Stack OverflowAre game developers paid well?
[+49] [22] dotnetcoder
[2008-10-19 21:06:48]
[ game-development ]

Do game developers get paid better than conventional application programmers working in products or services based companies ?

I could be totally wrong here , I think it takes a lot more to be a game developer than a web developer (for example) who's just writing UIs and server side code and little bit of business logic if the dog is a lucky one but still getting a decent buck for the job.

I work as a software developer with an investment bank and I hate my job as a programmer for the code I write and the purpose it has to meet... its pretty lame for the most part of it where the challenge is not technology as much it is to deliver fast as possible with rubbish written all over "which is acceptable" - just because there is a team to do "support" and eventually give birth to a new project - typically called "renovation" which is nothing but new shit replacing old shit!

If one was to consider a switch in work as a game developer - what factors should I keep in mind. I am not a game developer as yet but do have a lot of interest and respect for the community and tech involved.

update #1 : I posetd this question back in 2008. Now in 2011 wondering what's the scene in gaming industry at this time ? specially with the advent of app stores and boom in mobile computing we have better platform for distributing games to more and more users. has it done significant good to gaming ?

+1 for your current (now maybe past) job - Petr Peller
+1 for emotions. - topright gamedev
As per for edit for 2011, no, the average wage of a game developer is still lower then a typical non-game developer. Plus, only a small amount of mobile apps even break even (most lose money) - thedaian
[+60] [2008-10-19 22:11:06] Burre

I have been both a game developer and an application developer and in my case I earn more as an application developer. That is not, as the myth seems to be, because so many developers want into the business that they are put in a poor position when negotiating salary. In fact, even though there are plenty of applicants there are still a shortage of experienced game developers with the correct skill set. Many developers are not equipped for game development. This is not mainly because game development is "extremely hard" (although I would rate it above average) but more to the fact that the type of skills are very specialized and hard to find in an average freshly graduated engineer.

The lower pay is also due to higher economical risks, since games have a lower success rate than applications and to the fact that many employers are start-ups with limited funding that might pay part of your salary with shares in the company. There are a wider high-end developer market for applications and more opportunities (applications are easier modified/changed to enable new opportunities than games). Such factors effect the average salary.

I personally took a break from the game industry because I felt that it was too locked in and the grounds upon which business were made felt both immature and insecure at times. It is still a young business and it shows from time to time. I would consider going back, but under under different, less turbulent and more secure circumstances. Games is an high risk business and while a desk job as an application developer might be slightly more dull (depending of course), it feels more safe, leaves more options available and even leaves time for other stuff (which game development often doesn't).

I develop exciting applications and feel just as creative as I did as a game developer so I'm not missing that industry at the moment.

I'd vote 10 points for this answer if i could. Well put! - steffenj
Thanks! Are you too familiar with the industry? I also stress that I don't want to scare ppl away from game development, but they should be prepared both for taking risks and facing failure. It is an exiting business, and too much so at times. - Burre
Yes, i work in the game industry. When i was "young and inexperienced" i enjoyed putting in long hours. As i matured, so did the company i work for. We're finishing up a 2-year project and we have NO CRUNCH AT ALL! We're very relaxed even though we have just 2 months to go, it's only bugfixing now. - steffenj
I think this is because most games have a shelf life of a several weeks, maybe a couple of months tops, so if a game doesn't hit the shelves it's "game over". This isn't the case with subscription-based games, where a game can last for several years. - iconiK
[+44] [2008-10-19 21:40:16] 6eorge Jetson [ACCEPTED]

I, too, work in finance (at an investment manager) and can certainly understand your frustration.

I highly doubt that the typical game developer gets paid anywhere near the level of the typical investment bank programmer. Just as there is absolutely no shortage of would-be-actors that would love to make it in Hollywood, the "cool/fun" factor of game programming pretty much ensures that employers will have always have a long list of applicants. (But of course, that doesn't stop the A-list in Hollywood from making the's just that there's a lot of competition to get there.)

