Exit Strategies

As the late Pat Morita explains in the 1984 philosophical treatise “The Karate Kid”, life, like karate, is all about balance. In this case he was referring to Ralph Macchio getting his leg over with Elizabeth Shue, but in a general sense the theory holds up: life is all about balance. And that balance is a very hard thing to achieve working in the game industry, especially in Japan.

Your life is taken up by office hours. You wake up tired, work long days and come home tired. There is little time, let alone energy, to focus on your private life and hobbies. Game development isn’t half as visually creative as you’d think; all your energy is spent being technically creative trying to make the best art possible within the strict and often changing technical development environment. When visual creativity arises it is taken over by the boss or art lead. For any creative person hobby work is essential to satisfy the Muse. I’m not saying everybody’s creativity should be given free reign at work, but being the way it is you’d want to do your own thing too, and for that you’ll need spare time, something which comes at a premium, especially in Japan.

Extremely rare is the developer who at one or more points in his or her career hasn’t considered packing it in. This industry has a pretty bad retention rate and if you’re honest with yourself how many people can imagine still working under possibly similar conditions in 20 years time? Bad hours, bad pay, bad management and little job security means that sooner or later you’ll think to yourself “what else could I be doing?”

I’ll make no bones about it; I’m at that crossroads, once again. Will my next job be an industry one or do I throw in the towel? The latter option has never looked so enticing. The supposed “kudos” of working in the game industry is an artifice, partly perpetuated by management who rely on keen,, young idiots to work mandatory unpaid overtime and partly by the hype that surrounds our whole industry and the massive fan-culture around it. This can’t really be helped, and to be fair, it helps our market tremendously. But once you’ve been through one or two projects there is little joy or pride in telling your friends that you “work in games”, especially if those friends all have their own jobs, mortgages and kids and still have enough money left for twice-yearly holidays. No, the idea of it being “cool” to work in games went out my particular window quite some time ago.

But why did I stick with it? Well, the one thing I, as an artist, really enjoy about the work is the ability to create worlds and experiences, usually from scratch. There are few professions where you build a fantasy environment for other people to play in, and in truth that is a massively exciting thing to be doing. Do you know any other jobs that do this? Quite.

So what could I be doing and what would be important to me in finding a non-industry job?

I need to find my work/life balance again. At the moment I’m only working and recovering from working. I have weekly headaches that lay me low for at least one day of the weekend, the rest being taken up with household tasks and correspondence, as well as a little relaxing. All my hobbies have perished and I need them back. I want to relearn origami, start learning how to knit (seriously), experience some more Japanese pastimes, learn the language better. A well-scheduled job with strict hours is required for this to happen.

Filthy Lucre.
I hate to say it but being underpaid for so long has really made the need for a good salary priority number one for my next job. I doubt other industries don’t suffer from some of the same issues as our industry, like long hours, bad management, etc., but at least these obstacles are much easier to live with if you’re not counting your yen at the end of the month. Hell, I could even bare to stay in games if my salary was double (yes, double*) of what it is now. I’d still be frustrated but at least I’d be adequately compensated for my time. If a boss wants to take over my every waking hour he can damn well pay for it.

Not the job itself but the goal of the project. I like to bring a smile on the faces of children and childish adults. I like people to enjoy what I’m doing. Games obviously do this very well, but what else? Corporate jobs would probably pay very well but they burn out the soul in no time. Something aimed at children, maybe?

90% of game art is technical, hacking, fixing and not much artistically creative. I would like a job where my sense of the visual is challenged, where communication means something, and not just how I can hack a piece of work so it will work in an ever-changing code and design environment. With this also I would like a sense of personal creativity, responsibility and achievement. Games seem to offer this but really they don’t. You are always a slave to the whims of your superiors, whether they have any artistic sense or not (usually not).

So these things are important to me. On the top of my head I can think of maybe design companies, advertising, multimedia, interweb, video or film. I’d probably like to work in interactive media aimed at kids; something worthy and educational but fun and exciting. My best bet is probably a design company. There is a chance of a lot of corporate work, but also of the occasional fun challenge. The biggest problem is, I have no idea what they usually pay.

I have about a decade of game experience. I have connections and contacts, friends and enemies, I know how to do my work blindfolded, I know what is going on. The biggest, scariest obstacle is having to throw that all out and start again from scratch. But in Japan they say your mid-thirties is the perfect time for a career change, and it seems to happen quite a lot.

But there is a distinct possibility the outside world will be too scary for me, so I’ll cop out, get another game job and bitch and moan for another few years. Maybe it’s about time I grew that backbone. Game industry Stockholm syndrome, sigh.

* If you think asking for a 200% pay rise is terribly cheeky, keep in mind that that would bring me in line with the lower-end average of a US game artist’s wage!


  1. Have you ever considered changing your position within the game industry? The job of a concept artist looks very appealing to me. I don't know what it's like to be a concept artist in Japan, but from what I can tell it's a very attractive job in the western game industry. They have way more creative freedom than the average polygon grunt, they don't have to deal with any technical crap, they are less affected by crunch time and more often than not they are even better paid.

    I'm not a concept artist though and sure this job has it's downsides, but maybe it's worth a thought.

  2. Don't listen to him. If you do, that's one less job for me to apply for.

  3. Hi JC, you will probably find the same problems in any other industry, although I totally understand your need for change.

    I went thought the same when I was 30 (five years ago.) I was managing e-business projects for General Electric in Europe and the US, and grew tired of working long hours and not having fun. I quit and became a freelance web developer and have never been happier.

    Sometimes I work even longer hours, but it does not feel like work... I can always stop for a couple of hours in the middle of the day and go for a walk. Sometimes I make more money in a given month, sometimes I make less, but it doesn't really matter. I'd say that in terms of quality of life, I've improved 100%.

    I'm sure you'll figure out what to do soon; as you've already taken the first step: acknowledging the problem.

    Good luck!!!

  4. Cheers guys. The biggest problem I face now is that my total lack of motivation isn't a good state of mind to have a good hard think about the future with. In the short term I need a break, I recon.

    Anon, from my experience in Japan concept artists are just part of the team, nothing significantly seperate. Of course they don't deal with technical problems, but they still have to change stuff as leads and bosses change their minds. Salary I think is similar or even lower.

  5. Seriously, an own company would be the best for you.
    Take all the things you think are bad in the current industry and do them better.
    Good planning, doing things right from the beginning, a real bonus system, fixed worktimes...

    The only hindrance is probably your low salary, right?

    But if you should ever do this step, I'd be always ready to join you :)

  6. I'm with Oshima on this one :) Sure it's a major headache, an unreliable future and hard work, but goddamn if it isn't the only thing that would keep ME satisfied in the end, jokes aside.... So any time you're ready ;)

  7. The problem with owning a conpany is you create a company to do what you really want to do, and at the end, you end up doing nothing you like. Only bussiness related things, excel, meetings, paying the bills...
    And as much as i dream to make my own games, if one day i invest my money it'll never, never be in videogames...

  8. That's what I'm worried about. When I get to a level where I can organise things as I see fit I'll be so far away from what I like doing (art) there's no point. I just need a rich patron with more money than sense to pay me to sit around and be a precious artiste. Anyone?

  9. The only way to start your own company and still be able to do art is to have someone else manage the business side of it. This might sound silly but look at Penny Arcade for a good example of a company where the artist and writer still get to do what they love while running a succesful home grown business. Of course, it took them 5-6 years before it really took off but it's the best example I can think of off the top of my head :)