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Fayemrost

Is Game Programming a Reliable Field?

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Hello everyone, I will soon be choosing a college/major and one that I'm seriously considering right now is the University of Utah for Computer Science with an emphasis in Game Programming. However, after doing some research on the field, I've grown worried about what the future could hold if I follow this path. Are layoffs still frequent after releases? I've heard this from quite a few sources but I've also heard that a programmer is generally in the safest position since they're needed from beginning to end of a game. Is crunch time still an issue or has this generally gone away? Is burn out something that will eventually happen to everyone or only a few? I've heard from quite a few people that game developers often burn out after a few years of working. What's the pay like? I've heard from almost everyone that you can earn much more money for much less work in other fields. Is this true? Will this go away as you become more experienced? I'm looking for a job that I'm passionate about, that's fulfilling, and that I can work in for the rest of my life. I definitely have the passion, but the sustainability and career future is what worries me. Answers from programmers who have recently graduated (if from the U of U that would be awesome as well) and have worked at AAA studios are preferred but I will take advice from anyone. Thanks!

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1. I've grown worried about what the future could hold if I follow this path.
2. Are layoffs still frequent after releases?
3. Is crunch time still an issue or has this generally gone away?
4. Is burn out something that will eventually happen to everyone or only a few?
5. What's the pay like?


1. Don't worry! Be happy!
2. Layoffs are not unusual, but they're not certain. Stay in the field long enough, and it might happen to you. Or it might not.
3. Still an issue. Depends on the company, and the project, and the project management.
4. It happens to some. You worry too much. Be happy!
5. What you heard is true. But programmers are very highly paid, compared to other positions in games. Google "game industry salary survey" and get some real numbers from past years.

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Short answer to all of it: Yes and no :lol:

In general, job security in games is poor. At the end of the day, it's a hit-driven entertainment business, which is of course unpredictable. Most people with long careers will relocate between companies/cities/countries for work at some point or another.

The financial crisis from 2007 caused a huge number of closures in the years that followed, and greatly reshaped the industry, so things are different now. I'd say a lot more AAA development is directly publisher owned now than it used to be, which could have a stabilizing effect... and at the same time, a lot of sub-AAA development is completely independent without any publisher equity, which is kind of destabilizing but better for wealth redistribution and growth of new studios. Likewise there's been big crashes and restructuring events in the past that have reshaped the industry at different points.

Crunch will always occur at some workplaces, in every industry. There's people who seem to think that 60 hour weeks are normal, or that 80 hour weeks are a good idea... Then there's other workplaces where everyone does 40 hours all the time. In the USA you don't have any rights as a worker though, so if you end up at one of those abusive companies, your only real choice is to quit or deal with it for as long as you have to before you can quit... IMHO, crunch is a sign of dysfunctional company leadership, not some inevitability for all companies. 

Burnout depends on the kind of workplace you end up in. I burned out working in corporate programming, as I ended up "unassigned" for months, which is incredibly mentally taxing... so I quit and went back to the games industry :lol: I know other people in games who have done 100 hour weeks for months at a time, which is frankly, completely insane and sure to cause burnout, but some people are ok with it... personally I've hardly ever done any overtime in games.

The pay can be quite good in the US for experienced workers. Juniors will likely get exploited for low pay, but seniors and specialists can easily go for over $100k... However, yeah, other industries with stable business models will always pay more, both for juniors and seniors alike. Go write financial software for a stock-market trader if your goal is to get comfortably rich off your skillset.

One good thing about a computer science degree is that it makes you applicable to non-games jobs too, so if you do need to make a career move at some point, you've got the paper to back you.

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1. I've grown worried about what the future could hold if I follow this path.
2. Are layoffs still frequent after releases?
3. Is crunch time still an issue or has this generally gone away?
4. Is burn out something that will eventually happen to everyone or only a few?
5. What's the pay like?


1. Don't worry! Be happy!
2. Layoffs are not unusual, but they're not certain. Stay in the field long enough, and it might happen to you. Or it might not.
3. Still an issue. Depends on the company, and the project, and the project management.
4. It happens to some. You worry too much. Be happy!
5. What you heard is true. But programmers are very highly paid, compared to other positions in games. Google "game industry salary survey" and get some real numbers from past years.

 

Thanks for the reply! I understand your message of being happy and everything, but when it comes to finances and my future, serious consideration is needed. I'm mainly worried about this path because of the fact that I have a near full ride scholarship to an in-state university for an engineering program. I have received scholarships for the University of Utah as well but this will only cover about half of the tuition costs. I don't want to go to school for 4+ years just to end up in a job that I quit after 5-10. Like I've said, gaming is a passion of mine, but I'm also realistic. I'm not going to chase a dream if this dream gets me nowhere. So once again, I understand the message, but please understand the situation I'm in. In order to pursue this passion, I would be turning down an almost free college education in a program/field that is considered to be much more stable. The risks that I mentioned should be weighed heavily on my final decision imo. Thanks again for the time/reply!

