What You Are Worth to a Development Team
working with a team team
With all of that mentioned I have also received quite a bit of interest in this article and some suggestions that I should move this over into the Game Dev article system to make it a bit more easily accessible for everyone (not just those who follow or stumble across my journal). So with that bit of an introduction, please read on. Throughout this article I hope to shed some light on how I and others like myself value the contributions of various team members and their talents.
Who the heck am I?
I'm a long-time programmer, concept designer and content writer (over 15 years of experience and growing). I have done a little bit of everything in my day: coding, artwork, modeling, animation, quest writing, game mechanic design, dialogue writing and even took a stab at composing. I have no false delusions of being some all-mighty game development god and I know that I simply do not have the adequate talent to be a quality graphical artist or musical composer. It is however important to note that as some of my words may seem to belittle what you do or contribute to a team it's not a personal attack, more so it's just what I have noticed as I have worked with teams, studios and clients throughout the course of my career. So with that, hide the women and children, brace yourself and let's get to it!
What is worth?
"Worth" in the broadest scope means value, so what we are discussing here is what is your "value" to the team. However it's not quite that simple; worth in the gaming industry is further broken down into sub sets that vary quite a bit (almost polar opposites as we will come to find out). There is what we will refer to as intellectual worth (or your level of contribution / importance to the game being what it is) and the other we will refer to as financial worth being how much money the team may consider you to worth. Lets go ahead and dive into these a bit more in-depth just to understand what I am talking about with these two sub sets of "worth".
As I touched on above what I consider to be "intellectual worth" is your level of contribution to the project, quality of work and effect on the game as a whole. This is something we will expand on as we go here, it's just important to realize that what I am trying to say by this is how important are you to the game getting completed. A higher intellectual worth to me means that the game is much less likely to be completed without you! Basically the more intellectual worth you have the more critical you (or your role) is to the team, they probably don't want to lose you (until we contradict this statement later on).
This is not to be confused with the idea of how much money you have, that is not the financial worth that I am speaking of here (and actually we will briefly discuss monetary contributions as intellectual worth later on). Your financial worth is how much the team thinks you should be paid for your services, be it a percentage of profit sharing, a one time project contract or an hourly rate through the course of the project itself. Unfortunately I won't be giving any concrete numbers, but I will try to give percentage-based ideas of how teams may think and or approach this topic.
Studios and Teams
These are two more terms you will find me using quite a bit as we go and I think it might be wise to define what I mean by these terms. In short, when I say "studio" in this article I am referring to an established group of developers with financial backing (funding). This would be a group of developers that may work on projects and sell them (I mean actually complete, publish and sell their games) and may or may not hire outside help as they go.
When I say "Teams" in this article I am speaking of groups of developers (normally smaller groups) that either have not yet completed and published a game title or if they have completed it they have not actually sold it or monetized it in anyway. As such we are going to assume that a "team" is a group of developers that do not have money now, they will not pay you right now. They may however have plans to get funding, donations, promissory purchase funds (kick starter) or the intention to sell the game and split the profits.
An important thing I must stress here is that I am talking about people who are trying to not only build and complete a game but people that are looking to monetize said game by some means in the near future. This monetizing means that they will sell the game to players, sell it to another studio, charge micro transactions, subscriptions, DLC, or whatever, by some means they are trying to make money. This article does not reflect the importance or worth of individuals in hobbyist projects, eg projects that are "just for fun" or "portfolio value" or by whatever means not intended to make money. Groups and developers that create not for profit games gauge worth and value totally different and there's really no way to make an assumption as to a basic guideline for them, each group will be different in this aspect. If you are part of a group working on a not for profit game I'm sorry to have wasted your time but this article is not for you.
Give me some information already!
I'm sure many people have thought this by now (maybe even literally said it to the monitor), and yes now that I have clarified what I am trying to talk about and what the various terms that I will use mean we can actually start talking about something! As this topic is a bit broad and very dependent on grouping and project's we are a bit forced to divide the conversation into multiple parts here. First off I'd like to start with teams (remember, no money right now and probably no previous works). So here's the way that I see it and what I have experienced quite a few times throughout my career...
