Are rank-and-file devs benefiting from MMO publisher ‘money-grabs’? Camelot Unchained’s Mark Jacobs weighs in
Last week, Massively OP’s Eliot Lefebvre wrote a (fantastic) Soapbox editorial arguing that Star Wars Battlefront II (and its concomitant monetization dust-up) is merely a symptom of the “long tail” trend of the games business. As he put it, it’s not a bad thing that game companies seek to make money; they need money to make games, and games make us happy. We’re happy to pay fair prices for good games! But EA, he argues, is merely undertaking a “blatant cash grab” over and above the rising costs of making games, and the worst part is that the game developers themselves aren’t reaping the benefits of the publishers’ increased revenue.
“The programmers and art staff don’t wind up seeing much, if anything, from these increased profit margins, still being subjected to an awful volume of crunch time and demanding workloads with ever-growing headcounts,” Eliot asserted. “And the people making these games aren’t seeing any benefit from all of these increases; salaries aren’t going up except for the people at the top end.”
But that might be true for only a segment of corporate developers. In conversation with Massively OP, Camelot Unchained boss-man Mark Jacobs suggests that over the last five years, developer salaries – specifically programmers – have increased significantly.
“Now, this has been necessarily driven not by publishers’ desires to share the wealth, but rather by the giant sucking sound that companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon make while vacuuming up these individuals for their ventures and their willingness to pay what was way above recent game industry norms for developers,” he told Massively OP. In other words, programmers in general are in such high demand all around by tech companies as well as mobile and VR corporations that top-end game studios have no choice but to keep up, even studios “well-known for paying lower salaries,” which has “filtered down to less experienced developers.”
Jacobs has famously discussed this issue in the past on Massively OP as his own indie studio, City State Entertainment, once struggled to hire skilled programmers in the DC tech triangle, just one of the reasons his crew ultimately opened a second studio in Seattle to work on the game, though there CSE has had to compete with the likes of Amazon.
“In the last two years since I’ve been recruiting folks in Seattle, the salaries that are paid there for folks who aren’t on the top of the heap really surprised me,” Jacobs says. “You wouldn’t believe the change in the last 3-5 years. It’s been the biggest jump I’ve ever seen, and it definitely affects indies [the most],” as unlike EA-scale megapublishers, indies have a harder time absorbing and passing on those rising labor costs.
That said, he told us he’s grateful for the changes, even when it affects his own labor pool:
“But I do want to be clear that while these increases in development costs have hurt indie and small developers, the fact is that given the rather transient nature of the game industry and the fact that hard-working folks can and do get fired/screwed over for no fault of their own, I do support the increase. Now, I do wish I had more money to spend so our development process would have been easier, but it is what it is and people have a right to be paid well and share in a game’s success. One of the hallmarks of my career at both Mythic and now at CSE is that our royalty sharing/stock plan is, to quote one of our investors ‘overly generous.’ I liked hearing that, a lot.”
Maybe those of us on the sharp end of the lockbox stick shouldn’t be so quick to absolve the non-marketing staff at big studios of all culpability.