How long can game developmentâ??s cult of youth last?

They shoot horses donâ??t they?

Nearly all human life was represented on the cover of last month’s Develop, which portrayed 200 development staff from Ubisoft Montreal.

There’s the moody existential guy who is surely a character artist. A bald guy who perhaps handles networking code. An array of uncertain smiles of designers keen to be understood. A charismatic guy in a beanie – perhaps he does the website? And a suspiciously populous knot of women in the foreground.

Actually, I visited Ubisoft Montreal in the 1990s, and even then there were far more women in its game teams than at any other studio I had visited. If Ubisoft is still bringing more women into the games industry, then that’s good going.

However, there is one key demographic that even Ubisoft excludes, going on what can be seen in that picture. Look more carefully. What don’t you see? Grey hairs. Wrinkles. Walking sticks. Old people.

The only obvious difference between that snapshot and the memories of my visit in the ‘90s are the clothes. The workforce looks pretty much the same. Game development is generally dominated by young people, and always has been.

In my teens I read about the Darling Brothers buying Ferraris while the ink was still wet on their driving licenses. That made sense: 8-bit games were written in bedrooms, and teenage boys were renowned for spending inordinate time there. Making games was a good fit.

It also made sense ten years later when I visited studios for Edge. The garage start-ups of the ‘80s were now located in industrial parks, the bedroom coders squeezed into loft-style offices, and the staff were in their twenties. Enduring the deprivations of game development for the chance of a big win, the industry was still a young person’s game in the era of the PlayStation.

But things have surely changed. Young people might be best suited to risk self-publishing iPhone games or going it alone with browser-based fare, but multi-million dollar blockbuster game development has been thoroughly corporate-ised. And while you’ve got no chance of making a life-changing fortune working for EA or Ubisoft, you might just get a pension.

Given that game development has matured into a big business, why hasn’t the workforce grown-up too?

Zoe Mode’s general manager, Ed Daly, explored this at Develop in Brighton. In a talk entitled ‘Are You Going to Retire as a Game Developer?’, he asked: “Do you see yourself modelling space marines and debugging renderers at 60? If not, when will you stop and what will you do next?”

The ensuing debate was fascinating, and suggested many facets to game development’s cult of youth.

I asked Ed Daly why he now thought so many developers were young. “Because we are the first generation of game developers, and because we are, on the whole, alive-and-kicking. It naturally follows that the average age of a developer is young,” Ed said. “How many retired developers do you know?”

Ed also shared some interesting figures about the company. He informed me that the average age of Zoe Mode’s 155 staff is 30, of whom ‘juniors’ are an average age of 25, while ‘seniors’ are on average 36.

“As well as being young, most staff reach the pinnacle of their careers after ten years, at least in terms of job titles and responsibility,” Ed reflected. “By accelerating the pace of career development, we leave people with perhaps 30 years in the same position before they retire.”

He pointed out another ramification of fast-track career paths: front-loaded salary scales that leave less room for manoeuvre later on.

“It gets complicated and I could go on,” he said, concluding that: “At some point we need to figure out how lifelong careers should work.”

Ed’s one of the few senior developers who has aired this issue and his insights are very pertinent. But I don’t entirely agree that the industry itself is still young. As I said, I visited studios nearly 15 years ago packed with 20 and 30-somethings. By now they should be in, or nearing, their 40s – but where are they?

Perhaps the cliché of developers not getting enough sunlight has kept their skin young – or maybe they’ve left the industry. Next month I’ll suggest reasons why.

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