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Video game developer

From Academic Kids

A video game developer is a software developer (a business or an individual) that creates computer or video games. A developer may specialize in a certain video game system, such as the Sony PlayStation 2 or Nintendo GameCube, or may develop for a variety of systems including PCs.

Some developers also specialize in certain types of games, such as RPGs or FPSs. Some focus on porting games from one system to another. Some focus on translating games from one language to another, especially from Japanese to English. An unusual few do other kinds of software development work in addition to games.

Most video game publishing companies, such as Electronic Arts, Activision, and Sony, do maintain development studios, but these companies are generally called "publishers" and not "developers", as publishing is the primary activity of these companies, and is the source of most of their income.

Other than the publishers, there are probably 1,000 or so video game development companies today. Many are tiny 1- or 2-person operations creating Flash games for the web, or games for cell phones. Others are large companies with multiple locations, such as Foundation 9 Entertainment, formed by a merger in March 2005, which says it has over 300 employees. As a rule, developers are privately held companies; only a very few non-publishing developers have ever been publicly traded companies.

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Types of developers

Video game developers fall into one of three main categories: third-party developers, in-house developers, and the smaller independents. Developers usually employ a staff of programmers, game designers, artists, sound engineers, producers and testers, though some of these roles may be outsourced. To confuse matters, an individual person in any one of these roles may be referred to as a "video game developer".

Third-party developers

Third-party developers are usually called upon by a video game publisher to develop a title for one or more systems. Both the publisher and the developer have a great deal of say as to the design and content of the game. In general, though, the publisher's wishes trump the developer's, as the publisher is paying the developer to create the game.

The business arrangement between the developer and publisher is governed by a contract, which specifies a list of milestones, intended to be delivered every four to eight weeks. By receiving updated milestones, the publisher is able to verify that work is progressing quickly enough to meet the publisher's deadline; and to give direction to the developer if the game is turning out other than as expected in some way. When each milestone is completed and accepted, the publisher pays the developer an advance on royalties. The developer uses this money to fund its payroll and otherwise fund its operations.

Successful developers may maintain several teams working on different games for different publishers. In general, however, third-party developers tend to be small, and comprised of a single, closely-knit team.

Third-party game development is a volatile business, as small developers may be entirely dependent on money from one publisher. A single cancelled game can be lethal to a small developer. Because of this, many of the smaller development companies last only a few years or sometimes only a few months. The continual struggle to get payment for milestones and to line up the next game contract is a persistent distraction to the management of every game developer.

A common and desirable "exit strategy" for an extremely successful video game developer is to sell the company to a publisher, and thus become an in-house developer.

In-house developers

Many video game publishers maintain in-house developers, or studios. The size of the teams vary depending on the games, but they can number from a few people to the dozens. In the case of MMORPGs and the largest console games, the team size may number over 100.

In-house development teams tend to have more freedom as to the design and content of a game, compared to the teams third-party developers. Part of the reason for this is that since the developers are employees of the publisher, their interests are as exactly aligned with those of the publisher as is possible. The publisher does not need to spend as much effort making sure the developer makes decisions that enrich the developer at the ultimate expense of the publisher.

In recent years the larger publishers have acquired several third-party developers. While these development teams are now technically "in-house" they often continue to operate in an autonomous manner, each with its own culture and work practices. For example: Activision acquired Raven (1997), Neversoft (1999), Z-Axis (2001), Treyarch (2001), Luxoflux (2002), Shaba (2002), Infinity Ward (2003) and Vicarious Visions (2004). All these developers continue to operate much as they did before acquisition, with the primary differences being in exclusivity and the financial details.

History has shown that publishers tend to be more forgiving of their own development teams going over budget and missing deadlines than third-party developers.

An in-house development team that works for a console hardware manufacturer is also known as a first-party developer. A company that is closely tied to a console manufacturer (or occasionally a publisher) is known as a second-party developer. Rather confusingly the publishers themselves are sometimes referred to as third-party developers in the context of their relationships with the console manufacturers (Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo). This particular distinction of first, second and third party developers does not generally apply to PC games development.

Independent developers

Independents are typically small software developers that self-publish their games, often relying on the Internet and word of mouth for publicity. Without the huge marketing budgets of mainstream publishers, their products never get as much recognition or popular acclaim as those of larger publishers. However, they are free to explore experimental themes and styles of gameplay that mainstream publishers would not risk their money on. Independent developers are almost exclusively developers of PC games, as publishing a console game currently requires a large capital investment in the physical manufacturing of units of the game. PC games can be published with very low costs thanks to the advent of internet distribution.

Quality of life

Video game development in the United States is performed in an extremely casual business environment. T-shirts and sandals are common work attire, and work hours are usually flexible; many developers start the work day at 10:00 AM, though employees usually work at least a full 40 hours a week. Employees are paid fairly well for what seems to outsiders to be light work. Many developers have some sort of profit-sharing plan to reward their employees.

Crunch time

Most video game developers are notorious for overworking their employees. "Crunch time" is the point at which management realizes that the team is experiencing "slippage": it is not going to achieve everything needed in order to complete the milestone on time, meaning the publisher will not pay the developer until the milestone is indeed completed; and since most development companies are such small operations, this presents a real risk that the company won't be able to pay its employees on time. Worse threats occur when it becomes apparent that the team won't be able to ship the game, as a whole, on time.

An extremely common management response to this is to invoke "crunch time", dictating a 60- to 80-hour work week with work over the weekends, in the hope that the team will be able to catch up. The complexity of the workflow in video game creation makes it very difficult to manage the team's schedules, meaning that it is an unusual project that does not surprise its managers with slippage at some point.

Controversially, employees in the United States are not paid overtime pay when crunching, as all developers maintain salaried employees. Salaried employees are classified as exempt, who are not paid by the hour, and are classified as "professionals". Therefore, most state laws on overtime pay do not apply.

Attention to crunching came to something of a head in 2004 when a blog entry titled "ea spouse", a manifesto of sorts, was published. Railing against the cruelty of crunch time, it was posted by an anonymous person claiming to be the fiancee of an employee of Electronic Arts. This person said her life was being indirectly destroyed by the company's work policy. This led to a great deal of debate in the industry, but without any visible changes until March 2005, when Electronic Arts internally announced that it was planning to extend overtime pay to some of its employees not currently eligible. The underlying problem of poor scheduling remains.

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