Entry-Level Production Wages, Part 2

The last time I wrote about the subject of relatively low entry-level wages for producers, some very knowledgeable readers made the following arguments in support of the status quo:

  1. Production is a role that demands experience. Entry-level producers are not capable of making a “significant enough” contribution to a game’s development to justify higher wages.
  2. There are tons of people willing to do anything to become producers; why pay when you don’t have to?
  3. Academic degrees (even game and/or engineering-centric degrees) are nice, but ultimately irrelevant without multi-year project experience. “You can’t teach production skills.”

There’s something to be said for every one of these arguments. Nevertheless, I’m going to do my best to express a logical alternative point of view. Does this mean I think wages for entry-level producers should skyrocket? Not necessarily, no. But it does mean I think there’s room for nuance — that the industry’s current blanket approach to entry-level production isn’t appropriate for every case and candidate.

Other Industries Aren’t Completely Retarded and/or Irrelevant

First, let’s take a look at some other industries. [Yes, I know we in games like to think of our art as utterly unique and without comparison, but bear with me.] How about consulting? The pay packages that top management consulting firms offer MBAs (straight out of school) are some of the most attractive around. These firms frequently hire people with absolutely no consulting experience (beyond a summer internship’s worth), to consult on projects that have nothing to do with their previous work experience. Several engineers I know got their MBAs, joined consulting firms, and were immediately assigned to projects completely unrelated to engineering. These fledgling consultants are given constant oversight, and nothing they produce reaches a client without being reviewed by multiple people. In other words, they are like entry-level producers… promising, but not able and not permitted to make a “huge impact” at the start of their new careers.

So why the heck do consulting firms pay entry-level MBA candidates so well? Surely the promise of future wealth and prestige should be enough to snag decent candidates at lower wages; partners at top firms regularly make over $1M per year. Heck, you could probably cut wages by 20% and still get a ton of candidates! But would the very best candidates still bite? Apparently, all the top firms have decided “no”, because their pay packages regularly exceed $100k/year.

There are more similarities here than you might realize. Entry-level consultants work ridiculous hours — just like producers. Consulting is arguably the most desired MBA career path — much like game design & production. But of course, the logical (and inevitable) argument against this comparison is: consulting firms pay well because there’s no other reason to work for them! People love games!

It’s All About the Passion, Baby!

So it seems we’ve reached the “producers work for love, not money” argument. It’s all about the passion, baby! Or is it? When I think about the characteristics of a great producer, here’s (some of) what I come up with:

  • Reliable
  • Good communicator
  • Good multi-tasker
  • Possesses (at least) basic knowledge of engineering
  • Possesses (at least) basic knowledge of marketing
  • Possesses (at least) basic knowledge of design
  • Intelligent
  • Organized
  • Inspires respect
  • Creative
  • Calm under pressure

Some of the things in this list can’t easily be recognized, pre-hire. But all can be glimpsed (if not outright recognized) via a thorough interview process, solid references, and especially, a well-designed internship.

So is “super-passionate about games” really more important than “reliable”? I guess that’s a matter of opinion, but I’d take a candidate with many of the skills listed above (plus genuine enthusiasm for games) over a less-qualified but hardcore candidate anytime. Unfortunately, as any experienced employer (in any industry) knows, people with the combination of characteristics that I’ve listed are extremely rare. We’re talking about a tiny fraction of the working population. All the more reason to take a financial risk on identifying and hiring those rare few.

The game industry has more than its fair share of extremely passionate candidates. But maybe “cheap and hardcore” isn’t the best hiring criteria? Is it conceivably possible that some of the best production candidates are finding their ways to other jobs and/or industries, because their sincere (but not all-consuming) enthusiasm for games is insufficient impetus to abandon their wage expectations?

Looking in a Thousand Mirrors…

I think this debate goes beyond cost/performance issues. In some ways, it touches the very soul of the video game industry. A selection bias for “passionate”, experienced employees has profound implications for diversity — or lack thereof. By selecting against all but the most hardcore candidates, the hiring process automatically repels some of the very people the industry needs most: non-hardcore gamers, especially female non-hardcore gamers. How can a company staffed almost entirely by the hardcore ever hope to serve the needs of the much larger gaming market? We’re talking group-think in the extreme! And let’s face it, if you’re not really, really hardcore, you’re not likely to put up with the current hiring path for production (rare exceptions notwithstanding).

Degrees: Kind of Like Insurance, Only Less Appreciated

And last, but not least, we come to the (lack of) value of university degrees. “You can’t teach production (or design) skills.” I say this is irrelevant. Most people seem to agree that a degree is useful — that it will give people an edge over time. The argument seems to be “they’ll get paid more thanks to their degree someday in the future, when they have a little experience.” Well, if I were a big publisher, I’d pay a little more up front, and snag the most promising entry-level talent while the snagging was good. And later, when some significant percentage of them turned into really great producers, I’d just smile.. and laugh at my competitors.

I realize I’m cheating, btw. Last time, I wrote about dual degree design/engineering students. This time I’ve written about MBA students. How come? Because I wanted to broaden the discussion, to avoid the inevitable argument that “you don’t need an engineering degree to be a producer.” I know, I know. What I’m saying is, people with a design degree, engineering degree, and/or business degree (and/or related work experience) bring something useful to the job. And that “something extra” is not merely a nice-to-have; it can be damn important… especially when the designers, engineers, artists, or marketers working on a project don’t agree with people inside or outside of their groups, and the producer has to mediate.