Joel Sposky describes it extremely well in his post at

"The big investment banks in New York are considered fairly tough places for programmers. The working conditions are dreadful, with long hours, noisy environments, and tyrannical bosses; programmers are very distinct third-class citizens while the testosterone-crazed apes who actually sell and trade financial instruments are corporate royalty, with $30,000,000 bonuses and all the cheeseburgers they can eat (often delivered by a programmer who happened to be nearby). That’s the stereotype, anyway, so to keep the best developers, investment banks have two strategies: paying a ton of money, and allowing programmers basically free reign to keep rewriting everything over and over again in whatever hot new programming language they feel like learning. Wanna rewrite that whole trading app in Lisp? Whatever. Just get me a goddamned cheeseburger."

The financial bigwigs are willing to pay a premium in order to avoid having to deal with a banality such as software infrastructure, and also expect to get what they want ASAP. So that puts a cap on the upside. That's the downside.

The upside is that the typical programmer gets paid better than in other industries, and when the bigwigs aren't demanding their latest whim, they won't be paying attention and at these times you may have some freedom to be creative (out of the spotlight).

So I think, in general, that's the trade-off decision that an IBank developer has to make. Do you want to be paid relatively well as a third-class citizen, w/ constraints on your growth in your present role, or do you look elsewhere, and typically take an initial paycut as a beginner to your new field (where someone may actually pay attention to what you do)?

I agree with you there - as long as one's in the pool the upside is to be more creative when out of the spotlight and keep learning. - dotnetcoder
love the excerpt ,-) - mike nvck
Disagree about "employers will have always have a long list of applicants" - in my experience the games industry isn't any different from other industries in that regard. - kranzky
(2) Did Joel actually write "free reign"? That's disappointing. - Robert Rossney
@Robert, ha! "Rein" and "reign" etymologically come from roots at different ends of the social spectrum. "Reign" comes from the same Latin root as "regime", while "rein" from the same Latin root as "retinue" and "retainer". - Mike Samuel
[+36] [2008-10-20 20:45:04] steffenj

I have to step in on behalf of the game industry here. It's not all bad as is being told here. My experience is a different one. Since everyone can only tell from his own experience, i'd like to share mine too ...

First of all, i've been working as a game developer on Game & Level Design and foremost Scripting, Game Logic & Tools Programming. Over the course of nine years and two companies (one handheld and a PC developer) i worked for I have accumulated a highly diversified amount of working knowledge under my belt. Here's a quick rundown:

  • Game Design (small scale, eg. for handheld devices)
  • Level Design (2D tile based, 3D freeform landscaping)
  • Scripting (Levels, Gamelogic, Controls, Menus, Missions, Quests, Dialog)
  • Game Logic Programming (Lua, Scripting, Combat)
  • Tools Programming (MFC, C#, .NET, Lua, remote debugging)
  • Database Setup, Programming, Tools (SQL, nHibernate, C#)
  • Localization (tools, processes, workflow, Excel, Unicode)
  • Wiki (setup & administration, support)
  • Leadership & Management (small to medium teams)

Note that I'm not listing anything i remotely worked on here. No, these are actually my major areas of expertise which i would pull out if i had to apply for a job. I don't claim intimitate knowledge for any of these technologies or skills, except maybe for Lua which i know inside and out (ok, more out than inside but nevertheless).

I also am not looking down on other developers, especially not web developers. I've had a good deal of exposure to the web world to know i honestly wouldn't go there for anything in the world, and i admire every web developer who can build a site like stackoverflow or or has the writing skills to maintain a highly frequented blog. I for that matter can't even use a simple CMS to build a website that displays even remotely the same across all common browsers. Curse you, CSS!

As for working conditions: the first five years i've happily put in long hours. It was rewarding actually, it seldomly was forced and there were only very few times i wanted to opt out. I've worked with great teams where people tried to balance work with life, and if life was more important to them that was ok with everyone because you could still rely on them being there when it counts.

The longest crunch time i've been through was about 3 months of 10-12 hour days in one of my first years, working for the handheld company and maybe another 2-3 months for the PC company. Other than that, crunch time was often only 1-4 weeks a time every 6 months or so. Currently we barely have crunch times at all. The last one was a year ago, it was a mild one with most people working regular hours plus a day on the weekend and went on for 3 weeks.

Now you might think that this isn't very convincing. 3 months crunch time still sounds terrible (or roughly 1 month of crunch every year), and so does working on the weekend. I admit it, yes, that is indeed daunting. It sounds awful. But trust me, in both companies, if you have a life no one would have forced you to put in long hours at these companies, and as a matter of fact, several people chose not to crunch, or only when they actually were able and willing to.

