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In the Videogame Industry, Hiring People Is a Last Resort (wsj.com)
214 points by somerandomness on Apr 11, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 207 comments

A while back I was chatting with an engineer who worked on the network code and infrastructure for a popular simulation game. After all the heavy lifting was done, he and others were promptly fired and replaced by contractors. The guy poured his heart and soul into the project and was vested way beyond a paycheck, yet he was literally replaced like a cog the minute a spreadsheet called for it. So much for wanting talented and loyal employees. It must be too easy to forget that all these business decisions affect real human beings, not empty automatons.

>The guy poured his heart and soul into the project and was vested way beyond a paycheck, yet he was literally replaced like a cog the minute a spreadsheet called for it.

This is one reason why "follow your passion" is a bad career strategy.

It's not unique to this industry. Look at all the folks who get PhDs and waste their 30's doing low paid postdocs ($50K is higher end).

The problem with the above story is that the engineer lost all connection to the project. It would be like allowing an artist to finish a painting 90% and then firing the artist and giving the painting to someone else. It is heartbreaking to hear. Those are years of someones life.

> Look at all the folks who get PhDs and waste their 30's doing low paid postdocs ($50K is higher end).

Research is different. You are certainly losing out on income, however in my experience you have an immense amount of ownership and autonomy over the project. If you get the boot you can take your project with you. You can publish your code as free software or open source and your papers on open access pre-print services. Academic researchers are often far less alienated from their labor than video game engineers.

Consider two orthogonal vectors: one is income earned and the other is your accomplishments. Ideally you want to maximize both, but failing that different people express different priorities over which one to maximize in a career.

>The problem with the above story is that the engineer lost all connection to the project. It would be like allowing an artist to finish a painting 90% and then firing the artist and giving the painting to someone else. It's heartbreaking to hear.

It's heartbreaking the first time I hear it. After the 100th time, the sentiment transforms to "Why did you allow yourself in this predicament?" And the answer is always "Passion".

This story has been repeated over and over for the last 15 years. You can take this exact story to aspiring game developers and they'll say "I don't care. It's not about the money. I just want to make games. Even if I play a small role in the project I'll be satisfied"

>You are certainly losing out on income, however in my experience have an immense amount of ownership and autonomy over the project.

Many postdocs don't. They do the bidding of some faculty member.

Many faculty members don't. Sure, on paper they do. But they'll all tell you about the work they cannot pursue because they can't get grant money for it.

>If you get the boot you can take your project with you.

Not true for some postdoc work.

>You can publish code as free software or open source and your papers on open access pre-print services.

Not true as a post doc. My advisor certainly forbade it.

>Consider two orthogonal vectors: one is income earned and the other is your accomplishments. Ideally you want to maximize both, but failing that, different personalities often express different priorities over which one to maximize in a career.

I completely agree with this, which is why I'm not sympathetic to the game developer, or with postdocs who regret spending so long in academia. They picked their priorities - it was not imposed on to them. And for many, later in their life, they feel they picked the "wrong" priorities.

>I completely agree with this, which is why I'm not sympathetic to the game developer, or with postdocs who regret spending so long in academia. They picked their priorities - it was not imposed on to them. And for many, later in their life, they feel they picked the "wrong" priorities.

I am sympathetic to them as we have all made bad decisions. I would argue that a neccessary pre-condition to "following your passion" is protecting that passion and pursuing a longterm strategy which allows you to develop that passion and maintain ownership over your work. Chasing passion is not an reason for failing to plan or for allowing others to walk all over you. Software engineers on the whole have sufficient power to not be at the mercy of bosses if they have the will to stand up for themselves. They owe it to themselves and to their limited lifespan to do so.

Edit: I think we both are saying that, to the degree possible, people have a responsibility to themselves to not allow themselves to be exploited.

>And for many, later in their life, they feel they picked the "wrong" priorities.

That, right there, is exactly what im feeling currently.

It all started as a hobby some years ago and I got an opportunity to turn it into a career, so I did. I dont regret that time because I met some pretty amazing people and learned a TON about so many fascinating things. But I finally got fed up last year and left to do some freelancing work while I performed a 'Career-Shift'.

Unfortunately, what I have come to realize is that its pretty difficult to switch from being a contract developer for 10 or so years. I dont know for sure, but I think, because I have the 'Jack of all trades, master of none' resume. It's highly demotivating.

What should have stayed a hobby became a career, and now feel scorned because of it.

>What should have stayed a hobby became a career, and now feel scorned because of it.

I think this statement sums it up.

After a while, I figured out that for most jobs, following passion is too much of a risk. Even if it is aligned with my passions, any minor change (e.g. management decision) can make it a chore or much worse. It will never really be according to my vision.

So I switched to a boring job but with good work-life balance. This gives me free time to pursue my passions. Now I'll grant some passions are demanding enough that you can't reasonably do it in your free time (e.g. certain types of academic research). Fortunately, the solution is to have multiple passions. Even if I have all the time in the world, it is not enough to pursue all my passions anyway. It's OK to pare it down to what is feasible, and it doesn't make me any less happy.

What's your skill set?

Are you getting no offers, or just no offers that pay well enough?

I have trouble believing that noone would want to hire you if you're good and can show that you've built nontrivial stuff.

As someone who recently finished a post-doc and jumped ship to a more lucrative contractor position.

None of that is worth the lowered income.

Come on it's just a video game not the Sistine Chapel. A few decades from now the games of today will be vanished and forgotten.

No, they are exactly the same.

It's hard to find a GDC talk on Youtube where the creator of a game doesn't get teared up talking about the despair and elation they felt slaving over their game for four years. Try this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOlcB-JxkFw

I also firmly believe there are games that won't be forgotten in a few decades.

Having watched a great number of these talks, I can say this isn't true. The devs are invested, sure. Chances are good they wouldn't be talking about it at GDC if they weren't. They definitely talk a lot about the ups and downs. But tearing up I've only seen once in a while; I remember that talk specifically because it was unusual.

It's not even remotely the same. The people getting distraught over video game projects have entered a delusional alternate reality and lost sight of what matters in the real world.

How does the Sistine Chapel matter any more than a work that will be experienced simultaneously by thousands, if not millions of people across the world, and will be immeasurably more immersive and entertaining?

I'm as defensive about games-as-art as anybody...but the Sistine Chapel ceiling is, and will remain, more important to humanity than 99.999% of games created.

Do tell us what really matters in the real world

Perform an experiment:

1. Watch someone work hard on a project they care about for months or years. It could be software, a quilt or a carpentry project.

2. Find a legal way to destroy it in front of them.

3. Say "Come on its just X not the Sistine Chapel."

4. Record their reaction and report back.

Your characterization is fundamentally unfair.

It's not as if they found a legal way to destroy it after the work had started. That legal way has always existed. How one can enter a profession where you're paid to make art and not know the rules is mind boggling. I know lots of famous music artists who've felt exploited, but those contracts are likely a lot more complicated than what these developers deal with.

If you're a carpenter, and I hire you to build something, and you don't know that I can stop the project at any point and destroy it, you've got serious issues. Ask any carpenter.

If Michelangelo was paid to produce a masterpiece, I'm sure he knew he didn't own the work. I should probably look up famous artists like him and read up to see if this was even unusual: Getting paid to make something that would be destroyed by the owner.

True. But I am pretty sure that the effort, passion, frustration, long nights, etc. that developers and designers put into those games are the same today as what Michelangelo went through while painting the ceiling. An impatient Pope constantly coming by wanting to see the progress, going from being a sculptor to a painter because of public pressure, hours upon hours of tedious and daunting tasks, so on. All while never knowing how it will turn out.

