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Search String: “how much do game designers make per hour”

December 7, 2007

Another answer in my continuing series on search strings that people use to find my blog.

The answer to this isn’t a simple number. The numbers depend on several things:

  • Your experience or lack there of
  • The quality of your portfolio (or your last few published games)
  • Your design role (i.e. level design vs. content design)
  • Your geographic location

According to the 2006 Salary Survey done by Game Developer magazine and covered in this article over on Gamasutra, “The game designers’ average was $61,538, with salaries scaling within a $5,000 range over the last 3 years over all experience levels.”

Remember, though, that’s an average. For very experienced individuals or industry rockstars, the figure can easily be $100K+. The average newbie designer starting salary – and take note that this is based on offers I’ve heard about – is about $40-50K on the east coast and $60-65K on the west coast. Others report east coast designer salaries in the $30-35K range. Bear in mind that living costs on the west coast are significantly higher than most places on the east coast, with Boston and NYC being possible exceptions.

Once you get some experience under your belt – a shipped product – your worth goes up. It’s that trial period that gets you.

Contract game designers – that’s a little more difficult to pin down. Like me, many contract game designers that I know don’t usually charge by the hour, since design doesn’t really work like that. I could do an hour’s worth of work on an existing project that I’d been working on, but I arrive at the beginning of that hour with a head full of pre-existing info on the project already in my head. I’ve done design reviews, but even that was quoted at the project level, and took a few days.

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25 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2007 1:08 pm

    I know that some entry-level game designers here in Boston make around $30k-$35k.

  2. December 7, 2007 5:58 pm

    Thanks for the input, Darius. I’ve adjusted the original piece to note that.

  3. aortiz permalink
    December 8, 2007 11:45 am

    I’m learning Python.
    Search string has become funny for me.

    Also, for entering game designers who have no degree yet (like students) and who are mostly on as interns (like students), what do you think would make sense for pay (or no pay, in my circumstance, from what I’ve been led to believe.)

  4. Jesse permalink
    December 8, 2007 1:07 pm

    Generally speaking, game design jobs require previous experience in the industry. An ideal candidate will have immersed themselves in as many areas as possible, and understand technical limitations as well as artistic and time management budgeting. In many ways, a game designer is laying the groundwork for project leaders who will take over after the design is “finished” (it’s never finished, but it does get handed off).

    That being said, the best advice I could offer would be to amass a huge pile of experience and become comfortable with all the development teams and cycles of development. Once you’re to that point, expect to be paid and paid well (unless, of course, you live near Boston, where cost of living is much higher than what most game developers realistically make). Until you have experience, getting a job (paid or otherwise) as a designer will prove difficult, as you’d normally be paid relative to your experience level.

    As an aside, Python is a wonderful language which opens up whole new worlds (especially inherited cross-platform-ability).

  5. December 8, 2007 2:21 pm

    It depends. An internship can be a career maker. If you can afford to do one for free, it’s worth the experience, provided that’s the only option you have. It helps if you’re originally from a city where there are game companies. That way, room and board might not be an issue.

    Generally, tho, internships that I’ve heard of pay $10-15 an hour. Take it with a grain of salt, though. That range is purely for entertainment purposes, and should not be wagered upon.

  6. December 10, 2007 1:23 am

    Dang, what a can of worms you’ve opened here, Brenda.

    One confusing thing about this is that the search string is asking for an hourly rate, which in and of itself brings up a host of issues:

    * Most designers are salaried, not hourly. This is one of those things that no one bothers to tell students, but that makes a huge difference… ESPECIALLY in the game industry, and especially if you follow what’s going on with respect to QoL at all. There’s a whole post or three on that distinction alone.

    * Cash is not the only form of compensation; sometimes it’s not even the biggest! Other things include health insurance, 401k (most students need to have it explained that this is a retirement plan, NOT their salary), stock options or other forms of company ownership (useless if your company goes under, but there’s the chance to make a fortune if your indie studio gets sold to a large publisher), paid time off (2 weeks holidays plus 1 or 2 weeks personal vacation is typical in the US; I hear it’s double that in Europe). And then there’s the little things… free games? Paid room/board/pass for GDC each year (or at least, bonus time off to attend)? Comp time after crunch? Listed in the credits for the games you work on (which has cash value to your future career)?

