[Originally published in Game Developer magazine's free Career Guide issue, this annual survey provides a comprehensive breakdown of salaries and job prospects for entry-level game developers and beyond.]
Every year, we ask thousands of Game Developer and Gamasutra readers to tell us how much money they made last year, along with a slew of related questions. We get everyone from established developers to newbies to tell us their base salaries, benefits, additional compensation, and other work information so we can show you what to expect if you decide to pursue a career in the game industry.
Interestingly, the average salaries for the entry-level crowd have increased across the board, which stands in contrast to the industry wide trend of small-but-steady growth. Whether you're looking to start a career in quality assurance or business, you'll see salaries rising rather impressively-though some disciplines are paid much more than others.
This year, we learned that the average salary across the entire game industry is $81,192, hovering near the same level as 2010's $80,817 reported average. What that number doesn't tell you is that the industry was significantly more stable this year than it has been in the past several. Only 13 percent of respondents were laid off in 2011, compared to 14 percent in 2010 and 19 percent in 2009, and those that received layoffs were 6 percent more likely to find a new job elsewhere in the game industry (58 percent, up from 52 percent in 2011).
Having a little more money and stability in turn made developers feel more optimistic about their careers as well as the industry as a whole. A majority of developers -- 65 percent -- said they felt "satisfied" or "extremely satisfied" with their potential career path (up 4 percent from 2010), 34 percent believed that there were more jobs in the industry than the year before (up 5 percent), and 54 percent felt that there were more opportunities for game developers than before (up 7 percent).
Nevertheless, there's still plenty of change going on. Independent devs in particular made a big step in 2011: Individual indie developers reported an average $23,549 in primary compensation, more than double 2010's $11,379, while members of independent developer teams made an average of $38,239, up $11,459 from 2010's $26,780. If you are looking to break into the industry, more avenues are available for you than ever before. Here's to living in the clouds.
Average Salary, 3 Years or Less: $66,116
Programmers are in high demand, even at the entry-level; the average salary for programmers in their first three years is higher than that of all other disciplines except business, and it's actually up $10,700 over last year's average of $55,426. Considering we had more programmers respond to the survey than we did last year, it seems that the industry simply can't hire talented programmers fast enough.
But Canadian developers didn't see the same boom-their $74,970 (USD) average across all skill levels was only up about $500. European programmers reported an average of $46,801 (USD), down about $1,400 from 2010.
While women were underrepresented in the workforce even more than usual (2.9 percent in 2011, down from 4 percent in 2010), they did report an average increase of about $8,800, compared with their male counterparts' $7,000 increase. However, the wage gap is still alive and well; the average female programmer's salary ($83,333) is nearly $10,000 lower than the average male programmer's ($93,263).
Artists and Animators
Average Salary, 3 Years or Less: $49,481
Artists and animators with less than three years of experience saw a respectable increase of about $3,700 over the previous year, but their average still places them in the lower end of the spectrum compared to programmers, producers, and businesspeople. Also, would-be game artists and animators should take note: The game industry is kind of a notorious grind on artists, who are often expected to quickly develop a technical specialty and worked hard until they burn out, so be careful when choosing where and how to enter the industry.
Artists and animators in Canada received an average salary (across all skill levels) of $66,651 (USD), up about $3,300. Artists in Europe didn't fare so well, however. Their $35,887 (USD) average salary fell about $5,000 from 2010.
Women comprised 13 percent of our surveyed artist pool, up 2 percent, though their average salary across all skills levels ($52,875) actually decreased about $6,800. Men in art and animation, on the other hand, made $79,124 on average, which is up about $6,200 from 2010.
Average Salary, 3 Years or Less: $50,375
The average salary for entry-level game designers and writers is $4,100 higher than the previous year's, and it stands roughly in the middle of the industry's salary spectrum. This discipline isn't always the easiest one to get into, though, meaning there can be a lot of competition for relatively few jobs. Also, if you have no prior game industry experience, you probably won't be able to land a design gig without having at least made a few of your own games.
