law of supply and demand for you.
Traditionally, we have not been a degree-heavy business; a lot of us are here because we love games and taught ourselves how to make them. The wannabe factor gives game art enthusiasm and drive - and it also expands the supply of would-be artists. Games have become infinitely more accessible to hobbyists, enthusiasts, and indies.
It's easy to find after-school programs and camps that teach the rudiments of 3D and game creation to middle schoolers. Ambitious and motivated kids don't even need to go to school - the internet offers an unimaginable bounty of tutorials, discussion sites, and online classes for every piece of software and genre of art. There are plenty of free, high-quality tools to learn with, from Source Filmmaker to Sketchup to the Unreal SDK.
Today's vibrant and sophisticated hobbyist communities produce amazing artists and innovative work. Unfortunately this, too, raises the bar for us working schlubs who have to pay the mortgage. Most of us professionals have had to do some soul-searching when we compare our portfolios - done under deadline pressure, technical constraints, and sometimes under debatable art direction - with the highly polished work of enthusiasts who can spend six months perfecting a single sculpt. There is a lot more high-quality CG artwork around now than there was a decade ago - and once again, the iron law of supply and demand keeps prices down.
Depressed yet? We haven't even mentioned automation, outsourcing, or the shift from big console games to smaller, less content-intensive mobile and social titles. Oy vey.
The fact is, the Wild-West boom days are behind us. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting that the employment in computer graphics and animation will grow by about 8% over the next decade - compared to 16% overall. We're not a growth field anymore. The game industry is changing quickly, as smaller studios and smaller projects are replacing the triple-A behemoths of the last decade.
Even so, losing the bull market mentality that is built into the game industry's DNA is difficult. Optimism and ambition are such a basic part of what we do that it's emotionally quite hard to face up to the fact that our cozy little niche is a lot more crowded - and hence a lot less lucrative - than it used to be.
Now, this does not mean your job is going to disappear overnight, or that there is no future for the products of all those new computer art degree programs. It does mean prospective students ought to think long and hard about the wisdom of spending $60,000 or more on a degree!
Stock watchers and industry analysts think that the business side of games will start picking up again over the next few years. There will be jobs and opportunities in the future (though a lot of the growth is going to be in the new frontiers of mobile and web gaming, where salaries are lower and triple-A cred counts for less). However, even an upturn in game sales isn't going to reset the clock and push wages back to the level they were in the boom days.
The upshot is that we have to be realistic about our prospects in an increasingly crowded field. Trusting in luck and a vague sense that games are "big business" isn't a viable strategy under today's conditions. This can be especially hard for vets whose emotional ties to the business were forged in headier times.
"Kick enough ass, and things will work out
The artists of the next decade will have to be constantly upgrading their skills, keeping up with changing tech and trends in games, and thinking hard about how to market themselves. They'll need to have a clear-eyed approach to things like crunch time; as the rewards of working on a game become smaller for many of us, our willingness to sacrifice family and health for the cause diminishes apace. Many will seek the higher risks and higher rewards of indie and mobile games. Some will throw in the towel and go on to careers that pay better or demand less.
It will be interesting to see how much old-school game culture survives in the less-expansive times ahead. We can hope that the optimism, humor, and enthusiasm that typify game artists won't succumb to the gray fog of lowered expectations. Casual, mobile, and social games still retain a lot of the shoot-from-the-hip gusto of earlier times. Let's hope they keep game culture from getting stale.
Even triple-A dinosaurs need to remember that it's pretty damn awesome to spend your days painting scales on dragons and adding fins to spaceships compared to, say, preparing tax forms for a living. And never forget: There's no such thing as an average artist or an average game. We didn't get into this crazy art form to do average work. Kick enough ass, and things will work out.