Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

28 May, 2016

The multiple hierarchies of the game industry

The game industry is a strange place sometimes. I was musing about the nature of the industry the other day, thinking about this. Part of my motivation was to think about my own place in the industry, and another part was thinking about my slowly developing book Thinking Like a Game Designer. When I really thought about it, the one term I’d use to describe the game industry, particularly the triple-A side, is “hierarchies”.

Interested in a closer look?

The nature of hierarchies

I’ve seen arguments that people automatically form hierarchies. They point to nature where most mammals have some sort of hierarchy between them, and sometimes fierce battles to establish these hierarchies. They point to history where some people have held dominion over others. They argue that the weak want the protection of the strong, and the strong want to be recognized for their ability to protect others.

Are hierarchies the default mode for humans? I think the more interesting question is if humans can override specific desires, such as the desire for hierarchy, if they want. But, this might be a discussion for another time.

For now, let’s accept that people like hierarchies. They use it as a measurement, to see where they fit in, or to see if they fit in where they feel they should. They use hierarchies to measure others and compare themselves to others. They may be right or they may be wrong, but they exist.

Some people like to think of the game industry as a fun and friendly place. The idea of hierarchies can seem to go against that perception, and in a way it does. The book leadership book I’m reading, It’s Your Ship, talks a lot about how the rigid hierarchy of the U.S. Navy prevented a lot of useful work being done; senior members ignored junior members, even when the junior members had more practical knowledge of an issue.

But, multiple hierarchies exist in the computer game industry. This makes it feel a bit odd and alienating sometimes.

First order hierarchy: your employment

The first way game developers judge each other is by their history, which can be summed up in one question: what kinds of games have you made?

The lowest on this hierarchy are the wannabes. Anyone who thinks they’d like to make a game, but haven’t actually done it yet. Half-finished projects and big talk don’t get you anywhere in this level, you need to have finished a game. That kid who “is going to make WoW, but better”? Yeah, game developers look at him with pity, amusement, or scorn depending on their personality. Occasionally someone will want to help the guy.

The next level on the hierarchy is the amateur. Someone who has made a game, or contributed to a game, on a non-professional basis. This is the absolute lowest rung you have to be on in order to get a job as a professional game developer. You better have a game ready to demonstrate to someone if you want a job as a game developer and don’t have credits on a major game project.

The next step up are the professionals. People who have held a job are at this level. In some ways, this can blur with the previous level if you don’t actually have a credit on a game. Of course, credits and titles are ill-defined in the industry, so having a credit can be tricky; for example, it’s common to not be listed in the credits of an MMO if you aren’t around for launch, even if you worked on the game for multiple years.

So, the last level are the people with professional credits. However, what counts as a “credit” can differ based on the person, which I cover later. Because there’s no standard for credits and for what someone considers a “real game”, you might be considered lower on this hierarchy even if you’ve done more actual work in games than someone who has a credit on some big-name game. The usual check for what counts as a legitimate credit is by checking the person on MobyGames.

Second order hierarchy: your impact

This is really more of a specialization of the “professional credits” level in the history hierarchy. There is a hierarchy of “better” and “worse” games. For a while in the MMO industry, anyone who had their name in the credits of World of Warcraft was a living god. Investors fell over themselves to throw money at former WoW developers who wanted to start their own studio. We’ve seen how that turned out, but the fact remains that WoW was seen as a “great” game to work on.

The lowest are people who have worked on failed projects. Technically, if you’ve only worked on failed projects you wouldn’t have a credit to your name, so you might be relegated to merely “professional”.

Then there are people who work on lesser projects. Someone coding mid-grade (“shovelware”) games or ports might not be seen as really “credited”, but merely a professional. Someone who worked on “serious games” will probably be viewed at this level, as some don’t see “serious games” as games to be taken seriously. This can also apply to people who develop internal code, such as coding libraries used in a larger company. Library coders rarely get their name on the finished product, so again they may be seen as uncredited.

The the next level is for people who worked on obscure games that weren’t sleeper hits. Stuff that had was expected to be a hit but that was a critical and commercial bomb. The games that were hyped up until launch, then seemed to fade away.

Next up are the people who worked on typical games. This includes games that did okay, but that weren’t recognized as instant classics. Or games that were the regularly scheduled sequel to a game that did spectacular initially.

Near the top are people who worked on significant games, such as ones that became surprise hits. This could also include people who worked on historically significant games; for example, early online games such as Habitat. Of course, some people may see those older games as simply “old” and not worthy of respect; they would rank such people lower on the hierarchy.

