Thousands of people want to get into the game industry. And every single one of them asks the same questions over and over: “How do I get in the biz? What should I show in my portfolio? How much money will I make?” The list goes on and on.
Before anyone can answer these questions it is important to understand one very important concept. The game industry is constantly changing, and roles and titles of careers vary from company to company. In hopes to help some of the people looking to “get into” the game industry, this article will help prepare you and allow you to gain some insight into the ever-changing world of game development.
Although I occasionally gear personal notes towards artists, as this is something I can speak on from personal experience, all of the following information is for general purposes. No one company is the same and some companies offer less or more than others. In the end, it is up to you to do the research and make your own decisions.
There is more to a game developer than just pumping out a game. As a future employee, there are many things that affect your future and financial stability with a company. Some of this may seem trivial to you, but it has been my experience that many people new to the industry never bother to research these items or give them much thought. It boils down to being prepared and knowing about the company you are applying to.
This is important information to know, as this is your job security and being informed is extremely important. You need to know if your company is stable enough that you can buy a house or if you should rent a one bedroom apartment. In general, the publisher is the entity who publishes the game and gives the developer money to develop the game. Publishers pay money for brands (names) and they look for development companies to make games based on these brands or titles. Not all games titles are dictated by the publisher. Developers do submit ideas for their own games in hopes the publisher will “market” the idea and give money to the developer to make the game.
If you go to your local game retailer and pick up any box, you’ll notice that there are various logos representing the companies involved in making the game. You’ll see logos for the developer, publisher, and sometimes a second developer. All of these people had a hand in creating the game. But the bulk of the content was created by the developer. This is not to say that publishers do not develop their own games. Some publishers do have small development teams to create games—larger publishers who own development studios and can pull people from within to work on titles.
When creating a game, the developer and publisher have milestones that must be met in order to have the game completed on a specific date. The time between each milestone is agreed upon by both the developer and publisher and this fits into a larger timeline. These larger timelines range from 12 months to 2 years which is dependant on the technology, complexity, and marketability of the product.
Milestones are deadlines or a timeline that are agreed upon by the publisher and developer. Each milestone or deadline usually requires that a specific amount of the game be completed. Some milestones are set as alpha, beta, or gold. For the most part, each milestone that is met on time will be accompanied by a payment from the publisher.
These payments will continue until the project is finished. The amount of money is determined before the project starts as well as the amount that will be dispersed throughout the milestones.
Beta, alpha, gold. These are determined by the publisher and developer. In most cases, the alpha is a skeleton of the game with lots of bugs, but can offer the publisher an idea of what direction the game is going in.
Beta is usually a playable and functional demo with bugs, but is feature complete.
Gold (ideally) is the final product free from bugs. But in reality, Gold Date is when the final milestone has been met and the marketing and retailers are waiting for their product. Gold often refers to the Golden master CD that is created by the publisher and sent to the duplication house for copies.
This is why some games have bugs when they are released. The game must be on the shelf by a specified date in order to meet the plans of the marketing staff of the publisher. Shortly after, you’ll see patches available for free. Sometimes you’ll hear of a Gold Date being pushed back, and in most cases, this is something that has been decided on by the publisher. The publishers are the ones who are paying for the game; so ultimately, they have the final say on how much extra time a developer can have. And this is largely based on what is complete at the time and if the game will sale well.
You may hear of release candidates. These are “builds” that are close to gold but not yet there. They have some bugs and are for the most part fully functional. In some cases, release candidates are released as Gold Masters.
Time from Gold to release. Marketing may want to hold the release for many reasons:
• They want to release it co-currently with another product.
• The space on the retailer shelf isn't where they want it.
• Other reasons could be: season, competition, issues with the retailer, retailers holding it up, issues with the publisher, and supply issues.
You should now have a brief but basic understanding of what happens at the top level of “making a game.” These actions have a profound impact on your future in the game industry. Simply put, if a developer can not get a game signed—you don’t have a job. Same goes for consistently missing milestones. It’s not always developer related; sometimes the publisher neglects to pay milestone payments onetime, causing layoffs or morale to bottom out. Or the publisher may decide to pull the project and give it to another developer. Unless you want to spend your entire game career being laid off and ticked off, you better take some time to understand what happens at the top level. Mainly because these are indicators as to the future of the company you are working for. I’m not saying that you should consume yourself with these issues, only that you should be aware of them.