Its obviously not a 1:1 comparison, but the emotions and feelings are the same is what im getting at ;-)

Video games matter to many people, maybe not on the scale of a Sistine Chapel, sure, but there are legitimate efforts being made to preserve them like other works of art: https://gamehistory.org/who-we-are/

And 95% of the people here spend their days writing yet-another-CRUD-app. That doesn't mean you don't get invested.

Passion is fine. Whatever works for you.

I'd advise against making someone else rich, at your own expense.

Been there, been done like that.

Having a passion is fine.

Following your passion is fine.

Complaining about low pay because you are following your passion is not. If they're complaining, they care about more than their passions, and they (not their employers) are responsible for satisfying their needs.

You can get lucky and follow your passion as well as take care of material needs, but those are the exceptions. Not the norm.

No, passion and money usually aligned. That's the whole undernote of any startup pitch.

If there were not aligned, then we should strive to change the market and society to make them align. Without a proper incentive mechanism, no innovation can be done optimally.

>No, passion and money usually aligned. That's the whole undernote of any startup pitch.

I would beg to differ. The aligned ones are the exceptions.

Unless your passion is to make money, that is.

The whole point is that if your passion is something other than to get rich, you are more inclined than the average person to take lower pay to pursue your passions.

"Wow, it's awesome employer X is willing to pay me to do passion Y. I never thought I could make a living doing this!"

"Those who use their skills to do boring work (code/CAD monkey) to make more money are sellouts!"

Most startups are in it for the money. As pg himself wrote: It's not at all unusual in the early phases for a startup to completely change direction because they didn't find a market for their "passion". The goal is to get rich, not to solve business problem Z.

>Without a proper incentive mechanism, no innovation can be done optimally.

I agree with the caveat that the incentive need not be "get rich". Making a lot of money often lowers innovation by constraining it.

Our definition of "rich" likely differs.

I am saying rich being above average and can secure a above average starting point for offspring. I do not think rich should be "rich enough to be considered privileged".

So you are saying get rid of SV?

Greed and desire for the pot of gold are illusions.

if you're working as an employee for someone else, it's not your passion. it's their business and your misplaced enthusiasm.

True but its also your rent check and food money while you (hopefully) build the skills and experience to come up with your own.

yes, precisely. that is a pragmatic attitude that ought to be sufficient to prevent heartbreak and career dislocation. however, it is clear that many people are not so pragmatic and act with greater naivety and do get exploited by taking a job as an employee in something they have enthusiasm for, and conflating that with their passion, inevitably leading to a poor outcome for them.

You have to have passion for something that makes money....

Is it a waste? Our system does not map monetary reward to value created. Better to assume someone not making big money is doing something worthwhile.

If salary were a function of social value added why is the Pepsi CEO so well paid? So many industries just appropriate wealth from real work.

If people don't yield to the flawed system I say hats off to them.

>Is it a waste?

It's up to them to decide. I, for one, have seen far too many people go the route of academia, stick to it, and then regret it because they either didn't get a tenure track position, or because they were so old when they got one.

It depends on the discipline. Engineering/CS is soft on academics. When I was doing my PhD, it was not unusual for a graduate to get a TT position without doing a postdoc. But if you're in the sciences or math: Good luck.

You are responsible for taking care of your needs. If all you care about is research, and not enough money to pay for your kids' college (the situation of a number of career post docs I know), then I'm the last one to tell you to reconsider.

Where does it end? Your kids get their college money so they can do what? Do a phd? Throw their interests in the bin in the name of consumerism and so their kids can ... what?

This is why a system that fails to associate value added with reward gained is so utterly damaging.

There is, in fact, a ton of money in boring ass software.

There is, but the problem with that is people get drained doing boring software over and over for years. No passion, no motivation, etc. Believe it or not, most people dont care about making a ton of money. Making a good income doing something you enjoy is worth more than making 3x that income doing something that makes you feel bored and crappy all the time.

Yeah, but usually, that 3x income also comes with normal, 9-5 working hours. So you slog through the day, and have plenty of time to do the passion stuff at home.

Plus, if we're talking about games, you have the money to pay people for quality art, sound, etc. So when you are ready to make that step, you can really give it some polish.

Not only your 30's, you also waste your 20's getting the PhD (which if you are lucky pays only slightly less than a postdoc). Two decades of lost opportunity costs really adds up.

As others have said, it's a personal judgment call. I wasted my 20's that way, and have no regrets. The PhD did not help my career one iota. But the journey was worth it, and I accept the price I paid (which is entering the job market a little older, and thus retiring a little older).

If someone wants to keep that up with postdocs, more power to them. I just observe that there are a lot more postdocs who regret their journey than those who stopped at PhD.

Am in my 30s doing a postdoc getting paid $50K. Can confirm. ;)

That said, I do enjoy doing research. It's frustrating working with researchers sometimes though. :P Sure, everyone push to master without testing, no problem! I'll just spend my afternoon making things compile again..

Just create a new branch in git, call it 'production', and... literally throw piles of shit at people who push to that branch. Then they'll get the hint. /s

Lol.. just venting ;) But thanks, I take your point. And actually good idea regarding the production branch, I might just do that.

I don't know if it's the git way or not, but I learned with subversion, so I treat master as unstable and make a new maintenance branch for each release. So what I'm saying is: more than just one production branch. That way you can test the next release on its own branch without freezing trunk and without affecting the current production branch (suppose you want to roll back to the previous release?)

Just wondering but why are you still in a postdoc position? My previous field was Medicinal Chemistry and had I continued with my Ph.D, I would have gotten it by 26/27. Post docs are usually for 2 years in Med Chem I believe.

Well, you can look at age timeline:

Start school at 7;

Start university at 19;

Start PhD at 25 [4-year bachelors + 2-year masters] if you can do that immediately after masters, or 26;

Finish PhD at 28, or 29 (if it's a 3-year PhD, otherwise older);

Finish first post-doc at 31, second one at 33/34.

By mid-30s you are just starting your tenure-track (assuming you get some semi-permanent position at a university or research institute)

I'm currently doing a PhD [quantum chemistry] and this is basically my expectation for the future.

Strange if that's the norm now too, some of the best games of the 90's seemed to all come out of dedicated teams who just loved their craft. In fact most of my favorite games I could probably point to a development team that worked well together and cared about their projects and stuck together after a release. Its too bad, I like Rocket League's simple premise and execution (it basically builds off of some mods I used to play in Unreal Tournament 2004). If they brought some of the dedicated contractors on full time for their next project and fostered a great culture I'm sure it would help much more than the short-term gains they'll get by their current practice.

Nah, I dont think its strange in this day and age. To me it's infuriating, but it is all about that bottom line, man. Maximize profits, lower overhead, vertical acuity, do more with less, faster, more, grow grow grow! Plus if you contract out work and that company screws up, you can deflect blame to them. That happened at least a couple times where I used to work.

Most companies today seem to only care about being the largest in the industry. Because, I'm guessing shareholders or greed or something, I dont know for sure. It's almost impossible to find a company that wants to just stay within their means. Grow to the optimal size you can manage and coast. I assume its because those kind of companies would get run over by their competition if they didnt keep growing, but im not sure.

I used to aspire to have a super successful and huge game company. But after seeing all the insider crap that goes into game development, I think I'll be happiest with just doing my own thing and having trusted colleagues that will come in on projects to help out.

