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Video Game Programmer Salary for 2017

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This article is part of the Video Game Developer Salary series. Read about the annual salary ranges of all video game jobs, and get advice on maximizing your paycheck throughout your career.
Video Game Programmer Stereotype

Don’t worry, you don’t need a bow-tie to write kicka** code.

Table of Contents

  1. Game Programmer salary: Overview
  2. Game Programmer salary: Factors
  3. Search for Game Programming jobs
  4. Game Programmer salary: Details
  5. Other factors that affect Programmer salary
  6. Demand for Game Programmers
  7. Should I become a Game Programmer?

When young people dream of making video games, they usually think of becoming a game designer. Learning how to be a video game programmer isn’t usually on their radar, because most people don’t really understand what a game developer does. In fact, game programming can seem like a black art that’s too technical (and too nerdy?) for the average person to understand.

But the truth is that anybody can learn to be a game programmer. And there’s another thing you might not know about game programming: Video game programmers have, on average, the highest salaries of any development job in the game industry.

Now do I have your attention…?

How much do video game programmers make? And how much could you make as a game programmer?

Game Programmer Salary: Overview

If you’ve ever researched video game programming jobs, you’ve probably found that there are many “flavors” of game programmers: graphics programmers, server programmers, client programmers, front-end programmers, technical directors and so on. The game industry also has many names for “programmer.” They can be called programmers, developers, or engineers, depending on the game studio.

Fortunately, the jobs – and therefore the salaries – are similar no matter what they’re called. Let’s take a look.

If you’re a tl;dr kind of reader, here’s the short version: Game programmer salaries start at around $44,000 annually for entry-level engineering positions. But they can grow to well over $120,000 per year (yes, $120k!) for very senior programmers or programmers who are leading teams. Also, there are several programming roles within any given game studio. So, how is game programmer pay determined?

Game Programmer Salary: Factors

Like most jobs, game engineer salaries are based on years of programming experience, areas of expertise, and whether there’s a “lead” or a “senior” in the job title. The more experience you have, the more you’re likely to get paid.

However, there’s another factor to consider, and that’s whether a given programmer’s skill set is considered a “premium” skill at the moment. For example, graphics programmers were in high demand 10 years ago, so they were paid significantly more than other programmers. These days, server programmers are in demand, so coders who can program game servers are paid more than their colleagues. If you’re thinking about starting a career in game programming, it’s worth paying attention to these premium trends.

Search for Game Programmer Jobs

There are many programming jobs available, but they have different names depending on the country, state and game company. Try searching for job titles like “video game programmer,” “game developer,” or “game engineer.”

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Game Programmer Salary: Details

Okay, let’s take a look at the numbers in detail. These figures are generally from three sources: GlassDoor.com, Game Developer Magazine’s annual salary survey, and my own experience as programmer and a technical director in the game industry.

One way to break down the numbers is to look at experience. Here are the average salaries for game programmers with various years of experience.

Video Game Programmer salary by years of experience

Under 3 Years 3-6 Years 6+ Years
Game Programmer/Engineer
$72,000 $80,000 $105,000
Lead/Senior Game Programmer/Engineer
N/A $95,000 $120,000
Technical Director
N/A N/A $140,000

Note that there isn’t data for Lead Game Programmers or Technical Directors until they have 3 to 6 years’ experience. As you may have guessed, this is because programmers are rarely promoted into leadership positions until they have several years of on-the-job experience.

Another way to break down the numbers is to look at each game programmer salary based on job title. I think this is more useful because it gives a salary range. It also decouples job title from years of experience, which more closely reflects how game programmer careers actually flow. You don’t get promoted just because you’ve been doing the job for a certain amount of time. You get promoted based on the quality of your work and the amount of project responsibility you can handle.

Video Game Programmer salary by job title

Job Title Low High
Game Programmer/Engineer1 $44,000 $108,000
Senior Programmer or Lead Programmer2 $70,000 $140,000
Technical Director3 $96,000 $250,000

1 Entry-level game programmers can also be called Associate Programmers, or sometimes Programmer/Analysts. They generally work in a variety of existing code systems, since they’re just learning the ropes.

2 As programmers get more experience, they may take on more responsibility or even start managing a small team. Senior Programmers usually have more responsibility for creating new technology, while Lead Programmers usually run a programming team of 3 or more other programmers.

3 Technical Directors usually manage a team of programmers that are working on a large and important area of technology for the studio. At some studios, they may even be responsible for managing an entire programming department.

Other Factors That Affect Game Programmer Salary

The numbers above are averages from many hundreds of programmer salaries, so they’re very general. In reality, there are other factors that can affect how much a programmer is paid.