You should try to avoid the politics of all of it as this can make your life a living a hell. As an entry level employee, you should never have to be involved with these issues. But as the thin line is there, it is your responsibility to keep up with the stability and future of your company.
Ignore the rumors and naysayers who constantly complain. They are not worth your time, no matter how senior they are. Instead, do research for yourself; visit your publishers site when you have some free time, maybe once every 3 weeks or so.
Applying to a Company
Once you have decided on a career path in game industry and researched how you fit in, you should make considerations about what companies can offer you. Before applying to any position, you should consider:
• Does this company make the type of games you want to make?
• Is this company in an area that you would like to live in?
• Is this a party house, sweatshop, or professional company?
• Can I use this company as a stepping stone to get into the company I really want?
• Will the experience I gain here carry over to another company?
• Is this company going to work me 80 hours a week and only pay me for 40 hours?
• Are the Leads and Directors mature and experienced? Or are they very young and have little to no experience as leaders?
There are a lot of recruiters out there—some are good, and some are so bad that they could possibly ruin any chance you have at getting hired. I love and hate them.
Recruiters get their money when they make a placement or they get a percentage of your yearly salary. The percentage ranges between 20-40 percent. It is based on the difficulty of the position to fill. So if they place an 80K person, the company pays the recruiter $16K-$32K. So in the first year they are paying maximum $112K plus relocation. Now the employee makes what the position pays and is not out the money unless the candidate has competition that doesn't have the recruiter fee (80K versus 112K+).
I mentioned that a recruiter can ruin your chances at finding a job. This can happen if the recruiter is saturating your name in the market. This keeps you from applying on your own to the same company. Some recruiters have contracts with companies and if you are hired by that company on your own account, after the recruiter already submitted you, the company will have to pay a fee. So, if a company doesn’t hire you this month, but next month they have an opening for you, the only way you can really be hired there is through that recruiter. And for most instances, a company will not pay a high fee for an entry level employee.
There are good recruiters out there, and they will be honest with you. They will tell you that it’s hard to place someone right out of school. I’ve had recruiters bluntly tell me that I need to ask for money, because the more money I make, the more money the recruiter makes. Working with recruiters takes a great deal of patients. These are very busy people and they can’t call you everyday. For the most part, they set you up on a schedule and assign you to a selected day of the week for contact, this contact maybe through email, or by the phone. Yes, most recruiters have 1-800 numbers and you can call them if you are curious or just wanting an update.
Tip: If a recruiter asks for a fee, it’s a scam!
For entry level individuals looking to break into the industry, it is best not to use a recruiter—it just makes their salary lower.
Personal Note: As an entry level artist, you can expect to be paid at a range of $30-$45k a year. That may seem like a lot compared to what you’re making now. But when you factor in all the costs, you’ll find that you’re barely scraping by.
A recruiter will have a hard time trying to place you, mainly because you have no industry experience and your salary will not pay much on the recruiter’s end. There is always an exception—some people who have unbelievable skills can make use of recruiters, mainly because they can offer a large amount of talent that companies are willing to invest in, even if they don’t have experience.
For the most part, recruiters are professional people and they are just like you, they have to make an income. Try to find an experienced recruiter who has a history of placing people in companies. This usually means the recruiter has “contacts” in the company. Some recruiters do care about placing you in a good company, some don’t. Some recruiters will educate you on what to put in your resume and portfolio… Some don’t. If you do decide to talk with a recruiter, don’t be afraid to ask these questions. They have to answer them and tell you the truth. If possible, get this through email so you can have a copy to reflect on.
When you submit your portfolio or website to a company there is a good chance that it never makes it into the hands of the Lead or Director in your area of employment. Larger companies have Human Relations personnel review the material that is sent in. They have specific guidelines on what to look for and if those guidelines are not met, you are filed in file 13 (trash). The reason for this is time. Some companies get hundreds of emails a day asking for a job. That’s not to mention the bundles of mail that arrive with CD-ROMs, VHS tapes, and DVD’s.
Tip: Never show up unannounced or without an appointment!
Personal Note: I can remember many occasions when people would show up at the front door and want to drop off their resume and talk with me. Needless to say, in the middle of trying to meet a milestone, I didn’t have time to shoot the breeze and review work. Rarely, I would have time and I would spend time with these people, but that was a very rare thing. I would never discuss any job openings. Instead, I would review their work and offer suggestions and try to answer any questions they may have. It’s considered rude and unprofessional to just show up on the doorstep and force yourself upon the developer.
