Saturday, July 9, 2011

Labour Of Love

Let me preface this entry with a simple fact.  I love my job.  I love the industry I work in, and I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.

Tick tick tick

Often when I tell people I work in the video game industry I’m met with the same response.  They think it must be the easiest job on the planet and that it’s nothing but fun.  They imagine my life as one without the challenges that come with a “real” job.  The truth is, the video game industry is one of the biggest economical juggernauts out there.  It brings in more than Hollywood, or the music industry.  This year it was worth almost 75 BILLION dollars.  With those kind of numbers involved, you better believe it’s not just a bunch of kids dicking around on computers, this a high stakes industry, this is as real as it gets.

But it’s also a young industry.  As the cost to make a single game spirals deep into the millions and production times begin to exceed 5 years in some cases, the industry is consolidating and going through a phase of vertical integration.  At this point, almost all studios are under a handful of major publishers like EA, Activision, Ubisoft, etc.  Independent mainstream developers are vanishing as they’re absorbed by the big players.  All this change as the industry matures with its audience means it’s still a very volatile industry.

Third-party studios pop-up every day, and just as easily they get shut down.  With the overhead for a single game digging deep into the coffers, even if it’s successful, one miscalculation on the projections for that game can lead to a studio closure, and 100s of people out of work, falling back into the job market, competing with each other, and new members to the workforce fresh out of university, for a new job.  Or if the publisher decides to cancel your game mid-project, this can lead to mass layoffs, not to mention a major drop in morale.  The video game industry is easily one of the most competitive fields out there, even more so now during the recession, which is another way of saying it offers some of the lowest job-security around.  And with the relatively small amount of studios (compared to to the amount of job applicants) being clustered across the globe, be prepared to relocate for work, and often.

A new meaning to "Career Path"

The video game industry, unsurprisingly, attracts people who are passionate about making games.  And there’s no short supply.  As the industry consolidates under a handful of major publishers who invest millions in single SKUs, more and more is demanded of employees.  Overtime to meet a deadline is not unique to this industry, but stories of year long crunches with mandatory 80 hour work weeks (in some cases with no paid overtime or comp time) are becoming more and more common.  And individual employees can’t do much about it, because there’s a long line of people either out of work or just out of school dying to take their place.  As a young industry, and one that’s grown with immense speed, it’s largely unregulated.  You hear stories of shady practices all over.  Sham-contracts seemingly being the big one right now.

Sometimes you feel like you live at the office.

All of these factors take a toll on employees, and their families.  There have been a few high-profile instances of this coming to a head.  This industry, if you want to get in and stay in, has to come first.  It’s not for someone looking for a balanced life.  You will spend years trying to get in, you will never feel totally comfortable that your job is secure, you will have to go through periods of crunch where you only go home to sleep and if you have family you won’t see much of them during these periods; you will have to move often either due to studio closures or downsizing or to climb due to limitations at the current studio, and in some cases you may even need to deal with shady practices, etc.  It’s not the easy lifestyle many imagine when I tell them I make games for a living.

Many talented workers decide the big publisher model just doesn’t work for them.  They want to retain creative control, they don’t want to compromise quality for a release date, etc.  So they decide to start their own studio, and go at it independently.  And fortunately for them the blockbuster game trend has left the market wide open for indie games to make a large impact.  And while the indie game market is experiencing its golden days, it’s still the wild west.  With no publisher to back you with marketing, or give you what often ends up being valid criticism, combined with the inherent niche market these games tend to skew towards, for every successful indie game with a new vision, there’s hundreds of confused messes that flop miserably, if they ever even see the light of day…  And without publisher backing, the development costs are out of pocket.  If the game doesn’t turn a profit you default on your mortgage.  It’s hardly a high-security alternative to mainstream game development.

While going for a walk with the Design team at work the other day, we started talking about the phenomenon called “Smoke-Bombing”.  Due to all these trials and tribulations that come with working in this industry, every other day you hear about someone who decided they’d had enough and just vanish, poof, to a new career.  We shared a few stories.  I’d once heard of a guy who’d been in the industry for over a decade and one day just quit to give bike tours in Europe.

This past week Chad smoke-bombed.  After nearly 3 years fighting to get into the industry, and knowing full well he was in all likelihood less than a year away from a fulltime salary position at a studio, he took stock of his priorities, looked ahead at the kinds of sacrifices it would require, and said no.  He is now in the midst of completely re-planning his life, no easy task.  But I totally get it, and in his case, I believe it was the right decision.

Chad bowed out :(

Personally, I don’t see myself ever leaving.  Sure, this industry takes a lot from you.  Sometimes almost everything.  But having a job you’re passionate about is a hard thing to walk away from.  Even if that passion can be used against you.  And the money ain’t bad either.  It’s an extremely volatile industry, and it requires hard work.  That’s just what it is.  Whether or not it’s worth it is something each individual must ask themselves.

I spent years fighting for a fulltime salary position.  Now I fight for a designer position.  I’ve already moved to 2 cities in 3 years, leaving behind 2 great lives in the process to start over.  I’ve been laid off.  I’ve had a project I was passionate about get cancelled.  I’ve worked a few 80 hour weeks, and many more 60 hour weeks.  But I do it all willingly.  I love this industry; I love the work, I love the community, I love the product.  I can’t see myself doing anything else.  And Longtail has done nothing but right by me.  They’ve given me recognition, fair pay and steady opportunity.  All crunch has been voluntary, and making the transition into Design is not something I was expecting to be available to me so soon.  In a lot of ways this industry saved my life.  I was lost until I found it.  Despite its taxing requirements, it’s an exciting time for me in this industry and I can’t wait to see what my career has in store for me, and the places the industry is heading.

As Chad drifts away from the gaming industry into some new career, I will miss sharing this adventure with a friend who was with me before it all started.  I will miss hoping for the day we once again worked together at the same studio, living in the same city.  But this industry isn’t for everyone, and he needs to do what he needs to do to find a life that suits him.  And I wish him all the best in it.  We’ll always have the DA2 credits!

DA2 Credits

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