OK, Let’s Wrap This Up, Already

I’d like to make a few things very clear. This editorial is not an assault on the many producers who have worked their ways up from QA, with or without a design, engineering, or business degree (or a university degree at all, for that matter!) There are obviously some really great people in the industry who have followed the QA route. In fact, I think that someone in QA who exhibits real talent, intelligence, charisma, and reliability deserves a higher entry level production wage, too! The same goes for someone who enters production via engineering. My main point is simply that the hiring system needs to be more flexible than it is now.

Also, it’s worth noting that this editorial isn’t really applicable to most independent development studios. Most indie studios don’t even have more than one or two producers on a team, and can’t really afford to “make the investment” in really promising (but relatively-inexperienced) production talent. On the other hand, big publishers and studio conglomerates have no excuse. $10K or $20K extra for a really promising entry-level producer means nothing to EA. But if that entry-level candidate turns out to be a star… well, EA is going to make back many, many times its investment in them.

Finally, let me emphasize (as I have before) that a degree is not an automatic stamp of quality. Plenty of degree programs (game design and otherwise) are poorly developed, and plenty of students (from the Ivy League and elsewhere) would not make very good producers. This article is about rewarding the promising candidates, not about talking up every game design (or engineering, or business) program in the country.

25 responses to “Entry-Level Production Wages, Part 2

  1. This acticle nails it on the head. I’m in my first production job after seven AAA titles as an artist, and even now I can tell you that I was unprepared for it. In addition to all of those qualifications you listed above, you have to be ready for everyone to question all of your decisions all day long, every day for the rest of your life. You have to deal with people vocally disagreeing with and criticizing your vision every day, and still be able to maintain that vision for more than a year despite it all. You have to be ready to cut the work of your friends from the title, which generally means you will lose those friends.

    I can not imagine coming into this business and going directly into production. I was incredible naive and immature when I started this position – 5 years ago, right out of school, I would have been a catasophic failure.

  2. scratchinghead

    Out of all the possible skills a Producer can possess, communication and management ability are the only consistent criteria that can be demanded within an industry that fails to define the role of a Producer accurately and consistently.

    As a Producer, I’ve been hired as a Project Manager, Assistant Producer (not Associate Producer, because some argue there is a difference) and Producer. Above this I’m familiar with the Senior Producer, Creative Director, Studio Manager and Business & Development Manager.

    Now, within every role I’ve been employed to do I have had to define what it is I do, and the demands have been different on every project over my seven years in the industry. Its not always been my place to be creative; I’ve not always handled financial responsibility; nor have I always been responsible with managing staff beyond the projects required tasks.
    I’m left to assume that I’ve been employed on my communication and management ability – Management I believe has been mistaken for the narrow skill of organisation.

    Passion is not a pre-requisite, nor is a complete knowledge of games. The defining role of a Producer is to ship a product on time, and to the quality demanded by the market.

  3. scratchinghead – I agree that it can be difficult to discuss production issues, when the job description varies so widely from company to company. Still, there are some unifying characteristics.

    A producer generally has to work with engineers, artists, and designers (which is why I think a basic understanding of those functions is crucial.) A producer generally needs to communicate and manage effectively, as you noted.

    And there’s no doubt that, at any company, a producer should be intelligent, organized, and calm under pressure! We can debate whether “creative” is an important characteristic for all producers, but I suspect that a producer who lacks any creativity whatsoever would find it difficult to relate to the creative types within the development team.

    As for passion – my point was, the current hiring process makes hardcore passion a defacto requirement (barring few exceptions, of course.)

  4. scratchinghead

    David, I’m grateful for the fact that you are addressing Producer roles and issues; out of all the disciplines in the industry, the Producer role is the least understood, appreciated and defined.

    I believe a Producer can acquire knowledge of development disciplines on site, I don’t believe the knowledge is necessary at entry level.

    I understand what you are saying about passion too; I know, because it was a contributing factor to my first step on the ladder.

    I’m consistently shocked at how many Producers fail to recognise that game development is software engineering too. What’s more difficult to deal with, is the development mindset that Producers aren’t as important as their role suggests. This general lack of respect for the role makes understanding and working with multi-disciplines a challenge and different per team.

  5. scratchinghead – thanks for your compliments. 🙂 I’m sorry to hear that you have encountered so many people who downplay the role of producer. I wonder if that’s because they’ve had bad experiences with producers in the past, or if it’s something deeper than that.

    Suffice to say, I think a producer *can* be the most important person on a team — if s/he has the right personality, sufficient knowledge, and respect for others.

  6. scratchinghead

    The thing is, David, the experiences I have had differ from company to company to company. In one, it may be the upper management who don’t understand how effective a Producer can be given the righ level of decision making. In another, it will be the development staff, the problem lies, as you suggest, in the fact they they have been poorly managed in he past so the role of Producer appears vague.

    Ultimately, the root of the problem is that the Producer role does lack definition. Maybe this is a UK issue and not a US issue? The US genraly appears to respect management roles and practices more so than the UK. Could it be the inventor culture the British perpetuate. In my experience, the word corporation is rarley uttered without an expletive.

    I’ve started my own blog … http://scratchinghead.typepad.com/scratchinghead/. Its in its infancy, but trust you won’t mind taking a look. Regarding the above percpetion of the Producer. I’m working on a theory based on a reference from Tom De Marco … keep and eye out for it.

