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Want to make games? Drop out now!
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
Game Developer Magazine's latest issue features the results of their annual salary survey. Although there are caveats involved with any set of self-reported data, I think at least the relationships between different subsets of data are likely to be accurate. And I noticed something that surprised me in the table "Average Salary by Education and Discipline".

In all disciplines, those who completed "Some College" make significantly *more* than those who completed a Bachelor's Degree. Those who went on to "Some Graduate" made even *less* than those with Bachelor's.

Actually *completing* a Master's Degree gets you a salary roughly comparable to "Some College", though in some disciplines it's a bit less, in some a bit more. In none is it *enough* more to suggest being worth the investment.

At the Doctoral level, only Programmers reported anything. "Some Doctoral" makes more money than "Some College" -- but an actual Doctorate makes *less*.

So, if you're a college student who wants a successful career in the games industry, apparently the best thing you can do is drop out!

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This suggests to me that people who saw an opportunity while they were in college or graduate school and ran after it are doing better than those who chose a "safe" course and stayed in school.

I would not construe it as advice to drop out without seeing such an opportunity dangling.

Fair enough. I well *might* construe it as advice to actively *pursue* such opportunities.

There's also the self-selection problem -- people who are still in the gaming industry after a year or two following a drop-out are probably good at it/lucky in their choice of opportunity to pursue.

It may also suggest that those with more education are less likely to stay in the industry long-term (cough, cough).

It seems to me that this is the case: people who have been in the industry longer probably never had a degree, as it was much more common to drop out of college in the '80s and early '90s to pursue a game career. (Nowadays, people tend to complete their degrees and then go into game development.)

Since the people who have more experience get paid more, and the people who have more experience dropped out of college, it looks like the people who dropped out of college get paid more. But they didn't control for things like experience. So there you have it.

The experience part is directly relevant to the question of dropping out. Since raises are generally based on one's current salary (which is why it's almost always right to negotiate the largest starting salary possible, even at the expense of other perks), unless finishing a degree gets you enough more initial money than dropping out earlier would, or enough specialized knowledge you can't pick up elsewhere for advancement, dropping out is going to end up with more experience than finishing college, since the drop out is spending those college years working.

For the graduate and post-graduate cases, this is already a pretty well-known phenomenon. The increased salary lifetime often doesn't cover the opportunity costs, lost time working, and expense of getting the advanced degree. It may be necessary in some fields to advance at all (doctors, lawyers, etc.), and sometimes, like with an MBA, it's used as an artificial step for advancement, but for lots of fields, they're basically not cost-effective.



But even controlling for that, in the game industry in the early days it was UNHEARD OF to have a college degree and in some cases could be a hinderance. It's more to do with the history of the game business than it is has to do with the more general realities of American business practices.

"and in some cases could be a hinderance"

Why was it a hindrance? And have those reasons gone away? Or, if the reasons were irrational prejudices, have the people who held them gone away?

Seems to me that the industry still has lots of institutional stupidity left over from the early days.

I was not around in those days, but from speaking to folks who were, it was mostly the garage developer rock star attitude. People looking at a potential employee would literally say, "This guy must be pretty dumb to have wasted his time on a college degree." Like, LITERALLY THOSE WORDS. Those prejudices lasted all the way to about 2003 I'd say.

There are still people who look down on those with degrees, but they are rare and they mostly have learned to swallow their own prejudices.

This might also be industry specific.

The fact that I'm a college dropout has never been held against me in the games industry; it was in my pre-games programming jobs. It's not a matter of relative talent, either - in games I've been working with people as good or better than I; prior to that I was comfortably the best programmer around. (He said modestly.)

I came into games with a higher than normal starting salary based on my pre-games industry salary - and it was still a thirty percent pay cut. It wasn't timing for me - I spent two years after dropping out working a bad job, then nine years outside of the industry working as a programmer.

I suspect the industry has an easier time keeping talented people without a degree because of the industry culture; those with a degree have an easier time leaving it for more money. I'd like to see a correlation with years in the industry, and with the number of platform generations the person has worked through. I suspect that has more to do with salary than education.

And here I am wondering if they took Student Loans in to consideration. The pay back by the time you are finished with your Doctoral must be outragous. That would put a chunk of your ready cash out of your paycheck.

The GDMag Salary survey goes by gross salary received alone -- not your net income after expenses. So that wouldn't factor in.

What happens with Doctoral students is again a function of experience: it's only very very recently that people with PhDs have been getting game industry jobs. Since they've only been in the industry a few years, their relative inexperience will balance out any starting salary boost they may get from their degree.

In any numbers, perhaps. But I've worked with a physics PhD on and off since 1997. Admitedly, his degree was rare enough to draw comment.

Oh, sure, I mean look at the founders of BioWare. They're both PhDs.

Yeah, it all speaks to me as a reinforcement of my existing thoughts on advanced degrees: Get them if you want one, or if your chosen career absolutely requires one, but mostly, because you want one. They're a luxury item for most owners...

That said, I should go work on my application for my master's degree... :) Neatly enough, the master's will act as "time served" towards my subsequent Ph.D, which is pretty nearly a prerequisite to where I want to be in 10 years (a professor in a high-end college of education). Also, my job (assuming I stay in this one) contractually promises to give me a significant pay bump once I have a master's. So it makes sense for me-- as *well* as being a luxury item!

As others have said, this indicates to me that a higher than expected number of game designers are starting their dreams while still in school. Either some number of the survey responses are from people who got lucky and dropped out, or got lucky, and might -currently- be in school (that qualifies as 'some', right?).

I seem to recall that in the late 90's, just before the tech bubble popped, it was a popular thing to drop out of school and start working for a game company.

An additional bit of "correlation != causation": I suspect that this may be pure correlation based on *passion* more than anything else.

Consider -- one thing I've noticed (the hard way) is that the game industry demands and rewards enormous passion for the business. To be successful, you have to be rather driven.

Now think about how that correlates with a degree. The people with the most drive to *win* in this industry and precisely the ones most likely to pursue it *instead* of a degree. The ones who pause to get the degree, on the flip side, are less likely to be quite as driven.

So this suggests that there isn't necessarily a causal relationship in either direction. Instead, both phenomena might be caused by the degree of passion to be in games *now*.

It's also worth noting that a degree matters even less in games than in most software, precisely because the programming is more challenging and up-to-the-minute. While the theoretical grounding is useful, it's *much* more important to be a technical self-starter with a love for self-education. The stuff I learned in college was at best marginally useful at LG, because the field had moved way on since then. Even for a recent graduate, I would expect this to be true: academic programs tend to be a little behind the times, and you pretty much have to be on the bleeding edge to be a good game programmer...

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