I didn’t get a chance to go to the GDC panel on ageism this year, but it’s definitely a topic that I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve gradually metamorphosed into an old codger. Seeing the panel and related articles reminded me of one of the very first columns I wrote for Game Developer, all the way back in 2004 when my back didn’t make those bizarre noises every time I bend over.
Some of the observations here are a bit dated — most notably, the article is pretty optimistic about the options for climbing the corporate ladder, since it was written at a time when team sizes and big mega-game-conglomerates were growing instead of looking increasingly rare. However the problems seem to be very much alive today. As somebody with very talented and accomplished friends who’ve fallen off the industry tightrope in their 40’s and early 50’s I can attest that the problems are real.
Lately the games business has come to remind me of the glitzy shopping mall / utopia in Logan’s Run. (Even your references have got cobwebs on them, old man! — Ed.) It’s a fabulous playground for young people — though to be fair games biz is short on free love and polyester unitards – and we’ve all got blinking crystals in our palms, ticking away inexorably towards extinction. While we may not be facing the fiery Carousel at 30, it seems like very few us stay in the business past 35. Take a look around at your next GDC or IGDA meeting: there will be a lot of pink and blue hair, but not much gray. As one recruiter I spoke to told me:
“Companies definitely want us [recruiters] to ask a lot of the questions that the law won’t let them ask. Age discrimination would be the industry’s dirty little secret if somebody would bother to keep it secret.”
The reasons for the demographic skew in games are very complicated. After all, it’s not as if the games industry’s attitude towards age and experience is dictated by some sinister Young Boys Network.
So, let’s start by saying what should be obvious: simpleminded discrimination based on age is stupid and shortsighted. Our industry has always had a lot of adolescent traits – particularly when it comes to deadlines and professionalism – and we’ll never grow up if we don’t find ways to retain experienced, mature people. That said, it’s important to look at some common reasons employers and recruiters give for putting a discount on experienced artists. I’m not defending these attitudes, but you’ll need to understand them if you want to manage your career effectively through your thirties and hopefully beyond.
The price of experience
One obvious handicap that veterans face is cost. Artists with a lot of titles and long resumes expect to command salaries that reflect their experience. Obviously studios always have one eye on their budgets when making hiring decisions, so this makes changing jobs and chasing raises harder for a vet than for younger, cheaper talents. In addition, many employers feel old pros will be tougher negotiators than new hires. They are less likely to believe in stock options or bonus packages and more interested in cold cash. Worst of all, from the employer’s perspective, a pro is relatively immune to the glamor of simply being in games. Where a lot of young talent is willing to work for peanuts, just for the chance to be close to the games they love, the romance wears a bit thin when its time to pay for the kids’ braces or a new dishwasher.
Does this mean an experienced artist is necessarily a bad bargain for a company? Not at all. But it does mean that an eight or ten year vet needs to be able to tell a potential employer exactly why he or she is worth more money, or deserves more responsibility, than a younger artist with only one or two titles shipped. Like a manufacturer in a high wage area, a veteran artist needs to identify the things that he or she can do well, because competing on cost is not an option when you have a family and a mortgage.
Fire in the Belly
We are in the era of the rising star… Rising stars are hungrier. They don’t have a family to feed, they don’t have outside commitments and are able to work longer hours and spend their free time benefiting their career. They observe what others are doing, how they can do it better, and quickly catapult themselves ahead of the pack.
-P, a games industry recruiter.
The line between investment and gambling is often hard to find. Everyone faced with a hiring decision fantasizes about catching a talented newcomer with great potential but a short resume – the “Rookie of the Year” who will come at a big discount and mature into a star performer. Of course only a fraction of new hires will turn out to be stars, but like all forms of gambling hiring thrives on hope. Companies yearn for great discoveries they way FPS players bash crates in search of hidden goodies. In a perverse way, this optimism undercuts the what should be a veteran’s biggest asset: the same track record that proves you’re reliable, hardworking, even very talented also gives a pretty good indication of your future performance — which might be very good but isn’t going to change the industry overnight. It’s easier for a search committee to project the fantasy of brilliant learning, professional growth and whole-hearted devotion on the blank space at the end of short resume.
Moreover the notion of the “rising star” also brings up the question of lifestyle, which may be the most damning liability which veterans face. The movie-montage version of game development (cue cross-fades over empty pizza boxes, empty coffee cups, and bleary animators wincing at the rising sun) is a young persons game. Room-mates or parents might dislike you coming home from work at 2am, but spouses and kids have a legitimate right to be mad about it. If a company sees potential employees primarily as mythical man-months on legs they’re certain to incline towards the young.
