The Big Dipper

There is a well-documented problem with longevity amongst game industry careerists. Part of it is the frivolous nature of our products. When you’re meeting with friends who are lawyers, doctors, cancer curers or crime-fighting superheroes it always feels a bit sad when you tell them you’re still making kids’ toys, especially when you’re getting older. It’s also partly due to the punishing work “ethics” and generally lower wages. This is why most companies advertising for staff stipulate the applicant must be “passionate about games”, because, let’s be honest, the only real rewards you are going to receive are self-made.

In Japan it works a little bit differently. It’s often just seen as a desk job, as I suppose it is, and any real chance of promotion comes with longevity at the company. If you’re in your thirties and have been employed at the same place for, say, a decade, you’ll be promoted, whether you’re suitable or not. This partly stems from Japan’s history of life-time employment which, as I made clear at the start of the sentence, is history. Any person who still claims this as a fact of Japanese life needs to move out of the 80s. That said, job hopping is still very much a developing skill. Employers expect the employees to expect life-time employment, but that’s where it ends.

Eventually a lot of people end up leaving the industry, globally speaking, as employers are keen to hire enthusiastic graduates rather than keep their senior, and therefore more expensive, staff. Only those few who are extremely lucky enough to find a place of employment ideally suited to them find a new lease of life and stay the course. This is pretty much what it comes down to, life in the game industry: job-hopping from one place to another, or being made routinely redundant, until you find a place where there is an ideal marriage of wages, quality of life, projects and people. Ideal for you, that is. Alternatively you could be blissfully aware of your own incompetence and stick it out at a place where your employment is safe, possibly due to longevity or having incriminating photos of your boss at hand.

In the meantime most of us just ride the rollercoaster of highs and lows until we are sick of it and get a real job. Personally, and I think this may be endemic, I find my lows getting lower and my highs less and less high as time progresses. Soon enough the highs can’t counter the lows anymore and then I’ll have some difficult decisions to make.

The reason so many people get burned out, apart from the obvious crunch time mentality, is, as I see it, twofold. Firstly the job requires a creative mind, yet one hardly gets any opportunities to let that creativity run riot. This is the “prissy artist syndrome” where the increasingly technical tasks start to eat away at your Muse. You want to go mad and create insane characters and fantastical worlds, yet most of the time you have to polish, fix, adjust, change, bug-check, implement. These are necessary tasks and all part of the job, but when you’re feeling low these activities can really get on your goat.

The second reason is one the employers need to take the blame for. The aforementioned passion that is, apparently, a job requirement, is mostly advertised to get young, keen people to work for little money and do unpaid overtime willingly. It’s hard to make employees work extra time for no extra pay or reward other than, maybe, a few days holiday at the end of a project of a duration that usually doesn’t reflect the countless hours you’ve worked for free, but if you convince them it’s “for the good of the game” you usually can get people excited enough to comply. However, this is a double-edged sword. Aside, of course, from overworking your staff and decreasing their effectiveness, you are also chipping away at their morale. “Wow,” a keen applicant may think, “I am passionate about games! They want passionate people! I can give them all my ideas, I can really help make this a better game!” But no, there is usually little room for employees to contribute to the extent they believe they will be able to, so this false expectation of being deeply involved turns into bitter resentment when leads and bosses dictate what needs to be done with little regard to the ideas of the “passionate employee”.

In the end you have turned from passionate artist to competent but tired craftsman until you become a journeyman, doing your hours for the pay with very little enthusiasm. At that point you think to yourself “hey, I can work my hours with little enthusiasm elsewhere, for much better pay!” and you get a job in banking.

Of course, the many people that do stay in the industry before their use-by date are lucky. They end up somewhere where they feel valued, where they feel adequately compensated and can work on things they like. They are also an immense asset, having acquired more knowledge than the five graduates their wages would easily pay for. But these days finding such a place is a little like winning the lottery.

With increasingly expensive development cycles and a staffing problem the traditional decline in morale of seniors is something that should be addressed. However useful keen and cheap graduates are, they are no substitute for a weathered veteran. At the very least you need a few of them aboard. It’s a shame to lose all these people to the better paid, better scheduled and better rewarded jobs. I wonder what could be done about that.