Teams - Intellectual Worth
Teams normally tend to measure your intellectual worth based on content contribution and quality alone. This simply means that the more you provide and the better quality you provide the more your worth. It's normally pretty cut and dry and everyone is pretty much on the same page for this one.
It doesn't matter how technically advanced or difficult what you are doing is your team doesn't realize that. They care about the performance of your code and how fast you got it done.
It doesn't matter if you're doing pixel art, vector art or modelling it's the end result your team will judge you on. Your team doesn't realize how difficult it is to actually draw or model quality pieces they simply judge you based on how good it looks when you're done and how fast you got it to them.
In a small team your intellectual worth is held in pretty high regard. That is to say that the rest of the team realizes that you are the focal point of the project, without you they wouldn't be making a game they would just be making things. Your intellectual worth is normally judged on how well planned your design document is and how fast can you produce it.
You are the people who write the story, history, dialogue, descriptions and anything else textual or spoken within the game. You're pretty darn important to a team as you add the content that drives their graphics, mechanics and code. They make the flash to bring the player in to the game YOU write the content to keep them in the game and maybe even push them to buy it. You are important and your team will most likely judge your worth based on if you are using the correct spelling and grammar for the language you are writing, if what you write is compelling and interesting and again how fast can you get it to them?
Unfortunately your worth is judged a little more harshly than the others on the team. In many small teams music and audio effects are little more than background noise, or so they will think. Some teams will understand that you are just as important as content writers or artists in that your music is an added effect that immerses the player deeper in to the game play and helps to hook them to the game (possibly driving sales). Your worth may get judged a little more harshly here but it will still be based on how compelling are your scores, would someone actually listen to it outside of the game and yet again, how fast you get it to them.
Marketing / Advertising
This portion of game development unfortunately is completely off the radar of most small teams. As far as they are concerned you most likely aren't worth anything to them (until they realize they're not actually getting sales). If and when a team realizes that they need to advertise and market their game you become worthy and your worth is rated in a very black and white judgement. How many copies have you helped us to sell? The team is not likely to understand impressions, traffic flow, turn over rates, so forth and so on. You should really make a big attempt to educate your team to your importance and do this using facts. Spill the beans a little bit and tell them what the tricks are, although they may start to have an idea that targeted marketing is a means of getting impressions from potential buyers and even that doing this means to find communities and sites that would potentially buy their game and post advertisements to it doesn't mean they can do it as good as you can. Don't be so secretive and you're likely to be deemed a little more worthy / valuable from an intellectual stand point.
Anyone I'm forgetting
Although I may not have mentioned you directly by some means you should fit into one or more of the categories above. Please try to relate yourself as closely as you can to what I have listed and chances are your worth will be judged accordingly. Example: voice actors you are basically composers in the eyes of a team in that you are creating audio that they will use. You may or may not also be considered something of a content writer depending on your ad libbing, the more you take a simple sentence and turn it into something more interesting the more you fall into both categories. Animators, the team considers you an artist and perhaps something of an idea guy if you also extend upon the requested animations and or present your own concepts of movement. Like voice actors the more you do outside of what you are asked to the more you fit into multiple categories.
Everyone in a team intellectually starts pretty equal and your intellectual worth is almost entirely judged on doing your job. You want your team to consider you as a major part of the game? You want to be listed as a chief or a lead member? You want the game to be "You and so and so's game"? Do more and do it right. Sometimes you will make sacrifices in the interest of completing contributions and that is to be expected but if the only way you can get something done is to do it with poor quality you may very well be in the wrong field. On the same note you may make the highest quality assets ever made by someone in your position but if it takes you forever to get it done, you might be in the wrong field. Teams don't have massive amounts of money to support long term projects - know this, own this, love this, and most importantly understand that your team needs you to git 'r done so to speak.
Studios - Intellectual Worth
This one is probably going to get discouraging for lots of people because experienced development studios tend to judge intellectual worth more so on availability, quality, quantity and speed. It will sound a bit like I'm saying that a studio expects you to be a master of your art and honestly, yes they do. Experienced studios have released projects before, they have gone through the entire process and they understand who contributing what created how much of a difference to the end result. They are comparing your worth to experiences of past projects and what they feel helped or hurt said projects.