Finally, at the top are major games. Ones that defined genres or broke sales records. As previously mentioned, World of Warcraft counts here, and anyone who worked on it was seen at a much higher level than others.

Having multiple games also puts you higher in the hierarchy. Long-time Blizzard employees are going to be seen as higher than someone who just shipped the most recent WoW expansion, regardless of quality. Also, not having credits recently will drop you in the hierarchy. This tends to be a bit subjective, of course.

Third order hierarchy: your position title

Another dimension is what position you might hold in a company. Larger companies like to rank people, so you under programming you have junior programmers, senior programmers, distinguished programmers, lead programmers, etc. I won’t go through all the levels, as they tend to be pretty self-explanatory.

Even though you might be tempted to see this as an indication of how long someone has worked in the industry, this is not necessarily the case. One senior programmer might have less than half the years in the industry as another. A “lead” might have less years of experience than a senior.

On the other hand, seniority can play a significant part. Even though a “lead” title might imply some management experience, it’s not unusual to see accomplished people in that position who simply have worked in the industry a long time; sometimes to the detriment of the people under them. Like in other industries, sometimes management is seen as a reward and retention tool to keep good people at companies and give them the control the desire. The better answer is that lead positions should be a way to let people who want to lead the opportunity to actually lead others, ideally with an eye toward letting them grow as developers.

Fourth order hierarchy: your recent history

Games are a hit-driven business, and part of what makes a hit is growth potential. For a long time, the fight was between PCs and consoles. For a while, a new generation of consoles would come along and PC developers were seen as inferior. Then PC tech would advance and console programmers were left behind… until the new generation of consoles.

These days, hits with the most growth potential tend to be in the fresh new fields. Taking online as an example: at one point it was MMOs, then it became social media games, then mobile, and now VR is on the cutting edge. In fact, people who are proficient at older forms are seen as inferior, unable to compete. When social media games were ascending, they looked at MMOs developers as “dinosaurs” who were hopelessly behind the times, even if WoW was still the dominant game. Now someone working as a social media game designer would be seen as backwards, perhaps threatening to be lost to obscurity.

Some developers will make the jump from one stage to another: MMO designers were able to take some lessons to social media games. The simplified interfaces for social media games lent themselves well to mobile interfaces. Mobile design philosophies are being carried forward into VR games. In these cases, being an expert in the previous generation can be seen as an asset, giving you valuable experience.

In other areas, it might be experience with a generation of consoles. A Wii programmer or PS3 programer isn’t going to be as high as a PS4 programmer.

Fifth order hierarchy: within the discipline

I can’t speak as much to art, but programming and design have their own hierarchies, which are individual.

One of the first things a company will do is give you a design test or a programming test to test your competency. Your experience often counts for little when judging your competence in most larger companies, and the skills test has become de rigueur. Even if you pass some pre-screening test, programmers are often expected to do whiteboard programming in a live interview as well to demonstrate their ability.

In programming, your position in the hierarchy depends on how specialized your knowledge is. A console programmer is generally seen as higher than a PC programmer, as console programming is “closer to the metal” to wring out the best possible performance. A generalist programmer is seen as lower on the hierarchy than a specialist programmer, such as a network programmer. In fact, a generalist programmer who is good at network programming is likely just to all themselves a “network programmer”.

And, of course, there is the new technology du jour. Knowing a popular language. like Lua, will count for more than knowing a language like Python that isn’t seen as feasible for developing games. Someone proficient in Unity is seen as higher than someone proficient with Flash, even some years ago before Flash fell sharply out of fashion.

On the design side, the hierarchy tends to be a combination of job title and impact. The owner of the company who takes the mantle of “Lead Designer” is unquestionably at the top of the heap; question his design decisions at your own peril. Between to designers, the one who has worked on the more significant projects tends to be viewed higher and given deference. And, of course, anyone without a “designer” title tends to be viewed as much lower than anyone who is an actual designer when it comes to design. This hierarchy can be very important as it can determine who gets creative ownership, and thus who will feel more fulfilled as a designer.

The special case: indie!

So, most of this deals with the mainstream, triple-A-focused game industry. What about indie? Oh, boy, that might be worth its own post, but let me summarize a bit.

In the olden days, being independent was seen as a joke. I like to snark that I was indie before indie was cool, but it’s really the truth. It was common for people who were unexpectedly let go from their jobs to “start their own company”. So, this was seen as a negative thing, because anyone who was skilled would be able to find a job immediately. And, of course, everyone puts themselves as “CEO” of “My Tiny Game Co.”, so that title became worthless unless you were at a huge company.

