Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

30 May, 2007

Frequent relocation
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:58 PM

Over at Joe Ludwig’s blog, he posted a bit about the original Middle Earth Online project by Sierra. He worked on a version that eventually got canceled. His story is a fascinating look at what turned out to be his first three months in the industry.

His story ends with him having to relocate to another state in order to keep his job. I thought I’d talk about one of those dirty little secrets we don’t talk about much in the industry: how often you’ll probably end up relocating.

I was talking to a friend of mine today who was talking about his current job. He was a bit disappointed at the lack of pay increases, but he realized that he didn’t have a college degree, so he had to “pay his dues” by sticking around for a few years at one company. He had been talking to other companies, but nobody wanted him until he had a bit of experience under his belt.

But, the truth is that many companies don’t promote people very often, and they don’t give raises, either. Large companies have strict rules in place to limit how much someone can grow, and smaller companies often can’t throw around huge sums of money. At 3DO, my raise for going from Software Engineer I to Software Engineer II was as big as my previous cost annual raise. Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed. Worse, of course, some companies will fire most of the development team after a project is released, so raises and promotions are moot points anyway.

Some people game the process by moving to a location with a high concentration of game companies. For example, Austin is the place to be if you want to work in online games and don’t want to move around much. Origin created a lot of its own competition in Austin, and losing your job or closing your startup means you have to go next door to get a new job. A new friend of mine told a story about how salary negotiations at one company he worked at in Austin included the phrase, “Let me go up a few floors and see what your competitor will offer me.”

So, for most people, big increases come from jumping to a new company. A developer who happens to be part of a huge success can often get a nice job at another company. I did some contract work for a publisher to review a budget submitted by a company. This company had a few designers that worked at Blizzard when WoW launched, so they had some pretty outrageous demands in there; for example, the contract six-figure signing bonuses for the key company members. Their association with WoW made them worth more.

Of course, very experienced people are often worth more. Anyone who sticks around for more than a few years obviously has some attributes that mean they’re a good developer (even if it’s stubborn determination! ;) If you’ve stuck around for almost a decade, you are one of the grizzled old veterans in the industry. (Ow, my hip!) But, this doesn’t mean I’ve got job security, either. In fact, it’s a bit worse for online game developers. I’ve had to fly to France, Germany, and China in the past few years for my contract work. I’ve flown to Germany about once a month this year and I’m potentially moving to Germany if things work out. If not, I might be taking up a project with one of the numerous companies in China. Or, perhaps try to start my own company again and move someplace with a lower cost of living.

So, if you work in games, get used to relocating. I think it will get worse as things progress, and especially as some types of games become international. Time to make sure your passport is up-to-date, and a night class in another language might not hurt if you’re developing online games. :)

What do you think? Is travel in our future as game developers?

UPDATE: Joe posted the second part of his story up on his blog. Fascinating reading.

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  1. It’s interesting, search back five years and you’ll find articles about how people will collaborate accross great distances to produce games, no need for a team of designers to work together in an office or even meet face to face blah blah… mostly due to mod communities showing it’s *somewhat possible* to produce something that way.

    The reality i’m seeing is the opposite -> movement is more important than ever. People want to meet people they will work with I guess, and there are opportunities for all sorts of collaborations with international partners. I go online, make a friend, turns out they live in germany. Next logical step: meet up.

    So regardless of where you work, I think movement is going to continue to increase.

    Someone needs to get moving on that transporter technology…

    Comment by Jpoku — 31 May, 2007 @ 6:54 AM

  2. Interesting – for a while jobs in the IT sector were the same way. Even with dozens of companies in whatever city you might live in, frequently the only way you were going to improve your salary was to either live in a “hot spot” or move around a lot. Either way you were basically switching employers every 2 years.

    One of the things I’ve always wanted to do is to participate in making a cool online game, but more and more I think that in order to fulfill that dream I’m going to need to get financially stable first and then try to do it myself as a side project or something. I wonder how many other “hopefuls” run into the same realization.

    Ah well, at least I can blog and run a guild and feel like I’m somewhat involved :P

    Comment by Talaen — 31 May, 2007 @ 8:06 AM

  3. It’s interesting, search back five years and you’ll find articles about how people will collaborate accross great distances to produce games

    The reality doesn’t match the “telecommuting is the wave of the future” articles because those articles were bullshit. Absolutely the highest bandwidth, lowest latency communication you can have between two people is to have them standing in the same room in front of a whiteboard. A project of any significant size (which includes all MMOs) will require massive amount of communication between team members. We’re even looking into moving people from different departments to adjacent desks when they are working on different parts of the same system. The latency added by communication across two floors in the same building is slowing us down noticably. I’m not at all interested in having anyone work from another state.