You are held to a much higher regard by many studios (this isn't just me saying it because this is my core profession this is true in many cases). We will see this same trend coming out through this section, to put it simply an experienced team understands how important it is to have good high quality code, written fast and completed. While teams may think coders are a dime a dozen, studios tend to understand that a true programmer is hard to find. Someone that actually gets it done quickly and efficiently is worth quite a bit to a studio and you are very important to the project getting completed in their eyes.
Just like programmers studios hold you up onto your pedestal. You are VERY important, just as much as the programmer, maybe (but not necessarily) even more so. Reason being? Tons of "artists" can draw a great picture, very few can do it again and do it on command. Studios tend to understand the importance of having an artist that not only can create quality work but can do it when they are told and don't take forever to complete it. To a team you might be considered one of these dime a dozen members because there are so many self proclaimed artists out there, to a studio they have seen that a "drawer" and an "artist" are different things. A true artist is hard to find and is worth a lot to the game getting complete.
This one is going to sting really bad and probably cause some angry responses later on but the studio doesn't consider you worth very much if at all. I'm sorry to say it but everyone in the world is an idea guy, I have an idea for a game, you have an idea, the janitor has an idea, your girlfriend has an idea. While teams will consider you much more valuable because you truly are the keystone of the project, studios realize that any and everyone is ready to take up this role. As such you are actually in 0 demand which to the experienced studio means you're not important to the game (because it's very easy to replace you). Again I apologize that this sounds harsh but it's a reality you would do well to accept and use this discouragement as a stepping stone to learn another talent and increase your worth to the team. If you have ideas and a high school level education you should find it pretty easy to also be a content writer, maybe you can sketch out some concept designs for levels and characters and what not. All be it without the latent artistic talents (that few of us have) you probably won't make anything the team can use graphically, but being that you can at least present something graphical to further the teams understandings of your ideas and concepts (no matter how poor) you are worth a little more than the average idea guy. For further reading on why I and so many others come to this conclusion please see Game Idea Value.
Get ready I'm going to anger you too. Unfortunately this is another field that experienced studios hold in a low regard as to intellectual worth. Simply put they know that good old fashioned fun game play can trump a story line if need be. The idea guy can provide enough of a story outline to muscle through and they can get artists / coders to do a little more to pull the gamer's attention away from the story line of the game (or lack there of). Also, there are many good writers out there, there are a lot that will do it just for recognition or to get their stories heard. Unfortunately in the eyes of an experienced studio this makes you expendable as you can be replaced or even cut from the project and there are alternatives that the team can look into. Just like the idea guy you can learn some basic design practices, maybe provide some sketches or possibly even learn to do marketing and advertising research.
Finally you start to get some more recognition here. Experienced studios tend to realize that the audio of the game is actually much more than simple background noise. They have most likely come to realize that audio assets can be used in conjunction with mechanics and graphics to immerse the player deeper into the game and provide an overall better experience to their player. Unlike a less-experienced team the studio will more likely understand your contribution is a silent killer of sorts (ha funny I call it silent when it's music huh?). The clank of a sword, the swoosh of the bat, that subliminal feeling you get from hearing creepy music when zombies are around. These things greatly increase game play and the studio is likely to know this.
Marketing and Advertising
Your intellectual worth still isn't very high to a studio as you don't actually make a big difference to the game getting created but you will at least have some value if you provide incite and suggestions through the entire project. If you are performing research and finding what players want, relaying that to the team and helping the design target potential customers better you do have some intellectual worth to the studio.
Anyone I'm forgetting
Just like with teams, apply your skill sets to the above categories as best you can. We can always debate what "category" of contribution your specific role in the team is but most if not all times they still all break down from one of these broad overall categories. No matter what you do somehow you should fit within one or more of the above listings.
We see a bit of a shift in intellectual worth here. Studios as mentioned have experience creating games and they see people's contributions in a totally different light. As incorrect or blind as it may sound many studios tend to think this way. Being that they may have failed quite a few times before they actually succeeded they tend to be more interested in getting this project done. Bad experiences / wasted time, funds or assets from previous projects effect how they will look at you. Never ever argue with the studio management about how important you are to them, find out what they want you to do for them to consider you more important. Studios are paying you to get it done, don't tell them how they should do it, do what they ask of you and more whenever possible. This is what makes them consider you more valuable.