  7. David:
    I think it’s important to distinguish that people are not writing in support of the status quo; rather, they are trying to explain why the status quo has this particular dynamic that you find puzzling. From the academic side, you’re looking at this from a policy perspective (how should this work?), whereas for a number of us, we’re looking at this from a business practices perspective (how does this work and why does it work this way?).

    I think this difference in perspective is at the heart of the problem. You’re looking at this practice, and what you see is that the industry is not offering your students the kinds of opportunities they want. Frankly, your job would be easier if it did, so you’re advocating that this should change based on a number of arguments about how this would be mutually beneficial. That’s fine and all, but it’s ultimately not going to change things.

    From an analytical point of view, one can look at larger trends and see broader dynamics and point to what changes in attitudes could do. From a business practice point of view, larger dynamics are largely irrelevant. Change doesn’t happen on a policy basis, it happens in specific instances, local situations. You argue that changing the policy would be better for everyone, so the companies should react accordingly. I would argue that if these students can demonstrate the actual value they bring to the table by going out into the workforce in these lower-paid entry-level production jobs and being markedly more successful than similar candidates without the degrees or other credentials, the companies would learn that these backgrounds are valuable and the resulting increase in hiring of ivy-league graduates at higher salaries for these types of positions would ultimately enact the change in policy that you’re advocating. The problem I’m pointing at is fundamentally a hermeneutic one. You say changing the shape of the forest would work better for some of the trees. I say changing the trees would change the shape of the forest.

    On the bottom line, it doesn’t really matter what goes on in this blog; what’s going to matter is what happens in the studios, publishers, etc. We can agree to disagree, or argue about it endlessly if we’re so inclined, but neither the forest nor the trees really care what we have to say about it.

    However, I will take the time to take issue with your consulting analogy, hopefully in service of a larger point that can be effectively impacted. I did the ivy league thing, and I saw the consulting firms on campus, advertising in the campus papers, holding their recruiting meetings. I know a number of people who took that path, and I can tell you that it is not at all similar to hiring people at a studio, or even a publisher.

    The first major difference is that these are consulting firms; what they do is provide consulting services to companies that are already in business, and largely the businesses they are in are well-established ones. The business practices of large companies involved in manufacturing or financial services or manpower management are well-known problems because people have been knocking their heads against them for several centuries. It’s much easier to hire people to problem-solve when the problems are well-known than when they are constantly changing, and it’s also easier to hire analysts with analytical training than it is to hire hands-on workers based on analytical training.

    The second major difference is that when people are hired for these consulting firms, they go through something like six months to a year of training before they are sent out to do the work, and even once they are in the field, as you acknowledge, they are junior partners who are mentored by established consultants, so they can continue their learning. It is a substantial period of time before they take any kind of leadership role in this process. At a studio (or even a publisher), we don’t have the overhead for doing this. We can’t take the time to teach a producer for a year before giving them a producing role, so the entry-level jobs tend to involve a lot of hands-on learning and gathering of experience. It is, in many ways, an apprenticeship, and when they do begin to take on leadership roles, their salary is generally commensurate with that.

    Another significant difference is that even at the large consulting firms, a lot of their entry-level folks aren’t on full salary until they pass their training period, so the big numbers that are offered don’t necessarily materialize right away, and the consulting firms will generally cut something like 20-40% of their trainees at the end of training. They can afford to bring in a lot of people and cut the ones who don’t shape up, whereas the consequences for this kind of approach in a development studio would be disastrous, especially with people who have production responsibilities.

    You’re also talking about MBA’s, which are quite different from BA graduates. If you’ve got not only the undergraduate degree but also the advanced training in business practices of an MBA, you’re going to be able to work on a higher level at day one out of the program. You’re comparing folks with MBA’s going into general business practice consulting with folks with BA’s going into hands-on production roles. There’s just a world of difference between the two. Comparing MBA graduates going into production would be a closer comparison, but even at that, the reality is still that you’re going to find enough competent entry-level producers (assistant or associate, whatever it may be called) without the MBA that the salary dynamics are going to be lowered by the lower bar to entry.

    But, that’s a very long-winded way of pointing out that an analogy that you admitted was flawed does indeed have some flaws. The reason I bother to do this is that it’s important to understand why the analogy doesn’t hold, not just in the abstract but in the specifics. In order to do this, you have to understand the specifics of both sides, and this is the larger point I want to get at.

    In the original article, you identified a disparity in starting salaries and then posed that this might reflect an underlying problem in the way the games industry works. A number of people from the industry wrote comments explaining that your understanding of the problem was incomplete, pointing out the specific parts that were missing. Your response was that even if the problem was more complex, there should still be a higher premium for well-qualified students going into these fields, by which I assume you mean the kinds of students who have been through programs like yours.

    Let’s turn this problem around. What if the fundamental problem here is not that the industry isn’t offering higher salaries to students with game studies (or media studies) degrees, but rather that game studies degrees don’t provide enough value to justify higher starting salaries?

    The reason why there is some value in a degree is that there are certain general things that students must learn to get through a university program: how to argue effectively, how to synthesize different types of knowledge, how to define a problem and an appropriate answer, how to draw a systemic definition out of a collection of data, how to write clearly, how to manage deadlines, how to prioritize what must be done from what can be done, and in general, how to co-exist in a community of differing backgrounds and opinions while maintaining a level of civility.