    * …and with all that said, compensation isn’t even the most important thing to consider when looking for a job! (Hint: you’re in the game industry, ergo you’re underpaid regardless. Remember why you wanted to join the industry in the first place.) Are you working on an interesting project, or a game that bores you to tears? Do you work with fun and interesting people? Is the work environment pleasant (whatever “pleasant” means to you — some people like to work in total darkness, others get depressed without some natural light; would you prefer to work in a large pit with the whole team, in cubicles, or in offices?). Is management understanding of what it’s like “down in the trenches” or is there a rift between developers and managers? Honestly, I’d rather take $5K less per year and work at a great place. I think most people in the industry would; if cash were an issue, we designers could always take our l33t Excel sk1llz to a financial software company and double our salary. Right?

  7. December 10, 2007 9:09 am

    Pay is a can of worms. I agree with you. I’ll be doing a separate post on another pay issue this morning (taking a gig for less $).

    * On the hourly rate – some designers that do contracting do charge an hourly rate. What if someone just needs me to show up for a conference phone call that’s expected to last a couple hours, and require no prep on my part or work on the flip side of the call? In that case, working by the hour makes sense. However, your point is absolutely a great one. The great, great majority of design gigs are salaried – 99.9%. I reserve that .1% on the odds that somewhere out there, there’s someone who will contradict that statement. One of my earliest design gigs started out hourly, actually. I completely cleaned up during a month of crunch – way more than doubling my pay with time and 1/2. I was offered a salary shortly thereafter.

    * A caution on the “… you’re underpaid regardless.” I don’t know about that. Programmers might be able to make more working in another industry, but game designers? What else am I going to do? Design games and be phenomenally well paid by… General Motors? In fact, I think that game designers at the middle and top of their field make a nice chunk of change. It’s that entry level area where you’re still proving your mettle that might be a little fluffy and low. Also, I believe that on average, we are maturing as an industry, and the days of “I’m willing to run myself ragged all day every day” to make games is passing. A lot of people aren’t willing to tolerate that anymore. As we age and have kids, pay does become a significant factor, so does time off and respect for families during the development cycle. Anyway, the concept of “you’re underpaid regardless” doesn’t hold up for all fields in the industry. As a side note, I took a serious pay hit to become a professor. I also gained 22 weeks a year off, and that time more than made up for any pay hit, both in terms of vacation and contracting.

  8. December 10, 2007 9:32 am

    You’re right that the occasional design gig is hourly. I’m thinking more from a student perspective, though; I can’t imagine a fresh-out-of-college student with no industry experience landing any contract work.

    As for getting paid more in the greater software industry… game designers go by different names outside the game industry, but the work is the same. Think about it — even if you’re talking about something like Quicken, you still need someone to write design docs, fret about screen layout and flow and look-and-feel and user-friendliness and business logic and all of the stuff that is software design. In stupid companies, this work falls to the programmers, who (as often as not) are not particularly good designers or doc writers. The smart companies realize that spec writing is a skill of its own, and they create positions specifically for that.

    These positions go by a variety of names. I’ve heard the term “System Analyst” in reference to a spec writer. Microsoft calls them “Program Managers”. Let’s just say that if you’re the person being paid to design the next iteration of VBScript for Visual Studio 2008 or whatever, you’re making a chunk of change.

    Personally, when I became a professor my salary went up. If you use ten of those 22 weeks off to teach a few summer classes, I suspect you’ll find your salary increasing too :)

  9. December 10, 2007 10:17 am

    From a student perspective, totally true. A contracting gig is not to be had.

    Also, yes, you can use the same skill set to do other things, but you’ll be known by a different name, and brother, that isn’t game design. I was offered the opportunity to do “technical design” and “system design” two times in my career, and I looked the other direction both times. I remember that the offer for one was about 10K higher than I was making as a designer, but this was in 1989, so who cares? :)

    On salary –

    “I also gained 22 weeks a year off, and that time more than made up for any pay hit, both in terms of vacation and contracting.”

    I sell about 15 of my 22 weeks to do contracting stuff and game design workshops for SCAD. As I barely implied above, it does work out nicely.

  10. December 10, 2007 8:20 pm

    Well, that’s the lucky bit in my scenario, I think. I DO have a job in the industry, though I’m on (I THINK) as an intern—though I’ve been appointed as “level designer”–and therefore I’m not expecting pay.

