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For years I have heard that being a game developer is a miserable job, with long hours not matched by an adequate pay.

Does somebody have an explanation for such cut-throat industry? Software development generally offers good jobs, so why isn’t that true for game development?

The possible explanation is the race to the bottom to offer games for cheap or free, as the article mentions. But then, why does that happen in games? There is plenty of software orders of magnitude simpler than games that gets sold for much higher prices.

What am I missing?




It's essentially the music business but for programmers. Non-essential consumer product, everyone wants to do it, discovery is terrible, and the companies that are lucky enough to get big aren't incentived to treat their employees well because there's so much competition to get into the field.


"Music business but for programmers" is a good way to put it. It's basically the software equivalent of trying to be a pro surfer or a rock star.


Its similar in Charity work but with more bullying and even less pay.

I am not joking, I did a high end hr/ir course a while back and all the participants where surprised it wasn't the City Investment Banking type of jobs that had the worst rep for bullying etc.


I'm not surprised at all. Between friends who work in finance and friends who work in the nonprofit sector, I can tell you that one group never got forced to cancel their birthday or holiday plans at the last minute to cover for some giant screw-up on the boss's part while said boss spends the same evening at home with the kids, and the other had things like that happen almost regularly.

Which isn't to say that finance jobs aren't stressful and grueling, but they at least seem to be a bit more inclined stop short of being personally cruel to their staff.

"You should be happy to work here, we're doing God's work" is a powerful force that's easy to abuse. And, in finance, everyone knows that nobody else is there for the deep personal sense of fulfillment, either.


Geez thats a deadly summary. I’ll label this the red pill.


you _can_ make amateur music for fun though. you'll never play in a big theater probably, but you'll enjoy yourself and you'll have something to eat


Music is so winner take all that I hesitate recommending it even to the most talented of musicians.

Compare the quality of this song with its play volume: https://youtu.be/903dYSv-xhw


Working in the gaming industry is a highly desirable career choice for young men. Many children grow up dreaming of making video games, boys especially. People are willing to sacrifice a lot to achieve their childhood dreams, and willing to ignore a lot of negative aspects of that choice... for a certain amount of time. Young men are particularly vulnerable to this, which is one reason why gaming and startups both hire young men (usually fresh out of college) at an abnormally high rate. If you're 23 years old, don't have a family or strong social life, and spent the last 15 years dreaming of this job and the last 4 years training for it, you're going to pour everything you have into it. You'll move across the country for it, because again you don't have a family or strong social life.

And then burnout sets in, which is one reason why gaming and startups both are dominated by 20-somethings. When you get into your 30s, having a family becomes more common. You don't want to spend 80 hours a week at the office. You want more money, more benefits. You go to Microsoft or IBM or one of the older, established companies where work is more steady and pay is more competitive.

If you spend 15 years dreaming of something, it takes a while for that dream to be shattered by reality. The time between entering the workforce and the dream being shattered is where gaming companies and tech startups turn their profit.


Luckily there's so much more scope now for individuals and small teams to build profitable indie games. Tools like Unity, Unreal Engine etc. allow people to focus on actually building games instead of implementing Yet Another Engine. Marketplaces like Steam, flawed as they are, offer market access to anyone with a decent product. It's possible to develop games without letting yourself be chewed up and spat out by traditional "commercial" game development.


True, but that's where the discoverability issues come in. For every Supergiant Games or Drinkbox Studios, there are hundreds of titles on Steam and elsewhere that fail to differentiate themselves or become anything, and probably thousands more that are hobby projects, left in partially completed states with many hours invested and nothing to show for it. In some ways, the wide adoption of tools like GameMaker Studio have probably exasperated this, as it's now very, very fast to get to the basics of "guy moving around screen", but harder to get good art or really unique gameplay mechanics.

There's an argument here that it's the role of publishers to handle the promotions side and provide that stamp of quality. Which may well be the case, but that just moves the pieces around— instead of needing to get onto the right curator's list or mentioned by the right twitch streamer, you now need to get your two minute pitch slot with someone from Devolver.


> Does somebody have an explanation for such cut-throat industry? Software development generally offers good jobs, so why isn’t that true for game development?

People want to do it.

Similarly, I had a professional American sports team, the kind of team where the guy on the bench who never plays makes $750K, offer me $45K to be their lead front-office developer. (I didn't take it, obviously.)