Teams - Financial Worth
I have covered quite a bit in the previous intellectual worth so here in this section I'm just going to simplify things and focus mainly on how teams may consider / judge how much money they are willing to pay you based on what you do. I would like to stress once again that these are my personal experiences while working with various teams on numerous projects, this is not what I think things should be like, I'm not trying to justify or argue it, these are just the trends I have seen throughout my career. It is my opinion that this is what you will encounter when you first start working with small teams however it can and will vary from team to team.
Here it comes guys this is the one that is a stinger to us. We're not worth much at all to teams. We all know that there are dozens of self proclaimed "programmers" out there no more than a few minutes away (to get in touch with). We're all vocal quite a bit and teams have seen so many of us around forums and job sourcing sites that simply put we're a dime a dozen. They don't want to pay you at all, they think anyone can do what you do, when they do offer profit sharing or hourly pay it tends to be insulting at best. I suggest however that if you are not getting offers from studios you suck it up and do it anyway. Studios will become more likely to consider you later on when you have worked with a few teams plus hey you'll get real experience and become a better programmer for it. If you don't always want to be a better programmer or don't see the value in getting ripped off on your first few projects you may be in the wrong field, go make websites or something. (Look I'm nearly insulting my own kind!)
This one stings a bit as well - you're just like a coder. Any of us can go to deviantArt and see hundreds if not thousands of good to high quality works and quite simply the team figures there are so many good starving artists out there they must be cheap. When you request something that seems reasonable to you they are likely to show you the door. Why would they pay you so much money when the guy on deviantArt does the same quality for $5? Granted you and I know it's never that simple. You may actually get the work done to a good quality and in a quick manner but still, teams aren't experienced they don't realize that makes a difference. It's just art and kinder gardeners can draw with crayons - just because you're a bit better doesn't mean they think you're worth more money. Just like above with the programmers though, I would suggest that you also suck it up and get ripped off a few times. Studios are more likely to hire you for what you're worth if and only if they see that you have done as you were asked in a timely manner and worked on a released project. Also, some money is better than no money isn't it? Is art not your passion? If you don't like to create art and get better / faster at it all the time perhaps you are in the wrong field and should just stick to your doodle pad. (Sorry, I insulted the programmers too. It's harsh but meant in good faith).
You are probably the leader of the team. You're the guy that sketched out a design document, recruited help and are driving the project. I say this because no project starts without an idea. If the Programmer starts up the idea and goes looking for help you're not likely who he will be looking for, likewise an artist with an idea is the idea guy himself and most likely doesn't need you or at least doesn't want to pay you for what he is doing and or started. With that said you normally set your own financial worth in these situations but you should be aware of the impact this will have on your team. Keep in mind everyone else on your team has an idea as well, what you are doing is nothing special to them. They may have joined you because you had the artist already and the coder is looking to make some money, or the artist might join you because you have a programmer already working on something and the artist wants to make some money. Content writers might just join you because they like the idea, they may or may not want money that's between you. For Programmers, Artists, Composers, Marketers and Advertisers however they have spent money and time in their life to learn what they are providing you. They deserve fair compensation and will quickly lose interest if you value yourself much higher than a small fraction. Again they can come up with an idea too, why are they doing all the high end work while you collect massive amounts and they get next to nothing? (Yeah I'm trending again, insulting everyone a little bit to be fair to all).
