Why making games is for the young

Why making games is for the young

By Owain Bennallack

January 14th 2010 at 9:45AM

Is the development sector leaving its veterans behind?

In the 1970s sci-fi Logan’s Run humanity lives in an underground city full of sexually promiscuous party people.

At least they do until they hit 30, when they’re toasted by the authorities.

Does this happen to 40-year-old developers, who don’t even benefit from the Bacchanalian revelry beforehand? After all, most game developers are young, as we discussed last month.

Assuming managers aren’t taking older staff out the back and shooting them, why do the years of long activity of making games involve so few individuals over 40?

Here are a few guesses...

1. Technology changes quickly
I’ve met bank programmers writing in COBOL, a language my father used in the 1960s. In contrast, game platforms change every five years. The graphics programmers of the ‘90s who wrote software renderers might feel at home again today, but in between hardware acceleration changed everything. Similarly, many artists who survived the transition from 2D to 3D have struggled with shaders.
 
2. Making games is insecure
Game development is now an established industry, but most studios exist on a whim and a prayer. That’s as true for the in-house arms of the big publishers as for independents. Perhaps developers in their 30s don’t want to risk moving house every few years.

3. Maybe it’s boring
Unless you’re working on a killer title, a lot of game development is by-the-numbers. Young people who dreamed of creating the next big thing can find themselves modelling kids’ characters and wondering what it’s all about. Churning out art assets by rote or making maps while some legend turns his vision into reality must pale.

4. Young people want it more
In all creative industries there’s a never-ending supply of bright young things hungrier than you. They work the extra hours, do their own projects, talk shop non-stop, and dream of making it big. But by definition most don’t, which leaves a lot of jaded thirty-somethings looking forward to the Sunday papers and ready to be supplanted.

5. Making games ruins your life
Remember EA Spouse? Not only did she marry a game developer – social suicide until recently – she actually wanted him around. Crunch isn’t the problem it was, apparently, but making games still involves worse hours and less stability than many careers. It’s the nature of creative activity, and it can burn you out.

6. More money elsewhere
To get into making games, you need to be pretty special to see off the competition. Given the drawbacks, you might eventually decide your valuable talents could be better rewarded. The best programmers can earn six figures in the City. (Game designers would seem to have less transferable skills. Perhaps they end up robbing banks.)

7. Chicken and egg

If you’re the oldest guy in the studio, you may not relate to the young bucks with their clubbing and albums that sound like Elizabethan plays. But, if more older people stuck around, then they would encourage more of their generation to stay too.

8. The old guys are drowned (out)
Perhaps people don’t actually go anywhere, but the industry has grown so that the oldies are diluted by young recruits? I can certainly think of many developers from the 1990s still in the business, but they are generally the ‘names’ – studio owners and key creatives who achieved some fame. What about the rank-and-file?

The age old problem
The physical reality of age clearly isn’t the problem compared to footballers, glamour models or pop-stars. The most famous game makers are veterans like Peter Molyneux and Will Wright, and, with respect, they’d stick out like prunes in a pot of olives in that Ubisoft photo.

On the other hand, some semi-creative office jobs like advertising are notorious for unspoken ageism. If you’re not running an ad agency by 45, you’re retraining. Yet other creative industries do seem to value the old – movie-making (though not actress-ing) springs to mind.

Maybe it’s not the workforce that needs to mature, but the games instead. For every Braid, Fable II or GTA IV, there’s a dozen shallow, repetitive and derivative titles.
Older gamers often say they’ve seen it all before. Perhaps developers hit an age when they feel they’ve made it all before, too.