Also, we've always got enough slack and days off to make up for at least most of the crunch time stress. And that was well received and deserved. And of course, crunch mode is nothing specific to game development. It happens everywhere, in banking, security, web development, you name it. It's just that the game industry has become synonymous with long hours and crunch mode. But the way i see it, there's no kind of software development like game development where developers are more eager to put in their best efforts. It may not always be to the best of our health and relationships and certainly, by far not in all cases has it been voluntarily or in other words it certainly has been exploited by employers. Honestly, if i were to put in long hours for anything, it'd be for games, period! But certainly not under any condition. And the one's described by EA spouse, i was shaking my head all along. Just quit yer fracking job, will you!? No, there's no excuse to put up with working conditions like these. If worst comes to worst there's always an alternative. That's how i see it.

If i had to pick one thing that i could have done without in the early years, it's certainly not the overtime. I would have to pick working on the top floor in a room with 9 other developers during one of the hottest summers in our region with barely working air conditioning. We were a hot and smelly bunch. ;)

Now over the course of the last 5 years i've seen a steady decrease in overtime (in the PC company i work for), both in the amount i put in voluntarily as well as what is required from us. As a matter of fact, we're just past feature freeze of a 2-year project and we haven't had a single day of crunch mode this year. I didn't put in extra hours, nor will i have to in the remaining 2 months, i'm already scheduled to work on another project even before this one has gone gold. We're using SCRUM for two years now and that has certainly paid off. And that's the state of a good company in a great industry. Should you ever find yourself in a severly inferior situation, or being forced to crunch with no will to do it - get the F!"K out of there! Seriously.

One word about salary: it may not be as much as you can earn elsewhere. But elsewhere is where the boring development jobs are, and no money in the world can get me there! I earn a respectable yearly amount for my programming job (rough guesstimate is over $60,000 per year all in all), especially if you consider that i have no formal training and haven't been to university. I get regular pay raises, i get bonuses and stock options, we also have an employee stock purchase plan.

By this time you might have figured i'm working for one of the major houses in the games industry. I believe that certainly helps, your job is more secure, the working environment is likely to be much better (despite what EA spouse implies), the payment is solid, making a career is possible, the information exchange is just awesome and the amount of professionality in all areas of expertise around me is astonishing.

Right now, I certainly don't see myself wanting to work for anyone else but this game company. :)

(2) +1 for an interesting developer story. - Tom Leys
(5) As a web dev, I think it should have been curse you, Internet Explorer... - mike nvck
[+11] [2008-10-19 21:08:18] eyelidlessness

I think it takes a lot more to be a game developer than a web developer

Sure, if you're writing poor quality web apps.

Edit: this has been oh-so-controversial, so I guess it deserves some clarification. It isn't meant to disparage anyone or denigrate the skills of any programmer, just pointing out that web development has its reputation of being the domain of less skilled developers because until recently it's been largely devoid of good apps. In other words, it's only now coming into its own as an app platform and it's no surprise that what has been produced before that isn't particularly compelling.

It's not controversial because you dissed web apps, it's controversial because Jeff doesn't approve of that kind of naughty language on his site. Not that I'm willing to censor you. I have morals and won't help him give into the system he disagrees with. - Chris Lutz
(1) Wait, really? That's why this was deleted? How come it doesn't say anything like that in the FAQ? - eyelidlessness
[+9] [2008-10-19 21:12:39] cjm

In general, game programmers get paid worse than programmers in other fields. Lots of people want to write games, but nobody dreams about being a software developer for an investment bank.

[+8] [2008-10-20 03:23:44] Chris Lundie

An American game programmer's average salary in 2007 was $83,383. Source: Game Developer magazine.

[+7] [2008-10-20 09:43:54] Skizz

I spent many years working in game development and the answer to the question is a resounding no. Even if you get a paid a large amount, it really wouldn't make up for the environment you're working in. In general, management don't have a clue and programmers have enormous egos. For example, in a recent game development position, I was asked to give time estimates to the various parts of the game I was in charge of:

Management: "Give us some estimates for the outstanding work and put them into MS Project. Oh, and make sure it meets the release date."

Me: "What if it takes longer."

Management: "Just shorten it to fit."