Canadian game designers across all skill levels averaged $60,240 (USD), up about $1,950 from 2010, while European game designers averaged $38,281 (USD), which is down about $3,000.
Female designers made up 10.9 percent of our designer responses, compared to 7 percent from 2010, and their average salary across all skill levels of $67,000 is up $2,850 from 2010. Male designers, on the other hand, made an average of $74,180 in
2011-up $3,500 from 2010.
Average Salary, 3 Years or Less: $55,893
Entry-level producers received an average of about $3,600 more in 2011 than they did in 2010, and their overall average of $55,893 is on the higher end for the game industry. This stands in contrast to the overall average for producers in 2011; they saw a $2,850 salary cut compared to 2010, though they still draw a higher salary than all other departments except programming and business.
Canadian game producers across all skill levels averaged $71,500 in 2011, down $1,000 from 2010. European producers' salaries increased $3,500 to $56,346. Interestingly, producers in Europe are paid more than any other department of game development in the region.
Women are well represented in the producer ranks this year (16 percent), down 1 percent from 2010. Interestingly, men absorbed most of the salary drop; their average salary across all skill levels dropped from $90,744 to $87,119, while women producers' salaries actually rose slightly from $77,870 to $78,354.
Average Salary, 3 Years or Less: $32,500
Audio jobs in the game industry are a tricky thing to monitor because there aren't nearly as many jobs for audio professionals, and most of those jobs are offered as contract gigs instead of salaried work. Full-time, salaried audio jobs are often only open to accomplished developers at the higher end of the experience (and salary) spectrum, while entry-level gigs are scarce and not particularly well paid. (This, by the way, makes it harder to collect reliable data for our survey-the $32,500 average for entry-level audio workers comes from a grand total of four respondents.)
Audio professionals working in contract roles also made an extra $3,200 in 2010. Salaried audio workers were the least likely to receive extra compensation for their work out of any discipline, though the $9,875 they received is up $2,200 from 2010.
Canada-based audio professionals received an average salary across all skill levels of $67,955 in 2011, down $600 from 2010. Unfortunately, we didn't collect enough responses from European audio workers to make any significant conclusions.
Average Salary, 3 Years or Less: $37,000
Quality-assurance professionals are the lowest-paid people in the game industry, especially the entry-level hires. On the bright side, they did manage to make an extra $800, on average, over the previous year. If you're trying to break into the game industry without any trade skills like programming or art, you will probably find QA the easiest place to start out. But not many studios offer a QA career track that is as developed as the other disciplines, so talented QA leads often end up moving over to design or production instead.
Most QA employees are hired on a contract basis, with salaried positions mostly given to QA leads. QA contractors across all skill levels made an average of $27,065 in 2011, up about $4,150 from 2010.
Interestingly, average salaries for testers with less than three years of experience rose about $6,200 from 2010, and QA leads with 3 years to 6 years of experience saw a $3,700 boost. Canadian QA professionals across all skill levels made an average of $43,125 (USD), up $5,100 from 2010. European QA workers made $32,500 (USD), which was about $6,750 less from 2010.
Business and Legal People
Average Salary, 3 Years or Less: $71,818
The "Business and Legal People" category includes chief executives and executive managers, community managers, marketing, legal, human resources, IT, content acquisition and licensing, and general administration staff. Younger people on the business side made an average of $71,818 in 2011, $14,000 up from $57,778 in 2010.
Business professionals received the highest average salary (across all skill levels) in the industry ($102,160), as well as the most additional nonsalary income ($24,874). However, both those numbers are actually down from 2010 by $3,300 and $4,000, respectively.
Women were relatively well represented in the business side of the game industry, reaching 17.6 percent in 2011, which is 7.6 percent higher than average across the entire industry this year, and 3.6 percent higher than in 2010.
