The video game industry is booming, and AAA games are still the biggest moneymakers. But what does that mean for real-world developers? I've spoken with game developers across the industry to find out how much they make and why it's so hard to predict their salaries.
There's no industry-wide standard for what qualifies as a AAA game.
The first thing to understand is that there's no industry-wide standard for what qualifies as a AAA game. Some studios will use the term loosely, while others are extremely picky about it.
A larger studio might have several teams working on different games at once, with each team being devoted to creating one game at a time—this would be considered "AAA production." In this case, all of the workers would likely be considered "AAA talent," though some may not be working on the most technically demanding parts of development (for example, they might work on marketing or HR instead).
The smaller studios sometimes don't have as many projects going on at once and tend to focus on fewer titles overall; these are often referred to as "mid-tier" developers. While they do produce games with high budgets and high expectations from their customers (and thus high revenue potential), their employees' salaries might still fall within traditional salary ranges rather than reflecting how successful the company is overall.
AAA game development is more profitable than ever.
The AAA game industry is more profitable than ever before.
According to market research firm Newzoo, the global gaming industry generated $135 billion in revenue in 2016. In that same year, Activision Blizzard alone made $6 billion from its franchises and products like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. That's an eye-popping figure—one that is also growing steadily with each passing year. As the world continues to move toward digital distribution platforms where games can be purchased directly from developers or publishers (rather than through retail stores), big-name studios are seeing their coffers fill up at record pace.
But what about those who actually develop these games? How much does it take for someone to earn a living on the job? And what does life look like for those who work closely with these companies?
Salaries depend on experience, level and location.
The exact salary you can expect to earn as a AAA game developer depends on your level of experience, location and the company you work for.
Generally speaking, salaries are higher in larger cities, but there's also more competition for jobs. If you want to work in California or New York City, be prepared to compete with other developers who also want these lucrative opportunities.
If your employer offers healthcare benefits as part of their compensation package (and many do), then it's possible that they may offer additional incentives such as stock options and 401(k) plans.
Remaining competitive means keeping workers happy.
The secret to keeping developers happy, and thus competitive, is to understand what they want. As with any other industry segment, there are a few key factors that influence whether or not a developer decides to stay with a specific company. Some of these include:
Personal growth opportunities
Developers are leaving the industry because they feel burnt out.
One of the biggest problems developers face is burnout. As more and more people enter the industry, they often don't have a clear idea of what they are getting themselves into. The average development cycle for a AAA game is between seven and eight years, with many features being cut in half-decent games because deadlines need to be met. If you're working on an IP that is beloved by millions of players (like Star Wars, for example), you may feel pressure to include elements from previous entries in your game even though doing so will likely lengthen development time even further.
In addition to this long working cycle and lack of creative freedom, there's also a huge amount of pressure placed on developers when it comes to marketing their work; if your title doesn't sell well enough or receive positive reviews from critics at launch then it can spell disaster for both your career as well as the company itself—this creates an environment where everyone involved feels like their job security depends on how successful their project turns out to be which only adds further stress onto what could already be considered one of those jobs where "your whole world revolves around one thing: making this product succeed."
Burnout isn't just limited to developers either; publishers and other people attached to studios also suffer stress related illnesses due to working conditions surrounding these projects (and sometimes even just because they care about them so much).
It's still a lot of work to work on these games!
You may think, with all these people and all this money, it's a walk in the park. But there are thousands of people on each team working hard to make sure every aspect of your favorite games is top-notch. In fact, it takes longer than you'd think for AAA games to come out! The average development time for a single game is about three years—and that doesn't include any marketing or support after release!
But if you're interested in making video games as a career, know that there's plenty of opportunity out there. You can even start smaller with indie titles (more on those below) before moving onto bigger projects like those from AAA developers.
AAA game development might seem like a high-paying, glamorous job, but it's still a lot of work to work on these games. The industry is changing and developers have more options than ever before. But there's no doubt that AAA games are still some of the most popular entertainment products in existence today!