    If you want your students to be successful in the game industry, you have to provide them with the skills they’re going to need on the job. What game studies currently offers in the way of training for game industry jobs simply doesn’t have enough of a difference from a general education to give that degree a higher value. In my opinion, one of the reasons for this is that game studies is an academic discipline and it is being taught by people who have academic backgrounds rather than industry backgrounds. Take your own articles, for example. You’re arguing that the industry should understand what the academy is doing and react accordingly.

    The changes you want to see, though, won’t come about until the academy understands what the industry is doing and reacts accordingly. The problem here is that while the academy prepares one to understand the similarities between different fields and types of problems, it does not provide training in the specific problems of this particular (and quite idiosyncratic) field. Rather than taking the feedback of people on the ground and acknowledging that there is a lack of understanding in the academy, your response is that the lack of coherence lies in the industry’s failure to understand what you’re doing. Frankly, if you had experience working in the industry, the question wouldn’t have come up in the first place, because you would have had a first-hand experience of why there is a disparity in entry-level salaries.

    Now, I don’t mean to suggest that there is no value in the work you’re doing, or in yourself as an instructor, but I do think that you, and your students, would be better served by doing more empirical research and less structural comparison. Rather than challenging the industry to line up as your theory dictates it should, you could go out into the industry and find out why the theory does not fit with the reality. As the comments on these articles, I think, clearly demonstrate, the industry is filled with people who are more than willing to work with, and even educate, the academy.

    I’m not saying that you need to get an industry job to understand the industry, but I do think that academics in general need to work more with people in the industry to develop an understanding of what will actually serve their students best. How many industry people come and talk to your class in a semester? Have you ever had anyone from the industry audit your class? Have you talked to people in the industry about whether your curriculum will effectively teach your students what they need to know on the job? Are there any people working within the industry consulting with your career services office? How many of your visiting lecturers have industry experience? When you have your conferences, how many industry people do you invite? And when you bring people in from the industry, are you inviting the studio heads, or the people in the trenches?

    I’m sure that your department is doing some of this, but I guess the challenge that I would pose to you is to ask yourself if it could be doing more. If you really want to give your students an education that will benefit them, then creatively finding ways to develop a more in-depth knowledge of the industry so that you can better train them to succeed within it should be a top priority. This is what will ultimately translate into the graduates of your program getting better offers for production-track careers.

    Having been both an academic and in the industry, I think these specifics are far more valuable than abstract correlations.

    Eyejinx.

  8. > From the academic side, you’re looking at this from a
    > policy perspective (how should this work?), whereas for
    > a number of us, we’re looking at this from a business
    > practices perspective (how does this work and why does
    > it work this way?).

    I can’t disagree more. I am looking at this *precisely* from a business perspective — which is why I made an effort to make real world comparisions to other industries. I don’t think there’s anything “academic” (or impractical, which I think is the subtext of your arguments) about debating the merits of what it takes to acquire the most promising talent. The definition of “promising” may be up for debate, as may be the appropriate level of pay. But none of this renders my article academic.

    And by the way, I am by no means a doddering old professor who’s never seen the light of day. I was a software engineer (and eventually, the owner of a software company) before I went to MIT… to get an MBA. (I know that’s a degree — dirty word — but it’s a pretty damn practical one, from a pretty top-notch program, where you study several practical things — like hiring policy and practice, for example!)

    Now part of my daily routine includes research in an academic environment, yes. But I reject that this somehow makes my arguments any less relevant. In fact, I’d say it gives me a broader perspective.

    > You’re looking at this practice, and what you see is that
    > the industry is not offering your students the kinds of
    > opportunities they want.

    No. I see an industry that’s missing out on some exceptional candidates. I see an industry that has been homogenized (in part) by excessive emphasis on hardcore profiles and “experience”. (I put experience in quotes because, ironically, many useful forms of experience are completely disregarded by game companies during the hiring process!)

    My students can (and generally do) fend for themselves. It’s the game industry I’m concerned about.

    > it’s ultimately not going to change things.

    You could make that argument about pretty much any very difficult problem in the world. I could throw up my hands and roll my eyes, but I’d rather start a dialogue (as I clearly have done!) If nothing else, it’s educational. (Uh oh — does that make me … *gasp* … an academic??!)

    😉

    And btw, I should add: all it takes is *one* large company to decide that it will handle entry-level hiring differently. That’s all. This isn’t as intractable an issue as you make it out to be.

    > You say changing the shape of the forest would work
    > better for some of the trees. I say changing the trees
    > would change the shape of the forest.

    No. I’m saying “one of the trees should get smart and start hiring talent differently. It will give them an edge until the rest of the trees catch on.” You can agree or disagree all you like … but it doesn’t change the fact that I am NOT, as you suggest, advocating for some sort of amorphous industrial shift. Any large game company can take my advice and profit from it, IMO.

    > It’s much easier to hire people to problem-solve when the
    > problems are well-known than when they are constantly
    > changing, and it’s also easier to hire analysts with analytical
    > training than it is to hire hands-on workers based on
    > analytical training.

    IMO, *this* is missing the “forest for the trees”. 1) You’re nit picking. This doesn’t actually challenge the analogy in any fundamental ways. The “early stage usefulness” of an entry-level consultant is still just as limited, they require just as much oversight, etc. 2) Some of those “well-known” problems are the MOST intractable… there’s a reason consulting companies haven’t saved the airline industry yet.

