A colleague of mine stands on what he considers the far shore of game development. A career of developing tangential services, platforms, noble efforts and needed technologies, but he tells me he’s missing what he feels is a deep connection, a signal to the closer liquid core that he is sure must exist; where the real work, the narrative challenges and development hurdles meet, heart and hardware. He feels like an outsider, denied entrance to an elite stratum, ever-reaching for the Legit Game Job.
Then I met others at this year’s IGDA Leadership Summit here in Seattle this week that told me they felt the same way.
And I heard from others in my network who felt the same.
And then I saw it everywhere.
Off Balance is the New Balance
It was in every lecture, on the lips of every hallway coffee conversation, in the latest IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey revealed at the conference: expectations aren’t matching with reality. Everyone, from the grizzled professionals to independent game makers to college graduates streaming out from places like Digipen and Full Sail, is finding themselves in search of the industry they thought they knew, thought they recognized.
Many wonder if they’re even in the core industry anymore, as previously-assumed-to-be-core development tasks get diffused to smaller, lighter teams with outsourced production streams, and larger studios grow more consolidated, less able to project success for even beloved franchises, and ever more boom-and-bust, with panic setting in as games industry M&A activity paints a picture of a tighter year than last.
I spoke with animation and art studio specialists fighting back from the ’08 recession and finding clients moving to cheaper outsourced studios. I spoke with recent college graduates unsure of who — if anyone — is offering any path for internships to eventual paid work. I spoke with women, transgender women and men, and people of color who had stories of discrimination — and of retribution for speaking up against it. And I spoke with many people who had — at one point or another — been laid off. Again and again, often right after wrapping up a big title, before they even had a chance to be celebrated for their contribution, they were cut loose, sometimes as part of a downsize, sometimes as a consequence of full studio closure.
Chaos By The Numbers
Even as we all feel like outsiders, searching for a warm chewy center that must be the real games industry, the center itself is dissolving right before our eyes. Some DSS stats that were eye opening for me:
- On average, full-time game industry employees have worked for 2.7 studios in the last 5 years. That’s one studio every 22 months — right between the low average length of 12 months and the high average length of 36 months for traditional game development cycles. My conclusion: hire, ship, and let ’em go is How It’s Done.
- Indies are making only $15,000 a year on average, with 54% of indie developers foregoing any kind of wage at all just to keep the business in cash. Crowdfunding, while it looks popular, is only used by 10% of indies (and DigiCapital’s report shows crowdfunding only makes up for 2% of all game industry investment). My conclusion: indies are gambling a lot (of their own money, time, and sanity) for a shot at a little.
- Over half of respondents reported that they work on more than one project at a time — even if they’re full-time employees. The number ranged between two and five projects. Combine this with over half of respondents reporting that they either do not believe or do not know that there is a clear career path for them. My conclusion: the Gig Economy is undeniably here and in full swing.
Overall, while I’m as encouraged as anyone that entertainment developers have greater freedom than ever to create and release games to find excited audiences — and I’m glad that they’re using that newfound power without hesitation — the inflection point we’re at right now hinted at by not only the DSS results but my own conversations with developers at this year’s IGDA Leadership Summit suggests to me that entertainment studios, publisher, and capital entities are incentivized and enabled to maneuver at speeds much faster and angles much steeper than the traditional countervailing power machinery used by labor to prevent exploitation: regulations and collective bargaining.
Fighting Back At The Speed of Indies
At the Summit yesterday, I had the privilege to field a Collective Creativity Workshop with Megan Gaiser and Anne Mann, to help give our fellow creators a chance to come up with proposals for solving difficulties in the industry. While “Unionization!” was called out more than once, sometimes jokingly and sometimes not, I also noticed a strong pull toward indie-inspired tactics like profit sharing, public accountability and transparency for companies, remote work opportunities, collaborative codes of ethics, and multi-studio agreements to work on larger joint projects together.
The challenge (and opportunity) for these techniques to succeed, I believe, hinges on their ability to take advantage of digital connectivity and collective response at scale, rather than being bottlenecked — or silenced — by individual or small-counsel leadership and power.
Name-and-shame techniques in the case of insufficient anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy, for instance, only work if there’s an audience willing to hear, amplify, and respond accordingly to place pressure on the offending company. Profitsharing and equity transfer will need to be untangled and simplified to reduce total cost of setup per recipient, in order to allow companies to compensate gig economy participants for short-term work with real equity for a low setup cost with minimal legal overhead (we can dream of the day of auto-fulfilling contracts — it might be sooner than we think).
And, all of it — all of it — requires that we as game developers continue to organize in both small and big ways, constantly evaluating our own health, inputs and outputs, opportunities and setbacks. We are our own canaries in the coal mine, and we’re the ones — not the investors, not the banks, not the platforms and marketplaces — that are going to figure out how to respond to the reality forced on us by markets and opportunities changing on a dime with studios flexing old muscles in new ways to keep up with them.
It’s time to stop searching for a mythical homeland in our industry, reaching for a “real” development job.
Are you making games? You’re a game developer. You are the industry.
Now help us fix it.