I've worked with many contracting companies in gaming, not always, but it's not uncommon for contractors to produce higher quality work than employees and normally are more productive. I think employees tend to think that culture is what they're there for instead of producing IP, that's very common in gaming and perhaps one of the reasons execs need to bolster productivity with contractors.

Games are not simple products. Except for AAA titles (which are often the gaming equivalent of the annual superhero movie) games need something special, some soul to be successfull. Without dedicated team pouring some of their personality into the game this will not happen.

This is why I still play many older AAA games, yet only a few current AAA games, though my machine has enough HP for any current title. Yet current indie games often have this extra, and are on my menu.

You can run a game factory like this, but this inflates the product line on the long run. Only managers will stay, and ideas will not blossom, only the management will execute the same reciepes over and over, and eventually customers will not come without insane sales campaigns.

I do not understand why AAA would be lumped together in such a soulless bag. Like superhero movies, some are done by the numbers, some are done without inspiration, some without talent, and yet some are brimming with soul, passion and dedication. That outcome is usually defined by their leaders and context; AAA games, blockbuster movies, and large productions in general, by nature don't let most of the individual developers' souls show visibly in the final product, but that soul is very much in there.

"Many older AAA games yet only a few current AAA games" I suspect is more due to rose-tinted glasses and survivor bias. There was plenty of crap back then, and plenty of greatness today.

Because when people say AAA, often they are talking about the cookie-cutter, churn-it-out yearly titles, like FIFA and Madden and Call of Duty.

The other comparison with Hollywood is the unrelenting sequelitis. It's even reached the point now where game developers are planning trilogies from the start, like StarCraft II and Medieval Total War: Warhammer.

When I hear most people say AAA, they tend to mean "big budget" (which usually implies fancy graphics, big musical scores, voice acting, mocap etc -- things that lower budget games can't afford).

Is there any reason to believe this 'soul' you're talking about has to come from the programmers? It's not clear to me that the designers of the game, and the programmers of that design, have any overlap in people -- and just because the programmers get replaced by contractors, it's not clear that the designers do, as well.

In the past games were made less like manufaturies with everybody polishing an itsy-little-bit of the product. In the past, when games were smaller teams were more crossfunctional: programmers also were somewhat designers, and the game manufacturing was less of a process involving silos.

That doesn't really answer his question. In today's world, if you hired passionate designers and outsourced talented (but not necessarily passionate) programmers, wouldn't you still end up with a quality game?

I would argue that having the designer put the "heart and soul" into a game is possible, but not ideal. When an artist or developer is also a/the designer they can make changes and decisions more smoothly to create certain effects.

There is no way a game like the first Portal could have been designed by a game designer, it started as a research project by a developer. Then there are games that do very innovative with the art blending it seamlessly into the design in unconventional ways, like Antechamber. I think there are plenty examples of games that buck the mold too hard for a conventional designer to have been able to make them.

My favorite example is Minecraft and its procedurally generated infinite world, much of the art is in algorithms that create the biomes. Cresting the top of a mountain to see the scenery on the other side for the first time is so simple to do and easy to enjoy in this game. The programmer had to be the designer and the artist to pull this off. I know Notch worked with others but this one facet had to be singular or iterative, not communicated from someone seperate after "designing". This was communicated in code and programmers and artist saw what existed and tried to build something and sharing. There is no good way for a conventional designer to convey the details of an algorithm to build forests and cave systems. It is not a fundamentally unsolvable problem, it is just presently unsolved in my experience.

"if you hired passionate designers and outsourced talented (but not necessarily passionate) programmers, wouldn't you still end up with a quality game?"

Perhaps, for certain types of games. But for many types of games there's this subtle overlap between design and programming that defines how the game "feels" to play.

eg. How do digital/analog sampled inputs exactly map to character movement and camera control.

This is an area where having a small core group that understands the technology at play but also has a handle on the design side of how to implement for "fun" can be a huge difference maker.

From a high level design point of view, most action "platform" games have basically the same controls. But anyone who has played, say, Nintendo's Mario games versus most other platform games realizes there is some special sauce in the "feel" of the character movement that is equal parts design and programming/low-level-implementation that wouldn't get conveyed properly in a higher level outsource-ready design document.

This is what I tried to express. You can get a quality game. But you may not get a game that people will love, will replay to discover nice little things. The game will be like a movie you watch only once. You pay for it. You get a decent product. You are happy, but you won't feel that itch to take a look at it again. Or you may, but the chances are slimmer in my opinion.

Isn't that kind of what happened with Daikatana?

I agree with the parent comment, but also agree that "soul" could come from writing, voice talent, assets, etc. Deus Ex and Mass Effect are two games I can think of that offer an amazing experience, despite the actual programmed game being fairly shallow. They were unique and well written, which was enough.

Indeed, but I find that large games which try to tell stories may be well written, but are not so appealing to me as smaller (often indie) games.

If I want to be told stories I usually prefer books, films. (Though I liked Baldur's Gate for eg. which is an opposite of what I usually prefer)

Games are a "hits business", like movies and music. People mostly have predictable, conventional interests. If you don't want to be a one-hit wonder, you must continue to provide what the audience is demanding.

Many game makers mistakenly conflate any kind of success with an endorsement of their game creation skills and assume it will transfer. If the next product doesn't hit the necessary behavioral hooks, it's going to fail, no matter how well your first or main product was received.

Just as in movies and music, the big players rehash the same stuff over and over again because it sells. The dividends from these formulaic products pay for the small fraction of experimental/non-formulaic ("soulful") projects, which typically lose money.

The newest AAA game I have bought in the past few years was Fallout 4 and even though I bought it in November, I still haven't installed it yet.

A few weeks ago, I started another new game of Carrier Command.

It's still the same game it was more than 25 years ago when I first started playing but I'm not the same gamer that I used to be so this play-through is much different.

I can't imagine that most of today's AAA titles will still be enjoyable in 25 years. Madden or NBA 2K17 aren't going to have people re-playing them. The Fallout Series probably will but most won't. I'm going to be an old guy again but these games don't feel like someone poured their heart and soul into them the way the old ones did.

You're describing exactly what is happening.

Take a look at the release list for the last year, it's sequel sequel sequel.

Once in a blue moon a new IP comes, and people drop their pants like it's the second coming, forgetting that this is how the games industry used to be.

Well, in general this is true of entertainment - the best usually has that "little extra special bit of love" injected into it, and when something is a pet project, it shows, even if the end result isn't good. This happens a lot with movies, and it's probably why the comparisons between games and movies are so common; for larger productions in both mediums, no matter what you do you have to treat it like a somewhat industrial process due to the sheer number of people required for each production. A smaller team can of course have a more personal touch, but this usually means longer release times and more limited resources.

A lot of the time it just really depends on the motivation behind the director. Keep in mind that some of Nintendo's most successful games were from simple observations on the parts of their creator, like Miyamoto watching ants while he was gardening and coming up with the basic concept for Pikmin. Most yearly release games will suffer just because they are yearly release games. Same with yearly release movies.

I was wondering if someone was going to make the comparison to movies as movies are almost entirely crewed by contractors.

The difference might be that the contractors in the film and TV industry are all union.

As a former member of the Cinematographer's Guild (Local 600) I can assure you that the unionization is both culturally strong and plays an important role in workplace safety. Movie sets are dangerous places: explosions, heavy equipment, high powered lights and electrical cords all around...

There was a distinct jump in professionalism (and acknowledgement of safety) when I started working union shoots vs non-union.

I'm sympathetic to the game developers, but unionization has been pretty strong eroded outside of traditionally hazardous occupations.

