Why Low Pay In the Games Industry Leads to Bad Games

I originally wrote this as a Twitter thread in response to the #GameDevPaidMe hashtag. A lot of people posting about it revealed that their entry-level salaries were VERY low, even in major cities with a high cost of living. Here’s my response:

Why are low salaries in the game industry are so damaging?

It’s not JUST that underpaying employees makes their lives worse – that’s an obvious effect. It’s because no matter how passionate someone is, how desperately they want to be in the industry low pay will be a constant source of stress, and they will eventually burn out.

It’s easy to understand why this is bad at an individual level, but it’s bad for companies, too. If you’re just an accountant, you may think you have an incentive to pay as little as possible and not worry about burn-out among employees who have climbed the ranks and are now ‘too expensive’ to support.

That practice will actively make games WORSE. Why? Two words: Institutional knowledge.

If you’ve ever wondered why a studio makes a bunch of brilliant games and then somehow loses its spark, it’s (often) because of the loss of institutional knowledge. Designers who understood WHY decisions were made, programmers who understand systems really well, and other key developers get burned out and leave. It doesn’t matter if the people who replace them are just as smart, talented, and/or qualified!

This applies at all levels. If your studio is making a sequel, or a genre-followup, or uses a consistent set of tools, every member of the team who has been working with those elements for months or years can make better decisions and be a more efficient employee simply due to a buildup of institutional knowledge; From CM to CS to QA all the way up to Creative Director or Studio GM.

There’s also the intangible cost of people getting comfortable with each other at a personal level. I was lucky enough to work at a studio with some on-site integrated QA, CS, and CM, and the value of working with the same people every day for years cannot be understated. Underpaying any of those positions and increasing turnover reduces productivity for every more ‘senior’ person those positions work with.

So here’s my Big Thesis: If a studio’s primary HR goal is to reduce turnover to nearly zero, they will pay more for each employee. In exchange for that, they build institutional knowledge and an extremely cohesive team. If they stick to one genre, they become masters of it. If they don’t, they pivot more efficiently and better understand their strengths and weaknesses. Higher salaries = lower turnover = better games.

Here’s a link to the original thread. I have slightly edited for clarity here.

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