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I have a near full ride scholarship to an in-state university for an engineering program

What's the engineering program? You don't need a comp-sci degree to get into games (it's ideal, but not mandatory).
FWIW, someone who's done a comp-sci degree but no hobby programming in their own time outside of class, is not someone who will get hired. The degree alone will get you the interview, but definitely will not give you the skills and experience required for the job. No matter what degree you get, an entry level games programmer needs to also be self-taught on top of their degree. So - perhaps you can do this other degree and still get a games job if you're interested in it.

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As an industry veteran, I can tell you that it mostly depends on your passion. If you love it, then it's highly rewarding, but in most big game studios you will lose your work-life balance and you will almost always leave after release, one way or the other.

Pay is really good if you find the right job. Expect to get burned to the ground as you make that final push, but you also end up with products that thousands if not millions will get to know.

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The game development business is just like most other entertainment businesses: live theatre, the movies, and music for example.  There are some blockbuster breakout stars, but most participants in the industry are just journeyworkers who earn a decent living with pants they can put on one leg at a time.  Like music and the movies, long-term job security is not guaranteed and you'll find you're interviewing/auditioning from time to time with frequency dependent on which career aspect you've chosen.  Work tends to come in waves and cycles; crunch times and slack times happen.

If you want long-term career stability, a cushy pension, and to be told the red stapler is yours, the gamedev (or theatre, or movie, or music) industry is not for you. Consider the civil service or the server room in the back office of a large multinational conglomerate instead.  If you want constant challenges and continual variation, you're choosing the right career.  Only you can decide which trade-offs you're most comfortable with.

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I think there's a point to be made about not aiming only for AAA studios.  There's lots of work to be done for smaller companies, and given the things you've raised as concerns, you might be better suited to a smaller company.  Job security is maybe a bit better but still kinda the same, pay is usually a bit less, but otherwise in my experience there's less to worry about in terms of burnout, crunch, not enjoying the work, etc.

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... not aiming for AAA studios ... work for smaller companies ...

It can hit everybody.

In both cases they tend to increase staff mid-project.  The critical point is having something to transition to when the project nears completion.  If one project is finishing and another is ramping up then the team moves over.  Otherwise they have more workers than work, leading to layoffs.

 

 

I understand your message of being happy and everything, but when it comes to finances and my future, serious consideration is needed.I'm mainly worried about this path because of the fact that I have a near full ride scholarship to an in-state university for an engineering program. I have received scholarships for the University of Utah as well but this will only cover about half of the tuition costs. I don't want to go to school for 4+ years just to end up in a job that I quit after 5-10.

The U is a good school. I'm sure you've seen the wall of famous graduates from the CS program. 

The U is also fairly inexpensive. Yes, it is the most expensive of the state-run schools, more than Weber or USU, but assuming you've got in state tuition you're looking at a pretty good deal.

The idea of lasting 5-10 years doesn't fit the current computer programming world.  Once upon a time programmers stuck around as a life-long career, but now programming is very nearly a gig-based economy. Even in the business world, a programmer remaining 5 years at a company is seen as a LONG time.  There was a recent article titled Seattle tech engineers are more loyal than those in San Francisco. Programmers in Seattle averaged 29 months at the job, San Francisco averaged 23 months.

 

 

Like I've said, gaming is a passion of mine, but I'm also realistic. I'm not going to chase a dream if this dream gets me nowhere. So once again, I understand the message, but please understand the situation I'm in. In order to pursue this passion, I would be turning down an almost free college education in a program/field that is considered to be much more stable. The risks that I mentioned should be weighed heavily on my final decision imo. Thanks again for the time/reply!

 

Computer Science as a field is stable.  The field it isn't going away.  As a field it pays far better than nearly any other program you'll find up on the hill except for medicine and law.

Game programmers tend to make less than other programmers at the entry level because there is more supply than demand.  That mostly goes away as you become a senior programmer unless you are bad at negotiating wages. Even so, you'll earn far more than the average wage for most people, including most professionals.  Your entry level pay as a game developer will pay more than those with accounting degrees, teaching degrees, theater degrees, marketing degrees, mining engineering degrees, etc., entering their respective industries.

And with a CS degree you can always switch industries within the field. Personally I've worked in the games industry, in broadcast TV, in meeting presentation software, and business software. The algorithms you use are mostly directly applicable, although the farther you move into business land the less computer science you end up using.