Really? My experience with contractors(both in and out of gaming industry) is that they do the bare minimum required to keep the contract and still take 5-10x the daily wage of an employee. Employees(in my experience) usually care about the games they make, while contractors couldn't give any less damn about the project they work on, they are happy to switch with a days notice.

It's a mixed bag. Many very talented engineers become contractors because they get sick of low pay, company politics, and the fact they get treated like a cog. So instead they embrace the cog concept and get paid well at the same time. These contractors will tend to care and do a really great job. On the other hand, you have the scabs that become contractors soley because it pays well - and also because generally it's easier to get hired as a contractor (less strict hiring process since it is a fixed contract length). That kind of person gives contractors a bad name. I've seen some of the worst and some of the best developers as contractors.

This is even more pronounced in the UK where permanent employee pay is very low, compared to contractor pay. Generally the best engineers all end up becoming either contractors or go into finance where they can get paid well. And unfortunately the engineers who could never get employed as a perm employee also become contractors.

I agree... but, your reputation matters. In this city (Manchester), everyone talks. You won't last long as contractor if you're rubbish.

And even if you managed to get in somewhere I imagine you'd be found out and binned pretty quickly.

In London at least, my impression is the demand is so great that many places are desperate enough to hire anyone with x years of tech (usually Java) on their CV, with usually just a screening by a non technical manager. It could be this is changing though, especially with increased supply after the recent IR35 changes in the public sector. And usually, these are not the kind of places good contractors want to work anyways.

I don't think most people are suggesting that these former employees turned contractors would be rubbish. Just that they aren't willing to put up with the BS of "going the extra mile" or whatever without being paid for it.

I've never seen contractors care less, there can be issues of not understanding the context which can affect their work or people's perception, and certainly employees can feel insecure with contractors. But the reality is that the game wouldn't ship without them, that's why they're there.

So why do employers pay 5-10x for contractors?

Because they can be hired and fired at will, while an employee(at least where I work) has to be given at least 3 months notice, a severance package mandated by law, and they can sue for unfair dismissal. Plus you have to pay healthcare, pension fund and other benefits, plus they are entitled to 25 days of paid holiday a year plus unlimited paid sick leave. And finally, it's hard to find someone willing to become an employee for just 3-6 months required to finish a product. That's where contractors come in - they are much quicker to hire, they are much quicker to let go, and healtcare,pension, holidays is their responsibility. So to companies they can be worth the 5-10x what they would pay an employee for the same amount of work.

I'm not sure about that 3-6 months contracts. I know few contractors and they've been working couple of years for the same position. So I'm not sure how this model can be beneficial for company. To make the picture more unclear, those contractors wouldn't like to switch to permanent position!

Well at least in the UK if you are a contractor I would say it's typical to take 500-600 pounds a day. Plus if you are self employed you can expense a lot of things that you can't as a regular employee - petrol, part of mortgage/rent, computer for work etc etc etc. Sure, you have to do your own taxes and pay your own national insurance, but overall you can be taking a lot more money home than an employee, so it's no surprise to me that people like being contractors and wouldn't convert to employees even if they were offered a permanent position.

edit: "typical" for a mid-to-senior level programmer contractor. A "contractor" doing QC in games will not take anywhere near as much.

500-600 is a typical London rate. Outside London 300-400 is more likely.

That's still at least 2x the take-home on even the highest paying permanent roles outside of London.

Bear in mind that permie roles usually include pension, private healthcare, sick pay & holiday allowance. So the total comp from the permie role goes beyond the take home.

45 weeks * 5 days * £300 = £67,500

Outside London as a senior dev you might expect £45k full-time + pension + benefits.

So definitely not at least 2x.

45 weeks is kinda the rule of thumb of contractors, as you don't get paid hols or sick days.

That's true. But 45 weeks * 5 days * £400 = £90,000

500 * 200 days = 100k of income.

100k is definitely not twice what you get as a permie in London.

No, I said it's twice what you'd get outside of London.

Well, the 500 is consulting rate for inside London. The comparison doesn't stand then.

No, it's £300-400 per day outside London. Which at the top end is literally twice a permanent salary of £45k

As an average web dev, I've seen £350~£400 in London

I've long worked in banking, so the 500-600 I look for with London roles assumes trading systems knowledge. So I agree, outside banking rates will be lower. FYR I'm currently working a six month C++ Windows MFC gig in Gloucestershire at 365/day. I'll be heading back into London at the end of May though...

Got offered a Delphi contractor role last week for £800/day but required travelling and fixed deadline.

I can't speak about gaming but for more general contracting the multiplier is 1.75 - 2.5x of a normal employee's salary

There are a lot of reasons why employers hire contractors, some more valid than others.

In my limited experience, it's rarely worth it, mostly because the relevant processes are never in place to ensure that loads of knowledge doesn't walk away with the contractor at the end of the contract


Should clarify that I'm in the UK.

"There are a lot of reasons why employers hire contractors, some more valid than others."

Could you elaborate on that, please? Thanks in advance!

Off the top of my head I know that contractors don't get benefits such as holidays, pensions and other employee benefits.

Their contracts have an expiration so they're easier to get rid of on short notice.

Also they are treated as capital expenditure versus operational expenditure. And I believe that you can do some accounting that is beneficial tax wise to a company.

This is a UK perspective.

Yep, those are the reasons in the US also.

One that isn't mentioned much is avoiding corporate overhead costs, which I found interesting when I learned about it.

Basically some big companies charge their divisions fees for upkeep of facilities, paying the finance team salaries, etc based on the number of employees in the division.

So if you can have ten employees you are only on the hook for $1M/year in corp fees even though you actually have three "consultants" sharing desks with every employee for years-at-a-time. If you added the consultants to the employee roles then you would become a 50 person division, owing $5M/year to the home office.


The CAPEX vs OPEX thing is a big driver too, of course, but there are definitely ways to classify employees, at least partially, as capex.

It's why you can make an exempt employee fill out a timesheet to charge back projects which you have put into the capex group.

A few jobs ago my group was told to find 80% capex or find new jobs. Most fridays were spent negotiating with project managers in tasks-for-hours swaps.

On demand labour

On demand skills

higher skillset

misallocation of internal resources

internal politics

hanging on to yearly budgets

I could probably think of a few more

Some of the above are perceived by PHBs types as there is always a finite pool of people with the skillset that is needed for the job at the skill level required etc...

Many reasons, at big companies employees require a lot of red tape so it's a way around it, you may need a specific skill set for a short period of time, or just a large volume of work to get done at peak. If they're good, the person may not want to be an employee, I see that all the time.

I think that 5-10x is rare, but 2-3x is common. The reasoning is that the actual cost of an employee is 3-5x their actual pay. There is insurance, taxes, more insurance, benefits, workspace (which some contractors will need as well), office supplies, computer, etc. All that adds up.

I see where you're coming from but;

> The guy poured his heart and soul into the project and was vested way beyond a paycheck

... so it's kinda sad when productivity isn't the reason.

if you're a contractor being ask to do things out of your remit seems like a loss maker to an employer. but when you're salaried they tend to think they know you and give you things outside of your job spec more readily.

> I think employees tend to think that culture is what they're there for instead of producing IP

Yeah, how dare they...

As a member of one of those dedicated teams that created games that I hope you tried or liked, I can explain that the industry is very different now from a technical and artistic perspective. In those days roles were being invented and were often blurred. Technology was almost always created from scratch. Tools for art and level building were often created from scratch. Even if you wanted to build your own engine, the technology to share code and art is so advanced you would be foolish not to take advantage of it. Sharing is just much easier now.