    It’s a bizarre circumstance since after this I’ll be able to say I was actually working on a real-deal published game, and that’s a marvel in and of itself for me. When asked what my salary was, though, it comes down to me saying it’s not important or admitting I wasn’t paid and taken on as an intern with many more responsibilities than typical interns get.

    After reading Brenda’s new post, though, I think saying it’s not important is probably a lot more beneficial in my circumstance. I wasn’t aware I could just simply omit it. It kind of works to my advantage.

  11. Paula permalink
    January 6, 2008 9:24 am

    My friend is a game designer in Boston and has been doing it less than a year. He makes 75,000 for a starting salary and although he’s excellent, he is self-taught and this is his first gig. I can’t see how someone could work for $35,000 a year in Boston and live unless they are so young they are living at home with their parents. Otherwise, housing is too expensive.

  12. January 6, 2008 11:25 am

    @paula – I hear you. People actually work for free sometimes just to get a foot in the door.

  13. GAMERDude permalink
    January 8, 2008 11:57 am

    my dream is to become a graphic game designer but i dont know most about it. and i’m still in school is there any advice from u guys that i need in order to approve my dreams. it would mean alot to me and dont really know what kind of desingers ther are but i think i wanna be a Simulation & Virtual Environments designer?

  14. January 8, 2008 1:41 pm

    Hi Gamerdude – are you more interested in the art side or the geeky design side. Another way of asking this, are you more curious how it works or interested in how it looks?

    brenda

  15. March 5, 2008 6:47 am

    I agree that game design isn’t made just for money, there’s a lot of things that can compensate lesser salary in it compared to similar job in another industry (as ai864 mentioned). But despite it you should want to get appropriate money when your work is great. You shouldn’t think “Ok, I like my work and it’s game industry so I won’t ask for higher salary.”

    Professional should be paid well despite the bussiness he (or she) is in.

    And if I can add my experience as a lead designer in EU (Czech republic – that’s east part of EU :o) ) with 6+ years in games, we have another problem – I’m not sure why, but design is taken as something lesser here, compared to Art and Programming. For example I have about 19k $ and leads of other departments have about 30-35k $.
    And I must say, that money matters – in past 4 years, there wasn’t a SINGLE good designer trying to get job in our firm. I would love to cooperate with another professional, but no one talented wants to do it for such money and the ones that wants it are…well, not good :o)

  16. March 6, 2008 9:57 am

    Being a programmer myself, I wonder, how does transitioning from one field (e.g. programmer) to another (e.g. game designer) go? Will the programmer take a big hit on his salary? What will it take to convince the team that he’ll do a good job as a designer, his own little demo, or by pitching several design ideas at team meetings or on daily cubicle-chat?

    Being more interested in design aspect, I almost regret diving into technical side. :(

    But is there many cases where a programmer turns into a designer in today’s industry? A computer science professor who worked in the industry for a couple years tells otherwise.

  17. March 6, 2008 10:01 am

    @Peter – oh my goodness, yes. Lots of programmers go into design, and they are often the best designers. Ian Schreiber is one of those people. He regularly posts here, so I’ll ping him on this. I am sure he’ll have lots to offer.

    As far as salary goes, I’m guessing that yeah, you might take a hit. Depends on your salary now and the company you go to, of course. Typically, programmers make more than designers.

    As far as convincing people goes, make games. That’s really what it boils down to for everyone. When I hired two junior designers, their ability to program was a *huge* asset and a factor in me hiring them.

  18. March 6, 2008 12:47 pm

    @Peter:

    Yes, it’s possible to cross over from programming to design. I’ve done it.

    Yes, there is a pay cut involved. When I went from mid-level programmer to junior designer, my salary dropped about 40%. (Still, as I’m sure you’re aware, it’s totally worth it if design is in your blood, as long as you can afford it.)

    If your professor says that this never happens, I’d guess that would be for a few reasons:

    * Design jobs are so rare and sought-after that NO ONE can be said to “often” or “usually” get their first one.

    * Frankly, a lot of people think they’re good at design but they’re really not, so there’s probably a lot of programmers that suck at design. (Not you, of course. OTHER people.)

    * A lot of programmers I’ve met have no interest in design at all. They care about algorithms or graphics processing or tools or something, and they have no desire to cross over, so they don’t.