  • Company/studio size. Larger companies generally have bigger project budgets, which allows them to pay their game programmers higher salaries. For example, GlassDoor.com indicates that some game programmers at Konami or Naughty Dog are being paid as much as $115,000/year. That’s 25% more than the top-range programmer salary at most other game studios.
  • Education background. In the early days of the game industry, there were many self-taught programmers. But nowadays, most programmer job descriptions specify a Bachelor’s in Computer Science or a related degree from a university or college. So getting a degree or certificate in programming from a college or university may be an important step to getting your hands on a nice game programmer salary.
  • Premium Engineering Positions. Programmers tend to specialize in different areas, and some areas are worth more than others depending on the needs of the industry at the time. For instance, GlassDoor.com shows “server programmers” can be paid as high as $126,000/year, compared to “mobile programmers” that average a top range closer to $70,000/year.
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Demand for Game Programmers

Even though the game industry is a cyclical business, one job that never goes away is the game programmer. Programmers bring the game design and art to life, so it’s difficult to get anything done without them. And because they need to work so closely with the game designers, it’s a difficult job to outsource to other countries. The chart below illustrates the demand for game programmers, based on the number of monthly job postings that include the terms “game programmer,” “game engineer,” and “game developer” in their description at Indeed.com (a job-posting aggregator).

Note that this approach can give a lot of false positives. For example, a given job posting might actually be for a Game Designer but it would show up in the data if it mentioned “must work well with game programmers.” But that’s okay for our purposes because we’re interested in the trends, not the absolute numbers.

Game Developer demand trends

This chart makes it clear that while demand for video game programmers is as cyclical as the game industry itself, they’re always in strong demand.

Should I Become A Game Programmer?

If you’re passionate about making games and you love problem-solving, then I hope these numbers are encouraging. Programming video games for a living is not only an extremely fun job, but it’s also the highest-paying job on any video game production team. And if demand for game programmers ever gets too low, your programming skill set will translate extremely well into other industries such as Web development, business software, or “big data.” Programming skills are always in demand somewhere, so type your ZIP code in the box below to find game programming schools near you.

If you liked this article, please share it on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

Image: stockimages / freedigitalphotos.net
Sources: Glassdoor.com | Gamasutra.com | Indeed.com

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189 comments on “Video Game Programmer Salary for 2017
  1. Gaurav Kadian says:

    HI JASON. Your article is really helpful.
    i got admission in Game Level Design program in Sheridan college,Canada. I want to know that how is the college,program and instructors there and can i find a good earning job in gaming industry after my studies in CANADA. Basically i’m from India.Please guide.

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Congratulations on getting admission to Sheridan! I don’t know that school well, but when I search on LinkedIn I can see that people who attended Sheridan went on to get jobs at places like DreamWorks, Rocket 5, and Sony, Microsoft, and Bungie. So I think you will do well if you work hard and build a great portfolio. I wish you luck!

  2. Avigya Aryal says:

    I want to be Game Programmer , Can you give me information that how long to finish it’s course and when can we start our job?? ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Avigya, most programming and game-programming degrees are Bachelor’s Degrees, which usually take 4 years. But there are also shorter programs you could look into, such as certificate courses. You can start applying for jobs as soon as you gain some game programming skills, and have a small portfolio to demonstrate your skills.

  3. Zoraiz says:

    Hi jason
    Love your article. Can you guide me I’m doing bachelors in Software engineering and which is the best coding or programming? From which we can earn more? Can we earn more by coding or game developer or software developer?
    Waiting for your reply..!

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      It’s a bit confusing, but the words “coding,” “programming,” “engineering,” and “software developer” are all words that mean the same thing – somebody who writes computer code. To confuse things even more, sometimes the phrase “developer” can also apply to anybody on a team that builds software, even people who aren’t writing code.

  4. Angel says:

    So what should I take in college to get into video game programing/coding?

  5. Jowo says:

    I have for a long time now wanted to be a game programmer, but the road to get there is really hard.

    I really want to just apply for the college here in Norway where they teach it, but in order for me to apply, i have to attend and pass 1 year of norwegian highschool where it’s basicly 3 years worth of history, math, english, etc. in that one year, and that is really hard. I’m the kind of guy who almost only learns the things i’m interested in and i also have a hard time self learning so i have a hard time actually passing the year. The alternative option is for me to wait until i’m 25(i turn 22 this year) so i can apply by different means.

    So finally, here is what i want to know: Is there any official online courses that teach game programming that you know of? because i’m really tired of waiting and searching for options here in Norway.

    and if there isn’t any online courses, can you give any tips on where to start if i want to try to self learn?

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