People are more specialized and interchangeable. Outsourcing the work to where it can be done best for the best price makes sense. We would have done it that way in the '90s, if it would have worked. Now it does.

A professor in college told us in class: "If you want to waste all the knowledge you gain here and get paid terribly, go into the video game industry."

I know many developers in gaming and I constantly tell them to leave the industry for anything else. But they rarely do. And over time I see them get more run down and despondent. I actually see them age over a short period time. It's some sort of occupational Stockholm Syndrome.

The proper way to work in the game industry is to make your cash in another industry and then start your own game studio.

Totally true. I'm only 34, but the the increasing number of grey hairs I have is mostly attributed to this exact thing. Stockholm Syndrome is pretty close too because I stayed at my former company for longer than I should have, because I loved all my fellow 'grunts' on the floor I worked with. They were all were pretty brilliant and fun people to be around.

But I was not a big fan of many people above us though. The actual decision makers that don't really know what they are talking about. They are great talkers, sometimes even motivational, but know nothing about what devs need to be successful and productive. And to a point don't care.

> The guy poured his heart and soul into the project and was vested way beyond a paycheck

That's why you don't do that unless you own the business or shares of that business. Stick to what you're were hired for, don't be over invested, don't put on extra hours of work thinking you'll be rewarded somehow. I'm pretty sure this guys is burned out now. There is no such thing as being a "loyal employee" when your boss isn't paid to be loyal to you. That's business not some social club.

That's why the videogame industry is the way it is: people love to create and play games. It's pretty well-known that this love of games is exploited by employers.

I allow myself to get attached to projects that my employer allows me to release as free/libre software---which I think is reasonable to do, since it will always be there, with or without me, with or without the company.

The medium-sized family company I work for was just purchased by another, multi-billion dollar company. After the post-acquisition stuff calms down, I'll be having that discussion with them. Until then, any work I do on the projects are void of the personal passion and extra time I put into developing and researching the projects, as much as I am able.

I am surprised anyone finds this surprising.

In every industry, everywhere, employees are an expense.

To maximize profits, expenses must be cut.

Maximizing profits is currently the goal of our society, and we seem hell bent on doing everything we can to achieve that goal.

This is why unions were created in other industries. Unions have their ovn flaws, but it is the most effective way to give employees more influence.

They do not want loyal employees nor care about loyalty. Game industry wants cheap replaceable employees. Since many want to work there because due to emotional ties toward their childhood games or wish to brag about working on famous game, cheap bodies are available.

Game industry has ridiculous turnover, for developers it is something like five years and you are likely to be out.

The games industry chews up developers, treats them horribly and to top it of, pays lower wages than devs would get elsewhere.

Now, is this partly an age thing, though? As for myself, as I got older (late 30's) I became far more pragmatic. A mortgage helps. Financial goals help. Then there is life experience: seeing many many rounds of layoffs in multiple companies I worked for, and somehow being spared.

I just wonder if the 20something who dream of stock options and fame, of the game developers who dreamt of doing this since they were children, just haven't reached a point where the disappointment has hit. That, or internalized so strongly that they get promoted and catapulted up the chain. Workaholism, or 'passion' as some call it, can get noticed by the brass and now the passionate people are handed whips.

Age makes you more rational and common sense makes you see exploitation when faced with it.

But boy, IT folks seem to be the LAST to see it. Why is that? It's not like it's the only profession in the world where people can really enjoy what they do.

Wow, that is crazy. The more I hear the stories the more it makes me want to go back into management, its just whether or not I want to sharpen the elbows again.. Honestly, in my experience, dealing with the blowback from other supervisors and managers is much more difficult than any challenge the employee will bring. However, I hate seeing people treated as you describe.

Is he looking for work where that's not the case? (He can see my profile for where.)

What game? Name n shame.

Dear employees, please do not be loyal to your employers. You can be loyal to your boss if he deserves it but your employer is not a natural person, it is a legal person and as such it can not be loyal back to you. If the situation requires you will be made redundant or replaced or moved - or promoted. There is a contract between you that defines what you owe to each other and if you are loyal beyond that you are essentially giving your money to some shareholder on the other side of the world. When dealing with a legal person always act in your own interest.

My boss actually "beats" this into people. He explains repeatedly that the company has no loyalty to you, and that you must have some sort of a life outside of work and extra work is giving more to the company than what you are paid for. I saw him threaten to fire someone for working overtime once, because he can't fix the staffing problem until the company feels the pain of having a staffing problem.

Sounds like a cool boss.

It's different if you get paid for overtime, though (usually time and a half). Companies threaten action against people working overtime because then the company has to pay more and that's a Bad Thing (TM), (even though the employees are providing way more value to the company than the company is providing to them), not because people want a staffing problem to make the company "wake up" or something. My mother doesn't work overtime out of the goodness of her heart, she just scrapes by and wants to be able to retire at a reasonable age.

At least in the US, 99% of developers are "exempt" and make the same pay if they work 10 hours or 100 hours. Overtime = "free" labor you can extract from your employees.

Yeah, I should note we're all salaried. None of us get more money for working extra hours.

I'm trying to figure out whose idea IT professionals being salaried was.

I learned this later than I should have, and from the experience rather than the telling.

This will continue to be the norm in industries where the marketing cycles are so short and high-stakes. Firms get burned by picking the wrong contractors. Contractors get burned by spending a lot of time bidding on the wrong projects. These problems will continue to get worse as the stakes rise, as there will be even less time to make decisions properly. The project management debt they mention doesn't go away, it increases exponentially.

The article suggests industry shifts more towards project-based economies as they progress, but I think this is wrong. The examples of Hollywood and video gaming are both outliers, because both of these industries have put up huge resistance to lengthened product cycles. In part they perceive it as reducing competition. And it's true, but personally I am starting to wonder what all this competition is actually getting us. Prices for customers are dropping, however we seem to get a lot of sequels and recycled content in the name of cost-cutting, and then a lot of extraneous fighting over who gets to release what on what platform just to push royalty charges up. And what do we have to show for it? A lifetime of fickle and perpetually unhappy customers? Please make it stop.

The only solace that I have is that a lot of this is still driven by the hardware arms race. This won't end, but we will start to see more consolidation as the industry continues to mature.

a lot of this is still driven by the hardware arms race

Only a handful of AAA games are in the "HW arms race". By sheer numbers, the overwhelming vast majority of games sold are casual games downloaded on mobile devices.

The game industry is driven by people's short attention spans. It doesn't matter how fast you upgrade the technology, people get bored of playing the same game in the same way they get bored of watching the same movie even if you upgrade it to super-purple-ray-3D-smellivision. You already know the plot.

The industry is in a weird space these days. If you build for mobile the best bets are either focusing on a small handful of free-to-play micro transaction games or focusing on many bite-sized, $1.99 or ad-supported games. Those who build for consoles and are backed by a publisher go for big next-gen spectacle that takes teams of hundreds to develop, so when its time for the next project they are pushed to work on a few sequels that reuse assets and their engine over trying something new and different (which is ironically what probably gave them success in the first place). Franchises have been a thing for a long time, but the scope of them is now huge, to the point where some release something new every year to stay relevant. If you want to build something original its best to stick with a medium-sized team backed through Kickstarter, which has its own set of problems in terms of constantly needing to keep up with PR and paying out all of the promised rewards. I've always been interested in joining the industry because I love the medium for its potential, but I think I'll stick to hobby projects for the foreseeable future considering all of those options.

