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Is the Bay Area affordable for entry level designers?

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I'm looking to break into the industry, and am confident in my portfolio so just need to make the move. I have an opportunity to split a room with a friend in the San Jose area for roughly $1500/mo, and he's flexible as far as how long I stay. I feel like this is a great opportunity to establish myself.

 

The problem is, the salaries for that area aren't super clear. From what I gather, I can probably expect $48-50K entry level for a design position, possibly lower. That sounds okay to me, but keep in mind I simply don't have a frame of reference for how expensive the bay area really is. All of my research online points to people saying that it is impossible to live in the bay area for less than $70K, but I have a decent amount saved up and have no debts outside of a small car payment.

 

Is $50K really affordable for the bay? I don't want to be in a situation where I'm living paycheck to paycheck or going slowly broke despite living frugal. But I'm comfortable with the idea of building up a modest savings once I gain enough experience to move to higher positions. I was wondering if anyone here had experience working such positions in the bay area (or similarly expensive cities like Vancouver), and how it worked out financially? It just scares me reading stories about people barely getting by on 6 figures, and it makes me wonder if I'm missing some secret expense I wasn't expecting.

 

For the record, I do live on my own right now, but I've never made a salary (hourly) or made over $16K and live in the midwest where it is cheap. My dad is helping me with car insurance, but nothing else (my rates would likely be around $100/mo for my car).

Edited by SKHayward

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Your biggest expense is rent. If your rent is 30% (or under) of your monthly income, you'll be
fine.
$48-50K is expected for design positions, you say. But you're just breaking into the industry,
you say. It's unlikely you'll break in in a design position. Level design, maybe? What's your
breaking in plan? You say you're confident in your portfolio - what kind of portfolio is it? Edited by Tom Sloper
forgot the K

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Your biggest expense is rent. If your rent is 30% (or under) of your monthly income, you'll be
fine.
$48-50K is expected for design positions, you say. But you're just breaking into the industry,
you say. It's unlikely you'll break in in a design position. Level design, maybe? What's your
breaking in plan? You say you're confident in your portfolio - what kind of portfolio is it?

 

My breaking in plan was mostly be local and apply, so nothing fancy.

 

My portfolio is focused on level design with some gameplay systems design. I'm done a ton of scripting work and have worked on projects that were award winning. Within the month I'm planning on adding a solo project to my portfolio that I've worked on in the past year which focuses on single player level design pacing & narrative. My degree background is in visual communications (associate's) and sculpture (BFA).

 

It is a hard position to be in because I know these positions aren't nearly as common as engineering focused ones. But I love it! And I feel I'm at the point where I know I can grow much faster actually working in the industry instead of doing hobby projects all the time. Plus, making a salary sounds like a good idea.

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My breaking in plan was mostly be local and apply, so nothing fancy.  
My portfolio is focused on level design with some gameplay systems design.


Be local and apply for what? Apply how? I agree that this is what you need to do, but your
plan lacks important details.
And just curious, what part of the bay area is this place you'll be living in? Have you made
a map of the bay area and the companies in it?

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This is an objectively bad idea with the criteria you've described. Making $50k means you'll get around $1500~ in  your account every 2 weeks

 

So you get $3,000 a month total in your bank.

 

- $1500 for rent

1500

 

-$200 for gas (Check prices)

1300

 

-$200 for food (living cheap)

1100

 

-$500 for utilities/internet/etc

600

 

 Look at how much money you've spent in the past month and see if it's less than $600.

 

Also, as soon as you lose a room mate you're going to be broke. May want to check this site for a comparison from where you live now

 

http://www.payscale.com/cost-of-living-calculator/California-San-Francisco

 

Best case scenario is that you barely scrape by paycheck to paycheck.

Edited by conquestor3

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Also taxes. That puts you in debt every month.  No, $50K in the Bay Area is not enough to live on.

 

The bay area is extremely expensive.  Those employers know it.

 

 

If a studio is offering to pay you $48-50K in the bay area, that is an unacceptably bad lowball bid. Do not work there.  

 

Even if they are offering $60K, in the Bay Area that is not enough.

