Which factors will affect my salary level at a video game job?

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In this episode of Game Industry Career Guide Podcast, I answer a question from John Paul who asks, “I was wondering a few things. 1: Do you get paid more for being at a company, say 10 years versus 2 or 3? And 2: If you work for a bigger company are you more likely to make more? 3: How many years of schooling do you have to go to for most companies to hire you?”

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • Why salary is an important consideration when selecting a career
  • The 4 major factors that determine how much you’ll make in your game job
  • How project bonuses actually work, and why they’re not quite what they seem

If you have a question you'd like to get answered on the podcast, leave a comment below or ask me anything here.

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Hello, welcome to the Game Industry Career Guide podcast, this is episode number 25. I am Jason W. Bay from www.gameindustrycareerguide.com, and this is the podcast where I answer your questions about getting a job and growing your career making video games.

This week’s question is from John Paul. He’s asking about how the pay levels in the video game game industry are determined. John Paul wrote in to ask this: “I was wondering a few things. One, do you get paid more for being at a company say, 10 years versus 2 or 3? And two, If you work for a bigger company are you more likely to make more? And three, how many years of schooling do you have to go to for most companies to hire you?”

Game industry earnings

Okay, it sounds to me like John Paul is planning out his future career options and trying to understand how salary is decided in the game industry in particular. This is really smart because each of us has many potential career paths, and it’s not enough to factor in just the careers that we think would be the most fun. We also need to make sure that the career will let us earn the amount of money that we need to support our lifestyle, maybe a family, and so on. So I’m glad to hear John Paul putting thought into these questions.

Now, there are a number of factors that influence the salary ranges of just about any job, either inside or outside of the game industry. For example, John Paul asked about company size. Company size can make a difference, but there are also several factors that are more impactful, and are more specific to the game industry. Since these other factors make more of a difference to your annual pay at a video game career, let’s spend today’s episode talking about what they are and how they can affect you.

Game salary factor: Experience

The first factor that will affect your future salary is your years of experience on the job. The years of experience are really important to an employer because as you get more experience it means that you have learned more skills. You probably work a lot faster, and you probably make better decisions each day while you work on the project. And that’s because you’ve already made a lot of mistakes by that point, and you’ve learned from them. Hopefully you have learned from them, and you’re less likely to make them as often in the future.

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As an example of how the years of experience can affect your pay, let’s look at game designers. Game designers under three years of experience are usually paid around $53,000 a year, whereas designers with over six years of experience might make as much as $80,000 per year. That’s a big difference in pay, and it’s all due simply to having more experience. By the way, the salary ranges that I’m giving, those are in US dollars.

Game salary factor: Education

The second factor that impacts your salary at a game studio is your educational background. New employees come into the game industry through all sorts of different paths. Some have no experience, some have some education, and some come from completely different industries. So you don’t necessarily need any amount of formal schooling to get a game job. But the one path that can often garner a higher starting salary is getting a degree or certificate from a college or university, especially if it’s a game specific degree.

Why is that? It’s because employees who come through video game schools tend to already have a portfolio of games that they’ve made as school projects. That experience can give employers more confidence in their abilities right from the start, and it can make them more willing to pay a higher starting salary since you’re a less risky hire. Think of the game school education as a way to get more experience before you get a job. And as we just talked about, employers usually pay more for people with more experience.

Game salary factor: Job family

The third factor contributing to your salary is the specific type of job that you’re going to do. Now, there are many different jobs in the game industry, at least like three dozen or maybe four dozen different jobs, and each one of them has different pay scales. But because each of them has a different value to the company, and different amounts of supply and demand for those jobs in your local area or as a industry as a whole, they have different pay ranges.

For example, game programmers are generally paid the most out of anybody on a game team. Programmer salary can be as high as $250,000 a year for a technical director job. That’s a very senior position, but it’s still a higher salary than people with that same amount of experience who might be doing other jobs. On the other end of the spectrum from game programmers are game testers. Testers are often paid the least on a game team, even a highly experienced game tester might have a salary cap of around $60,000 a year, which is a lot of money but it’s less than half of what a programmer would get paid for similar experience.

The upside for being a tester is that it’s easier to get a testing job than a programming job. But that salary difference is huge, so it’s something to really think about before you make a career decision.

Game salary factor: Bonus Pay

The last thing I wanted to note that impacts the pay that you receive at a game job is the company’s bonus structure. What is a bonus, and how exactly does it work?

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A bonus is a lump of additional money on top of your normal salary that you could be given by the game studio if you build a game and it sells very well. In fact you could make up to an extra 50% of your salary on top of your salary if the game does exceptionally well. But not all studios offer bonuses to their employees. So when you receive a job offer, be sure to find out whether they offer bonuses and make sure comparing that with other job offers that you might receive. If they do offer a job offer a bonus, be sure to look over the specific terms of their bonus structure to make sure that the goals they’re setting for getting a bonus seem attainable under normal circumstances. You can also try to find out whether the studios have given bonuses out on previous years. If they’ve never given a bonus then maybe don’t factor that so strongly into your decision.

One big drawback about bonuses is that they are not guaranteed, if your game doesn’t make a lot of money then nobody on the team would receive a bonus, and you don’t always have control over that. For example, several of my friends work at a game studio that’s been giving a lot of bonuses over the past year or two, but this year even though their game did well, the company as a whole missed their revenue projections, so the CEO has frozen bonuses across the entire company. So, bonuses are nice but you shouldn’t count on them too much because they could go away at any time.

That’s a look at many of the most important factors that determine the amount of pay that you could get if you worked at a video game company. For more detailed information about the different salary levels of all the different video game jobs including programmers, designers, artists, producers, testers, audio engineers and a whole bunch of others, read my series of articles called video game salary series. You can find that at gameindustrycareerguide.com/salary.

Thanks to John Paul for this question, and thank you for hanging out with me today to discuss this important factor that you should always consider when thinking about your future career options. If you have your own question that you’d like me to answer on this podcast stop by the website and leave a comment, I’ll answer it on a future episode. For more information and inspiration on getting a job and growing your career making video games, visit me at gameindustrycareerguide.com. I’m Jason W. Bay, and I’ll see you again next week right here on the Game Industry Career Guide podcast.

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