game, game. repeat.

Growing Pains For The Industry

Tue 09 December 2003

I’ve been told by a few people that getting into the game industry these days is a bit trickier than it used to be–now that its grown into something with some amount of status (where it used to be considered more of a hobby than an industry), a lot of people have taken an interest in working in the industry. So, you might expect it would be a buyers market for talent.

Lots Of Applicants

And it sort of is–whenever you apply for a job in the industry, hundreds of other people apply as well. There appears to be a vast wasteland of game companies that flop for various reasons, thereby unleashing a bunch of people with at least some game industry experience. Its a pretty tough business for the small guys and its only getting tougher as the budgets for games keep getting bigger ($10m+ is more and more common). These ronin are added to a pool of newbies and working veterans that are also looking. It all adds up to a ton of applicants for the HR departments of these companies to pour over every time they post a job advertisement.

Yet the execs and HR people I’ve spoken to have told me about the trouble they are having finding the right talent. EA, for example, is expanding fast, which is a great challenge to have. Bing Gordon tells me they need more executive producers, but there arent that many people with the right experience and talent within the industry. Philip Gee pointed out that they are having trouble finding qualified engineers as fast as they would like while Craig Alexanders team has been interviewed hundreds of people just to fill a few production positions. There would seem to be no shortage of applicants, but there is a definite shortage of superstar talent that all the employers are competing for.

But a Shortage Of Diamonds

Now, it can’t be all that bad at the lower levels, like associate producers, since the salaries and the hours don’t seem to be going up all that fast. If EA needed people in these positions that badly they’d probably use aggressive compensations plans to make recruiting and retention easier since they, unlike a lot of companys have that competitive option in their tool belt. But the higher up you go in the ranks, the bigger a shortage there is; and it looks like its only going to get worse.

You see, the industry is in growth mode and the companies that are driving the growth, like EA, are competing for the badasses. Now, badasses develop through accident and good fortune at some rate X. And the industry is growing at some rate Y. The problem is that Y is much greater than X. The supply of leadership talent is going up much more slowly than demand for it.

This has a couple implications. First, exec producers and the like are going to make more and more money as their demand goes up relative to their supply. Hey, its a tough job–good for them! Second, companies like EA are going to find their growth continually bottlenecked by their inability to find the quality of leaders that can build the new teams and franchises. Further, as the budgets for these new projects keep getting bigger, the pool of talent that rises to the new level of badass-edness is going to shrink, slowing down X even more.

Some Ideas On What To Do

I think there a few challenges and number of possible solutions, here are my ideas:

Grow new leaders: There is a shortage of executive producers (and certain other positions) and it’s going to get worse because of a supply that is growing slower than demand and because the bar is also being raised, further limiting supply. So, the industry can either live with the bottleneck or they can work to increase the supply of leaders. There are a few ways to do that: a) you can put more resources into building the next generation of leaders from scratch like GE does, b) you can get better at turning existing talent into the next generation of leaders, and c) you can get better at turning already started leaders from other industries into leaders in the game industry. Few companies within the game industry have the resources to do any of these, and they are going to get their asses kicked by the companies that do (like EA) because the price of talent is going to go up and the only people that can generate and keep the talent are going to be the big guys. Besides that, people like Neil Young who take an active interest in grooming the next generation of leaders are going to be the guys running the show because it will be their people that are rising in the ranks while the other leaders are too busy with their day-to-day responsibilities to invest in new talent.

Build a better filtering system: In order to get into the industry as a newbie these days you have to be a good marketer, a good networker, and very persistent. If you try to go in the front door (i.e. apply for some job posting online) you can pretty much forget it unless you have a skill that is in low supply. But, as a newbie, that isn’t all that likely, though it is possible. If you happen to be some badass programmer or artist or designer in the making but you don’t have a penchant for marketing and networking, well, you better have the persistence thing down, it may take a long while. I suspect a lot of talent gets left behind using this system–it’s like mining for diamonds but throwing the rubies and emeralds away when you find them. They aren’t diamonds, after all. And heck, the industry needs more veterans, not more newbies, high-potential or not, right? Well, that depends. I may be wrong here, but it seems to me that if you want to groom the next generation of leaders in engineering, where it’s less important that they have marketing skills (let’s call them rubies), you might be better off keeping the rubies too. Perhaps companies like EA could make themselves a better front door by giving newbies of all sorts a chance to prove themselves. I mean, instead of locking all the doors and telling the to hack or sneak their way in, EA could have a monthly contest where you are asked to create an innovative game design spec using a given template that meets certain requirements. All entrants will be scored and anyone who gets above a certain score is guaranteed face time with HR and the producer sponsoring the contest. Contests could rotate…level design one month, animation another (i.e. animate a barrel falling off a cliff and exploding at the bottom using Cg; everyone who meets the spec gets interviewed). Something like that could create great PR and goodwill for EA and also gain better access to the diamonds, rubies, and emeralds than before. I think a lot of newbies would love to have a challenge where they know what to expect and can match their skills and enthusiasm against a visible target.

Find new places to mine: At the moment the game industry doesn’t seem very well equipped to transform talent from other industries into talent within gaming. The company that gets really good at this (like if EA had a formal, robust program for turning biz software producer and film producers into game producers) will have a whole new talent pool to draw from that no one else in the industry will have. Could be quite the competitive advantage. And long term, the game industry might be better served it could leverage people that aren’t fanatic gamers and ubertalented people who have dedicated their lives to this cause. I mean, I’m a gaming nut, but I look around at the slightly older industries that make the most money and I see industries that are really good at taking people of average talent and helping them contribute at above average levels. There are only so many people that have both the talent and the willingness to sacrifice their lives to game production in the world and I worry that a company that is entirely reliant on that sort of person has yet another talent bottleneck to deal with. I just look at the number of people that start in the industry at 20 and leave at 30 in order to make more time for their families as a huge challenge–all that investment and talent is lost to the industry. My guess (which is largely informed by the rough drafts of the QoL whitepaper, so I can’t take much credit) is that the answer lies about 20 years in the future when we’ve gotten even more consistent at making great games on-schedule and on-budget. Then we’ll be able to offer people better hours and create programs that better leverage non-game-fanatics on more predictable projects. Heh heh. Though there will always be people like me who like kicking butt and taking names as work and hobby. ;)

Updated on October 9th, 2013

Some of the links were broken. I replaced them with working links to pages with the same or similar content as before.