This article originally appeared in Game Developer’s Game Career Guide 2006. Not all career paths are featured here but are available in the print version.
You’ve heard it all before: Jobs in game development are hard to come by. Competition is fierce. Personality counts (since team-structured environments are the norm).
But what you might not have heard before is that the majority of game developers in the field aren’t doing what they’re doing for the money. The average game developer salary isn’t astronomical—it’s comfortable, but not astronomical. It’s about $70,000 per year.
How much money game creators make is one of the biggest misconceptions students have about the working industry, says Professor John Small, a long-time industry professional (Criterion) and game development instructor at Savannah College of Art and Design.
Another issue new recruits must tackle is to decide what job title they’re after. Designer or level designer? Rigger or animator? AI programmer or Java developer?
These next few pages of 101 material are designed to give you a crash course in salary and job title expectations. We’ve mapped out some of the job titles that have been in greatest demand over the last few months with an emphasis on the ones that accept entry-level candidates. Knowing which positions game companies are recruiting most often these days will open up more opportunities for your success and decrease the length of time it takes you to start working.*
* The statistics contained in this article originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of Game Developer magazine, where information on the survey’s methodology can also be found. Game Developer thanks Audience Insights for its support in carrying out the survey.
Average salary for programmers/engineers with 3 or fewer years’ experience: $52,989.
Programmers tend to have consistently strong starting salaries and are paid well relative to other positions in game development. In 2005 salaries for programmers with less than 3 years’ experience stayed nearly the same since 2004, indicating a steady need for entry-level programmers, but no wild boom in demand.
Robin McShaffry, vice president of operations at Mary-Margaret.com, a game developer recruitment agency, agrees that there is a constant need for programmers and engineers. “Engineers are always in demand, both entry-level and experienced,” she says.
Networking engineers, as well other “low-level, close-to-the-metal” engineers who have a deep knowledge of game development tools, are also typically in demand. Additionally, McShaffry recommends game programmers think outside the console box and explore options in sub-sectors of the industry, such as games for mobile phones, PCs, or casual players.
“Wireless is really growing. We’re seeing a lot more demand for those who can handle Java and BREW, specifically BREW,” she adds.
Although $50,000 a year sounds like a healthy starting paycheck, programmers are commonly ineligible for overtime pay (though some state laws vary), a contentious topic in the game industry, where putting in extra hours, even on weekends and holidays, is sometimes an unfortunate norm. (See “Unionize Now?” Game Developer, March 2005 for a complete discussion.)
Art and Animation
Average salary for artists and animators with 3 or fewer years’ experience: $45,675.
Salaries for artists and animators rose steadily since 2004 by between $3,000 and $5,000 for all titles and level of experience, indicating stability in the field. Newbie artists and animators took in about $3,000 more; mid-level artists brought in about $5,000 more; and those with 6 or more years experience earned about $4,500 more than in 2004.
Recruitment agency Mary-Margaret.com finds that the most commonly asked for artists are human motion animators, according to McShaffry, and students leaving university with these skills will do well in the job market. However, McShaffry also “absolutely recommends” that game artists hone their fine art skills; mastering basic skills, like sketching and color theory, in addition to learning a 3D animation and modeling package.
Game Developer contributing editor and co-founder of Giant Bite Inc. Steve Theodore advises students to also learn one 3D package deeply, then add another one to their repertoire. “No matter how much you like your primary package, being able to function in a second one will teach you a lot more about what’s under the hood than any class on graphics ever could. Besides, it makes you twice as eligible for jobs,” he says.
Women should feel more encouraged than ever to apply for jobs in the art department. A growing female presence was particularly noticeable between 2004 and 2005, with about 10 percent of jobs in game art now held by women as opposed to the less than 7 percent the year prior.
Average salary for designers with 3 or fewer years’ experience: $43,486.
Typically, entry-level game developers—that is, people with no prior experience making games—rarely if ever are hired as game designers off the bat. That said, although few game designers declare themselves as having 3 or fewer years’ experience in the 2005 salary survey, respondents holding the title “game writer” were also counted as designers, which helped round out the data.
“‘Game designer’ is a broad spectrum of a single job,” says McShaffry, noting that designers are not just creative thinkers. Designers can have specialist jobs, like designing levels, or all-encompassing ones, directing different departments toward a single vision while playtesting, tweaking code, and helping to broker publishing deals on the side. Equally broad is the title game writer, a job that could involve creative duties, such as mapping out epic narratives, or more technical ones, like recording documentation.
Game designers overall didn’t see too much change in pay between 2004 and 2005, with the least experienced designers averaging about what they did the year before.
Average salary for testers with 3 or fewer years’ experience: $24,797.
Anecdotally speaking, Q/A is the most common path to any career in game development, but especially for game designers and producers. Across all levels of experience, testers earn only about $37,210, easily making them the lowest paid group in the business. Part-timers likely tilt this figure slightly toward the low end, but it’s still paltry compared to what programmers, artists, and other specialists earn.
Surprisingly, 71 percent of Q/A respondents received some kind of medical, dental, or 401K benefits, an atypical fact for a group traditionally thought of as being hourly-paid workers. Mary-Margaret.com’s McShaffry says not to discount working in Q/A, despite the fact that it typically entails part-time work. “Q/A is a hotbed of potential game designers,” she says. “Testers get more exposure to both good and bad game design,” making them a more valuable designer if they eventually follow that career path. An informal apprenticeship exists between testers and designers, producers, or associate producers, with the more experienced group shepherding talented Q/A personnel who are determined to find a lasting career in the business, says McShaffry.
National Trends in Game Development
As a game developer, you’re likely to earn the highest possible salary if you live in California, New York, or Washington state. However, you’re almost twice as likely in Washington (71 percent) than California (38 percent) to own your own home. And New York state residents are even worse off in terms of homeownership (26 percent), despite the fact that New York and California account for the highest salaries on average by state.
As a game developer, where you live greatly affects your potential salary cap as well as your cost of living. Here’s another example: Texas ranks only sixth in terms of top-paid developers by state, yet 60 percent of Texan game developers own their own homes.
If you don’t live in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, or Austin, all is not lost. Game development has been spreading into new territories, creeping into states with a low cost of living and tax breaks for technology businesses. Florida, Utah, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Arizona all house a growing scene.
A neat resource that we found useful (not to mention fun to play with) is the interactive map at www.gamedevmap.com. Created by Gaurav Mathur, art department director at Factor 5, GameDevMap is an interactive map of the world that shows the locations of game development businesses and organizations.
Users click on a city marker, and a list of publishers, organizations, and developers (console, mobile/handheld, and online) appear with their URL and city, state, and country. At a glance, the map illustrates how pervasive the industry is becoming both within the U.S. and globally. So whether you live in Tel Aviv or Oulu, Finland, you can easily discover what studios and IGDA chapters exist in your area.
To discuss these trends in game industry, join in conversations in the Game Career Guide Community.