Having a website with samples is the best way to market your skills. Don’t waste money or time burning a CD and mailers. The prospective employer will request a hard copy if that is their preference. Otherwise assume that the website is best.
Be sure to read their requirements on their website. Some employers may only accept CD-ROMs while others only accept email submissions with samples. If you neglect to follow simple instructions that are on the website, your submission will get trashed.
In most cases, you will be flown to the company for an interview, on the company’s bill. The interviewing process usually takes one day, maybe two depending on the size of the company. Usually, you will be meeting the HR staff (human resources) and then you’ll meet the Leads or Directors. I should note that each company has its own set of “rules” for interviewing. So don’t expect every interview to be the like this one. Instead, I will present you with two interviews that I have had, each total opposites.
Good interview. This was during the winter and my first interview had to be canceled because of a freak snowstorm that closed down the airport. A week or two later, communication was resumed and I was flown out to meet the staff. My flight, hotel, and travel were all paid for. Upon arrival at the airport, I was taken to the office. Once there, I met each artist individually and had a chance to talk with them. My lunch was paid for and the entire art staff was there to meet and greet.
After lunch, I returned to the office to talk some more with the Art Director. I felt very comfortable and relaxed and all of my questions where answered. I felt very at home there. I was then taken to the designers so I could see the game that was in development and ask some questions about that. I was then driven to my hotel.
The next morning I was taken back to the office to talk with the “upper echelon”. We discussed pay, benefits, and so on, and then we went out for some drinks and talked about the game industry and non-game industry related topics. Very friendly and I didn’t feel like I was a nobody.
I saw the work environment—everyone as working hard but enjoyed what they did. All the employees had a voice and they were not restrained. If they wanted to talk with me, they could and what they said was not monitored.
Before I left, the entire art staff was gathered in a room and I was asked to “demo” my demo. My demo was website based and I brought it on a CD-ROM for backup. I demoed my work to them and answered their questions. I then moved around the office talking to various people. While I was doing this, the Art Director was getting information from each person on their first impressions on me. At the end of the day, I was driven to the airport and I flew home. The whole trip didn’t cost me a dime and I had a good time and was very impressed with the staff and the company.
Bad interview. I was flown to the office and I basically had 5 hours to interview, then I had to fly back. Total of 4 flights in one day! My flights were paid for, but I had a delay and I didn’t catch my ride at the airport. I had to catch a taxi, which I paid for and it was around $50 for the trip. I was dropped off in the middle of town with no direction as to where the office was, so I had to ask some locals where “so and so” street was.
Eventually I found it. Once I made it into the office, I was met by HR staff. I had a friend working at the company, so I spent some time hanging out with him until the owner was able to talk with me. I was never offered a chance to meet any of the staff. Instead, the owner, my friend, the producer, and the HR person took me to lunch.
After lunch, we came back to the office. I was basically passed off to the producer who, as he rolled his eyes into the back of his head, reluctantly showed me the current title they were working on. One hour before my plane left the owner made time to talk with me.
It was a dark office no sunlight at all. He sat directly across from me and I asked many questions. When it came time to discuss pay, there was no negotiation at all. I was told that an amount would be emailed to me once I returned home.
The overall atmosphere was bleak and no one talked to me. I felt like I was some diseased corpse that had to be avoided at all costs.
As you can see, these two experiences are vastly different. And just as you are making your first impression, so is the company you’re interviewing with. Keep that in mind!
Interview the interviewer. First, be sure to bring pen and paper. It’s common and expected that you will be writing down the information that is said during the interview process. Always ask about the future of the company. Ask if the owners have plans to change with the industry and move into new fields of development in order to stay “afloat.”
Additional important issues to check into during the interview process follow.
Benefits and Insurance
Benefits and insurance are really company specific and should require research on the candidate’s part. The norm now is: if insurance is paid it is normally just for the employee or just a percentage or a certain dollar amount. Keep in mind that insurance premiums go up and you need to make sure that your employer is willing to help out with that increase.
401K. 401K is a mutual fund that is set up through your company to directly deposit it into an account for you. No, the company doesn't have to match it. The norm in today’s market is not to match it. To find a company that has a 401K with matching % or $ is a rarity and probably a decent company to work for because they are investing in their employees. 401K is normally an elected option for the employee to choose if they want to "contribute" 0-10% of their income.