Kickstarter also has the issue of possibly not raising enough money to get the job done too. Shovel Knight, for instance, burned through all of their Kickstarter money and the team had to work without any income for five months to get the game out the door:

"We ended up operating for five months without money or payments to the team here," the post reads. "It was a difficult period, where some of us were awkwardly standing in front of cashiers having our credit cards declined, drawing from any possible savings, and borrowing money from our friends and family. But we made it to the other side!"

Source: http://www.polygon.com/2014/8/6/5974557/shovel-knight-sales-...

Would you work for anyone for five months with no paycheck? I couldn't afford to even if I wanted to.

Granted, Shovel Knight has seen huge success since its release, and I'm sure they made all of their lost wages and then some, but still, that project could have potentially died before it got released, and many more lower profile Kickstarted video games never get released.

You completely missed the whole AA and smaller market which has significantly grown due to wide availability of online stores - especially Steam. A lot of midsized publishers are building excellent games in that space.

I think contract work is common in these industries because most work is project based and often different in essence. A comedy and a thriller likely needs different creative talent. It's also very much based on personal networks, so a producer or director may bring with them a core of people.

Video game studios often go cheap on things besides contractors, my experience from the inside is that the majority of voice talent is used outside the usual Hollywood system because they don't want to pay close to a union actor's competitive wages, and forget royalties for people who are not Hollywood famous. For instance, this is part of the reason Bill Roper is the voice of a lot of Warcraft 1 characters - they didn't want to pay professionals, and he was already there.

I haven't been on the inside in a while but we might have one musician on a AAA title and he/she would compose all the music and they might also do all the foley work because musicians you might have heard of would probably laugh at the wages and would demand royalties. Obviously part of the issue is making video games can be a crap shoot where a game with original IP is just as often a failure as a success so it can be hard to justify spending money on an unknown entity, and royalties don't exist except for bigger successes for the most part.

I worked on a bunch of Disney games during the PS1/2 era and I can add to this (but I was not employed by Disney):

Even with the clout of Disney it was really hard to work with "professional" actors who were SO bad at doing the voices for games. They were slow and VERY error prone. They often demanded ridiculous extras and final say on lines used but couldn't match their performance in the original movie. We could hire professional voice actors and record quality accurate depictions of the characters in 1/10th of the time. In fact recording the foreign versions where we used the original foreign voice actor was nearly always easier and more efficient because there is less ego.

The Hollywood system is a sham. There are fixed unionised rates for voice acting but that's not worth the top actors time so they roll in to the studio to do their $100/hr talk knowing that when they leave there is a brand new BMW, Lexus or even piece of art to add to their private collection waiting for them as a gift. We're talking Picasso's as sweeteners!

The games industry has a lot wrong with it but it's nothing like the shambles of the movie industry.

> couldn't match their performance in the original movie.

Yikes. That makes me wonder what the director had to do to get a good performance out of them. Did they just have them say the lines over and over and over until they accidentally got a good take?

> Did they just have them say the lines over and over and over until they accidentally got a good take?

Not everyone is George Lucas.

Seriously, though, I think the various coaches (dialog, accent, acting) on set might have a lot more influence on the process than we're lead to believe.

It is in fact a lot more often a failure than a success.

I remember how Nival paid $5k for ALL music and sounds in Heroes of Might and Magic V. It was mid-2000 Russia, but still, software developers were already paid $40-50k (annually gross, which is a very untypical way to measure salary in Russia, so your mileage may vary because of opaque net/gross conversion).

I don't really see an issue if they got paid in accordance to the hourly work they put in - I mean devs don't get royalities, right?

In the 90's got checks in six figures every year for games I was a primary developer for that were hits in the years those games were hits. I got five figure checks for games that were hits for the studio that the most I can claim I did was play test. Of course at the same studio I worked on games that were never released.

What makes this so frustrating for game developers looking for work (or people wanting to get into the field) is that it is really difficult to find the names of those contract companies. Most dont even think to look for something like this. People usually think "Oh i love that companies games so im gonna apply there." Only to never hear back, because they contract.

I have years of professional game development and simulation work under my belt and I find it one of the most difficult fields to actually get in to. I always end up just doing the usual software development while still aspiring to actually get a job as a game developer. IMO this is a slippery slope for game companies

> it is really difficult to find the names of those contract companies.

I worked in games for 3 years and we worked with a few contractors. I noticed a few bizarre things about the contractors we used. We never worked with the same contractor for two different games in a row. Every contractor we used we heard of through word of mouth. They were all small (2-20 people) and most of the time they had no to little online presence. The most effective avenue for getting jobs seemed to be handing your business card out at GDC to as many people as you can.

As far as I can see, if you want to be a game contractor, you're better off starting one on your own than trying to get hired by a contracting company. Find a game artist who's also just starting out, launch a shitty game or two to show that you can, then hand your card out at GDC.

Yep, exactly! I was in pretty much in the same boat as you, and almost every project we got or worked on ended up coming from other contracting companies that were in over their head.

I think that right there is the biggest issue of contracting companies, because their sales people and account managers will over-promise, get the contract signed and then the PM's and developers will have to work extra hours to make up for it. Leading to rushed, poor quality software. And ultimately they get absolutely no credit for the work because the company that hired them claims the credit.

I actually left that company last year to get out of the chaos and do my own freelancing, but that even led into the exact same issues. Since I'm not a super-mega-rockstar freelancer, if i wanted to make ends meet financially, I would have to over-promise to bring in enough work. But now, it is just me so I have to work 12 hours a day anyway to make clients happy.

Honestly I think aspiring game devs would be better off just making and sell games they enjoy until they can bring in enough money to sustain them. Possibly even making a hit game that starts their own company. Hopefully one that does not contract out work ;-)

Ex-VideoGame dev Here (console mostly).

Let's not forget the barrier to entry for shipping video games is going down drastically (except for AAA where it keeps getting more expensive!).

So, the big publishers are shipping AAA games with margins that are getting thinner and require careful balancing acts to make those releases profitable. Players expect better Gfx, Sound, Music, VR/AR, Multiplayer and vast open world universes, these things are not cheap ...

As an alternative path, many 'indies' are able to make it on their own and it's possible to work as a contractor and indie dev. Tools like Unity and Unreal and the plethora of mobile gaming plaforms are very accessible to almost anyone with basic technical knowledge.

With 17 years experience as a Dev, I can tell you the most talented, creative and smart devs/progs/engineers I have met are in the Video games industry, I haven't been in any other industry where it gets even close to that.

Cost of programming is going down, with all the new game engines... It's definitely becoming easier and most work is becoming gluing things together. Plus you can literally flip switch to enable graphical features..

The videogame industry is in bad need of a more developed studio system like what's used in the movie industry. It exists to a point, but it's usually a large developer establishing short-term studios to capture geographically located talent (or converting acquisitions into short-term studios to squeeze the last bit of talent out of a geographic area).

Too many videogame industry jobs are 1-off, lasting only so long as their part in the production of a single game exists. In essence, they work for the game. This is also true of the movie industry in many cases, but more often than not, work is farmed out to a variety of small production companies who each bring a few bits to the table. In a movie, the lighting guy works a steady-ish job for a lighting company, the cameras are rented from an equipment company, many of the actors will work for a couple agencies and so on.

The production company hires out and assembles these pieces, which are often union supported, and makes a movie. It's not too many people who work for the movie.

Once the movie shuts down production, the lighting guy goes back and asks his company where his next gig is, the actors have their agency working for them, the cameras go back into rentable inventory and so on.

This spreads risk out and keeps the industry from going through huge hiring/firing cycles.