At some point in the late 2000s, indie was seen as kinda cool. Indie games started taking the industry by storm, and it wasn’t quite so negative to run your own small company. We saw hits like World of Goo which made respectable money, particularly for people who didn’t have giant corporate overhead sapping income. I’ll still note, however, that most triple-A industry people were slow to see indie developers as “real” developers. Of course, the rise of the indies also gave people the ability to jump away from their soul-sucking corporate jobs and risk their savings and houses on making their own games.

Still, the triple-A game industry tends to be very conservative, and I wouldn’t be surprised to still see people in the industry who view indies as “not having paid their dues” properly. Unless, of course, they’re superstars who have little need to work in the triple-A game industry; few triple-A developers would scorn Notch if he decided he wanted to work at a large company.

Putting it all together

So, we have a multi-dimensional measurement of someone’s capabilities based on multiple hierarchies. How does it work in practice? Let me use myself as an example, although self-evaluation is always hard.

For credits, I do have some credits to my name. Within the second order hierarchy, I’ve worked on a historically significant game, although a relatively minor one. However, I haven’t had a major credit to my name lately, so I get bumped down a bit there.

For title, I’ve been the co-founder of a company but since it was indie before indie was cool, that experience is seen as suspect. My 18 years in the industry would generally me at about a Senior or Lead position, depending on the team structure and size; one reason I’m interested in leadership is because I don’t want to stumble into a lead position without any ability to lead.

As for my recent history… well, I’m an MMO developer. As I said, that’s about four generations out of date right now. I’m definitely at the bottom of the heap here. Within programming, I tend to be lower on the heap as well, as I’m very much a generalist. My background as the primary programmer on Meridian 59 didn’t let me specialize, and my work as a consultant/contractor meant I did whatever was necessary at the time, even if that’s programming tools in MFC at one place. (Talk about truly outdated skills!) In design, it really depends. I’ve been Lead Designer on a few projects, but they never shipped. Since my background is mostly technical, designers look at me with suspicion; luckily “Technical Designers” are becoming a thing, which is probably the role I’m best suited for with my experience; since that’s new, I’m not sure how the hierarchy is set up yet for that discipline.

And, of course, I’ve been indie so that makes things extra weird. I don’t think many people put much stock in my experience with Near Death Studios since it wasn’t a runaway success despite surviving for nearly nine years. The other thing that doesn’t quite fit into standard measurements is my book on business and legal issues; since I didn’t write a chapter, though, I don’t think people appreciate the deep knowledge required to organize and edit the book. And, I could go on at more length about how reputation factors into this whole mess, but I won’t for now.

Anyway, hopefully this little glimpse into the game industry has been interesting. I didn’t expect this to get quite so long, but there’s a lot to this topic, I guess. Ask questions or leave your own thoughts in the comments below; I’m curious to see how other people think.


  1. Fascinating post. Lines up with my personal nascent game industry experience so far. I’ve done a lot of interviews, and one thing I would make an extra connection to is hierarchy within the programming discipline, and non-game industry experience. Which is to say, it counts for a lot less than one might think.

    Despite having 10 years of professional programming experience, I generally get lumped in with folks who have a lot less than that because I only have one game under my belt. I’m a generalist because I have to be given my projects over the years, but as you mention, specialists count for more–despite the fact that give me a few months and I’d easily be able to fulfill a specialist role. I know this because I’ve done it at my non-game industry job multiple times. But game companies often aren’t interested in investing in their employees; rather, they’re considered temporary.

    Software engineering specialties seem to be viewed upon with maybe not disdain, but as something that isn’t a specialty at all–which to be honest explains a bit about why games are so friggin’ buggy. I never understood until I started working in games. The hierarchical culture that’s been built up selects for very specific knowledge and experience, and might be why it’s moving so slowly relative to application development engineering techniques.

    Anyways, /rant. This was an interesting post, and solidifies a lot of my observations so far.

    Comment by Talarian — 28 May, 2016 @ 9:09 PM

  2. Very interesting read. From the perspective of a consumer, the whole Corporate vs Indie dynamic is the key factor here, I think. All companies in any sector have their own internal hierarchies but consumers rarely need or choose to concern themselves with how those work. The dynamic between independent development and how that feeds the mainstream, though, affects most consumers in most fields.

    If you look back to the dawn of commercial games programming, in the UK at least, Indie was, by far, the dominant force. In the early and mid 80s mainstream media was on fire with stories of 17-year old programmers who coded in their council estate bedrooms and came up with games that made them into millionaires. I used to buy new games every week on cassette for my ZXSpectrum and rarely did I recognize the name of the company behind any of them, or see it again. Even the exceptions, market leaders with strings of top 10 games to their name, were small studios like Ultimate:Play The Game, who would now be classed as Indie.