    Gotta run to dinner. Be back with more soon! Meanwhile — thanks for getting my blood boiling. 🙂

  9. I’m back. Continuing with the critique…

    > We can’t take the time to teach a producer for a year
    > before giving them a producing role

    I simply cannot take this argument seriously. EA is a 16 billion dollar company. Activision: four billion. They can do it. Microsoft can do it. It’s simply an investment, like anything else.

    > Another significant difference is that even at the
    > large consulting firms, a lot of their entry-level
    > folks aren’t on full salary until they pass their
    > training period

    I’m afraid this is completely untrue (at least at the MBA level, which is what I was describing). MBAs from top schools not only command huge pay packages, they frequently get tuition reimbursement and stuff as well (for just sticking around for a year or two!)

    > You’re also talking about MBAs, which are quite different
    > from BA graduates.

    Right. Want to know a little secret? I know a few MBAs from top schools who applied for production jobs as well. They all got offers around $40K a year (with one exception — a guy who ended up working for a “serious” games company.) That’s $40K versus average compensation more like $100K. So the analogy holds.

    > What if the fundamental problem here is not that the
    > industry isn’t offering higher salaries to students
    > with game studies (or media studies) degrees, but
    > rather that game studies degrees don’t provide enough
    > value to justify higher starting salaries?

    Always a possibility (and probably a certainty in the case of many degree programs). And I also think it’s true that a degree program without substantial project work (in-class, extracurricular, and/or internship) is relatively unhelpful. That said: I think this argument is a smoke-screen.

    > one of the reasons for this is that game studies is
    > an academic discipline and it is being taught by
    > people who have academic backgrounds rather than
    > industry backgrounds.

    Have you scrutinized many game design programs? Many of our classes *are* taught by industry vets. Ian Davis (CEO of Mad Doc) taught a course on character design this year. Chris Weaver (Founder of Bethesda Softworks) is teaching a course on game business matters. And we bring in tons of industry guest lecturers. It seems to me that you are the one making uninformed statements… not I. No offense. 🙂

    > I’m not saying that you need to get an industry job
    > to understand the industry

    Funny… it sure seemed that way! Be careful what assumptions you make; some of us know more (and have done more) than you think.

    > How many industry people come and talk to your class in a
    > semester?

    Well, just as an example, Chris Weaver’s class last year had a guest lecturer from industry at almost every session, every week.

    > Have you talked to people in the industry about whether
    > your curriculum will effectively teach your students
    > what they need to know on the job?

    I’ve chatted about this very subject with Bing Gordon (CCO of EA) and Neil Young (Head of EA’s LA studio). And with about 15 other industry vets.

    > Are there any people working within the industry
    > consulting with your career services office?

    I don’t believe so; students go directly to guys like Ian and Chris for counseling.

    > when you bring people in from the industry, are you
    > inviting the studio heads, or the people in the trenches?

    Both. I hope I’ve made my point by now.

    > I guess the challenge that I would pose to you is to ask
    > yourself if it could be doing more.

    I could *always* be doing more. Unfortunately, we (unlike some game publishers) are not a multi-billion dollar enterprise! Seems to me like academia is already making a pretty strong effort, so there’s little call for finger-pointing.

    Whew — I think I can safely say that this was the longest comment I ever had to respond to! 🙂 Thanks for taking the time and effort to engage me on this. I totally disagree with your perspective and with many of the assumptions that you have made. But I’m very glad that you were willing to speak your mind all the same!

  10. David:
    Well, I’m glad that you appreciated the comments, regardless of disagreeing with them, and in that spirit, I will try to keep a collegial tone (pun intended). I get that you’re worried about the game industry, but considering that we’re a 20+ billion dollar a year industry, and growing, you shouldn’t lose much sleep over it. I’m sure that you could probably track that success back to the large number of MBA’s we have working in product development. While we suffer daily from the “homogenization” of our workforce, I can see that hiring from the pool of MBA’s would greatly increase our diversity, and I, for one, am all in favor of that.

    You say you’re looking at this from a business perspective, and I disagree, but I’d be curious to hear what you see the business case for this being. For fairness sake, here is mine. Let’s say I’ve got a studio, and I’m looking to hire up from the 6 or so core people that I’ve put together for the pitch-and-demo stage to the 40+ I’m going to need to finish the game. I’ve already got an experienced project manager, but he’s going to be more involved in the business side of things, so I’m looking for a producer to run the day-to-day tasks of scheduling, putting together assets, and managing the team. Wait, I’m going to want someone with experience to do that, so I’m not going to be looking for entry-level people at all. Never mind.

    Okay, so let’s say that I’m the head development guy at a studio, and we’ve got a couple of teams, but we’re looking to expand to a third team. We’re going to need a producer for the third project, and we’ve already got a couple of experienced producers in the studio, as well as myself, to provide mentoring, so I can look for someone a little more junior. Wait, I’m still going to want someone who’s got some experience with all the stages of a project, so I’m likely going to get someone with AP experience. Never mind.