In this context, veteran artists need to be able to articulate clearly how they can get as more work done in a livable 40 or 50 hour week than their gonzo colleagues do in 80. They need to prove to potential bosses that they are more, not less likely to make the milestones than the pizza and coffee crowd. The key to effectively dealing with employer preconceptions is understanding what employers want — productivity — and being showing how you can deliver without last minute heroics. Producers may like man-hours, but they really love reliable scheduling and completed assets.
Keeping up with the times
When I was 25 I’d stay up till 3 or 4 in the morning just playing with the new features in the latest version of Max, doing little side projects. Nowadays, between meeting my deadlines at work and having a family life, I don’t have the time or, frankly, the interest to check out anything new. I know I’m in danger of falling behind, but I’ve got other priorities.
- T, an artist, 33.
With the astounding rate of technical progress in our business, obsolescence is a permanent threat. An artist approaching mid career will always have a few painfully acquired skills that have become completely useless. Even worse, the the combination of production pressure in the office and family life at home makes it harder to keep up with new tools and techniques. The stereotype of the older artist with rusting tech skills is not really fair, since an experienced artist can often see through the details of a new tool or idea to the core concept more quickly than a younger person who has read the manual but hasn’t learned to really think in 3d. But fair or not, the stereotype is a fact of life that experienced artists have to combat.
The cumulative weight of all these preconceptions makes the professional environment for artists in the decade bracket – the “Children of Doom” who got into games in the early 90’s – a tough one. In the early stages of a career, practically the only thing that really counts is a strong body of work– every article on “how to get a job in games” will tell you that a strong demo reel is the magic ticket to games industry success. But when you’re a veteran, looking for an appropriately senior job, everybody you’re competing with has a strong reel: the 3dSMax fanboys and overly optimistic web designers already been weeded out. Add in a potential employer who is worried about your salary, your commitment to the job, and your technical skills and the picture seems pretty bleak.
Don’t Fear the Reaper
Against this backdrop the best thing you can do for your career is to understand how you look to potential employers. In effect, your career is a product, and every time you go looking for a job – within your current company or at a new one – you’re doing marketing. We tend to snicker (or worse) when the word marketing comes up, but it’s a fact of life for anybody who wants to sell anything. You wont sell much if you don’t know what people want to buy,or what you have to sell.
Emotionally this is often a difficult leap for artists to make – we put so much of ourselves into our work that we’re offended when people take our creative skills as a given and want to talk about how we “contribute to the team” or “drive the product.” Unfortunately only a small fraction of us will be hired for our artistic genius or personal creative vision. Far more of us really are there to contribute to the team and drive the product. To manage our careers effectively, we need to understand how we fit into the complex machine of game production. In short, we need to market ourselves effectively.
On thing most headhunters will tell you is that their clients – our potential employers — want solutions to specific problem. It’s not enough to go to a studio and say, “I’ve got this artist who is a really great person and very talented.” What most companies want to hear instead is — “You need somebody who can manage the pipeline on your upcoming PS3 title, and I’ve got just the person.” Very few companies have the luxury of hiring solely because an applicant is talented, or has great potential – what 40 or 50 person studio can support a Xerox PARC or Advanced Technology Group for distracted geniuses?
The problem for us, of course, is that it’s very difficult to predict the specific needs of individual companies in advance. The range of knowledge you need to be a good marketer for yourself is pretty intimidating – you need to be up to date on current and future trends in technology, fads in pop culture that get recycled into game art, and of course the rise and fall of different studios, in order to manage your career. This is a good place to plug another old column: Read The Damn Ad
Once you’ve mastered all of that, you need to build – I hate to have to be this crude about it – a brand for yourself. When you’re 25 you can sell yourself on drive and potential. By 35 you have, intentionally or not, shut off some possibilities and embraced others. Most studios are already subdivided to the point that modelers, animators, texture artists and level designers are seen as mutually exclusive jobs. Within those specialties new sub-specialties are emerging – scripters, character riggers, and shader writers, for example. As each new discipline matures, people who picked it up out of necessity or curiosity will become “experts” — which is powerful selling point as long as those specialties are in demand. At mid career you have a complex mix of skills which represents most of your value in the eyes of a potential employer. You need to know which ones are in demand and which aren’t. At 25 you’re a commodity product, one of the many warm bodies the industry needs to function. At 35 you need to be a specialty item with a narrower market but much higher potential value.