I'm going to assume this was NOT an MLB team. Based on the pay rate I see for MLB advanced media, which are all in line with general market rates for devs etc, I would assume the individual teams are offering similar rates.


It wasn't, but it's worth noting that MLBAM is a different thing than team-specific front-office jobs. Ditto stuff like NFL Media and the like. (I talked to the latter at one point.)

There was a pretty long stretch of time when most MLB teams, too, didn't realize the value of "those nerds in the back room, there."


Fair point. I guess I just assumed that there would be some level of commonality between the orgs, but now that I think about it that does make a lot of sense. The teams themselves are their own weird little fiefdoms within the greater empire, so it would track that they don't all value things the same ways (like devs or analytics or winning games)


I think it's just a giant clusterfuck of supply and demand working against the people who make games in every which way.

For starters, there are a lot more people who want jobs working in games than there are jobs to make games, which creates competition for jobs that drives wages down.

Game development and design are seen as inherently rewarding jobs, which makes people more willing to see the job itself as part of the reward, which allows wages to drop even further, because it's that much harder to find a paycheck that's so crappy that nobody will take it.

All these people still being willing to make games are then going to proceed to make games, which means a lot of games are hitting the market, constantly. According to some random page I Googled[1], Steam alone saw about 25 new releases per day last year. That's a lot of competition for people's entertainment dollars.

Video games may not feel like it, on account of all the art and inspiration and love that goes into them, but in many respects they're a lot more like a commodity than most other pieces of software, due to the sheer weight of competition. If I need to build a spreadsheet, I need spreadsheet software specifically, and there are only a handful of options. On the other hand, if I'm a gamer with sufficiently diverse tastes, I might go to Steam thinking to buy a new first-person shooter, and end up buying a puzzle game instead.

Also, other kinds of software only have to compete with what's being made these days. If I want spreadsheet software, I'm going to be looking at a modern edition of Excel, Google Sheets, stuff like that, and not an ancient DOS copy of 1-2-3. Meanwhile, most my recent game purchases are games made before 1995.

Finally, I suspect that game developers end up feeling more trapped in their career path, because the particulars of the tools and techniques and skills that go into it are just different enough to create some uncertainty about whether they would really transfer. I've only got an anecdote here, but a good friend who finally decided to jump ship after over a decade in games development found it took him years to get to the point where he felt he really had his career back on track.

[1]: https://www.statista.com/statistics/552623/number-games-rele...


I could be wrong here, but I think it's that there are so many people that are passionate about games that they are willing to work for less in order to get the opportunity to work on something they love. What I've seen at local game dev companies is that there is a pretty high turnover for this exact reason.


Worked in the game industry after university for about a year. It's great until you realise you're basically building overall above average technology in terms of difficulty, yet being paid a fraction of an engineer at Google. I quit and set up my own business.


> For years I have heard that being a game developer is a miserable job, with long hours not matched by an adequate pay.

> Does somebody have an explanation for such cut-throat industry? Software development generally offers good jobs, so why isn’t that true for game development?

I think there are miserable jobs in software industry overall as well. With game development maybe it is a little bit more about passion for the industry, so the employees are a little bit more exploitable than in other fields.


This. More about living your dream, instead of someone else's. Something a lot of us struggle with. Being highly paid is irrelevant.


Hollywood has millions of underpaid acting talents. The chance to be part of something famous is a powerful drug.


The single coder games made in your spare time:

People want to write games for pay or not.. they just want to write games. And they want others to play them.

Very few want to write a crm and the few that do write a personal one and don't care if others use it.

Why do people work in sweatshops for other companies making games? It doesn't make a lot sense because you lose that freedom. People want to be around games, see games before they come out... play games at work. Some want to see how games are made.. it's the Hollywoodication of development, like working on a superhero movies compared to a cooking show. You feel successful even if you are not..


I did develop one indie game backend, and I can tell you that it is none of the above. Developers are on tight schedules because games are extremely hard to program and bugs are very common. This causes overpromises and underdeliveries more often than CRUD APIs.

The result is increased hours to make up for mistakes and less raises because of reduced perception of achievements. This same pattern can be observed in any other industry that tries to deliver products which require complex engineering.


> Developers are on tight schedules because games are extremely hard to program and bugs are very common.