    So, let’s say I’m at a major studio, and we’ve got multiple teams, and we’ve got a stable of producers, and I’m looking for some additional support to scale one of the teams up to do a really complex multi-platform, simultaneous ship project. Since I’m an open-minded sort, I’m willing to bring in an entry-level person, so I advertise for an assistant producer job. Now, assuming that I don’t have someone else in the studio who has experience as an artist, engineer, designer, or tester who wants to move over into the production track and whose work habits and personality I’m already familiar with, I get to sort through a ton of resumes (it is not uncommon to get over 200 resumes for an advertised entry-level position). Again, assuming that for some reason I pass over all of the experienced AP’s from other studios and all the other people with experience shipping a product in other disciplines, and I’m looking at people who have no industry experience, now I’m finally ready to look at your MIT MBA grad.

    Now, I’m going to interview a lot of people on the phone, and then I’m going to bring a few in for on-site interviews. Let’s assume that your MIT grad passes the allergy test and demonstrates enough basic competency in knowledge of the AP’s role on the team that they make it to the on-site interview. Let’s also assume that a couple of other folks pass that test, so we’re comparing apples to apples. I could offer the MIT grad 70k to try and lock him in (knowing full well that with an MBA, he could go into some other industry at 100k+), or I could offer one of the other candidates 35K and instead spend that extra 35K on a second AP, or bundle it into the salary offer for a senior lead programmer who’s probably going to have a larger impact on our ability to ship a quality project, or hire another couple of contract testers, or, hell, just stick it in my own pocket.

    Since both your MIT grad and my other potential hires are going to do much of their learning on the job, there’s not much use for that MBA, and in fact, they probably are going to be unhappy doing all of the menial tasks that I expect of an AP when they’ve just spent the last two years of their life studying how to run a company. If I bring them in, I’m going to have to put up with them second-guessing my line producers and trying to make decisions that are over their heads. In a best-case scenario, they’ll pick things up quickly and take on an early leadership role, but even then, they’ll expect to make more money than what they were initially hired at, whereas the other guys will be thrilled to have their salary doubled when they get to that stage, which I don’t really need them to right away, since I’ve already got all the senior people I need.

    Okay, okay, so it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense at a studio level, so maybe a publisher would take this on, someone who has enough people that they can afford to hire entry-level folks in hopes that they’ll develop over the long term into exceptional talent. Let’s say I’m the HR manager at Activision, and we have around a thousand developers on staff. At an average project size of 40-50 people, that means we employ something like 20-25 full producers, maybe 50 AP’s. Of those 50 AP slots, how many am I hiring per year? 10? 20? If I decide to offer my AP’s 70K coming in instead of 40K, I’ve just increased my overall budget by something like 300,000 to half a million dollars or more. I know that’s pennies to you MIT grads, but out here, if I project a half million dollar increase in payroll just for my entry-level AP’s, they’re going to take my security pass and invite me to leave the building.

    Look, this isn’t rocket science. Maybe if it were, you’d be better able to make sense of it. Didn’t you study supply and demand in business school? There’s a large supply of people who want to get into game development. There’s a relatively low, practically non-existent, demand for MBA’s in entry-level production roles because you don’t need an MBA to do an AP’s job. In other industries, an MBA grad can step in at a relatively higher level and the curve works in their favor because there are fewer MBA grads and more positions where people want someone with that credential.

    You say that the industry should be willing to invest in MIT MBA grads, but what is it about that degree that makes them more valuable, specifically, in product development? It can’t be the talent level, because let’s face it, in those 200 resumes, there are probably a lot of people with talent who for whatever reasons never made it through college, much less an MBA program, much less MIT. What is it about the training they get in the MIT MBA program that makes them worth close to twice the money of other incoming candidates? How much of that is stuff they can’t learn on the job?

    And let’s not dismiss the training time issue out of hand. Even at large publishers like EA, projects are team-based. The EP runs his team much like a studio head runs a studio, and they’re accountable based on the performance of their projects. Given that a project will run between one and three years, to what extent can they actually afford to spend a year training someone?

    So, I’m happy to hear that your program is aggressive about bringing in industry folks, but don’t you find it a little ironic that the one example you trot out about bringing them in on a weekly basis to talk to your students was actually organized by someone in the industry? Maybe he knows something…

    As I said, this isn’t a personal attack, not even a program attack. Hell, the MIT program is one of the most respected, from what I hear. You said it didn’t make sense that your grads were getting offered less for production than for programming jobs. I, and many others, have been trying to help you make sense of this. In response, you insist on pointing out how misguided we are. Does that sound like someone who’s working to understand the industry?

    A dialogue goes both ways.

    Best,
    Eyejinx.

  11. I’m currently an undergrad studying New Media Communications (NMC) at Oregon State University and am looking to pursue a career in the game industry after I graduate in June 2007.

    The NMC degree focuses on three areas in the media world; theory, production, and business. Instead of being really good in modeling, programming, or business I feel like I’m receiving one of the best well rounded educations to enter an entry level producer or management role.

    After following these discussions I am starting to get very discouraged in applying for any assistant or associate ( if it really matters) producer roles. Not that the pay is bad (even though it is considerably less than an engineer would make) but because it seems that it seemingly impossible for me to get a position unless I have worked in another position within a company.

    This summer I’m interning with Days of Wonder games within the marketing department and I think this will help me in the future but now I’m really starting to have doubts.

    Here is my question, if I were to apply for a spot within a gaming company should I apply for a QA and game testing position then start applying for higher positions? Also, if get an MFA in interactive media help with gaining a job or will the experience play a bigger role?

