Most every person who enjoys playing video games has found themselves saying, “Wow that’s awesome, can I do that?!”
The good news is that the short answer is yes! We live in the technological age, where we have access to vast amounts of knowledge and a full force of open source software to really follow through on any developmental dreams we could have.
However, now we have answered the question of “Can I?”, so the bigger question of this article is “Is game development for me?”
The hard truth of a career in any level of game development is that it really is not a career that everyone can pursue. Many obstacles will likely present themselves to you at any level of development, and the hardships on time, money, and your own well-being or work life balance may simply not mesh well with a career in game design.
The purpose of this article is to discuss the way game development functions at many levels, so that you can decide if there is a future for you as a designer, or if game design would be more of a hobby.
In this article we’ll discuss:
- how indie development teams function and how you will likely fit into the scheme of an indie development team,
- how AA studios function and how you will likely fit into the scheme of a AA development team,
- finally, how AAA studios function and how you will likely fit into the grand scheme of making a massive game with a AAA label on the cover.
Alongside this we will shortly discuss the intricacies of contract work as a developer as it is, as many topics in game development, pretty tough to cover in a short article.
Ultimately this is based on my experiences with game development as a contractor and indie dev. It also pulls from the things I have learned from podcasts, and in-depth conversations with people at all stages and levels of game development.
Essentially what I want you all to know is that there is a massive world out there, and this article should not discourage you from following your passions to make video games if it is truly your dream. As within most every video game no experience is universal, so don’t hesitate to get out there and cultivate your own! With that in mind, let us bear down into the intricacies of making the things we all love!
A Career in Indie Video Game Development
Our first stop is a short crash course on indie studios. This is a very diverse topic that cannot be fully covered in a short article, and each studio will likely run differently because of the many people determined to make games in our world.
Being an indie can mean anything from “I work on this as a hobby on the weekends!” to “Me and 15 friends from college started up a studio and got 25,000$ in funding for our project!” Fear not though as many aspects of being an indie will remain the same regardless of the difference in production power and time allowance.
Indie studios tend to rely almost entirely on open source software and will typically be unlikely to pay for expensive software, with very few exceptions for when an open source version is not available (as is typically the case with the Substance design suite).
Alongside this most indie developers will work like a lot of outsourced contract devs in regard to utilize their own hardware to create the games they set out to make. Typically, an indie studio would be unlikely or unable to provide the personal luxuries of a company owned drawing tablet, PC, and so on so forth. This means that if you don’t already own this hardware, be prepared to need to lay down some cash for at least the bare essentials.
Open Source Software and Indie Game Studios
Alongside this you will likely find yourself working in an open source engine (or in the case of particularly determined developers their own engine) to create the project itself. This can mean you may find yourself using Unity, Godot or Unreal Engine 4, or if you have a small allowance for some cheap licenses something like GameMaker. If you don’t know how to use them, you will likely need to spend a lot of time working on learning to use them via online academy’s or classes, college courses, or utilizing the free tutorials and walkthroughs made available online (you can find many on this site).
Most indie dev teams are comprised of people you know personally like friends or in some cases even family or found online through chatting websites. There have been many cases where dev teams were formed in online spaces such as Discord, Reddit, and many others. Alongside this whenever Indies have some discretionary funds, they will opt to hire contract workers to help them in areas they don’t have the most experience themselves.
Occasionally when in dire straits, and unable or unwilling to learn how to do something themselves, indies may offer rev share bonuses to contract developers for their assistance or offer them exposure and other forms of compensation for their work. This leads us into the next topic, how indie developers tend to be paid and how much.
Revshare, Workflow, and You
Indie game development has a lot of ups and downs as opposed to the higher-level counterparts. One of the ups and downs is how you’ll be paid for the work you have put in. A lot of the time indie studios or teams won’t have up-front money, so they’ll offer payment for services with things like exposure, or revshare.
Revshare basically means that when the money from the game comes back you will receive a percentage of the profit yourself. Most revshare projects operate on a fair split system, meaning everyone takes an even cut of every dollar, however it may also come down to you being paid a fixed sum at a certain date. It also is not uncommon for bigger studios to offer departmental fair split systems. Meaning the art department will receive say 30% of every dollar, and the devs in that department will receive an even split of that 30% so on and so forth.
