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On Being a Video Game Programmer - The Perks and Pitfalls

Sep 16, 2008
What is it like to work as a video game programmer? It is considered by many game-playing children to be a dream job. Is it actually as good as it sounds? It certainly is an interesting life. However, as with anything else on this planet, there are both positive and negative sides to working as a video game programmer.

For the last 7 years I have worked as a video game programmer at three development studios: Activision/Treyarch, Visual Concepts and DiscoPixel. I have published titles for the Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo consoles. This article is a summary of some of the perks and pitfalls that I have experienced through my work at these companies.

Perk #1 - Make Games!

This one is pretty obvious, but the biggest perk of working at a video game studio is that you will be MAKING games. You will be helping build the next great game that potentially millions of people will play and enjoy. There's an amazing satisfaction that stems from knowing that you helped make something big.

Perk #2 - Play Games!

In addition to testing and improving your current game every day, you'll also be playing games made by other companies. There are few jobs out there where sitting down and playing a newly released console title is considered research. Companies definitely want you to stay on top of the technology and features of new games, and the only way to do this is by playing lots of games. At the companies I've worked at, I've never seen anyone get reprimanded for playing video games during the day.

Perk #3 - Independence

A great aspect of working as a video game programmer is the independence you are given. It is rare that you'll have a manager breathing down your neck or double checking everything you do. To get hired into a development studio you need to already have excellent programming skills, so you are given a lot of freedom to make many decisions yourself. You may be assigned a general task to complete, but how that actually should be done, as well as how long it should take, are often up to you.

Provided that you can get your work done, the companies I have worked for generally seemed to be very willing to let me work on my terms. When I was tired or bored or lazy I could go play a game or relax somewhere without anyone complaining. Happy employees with improved morale make better games.

Perk #4 - Fun Office Environment

Everybody that works at a video game studio has one thing in common: they love games. If they didn't love playing games they would never have been hired to make them. Because of this, the office setting often has fun or quirky things anywhere you look. Many people bring strange new objects to show off or play with during the day.

Most video game studios have lots of games and toys lying around to keep its employees entertained. A few things that I have come across at various studios: Arcades with free coin-op games, foosball tables, ping pong tables, razor scooters, board games, action figures, puzzles, daytime basketball games and giant stuffed animals.

Coming to the office still means you're going to work, but there's no reason why it can't also be fun.

Perk #5 - Free Soda + Snacks

This perk is maybe not important to everyone, but it's nice to know that you won't go hungry working at a video game studio. I've never met a video game company that hasn't offered free soda and snacks as part of the benefits of working there. I suppose being loaded up on caffeine and sugar helps boost productivity. During long days at the office, companies will typically provide free dinner as a thank-you for staying late. One company I worked for served fully catered meals from assorted restaurants every night for many weeks.

Pitfall #1 - Long Work Hours

Making video games is a lot of work. The amount of time needed to make the latest game seems to be growing exponentially. Development teams continue to get bigger and bigger every year, yet somehow the amount of work per person doesn't seem to get any smaller. Games are very complicated. Also, the nature of games is that they must be fun, which is not always so easy to accurately pencil into a schedule. A lot of experimentation is needed, especially with new game concepts.

Before a milestone and especially a few months before a game is released, the work day will be very intense. The work has a way of very quickly piling up. New features and old bugs suck away all of your time. Working long nights or weekends is not uncommon. Fortunately, employees generally care about the games that they are making, and their passion helps energize them through these occasional long shifts.

The stress can get overwhelming, too. At one company I had a giant stack of bug reports waiting for me on my chair when I came into the office. I would work all day, scrambling to fix the bugs as quickly as possible, working on full blast all day and night. I'd go home for a couple hours of sleep, but when I'd return to work there would be a new, even larger stack of bug reports waiting for me.

Typically after a project has shipped there will be a period of downtime where the employees can get a chance to relax and recover. The work load will suddenly significantly reduce. One company gave bonus vacation time after a project shipped, and another put employees "on call" for about a month, in which they only had to come to the office if there was some kind of problem. It's nice to know that your long work hours do not go unnoticed.

Pitfall #2 -Choosing What to Work On

Working on your own video games in your free time is a lot of fun. You get to choose exactly what game and tasks you want to work on, focusing only on the fun stuff. Anything boring can be safely ignored since the only audience is you. Unfortunately, this is not the case for large video game studios. There are many tasks to be completed, some of which are not too glamorous. Fixing console manufacturer standards violations or building data tools is not very exciting, but it still needs to be done by someone in order to ship the final product.

These tasks typically are given to people who are just starting out in the video game industry, perhaps as a rite of passage, but probably just because nobody else wants to do them.

In addition to the possibility of working on less glamorous tasks, you could be assigned a project that you are not fully interested in. Typically the company will let you work projects that interest you, but this is not always possible. A particular project could be falling behind schedule and it needs a few more employees to fix some bugs or add some new features. Or, the project you are interested in already has enough workers.

I think that the passion of the employees working at a video game studio is crucial to the success of that game. If you are not excited about what you're working on, it will show up in the game you're creating. To avoid any misunderstandings or letdowns, before deciding to work at a particular company, it's important to find out what game you will be working on in addition to what tasks you will be assigned.

Pitfall #3 -Pay Not as Good (Maybe?)

I've heard from a few people that the pay working as a video game programmer is not as good as the pay working at more conventional companies. Business database programmers, for example, could be earning more money. This could be true. However, choosing your profession is not just about the pay. You spend a large percentage of your life at your job. Money is not everything. Choosing something that you enjoy is important, too.

I thought the pay at the companies I have worked at was very reasonable. There is also a large potential upside from royalty checks coming from a game that sells well, which has sometimes turned out to be significant. You will definitely not be living as a pauper if you get a programmer job at a video game company.

Conclusion

I hope that this article has been helpful towards learning a little bit about working as a video game programmer. As with everything in life, there are pros and cons to this profession. If what you have read sounds good to you, I hope you find that dream job making the next great bestselling game.
About the Author
Tom Bak is a professional software developer with over ten years of programming experience on diverse projects, including seven years of videogame experience with numerous published console game titles. He is currently working on a free charity word game and a free word puzzle game.
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