GUEST POST: The Real Reason Game Dev Jobs are Disappearing

Paul is a game developer who does not speak on behalf of his company, so we’ll just all call him Paul, OK?

In reference to the story a few days ago, concerning the shrinking video game industry, I wanted to write in with a few observations based on my almost 15 odd years of experience making games for a living.

This is going to be pretty long and I do not expect it to be read on the show or anything, but I thought you might be interested in some of the trends I have noticed over the last 5 years or so.

I believe the recent drop in developer jobs is just a side effect of several changes, or perhaps adjustments, being made because of some over some over-optimistic policies that have been in practice for the last 5-10 years.

Throwing large teams of people at a project has begun to reach a point of diminishing returns, it does very little good to spend $%100 million on a game if that means the game has to sell $20 – #$50 million to break even.

This almost sunk Crystal Dynamics in 2013 with Tomb Raider, which was a great game and sold great, but just not crazy great. Similarly, Bioshock Infinite, more or less resulted in Irrational Games closing down. There is much more to both examples, but for the sake of brevity, Huge budgets are now mostly reserved for guarantied hits, such as Call of Duty, or Grand Theft Auto.

As a result, most mid-range developers have scaled back their hires, and begun contracting out many aspects of their games to keep budgets at relatively reasonable numbers, and only the most talented developers get kept long term.

Game Publishers are trying to be Hollywood.

In Hollywood, no one plans on staying on the same show forever. Everyone is more or less a contractor, from grips to directors. Movie Studios make money by covering the odds, 5 duds one Hit, etc. Production groups are fluid and form and disband like smoke, so no one thinks twice about it.

In the game industry this same pattern is becoming normal, with big Publishers like 2K and EA, just hiring small studios to make a project. If it does well they might have them make the sequel, but that’s not even a guarantee. Working at a studio that does work for the bigger companies is pretty much now just contract labor. As one of your listener wrote in last week, three years is a long haul in most game studios, particularly in the LA, San Francisco and Seattle Areas.

Cheap Labor

Game development has become “cool”, kind of like acting. There is an endless stream of developers, mostly young, trying to get into the industry. Most of them work for cheaper then someone that has been doing it for 10 years or so. Since most games are being made by newly-assembled teams, if a less experienced person is available for less money, and can do 90% of the work, half your team might end up being new developers.

Veteran developers either rise to be the cream of the crop and get relatively secure positions or realize that they can’t stand the insecurity and overall pressure and move to other industries. I have seen this happen regularly, but it seems to be spiking now. I’m not sure why, but I just think we have reached some sort of saturation point, I can say at 47 I am the oldest person at my studio aside from the CEO that is involved in game development.

Mobil gaming bubble

With the rush to Apps of all kind there has also been a huge push to make game for mobile, and most mobile games never even come near recouping their expenses.

For a while big developers were pushing into mobile big time, and at the same time some of the mobile-first companies were growing at irresponsible rates. Look at Zynga HQ in San Francisco which may have set some sort of record for the most hires in a year, to turn around and let most of those people go a year later. King is having some of the same problems, but at least they learned from Zynga, and did not go quite as crazy. Mobile Developers have learned that their best bet is to do tons of small projects with very small teams, and hope one of them “wins the lottery” as we call it.

In short there was a big boom in hires for mobile, but that time is over, and many of the developers hired into this bubble, have either migrated to more traditional studios, or left the industry for none game development jobs.

Experienced developers and artist cost more money

While on the one hand we have studios stocking up on cheap labor, many studios, especially smaller ones, have found that one veteran developer may be worth 2 or 3 new hires. This often means not hiring new people, or even laying off the less skilled employees to retain the Veterans.

As I pointed out above, developers who stay in the industry 7-10 years are rare, and often very talented. As the industry matures, the pool of these developers grows, and studio heads sometimes think, “All I really need is these 3 or 4 people” we can just contract out the rest. This results in less full-time jobs.

I could go on and on, as we put a lot of thought into these things, but this is already long enough. Hope this sheds a bit of light on the industry, at least from my perspective. I will say I don’t know if the study from last week included Contractors, if not then the numbers may not have shrunk quite as much as they assert. But I will say that most contractors, eventually leave the industry as well, (In my experience) in search of more stability.

– Paul