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Game companies are working developers hard. The pay isn’t worth it

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Crunch has been one of the biggest topics in video game industry news over the last year with reports of massive studio layoffs at established studios following closely behind. Another topic relating to these issues that hasn’t received as much attention, however, are the low and unfair wages developers are being paid in exchange for their increasingly demanding work. Just like issues with crunch and layoffs, it’s a problem developers are afraid to speak openly about because of the fear of retaliation from current and future job opportunities.

In light of all the news surrounding crunch and layoffs at studios, Beck Hallstedt sparked the conversation about developers being paid unlivable wages on Twitter, using the Quality Assurance (QA) jobs at Gearbox Software as a prime example.

their QA folks are paid $10/hour, probably with zero benefits.
they deserve better.@GameWorkers @GWU_Dallas

— becca~ hallstedt~ ???? (@beccahallstedt) March 28, 2019

They go on to say, “I know crunch is the big thing to criticize in games but please, please, please talk about how bad wages are too. People are living in their cars and pulling out loans to pay rent because of this stuff.”

They point out information from PayScale, which shows the average Gearbox Software salary at $54,000, but that number isn’t the full picture. That average is taken from a small group of people — in Gearbox Software’s case, 10 — who reported their earnings. Some of these individuals are senior level designers that are making as much as 105k, bumping up the average salary higher than it is.

There are also many other factors to consider when talking about what’s considered fair compensation in the gaming industry. Digital Trends interviewed developers to find out more about this problem and the issues associated with not being paid a livable wage.

Location versus compensation

Many game studios are located in major cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York. This makes the cost of living far higher than it is in other places in the country. Since many studios do not allow their staff to work remotely, developers have to live in the city or relocate to find consistent work. Rent, food, transportation, and sometimes even student loans and medical care can factor into the cost of living.

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Hallstedt has been working as a freelance concept artist for over three years, with their first in-house job being a 2D Art internship at High Voltage Software in Chicago.

“I was hired at $12 an hour, which I’m honestly happy with for an intern position in the Midwest. I was learning as much as I was contributing, and the artists there spent time guiding me through adapting to a studio pipeline,” they said. “It was great, and the generosity of those artists has guided my entire career.”

A few weeks after the internship ended, Netherrealm Studios reached out and asked Hallstedt to submit their resume as an associate concept artist. During the interview, they were offered to work on Injustice 2 for their standard 9-month temporary contract. The offer they received wasn’t anywhere near what they imagined it would be.

The salary was $11 an hour, which was $1 less than their prior internship had offered, except that this would a full-time commitment. “This included no benefits, and I could be fired at any time (which is pretty normal) while overtime would be paid time-and-a-half. I called them and tried to negotiate higher, just hoping to hit $15 an hour, but they stood their ground,” Hallstedt explains. “I accepted the position because I, like many others, knew that Netherrealm Studios is the only AAA studio in Chicago. It can open up other opportunities, and they know they can pull in new grads at those low rates because of that.”

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Hallstedt was there between their final years of college for about 5 months. Hallstedt ended the contract early in order to focus on developing their portfolio during senior year. The following spring, they were hired by Blizzard as an associate artist on World of Warcraft at a rate of $25 an hour; which is about $52,000 a year.

That’s not a poor wage compared to national averages, but as Hallstedt found, location matters. “This doesn’t sound that bad until you realize that rent in that area starts at about $1,800 for a one-bedroom. But this isn’t the kind of offer a new graduate says ‘no’ to. I moved out to California within 2 weeks of graduating and immediately knew I could not afford to live there.”

Hallstedt was offered to live in provided housing during their first month of work, and received a relocation package that covered most of their expenses for getting across the country. The offer also included a 10% holiday bonus along with performance-based profit sharing, but taxes took much of that money in the end.

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They were able to buy a car — a necessity for them in the area — and pay for the security deposit on their very expensive first apartment, but only after borrowing several thousand dollars from their family. “If I hadn’t been able to do that, I don’t know if I could have justified moving out there.”

Originally, Hallstedt split a two-bedroom with a friend and later moved into a small junior bedroom out of a non-work-related friend’s home about an hour from work. They say this was the only way they could save enough money to move back home to the Midwest after 10-11 months since their mental health was getting “too dark.”

