I’m Worried About Video Games

I’m Worried About Video Games

This might be a “Come to Jesus” moment for me…

I haven’t had to look for work in over a decade; I’ve been too busy making educational games to lift my head and peer into the belly of that beast.  A lot changes in this industry, but there’s also a lot that stays the same.  What hasn’t changed with video games is what worries me more than anything.  Here are a couple of posts to help explain where I’m going with this.

The average game developer is around 31 years old, a decade short of the US national average of 42+ years old.  Roughly 22 of those years are spent getting a college degree, and even more for a Masters or PhD.  That means it’s an industry that is around 50 years old but most of these creators don’t last 10 years before they age out of the job.  What’s worse is that there are no indications of this changing any time soon.  In fact, some would argue that it’s exactly how they want it.

There aren’t many sensations more disappointing than the feeling that you are “too old” to do what you love anymore.  There is nothing that will stop me from making games, but what keeps me up at night is whether I’ll be able to make games for a living.  There is a very clear future for aging engineers like me, who live for more than the “honor” of gaming games:

  1. Work a 9-5 for some web-stack/cloud/security company who pays a fair wage to someone with decades of problem solving experience.
  2. Then come home, tuck the kids into bed, and go into my home office to tinker on the next big idea that’s been eating a hole in my head.

If I want to live in a rent-controlled apartment in some of the most expensive cities in the country, making just enough to get by, waiting for Steam Summer sales to afford my games, then I have nothing to worry about.  If I want to have a family who is happy and prospering, I know what that costs today.  It is becoming increasingly rare to find prosperous opportunities in this industry that aren’t circling those inflated cities.  The jobs that do pay often come with the writing on the wall that you won’t be seeing your family anytime soon, it’s best to say your goodbyes now.

The people making the games are also the people buying the games.  Some of this industry’s most rabid consumers, with high attachment rates, are the very people on the inside and the ones trying to get in.  If companies are willing to undervalue, underappreciate, and over-work their own customers it leaves a cycle that is cannibalistic in nature.  The industry is eating at it’s own flesh to stay alive.  How long do we honestly think this can last before informed graduates take a pass on a career in games?  This is industry suicide.

Obviously game sales are so much larger than the industry that makes it, but it seems counter productive that anyone who loves video games should stay away from making them as a career choice.  To butcher a phrase from memory; the shoemaker is always shoe-less.  In a multi-billion dollar industry, it seems like we can do better than that, we should do better than that.

I’d argue that the industry today is dying, it is in a death spiral.  Now, if you asked some of the top executives they might disagree; they might quote some numbers about their growth and profits for the year.  My argument is that video games have actually been in decline since about it’s peak in 2010.  New consoles have been in decline generation after generation.  Digital sales are rising but prices have plummeted.  Steam has conditioned consumers to expect deep cuts for games.  Mobile markets have continued to be flooded with products by indie developers, passionate people who also want a happy life at home and have been forced to make games “on the side” rather than as a career.

The list of high production games have only gotten more expensive to make but are creatively safe, as they focus on the Hollywood experience with Hollywood voice actors and Hollywood screenplay writers.  Meanwhile, the industry is hemorrhaging it’s aging base by pushing them out in favor of cheaper talent who are full of vigor and passion but dull on the knowledge of what made the company successful.

“Senior” Engineer

I’m worried about video games.  I’m worried that it will be stuck in Neverland forever, laying off senior talent to hire some kid who’s 2 years out of college as the new “Senior” Engineer purely on the basis that he worked on Halo 7.  I’m worried that the Lost Boy’s club that makes up over 80% of the industry will fight to keep things the way they are, the way they remember their childhood.  I’m worried that this industry is on life support and everyone is living in denial over the ever-shrinking importance that video games play outside of the bubble.  I’m worried that developers genuinely don’t realize that they may feel like a big fish getting bigger, but the reality is a little pond that is drying up.

I don’t mean to sound like an alarmist but, for all of the cutting-edge futurist mentality that exists in the video games ecosystem, there is a lot about the culture surrounding video games that refuses to change.  It is an industry fueled by passion.  But youthful passion only serves as the motivation to gain knowledge.  We should value those who already have the knowledge, and are able to expand upon it even further.  To do that, the entire industry needs a philosophical reboot.  If we can’t find a way to do that, then this industry will never reach escape velocity; it will forever be trapped by the gravity of young minds and tired old ideas that only try to relive the greatest moments of their own childhood.

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