The video game industry hasn't really matured to this point. You get a job working for EA Games East or wherever, get assigned to work on "Dog Touch Magic 2 - iOS" do your work, and if you're lucky will get asked to work on "Dog Touch Magic 3" or whatever. If you don't work for a studio directly, you're probably freelancing. But there's very little middle ground like in the film industry.

There's no real equivalent of say "I need 3d modelers for this game, let's get 2 or 3 contractors from Modelhaus Inc." bring them on for 4 months to make some models and then return them to their company to be hired out again. Instead EA Games East will have staff modelers or some freelancers, and their jobs may last beyond the game or task they're assigned to.

It kind of blows my mind that there aren't even unions yet in the gaming industry, they've been talked about for decades, but the industry hasn't done it yet.

> It kind of blows my mind that there aren't even unions yet in the gaming industry, they've been talked about for decades, but the industry hasn't done it yet.

Game industry veteran here. It's not surprising to me at all. Large dev studios don't want unions. They've been able to capitalize on an endless sea of starry eyed young devs willing to work 60+ hour weeks for months on end for half the salary they could make in other software fields until they get burned out, just so they can say they worked on the 10th sequel of a game they loved as a kid, or tell their friends 'I worked on this game you can download here!' and it doesn't look like the supply of that has gone down at all.

Meanwhile, individual software developers not in the midst of a company death march and are probably doing the Indie thing and tend to see themselves as lone wolves and thus don't make much effort to organize with their other developers.

There's associations like IGDA (International Game Developers Association), but in my interactions with them, I haven't seen them organize anything more than social activities with some veteran from the game industry to give a talk.

There's been a lot of talk about software unions, and based on the horror stories from the video game industry, game developers would probably benefit most.

There's also a lot of talk about offshoring development jobs to contractors on Upwork who charge $2.50/hr. For games, you'd probably need an offshore person in the $30-$40/hr range, but still much cheaper than a domestic employee. If there's a union, what's to stop the big companies from doing that and bypassing Americans altogether, as some companies are already doing?

Worse quality of games leading to greater competition from domestic indie devs?

There's been a lot of talk for at least 15 years now. I'd like to see some action, finally.

I think it's also hard because it's not as if crappy hours, tight deadlines, and low pay are directly killing people. Sure, stress is bad for you and you deserve to make enough money to provide for yourself and have healthcare, but I imagine conditions are overall still better than at the beginning of the labor movement, which involved rather dangerous factory work. It's easier for people to tolerate 60+ hour weeks and the like if they're paid well enough or if they hold hostile views towards unions, which I don't think is uncommon in the software field as a whole.

Yep, this is exactly it. There is no shortage whatsoever of people who want to make video games, which means that even highly-skilled people are disposable in the industry.

thank you!

The article says 89 employees. A game studio in Seattle I worked at had 77 FTEs and we made AAA sony games. We'd contract up ton 120 or so in house pre-launch and of course hired mocap studios and other project shops. But I'm actually surprised Phoronix has that many employees.

Anyway this is actually a pretty large size for a game studio. More numbers from studios building much larger (RL is more about balance and in game items than story or world building):

Bungie had around 550 (heavily staffed up) before Destiny came out. Zipper had 250 before they shut down. Naughty dog I think had around 150 before they spun up LoU, I recall them around 250 now.

>I'm actually surprised Phoronix has that many employees.


This article is dreadful. Here's an alternative view:

Talented software engineers are sick of 80-hour-week grinds as underpaid salary employees in an industry where nine out of ten products fail. By working contract/hourly, they get actual money in liu of their name in a credits list that nobody reads - even in the unlikely event their product ships.

Are you saying salaried employees don't get paid if the game tanks? I'm not sure what you're going for here.

I believe he's saying that in the past, engineers would take a lower salary and work longer hours due to the prestige of working in the industry, or on a specific game. If they made those sacrifices and the game never even shipped, it would be disheartening. Though to a contractor, all billable hours are created equal.

I work in the games industry. If a contractor works 80 hours a week, they can bill for 80 hours a week. If an employee works unpaid overtime then at least part of it is in hopes for a nice bonus once the game comes out(apart from you know, the satisfaction of working on a game). So in that way, an employee can do loads of extra work and if the game tanks they won't see any extra money.

Depending on the size of the studio, you very well could be out of a job if a major release tanks. As a contractor, this assumption is accounted for and built in.

They get paid a full time wage, likely no overtime. The parent comment is saying that at least contractors should get paid for every hour worked.

Salaried employees don't get paid overtime.

This depends on the company. Where I work now we do get paid for overtime, but we have to organise it with our managers and producers first, and it has to be for a good reason. At the moment we are not in "crunch" so we only do overtime if we think we need to.

You're incredibly lucky. From everything I've seen and heard this policy is very much the exception, although I hope that changes in the future.

I really like a policy that gives management and employees aligned incentives; it puts everyone on the same team and makes sure people value the other side's perspective.

> nine out of ten products fail

Nah, not even close. I mean, not unless you include every random app store game made by some teenager.

Obviously the big companies almost always do well, but there are a ton of small and medium-sized companies which have been ticking along for years, releasing game after game with at least modest success.

Failure isn't random either. You have good designers and good management, you're probably not going to release a bad game. A company's track record is often surprisingly consistent, in either way.

You can release a good game and still not have financial success. And vice versa.

That's because publishers tend to take on the risk. Development studios, as long as they can keep finding a new publisher to pay them, can churn out financial failure after financial failure and it won't hurt them beyond possibly making it harder to find a new publisher to fund them.

But if they can blame the game's failings on decisions made by the publishers -- and that's often the case, i.e. 'must be free to play!' or 'we don't need to market this game! if we make it, they will come!' or 'let's release it six months before the game is ready!' -- then the developer probably won't be hurt too much by a failed game, as long it wasn't super technically broken.

I worked for a small publisher. We put out four games that did okay, and two games that lost a bunch of money (partially due to quality, partially due to misreading the market, partially due to timing, partially due to how the platforms worked), and those failures were enough to put us out of business seven years ago. Meanwhile the developers of those games are still chugging along today.

By the way, I'm not saying those developers don't deserve to still be in business, as they did their job to the best of their abilities with the resources available. But that's just the nature of the business.

If you divide out the years it takes to craft those games, the "modest successes" look a lot less appealing.

I don't get it. They seem to imply there's more done by contractors than not, with "Network of contractors" and "Lean core of in-house", but in both examples given (rocket league, blizzard), full time outnumber contractors 2:1 or 3:1?

I agree, the article reads like they had an idea for a story and tried to fit the facts around it. The heaviest use of contractors in the games industry is, as they imply in the article, in test. Typically you'll have a small core test group in-house to handle test during development and then a much bigger outsourced group you'll ramp up prior to release. In a large multiplayer game you may want 100s of testers on hand at any one time, but only for a few days at a time. Outsourcing gives you that.

Depending on the game you may be content heavy in which case may use outside contractors (or outside studios) to help with the mass of work but that seems to have dropped off as a practice in recent years. Using Chinese and Indian art outsourcing studios was big 10 years ago. More recently the big players have moved to a model where each of their development studios has a game (or two) in development with a core team working only on that game and a content team who will work on whichever studio needs their help (typically the next game for release).

If you are not 'outsourcing' the entire game development you'll typically want most of the core staff in the same location and full-time. Design, code, technical art and art direction all have to work very closely together. Not something you can easily split around the world or assign to short-term contractors.

Psyonix did outsource their console versions to another studio (likely comprised of full-time employees), which is common with smaller companies who would rather not have to ramp-up their engineering staff for console support. It also saves Psyonix the large capital expense of purchasing development kits.