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Or make more friends, get a place that's less than $3000 a month (apparently that's what your
friend has), unless there are at least 3 or 4 people living in it. Work out the numbers, using
that 30% guideline.
If you start in QA, you might make around $30K. That's $2500 a month before taxes, so $750 is
a bit high but probably manageable.
If you make around $40K, don't pay more than $1,000 a month.
If you do get $50K, don't pay more than $1,250.

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San Francisco is ridiculous.  At $50k you are either going to have 2-3-4 roommates and probably still have to use BART to get to work since you won't be close,  Or live in the east bay or Oakland and have a 10-20 minute drive to a BART station and then another 45 minute train ride.  Any studio that would offer $50k would know that is not a very livable wage and it is probably looking to take advantage of people trying to break in.  Driving in the city is horrible and I would only do it if I had no choice.

 

Is there any reason you want to move to San Francisco?  Midwest has some game studios and the cost of living is much more reasonable.  West coast has droves and droves of people looking to get in the industry and they are already here.  You are going to have to have quite a bit of a nest egg to make the move since it could be months before you even get a job (or ever).  You can probably take a part time job at fast food or something to help with the bills but that is time you can't spend looking for a job or making your portfolio better.

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Is there any reason you want to move to San Francisco?  Midwest has some game studios and the cost of living is much more reasonable.  West coast has droves and droves of people looking to get in the industry and they are already here.  You are going to have to have quite a bit of a nest egg to make the move since it could be months before you even get a job (or ever).  You can probably take a part time job at fast food or something to help with the bills but that is time you can't spend looking for a job or making your portfolio better.

This, get your job first and then move. Took me 6 months of applying at almost everywhere where I live until I landed my first gig in the industry. 

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I'm planning on applying everywhere too, but I do want to be local in a hot market. Bay area is very appealing to me as well because I have a lot of connections & friends there to introduce me to the area, which isn't the case anywhere else. None of them work in the industry, but it could always lead somewhere. 

 

 

Also, my roommate plans do not have to be permanent. It's just a nice option because it's a no strings attached room until I find another place. And he's wanting even more roommates. I like to think once I land a footing I'd seek out other roommate opportunities to bring my costs down closer to $1k/mo, that said.

 

This is an objectively bad idea with the criteria you've described. Making $50k means you'll get around $1500~ in  your account every 2 weeks

 

So you get $3,000 a month total in your bank.

 

- $1500 for rent

1500

 

-$200 for gas (Check prices)

1300

 

-$200 for food (living cheap)

1100

 

-$500 for utilities/internet/etc

600

 

 Look at how much money you've spent in the past month and see if it's less than $600.

 

Also, as soon as you lose a room mate you're going to be broke. May want to check this site for a comparison from where you live now

 

http://www.payscale.com/cost-of-living-calculator/California-San-Francisco

 

Best case scenario is that you barely scrape by paycheck to paycheck.

 

I ran these numbers too. I already consulted my roommate, utilities would be at most $100-$200 extra on top of $1500, not sure where you got $500 from?

 

My car is small and gas efficient and mostly paid off. My current gas expense is $20/mo, with a work commute bigger than 15 minutes and paying more for gas I'd probably expect that to double or triple.. but no where near $200?

 

Here was my budget:

$1600/mo for rent+utilities (this was confirmed to be approx cost). I'm not on a lease and would be paying in advance for month(s) I am staying. Yes, I know the person, yes he's trustworthy.

$50/mo in gas

$85/mo car payment

$250/mo food (I assume it is more expensive, I currently do close to $150-$200).

$35/mo phone bill

 

If my take home is $3K/mo, that leaves me with $980 left over per month to start with. Car/medical insurance will take that down, as will retirement+savings, but even still I should be comfortably pocketing $500/mo assuming I keep that exact arrangement. Not get rich quick money, and certainly not on the fast track to early retirement but isn't largely different than my current situation (much better actually since I don't make enough to save for retirement or pay health insurance at the moment). And I don't intend those numbers to be permanently locked in like that. I'd ideally like to get my rental costs under $1K rooming with other friends, and hopefully move up in pay once I build professional experience.

 

EDIT: I do want to thank everyone for their advice of course! I'm obviously leaning hard on the bay for reasons beyond just game dev, but am always considering my plan B or C. My "worst" case scenario is I end up in someplace like Austin, which wouldn't be so bad :) I have enough money saved up to account for a fallback move.