Average Salary by Region
Jobs in the game industry appear to be getting slightly more stable. Of 3,100 respondents, 13 percent had been laid off in 2011, compared to 14 percent in 2010 and 19 percent in 2009.
From those people who were laid off, 58 percent found new employment in the games industry, 19 percent went into contracting or consulting, 10 percent founded a new company, 13 percent went into independent games development, and 13 percent haven't found new game development work. (Note that for this survey question, multiple responses were allowed.)
A significant amount of respondents reported being laid off and rehired by the same company, either as a contractor, or as a salaried employee with a different job title (but the same responsibilities).
Fewer laid-off developers opted to start their business, join an independent studio, or go into contract work this year. This could be a sign of a slowing bubble in the social and mobile sectors, which were giving away massive amounts of cash in recent years.
The Indie Report
This is the third year we've collected data for our indie report, where we survey individual independent developers, independent teams, and individual contractors for their perspective on the industry. Out of those three groups, independent contractors made the most, though both individual indies and members of indie teams pulled in significantly more in 2011 than they did in 2010.
Independent contractors averaged $56,282 in 2011 (up $800 from 2010), individual independent developers averaged $23,549 (up from $11,379 in 2010), and members of independent developer teams averaged $38,239 (up from $26,780 in 2010). As the indie game community continues to mature and grow financially, it also seems to be consolidating somewhat. Compared to 2010, more independent developers are working in teams rather than going solo.
Indie games made a bit more money in 2011, too. 48% of independent developers made less than $500 from the sale of their game, down from 55% in 2010. 16% of independent developers made over $60,000 from the sale of their game in 2011, compared to 8% in 2010. Meanwhile, nongame revenue streams (nongame DLC/additional content, sponsorship or ad opportunities, and awards/grants), remained relatively hard to obtain-79% didn't receive any additional income whatsoever (down 2% from 2010). The developers that did cash in through non-game revenue streams generally didn't make a whole lot, either; 44% made under $1,000, compared to 35% from 2010. In general, it appears that the developers who are good at designing games to take advantage of non-game revenue streams are able to pull in a decent amount; in both 2010 and 2011, 40% of developers with these sources of income were able to make over $5,000.
While we survey both indie game developers and contractors for their job function in the game industry, we structure the survey differently to adjust for the difference between the two sectors. Developing a game in a small independent team means most developers don't have completely specialized roles -- usually people are wearing multiple hats, so asking an independent games developer to only report one discipline wouldn't be completely accurate. On the other hand, that's not the case for most contract game developers. As such, the indie chart should be read as "what percentage of independent developers do at least this job function," rather than "how many independent developers do this job exclusively."
More and more indie developers are finding themselves in roles involving design (59%, up 7%), programming (53%, up 13%), QA (43%, up 12%), and production (47%, up 10%), while art and audio have declined slightly (40% and 17%, each down 1% from 2010). Considering our number of independent developer responses overall were roughly equal, this means independent developers are wearing more hats than ever before-a good indie team member is someone who can code, test, design, produce art, and manage a production schedule.
Now in its eleventh year, the Game Developer Salary Survey was conducted in February 2012 for the fiscal year January 1, 2011 through December 31, 2011 with the assistance of Audience Insights. Email invitations were sent to Game Developer subscribers, Game Developers Conference attendees, and Gamasutra.com members asking them to participate in the survey.
We gathered 4,132 responses from developers worldwide but not all who participated in the survey provided enough compensation information to be included in the final report. We also excluded salaries of less than $10,000 and the salaries of students and educators. The small number of reported salaries greater than $202,500 were excluded to prevent their high numbers from unnaturally skewing the averages. We also excluded records that were missing key demographic and classification numbers.
The survey primarily includes U.S. compensation but consolidated figures from Canada and Europe were included separately. The usable sample reflected among salaried employees in the U.S. was 1,742, for Canada 403, and for Europe 339; and 524 for indies and independent contractors who provided compensation information worldwide. The sample represented in our salary survey can be projected to the U.S. game developer community with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4% at a 95% confidence level. The margin of error for salaried employees in Canada is plus or minus 5%, and is 5.4% for Europe.