I've not done any gamedev, but experience from all the jobs I've held says that this relationship is the wrong way around. Every time management pushes for delivery-at-all-costs, engineering practices decay to the point where delivery becomes slower.


Games aren't just simple software. All the non-code assets (graphics, music, writing) take just as much, if not more, time and money to produce. The amount of work to produce software generally hasn't changed much in the past couple of decades, but the systems that games are expected to run on get more complicated (from being higher definition and more powerful), further requiring extra people to get it over the finish line.


> The amount of work to produce software generally hasn't changed much in the past couple of decades,

Disagree, I think it really has, generally. For similar reasons.


Lots of people, especially young and fresh out of school, want to get in. So there's no need to pay well or improve conditions, plus young folks tend to have plenty of energy and motivation, and no kids or spouses waiting for them at home. It happens a lot in media and entertainment (movies, theater, games...). I've heard it being referred to as "the Tower records effect".


Supply and demand. People want to work on games so they put up with it. You can see the same effect in the sports equipment industry, aerospace, health care and academia to just name a few. In contrast tobacco, arms or insurances pay and treat better because they are either condemned or considered boring.


> Software development generally offers good jobs, so why isn’t that true for game development?

If the public doesn't like the game that was produced, whoever ponied up the cash to develop it doesn't recoup their development costs and goes out of business. Happens all the time.


That's the economic basis of any product though. No difference between video games and any other piece of software, if you don't make money you go out of business. The pay rate and quality of life differences are based on other economic factors discussed elsewhere in the thread (supply of devs who desire game dev jobs is much greater than the demand for those devs, driving price down).


For a non-game product, there's less of an need to continously introduce new features for revenue as your product has a longer window of being relevant.

Once you move to business facing SaaS, you can even charge for continued access to the same software. There's very few games that managed that model, and nowadays the only two succesful subscription only games I can think of are WoW and FFXIV, so I think it's fair to label it a dying business model.


I agree with your assessment that the lifecycle of a game is much shorter than other pieces of software, but that doesn't change the the fact that "if people don't pay for this product, all the money we spent making it will be wasted" is just how capitalism and sales work.

Also, you're looking at subscriptions in games wrong. Think about micro-transactions on candy crush or similar games. Nobody charges you for monthly access to the game, they charge you for increased access to specific features.


Sure, but the original question was about software jobs in general. Most software jobs are for bespoke software developed to support a business, internally (LOB apps) or externally (web sites). Very few software developers work on products.


You can't charge premium for games, because they don't bring the money to the people buying them. Almost every stupid enterprise application has positive ROI, and companies are ready to pay for it. For a game ROI is exactly 0$ and a few hours of good time.


Few hours? There are games that last hundreds of effective hours.

Premium? Yes: DLCs, expansions, in game purchases, markets, subscriptions...


Game dev is a labor of love for many, and so the market takes advantage of that. Any labor of love is going to be priced less than some job that is not personally satisfying. It isn’t about difficulty, but satisfaction.


Games are part of the hits based business which means there is potentially infinite demand for new games. The correct comparison isn't software development but entertainment industry. Music, movies etc.


Thankfully I gave into web/product software quickly before finalizing on game development or special effects/VFX. Highly competitive and don't pay well unless you're top dawg.


Same as any other in-demandindustry, people can be seen as replaceable. It’s not really any worse than the Silicon Valley startups being paid in options and working insane hours.


Lots of people want to make games for personal rather than purely economic reasons. So supply outstrips demand and even many free games never get played.


Yeah this is very true. The main audience for amateur indie game development tends to just be other amateur indie game developers. Often this seems to be out of a sense of reciprocation - "I'll play your game if you play mine". The emergence of many big, well funded companies cashing in on the "casual" space has really stuck quite a lot of nails in the coffin of that kind of development as something that you could plausibly interest people with. You don't have the time and energy to develop a great game and also win in the attention economy.


It’s showbusiness


Along with all the bad things people have already mentioned, you have to add that, in reality, it's a creative job, which means it's inconsistent in producing good content regularly.

I'm not saying it's not possible, just that you cannot keep asking creatives to just produce good content, so you cannot really keep promising the best of the best most of the time, as you'd be able to in software development (assuming good development and team dynamics).

This translates in inconsistent sales and hence inconsistent people development. These people (like those in stressed software development environments) end up taking sabbatical months/years at the end of each project.




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