Are rank-and-file devs benefiting from MMO publisher ‘money-grabs’? Camelot Unchained’s Mark Jacobs weighs in

    
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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.

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kjempff
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kjempff

Speaking as a programmer (I prefer developer) of everything from applications, apps, web, backend systems, and games. Programmers are not machines, but actually rather creative personalities, and this does not go well when they can’t influence what they work on, which I guess is the case in mid-large game projects.
For a game project where you typically invest yourself a lot, your work has to be satisfying and the product something meaningful. We came to the business because of love of games, and so the games we work on has to fill some of that, and frankly monetization, politics and all kinds of stuff not related to love of games is such a huge part of game development now. So when presented with some options of non game projects that are satisfying professionally and allows you to influence the solutions, versus game programming on a project paying less, more risky, restricts your creativity and possibly not even a game you find very interesting, then the choice is clear.
And also Unity (and component based game engines in general)… a true programmer does not like to be funneled into that kind of restricted game engine concept where spaghetti code chaos reign supreme, and makes it really hard for you to be using good abstraction principles (which makes stable code, and stable code is professionally satisfying).

K38FishTacos
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K38FishTacos

Just have to buy shares if you want a piece of the action.

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Sally Bowls

Warning: boring business speculation here, some of which may be correct, about topics Mark knows infinitely more about than I:

1) N.B.: Eliot said salary while Mark talked about ” royalty sharing/stock plan.” Do you think that any of the several thousand millionaires-from-stock-options (Microsoft, Amazon, et al) (or the people trying to outbid them for housing) in Seattle care whether they were paid $20K more or $20K less in salary? For “engineers”, Silicon Valley (and its look-alikes) compensation is a bit of a lockbox economy. Many/most companies you join are going to fail. Mark Cuban’s first three companies went bankrupt; #4 made him a couple billion. Every Google employee was a millionaire when they went public. one cook got over ten million. An extra $10K is nice but that does not let you live where old 4BR/2Ba in unfashionable areas are going for $2M https://news.slashdot.org/story/17/09/13/160221/782000-over-asking-for-a-house-in-sunnyvale

2) High-cost venues: Programming at a game company tends to not pay near as well as the real world. So people who are prioritizing lifestyle over money may be harder to get to move to a cheap fly-over state instead of a trendy, wonderful quality-of-life place.

3) A sad truth is a younger, more ambitious (i.e. not yet successful) Mark would probably be running an office four times as large in Bangalore or Shanghai instead of Seattle.

4) If this all gets too important, then it is going to push companies to be on a “going public” track – either IPO or acquired. E.g., say ExampleMark has a $100M/year company making $3M profit. Someone who has a 1% profit participation gets an extra $30K a year, which I am sure they appreciate. Now say ExampleMark polishes his impressive resume, oozes the good-old-boy charm and, during a hot market, talks the acquisition up from three to five times revenue. That values the company at $500M; 1% of that is $5M [For those of you who PvP instead of craft, $5M is a much bigger number than $30K :-) ] The problem for people here is all the growth and profitability pressures of public companies. ExampleMark can say “I hate my players; let me do some inconvenience as immersion and remove the Auction House even if it reduces revenue.” It’s his company; he can do that. Public companies shouldn’t.

5) Note all of this favors big companies and consolidation. Higher salaries and no lockboxes (or lockboxes but companies need to spend millions in legal fees to traverse the international regulations) make it harder for indies to compete, especially mid-size. I think the percentage of Western PC MMO players playing WoW or TESO will increase.

6) I hope the people who think AAA games are a hugely profitable business with excessive profits are correct. The governmental impediments are not yet that great; companies love money so there will be lots of companies entering this market and we will see lots of new AAA games and the consumer will benefit as the value for the customer increases. If the profits are not as vast as people say, we may not see a tsunami of new games.

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Paragon Lost

“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.” -Mark Jacobs

Very nice. Keep on keepin on Mark. :)

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Koshelkin

The quality of the engineers working in the games industry has certainly increased, too, but I think we lost alot of the love which was poured into games a decade ago. At least that’s how I often feel nowadays. The ever increasing budgets lead to a stagnation of risks and innovation.

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Robert Mann

Instead of worrying about their culpability, maybe we should look at the amount big studios have been making and the rather poor wage to hours and work/life balance that was standard. Even without lockboxes this should have been a thing at big name studios.

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Veldan

“City State Games” should be “City State Entertainment”, no?

Edit: feel free to delete this comment after reading it :)

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Cosmic Cleric

“concomitant”, as in associated with something, or follows something?

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camelotcrusade

In my experience, as the race for profits intensifies the workers are the ones who lose.

I like to think in small and medium companies there is still “gain for the pain,” having worked at one once where I saw a direct link between pay and performance (mine, the company’s, or both). But the company grew, got bought, and went public… so gradually, that was the end of that. I’m still there, and now what you get for your pain is “a job” and the profits, windfalls, and revenue spikes go to shareholders, top management and re-investment.

Over time, the rank and file saw ever-increasing gaps (18-months is common now) between raises and dismal “tighten the belt” talks in between, spinning positive revenue the investors hear about (we made xx millions this year!) into absurd stories of failure for employees (but we missed our forecast to grow by 4% and we only made 3%) to justify the cuts to benefits, resources and support staff.

I thought a small game studio would be different. What a shame to hear about one with a similar outcome even if a different path led them there, and probably with less job security too (remember those articles about layoffs after projects?).

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A Dad Supreme

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.

When talking about AAA MMOs, players also bear responsibility as much as companies for this mess imo. A company does not see a cash shop sale of any type as “support for the game” but as a primary source of revenue over time, period. A company is not a sentimental entity regardless of their mission statement goal.

Companies monitor the amount of time playing as support for a game. Nothing says more about what you are or what you support by what you spend most of your time doing or being. People seem to forget or are unaware that every game company puts a high value into metrics determining how much time players spend playing a game, what you spend your time in that game doing, and how they can get you to log-in more often. They then tailor towards or away from what’s popular or not.

A company could care less if you played the game only 1 hour a week if you spend $40/month in the cash shop buying mounts and housing items. They don’t really care if servers are low as long as cash shop sales are high. If players learn to reverse this, they would force companies to realize people love their game but don’t like the business practices they employ.

So, play 15 hours a week and spend nothing in the shop. Trust me, the game would not shut down immediately or even soon. If anything, the first/best result would immediately be lower prices for almost every item they are selling, not lay off employees who are supposed to be creating real content.

If you really want to send the right message, stop spending in cash shops and play the game more.

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Paragon Lost

While I agree overall with you ADS, your last sentence gives me pause as I am not sure if that would actually cause them to not instead double down on that crap. Spending more time and money developing gateways or mechanics that would make you need to spend money in the cash shop to do well in the mmo.

It would an interesting experiment if we could get all players to stop spending money in the cash shops and just simply play the mmos as they currently exist. Subscription based, F2P etc, just play them as is. Wonder how long that would last before mmo developers changed something or if they’d change.

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Sally Bowls

N.B.: My comment in no way refers to you or your comment.

Technically, the best way for an individual to maximize their gaming happiness is to

1) buy what they want and play what they want; their $40 & 40h is unnoticeable amongst millions.

2) strongly and frequently encourage others, via comments, social media, and Discord, to be righteous. As you say, if this is successful, the marketplace can force major changes.