Seventy-three thousand dollars a year.
That's the number that got a little bit of buzz this year. It's the average salary of a game developer. But it's just a number, and it's nowhere near what entry-level candidates should vie for when sealing the deal of their first industry job; nor is it a perfect bar against which to measure game developer salaries regionally, since the cost of living varies drastically between states like California, Texas, and North Carolina.
Here, we take a more tailored look at the statistics in light of what someone new to the game industry would need to know by paring down the results of Game Developer's sixth annual salary survey.
An extended version of this article, including information about developers' average level of education, differences in pay by gender, and more, can be found in the April 2007 issue of Game Developer magazine, available for downloadable purchase for $3.95.
Let's be real. Programming is where the money's at. Unless your sights are set on becoming an executive of a game company, the most financially rewarding position within game development (not to mention the job that typically employs the greatest number of people) is that of a programmer. The average salary for a game programmer across all levels of experience has been more than $80,000 for two years in a row.
Across all job titles (such as lead programmer, technical director, and so forth) the average salary for an entry-level programmer is almost $66,000. However, when we considered only the entry-level people holding the specific titles "programmer" or "engineer," the average salary dropped to just $57,913 -- which still isn't a bad paycheck to rake in your first year out of college.
Speaking of college, we found that programmers, alongside businesspeople, were the most likely group to hold a master's degree (18%), though the degree didn't necessarily correlate to an increase in base salary. When it comes to experience, though, it's worth it for the average programmer to hang in there: those with six or more years earned more than $100,000. So if you're interested in game programming, know that it pays (handsomely!) to stick around.
The pay for artists and animators isn't top dollar in the beginning, but it's decent. In fact, it's a head above decent-it's downright respectable.
The nearly $43,000 a year or so artists can expect to earn isn't sound so bad, especially in states with a medium to low cost of living; plus the job affords creativity-a rare perk.
Entry-level game artists needn't get too caught up in which software package is best either. Learn at least one of the two major packages (3ds Max and Maya) thoroughly, noodle with a few others if you can, and be ready to adapt on the job.
Be prepared to hear the following words of wisdom over and over again: it is nearly impossible to become a game designer fresh out of college. Game design job are almost never appropriate for entry-level candidates. Designers typically make their way into the industry through some other discipline (for example, by spending two or three years as a programmer or producer), then become a designer later. None of this advice is meant to be discouraging-it's meant to help you formulate a clear and realistic path to your dream job.
The average salary of writers with less than 3 years' experience dropped by $6,631 since last year, and writers with 3-6 years saw a $12,500 drop in pay. If these salaries sound low, bear in mind that more than half of all designers earn fairly large bonuses on top of their base salaries, which can amount to nearly $10,000 in additional pay.
The production department has seen an interesting trend over the last three to four years, one that I'm going to guess is the result of needing more producers but not wanting to pay them astronomical salaries. The trend is that more and more producers are less and less experienced, which is a boon to young game industry hopefuls.
In 2004 (reporting incomes from 2003), Game Developer found 61% of producers had 6 or more years experience, compared to 49% last year and this year. And in 2004 a mere 13% of producers had fewer than 3 years' experience, compared to 18% last year and 34% this year. Hiring lesser experienced producers, either as assistants or project leads, may be what caused the overall average salary of producers to drop by just over $3,000 since last year.
The job titles assistant and associate producer are becoming more and more prevalent-so much so that the survey compiled an average salary for those specific titles: $44,167. This figure is probably closer to what an entry-level producer can expect to earn when first coming into the industry than the $52,885 cited above.
Whatever the title, one of the benefits of working in the production department is that the gender imbalance isn't nearly as severe as it is in the other major disciplines.
There's a myth that starting out in the game industry as a tester is equivalent to starting in the mailroom of a major corporation circa 1950: It's only a matter of getting one foot in the door before the gates to bigger and better things open wide.
When it comes to getting paid, game testers don't get no love. They are the runts of the industry, and everyone-including the people who determine their salaries-knows it. It's no surprise that the Q/A department pulls in the lowest average salary, has the lowest chance of receiving additional income (like a bonus), is the least likely to have a graduate degree, and is the least likely to earn benefits [though on that last note, a good chunk of them (72%) in fact do].
The beauty of Q/A, of course, is that one needs zero formal experience to get a job. As long as you can show you know a thing or two about video games, are capable of breaking them, and can intelligently articulate what broke and when, you're hirable. It seems the difficult part is figuring out exactly how to rise above the daily duties of repetitively collision-testing while sitting in a super-air conditioned dungeon, all the while scheming about how the rent is going to get paid.
Percent of developers in the survey, by discipline, with 3 years or fewer experience:
Visual Arts: 32%
Game Design: 32%
What this tells us: With the exception of audio, the survey saw an even cross section of less experienced respondents in each discipline.
With the help of research firm Audience Insights, Game Developer sent email invitations to its magazine subscribers, Game Developers Conference 2006 attendees, and Gamasutra.com members in January 2007, inviting them to participate in our annual salary survey.
Although well over 5,600 unique responses were received worldwide, not all who participated in this survey provided sufficient compensation information to be included in the findings. Also excluded were cases in which the compensation was given at less than $10,000 USD, and the highest salary range was limited to $202,500 USD to prevent a limited number of outliers from distorting the true central tendency of the computed average salaries in each category. The survey further excludes records that were missing key demographic and classification information.
The total sample reflected in the data presented for the U.S. is 3,130. The sample represented in our salary survey can be projected to the overall game developer community with a margin of error, for the aggregate U.S. statistics, of plus or minus 1.7% at the 95% confidence level. The margin of error increases for specific subgroups reported within this community.
Enhanced versions of this article originally appeared in Game Developer's Game Career Guide, Fall 2007 magazine and the April 2007 issue of Game Developer magazine.