You will be VERY employable.  Back when I earned my undergrad from Weber State (just up the road a bit from you) at graduation exercises for the college they went through the percent of students who were employed or had job offers at graduation and what their average pay was. I don't remember them specifically as they went through electrical engineering, automotive technology, and the rest; they were saying things like 83 percent, 74 percent, and numbers like $45K on average, $49K on average.  When they hit computer science Dr Capener chuckled and said the odds of having a job was 1, and the average pay was about $65K which drew a gasp and chatter from the other students.

The U also has a good emphasis program on games. They still have the rigor of their CS program, but they hit some issues unique to games. It is a good program. I know quite a few people who finished their program, you should have no problem.

 

It is a shame EA Salt Lake recently closed their doors. Otherwise you could take Trax from the school down to state street and hit up either Junior's, Rich's, or the Pie Hole over lunch to meet with people at the studio.

There are several local game studios. You've still got Epic's ChAIR studio, EatSleepPlay, WildWorks (formerly Smart Bomb), The Void.  Disney shuttered Avalanche but then WB reopened it, so that will hopefully have something good for you. There has been a little flux, but there is a highly educated population with many young people, and the U's history is strong; game studios are in the blood. Who knows what will be there in four years, but there will be studios.

If those don't work out there are game-related companies and entertainment-related companies, military simulations up at Hill AFB, and much more. 

 

Most careers have bumps and bruises, you'll experience layoffs in your life. But that doesn't mean it is a bad field. It can be an amazing career.

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I have a near full ride scholarship to an in-state university for an engineering program

What's the engineering program? You don't need a comp-sci degree to get into games (it's ideal, but not mandatory).

The engineering degree is completely unrelated: astronautical engineering. It's another program that I'm interested in but I think I would have a lot more fun with a job in game programming. While I want a job where I'm having fun, I also want a job where I at least know when and where my next paycheck is coming from and one that's stable enough to provide for a family should that time come...

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The U is also fairly inexpensive. Yes, it is the most expensive of the state-run schools, more than Weber or USU, but assuming you've got in state tuition you're looking at a pretty good deal.

If I were to choose the U, I would be paying out of state tuition.

 

 

The U also has a good emphasis program on games. They still have the rigor of their CS program, but they hit some issues unique to games. It is a good program. I know quite a few people who finished their program, you should have no problem.

So even with the emphasis on game programming, my skills should still be applicable elsewhere if that time comes right? This was one of the concerns I had with the program...

 

 

It is a shame EA Salt Lake recently closed their doors. Otherwise you could take Trax from the school down to state street and hit up either Junior's, Rich's, or the Pie Hole over lunch to meet with people at the studio.

 Really? I had not heard of this. One of the major factors in me choosing the U was that I heard that EA offered a ton of internships to people within the program. Do you know if these internship opportunities will still be available from other companies or will this experience be lost?

Edited by Fayemrost

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So even with the emphasis on game programming, my skills should still be applicable elsewhere if that time comes right? This was one of the concerns I had with the program...

It is a regular CS degree.  The completely optional EAE emphasis can be added by taking some additional courses that are mixed with some technically-inclined art students, plus choosing a subset of the normally available elective courses.

If you are applying to a job where it looks useful, make your resmue contain: "Bachelor of Science, Computer Science, Entertainment Arts & Engineering Emphasis".  If you don't think it would look useful, change the line to "Bachelor of Science, Computer Science".

Really? I had not heard of this. One of the major factors in me choosing the U was that I heard that EA offered a ton of internships to people within the program. Do you know if these internship opportunities will still be available from other companies or will this experience be lost?

EA Salt Lake had anywhere from zero to three summer internship roles each year, that were low-paid jobs where the work was relatively minor and heavily supervised. Corporate wide across the entire 10,000 person organization they typically have a double-digit number of internship jobs, I wouldn't call it "a ton of internships".  We had more CS students come in under the QA umbrella than we had under the summer intern programs.

Since EA Salt Lake has had their doors shuttered, no they won't be offering those jobs any more.

Warner Bros has re-opened Avalanche and there are several other studios in the valley, so there will still be game jobs. There are also various effects studios, 3D application companies, marketing companies, and simulation studios that all tend to have jobs available. Finding a job should not be particularly difficult, although it still requires a job hunt.

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As a CEO of a small game company I can say for sure that job security is a challenge. You will get paid more easily working in another sector. But working with games is a lot of fun. Do what feels right for you.


As a CEO of a small game company I can say for sure that job security is a challenge. You will get paid more easily working in another sector. But working with games is a lot of fun. Do what feels right for you.

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