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A video game developer is a software developer (a business or an individual) that creates video games. A developer may specialize in a certain video game console, such as Nintendo's Wii, Microsoft's Xbox 360, Sony's PlayStation 3, or may develop for a variety of systems, including personal computers.
Most developers also 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. Some focus on translating games from one language to another. An unusual few do other kinds of 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, as publishing is still their primary activity, they are generally described as "publishers" rather than "developers". Developers can be private as well, such as Bungie, which created the Halo franchise.
See also: Game development party
Third-party developers are usually called upon by a video game publisher to develop a title for one or more systems. Both the publisher as well as the developer have a great deal of say as to the design and content of the game. However, in general, the publisher's wishes trump the developer's, as the publisher is paying the developer to create the game.
The business arrangement between the developer and publisher is governed by a contract, which specifies a list of milestones intended to be delivered, for example, every four to eight weeks. By receiving updated milestones, the publisher is able to verify that work is progressing quickly enough to meet the publisher's deadline, and to give direction to the developer if the game is turning out other than as expected in some way. When each milestone is completed and accepted, the publisher pays the developer an advance on royalties. The developer uses this money to fund its payroll and otherwise fund its operations.
Successful developers may maintain several teams working on different games for different publishers. Generally, however, third-party developers tend to be small, and consist of a single, close-knit team.
Third-party game development is a volatile business, as small developers may be entirely dependent on money from one publisher. A single canceled game can be lethal to a small developer. Because of this, many of the smaller development companies last only a few years or sometimes only a few months. The continual struggle to get payment for milestones and to line up the next game contract is a persistent distraction to the management of every game developer.
A common and desirable exit strategy for an extremely successful video game developer is to sell the company to a publisher, and thus become an in-house developer.
In-house development teams tend to have more freedom as to the design and content of a game, compared to the third-party developers teams. Part of the reason for this is that since the developers are employees of the publisher, their interests are as exactly aligned with those of the publisher as is possible. The publisher can therefore spend much less effort making sure that the developer's decisions do not enrich the developer at the ultimate expense of the publisher.
In recent years the 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, each with its own culture and work practices. For example: Activision acquired Raven (1997), Neversoft (1999), Z-Axis (2001), Treyarch (2001), Luxoflux (2002), Shaba (2002), Infinity Ward (2003) and Vicarious Visions (2005). All these developers continue to operate much as they did before acquisition, with the primary differences being in exclusivity and the financial details.
History has shown that publishers tend to be more forgiving of their own development teams going over budget and missing deadlines than third-party developers.
An in-house development team that works for a console hardware manufacturer is also known as a first-party developer. A company that is closely tied to a console manufacturer (or occasionally a publisher) is known as a second-party developer. Rather confusingly the publishers themselves are sometimes referred to as third-party developers in the context of their relationships with the console manufacturers (Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo). This particular distinction of first, second and third party developers does not generally apply to PC games development.
Independents are small software developers that are not owned by or beholden to a single publisher. Some of these developers self-publish their games, relying on the Internet and word of mouth for publicity. Without the huge marketing budgets of mainstream publishers, their products almost never get as much recognition or popular acclaim as those of larger publishers such as Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo. However, they are free to explore experimental themes and styles of gameplay that mainstream publishers would not risk their money on.
With the advent of digital distribution of inexpensive games on current game consoles, it is now becoming possible for independent developers to make direct deals with console manufacturers to get wide distribution for their games.
Other independent developers create game software for a number of video game publishers on various gaming platforms. In recent years this model has been in decline, with the larger publishers such as Electronic Arts and Activision increasingly turning to internal studios, usually former independent developers that they have acquired for the majority of their development needs.
Video game development is usually performed in an extremely casual business environment with T-shirts and sandals being common work attire. Many find this type of environment to be rewarding and pleasant, both professionally and personally. However, the industry is also known to require generally high working hours of its employees, sometimes at a level seen as unsustainable and destructive. Employee burnout is not uncommon. (See Crunch time, below).
A typical Game Developer employee based on their profession and level of job experience in 2007 averaged roughly $73,000. Many companies now offer various fringe benefits such as free snacks and beverages and are relaxed about employees taking time out to 'unwind' – sometimes providing video games, ping pong tables and comfortable lounge areas.
In addition to being within the software industry, game development is also within the entertainment industry, and most sectors of the entertainment industry (such as films and television) are generally known to require long working hours and dedication from their employees. The creative rewards of working in the entertainment business attracts labor to the industry, creating a competitive labor market. This demands a high level of commitment and performance from those who wish to remain competitive as employees. Industry communities such as the IGDA, are exhibiting an increasing amount of discussion about the problem and are concerned that current working conditions in the industry are causing significant deterioration of the quality of life of its employees.
Some video game developers, such as Electronic Arts, have been accused of excessive invocation of "crunch time". "Crunch time" is the point at which the team is believed to be failing to achieve the milestones needed to launch the game on time. The increasing complexity of the work flow and the intangibles of artistic and aesthetic demands in video game creation make it difficult to predict accurate milestones.
This comes about because (controversially), most game development engineers and artists in the United States are not paid for their overtime when crunching - ostensibly because they are salaried employees. Salaried employees are classified as "exempt non-hourly-paid professionals". In such cases, most state laws relating to overtime pay do not apply. A notable exception is California where software developers are specifically protected by enforcing a minimum hourly wage (for every hour worked) to be considered exempt. As of 2008, due to the amendment to California Labor Code Section 515.5 by Bill SB 929, this minimum wage of $36/hour works out to be USD $74,880 per year.
Attention to crunching came to something of a head in 2004 when a blog entry titled "ea_spouse", a manifesto of sorts, was published. Railing against the cruelty of crunch time, it was posted by Erin Hoffman, the then-fiancee of Electronic Arts developer Leander Hasty. Hoffman said her life was being indirectly destroyed by the company's work policy. This led to a great deal of debate in the industry, but without any visible changes until March 2005, when Electronic Arts internally announced that it was planning to extend overtime pay to some of its employees not currently eligible. Hasty and Hoffman later joined an independent development studio, 1st Playable Productions, and founded a website oriented towards the discussion of the game development environment industry wide, Gamewatch.
As the age of more senior game developers increases and family responsibilities become more important, many companies are moderating the worst of crunch-time practices in order to attract the most experienced staff.
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