    Thanks,
    Stefan Stignei

  12. > I get that you’re worried about the game industry, but
    > considering that we’re a 20+ billion dollar a year
    > industry, and growing, you shouldn’t lose much sleep
    > over it.

    Come on. I’m quite aware of the size (and growth rate) of the industry. And I am — by no means — the only person “inside” or “outside” (however you define it) who thinks the industry is facing some very serious challenges right now, regardless of its size/growth.

    > Since both your MIT grad and my other potential hires are
    > going to do much of their learning on the job, there’s not
    > much use for that MBA

    I’d really hoped to generalize the discussion (which is why I’ve written about both engineering/media undergrads, and about MBAs). I’m interested in smart, multi-talented, charismatic people, and what they can do for the industry. I think they can be found in many places, including (yes) various parts of academia. But, since you’re hammering on this:

    An MBA brings a whole host of things to the table; some from previous experience, some from academic training. A superior ability to play the bridge between marketing and development. Formal training in management and negotiation (useful in any context, but especially when dealing with internal or external disputes). A general understanding of the myriad legal matters that plague *every* business (believe it or not, it’s useful to know how your behavior may or may not violate labor law, trade law, etc.) The list goes on and on.

    Beyond that: top academic programs (business or otherwise) tend to do a really good job filtering for raw intelligence (and, in the case of MBA programs, social skills). That’s always worth something, at any level.

    > in fact, they probably are going to be unhappy doing
    > all of the menial tasks that I expect of an AP when
    > they’ve just spent the last two years of their life
    > studying how to run a company.

    Nobody spends two years in business school familiarizing themselves with the game industry, only to discover AFTER graduation that AP-level tasks aren’t terribly high-level. You go in knowing.

    > If I bring them in, I’m going to have to put up with
    > them second-guessing my line producers and trying to
    > make decisions that are over their heads.

    Have you hired many MBAs into entry-level production roles? Because most MBAs I know are smarter than that. They don’t regularly make a habit of antagonizing the people they work with and count on. The stuff they teach you about social dynamics / organizational processes is some of the most interesting material in bschool.

    > Of those 50 AP slots, how many am I hiring per year? 10? 20?

    Let’s say 15. I’ve been arguing for a more flexible system, not an entirely overhauled system. So let’s say 7 of those 15 (numbers off the cuff, just for argument’s sake) get paid $70K instead of $40K. So you paid $210K more than you need to this year, in order to get (supposedly) the best talent. Spread across the entire company — not one project. $210K is EA’s toilet paper budget. And if one of these hires goes on to become a rockstar producer, they’ll return many times that investment in a single year.

    > Look, this isn’t rocket science. Maybe if it were, you’d be
    > better able to make sense of it.

    That was hardly necessary. But hey — you think I’m being dense, and I think you’re being closed-minded and short-sighted. I guess that makes us even. 😉

    > Didn’t you study supply and demand in business school?

    Oh yes — that, and many other things. Such as the fact that supply and demand is hardly the only variable worth accounting for, in *any* scenario.

    > There’s a relatively low, practically non-existent,
    > demand for MBA’s in entry-level production roles
    > because you don’t need an MBA to do an AP’s job.

    I don’t need to argue this point, because even if it isn’t useful at the AP level (which I disagree with), it’s definitely going to be extremely useful later on, and I think that’s worth paying for up-front.

    And many, many industries agree. You clearly think that no other industry is relevant, but it’s rather remarkable how many industries accept MBAs with open arms into “entry-level” roles, many of which require significant training and oversight. Retail. Airline. Enterprise software. Biotechnology. Industries that are “stable” and industries that are changing rapidly. The list goes on.

    I should introduce you to that friend I mentioned; the one who went straight from Wharton to a production role at a serious games company. Might be an interesting encounter.

    > in product development? It can’t be the talent level,
    > because let’s face it, in those 200 resumes, there are
    > probably a lot of people with talent

    People in this industry complain (with great frequency) about how incredibly difficult it is to find a good producer. Everybody seems to have more than a few stories about bad producers they’ve worked with. Maybe it isn’t such a terrible idea to think more open-mindedly about where you’re finding your producers. And again, I’m just encouraging flexibility here. OF COURSE some should still come from the usual internal sources (QA, engineering, etc!)

    > don’t you find it a little ironic that the one example you
    > trot out about bringing them in on a weekly basis to talk
    > to your students was actually organized by someone in the
    > industry?

    Sorry — it’s hard being succinct when responding to ten-page-long comments.

    Multiple other classes have regular industry visitors. And, in fact, we even organize a large number of independent events, untethered to any class, which feature industry guests (speaking on a broad range of marketing, production, and design topics). And we encourage our students to attend conferences. And we arrange for practical, “independent study” projects with studios. And…

    > Maybe he knows something

    *sigh* … maybe *we* know something for asking him to teach…

    > In response, you insist on pointing out how misguided
    > we are. Does that sound like someone who’s working to
    > understand the industry?