Your financial worth is entirely judged by the scope and depth of the project. Basically you're going to be worth what the project sets you up to be worth. That is to say that a larger RPG with heavy story line as the main selling factor is going to be a project that will pay you a little more than something that is like a platformer with a story. Just like with Programmers and Artists I suggest that you go ahead and let your self get ripped off a couple times as well. If nothing else you are perfecting your writing skills while actually publishing some work. Making a little money rather than nothing and building portfolio to move into more literary fields in the future. If you don't like to write stories and such or you think writing is only worth doing when you're making good money... Yeah you're in the wrong field. Go look around and see what short stories are worth to magazines, news papers and web sites. Go see if you can get your book published, but get out of game development. (I feel like such a bad guy talking so much smack)
Unfortunately you're in that boat with Programmers and Artists, maybe even more so. Musical composers are everywhere in this world and there are quite a few that just want to be heard. Going hand in hand with the intellectual worth misunderstanding teams pretty much figure they can get stock sound effects for free off the internet, make them work and that your music is little more than background noise, as such it's not really important. As long as it's not horrible and it's there it's good enough. I still suggest you go ahead and get ripped off a few times though. Portfolio, experience and proof that you can compose on command is worth quite a bit to a studio who may pay you fairly or even well. However since I'm bashing everyone down a notch in this section here's yours too - If you don't like to make music just to hear it and or be heard you're in the wrong field. Your music is an artistic representation of your spirit and soul, it's something you want to share with the world. If it is unacceptable that you create works for anything less than a small fortune then by all means go record an album and see if you can sell it, but game development is not for you.
Marketing and Advertising
You guys are really getting the short end of the stick through all of this. Inexperienced teams normally don't realize that just because you make the best game in the world doesn't mean you sell it and your worth is severely underrated. They figure "I'll just post on Steam and it'll sell!" or "I have a website it'll sell". More often than not the team does not realize that they have to actually get quality traffic to the sales page to make a sale. They figure they'll just post on some random forums or blast out some emails and boom - 100,000 hits over night! Partially true but how many of those 100,000 are actually looking to buy a game in your genre at your quality level for the same platform? Anyway, you guys know what I mean here that was just a bit for the non marketing savy people to understand what I'm talking to you about. With that said I have to by some means knock you guys down a peg as well, it's only fair everyone else is taking it, hopefully in stride. Although what you're doing actually translates the product into money you're actually doing the least quantity of work on the team. Yes you are highly specialized and you get results just like the professional coder or the amazing artist or the concert quality composer but... They all spent hundreds if not thousands of hours creating their contributions. You will be providing at best a few dozen hours. For amount of time invested to what you should receive you have to take a step back and understand they are not willing to give up what they have worked so hard for in order for you to chime in 6 hours of advertising. My suggestion to you is that you try to work out a per piece commission, if you're as good as you say you are this allows you to make money at your pace. If it's a low percent of each sale the team is likely to play along and if you move thousands of units you can make quite a bit of money without forcing the other members to feel like you don't deserve it.
Studios - Financial Worth
I skipped the who I forgot and recap on that last section because I went much longer than I expected per role. Hopefully this final section will run pretty quick as we have pretty much everything covered already. I'm going to try to get straight to the point here and not offer as much of the "blab" that has increased the previous sections, I assume by now your seeing the trends of thinking and I don't have to explain why the studio will feel the way they might as much.
Aha finally we're worth some money! This will be argued by non programmers or programmers who have never worked with or been contracted by a studio but it's fact. When a studio hires or contracts you it's because you have earned that position. They expect nothing but the best from you but they're going to pay you very well to do it. Seriously, there is a TON of money to be made when you get good enough to work for a studio.
Come on guys, you're with us programmers! Many of my programming colleagues may argue this fact as you would argue the financial worth of the programmer but the fact is studios know that a talented and highly productive artist is worth gold. Just like with us coders the studio expects the world from you but they will give you the world in return for your services. Just one project done with a studio will make up for at least 2 or 3 projects you got ripped off on working with teams. Seriously, you're going to be rich.
I'm sorry you're not going to make a penny. Ok that might be a little rough, they might buy you a cheese burger. I'm sorry to be so blatantly rude about this but you have to understand they are spending tons of money on Programmers, Artists and other members, these other members are SO excited to not only be doing what they love but to be getting rich in the process that their brains are overloading with ideas. They are all happy to propose 10 new ideas right now for free because they are making their money doing other things. No matter how golden your idea is they're not likely to steal it nor are they likely to pay for it. At best you may get a "That's a great idea when we catch up the 40 game ideas we have we'll get back to you". If you want to work for a studio you HAVE to learn a talent they need, not try to push something on them that they have an abundance of. (Never sell salt water on the ocean so to speak).