Edited by SKHayward

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EDIT: I do want to thank everyone for their advice of course! I'm obviously leaning hard on the bay for reasons beyond just game dev, but am always considering my plan B or C. My "worst" case scenario is I end up in someplace like Austin, which wouldn't be so bad I have enough money saved up to account for a fallback move.


You have a good head on your shoulders. It CAN work. It's just that it's tricky, and there are a lot of
moving parts you'll need to nail down as you run into them. Good luck!

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In my recent experience of looking for my next job in the AAA industry I've found that:

 

- the majority of game jobs in the USA seem to be in the Bay Area 

 

- the Bay area is super crazy expensive, indeed. I looked into apartment rents when I went out there for an interview, and it was as expected.

 

- I get the impression that few, if any, studios actually are interested and willing to pay people a relatively higher salary that would match the amazingly high cost of living compared to, for example, Texas.  I have a lot of experience in the industry, and I've had a number of interviews, and they all seem to start going bad once salary starts being discussed.

 

Everyone has their own situation to deal with, but I think for many people the Bay Area is not affordable. People with a family to support, a retirement to save for, or a standard of living they are trying to maintain are likely to never find a job that works for them financially in the area. However, being a young person with few responsibilities and the ability to live cheap with multiple roommates means that the area 'might' be affordable, relative to your needs.

 

Personally, I'm pretty disappointed that their aren't more studios thriving in areas outside of the Bay area in the U.S. A LOT of jobs have gone up to Canada, and a lot of studios in other places in the U.S. are just are not expanding like studios in the Bay area are.

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From my observations, the Bay Area feels almost in decline. Yes there is some growth, but many companies are opening offices elsewhere and either shutting down or reducing their bay area offices.  There is quite a lot of concentrated talent in the area, but salaries must be very high, sometimes 1.5x to 2x what can be paid in other cities. 

 

There are many other hubs out there.  Austin Texas area, Seattle Washington area, Boston Massachusetts area, Orlando Florida area, and many others have game development hubs. 

 

And as mentioned, quite a few jobs have gone to Canada.  Vancouver area in particular is popular.  With one office in Seattle or Everett on the US side, and another in Vancouver or Burnaby on the Canada side, studios can access an enormous number of skilled developers from both nations that are close enough to get together for face-to-face meetings with a fairly short drive.  While offices in the city centers are expensive the outskirts and suburbs are inexpensive and growing strong.

 

Unfortunately many of the hub cities are highly educated with a bunch of tech businesses where prices are also skyrocketing. The mix of good education, career opportunities, and low costs is a popular mix, almost immediately the 'low cost' feature becomes 'high cost' due to popularity and demand.

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I looked into vancouver, isn't it the highest cost of living city in the world?

 

Sadly the trend I was seeing is that if you want to get your foot in the door with games (at a place that will actually pay you a salary and isn't just a "startup") you need to live in the most expensive places to live. Austin, TX was one of the cheapest hubs I could find, which is why it seems like things are booming there. I just don't have many connections to that area and I'm really not a fan of texas heat.

 

Once you have experience it looked like the options open up a lot more. There's a lot of smaller studios or more specialized places not only located in expensive game dev hubs but almost all require industry experience or are the only guys in town (so you better be getting flown in for an interview).

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I looked into vancouver, isn't it the highest cost of living city in the world?
 

 

No.  Vancouver (downtown) is one of the more expensive cities in Canada, but it is still cheaper than London, NYC, LA, and some of the other big ones.  Also, Vancouver is small enough that you can live in the cheaper outskirts and get along with a reasonable commute ... but like all major cities, it is constantly growing and the cost is always rising.

 

Austin, TX was one of the cheapest hubs I could find, which is why it seems like things are booming there.

 

Yup.  As wrote above, people look for three main factors of an education population, career opportunities, and low cost.  

 

First the education starts to grow; costs are still cheap but there are few career opportunities.  Then career opportunities start to appear, and suddenly the area gets extremely popular.  Then people flock to the career opportunities of a smart city, and suddenly costs skyrocket.  Once costs rise it becomes less attractive, and another city that is smart but has somewhat limited career opportunities becomes the next target.

 

There are quite a few cities that are smaller game hubs but growing quickly. Some of the game industry map sites can help you find them. I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to match up the cities with their education levels. :-)

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