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I'm about to graduate from high school and I've been thinking about the future. I'd really like to make videogames for a living, I have been playing with some tools (about to finally start a real project with unity now) and have some good programming experience.

What worries me about such a career is the risk factor, to just get started I'll probably have to go live abroad (I really want to live in England for a while) because there are few game dev companies here and most of them are making cash cows for dumbphones and interactive televisions.

THE dream is to work in a medium sized company for a couple of years and go back to Israel with some experience and try to go indie.

My question is, will I survive? A lot of people say you barely make money in videogame jobs and I was wondering if it's a field worth pursuing considering the major risks involved.

Is there anyone here who develops indie games and can vouch for ANY money making? It seems like such a tough field.... How about the big companies?

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I removed the ancillary bit about crunch and QOL from your question because it really is a separate topic from the viability of the industry as a whole and, as a sensitive topic, would probably overpower the discussion. –  Tetrad May 30 '11 at 21:47
    
No money compared to what? Other programming/art/music jobs? Other jobs regardless of field? –  Oskar Duveborn Mar 30 '13 at 20:05
    
I think that every field is profitable, when you know how to do it well. –  Ivan Kuckir Mar 31 '13 at 22:19
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8 Answers 8

up vote 20 down vote accepted

A lot of people say you barely make money in videogame jobs

Pretty much all game programmers I know here in the UK earn more than the national median wage. There are no starving employed game programmers.

Is there anyone here who develops indie games and can vouch for ANY money making?

That's quite a different proposition. Thousands of people want to be able to make their own games and sell them, but probably only 5% of them actually finish their games, and maybe only 1/5 of those are able to make a profit, due to failings in promotion, distribution, the absence of a target audience, etc.

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The problem for my friends who work in games development is not the pay but the working conditions. Long hours, intense competition, high stress levels (especially around crunch time). Even when you love your job, as they seem to, it does tend to interfere with life outside work. Having said that, stress and crunch isn't exclusive to the gaming industry, in the current economic climate it can happen anywhere. –  Mark Booth May 31 '11 at 10:03
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98% of statistics are made up on the spot –  bobobobo Mar 30 '13 at 14:34
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I don't think the answer to this question is any different than any other business related field.

Will I survive?

How am I supposed to know?

  • Have you actually tried making games before?
  • Do you actually like making games?
  • Are you any good at what you do?
  • Do you know the right people to help you get to where you want to be?
  • Do you know the right people to get you business opportunities?
  • Do you know how to network if not?
  • Do you have the creativity to design a product to fill a market need?
  • Do you have the business sense to budget a project and estimate revenue?
  • Do you have the management capabilities to actually ship a project on time?

Game development as a business isn't fundamentally any different from any other business. There are material costs. There are internal management problems. There are revenue projection models. There are contract negotiation problems. You can't just make a product and expect to make money.

Sure, a lot of those questions go away if you go work for somebody else (because they take on the business risk and provide the management infrastructure), but then you have to deal with the fact that it's hard to get hired in the first place. There's more info on that bit of it here: How to go about getting hired by a game company

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Most Important Point For Indie Dev: Do you have the creativity to design a product to fill a market need? –  ultifinitus May 30 '11 at 22:45
    
I don't think that's most important, or at least not what should be emphasized. The game market supports many niches, and it turns out you don't need to be that creative to get a sustainable income. What's usually missing is management and communication ability. –  user744 May 31 '11 at 9:24
    
@ultifinitus Wrong profession... –  Jop Vernooij Jul 2 at 20:37
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You definitely can make money doing indie games. I myself am a co-owner of an indie game startup, and I'm definitely not in danger of starving. :)

There are two things to consider. First, indie games are risky, as is any startup. You need funds to get started, there's a high chance of failure for any of a hundred different reasons, and if you try to fund yourself then that failure can be quite catastrophic for you personally in terms of debt and finances.

Second, in the industry at large as a programmer, you will make less on average than a programmer of similar skill working in a non-game CS field. It's sometimes called the "game tax" that you pay for being able to work on games for a living. That's not to say you'll make peanuts or have trouble getting by. Plus, if you're a talented/skilled developer then you'll still make the big bucks; exceptional talent doesn't have trouble getting exceptional job offers. But if you're an average programmer you'll probably be making less in games than you would be in Web programming or general business programming.

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+1 for rational, sane advice. "Game tax" is sometimes also in the form of long hours for regular wages. –  bobobobo Mar 30 '13 at 14:39
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I don't know about UK or Israel, but in Russia being an employed game programmer pays the bills all right. I'd imagine it's not that different in other countries.

but if we're talking about indies: there are indie developers making profits. There are some indie developers making HUGE profits. But there never was an indie developer who'd made profits with his first project ever! You need a lot of experience to succeed. To get it, you can either work at a game company, or try indie way from the start... but don't expect having any profits.