The stress of saving up money while trying to fit into a place that I knew I couldn’t afford to live in was too much

“I wanted to hit a year or more, which is pretty standard, but it had become devastating for my chronic depression. The stress of saving up money while trying to fit into a place that I knew I couldn’t afford to live in was too much,” they said. “I met really incredible, passionate, empathetic, creative, fun people out there, and I miss a lot of them. There are a lot of really wonderful people in those walls.”

In addition to all of this, they were offered a full time position at Telltale Games as a texture artist during their 5th year of college, which they would have had to drop out for. The studio said that Hallstedt had submitted “one of the best texture art tests they had ever received.”

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But the salary offered didn’t reflect that, especially considering the job was based in San Francisco. “They offered me $50,000 a year. Rent for a 1 bedroom at the time averaged out to a bit over $4,000 a month.”

“That company deserved to burn with how it treated the finest of our industry there. Literally the best people in games walked in and out of that door every day, and many of them are still hurting from it. Fuck Telltale.”

The wage gap between industries

Freelancing worked out well for them, but it wasn’t pure luck. Having a big follower base and a portfolio to present was a big game changer. Unfortunately, it’s not as perfect as it sounds. Hallstedt can’t commit to projects without funding, since they still have around $80k in student loan debt, and health insurance is paid out of their own pocket.

Sadly, because of all the sacrifices many are forced to make, others end up quitting the industry altogether. A lead producer, who asked to remain anonymous, went from making $40k a year in gaming to making $175k a year for a consumer food & beverage company, though the jobs had similar responsibilities.

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Their initial salary as a lead producer eventually rose to $60k, but that happened over the course of six years at a company whose “profits were millions, and [was] owned by Tencent,” a multinational Chinese enterprise.

“They had me doing everything. Social media management, profit analysis, content management, crunch hours, and UX/UI design for their websites with an agency. An average work week was about 50 hours, maybe 55 with on-call weekend emergencies,” they added.

The game industry kept quoting me untenable wages, and generally made me broke, barely afloat

“Basically, the game industry kept quoting me untenable wages and generally made me broke, barely afloat. Then, when I applied to other companies, the salary quotes I got were always six figures. So I left the industry.”

Junior developers are affected the most

Many junior developers who are freelancing and trying to earn a name for themselves have to deal with similar roadblocks.

An artist from Spain has pursued game development for almost four years. They told us the demand for senior roles is far higher than that of junior positions, leading to dozens of developers submitting their resumes to a short list of places.

Another developer reached out to tell us that they still haven’t been paid by a studio after working there since July 2018. They worked around the clock on freelancing and side jobs, and most of their survival was completely dependent on the support of friends and family.

“Having carpal tunnel and several mental health hurdles made getting any artistic work done outside of the studio extremely difficult. Much of my work — including several pieces I’m very proud of and want to showcase in my portfolio — is still hidden behind NDA,” they said. “I wonder if it will ever see release, given that the studio’s employees came and went revolving door style.”

Games such as Rise of the Tomb Raider, Far Cry: New Dawn, and Battlefield V had part of their development outsourced to companies where many junior developers end up. What’s it like to work for them.

Rise of the Tomb Raider
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An anonymous developer working for a major Chinese video game outsourcing company says it’s where they’ve seen some of the best and worst development practices in their career. “Clients who are creative and supportive, against clients who literally treat artists like a number on a spreadsheet, and the team as an assembly line.”

Most juniors were paid 6,000 CNY a month, which ends up being 4,950 after taxes. Current exchange rates convert that to about $8,600 U.S. dollars a year. Most of the developers live paycheck to paycheck.

Junior developers often end up leaving after two or three years, usually due to “predatory poaching” from Chinese mobile game studios that offer twice or more of their current salary.

“Because China has so many people, there’s usually no shortage of fresh art graduates to make up for the loss, so we end up with a huge number of ‘underpaid’ juniors,” the developer told Digital Trends.

There are many layers to the problems in the game industry that are often overlooked. As Hallstedt recently said on Twitter, private-sector employees in the US have the legal right to talk about salaries, and the lack of pay transparency only benefits companies.

The unlivable wages that jobs in the game industry are paying in some of the most expensive cities in the world, along with the lack of transparency from current and former employees, are issues that need to be addressed.

Organizations like Game Workers Unite, and the increased pursuit of unions in the industry, are helping developers hold companies accountable for their bad practices and putting these issues in the eyes of the public. It’s a first step – but, if these issues are to be fixed, it will prove the first of many.

Diego Arguello
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Diego Argüello is a freelance journalist from Argentina who spends most of his time reading in public transport and thinking…
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