My only nephew is something of a math prodigy, and the fact that he wants to be a game designer when he grows up (and has even been to game dev camp) fills me with the creeping horror that only someone who’s been living in or chronicling the game industry for years can know. The industry is awesome, and it is also a meat grinder that chews amazing people up and spits them right back out. He deserves a better future than that. Everybody does.
Such is the subject of a lengthy piece on Gamasutra this week. Author Simon Parkin interviews multiple developers about their experience making games – and their obvious relief when they finally escape. They’re not just talking crunch; they’re discussing relatively low pay, contract positions, nepotism, instability, post-launch exhaustion, sexism, and actual corruption driving people away.
“Long-term careers in the video game industry are uncommon and are, counterintuitively, becoming rarer as the years progress,” Parkin argues. “The figures, which are in line with previous GDC surveys, paint a picture of a tumultuous, unstable industry from which employees are fleeing in droves in search of stability and security.”
Of note to MMORPG players in particular, some of those interviewed did indeed work on MMOs, which may be unusually prone to this type of experience, given the number of people required to build an MMO vs. to run it after launch. There’s a programmer from Elder Scrolls Online in the mix who discusses ZeniMax’s on-paper “no rehire” policy (he left a few years ago to develop indie games, then left to work in computer security).
Another producer from an unnamed MMORPG says “the environment for making games is worse than ever” with “too much ego, too low salaries, too much extended overtime, and pettiness in general.” He left the industry when a studio investor made off with most of their money and the studio imploded. “Making games today is like having a garage band, most of them are kind of bad, but you get fun doing it, some of them are good, and less than 1 percent are going to be discovered and make it. From a business and professional point the situation is horrible. But I don’t know if it can be changed.”
Kristen Koster, whom you’ll recognize straightaway as a former Ultima Online designer and one of the pioneers of MMORPG economy mechanics, illuminated the extra layer of sexism in the games industry that stretches far back into the 1990s. In fact, she was all but forced out of her position when her husband, Raph Koster, was promoted to lead designer. She left rather than be effectively demoted to customer service, saying, “Why they thought a new mother would jump at the chance to work crazy hours with a shifting ‘weekend’ […] I still don’t know.”
In other words, we’re losing the industry’s best people because it’s still being run like a clownshow. Don’t even take their or my word for it; just run a search for “layoff” and “sunset” on Massively OP. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to email my sister-in-law and try one last time to talk them out of another year of game dev camp.