Ok thanks, what you described sounds much more realistic and in line with what I've heard from family members who did video game testing than the narrative the article was talking about.

It's wasn't uncommon several years ago at one studio I know of to have core components of multiple titles maintained by permanent in-house staff and much of the feature development done by contractors. They had a ratio almost inverted from what you describe (approximately contractor:perm::3:2).

N=1 and five years ago but I worked on a console title where the feature development was 3 contractors/1 perm (me who didn't realize contracting was a much better deal) and five perm who supported us when needed. There was also a project that was outsourced entirely to a separate studio that our management fired for non performance and I had to revive the build from a hard drive with the last build and assets so the perm team could take over - so all sorts of permutations possible.

The video game industry is the new movie industry -- except nobody is unionized. The film industry is notorious for this crap as well; look at the Sausage Party controversy for a recent example. Honestly, a programmer on a video game is not much different than a camera operator, a film editor or a VFX engineer. Sure, you need quality work in those areas to have a good product, but great work in these areas can still be submarined by a terrible concept (ahem ScarJo's Ghost in the Shell).

And really, can you blame them? Revenues are largely based on the work of the producer (marketing / promotion), the director (overall tone / quality) and the acting talent (big names = box office draws); the folks behind the scenes get screwed over (or they would if they didn't have unions ensuring some long-term consequences for producers acting in bad faith).

what happened in the case of Sausage Party?

Some of the most cynical middle and senior manager types I've ever met were hiding in the woodwork at Sony Playstation. Invisible if there was any danger to them and not supporting the people doing challenging work, and taking credit and ownership anytime anything was successful.

Not a good HR model for the wellbeing of 'free agents'

The example in this article is for game development. I've been thinking about this for SW development in general, and to me there seem to be two strong reasons why it makes more sense to have permanent employees than contractors:

- SW is never done. Any successful application is continually developed, so there are always more work to be done on the application.

- Knowledge gained. The longer you work on a product, the more you learn about it, the source code and the domain. With permanent employees, the knowledge is retained (until they quit), but with contractors the knowledge is lost more quickly.


Most companies I met are after employees and not contractors.

Big corps because they want to form the people so they become exactly as they want them.

Small start-ups probably because they can't sell a company without employees?

On the other hand I know a few devs of bought start-ups that had hard times because the buyer only wanted a few of the devs and only those they considered good, not the "bystanders".

Also, managers want more control and employees can be scared with the prospect of losing their job, because they value stability.

As a contractor I'm always aware of losing a project, people don't have any budget left or it is simply finished and I need to go on, so if a manager wants to give me a hard time, I simply wrap things up and go to another company.

This isn't anything new to how the business is structured. Note the elision of the 50+ employees in-house: even if it's one artist and one programmer, you really need them to be full-timers to run the main production cycle, or at minimum longer-term contractors who have time to ramp up. Otherwise you get too many bottlenecks. Outsourcing ports, localization, and audio was done almost from the beginning. (Go look up how Rob Hubbard wrote the soundtrack to Commando on C64 for one example)

That said, the trend definitely continues to lean towards a small core team that can put the pieces together, and then external teams who can leverage a longer term specialization, lowering management risks on both ends by reducing the "seasonal layoff" dynamic of game launches.

I haven't read the article but I do have my two cents to add toward the subject of game development hiring.

Going into college I had the dream of eventually working at Blizzard or some other big video game company. However, I ran into articles about studios of beloved games hitting misfortune (Sierra, Westwood Studios, etc.) from either bankruptcy or being bought out by bigger game companies. I also read articles on how former big studio employees were being dumped at the end of projects. You can see Hideo Kojima as a latest example.

There is, however, a silver lining. All, if not most, of the tools for developing software are out there to use for free or with doable licensing which usually rely on sales of the developed game. Unity, Unreal being big, powerful game engine examples while Gamemaker or even straightup IO libraries like SDL being on the other side of the spectrum.

With these tools, coupled with various distribution methods like GoG, Steam, eShop, itch.io, or just straight binary hosting, indie developers have been killing it in the video game space when it comes to creativity and originality. There is the problem of the door for entry being a bit too open and so you tend to see a lot of vaporware, clones, bad games, or even alpha/beta games that seem to just stagnate due to feature creep or other misfortunes. But there are gems being put out that even surpass the crap AAA companies put out.

I see former workers of big companies ditch or get laid off from their former employer to start their own gig or join one. It's exciting to see what they come up with and which ones succeed.

> Consulting firm Accenture PLC, one of the world’s largest outsourced labor providers, calls it the “liquid workforce,” which can be turned on and off like a faucet.

A faucet of 10k H-1B visas a year making an average salary of just 81k.

Is that really "just"? It's still a lot more than the average worker.

Depends. How much would they be paying employees if they weren't able to use these outsourcing companies?

Probably less since they can just outsource to other countries.

Average tech worker? Cause that's the only comparison that matters.

Hahahaha. There's a lot of money to be made cleaning up the messes these liquid workforces leave.

Indeed. I owe my job to a failed outsourcing attempt.

Something about that part of the video made me feel a bit uneasy.

Remember, folks: "follow your passion" only works if your passion is taking care of your family.

Or when you are the sole owner of the fruit of your passion, instead of stupidly giving it away.

In every industry hiring people is a last resort, that's why Trickle Down Economics doesn't work.

This is the way film production has been for decades. The problem with games is that there isn't a union to protect credits or establish work rules. If there was, I would only work as a contractor.

Why does this happen in the gaming industry but not other computing industries (or is it happening there also?)?

It is more extreme in the gaming industry because you need so much staff to make a game, and then the needs change drastically after the game is released. From the article:

> Layoffs often hit after a game was released, which was hardest on workers who were let go and damaged morale for those who stayed. “It was like ‘Welcome to the family!’ ” he recalls. “Then we released the game, and it was ‘See you later!’ ” Outsourcing became a solution to the hire-and-fire cycle, says Mr. Hartsman.

Games depend on sales and they're extremely complex, so they take a very long time to build. You don't know if the game is going to sell well before you make it. They're just like movies in this respect; it's a "hits business", and only a few companies last very long under such arrangements. Additionally, people are desperate to be employed by a game company, so the competition for stable/permanent employment is fierce.

Most software developers are employed to write custom software for internal use by their employer, which is expected to last for years and will generally receive a lot of continuing investment. Almost every company of substantial size has such a project, so there are plenty of stable employment opportunities. If the company doesn't want to use its old software anymore, they keep their employees onboard because they have useful knowledge about the business and what does/does not work from the prior package. None of this is really relevant or true of game companies.

Enterprise software, unlike most video games, has a very long life if it has enough support contracts. These are usually easy jobs that pay pretty well at companies like Oracle. Of course these jobs have their own unique existential dread... theres no paradise (but you can certainly relax more)

as opposed to? I find it ironic that they compare to the movie industry, another one riven with dreadful pathologies.

Anybody have a full article link?

Paywall bypass bookmarklet https://jsfiddle.net/samx10/n6mxp8ag/

Thanks. I'm curious - why does WSJ allow a referrer from facebook to bypass the paywall?

Paywalled article

99$ to see 1 Article! wsj.com, you need to get to know your customers better. Complete Fail!

If you are a customer you shouldn't need to pay. And it's not for 1 article.


Why? I am a satisfied subscriber. The quality of their reporting is one of the best in the world.

good games never gets old. they will last throug many generations. technology might change though. but as a single developer its a huge step to hire someone.

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