On the other hand…maybe it’s our industry’s self-regulating culling process. Get rid of the chaff, out with the old. I mean, if Portal has taught us anything, not desert related, it’s that it’s the new guard, the young turks, who will bend new life into game design while the old fogeys keep harping on about nicer-looking guns and better ragdoll physics. It takes a team of seniors to come up with Halo 3, but it was a pack of students that came up with Portal. Bah humbug. What do I know? Maybe it’s time to be put out to pasture.


  1. Me Rambling:

    Portal was great but wasn't Super Mario Galaxy made by veterans?

    I don't think there is *that* much correlation between experience and inspiration. There maybe be correlation between experience and quality though.

    Miyamoto seems to keep cranking out good games. So does Sid Meier.

    On the other hand I've heard a huge problem is there is no real leadership in this industry so most of the time while individual people are talented they get moved to random teams so often that their talent gets hidden by the teams they are put on. OR to put it another way, just because their last game sucked doesn't mean it was their fault when it takes 20-200 people to make a game.

    Anyway, Like I said I'm rambling.

    I generally agree with you except I haven't found the better job outside. For example, I interviewed at a bank last year. I saw that I would have to work strict hours with a strict lunch time vs lax hours. I would have to wear business clothing everyday (commuting in a suit in summer in Japan!!) except possibly Fridays when I could wear "business casual". This vs games where shorts and a t-shirt is fine.

    I would not be able to browse the net. Tons of sites are blocked. My email would be massively monitored. I couldn't look at a game at work because it's not part of my job.

    Basically halfway through the interview I was screaming to myself "I don't want to do this!!!"

    There was also the issue that at a game company the developers ARE the company. Sure we often get treated like shit or don't get paid what we think we are worth but at the end of the day a game company exists because of the developers. The developers ARE the company. Without them it's not a game company. This is not true for a bank for whom programmers and artists are just support for the people that are actually the "bank".

  2. "The developers ARE the company."
    Though I myself absolutely agree with you on this, it seems to be one of the better kept secrets, as few managers and producers seem to know this.

  3. Well personally, I wanted to go into game dev and it's still a dream. BUT I am in debt so all that long hours, low pay, and barely any compensation has pushed me away. I still admire the people who do follow their passion, but the ones you usually hear about are the ones at the helm and they are usually taking it much easier than the entry level guys down in the trenches. I decided really early that I wanted to get into game dev and so I took programming and art classes. THAT was a mistake. Both of these areas require ALOT of time. I'm pretty happy I got out alive. In retrospect all of the business kids dabbling in programming get a much higher payout. I kick myself every time I hear about it.

  4. Isn't it like this in every "creative" job?
    Unless you rise above making assets you won't get to do much on your own.
    As graphic artist it should be even the hardest, as you have to follow exact art directions.
    Everyone else has much more freedom.

  5. Tadashi, I don't think that's neccesarily true. But the bad thing about art is that it's visual. so EVERYBODY feels they can have an opinion on it whether they have any artistic sensibility or, as is more often the case, not.

  6. Nice post. I really agree with it.
    And since I have an opportunity to rant, well, I'll do it.

    Yes, our creativity could use more freedom in the game industry. But would it be better in another creative job? Maybe yes if lucky, but most probably not. So, this really isn't an issue for me here.

    What bugs me the most about game companies though, is what they're expecting of us. I'm not privy to all companies politic's but, the way I feel it from my actual situation, it's like I should LIVE almost only for the game industy.

    I like games. I play them. I buy them. It's fine. Isn't it?

    But from my viewpoint, work is work and should stay at work. When the day is done it shouldn't have to follow you home. (or else I better would have my own business)

    So when yearly evaluations and some salary increasement criterias are implicitly based on what you do outside job to stay updated and creative... Well, I feel like it's a bit overboard... Do I really get a better salary for that? I'm doubtfull.

    I'm I wrong?
    Or just lazy?

    Sorry for the rambling.

  7. "developers are the company". Yes, it often doesn't seem that way based on the way management acts but still, deep on my core I feel it. I know that what I am creating IS the company where as if I was to say switch to the financial industry I would know in my core that I'm just an assistant to the people that actually matter at those companies. I'm not sure I can handle that difference.

    As for taking your work home, well, I know how you feel, but I suspect those that are super successful do take their work home. Game making is their passion. I'm sure Spielberg doesn't stop thinking about making movies just because it's past 6pm and time to go home.

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