    In those days, of course, it was very feasible for one person to write the entire game. As time has moved on the sheer size of the workload has made collaboration almost essential and that has favored corporate structures with their hierarchies. As in other collaborative arts, though, like cinema, for example, the industry relies on self-motivated, creative individuals outside the hierarchy for new ideas, innovation and sheer energy and enthusiasm. The most successful (and most malleable) of these are then assimilated and used, if not used up.

    It’s my feeling that advancing modes of digital production and distribution will erode this process over time. Indie isn’t cool because it got better – it’s cool because it got easier and it will go on getting easier still. The two elephants in this room are money and prestige: AAA corporates can offer the first up front and the second by association. Notch is more respected by non-gamers because he sold his game to a huge company everyone has heard of for a huge amount of money and he is richer because that company gave him said money. He’d have been rich and famous if he’d stayed indie but not AS rich or AS famous.

    Whether the stream will always flow up that hill remains to be seen. Human greed for money and fame suggests it probably won’t change as much as we might like.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 29 May, 2016 @ 1:03 AM

  3. If a profile on Mobygames makes you legit, how much more legit does having TWO profiles make you?

    I didn’t even know I was there. And I have submitted a correction to try to get the two profiles containing my only two credits into one. :-)

    Comment by carson63000 — 29 May, 2016 @ 2:41 AM

  4. Talarian wrote:
    Fascinating post. Lines up with my personal nascent game industry experience so far.

    That’s comforting to hear. :) It was entirely possible I was blathering on about something nobody else would see. Nice to get at least one other bit of confirmation.

    [O]ne thing I would make an extra connection to is hierarchy within the programming discipline, and non-game industry experience. Which is to say, it counts for a lot less than one might think.

    Well, that is part of the first order hierarchy. You need to have worked on a game before that experience becomes relevant. On one hand, game programming is its own strange beast that defies categorization in many cases. Having to find “fun”, the constant drive for performance, and team dynamics are quite different. On the other hand, I don’t think game programming is quite so special a snowflake that other experiences can’t be a good starting point for learning these other elements.

    The hierarchical culture that’s been built up selects for very specific knowledge and experience, and might be why it’s moving so slowly relative to application development engineering techniques.

    Yes, that’s a very good way to put it! As I said, the game industry tends to be very conservative and slow to react. When I was at 3DO in the late 1990s, there were still people there who were still suspicious of C++ and of newfangled things like operator overloading. It was C or GTFO for them.

    bhagpuss wrote:
    From the perspective of a consumer, the whole Corporate vs Indie dynamic is the key factor here, I think. All companies in any sector have their own internal hierarchies but consumers rarely need or choose to concern themselves with how those work.

    Yeah, corporate vs. indie is probably the most visible from the outside. As I posted on Google+ when linking this post, it’s a bit “inside baseball”.

    And, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that the game industry is unique in having hierarchies. I think the unique aspect here is how many different sub-hierarchies there are, and how they interact.

    If you look back to the dawn of commercial games programming, in the UK at least, Indie was, by far, the dominant force.

    Well, that’s nearly tautological. There was no established mainstream, so everyone was indie. A few names did set themselves up quickly, and eventually you had people being intermediate “publisher” types. A lot of those indies grew and became the mainstream; but, we don’t have a really good sense of when that transition takes place. If (when) Notch does get back into game development, I don’t think it’d be fair to call him “indie”, even if he’s almost certainly going to be able to remain independent.

    Indie isn’t cool because it got better – it’s cool because it got easier and it will go on getting easier still.

    Eh, I’m not sure I’d buy into this. To consumers, the easiness of indie means you get a lot of crap as well. There are a lot of terrible indie games out there. In the industry, ease of tools has probably set some people against indie, seeing it as “too easy” and how people “aren’t paying their dues”. To someone who had to work a shit job for some years in order to get responsibility, the fact that some kid with Unity can bang out a game doesn’t make them appreciate the kid or the game more.

    But, yeah, we’ll see how things develop. As you say, things may not change as much as we’d like.

    carson63000 wrote:
    …how much more legit does having TWO profiles make you?

    Hah! I had the opposite problem; my name is so common I was lumped in with 2-3 other “Brian Green” game developers on a MobyGames page back in the day. Although, I see that one of my “credits” (a special thanks for crowdfunding a game) is on a separate page.

    Luckily, they do seem responsive to emails like that. :)

    Thanks for the good discussion so far!

