Why Low Pay In the Games Industry Leads to Bad Games

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.

On Leadership and Promotion In the Game Industry

On Leadership and Promotion In the Game Industry

I wrote a series of tweets about leadership and promotion in the game industry that went somewhat viral (at least by game developer standards). Here’s a link to the original tweet.

Below is a merged-together version with a few of the sentences joined together properly for more clarity. (The part in square brackets was added here for clarity.)

In the fallout from the Kotaku Anthem piece, there hasn’t really been enough talk about how bad the industry is at promoting and training leads. I’ve worked with a lot of people who were promoted to positions they were unprepared for, and everybody suffered for it.

Most people know, at least at an intellectual level, that being a lead is fundamentally different from being an individual contributor. Regardless, people still get promoted to lead positions all the time without proper training, and even then, the reporting and feedback structures aren’t set up to deal with it. Sometimes it’s because everybody wants to try to be friends, and telling your boss that they suck at their job feels like it will screw up your professional and personal relationship.

EA actually has, in theory, pretty robust mechanisms for giving feedback and reporting team morale, but in my experience most people aren’t good at giving feedback anyway. Often, the only training on how to give feedback is for managers, not for their reports. And of course, nobody wants to be the person who tells their boss’s boss that their boss sucks at their job and then gets bitten in the ass about it later. (Also, it’s pretty common to hear complaints in any organization that HR isn’t trustworthy about keeping feedback confidential.)

So you have this endless cycle that people get promoted to positions they’re not prepared for, they work really hard but often do the wrong things, their bosses don’t get good enough feedback about how they’re doing, the project suffers, and they get shuffled into a new role……only to be replaced by someone who is likely to go through the exact same process. This is often why games and studios die; Not because the Evil Corporate Overlords deliberately make bad decisions (this almost never happens), but because making games is hard, leading teams is hard, giving feedback is hard, creating the right structures and building trust to give good feedback is hard, and spotting talented team members who can lead a team or a project is also hard.

As side note, there’s also a major issue with people getting into lead roles because they’ve been adjacent to success, ie they worked WITH a really good lead/director on a project so it’s assumed they know how to recreate the magic. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they know how to talk very convincingly about how to Do Things The Right Way, but that doesn’t mean they actually can. And because making games is so difficult, they’re often given a lot of leeway when they’re actually floundering. This is discussed in the Kotaku article briefly but is, IMO, the most important way that big companies screw up their relationships with their studios; How many times have we read about games that were rushed out at the last minute because they spent too much time in Preproduction Hell? There’s a difference between deliberately doing a lot of prototyping (there’s a great GDC talk about prototyping Titanfall 2 “action blocks” like this) and just lurching back and forth between ideas. (and apparently trying to prototype in Frostbite is hell), [and this is something that the ‘corporate overlords’ should have been paying more attention to].

One of the solutions is for us all to treat game development like we’re professionals. And I mean that in the sense that you need to hold yourself and coworkers to professional standards; learn best practices and hold your team accountable at all levels.

I’ve been a part of a project that was basically on fire for almost its entire development cycle and IMO our studio leads gave the game team leads way too many chances. Being slow to address these major issues delays an inevitable morale hit, but too bad. Get the pain over with! I’d rather have a rough month and then ship the game than have a rough year and have the game canceled. Or even if the game was canceled EARLIER (which it probably should have been), just get that shit over with. Restructure the team, fire the toxic people ASAP, do what needs to be done!

That may have seemed like a tangent but it’s an example of less than professional behavior by leadership. Trying not to hurt feelings or damage morale by admitting that things were going poorly ultimately dragged the pain on for too long, and did no good. Not that it’s not important to get along with coworkers and make friends on the job, but ultimately you’re there to do a job & if the studio goes down because people were too afraid that admitting the problems was going to hurt feelings, then everybody’s worse off in the long run.

(Just to be clear – I worked at EA and in general it was a good experience. I would definitely go back given the right circumstances. This thread is not meant to be specifically about EA – it’s just a good jumping off point because of the Kotaku article.)

On Hiring, Learning, And Technology

At GDC 2018, I had an unfortunate conversation at one of the exhibitor booths with a CEO/founder. He said his company was hiring programmers and designers with experience in Unreal, and as soon as I said I didn’t have any he cut me off and asked if I knew anyone who did… and then whined for a good several minutes about how hard it was to find people who were as experienced as he needed because he company was doing Very Advanced Things in the engine.

At that point, I wasn’t interested in getting the job, I just wanted to see if he was really as stubborn about this as it seemed. I tried to bring up my wide range of experience, including that I’ve worked as a game designer, programmer, and producer, but he wasn’t having any of it; It was Unreal engine experience or nothing.

Now I can definitely appreciate that there is specific domain knowledge that comes with any technology, and that there is true value in that experience. But… most people working in games are learning or doing something new every single day, so measuring someone’s job fit purely by their experience doing the exact thing in the job description is at best unnecessarily pedantic and at worse a complete misunderstanding of what to look for in a new hire.

Most of what we look for in a resume isn’t about exactly what’s on the resume, of course. We’re trying to divine more abstract qualities from it, qualities that persist regardless of changes in technology. Passion for games, passion for learning, and the abilities to take in, process, model, and apply new information. And of course the ability to collaborate and play nice with others.

When someone lists those qualities in their resume, though, they don’t mean anything. Everyone wants to say they’re a great communicator or they can learn stuff quickly.

The job of an interviewer (or screener, if they’re not interviewing) is to read between the lines.

For instance, if an applicant has ten years of experience working in a technology that has a low barrier to entry and productivity, did they actually grow? Is that ten years of good experience or is that really one year of experience stretched out into ten? I’ve seen that, and the interview reflected it.

But on the other hand, if the applicant just graduated from college but has five completed game projects across three engines and can answer detailed questions about them in an interview, well, that’s someone I want to hire.

I’ve worked in either new or proprietary tech for nearly all of my professional career. “Do they know it already?” is almost never a more useful question than “Can they learn?”

(I will add the caveat that there are a few areas of specialized knowledge that require a lot of advanced study to become proficient in, like AI, physics, and graphics programming. But even then, that knowledge does translate between engines. For example, if I needed an AI expert, I would hire one who had no engine experience in a heartbeat over someone who had engine experience but no AI experience!)