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Game Development Salary Survey 2003

This year's salary survey is based upon almost 3000 responses from readers of Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra, and attendees of the Game Developers Conference. Once again, programmers reigned supreme in the cash derby.

This year has been one of true maturation in the game industry, growing pains and all. To paraphrase Calvin Coolidge, today more than ever the business of game development is business. The gulf between game development’s garage roots and Wall Street’s unrelenting demands is widening. Consolidation has been rampant, bringing big paydays to some and leaving others out in the cold. Uncertainty about the future, both technological with regard to future consoles, and professional with regard to job security, has been a dominant theme.

Still, at the heart of every underpraised triumph and big-budget blockbuster alike are the individual men and women who conjure game magic from the alchemy of programming, art, design, audio, and production support. Now in its third year, Game Developer’s annual salary survey examines how such efforts translate into salaries and perks for thousands of U.S. game developers.

With the help of research firm Audience Insights, we sent e-mail invitations to Game Developer magazine subscribers, Game Developers Conference 2003 attendees and Gamasutra.com members in October 2003, asking them to participate in our annual salary survey, and we received 4,508 unique responses worldwide.

Not all respondents provided sufficient compensation information to be included in the findings. We also excluded cases where the compensation was given at less than $10,000 or greater than $300,000, or where there was text entered that did not readily correspond to a compensation figure. We further excluded records missing key demographic and classification information. As this article reports U.S. compensation only, we also eliminated the approximately 1,400 non-U.S. respondents, bringing the total sample reflected in the compensation data presented in the following pages to 2,740.

The sample represented in our salary survey can be projected to the game developer community with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 1.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. That means we can say with 95 percent certainty that the aggregate statistics reported would stay consistent, within the margin of error, across the entire population.

Every year the game industry garners more attention from fans and speculators alike. Analysts are no longer projecting the gangbusters growth rates of the past few years, but many outside the industry, from film and music especially, are looking for ways to leverage its crossmedia moneymaking potential. Within the industry, some are experimenting with more Hollywood-like permutations of the game business model, including the creation of modular, discipline-centric teams of programmers, artists, or designers available for contract. How future evolution of the game business will affect the balance of power in the industry, and the compensation for developers, remains to be seen.

Programming

 

In the midst of rampant consolidation and talent-shifting in the game industry, programmers continue to enjoy high salaries relative to other development disciplines, whether they work on development tools, gameplay, animation, graphics, physics, networking, AI, or hardware engineering. But as the next generation of consoles looms, subtle shifts in the employment market are already taking place as studios cast an eye to who will carry them smoothly through the transition. Once again the existing talent pool will face an “evolve or die” prospect with new technology.

Valuable assets in programmers in addition to core technical proficiency are flexibility, an ability to see the “big picture” on a development project, and an understanding of how the business of game development affects decisionmaking on a project. These qualities help differentiate the top tier of technical talent that is always in demand. Battletested leads and technical directors are also extremely valuable, but scant availability of such positions limits the advancement prospects of many rank-and-file game programmers.

Art and Animation

 

Specialization is more than ever the name of the art game. Unlike programming positions, which can often be difficult for employers to fill, a single artist opening can elicit hundreds of applications. Relative to programmers, artists’ salaries reflect the opposite extreme of a gulf between demand and supply.

The driving force in the artist market, whether for painters, modelers, or animators, has always been raw talent. Those artists and animators who can push the creative envelope while still respecting technical parameters are most prized. As more and more artists and animators migrate to games from Hollywood, this crop of talent must come up to speed on the technical limitations a game project will place on their genius.

While art team size may fluctuate during the course of a project, most games still get by with one lead artist, or a lead artist and a lead animator. Artists with management expertise will surely grow in demand in the next generation as content-creation needs escalate.

Game Design

 

Game design is an extremely competitive field to enter, and entry-level salaries reflect this fact. However, designers with a few blockbuster titles under their belt will find their stock rise quickly; there is a big pay gap between rookie designers and more experienced designers and leads.

In our survey, the designation of “game designer” covered game designers, level designers, and writers. Writing is a hot area of design right now, receiving more attention in game budgets as consumer expectations rise for production values in games. Lead designers and creative directors generally manage others who are implementing gameplay decisions, leads governing a single title and creative directors a franchise or portfolio of titles.

The Employment Picture: Feast and Famine

While the overall employment picture in the U.S. improved slightly toward the end of 2003, the game industry was a sea of corporate consolidation broken by waves of layoffs, shutdowns, and very early strategic positioning for the next generation. With game production costs rising, “companies are really looking to bring on fewer and better talent,” says Mark Alzahov, senior recruiter, R&D, for Vivendi Universal Games. Still, the question of whether it’s an employer’s or a candidate’s market remains complicated, depending on what each party has to offer the other.