Me: "Okay, is there a design for any of it."

Management: "You've got the game design we're still working on."

Me: "Yes, but what about technical design, you know, how it's to be implemented?"

Management: "Make it up."

Me: "So you want me to give estimates for producing code for an incomplete game design implemented in a way we haven't decided upon so that the game is finished for a set date?"

Management: "Yep."

I was totally screwed on that project though, I disagreed with another senior developer who took it personally and he was married to the assistant producer on the project. Needless to say, when the axe fell, I made a formal complaint and got an apology and a pay out. (Needless to say, the game eventually took over six times as long to complete than they originally planned.)

Although I met a lot of coders in game development positions who weren't particularly good, I've met a similar proportion in non-game development companies only they didn't have the game developer ego ("I must be a good because I'm a game developer!")

Working long hours is expected, as is crunch time (although it usually ends up as 100% crunch time which doesn't help in the long run at all). Most of the crunch time can be eliminated from what I've seen through up front technical design, unit testing, good source control and an automated build system - none of which I've ever seen in game development environments.

The kudos of being a game developer is often used by employers to make up for low wage and poor conditions.

On the plus side, there is usually a great camaraderie between employees because most of them are young and are doing the job for the fun of making games. There aren't many old game programmers (possibly because the industry hasn't been around long enough).


In a game company ... hell, in ANY software company with that kind of management, i would expect nothing else but crunch time, missed deadlines, prolonged crunch, even more missed deadlines, feature cuts and a cripple of an application once it's gone gold because no one wants to put in more money. - steffenj
Wow, care to share where you worked? Every game I've worked on (shipped over 15 titles) has had: source control, unit tests and nightly builds. Also a lot less than 100% crunch time. - Don Neufeld
(1) Maybe the older game programmers decided to have a life and changed jobs so that they would have more time available to themselves to have that life? I don't intend this as a dig to game programmers not having a life. Just a reality that kids/etc. eat up time and maybe they moved on for more time. - Cervo
I don't think this is representative of the industry in general. I work in the games industry as a coder, as do several of my friends at different companies. Certainly there are companies like this out there, but I think it's the exception not the rule, as you would find in any field. - xan
[+6] [2008-10-19 22:36:04] Bit Destroyer

I currently work as a gameplay programmer and IT Manager for a Florida based game development studio. The pay is pretty bad, honestly. I have two roles and I get paid as much as I used to when I worked as simply a software engineer for another company. I took the job to get my foot in the door with the games industry and I must say it was a pretty bad choice.

The hours are sometimes terrible during crunch times (at least 50+ hours required) and the pay doesn't make up for it since it's salary. If it wasn't for the fact I'll be moving out of town within the next year, I wouldn't put up with it.

I have a huge passion for video games, but I must say that I would rather them stay something that I do for fun in my spare time rather than something that stresses me out every day.

(5) I'm still baffled at how much shit programmers are willing to take from bad employers. People fought so that you have the right to say no to working 50+ hours and the right to sue your employer if they dare fire you because of it. There shouldn't be "crunch times" if management was doing its job. - Gilles
I wholeheartedly agree, a lot of people here take quite a bit of crap. The management is terrible, not only with time constraints, but with how they treat the employees. They are very passionate about what they do, but they have absolutely no management or people skills. Exactly why I'm leaving. - Bit Destroyer
[+4] [2008-10-19 22:54:10] dwelch

I suggest you do what I do. Write the games in your spare time. I am not in investment banking nor game development. I was in aerospace mostly which has a similar sex appeal, you know my code is flying that spaceship kind of thing. I got to meet scientists, astronauts, see inside the buildings at nasa, touch a spaceship, etc. The work sounds like it is equally hard at both places. And the pay is low in aerospace too, perhaps because you think you are having more fun than just writing apps. Buy a gameboy or DS, get a flash cart (less than $50 for an SD based on these days), find out what you are missing. If nothing else when you do try to get your foot in the door you will have some experience in your back pocket.

The grass is never greener on the other side of the fence.

[+4] [2008-10-19 21:12:00] Jason Z

Generally, you will make less or the same as a game programmer unless you are either extremely talented or work for a AAA company such as Valve, id or Blizzard.

Now, if you are into challenges more than money, being a game developer might be right up your alley.