Relocation. Some employers have a set rule of thumb using distance and size of family. A person moving from Maine to Washington with a 5-bedroom house would be allotted more than a single person moving from San Diego to Los Angeles. A candidate should make sure that a moving allowance is part of their offer. It should be written not oral and the guidelines as to what would be paid should be clear.
If you are given 5K for moving, you need to know whether or not hotel stay, gas, food, truck, and towing are reimbursable. And yes, it is normally reimbursable so break out the credit cards. You also need to know what the turnaround time is for reimbursement on these expenses. If you put all of this on your credit card, you need to know when you can pay that off. It is important that you keep all receipts and a log of your travel just so you do not leave out or forget anything. Most credit card companies will keep a log of your spending and where it was spent as statement that can be mailed out monthly or printed out any time from online.
Start date. Unless it can’t be helped, give yourself at least 5 days to get used to the area you are moving into. Locate hospitals, shopping centers, and so one. General rule is 2 weeks once you agree to work for a company. These two weeks should include finding somewhere to live, setting up all your utilities, and finding a route to and from work. If you are single, 2 weeks is plenty of time. If you’re not single and you have children, you better ask for more time.
Cost calculation. In order to decide on what amount you can live with, you need to know what your bills are and how much it will cost to live in “said” area. Be as methodical as you can. List every single item that you have to pay for and always round up, for example:
1. Rent: 700
2. Phone: 60
3. Cell phone: 45
4. Lights: 80 (you’ll be running your computer a lot and that drains electricity)
5. Food: 100 a week (only if you eat out a lot, and if you cook, half that)
6. Car payment: 300
7. Student loans: 1500
8. Gas: 30 a week
You get the idea. Basically, once you get this information, you will have a very accurate estimate on what the bare minimum is that you can live off of. And this is important to know. As this will dictate weather or not you can accept a “low ball” offer, which I explain further on.
For the most part, you will be paid a salary; this salary is usually paid every week or every two weeks. Some are paid monthly. It’s important that you know which.
In my opinion there is no industry standard and not because of cost of living. Some companies are willing to take on an employee at a higher cost because of the potential that candidate brings to the table. The phrase “industry standard” could mean anything. It could mean the local industry average of pay for people performing technology related jobs.
Personal Note: After 6 months on the job I was given a raise and words that accompanied the document detailing my raise was “in reference to industry standard pay,” which meant that the company I was working for believed they were paying me according to “industry pay standards.” A little over 6 months later, the company was purchased by a large publisher and with this came another letter informing me that my pay would be brought up to “industry standard” pay. So if you hear the phrase “industry standard,” always ask what that means and ask for an example.
Negotiation. At all times, keep in mind the importance of negotiation. It is the job of the person you are talking to about your pay to hire you for as cheap as possible, so do not get angry if the amount you want is much lower than you expected. There is almost always room for negotiation and it is expected. If an agreement can not be met that day, ask for some time to think it over
Cost of living should be considered in realizing how much you need to live on. 40K in the Midwest of the United States is equal to 51K on the West Coast, so that should be a factor. There are calculators on the web for cost of living and these are periodically updated with current information. Be sure to use more than one and take the best average.
Tip: As a general rule of thumb in negotiation, the first person to name a number leaves money on the table.
A company asks what your salary requirements are. Reply that you have looked into what the cost of living is in the prospective area and give them a range that is about 5k more than you are able to securely live on. The employer will come back with a lot of differences. They could tell you that they can't pay any more than 30K, or they will come back with something in that range, but rarely will they ever pay above the top number. So you must research, research, research.
The company also knows that if they lowball you too much, you won't be at the company very long and it will cost them more to replace you. It is a great balancing act. In some cases, if an agreement can not be met, you can instead negotiate for benefits instead of pay. Ask for a paid week’s vacation after 6 months instead of one year. Ask for fully paid medical if it’s not offered.
Pay raises and cost of living raises. A “biggy” is the amount of business that the company is doing. In the interview or during the process it would be wise to ask the history of the company giving employee's increase in pay and an average percentage. Be sure to ask if the employer offers a yearly cost of living raise (usually 3%). Try to find out when, if any, a pay raise may occur. It could be that you only are offered a raise at the end of every year, or at the anniversary of your one year hire date. Some have a company wide review session, instead of individual review times. There are numerous factors involved with giving someone a raise.
Royalties. Some companies offer royalties based on the title and position you had while working on a specific title. If the title sells well, you get more money. If it bombs, you will get pennies if you are lucky. Just be careful with royalties. As in most cases, you only stand to make $60 or less, dependant on the size of the company and the number of employees who worked on the project.
