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  • The State of Game Development: Part 1

    - Brandon Sheffield
  • Working on Game Developer magazine for many years, I've seen a whole lot of charts. We have our salary survey, which you may already be aware of, but we also have tech surveys, a production survey, our front line awards for best industry tools, and other interesting bits of information.

    We'll attempt to smash all that information together here, in this two-part series, to give you an idea of the current shape of Western game development as a whole, from what tools people are using, to how much they make, to the big trends in design and marketing. In this first installment, we'll just be talking about our charts and studies, specifically.


    Let's start by talking about how much people have been making in the game industry. We've run the only major survey of game developer salaries/compensation for 11 years now, and last year we did a 10 year aggregate study, representing salaries from 2001-2010.

    Figure 1: Average U.S. game developer salary from 2001-2010.

    Figure 1 represents the average salary across all disciplines in the U.S. for those 10 years. For our purposes, those disciplines, by the way, are programming, art, audio, business & legal, production, and QA.

    As you can see, salaries in general have gone up, with the exception of dip in 2009 due to the world economic depression. You'll also note that salaries went up more for men, specifically. Women are definitely paid less for doing the same job then men are, and this is the graph that proves it. This leads to a problem attracting female talent - how can you incentivize women to join the industry if they're demonstrably paid less, especially when games want to target all people? As an additional stat, in 2011 women represented only 10% of game developers according to our survey.

    Figure 2: U.S. salaries by region.

    As you'll see in Figure 2, the west coast boasts the highest salaries in the U.S. This is because of the sheer number of companies in the region, from EA, Zynga and many other big companies in the San Francisco bay area, to Microsoft, Nintendo, and Valve in Washington. This makes for a very competitive job market, and thus competitive salary rates. But the market is just that - competitive. It can sometimes be deceptively difficult to get work in a high volume market.

    With indie game companies cropping up pretty much everywhere, it might make more sense to start out in the region where you live, rather than making a pilgrimage for a bigger salary.

    Figure 3: Salaries across the Western world.

    The series of charts in Figure 3 shows, by discipline, who has been making what across the U.S., Canada, and Europe (including the U.K.). We couldn't compare all disciplines directly across the full 10 years because of ways in which we changed our survey questions, so the comparison is really only the last 6 years. You should also note that our sample sizes for Europe and Canada are smaller than the U.S. by about half, making for a slightly higher margin of error, but the comparison is actually still quite solid (we're talking about some 500 responses for each non-U.S. region usually).

    As you can see here, U.S. salaries are higher, but Canada has been making serious gains. Notice that around 2009 during the economic crisis, Canadian salaries actually get a bit higher. This was around the time the Canadian government stawrted providing incentives for companies to start up there, and hire more employees. I can't prove this, but it looks on paper like these Canadian companies smartly lured away talent from other regions, especially the U.K. Anecdotal evidence supports this, but don't take it as fact.

    The spike in U.S. producer pay that you see in 2010, meanwhile, likely has to do with the social game boom, which has increased demand for efficient producers to manage many disparate teams.

    QA seems to be very close everywhere in the west, and still not a discipline that gets enough respect. As the front line against consumers discomfort, QA should be a much more highly valued group.

    Audio, meanwhile, is all over the place. There aren't many full-time in-house audio professionals - most of them are freelance. That makes this chart very under-reported, since in this graph we only pay attention to full-time salaried professionals.

    Across the board, you'll find the groups, regions, and disciplines that already make the most money are the best at weathering storms and market fluctuations. Those who do well continue to do well, and the reverse. We also found that across basically every discipline, game developers are getting older. Those who have entered the industry tend to stick around, which means they tend to dwarf the number of new workers in numbers.

    For 2011 salary data in greater detail (the newest survey thus far), check out the full Game Career Guide issue here.


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