    The upside of moving to Seattle for Middle-Earth (which I’ll write about in Part 2) is that it’s a game development hub. When Sierra shut the project down and laid us all off, I had a job offer within two weeks. Ditto when FLS went through a rough patch right before we started Pirates. It’s a good place to find a game job. :)

    Comment by Joe Ludwig — 31 May, 2007 @ 10:08 AM

  4. My experience is completely opposite to Joe’s. Iron Realms is a completely virtual company and has never had an office. We have 16 paid people working away in locations ranging from Toronto to Seattle to the Bay Area to South Korea to England to Australia, etc. I wouldn’t trade the arrangement for anything.


    Comment by Matt Mihaly — 31 May, 2007 @ 10:34 AM

  5. Two things to remember, Matt.

    1) Your company has worked on smaller projects. Similarly, Near Death Studios, Inc. has survived for many years being largely virtual, but maintaining M59 has not been as large a project as the one I’m working on now. Teams working on projects worth tens of millions of dollars are usually larger (and thus suffer from communication breakdown easier) and have more nervous investors. I suspect the only reason I’m working remotely is because of the pain of the company having to foot a relocation bill and fill out immigration paperwork.

    2) You also live near a game development hub: the SF Bay area. If you lived in Mississippi, for example, your location would probably work against you more.

    So, once again you are the exception that proves the rule. ;)

    Have fun,

    Comment by Psychochild — 31 May, 2007 @ 2:01 PM

  6. As I was posting that I was thinking, “I wonder if Matt Mihaly is going to come on here and talk about how Iron Realms works.” :)

    How many of those 16 are on Earth Eternal? That’s the whole company total, right?

    I really think the difference is scale. Many things that worked when we were 16 people have broken down now that we’re pushing 70. None of our reporting structures, scheduling methods, bug tracking procedures, build policies, etc. are the same as they were a few years ago. Communication on development team scales as the square of the number of team members, so a team with twice the headcount needs to communicate about four times as much. And bigger teams have other kinds of efficiency loss that they’re already having to correct for, so they call ill afford the extra hit from telecommuting.

    Comment by Joe Ludwig — 31 May, 2007 @ 8:50 PM

  7. The second half of the relocation story is up here now.

    Comment by Joe Ludwig — 31 May, 2007 @ 10:48 PM

  8. In times like these, the wise business man sees this volatility as an opportunity to create a business where the wages rise in a reasonable manner and the employees stay in the business for quite a long time…

    IE: Yeah, there is a lot of relocation going on in the industry, which is a symptom of many things (salaries, business practices, structure, etc.) that cause people to view the pains of relocation as less painful than staying put. With that being the case, someone sucking in these folks with the plan on running a different business could actually keep people around.

    Comment by Grimwell — 1 June, 2007 @ 12:25 AM

  9. In retrospect, I think a good way to say what I posted above is, “There is no such thing as job security in the game industry.” Don’t expect to work at one company for most of your productive life, unless you want to be horribly abused.

    One anecdote that I meant to include in the post above happened when I was in Germany. The junior designer I am working with asked me if I was going to commit to the project long-term. “After all”, he said, “it seems like a lot to move to Germany for only 2 or so years worth of work.” I had to laugh and explained that I accepted the fact that I would have to move frequently if I wanted to remain in the game industry.

    All about perspective, I guess.

    Comment by Psychochild — 1 June, 2007 @ 1:01 AM

  10. On job security: The entire tech industry is largely the same way, and in fact, I’m not all that sure there are many jobs anywhere that truly offer “job security” any more, outside of low level civil service, perhaps (license bureaus, teachers, etc). Even owning your own business is only secure as long as you can find someone to continue buy what you’re selling, after all.

    The game development industry being relatively small exacerbates the problem, of course.

    Efficient telecommuting seems to mainly require very good communication skills, something that a lot of us techies didn’t always work on maximizing in our formative years… guilty as charged, here.

    I do think it may become more of an option for companies over time, tho. The 20 year old interns I’m working with really seem to have their act together in that respect: much more comfortable than I am communicating that way… which is possibly just a logical result of actually growing up with email, IM, texting, etc., instead of growing into it, as I did.

    Comment by Craig Huber — 1 June, 2007 @ 3:22 AM

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