 

“All positions are highly competitive, and none of our clients wants to settle for less than the best-qualified candidate,” says game industry recruiter Mary Margaret Walker, president of Mary-Margaret.com Recruiting and Business Services. On the other hand, “it is equally true that our candidates are not desperate, and expect a lot from a potential future employer.”

So what puts a candidate in the most-qualified bracket? Understanding the business of game production with a big-picture perspective on a project is a big advantage. “Everyone wants talent that can understand a production schedule, people that are able to stick to a common goal, from programming to art to design,” says Alzahov. Now that teamwork and flexibility are key assets, some companies’ layoffs are opportunistic, according to Jill Zinner, president of game recruiter Premier Search. These layoffs might target people who have a lot of experience in the industry but aren’t willing or able to adapt to new technologies and production models. These castaways are then having a tougher time finding new homes as the game business matures, according to Zinner. “They’re going into other industries, business and edutainment industries. A lot are going into cell phones and handhelds.”

And what impact is the bumper crop of students from the growing number of game-studies specialty schools having on the market for entry-level talent? “The bulk of that impact is a few years away,” says Zinner. “The general trend from employers is that they don’t even want to interview these people unless they have a college degree they had before they even entered [the game-studies] school.” And while a lucky few do get hired straight out of such programs, Walker is “concerned that the programs are giving [students] false hope on their ability to find a job after successful completion of the program.”

As the game industry continues to mature in the next few years, the asset of adaptability and ability to mentor will serve those who remain in the industry well, as new people come in from schools and related industries, such as effects and animation. True maturity, according to Zinner, “means not being threatened by new people coming in.”

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Production

 

Game production has undergone maturation along with the rest of the industry in the past few years. Whether working internally or externally, producers are an essential interface between the development team and the business of making games. Charged primarily with keeping a project on schedule and on budget, producers’ proximity to the bottom line is reflected in higher salaries than many of the creative disciplines of development. Experienced executive producers, whose responsibilities would include management and development of a franchise comprising multiple titles, commanded the highest salary average for disciplines reported by years of experience in our survey.

Defining and securing top production talent can be a challenge for studios. Schools and universities don’t focus their educational programs on production, and the knowledge and experience needed are hard to find in those not already in the game industry. Many producers still work their way up the ladder through design and quality assurance.

Quality Assurance

 

This year is the first that we’ve included QA salaries in our survey results, a reflection of both the role the test department plays as proving grounds for future development talent and the increasing significance of the QA function in meeting high consumer expectations and minimizing returns and support costs. No longer confined to the production domain of bug-hunting, testers are expanding into more significant territory of usability and focusgroup testing to help ensure higher customer expectations are met.

A scant 14 percent of our survey respondents reported being in QA more than six years, the smallest proportion at this experience level by far of any discipline. On one hand this figure underscores QA’s role as a springboard for other development careers, while on the other hand it points to a dearth of substantial experience in this increasingly vital function.

Audio

 

The current generation of consoles have given the audio community some of what they’ve been asking for for years: processor time, some storage space, and most of all, respect. The skyrocketing popularity of home theater has quickly catapulted game audio delivery from tin-can PC speakers rattling on a desktop to digital surround inundating players’ living rooms. Dolby and DTS technologies are now big selling points for games, and even THX began offering audio certification for games this year.

Industry consolidation has enabled sizeable audio departments to be established at some of the larger studios, but much of the game audio workforce remains in gun-for-hire form. It’s a fiercely competitive business, but half our survey respondents have been at it for six or more years, the highest percentage of any development discipline. Obviously there is some payoff for persistence in the audio game.



 

General Trends

 

This year’s overall salary picture includes QA personnel for the first time, which complicates making direct comparisons to previous years’ average salary figures across all respondents; however, some relational data highlights interesting trends.

Women respondents made up 7 percent of the total, a slight increase from prior years. However, their salaries on average continue to lag behind their male counterparts’, at 87.4 cents on the dollar, a slight dip from the 89 cents on the dollar reported in our 2002 survey. Conversely, the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the national male-female wage gap narrowed slightly in 2002 to 78 cents on the dollar, up from 76 cents in 2000.

The West Coast continues to be a hotbed of game development, with employer competition driving up salaries relative to other regions. The top five states represented in our survey were, in order: California, Washington, Texas, Illinois, and Massachusetts.

 


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