I got a survey about game development in my inbox today. The questions were mainly focused on economics and employment, but they made me think. Of course, as an academic, my research deals primarily with the videogame industry, so I think about it all the time. This survey, however, wasn’t asking the academic me, but the programmer me. It wasn’t asking philosophical questions, but very practical questions. Nevertheless, these questions got me thinking about what it means to be game developer.
I found it somewhat difficult to answer most of the survey questions. Of course, this was no fault of the survey. I was pleased to find that it contained questions pertaining both to developers working for large, mainstream studios and for independent developers. It got somewhat more complicated, however, when the questions began asking about how much money I made off the sale of my games this year. On one hand, my job as a programmer certainly helped pay the bills this past year, but none of the games I make have earned a cent…ever, for that matter.
My life as a game developer started in the usual fashion. I played lots of games as a kid (and an adult) and took an interest in programming in high school. I tinkered around with making games a lot at this point in my life, and though few of these games were remotely playable, I learned a lot. In college, I learned C++ and a few other languages, but found that my most employable skill was developing with Flash and Actionscript. I got my first game development job working not for a game studio, but for a robotics company, creating games to teach kids about things like fire safety. That project eventually died when my artist left for warmer weather, but I continued finding non-traditional ways to use my game development skills to pay the rent. Today, I’m still doing basically the same thing. I make games for a living. My current boss is a particle astrophysicist.
Not surprisingly, working for a research group was not one of the options on the survey. I ended up selecting “other” or “none of the above” fairly often. After a while, I started to feel like kind a bit of a misfit. Was I really making a living off of being a game developer? Technically, my wages were payed by the outreach budget that is built into our NSF grant, not by any sort of profit that our games had made. This is certainly not the usual economic model for game development.
While I don’t know of many other game developers who work for a bunch of scientists, I believe my situation is part of a larger trend in game development. Just as organizational models are changing as people start leaving huge corporate settings to form smaller, independent studios, economic models are changing as both game developers and game players start to question whether or not buying a sixty dollar game at Best Buy is really the best way to go. While technologies such as digital distribution have certainly facilitated many of these new models, I believe that these shifts are socially, rather than technologically, driven.
One of the more interesting takes I’ve seen on economics and creative work is that of Francis Ford Coppola. In a recent interview, the filmmaker discussed his views on creativity, money and risk:
You have to remember that it’s only a few hundred years, if that much, that artists are working with money. Artists never got money. Artists had a patron . . . Or they had another job. I have another job. I make films. No one tells me what to do. But I make the money in the wine industry. You work another job and get up at five in the morning and write your script.
This idea of Metallica or some rock n’ roll singer being rich, that’s not necessarily going to happen anymore . . . who says artists have to make money?
I would not suggest that people who do creative work should not be compensated monetarily. I don’t think Mr. Coppola would think so either. Nevertheless, his views on the worth of creative labor are very different from those held by the movie industry or the videogame industry. To him, creative freedom vastly outweighs the need to make millions of dollars, or ability the need to support himself monetarily from his films. I would argue that while his philosophy is certainly not the only one out there, it applies to videogames just as validly as it applies to films.
I, of course, am not the only developer who works outside the normal economic models of the industry. Indeed, many of the developers whose games I most enjoy make them available to play without charge. Developers like Locomalito, Auntie Pixelante and Bay 12 Games make their games available for free download. Pixeljam has funded their games in a variety of ways and they are currently making a game that was funded entirely through Kickstarter. Some developers support themselves through advertising, while others, like Sophie Houlden, refuse to monetize their games through advertising at all. The list goes on and on.
So what does this mean for the future of game development? It certainly doesn’t make the traditional industry path any less valid. However, it does mean that game developers have a lot more options than they once did. As more and more developers become disillusioned by an industry that is increasingly characterized by poor work conditions and rigid corporate hierarchies, it’s important for them to know that other ways exist.
This also means that we should expect even more new economic models to begin appearing. 2010 saw the huge success of not one, but two Humble Indie Bundles, which are pioneering the “pay what you want” economic model and challenging the necessity of DRMs. Hopefully, 2011 will see the release of the first two games funded by the Indie Fund. Games are also having increased success on websites like Kickstarter. Hopefully, these are just the first of many new approaches to the business of game development that we’ll see in the next few years.