The Truth About Making Video Games

When I meet people for the first time and they find out what I do, they often say how much fun it must be to work and play on video games all the time. When people think of making games, I think they imagine me sitting at my desk playing the game while fun bouncy balls are going around the office. At any moment in time a nerf war could erupt with darts flying anywhere and everywhere. We all take breaks half way through the day to play other video games and don’t manage to get back to work until 3pm or so after which we work for a couple of hours and then eventually head home.

While parts of those may be true, the vast majority of what we do is work. I work with some incredibly talented and very, very smart people, almost more than I’ve ever seen in any other job I’ve had. We like to have fun (as do most people at most jobs), but it certainly doesn’t rule our day. I don’t think the layperson realizes how much work actually goes into making a game of the magnitude that we’re working on. Some of the problems we’re working on haven’t been solved before, and if they have, we’re figuring out better ways to do it. All of this requires a tremendous amount of background experience and knowledge that 100+ people carry with themselves into work every day. It’s really more like a normal company than most people realize. The things people always hear about as being fun are the extras we get.

Every Friday at around 5 we have beer and either pizza or barbecue (when it’s actually nice out). We get free dinner if we work late. Yes, some of us have nerf guns. Some of us have very big nerf guns. We have video game systems all around us (obviously), but even have the ones we don’t need like the Genesis or Wii just because. We take occasional groupwide trips to play golf, ski, or play whirlyball. And yes, whirlyball is as awesome as you’d think it is. Most of us have all kinds of toys and video game related paraphernalia on our desks because we’re such fans and nuts of the media. We have bad ass computers and tvs all over and a very nice, open work environment that is better than anywhere else I’ve ever worked. Needless to say, we get and have a lot.

Now, there’s a reason we get all of these perks. Well, there are two reasons. We work hard. We work really fucking hard. For instance, it is my birthday today and I am still at work at 11:30 PM. Granted today is a Tuesday and so I wouldn’t really be celebrating much anyway, but there are still people here with me working on stuff. We’re certainly the outliers, but we’re not alone. While I was at DigiPen, I pulled 120 hour weeks several times (17 hours a day 7 days a week). My general work week is at least 45 to 50 hours. During crunch we tend to work weekends and nights much more often than a normal job would, hence why I’m still here.

The other reason we get so many perks is because we get paid shit money for what we do. Like I said earlier, I work with some of the smartest people I’ve known and yet if I were to work in the non-video games industry, I could easily be making double what I make now with less work, less stress, and more vacation. It sometimes pains me to know that I could nearly have paid off my student loans by now if I had just gone to work at Microsoft, Google, or some other such big company. I could be saving money for buying a house. That’s pretty hard to even fathom. The problem with the video game industry and its compensation structure is that everyone wants to get into games, and that drives the cost of labor way down. You don’t hear many people saying they’d love to get into managing databases very often, but you certainly hear people who want to get into video games. I think it’s also because we’re a fairly immature media and the structure hasn’t been ironed out yet.

So what I guess I’m trying to say through all of this is we may have a lot of fun, but it’s offset by the insane amount of work we have to accomplish sometimes and the terrible pay. Most people (and understandably so, I used to think it too) just see the video games and think of how much fun they are to play. Working on them day in and day out and hearing the same script 20 times tends to dull it a bit. Lastly, but not least, I can’t ever play another video game without looking at it and trying to dissect it. I have to figure out how they managed to do their architecture, what their bugs are, what their tradeoffs were, etc. It’s impossible for me to sit down and just play a game without thinking of how it was designed or made. That doesn’t sound horrible, but it really kind of is :(.

Anyway, maybe people will understand a bit better about what it is to work in the games industry. Certainly not all studios are like mine (some are better, some are worse), but I think that’s a good general approximation.