Bonuses. Project bonuses are offered at the end of a project or specific milestones. These are usually paid based on performance. Be sure to ask which, if any, the employer offers. Some may offer stock options; this can mean a number of things. One is, if the company is sold, you get a specific amount of the money based on how much “stock” you own
Ask about overtime and late nights. The fact is that this industry requires some late nights in order to meet milestones. It’s a team effort and it affects the whole company. Be sure to ask when these happen the most and what things does the company provide to make late nights more comfortable and not so hellish. Things like paid food, drinks, and additional paid holidays accrue for hours worked over. In some cases, late nights are not scheduled and they are the result of something going wrong or something that was never planned for and improper planning by upper management. They could happen from a virus infecting the servers, technical issues, or the publishers wanting to add more features at the last minute, commonly known as feature creep. If you work during the day and don’t play games, you’ll most likely not have to pull all-nighters.
Be sure to ask if the company uses flex hours. Meaning that you are only required to be at work during core hours and that you meet your quota of either 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week.
It is widely known that if you are doing a great deal of late nights something is wrong with both leadership responsibility, as well as communication. The leads and directors are responsible for you not having to work late. They are the ones who schedule out the work and, using their experience from past projects, estimate a stable yet flexible work structure that will allow you to complete your work on time and with the highest amount of quality.
Turnover is an employee leaving a company. To evaluate turnover, look at the number of people in a company and research the number of people who left the company in a set amount of time. Let's look at a real company. From 2-1-02 to 1-31-03 (one year), a total of 41 were employed. 21 employees left employment. That turnover is 51%. Yeah, that’s high.
There are several possible reasons: The company was not hiring to replace the employees as they left, the employees were being hired and leaving shortly after employment, or a project ended and a lot of employees were laid off. However, it is clear that with 51% turnover there are issues. I would say that 0-15% turnover is a fair number. Anything over 25% should raise questions.
A company takes its responsibility for ensuring that its information, such as Intellectual Property (IP), business dealings, projects, and proposals, are treated with confidentiality without conflict of interest very seriously.
Tip: Be assured that the NDA is to protect the company, not the employee.
What to look for in an NDA. Protect your ownership of the work that you do outside and off-premises of work. Ensure that you can resource assets that you worked on while employed for future use (i.e. website, samples of work, etc). NDAs are so common and are taken with a grain of salt; just understand thoroughly what you are signing and ask questions for clarity when needed. Watch out for work agreements and ask yourself: “Why would a company ask me to sign a contract stating that I will not leave within a certain amount of time?” That should be a red flag. The work environment should make you want to stay without a signed agreement
Many companies will have packets detailing all of this information for you to read and browse over. Take the time to read each paper and make sure you understand what it means. If you are not sure ask the person who gave you the packets to explain some of the details. If you are still unsure, do not sign anything and pay to have a professional lawyer read the information and offer it to you in simple terms. This will cost you, but in the long run it could save you a great of pain or money.
Are there bad companies out there? You better believe it! Why are they so bad? Management. From the research I’ve done as well as personal experience, I would estimate 90% of all companies being shut down are due to poor management. Some companies view you as an expendable asset (“dime a dozen”) and they could care less about your employment status. They believe they can just replace you at anytime.
Fortunately though, that attitude is changing. It’s a small game world and we keep up to date on what’s good and bad. Some companies are in it to get rich quick and then get out, leaving a large amount of people and families without jobs and any type of security. It’s not all fun and happy. I hear about this all the time and it sickens me. I certainly don’t want to make someone rich while I starve and have to live out of my car.
Are there good companies out there? Most certainly. I talk with friends and I honestly can’t believe what they tell me. They love the work they are doing, they have benefits that would make Bill Gates jealous, and they get fat checks.
So why is it so hard to find these places or get hired there? Low turnover. People will not leave a good thing unless they have to. It’s all about realizing the simple fact that it’s the employees who make these games and keeping them happy is a very simple and cheap thing to do.
Believe it or not, there are owners of game companies who really want to hire you, but if the budget isn’t there, there really is not much they can do.
Yes, there are some silly things that companies do that will boggle your mind, but it’s not your place to question. If that’s where you want to work, go for it! If you’re unhappy and you have to leave, then leave. If you find that everyone is unhappy and you have this feeling that the company is at stand still and no money is coming in, well, it’s time to jump ship.
Do the research, this is your career and your livelihood—it’s worth the time and effort.