    As for your concern that you “wasted” all this time learning programming, I felt the same way at first, but now I’m really glad I went for the CS degree. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to “break in” as a programmer than a designer, so this let me get my foot in the door. For another, programming skill is incredibly useful as a technical designer — it means I can implement my own gameplay prototypes, and it also means I can take some light scripting or programming tasks on myself during development to lighten the load on programmers. Lastly, since I understand what’s involved in implementation, I can sometimes save months of development time by creating mechanics that are easier to program.

    How do you convince people? Well, if you’re already working as a programmer on a dev team, you’re halfway there. Personally, I was a gameplay programmer (implementing the mechanics of the game), which was great — it meant I was working directly with designers. So, I was able to observe them, ask questions, make suggestions, and generally build a reputation among the designers I worked with that I knew what I was talking about. I was even able to implement a couple of new mechanics that I knew were very easy and that would have interesting gameplay effects; this was a great way to impress the designers :).

    Of course, it may take awhile, so be patient, and be prepared to take the opportunity when it comes.

  19. Robert permalink
    March 21, 2008 4:27 pm

    I have an interview with a top 50 developer next week. I have never worked in the game industry, but have made a strong hobby of designing and running table top (rp) games. I also have a graphic design background and pretty good knowledge of the engines this company uses coupled with above average creative writing skills.

    I’ve made it through the resume, and design test portions of the process, and I think I have a relatively good shot at the position. As I have been a professional in other industries and am now 35 (with family), my biggest fear (outside of not getting the position) is them offering me the job, and the pay is less than I can accept. I am willing to make concessions to lifestyle to get my dream job, but I don’t honestly think I can support my family on 35-40K per year.

    My question is what would be a reasonable salary requirement, should they ask me in the interview? I don’t want to price myself out of the position, but I also would like to avoid eating Ramon every day for the next two years if possible. The develpoer in question is in California, so I was a bit encouraged when I saw that the CA average is much higher due to cost of living.

    I could survive on 48-50K and be relatively comfortable at 60.

  20. March 21, 2008 10:41 pm

    @Robert – I’d need to know more about the level of the position, but I don’t think $60K is unreasonable at all. I’ll ping you of the site to get more details.

  21. March 22, 2008 10:10 am

    @Robert – Whenever I’ve been asked about salary requirements in an interview, I’ve never given a straight answer, but sidestepped the issue. Some examples:

    * “Don’t you think it’s premature to talk about salary before you’ve decided whether to offer me the position? Or should I take this as an indication that a job offer is on the table?”

    * “I have confidence that you’ll offer me a salary that’s competitive in the industry for this position.”

    The point of this is to get to the stage where you are their primary candidate and they’re giving you an offer. If the offer is within your range then great, you can take it. If it’s too low, then that’s your cue to negotiate! If they’re unwilling to negotiate then that’s unfortunate, but at least you know that you’re in demand and that your skills are good enough to get you a job, and you can apply to other companies that might be more open to your salary range.

  22. Robert permalink
    March 25, 2008 8:00 pm

    @ Ian

    Thanks for the advice. I will make use of it in my interview. Wish me luck!!!

  23. April 9, 2008 4:30 am

    Hi Brenda,

    I’ve been reading this blog for some time, and I was wondering where and when to start posting. First of all, thank you for making such an effort to put up so much stuff online! Its been an inspiration and a source of hope for me. Gals in games here in asia are still few and there aren’t really any role models to speak of (yet).

    You mentioned that crossing over to game design from the programming side is rather common. I wonder if you’ve come across game artists that want to cross over into the ‘geekier’ design side ? Is there an in between?

    I’ve been into all kinds of games like forever… computer, console, board games, table top, D&Ds, MuDs, CCGs and I find that I like taking them apart and building them for pple to play. I am currently a character game artist in the casual games industry and I am thinking of heading back to school to facilitate my switch into game design. Just looking into my options and doing some research. Do I need to go back to school to do this?

    Any info is appreciated.

    Thanks!

  24. April 15, 2008 9:45 pm

    Hi Doanna,

    Lots of them. David McDonough, who is linked in my Links column, is one of those people, but there are many more. Design is really just a form of art anyway.

    You don’t *need* to go back to school for this or for anything, but it’s a question of how fast you want to get the material. I was talking with a group of students the other day at our conference here (GDX). I mentioned that in 5 minutes, I told them something it took me five years to figure out on my own. I think that’s the real benefit of an education… that and being surrounded by others who love doing the same things you do.

  25. May 28, 2008 8:30 am

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