When you've worked on several game projects, you'd have enough experience to ask this question again.. or rather, answer it for yourself.

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Lots of great points have already been made, but I think that one of the keys is asking yourself "Do I know anything about programming, the software life cycle, leadership and running a business or do I just have some raw talent that I want to develop?"

The flat answer is yes, there is a ton of money to be realized in game development, iirc the industry had higher gross sales than the motion picture industry last year. The question always becomes "how" to a achieve income in a stable way that lets you plan for the future... when I was 19 living pay cheque to pay cheque was fine, when the cash came in, the bills got paid. Now, that kind of stress would be a serious problem.

Some advice based on my own experience and opinions goes something like this:

  • if you've never completed a major progrmaming project, do that first.
  • don't quit your day job until the money is rolling in stably enough to support yourself... if you're determined to achieve success there are always enough hours in the day to make progress on a project, be it ever so small. Time management (and setting priorities) is a skill that can help you life long in many areas.
  • university can help you understand the concepts in a very detailed way, but college will get you up and coding faster: there's nothing wrong with either
  • write and release a game, and get a better feel for what's actually involved... a lot of people I've known over the years could write interesting games, story lines etc but absolutely failed when it came to customer support and software updates
  • examine your skill set and recognize that you probably don't have all the skills to do it all yourself. For early projects though, it's quite acceptable for your product to have less than the professional finish... many of my sound effects were recorded at opportune times with my phone and polished up a bit at home -- don't be afraid to accept less than perfect if it means completion, you can always revise the sounds/graphics/etc later when you have a better budget to hire someone who knows what they're doing (or you've learned how to do it better)
  • if you don't want to work 60 hrs/wk, don't. There are lots of programming positions in the world that will give you an good income and leave you with free time. If they don't exist in the game dev world, indie is always an option.
  • Working more is not working better... the guys I know who work 60+ hours fall into 2 categories: insanely talented and committed and will end up quitting and working for themselves because they have the skills to pay the bills ... and finally the facebookers.... these are the guys who are at work 60 hours but only really work about 30... between distractions, coffee breaks, the new iphone app that you gotta see, etc etc etc.

Anyways, meeting's starting and I don't want to be here for 60 hours :-) Hope there's something of value in here for you.

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Great answer. Working on an indie project myself, I can relate to most of the topics you presented. –  Lucas Tulio Apr 1 '13 at 20:11
    
Totally agree. I just converted my full time job working for a big boring company into a 4d x 8h contract. It pays the bills and gives me a full day to work on my hobby/indi project. I can attest that wages in other industries are significantly higher with less hassle. (35h contract with no overtime policy) I tried working with some big game companies, but turned down the offer. Working for a different big company for half the wage even in games was a deal breaker for me. The advantage is, most contracts have non competition clauses, games don't compete with software for industrial plants. –  rioki Apr 2 '13 at 12:41
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Any career that a lot of young people really want to go into is probably going to suck unless it has high barriers to entrance. The reason is, when a field is full of qualified, young talent they will put up with a lot of crap.

From what I've heard, game development is the worst conditions and payment in the programming world (on average)--with the possible exception of "Overseas Consultant".

The same is going to be true of starting a new rock band (hard, crappy conditions, low pay), becoming an astronot (HARD), a policeman (somewhat hard, low pay), ...

I'd read around for some stories about what it's like to be a game developer.

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links to stories? –  siamii Jun 16 '12 at 22:10
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Is there anyone here who develops indie games and can vouch for ANY money making?

This indie feller has cleared over 1/2 million dollars in the last 8 weeks. If you look at the credits, it looks like he had less than 10 folks on his team, and most of them were probably contracted for small bits here and there. That's a pretty darned good for a small indie studio.

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Interesting demographic, but I don't think you should use an indie dev who blatantly copied another game to make money (legitimately or not) as an example. Regardless of how often the 'big boys' do it. –  Daniel May 31 '11 at 5:52
    
Not to mention, his "pretty darned good" is minuscule compared to the earnings from the game he copied. –  user744 May 31 '11 at 9:21
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I've only just started in the games development business but i can say that it isn't easy to make money. I have 2 games out now on ios, asteroid lander and bird season. Between them i am getting about 2-3 sales a day which averages out about £1 a day lol. For me this hasn't seemed worthwhile though i am going to finish off a 3rd game i'm making which is a lot bigger and more complex, if that doesn't make much then i will have to throw in the towel (in all fairness though the 1st 2 games took less than a month each to make so not exactly big games).

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Are you doing it full time? –  Den Apr 2 '13 at 8:36
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