Ultimately the takeaway for indie work is that, unless it is contract work, it is unlikely that you will be paid a large sum or be paid very quickly. This tends to mean in turn that the work is done on a fairly relaxed schedule, or very relaxed amount of time spent per week on the project. It is not uncommon for indie studios to have someone only dedicate between 5-10 hours per week on the game, or even just have a deadline that they must meet (i.e. get this done by March 20th, so on so forth).
Of course, that time frame may be different for contract work, or higher paying dev studios. However, with indie you can almost always be sure that you’ll have some wiggle room on the time it takes to complete your work, which also leads to a much better work life balance than in higher levels of development. This also means however that a lot of the work you get done may come down to your own motivation and dedication to the project, so definitely try and keep your aspirations well targeted. In essence being an indie really does boil down to your passion and drive for the work, which makes this choice an ideal place for hobbyists and those with limited time but a lot of heart.
Finally, as with any kind of work always make sure you are credited for your work in some way or another. It is fun to create a game just to create it, however having your name on the project can mean more of a presence, as well as the possibility of more contract work, or even an easier time finding an industry job. The recognition can come in the form of your own name, or a pen name, or possibly just an online handle, but ultimately it is always suggested to get your name on the project in some way.
A Career in AA Video Game Development Studios
The next primary level up in game development is the AA studio. An example of one of these studios is Ganymede Games, the studio I did some contract work with recently.
AA studios tend to garner much higher funding than indie studios, but significantly less than a AAA studio. They also tend to be started and run by people who have worked in the industry as AAA developers, or contract workers.
Most AA studios are heavily reliant on the talent of their team, and they tend to pay a good sum for the work than most indie studios can. The unfortunate part of this is that during the prototyping phase of development very few team members will actually be permanent. It is not uncommon for the founding members to begin work on the game while they hunt for funding and hire out contract work to complete their prototype. Once the contract is up, they will likely try and cut costs meaning contracts won’t typically last for more than a few months.
Don’t be discouraged by the above however! Working contract with a AA likely means you will be on a front runner list for people to bring on when they have achieved their funding goals and officially begin development. On top of the pay you receive, and the connections you make, this is all in all a very helpful boost in any game developer’s career, whether you’re just starting out or a seasoned veteran.
It is also not uncommon for AA teams, as well as some indies, to utilize premade assets in their games, which can mean if you have content on a marketplace you can still see your content placed in a AA game, or at least a prototype for one.
Ultimately however those working in a AA studio may find themselves in an after-contract work job hunt. This may mean you are hunting for more contract work, or you simply must find another job to pay the bills once your part of development is done. It can always pay off in a future career with the studio, if they make it to their funding goals, but always remember to hunt for work and keep your options open in case it falls through for you personally. At the end of the day you want to make sure that you aren’t caught on uneasy footing and ready for any eventuality.
Essentially the AA level of the industry is a great place to be and tends to treat devs a lot better relative to AAA studios, while offering them a paycheck that an indie cannot. Of course, it comes with a lot of job uncertainty, and comes with a lot of hard work and dedication, but if you can afford to put yourself all in and make waves at this level, then it is a pretty fine choice for most!
A Career in AAA Video Game Development Studios
Finally, the big fish of the game dev world. It isn’t easy to describe ultimately how a AAA studio works in one short article, however there are some bits and pieces that can help you decide if working in this section of the field is for you.
First things first, getting hired onto a AAA team. It may sound easy on paper; however, it is a lot of hard work and takes a lot of time and dedication. Unfortunately, this is time that you won’t be paid for of course, as it is about honing your craft, polishing a portfolio, making connections, and perfecting your online presence.
All in all, it can take a few weeks to months, or maybe even years, to find a job in a AAA studio. This is the case mainly because there is a lot of competition in this field today, and everyone is matching up their content and skills against each other.
For students or those who’ve never worked in the industry before this means you’ll be coming from a high school, college, or regular day to day life and pushed into a fairly competitive world where you’re up against people who’ve been doing the job, and likely doing it well, for a few years at least. However, keep a positive attitude and determination and make positive waves for yourself and others. Believe it or not your attitude can play a big role in being hired onto a team!