    I think a healthy debate can be incredibly instructive. You seem hell-bent on making it personal, but several people who commented (on both threads) seemed to find the arguments I’ve made both interesting and useful. And I’ve certainly learned from this. It’s been hard to communicate that, because I’ve been busy responding to your barrage of thinly-veiled insults, assumptions, and arguments. The latter was fun. The former I could have done without. But somehow I still manage to enjoy this. 🙂

    I hope we can both take a step back, cease to press the attack for a moment, and think about all that’s been said. Maybe pick up again some other time. Or not. Like I said, I really enjoy a good debate. You may not. But it sure seems like you must — that, or you’re a sadist. *grin*

  13. Stefan – don’t let this thread psych you out. An internship is a great start. A marketing internship won’t be hugely useful outside of getting a marketing job in games, but if it’s a marketing job you want, great! If you want to be a designer, do design projects with other students, in class and out of class. Create mods in your spare time. Read design books. Get a design or production internship if at all possible. I’m sure readers of this thread can give you lots of great advice, too. It’s really late, so I’m not thinking terribly clearly at this point… 🙂

  14. Since I’m moving down to Los Altos, CA. I’ll have a lot of spare time in the evenings not knowing anyone down there to read up on some design books and maybe take a crack on designing some game ideas.

    I know that there are a few game companies down in the bay area and do you guys think any of them would allow me to job shadow them once a week? or should I just not bother asking since they might be too busy?

    Do any of you have any experience in marketing for the game industry or know what it’s about. Last summer I did an internship in production for a television station and found out that it wasn’t something I wanted to do the rest of my life so hopefully I’ll have a better experience this summer.

    Back on the design subject, I have a few good game ideas that I’m starting to get other artists around school to help me make some concept art. I’m not sure if having a good game idea with supplemental art helps in getting a job.

    Thanks for the quick reply David 🙂

  15. Stefan, you’re probably going to run into the “NDA Wall” when it comes to job shadowing someone at another company. My best recommendation would be to look inside the company that you’re doing an internship for this summer. Let whoever is coordinating your internship know that you’re interested in seeing the other walks of life in the dev process, and see if s/he can’t set something up. If there isn’t a coordinator, then talk with your boss about it. The important thing about an internship is to make sure that you have ownership in it, and you learn everything that you need to to understand what kind of role you want pursue in the game industry.

    As for spending nights in doors, a few are fine, but game developers do actually go out and relax as well. =p If you get the chance, get to know people in other sections of the studio you’re working for, and pick their brains.

    And as David said, don’t be discouraged. When you go out into the job market, don’t sell yourself short, and fight as hard as you can for what you want to become. If I understood at least part of what was said above, passion seems to be a key ingredient in success in the industry. 😉

  16. So when should I start applying for positions at companies if I get done with school June of next year?

    And should I apply online on their job listings (I’ve had no luck with EA for the past 2 years applying for an internship this way).

  17. Stefan – yes, I know a thing or two about game marketing, but I haven’t any way of knowing whether you’ll enjoy it. Some people do, some people don’t. Fortunately, you’ll find out for sure via your internship!

    If you don’t like it but really want into the industry, that leaves production, design, engineering, art, etc… and in all cases, the industry absolutely demands evidence of practical experience, which you can attempt to address in part by (as I mentioned) getting involved in as many functional projects as possible.

    For production/design: designing a game on paper is not enough. Learn how to design levels/mods for one of your favorite games, and do a few impressive ones. Work with engineers and artists that you know to create a cool casual game. Something along these lines. I’m sure you’ll figure something out!

  18. > And should I apply online on their job listings

    You can, but as you say, it’s tough. Go to game-related conferences (like GDC) and introduce yourself to people. That could prove to be the edge you need. Good luck!

  19. Sigh, only if GDC was a week later than I could go during spring break. I’ll definitely be going next year. Are there any other good game career fairs besides GDC.

    p.s. I’m really glad I found this site !!! (yeah it’s three exclamation marks worthy)

  20. GDC is the best. I’ve heard good things about the Austin Game Conference, but haven’t had the pleasure of attending it myself. Seems like more and more conferences are being established lately; keep an eye on Gamasutra news and you’ll hear of them.

  21. If I go to GDC Conference in ’07 (assuming it’s in march again) will it be early enough to apply for positions when I’m graduating in June?

  22. I have a Graphic Design degree and am attending Westwood College Online in prepartation to get into the game industry. I fear I am wasting my time and money though.

    My art skills are growing, but there are plenty of better artists. I am about to get 3d max and learn that. DO you think it would be a better idea not to waste another 60K on top of the 35K I already owe and just focus on a portfolio instead of Westwood Online? If so, is a game tester my only ticket into the industry? I have seen absolutely no entry level positions of any kind. Even most game tester postitions require experience!

    Im 26 and am great with people and very dedicated and reliable. I currently run my own Photography business, wait tables, go to school full time, and participate in a Game Development Group in Charlotte.

    How can I get Game Developers to see this?

  23. Hi Jared,

    I wish I could give you advice, re: Westwood, but I’m not familiar with that program and, of all the functional specialties in the game industry, art is the one I’m least familiar with.

    That said: your portfolio (and specific knowledge of game-related art problems and solutions) is probably what matters most. If you think Westwood will help you learn things that make you a better artist, it might very well be a good investment. But if studying / practicing in your own time seems to teach you as much (or more) than Westwood, maybe it isn’t worth the investment. Unless, of course, you’re learning other things from Westwood that you deeply appreciate.

  24. PS. Getting game developers to notice you: put together an awesome portfolio, then get yourself to conferences like GDC.

  25. I\’m late as hell I know and might go unnoticed. I think a junior project manager, with his shiny Project Management Professional(PMP) certification just starting out could find more money else where than the game industry. That would be a shame wouldn\’t it. I mean a project mananger would most likely be one to evolve to the producer role correct.

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