    Comment by Psychochild — 29 May, 2016 @ 10:40 AM

  5. A few thoughts:

    “anyone who was skilled would be able to find a job immediately”

    If only it were that easy or simple. The industry isn’t a meritocracy, and the bust/boom cycle with Spring layoffs and the neverending stream of college grads means that there are many other factors in play. It’s my experience that it’s *far* more about who you know, say, your social hierarchy status, than anything you can actually do to produce games.

    Regarding credits, for the first 5 years I was in the industry, my only credits that a general web search would turn up was a mention in The Godfather credits. I didn’t have a listing on the Tiger Woods games I had worked on for years in multiple capacities, just a mention for the week I worked on storefront textures for The Godfather while they were in their death march crunch and I was between tasks on Tiger Woods.

    In the second 5 years I worked in the industry, the biggest credit I have listed is RYSE, which I worked on for a few weeks, and Disney Infinity, which I worked on for a few months (largely on things that weren’t even used in the final game, but hey, I’m in the credits). The remaining years of work on Wahoo/NinjaBee games doesn’t factor in anywhere near the same weight. Two Keflings games, a handful of other games, all ones I worked on doing my “half techie, half artist” thing… and I get a brief mention as a low level HTML jockey on RYSE. Yes, I’m in the Wahoo credits, but those don’t really get weighted the same way because they are smaller games.

    I’d also note another hierarchy. Education is a big thing to HR staff, and often, to management with MBAs instead of practical experience. Paperwork and degrees are often only tangentially related to actual *work* and skills, but are critical for the gatekeepers. The wrong degree or the wrong college can mean losing out on an interview.

    There’s also an age hierarchy. I know a couple of guys who worked in games when they were over 40, but it’s my experience that age and experience are too expensive to companies who can just hire a fresh college grad to fill the same seat. Sure, that newbie won’t produce as much as a veteran, but since they will only be around for this dev cycle and maybe the next before they get replaced, it doesn’t matter.

    They will also work longer hours of unpaid overtime, often for beer and pizza, and don’t have families to compete for attention or insurance premiums. That enthusiasm and devotion to the starry eyed “I’m making games, wheee!” mentality is much easier to leverage than a jaded veteran who won’t put up with crunch and awful project management. Youth and “dedication” are often the key to burning enough human capital to shove games out the door, and if you’re old and more interested in family or life outside the compound, you’re lower on the totem pole.

    Comment by Tesh — 29 May, 2016 @ 7:47 PM

  6. Tesh wrote:
    If only it were that easy or simple. The industry isn’t a meritocracy, and the bust/boom cycle with Spring layoffs and the neverending stream of college grads means that there are many other factors in play. It’s my experience that it’s *far* more about who you know, say, your social hierarchy status, than anything you can actually do to produce games.

    To be fair, back when games were not quite as mainstream this was a bit more accurate. But, as with many things in the game industry, opinions are slow to change. As I said, my indie experience doesn’t count for quite as much because I think those old biases still remain.

    And, yes, who you know is more important than what you know. The last several jobs I’ve gotten have been largely because I knew the people who were hiring. Most of the current opportunities I’m considering are because someone said, “Hey! You should work with me.”

    There’s also an age hierarchy.

    Well, there is certainly age discrimination, but I hesitate to call it a hierarchy exactly. For most developers, age isn’t that big of a deal. For employers, however, there certainly does seem to be a strong preference for younger workers. As you say, they are willing to put up with more BS, work longer hours, and buy into the “paying your dues” thing.

    And, relationships outside of work are definitely seen as a liability. At one place I worked at they called for crunch. I wanted to work less during the week and more during the weekend in order to actually see my significant other sometime during the week; another manager shrugged my complaint off and said he wouldn’t see his girlfriend, either, implying that I was whining. I was still putting in the hours, but I’m pretty sure my contribution was perceived as being less since I went home “early” a few nights during the week.

    And, I think this ageism is the actual factor for the education hierarchy you mentioned. For most of my career, developers have said they don’t care much about official credentials, as long as you can demonstrate competence. But, I think if a big company’s HR department wants to find some excuse to weed you out (because you’re too old, for example), then they’ll come up with some BS like education requirement. Makes it easier for them to discriminate without opening themselves to a discrimination lawsuit. That’s my read, at least.

    Comment by Psychochild — 30 May, 2016 @ 3:55 PM

  7. Agreed, it’s more of a HR/corporate thing than devs themselves. My experience with devs on the work floor is that age isn’t generally an issue.

    Comment by Tesh — 30 May, 2016 @ 4:26 PM

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