The Life of a AAA Studio Game Developer
Once you’ve found a job the development tends to be pretty consistent. Many devs will stay at the office for long hours working to meet deadlines, and this isn’t even beginning to touch on the hardship of crunch time. You will need to know that working in a AAA studio means you very likely won’t have good work life balance.
Ultimately this results in the industry not being suited well for people who are moving forward in life. If you’re getting married, having kids, getting pets (especially young ones), or trying to have a grand social life a very harsh reality is that AAA development may just not be for you. It is an industry designed for young people fresh from college and ready to push themselves without much worry in regard to their personal life or personal situation.
Unfortunately, the industry also hosts many issues such as fairly low pay in most areas for the skilled work and time it takes, and most times offers very few benefits such as healthcare, dental, PTO, Vacation days, and even maternity or paternity leave.
This is a big reason that AAA developers have been talking a lot about unionization over the last few years, and this phenomenon was aggravated heavily with the mass layoffs happening consecutively to devs with many companies attempting to cut costs. Which leads us to another unfortunate hardship of being a AAA developer. Unexpected layoffs may come at any time, and hit any branch, at any level of development. They can come suddenly, and the unfortunate truth is that many devs are left with nothing but their savings to make it until they can find their next job.
This creates a very hard position for developers, especially those with families and other financial responsibilities. This also leads to an unfortunate phenomenon that some developers won’t actually own their own home until much later in life because, alongside the costs, when a layoff hits you have to be ready to move across the country, and in some cases across the continent or even the world, to find your next bit of paying work.
This also leads to a much worse work life balance, and also can cause a lot of stress on the families of AAA developers. It is not uncommon for developers to remain single and put off starting a family for a long time due to the complications it could bring. Even in the event of your family staying stable and secure at home it comes at a huge cost, both financially and emotionally, for a dev to move to where the work is and find housing while sustaining themselves and their families in another location.
Another trend in AAA development is also career stagnation. Once a developer hits a certain level in a company, they can’t really advance much further, and there aren’t many tiers to work through to begin with. This is how a lot of developers end up in a stagnant position and begin getting fed up with their job, as the higher you go up the ladder the less work you get to do directly on the game, especially if you take on the role of a producer.
This is what leads a lot of developers to begin their own Indie, AA, or AAA studios or simply just begin taking on contract work for any studio they can be hired with. Of course, the studios they can be hired with can be affected by a Non-Compete Clause in their contract, but again that is for another article altogether as it is a very large topic to tackle in such a short period of time.
Contract and Freelance Video Game Designers
Ultimately one faction of developers will always find themselves with the open possibility of good work, especially with outsourcing of development becoming more and more common in many facets of the industry, and that is contract and freelance developers.
Contract and freelance developers tend to have a good work life balance, as well as work on a lot of amazing games that they can be proud of the work they put into them. As is the case with any career like this, how happy you are comes down to the contracts you sign, and the time you allot yourself for the things that matter to you.
Unfortunately however, you aren’t likely going to be able to make a career out of contract and freelance work unless you have a full roster of jobs, as well as content for sale on marketplaces, or if you find a studio hiring for part to full time contract workers. Coupled with this freelance and contract workers very rarely receive benefits such as healthcare, so make sure you plan accordingly for your needs!
For the most part this is a good line of work for those looking for a secondary revenue stream, such as professors, journalists, and other careers that developers tend to find themselves in when not directly involved in a studio’s development.
It also comes with its highs and lows, meaning you may not always have work which can leave you in a very unfortunate position when it comes to your fiscal responsibilities if you depend heavily on your career as a freelancer or contract worker.
Is Video Game Development for You?
All in all, every facet of the development world has its pros and cons, but if every level of game development feels like it’s too much for you to handle then fear not! Game development at its core is about passion and the desire to bring some art into the world.
So, while working as an indie may not pay the bills, AA and Contract work are a little unsure for a future, and AAA comes with a lot of personal sacrifice, you can always pursue development as a creative hobby. You can make games for yourself and your friends or make them and release them into the world for all to enjoy on a platform like Itch.io.
Ultimately you will never be barred from making a video game, you only have to decide where you fit best as a developer. Hopefully this helps some soon to be developers find their way a little bit, and good luck following your dreams!