A video game developer is a software developer that specializes in video game development – the process and related disciplines of creating video games. A game developer can range from one person who undertakes all tasks to a large business with employee responsibilities split between individual disciplines, such as programming, design, art, testing, etc. Most game development companies have video game publisher financial and usually marketing support. Self-funded developers are known as independent or indie developers and usually make indie games.
A developer may specialize in a certain video game console (such as Nintendo's Nintendo Switch, Microsoft's Xbox One, Sony's PlayStation 4), or may develop for a number of systems (including personal computers and mobile devices). Video-game developers specialize in certain types of games (such as role-playing video games or first-person shooters). Some focus on porting games from one system to another, or translating games from one language to another. Less commonly, some do software-development work in addition to games.
Most video game publishers maintain development studios (such as Electronic Arts's EA Canada, Square Enix's studios, Activision's Radical Entertainment, Nintendo EAD and Sony's Polyphony Digital and Naughty Dog). However, since publishing is still their primary activity they are generally described as "publishers" rather than "developers". Developers may be private as well (such as how Bungie was, the company which developed the Halo series exclusive to Microsoft's Xbox).
In the video game industry, a first-party developer is part of a company which manufactures a video game console and develops exclusively for it. First-party developers may use the name of the company itself (such as Nintendo), have a specific division name (such as Sony's Polyphony Digital) or have been an independent studio before being acquired by the console manufacturer (such as Rare or Naughty Dog).
Second-party developer is a colloquial term often used by gaming enthusiasts and media to describe three different forms of game development studios:
- Independently owned studios who take development contracts from the platform holders and produce games exclusive to that platform.
- Studios that are partially or wholly owned by the platform holder (also known as a subsidiary) and produce games exclusive to that platform.
- Companies that make video game consoles, but also make games on other platforms.
In reality, the resulting game is first party (since it is funded by the platform holder, who usually owns the resulting IP), but the term helps to distinguish independent studios from those directly owned by the platform holder. These studios may have exclusive publishing agreements (or other business relationships) with the platform holder, while maintaining independence. Examples are Insomniac Games (which previously developed games solely for Sony's PlayStation platforms as an independent studio), ADK for SNK consoles, Rareware for Nintendo, and Game Freak (which primarily develops the Nintendo-exclusive Pokémon game series).
In the hardware business, companies that make gaming hardware also makes games on other platforms, such as Commodore International, Hudson Soft (in association with NEC), SNK and Bandai, companies who has done this previously.
Activision in 1979 became the first third-party video game developer, where the term "second-party" originally referred to the consumers. A third-party developer may also publish games, or work for a video game publisher to develop a title. Both publisher and developer have considerable input in the game's design and content. However, the publisher's wishes generally override those of the developer.
The business arrangement between the developer and publisher is governed by a contract, which specifies a list of milestones intended to be delivered over a period of time. By updating its milestones, the publisher verifies that work is progressing quickly enough to meet its deadline and can direct the developer if the game is not meeting expectations. When each milestone is completed (and accepted), the publisher pays the developer an advance on royalties. Successful developers may maintain several teams working on different games for different publishers. Generally, however, third-party developers tend to be small, close-knit teams. Third-party game development is a volatile sector, since small developers may be dependent on income from a single publisher; one canceled game may be devastating to a small developer. Because of this, many small development companies are short-lived.
A common exit strategy for a successful video-game developer is to sell the company to a publisher, becoming an in-house developer. In-house development teams tend to have more freedom in the design and content of a game compared to third-party developers. One reason is that since the developers are employees of the publisher, their interests are aligned with those of the publisher; the publisher may spend less effort ensuring that the developer's decisions do not enrich the developer at the publisher's expense.
In recent years, 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 (with their own culture and work practices). For example, Activision acquired Raven (1997); Neversoft (1999), which merged with Infinity Ward in 2014; Z-Axis (2001); Treyarch (2001); Luxoflux (2002); Shaba (2002); Infinity Ward (2003) and Vicarious Visions (2005). All these developers continue operating much as they did before acquisition, the primary differences being exclusivity and financial details. Publishers tend to be more forgiving of their own development teams going over budget (or missing deadlines) than third-party developers.
A developer may not be the primary entity creating a piece of software, usually providing an external software tool which helps organize (or use) information for the primary software product. Such tools may be a database, Voice over IP, or add-in interface software; this is also known as middleware. A good example of this is SpeedTree developed by Interactive Data Visualization Inc.
In addition, accessories like headsets may be known as third-party headsets; the company manufacturing the headset may be different from the console company. For example, Turtle Beach is a third-party headset manufacturer for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Also now including the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Independents are software developers which are not owned by (or dependent on) a single publisher. Some of these developers self-publish their games, relying on the Internet and word of mouth for publicity. Without the large marketing budgets of mainstream publishers, their products may receive less recognition than those of larger publishers such as Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo. With the advent of digital distribution of inexpensive games on game consoles, it is now possible for independent developers to forge agreements with console manufacturers for broad distribution of their games.
Other independent developers create game software for a number of video-game publishers on several gaming platforms. In recent years this model has been in decline; larger publishers, such as Electronic Arts and Activision, increasingly turn to internal studios (usually former independent developers acquired for their development needs).
Quality of life
Video-game development is usually conducted in a casual business environment, with T-shirts and sandals common work attire. Many workers find this type of environment rewarding and pleasant professionally and personally. However, the industry also requires long working hours from its employees (sometimes to an extent seen as unsustainable). Employee burnout is not uncommon.
An entry-level programmer can make, on average, over $66,000 annually only if they are successful in obtaining a position in a medium to large video game company. An experienced game-development employee, depending on his or her expertise and experience, averaged roughly $73,000 in 2007. Indie game developers may only earn between $10,000 to $50,000 a year depending on how financially successful their titles are.
In addition to being part of the software industry, game development is also within the entertainment industry; most sectors of the entertainment industry (such as films and television) require long working hours and dedication from their employees, such as willingness to relocate and/or required to develop games that do not appeal to their personal taste. The creative rewards of work in the entertainment business attracts labor to the industry, creating a competitive labor market which demands a high level of commitment and performance from employees. Industry communities, such as the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), are conducting increasing discussions about the problem; they are concerned that working conditions in the industry cause significant deterioration in its employees' quality of life.
Some video game developers (such as Electronic Arts) have been accused of the excessive invocation of "crunch time". "Crunch time" is the point at which the team is thought to be failing to achieve milestones needed to launch a game on schedule. The complexity of work flow and the intangibles of artistic and aesthetic demands in video-game creation create difficulty in predicting milestones.
Most game-development engineers and artists in the United States are considered salaried employees; as "exempt non-hourly-paid professionals", they are not subject to state laws governing overtime. An exception is California, where software developers are specifically protected by a minimum hourly wage to be considered exempt. In 2008, due to the amendment to California Labor Code Section 515.5 by Bill SB 929, the minimum wage was $36 per hour (or $74,880 per year).
Attention to "crunching" was drawn by a 2004 blog post entitled ea_spouse. The protest against crunch time was posted by Erin Hoffman (fiancee of Electronic Arts developer Leander Hasty), who contended that her life was being indirectly destroyed by the company's work policy. This led to debate in the industry but no visible changes until March 2005, when Electronic Arts announced internally that it was planning to extend overtime pay to some employees not currently eligible. Hasty and Hoffman later joined an independent development studio (1st Playable Productions) and founded Gamewatch, a website for discussing the game-development environment industry-wide. As senior game developers age and family responsibilities become more important, many companies are moderating the worst crunch-time practices to attract better-quality staff.