Whether it’s a technical or an artistic niche you’re looking for, you have to remember that you don’t have control over the environment in which you’ll be trying to peddle yourself and your skills. If you were a history buff with a fantastic reel of Shermans and Tigers, you’d have had a hard time pitching yourself in 1999, when everyone wanted to build the next Half-Life or Unreal. But after Saving Private Ryan, _Medal of Honor _and _Battlefield 1942 _you’d suddenly find yourself a hot commodity. Alas, even if you sat down today to today to master the details of the _PanzerKampfWagen IV ausf H., _it’s probably too late. Something else will have already become the _specialite du jour. _
The same problem bedevils technical skills too. If you have a lot of production experience in, say, PS2 environments you’ve got a leg up relative to somebody who’s only done DreamCast games. Yet becoming tagged as a PS2-monkey can one day become a drag on your career, if it ghettoizes you into B-list, end-of-lifecycle titles and keeps you away from cutting edge PS3 or Xbox2 games. Specialization is a two edged sword, and you need to have an eye on the future as you indulge your passions. You also need to look for assignments that will keep you current with upcoming tech and topics.
The real key to being rewarded for your experience is honesty: the ability to take good hard look in the mirror. Without a realistic sense of your own strengths and weaknesses, you won’t be able to sell yourself. I don’t mean weakness in the interview question, “my biggest weakness is I don’t know when to stop devoting myself to the company” sense — this is a sober look at your real skills and personality. If you know what you can do well, you can either find companies that need you, or become good at something they need that flows out of your existing skills. If you don’t know what you’re not good at, you’ll always be competing at a disadvantage without knowing why.
One artist I know, with a track record dating back to VGA era, found his career slowing down because the combination of family life and production pressure made it almost impossible for him to keep up with cutting edge technology. After a lot of soul searching, he accepted the fact that he wasn’t going to stay on the bleeding edge any more. He found a job doing interface design, rather than production art; as an “interaction designer” he can still use lessons he learned on a 286 about clear design, user expectations, and the relationship between interface constraints and gameplay. His deep knowledge of how gamers think makes him very good at his new job. Moreover in ten years he’ll still be learning and growing, instead of swimming upstream against a continuing flood of technological change.
Of course, the classic way to capitalize on experience is to move from line production to management. This is harder for artists than for many other folks — we tend to be artists precisely because we enjoy making things, and a life spent monkeying with schedules and having meetings is a terrifying thought for a lot of us. It might be easier to seduce us into management if there were management niches to fill — but in most studios the career ladder is extremely short. You can become an art lead, and then an art director… and then you’re done and can retire. Without a lot of intermediate positions it’s tough to even know if you have the aptitude or the desire to leading a team.
Unfortunately, the role of Art Director is often a dubious reward for success as a production artist. The the key skills of an AD – communications, personnel management, transmitting a shared vision and getting people to collaborate on realizing it – are only tangentially related to the technical skills that make a great production artist. The notion that Art Direction is a “level up” in the great games industry RPG is a source of unhappiness and frustration for many. If you do have people skills, though, you may find that not only art direction, but even becoming a producer or studio head is the best place to spend your second decade in games. Your artistic judgment will still be necessary, but you’ll be free all nighters and carpal tunnel syndrome and all the year’s you’ve spent watching games and games people will be a big asset to your work.
Keep on keepin’ on
Many of us, though, just want to keep on doing the work we love. It’s always possible to keep beavering away, perfecting our craft and (hopefully) being rewarded for our skills and vision. Hopefully the tactics and observations we’ve sketched out here will at least help dedicated artists to remain well paid and well respected in their work even if there is no corporate ladder for them to climb.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, craft specialists like cinematographers, set designers and effects people hardly ever made the jump to management either as directors or producers. However they did have their own parallel status hierarchy, in the form of professional societies and particularly the Oscars, which gave meaning and shape to careers that topped out, in terms of money and job titles, when you were 35 or 40. Our industry would certainly benefit if we could have a similar level of professional respect and community, in which we could recognize and applaud each other’s work. How many game artists work do you actually know? Can you put an artists name on a particular character or environment? If you read Jason Rubin’s manifesto in the May GDMag, you know how much studios and developers need to work to promote their professional profiles. We need to do the same thing – to form a network that recognizes and rewards talent and expertise in our medium. That would be a benefit for all of us, old fogeys, young rebels and everybody in between.