In order to hear what developers are saying about the industry right now, we allowed space at the end of our survey for direct comments. Here are some of the more notable responses.
"The attitude toward work life balance is absolutely terrible. It is not an honor to work in games. Engineers are treated like garbage, especially when compared to the treatment they can easily get outside of games."
"The desire for games to be fun, creative, and unique is slowly being diminished by the never-ending need for money, money which is best acquired by making derivative boring titles often seen in the social games market. The game industry is going the way of the movie industry with constant remakes and prequels and no new innovation besides independents who often give themselves too much credit."
"The longer I work in the industry, the less I can relate to gamers. The vocal minority is more annoying than ever."
"This is an industry I've at times wanted to leave. I've often come very close to it. Because, plain and simple, it's not easy being a woman in this industry. Thankfully I've recently joined a company where my gender isn't used against me as an argument to dismiss me, and it's been a really empowering experience. Also, a lot of companies are closing, many are hiring. There's always a job open somewhere. But we need to stop the firing of employees once a game has shipped as a viable 'saving the company money' measure, and we need to find ways to welcome students within our ranks better, as opposed to always ask for only experienced personnel, thus not giving newcomers a chance to learn."
"I'm still surprised by how much sexism/racism the industry exhibits, and by how difficult it is to change perspectives on it. While the industry as a whole is slowly improving, I frequently find myself trying to explain to coworkers why certain content -- however hilarious they find it -- might offend certain groups of people. There still seems to be a "boys' club" atmosphere in the office sometimes and many women are put in the unenviable and unfair position of political correctness enforcer."
"It's been a terrible year in the U.K. There have been hardly any new design positions, and so many studios have closed."
"Audio designers in the game industry are often treated as a disposable resource, and the opportunities for us, both inside and outside the game industry, are incredibly scarce, as sound is very much misunderstood and undervalued as a craft. There are bright glimmers, but we have to really band together, speak up, and make a lot of noise about examples of great sound design to help continue to validate our work. Great games where audio plays a prominent role like Bastion and Portal 2 really help us to move forward."
"The outsourcing of art jobs has made this a less than desirable position for starting artists. Why spend thousands of dollars on an art degree, and countless hours perfecting your skills, only to come into a studio and do lackey clean up on work received from the outsourcers? A lot of talented artists don't even really create art anymore, just mundane clean-up tasks."
"I think the advent of crowd-funding and self publishing is going to see a huge shift in the coming years in terms of what games get made and who makes them. Indie game studios once again possess the tools and funding necessary to retake the game development industry much like they did in the '80s and early 1990's."
"We're at a big turning point. The digital distribution model, along with the explosion of mobile gaming, is ushering in a new age of smaller studios and quicker development cycles. The age of triple A, 2-3 year games is coming to an end."
We're in a time of great change, not only in business models and distribution platforms, but also in ethics. I'm optimistic for the future -- more people than ever are playing games and when this recession is over, we're going to see some incredible revenue across all aspects of the industry."
"It seems that the industry is on the precipice of a creative revolution as SDKs and self-publishing options are getting more accessible, creative direction will come less from the publisher, who relies more on proven methods, and more from wild-eyed developers who would rather experiment than replicate."
"Developers that have been able to adapt to the rise of social and mobile gaming have done well despite an overall economic decline in the world. Mobile and social gaming is exciting because it allows a developer to focus on simple, tight, and polished gameplay. In that regard I feel the recent trend is somewhat of a return to the 'golden age of games'."
Don't Fear Social Games
"There is a lot to learn about game design and how to appeal to a wide audience. Think about the average time until someone who has never played a game before starts having fun in your game-social games do this better than most traditional games. This is an incredible and exciting thing. If some of the early companies in social games were unscrupulous, don't let this keep you from learning exciting lessons from social gaming and let this improve your own designs."