Last week, I read an article by a professional game developer entitled “Making games for a living means being in constant fear of losing your job.”
The author’s solution idea is for game developers to unionize, in much the way the movie industry has unionized. I think unionization would be a great thing for the industry, but I’m not sure it goes far enough.
The videogame industry started about 40-50 years ago. The people who founded the industry worked very hard, started from nothing, and worked insane hours, pouring their life into creating the new industry. The ones who were successful ended up making a fortune.
That fortune was only made possible through ownership. It wasn’t making games that made the founders wealthy — it was making companies. In a lot of cases, the company came later. Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabny started Atari in 1972 with $500 (about $3000 today). A kid like Richard Garriott or Jordan Mechner programmed a game in his bedroom on his home computer, sold it through mail order using a classified ad in the back of a computer magazine, and made a million dollars, and decided they should turn it into a company, using that money to hire more people to make more and bigger games.
Somehow, the expectation for the new employees was to work just as hard, just as many hours, and crank out more games that would make millions of dollars. Only, they were doing this work as a “work for hire”, and wouldn’t own their work — their employer would own it.
This means all the same hard work that the employee did that went into creating that game for his employer enriches the employer, when it could have gone to the employee’s own company that they owned and profited from. Employees enrich someone else’s empire. That’s the way capitalism works.
Because the industry now exists, it’s easier to work for pre-existing companies them than it is to start up a new company. Not only does a new company have all the struggles of just starting up, they also have to compete with already-functioning companies. But the owners who worked hundred hour weeks to found their business often expect no less of their employees.
Yet, the vast majority of employees don’t get compensated with an ownership interest the company for their hundred hour work weeks. They just get burned out and dumped when their project ships. For working for someone else, you got only a salary, not a company.
Ownership comes with things like a share of the profits. There’s also a lot of risk, but it’s balanced by the compensation package that comes with owning a company, whereas work-for-hire employees don’t get this level of compensation, yet have just as much if not more risk associated with their employment in the form of layoffs. Employees creating works-for-hire don’t even get royalties, and job security is non-existent. Once the product shipped, they were no longer needed and if there wasn’t another new project waiting for them that could exploit their talents, they were expendable.
That’s a raw deal.
Game developers who want to make money and have job security should own their work, and that means owning a piece of the company they work for.
It sounds like I’m suggesting that every game developer should be an indie game developer. I’m not. Clearly, being an indie is not easy either. In fact, it’s brutal. There’s a lot of competition. An indie has to do everything well in order to be successful, and almost no one is that talented at everything needed to be a success. Game development requires a lot of diverse skills, and a good team can cover those bases a lot better than a sole proprietor.
But what is good about being an indie developer is that you get to own your creative work. You get to create new IP, rather than toil on the sequels to someone else’s successful IP franchise. But even for workers making the next iteration of a successful known entity (let’s say Mario, for sake of example), being employed means that they should take on a share of the ownership stake in the Mario franchise, or in the company that owns Mario. That means royalties on sales, in perpetuity, of the product they worked on, and it means the right to produce new works in the Mario milieu.
This would go a long way toward padding the job insecurity that is endemic to the game development industry. Making money through royalties on existing works, and owning stocks that would pay dividends, would be a critical income stream to supplement an (ir-)regular salary.
Game developers will never get this, unless they strike out on their own and create their own companies from scratch, or if they strike together, unionize, and demand it from the companies that currently exploit them.
If an employer wants to commission creative work on a “for hire” basis, then the working conditions should be reflective of the compensation being offered: 40 hour work weeks, additional compensation for overtime, 1099 employment status rather than W-2, and salary at a higher rate to reflect the short-term nature of the work arrangement, to allow skilled professionals to earn enough to cover lean times between contracts (generally more than twice what a full-time employee would expect to be paid).