Actually from what I've heard about Rockstar games (which would fall in your AAA company category), there aren't that many programmers there that get premium pay. They use their reputation to underpay all newcomers, only after a few years in the shop do you start getting higher pay than elsewhere. - Gilles
[+4] [2009-05-06 18:28:50] bowditch

An American game programmer's average salary in 2007 was $83,383. Source: Game Developer magazine.

2008 Report just released:

Average Salary of $79,000 US

[+3] [2008-12-01 06:41:41] Generic Error

Having worked as a game developer, I would have to say that writing boring generic web apps is easy money in comparison. When a company wants a website, we agree on a price, we build it, they pay us. When you make a game, you cross your fingers and hope your publisher actually lets you release.

There are very different sets of problems in these two worlds but don't underestimate either of them. You will probably face a lot more "computer sciency" problems in game programming which can be alot of fun. Performance, algorithms and code trickery will be more common. In the business world you will have to learn to deal with real people, understand business and tackle problems that can't be solved with more code. These can be bigger challenges and ones that really inspire some people.

I would absolutely second the suggestion to write games in your spare time, you will learn heaps and it might even benefit your 'real work'. Don't be fooled into thinking moving into the game industry will help with the quality issues and the 'good enough' mentality though, it's still business and profits still need to be made.

I should point out that I'm based in New Zealand which has little games industry to speak of, your results may vary.

Geenric Error - thanks for sharing your view point. It does have a lot of meaning in it. I liked it when you say "problems that cannot be solved with more code" - and that's exactly where one can grow in the business world , just that it starts taking a tangent from technology to business. - dotnetcoder
[+3] [2008-10-19 21:25:11] bh213

One of the problems with game development is that there are many (especially young) people who want to do it, driving wages down. Sort of like any teenager who can hold the guitar more or less correctly wants to be a rockstar. Same with young programmers...

I was contemplating moving to game development a while ago, but you either end up working for a company where 60 or more hour weeks are the norm or you can create a game development startup - if I recall the numbers correctly (I am pretty sure I read them here [1] somewhere), failure rate for that was 90% or so.


(1) You can easily find a non-game-programming job with 60 hours a week, or dot-com startups that are enthusiastic but (if you take a moment to think about it) guaranteed to fail. Seriously, it depends a lot more on the shop you work in, not in which field or on what product you work on. - steffenj
Sure you can, but game development tends to be worse than average. To create a game that has a chance of selling it has to be technical marvel or has to have some sort of licence (movie, sequel, book). Both cost a lot. It is way easier to raise money for web app than for a game (e.g. see TechCrunch) - bh213
[+3] [2008-10-19 21:15:00] torial

There is a sad story of how the game industry consumes developers. Electronic Arts is the villian in this instance, but I've heard this is somewhat common in the game industry, and more so than in other software development sectors.

(1) Please don't warm up old stories. Ever since that incident, not only EA but other publishers have made serious commitments to not let this happen again. IMHO even though there was truth to the story the whole thing was blown out of proportion as if things were the same in all game dev studios! - steffenj
[+2] [2008-10-19 21:15:27] milot

If you are writing a great code for great products I think that cannot be boring as you mentioned. Every product has its own users, games have their own, business applications have their own, but for payment it depends for who you are working and which are the challenges you meet while working, but you can find that challenge working on business apps and of course getting paid very well but if you love building something that will entertain people you should see the opportunity, as for much work on games, I think in todays framework/libraries it is more easy to write games, for example you can see the XNA ( it is similar writing a Windows Application, Web Application, Web Service and a Game with such framework, but the game development requires more math and physics and more logic for game algorithms, and of course computer science topics as well such as neural networks in artificial intelligence and so on :)

[+2] [2008-10-20 02:36:10] Cervo

I think you need to check out the blogs of game developers. It is no secret that the hours are rough there. Then you need to think hourly pay. Let's say that now you make 70,000 per year and work 50 hours a week. Maybe if you go into the game industry you get 100,000 per year but work 80 hours a week. Are you higher paid in your new job? The answer is no. Currently you get 26.9 dollars per hour, in your new job you would get 24 dollars per hour. So slightly less. Then you need to assess the cost on your life of those extra 30 hours.....I work in finance as a software developer and am working 40-45 hours per week.