You vary quite a bit and you will be looking for a large studio in order to make some money. Much like the idea guys the existing members are willing to step up and adopt your talent to get the project rolling and keep their studio running so they keep making their massive pay checks. You would be amazed how motivated these other studio employees are being that they are bringing home thousands per week or more. You will need to have quite a bit of portfolio value to get on the radar of huge story-oriented development studios that actually need dedicated writers. I'm sorry if it sounds rude but you're going to have to suffer through a lot more of the team rip offs to get noticed.
Come jump around in the happy house with us programmers and artists. Finally your talents are highly revered and you will be making very good money to be doing what you love. The studio knows your contributions add to the profit they will make and as such they are willing to pay you very well to do what you do. Just like us however you are expected and demanded to make top notch audio on command. You will be working hard but you will also be retiring early in life.
Marketers and Advertisers
Yeah you know you're making money too. The studio has sold games before they know that you have to get quality faces looking at the product to sell it and they know a large investment to you will return higher profits for them. Many times you are not hired by the studio itself as much as you are contracted, or outside advertising agencies are hired. However mid sized to large studios would rather just payroll you and have you on hand to keep it up all year round. Get good at it, and be able to prove that you will make them money and you'll be rolling in your cut as well. Just like the rest of us you will be busting your hump but the pay off will be worth it. You may however also get stuck in the rut where you will need to get ripped off quite a bit to demonstrate your ability to a level where the studio will want you but in the long run it will be worth it I promise.
As a bit of a final recap I'd like to touch on the trends that you may have noticed throughout this article. The most important of these trends, and the biggest one I hope to have presented is get it done! Whatever it is that you are doing for your project getting it done helps everyone. Game development is tightly linked through all of the fields and any one spoke of the wheel taking too long impacts overall progress ten fold. I completely understand that quality in any field takes time but we all need to understand that when that time is applied is up to us. For your project's sake wake early and bed late, spend time every day working on what you do and get it done in as few days as possible even if it costs you a night out or causes you to miss an episode of your favorite TV show.
Secondly, understand that you may not understand how hard someone else's work is. This is most noteable between programmers and artists. As programmers we tend to look at artists and think they are sitting on the couch doodling and getting paid for it. Artists tend to look at programmers and think we simply type out commands at the keyboard. What we as programmers need to understand better is that artists actually do a lot more than just doodle, they manipulate colors, lines and visual effects to make mini master pieces in a way that we can't. Artists, you need to understand that programming is in itself an art. Yes we type commands, but how you use those commands, when and where is an artwork in and of itself. Our brains work much in the same way, what we produce just comes out differently. Although I can't make such direct comparisons to all fields, at the end of the day it all comes down to the same things. We are all creative upstairs and we all create something amazing, in the case of an artist it's nice to look at but hard to understand what went into it. With programming code it's fun and easy to use or play but hard to understand what went into it. With a story line it's compelling and interesting to read but hard to understand what went into it. With audio tracks and sound effects it's pleasing to listen to but hard to understand what went into it. The trend to note: more work goes into quality works than what meets the eye, the mouse or the ear.
Lastly, development is driven by content creation and functionality. In order to make it farther, make more money and be worth more to any team or studio you have to do more. We all need to take a step back and honestly ask ourselves if what we want to provide will create a big enough impact to justify our position in a project. For programmers this may mean that your education never stops and that you must learn to specialize in all aspects of game programming. For artist this may mean you need to learn to create scenery, characters, effects, vehicles and more. For composers, you might need to expand your ability into multiple genres and learn to make more impressive sound effects. For writers and idea guys, you may need to learn to design more and better as well as learn some other things that you can do to help the game succeed (be it advertising and marketing, quality testing and assurance, quest writing, dialog, story line...). In short if you EVER have to say "yeah but I don't do ...", you are not done growing as a developer. Granted it's very difficult if not impossible to be the best at everything related to your field you should NEVER be completely unable to produce something that is within the demands of your field. On the same note, when you are to the point that you can or can't learn to do anything that your field will require it's time to start minoring in a second field.
So hopefully this will give you a little understanding of what you might encounter throughout your career as a game developer and help to prepare you for what you may encounter. To anyone who I may have discouraged throughout this article I apologize. I would hope that even throughout some of the darker points of this article that it has offered up some ideas of other ways increase your worth, or at the least opened your eyes that you can increase your worth through learning more and taking on more roles.
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