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.

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