I recall there was a blog from the wife of a game developer who described the working conditions of her husband and the long hours seemed pretty bad (in fact it is cited in the other posts...unless it is yet another spouse). But definitely look before you leap. There are plenty of other industries to work in...

Also look I am 29 now and I am starting to realize that no matter where I work I'm not going to be happy. Smaller companies just want to get it done in the sloppiest way possible, they want results no engineering, no design times, just get it out the door. Large companies will have a huge buerocracy (SIC) with often insane coding standards. Or the large company will separate the roles so much that you'll be doing the same tiny job on software project after software project until you burn out (ie UI programming, or DB stored proc logic programming, or business logic programming) as just a cog in a machine. I'm starting to think to really be happy and to really do something good you have to work for yourself. So look into open source to scratch your itch. Still on a project you may have to work for others. But one day you can start your own and make something really cool (perhaps even a game). And the best part is you can do it in whatever technology you want. No need to deal with PHBs who want their website written in SQL Server (that's not a mistake, many don't know the difference between the database backend and the web front end...Literally I've had people who want their website written in SQL Server and don't want to hear about PhP, this ASP.NET stuff, etc....).

[+1] [2008-10-20 21:00:36] postfuturist

I spent some time working as a game programmer. The pay was awful, so were the hours. The work was difficult and more demanding than any other programming job I've had. I have friends still in the industry, and as far as I can tell, there have been no movements toward improvement in pay or quality of life for game programmers.

[+1] [2009-06-07 15:36:29] Nosredna

I was a game developer. There used to be big bonuses and stock options and royalties (15-20 years ago). Those have largely disappeared. I sometimes made more from stock options than I made from my salary.

[+1] [2010-01-08 08:44:34] Marc

I'm late to chime in here, but this hits home for me. I've been a web app developer for 10 years know and I think I can sum up some of the reason for the pay difference and then chime in about the passion for game dev.

The pay difference I think in part has a lot to do with how game studios get their funding as some have mentioned, it's high risk and there is no upfront payment that normally exists with modern day web software/consulting firms. However, I think a large part of it is people skills. Game devs are amongst geeks mostly (I envy you) and while they have to be able to write/speak well, they don't necessarily have to do that with the non geeks in the world. Once you do that enough you get experience that isn't programming related that you can command a higher salary. Obviously there are game devs that can do that, but, a large part of my "experience" that one hires me for (50%) is not programming related.

Also, like one of the other answers mentioned you need to look at the hourly. I work at a university now with good pay and benefits, I doubt I would ever come close to my currently hourly even at a Sr. level position with a AAA game studio.

As far wanting to develop games, considering a switch and what skills/knowledge is needed, well? Number one is Passion! I've always wanted to be a game developer and some time ago I created a tetris like game [1] with XNA and loved the process, created levels for Serious Sam and one recently for Crysis. However, I stopped there as I realized I needed a ton of math education/knowledge to do well in a game programming career and now recently getting back into it.

Check out Game Coding Complete 3rd Edition [2] by Mr. Mike, its a great book for devs wanting a good start on programming for games.


[0] [2009-06-07 15:32:13] community_owned

No never. I am not agree with you. All types of software developments have their own mean. Game Development, Web Development, Desktop Applications Development,Web based Business Applications and many others need the same effort and high programming skills. It also depends upon the depth of the application. Sometime application programs are so complex. Payments should be based on the development skills and their work accuracy whether it is game development or simple application development.

Good use of the English language helps lol. - Marc
[0] [2008-10-19 21:17:09] Craig

Not sure how much it has improved but EA has currency when it comes to working developers to the bone.

(2) EA spouse and her husband won the overtime pay case against EA, back in 2006 :) - Jon Limjap
[0] [2008-10-19 21:19:51] Shahin

From what I have heard from friends, and from my experience of the shallow end of game development (XNA 2/3beta) I can comfortably say that Game Development is indeed much harder, so you'd think they would be paid more.

But from all I've heard, they aren't paid very well for the amount of hours they put in, and they are worked really hard.

(2) Game development is harder if you tackle it on your own, because you have to do everything yourself, from code to art and audio and of course design. It's a different story if you're in a team, where you get support, and are focused on few aspects of the game. - steffenj
Well there's where I lack experience, game development is a personally hobby I mess about with when I have time. - Shahin