#79: “Risk & Return”
Published in 2017/03/09 issue
To be honest, I wonder if game developers want higher salaries. For the record, I earn quite a bit, so I have no complaints on that front myself. Just to be clear.
The average salary for a console game developer has certainly skyrocketed compared to the late ’90s. I believe that it’s done a good job of catching up to the standard salary by age group in regular businesses. In fact, salaries might even be a bit higher in the game industry. Saying this might make you think, “Oh, so they are getting paid enough,” but that’s not true. When you take the nature of the work and the operational risk into consideration, I still can’t say that the standard compensation system balances those out.
Some people fear that if they suddenly pay too much, the workers will lose their aspiration and slack off. They figure if they’re going to raise the salaries, they should prioritize increasing the base salary bit by bit every year, keeping it in line with regular businesses. Perhaps they still think that our industry has a lower social status than the others. But, the industry’s social standing will never rise so long as they think that.
Now, from a company’s perspective, they’re paying out a respectable amount, and it does seem so when you look at the averages. But, what do the employees think…? As I’ve written about countless times in this column, there is a huge amount of risk in developing console-exclusive games. The development costs are tremendous and it’s easy for the development time to get extended. But, do the companies realize that that’s a risk for the workers, too?
It takes far too long to develop a console game these days. The development time easily spans years, and for a big title, 3 years get eaten up like it’s nothing. Frankly, this is abnormal. It’s troubling how many people have stories where in the span of developing two games, their son in elementary school was suddenly graduating from middle school. There’s also a considerable amount of regret if those two games weren’t even successful.
As I mentioned previously, their salaries during that time continued to rise a bit year by year. The company sees it as providing stability for their employees, but they also always say that you need to produce good results in order to get ahead. Now, of course, if you want to earn a sizeable bonus, then you need to produce results. However, even if you do concern yourself with results, you can’t make any claims when the game hasn’t been released yet. It’s not that rare for a problem to come up with the project manager, leading to two or three project revisions, during which development doesn’t make any progress at all. If you work on a project for two years and development gets put on hold, then you don’t have results to show for that time. This is a constant risk for those working at the forefront of game development.
As console games rise in scale, problems crop up: extended development time, inflated work volume, and technological inflexibility. Oftentimes, when continuing to work on the same game for a long time, the techniques that were cutting-edge at the start of development become obsolete by the time development finishes. Companies rarely want to take on the risk of updating techniques mid-development, so the staff assigned to the project are stuck at that skill level for a while. They suffer and suffer and when they’ve reached the peak of their suffering, the project is finally complete, the game is released, and their ability as an engineer may now be dead.
For FFXIV, we have an additional operational risk in addition to those. I could write about this forever, but at any rate, our technology and development pipelines are fixed in place and optimization is prioritized instead. We’ve accumulated a lot of “experience,” but it’s growing more and more distant from the challenges we face. FFXIV’s graphical pipeline is already two generations behind; it’s just that we work hard to find ways to hide it.
Game sales and stable online game management bring in a lot of profit for the company. Like, it’s probably way more than what you’re all imagining. Since I’m also on the administrative side, I know all of the numbers. A large-scale game is built on the steady efforts of many developers, so if they leave, the damage to profits will be immeasurable. I feel that if we don’t revise the balance between profit and investment, it’ll become an industry that no one wants to work in.
I don’t think it’s necessary to give large raises to game developers every year. Change should come gradually, so I think it’s fine to stick with the gradated system. Instead, I want the end-of-term bonuses and incentives to be several times more than what they are now. If the company made a lot of profit, then around 3% of that should go back to the developers.
For example, if my department made 10 billion yen in profit during the fiscal year, 3% of that would be 300 million yen. Divide that by 200 people and it’d be 1.5 million yen (approx. $13,500 USD) per person. Using that as a baseline, those who contributed a lot will receive several million, while those who didn’t contribute much will get zero. This reward system is sure to get people motivated. Actually, without a system like this in place, I think that maintaining a game long-term in the Japanese market is too risky for all but the upper echelon of developers.
Since you can just not pay the bonus for years where the company did poorly or didn’t release the game yet, this is the most suitable method for modern game development. The young generation is especially likely to interpret it as working hard for their salary, and I think that that should be the natural line of thought. If you know you’ll earn a lot of money, you’ll work harder to achieve that, and you’ll be motivated to work harder next time too, to earn it again. I also feel that if you were looking for “stability,” you wouldn’t be in the game industry in the first place.
Social game business has become commonplace, and the companies that gained prominence through them make a conscious effort to share their profits with their developers. On the other hand, there is little emphasis on lifetime employment. It’s hard to say whether that’s for better or worse, because once you’ve entered the lifetime employment system, there’s no turning back. That said, the young generation probably prefers the former approach.
During the game development bubble era, companies gave their so-called “creators” special treatment—the likes of which you’d never imagine today. I think it was a huge mistake to give them authority over such large sums of money. Many of them would spend their company’s money like water, under the guise of “entertainment expenses.” They wouldn’t be so frivolous with their own money… It’s better to think of that as an example of failure.
I want us to stop making sensational assumptions like, “It’s over when you lose your thirst.” Believe it or not, there are still many people who think that way in the gaming industry. At any rate, I want to pay our staff more. Whenever the end of the fiscal year comes around, I’m battling with the system to achieve that. Risks become enjoyable when there are returns, and since we’re creating games, I want to at least be able to dream about that.