In the wake of the recent Irrational Games studio downsizing, one of my friends in Boston commented that no one was talking about relocation and why it is so common that it is considered necessary to be successful in the games industry. My wife and I have lived in 5 states in the last 14 years (since I joined the game industry); the lead designer at my last gig had it worse: 5 states in 5 years. It is, in fact, so common that for every position above contract work or baseline QA, relocation assistance is considered a standard part of any job offer. I don’t think that I have an answer, but I definitely know the outlines of the problem.
One contributing factor is that the games industry, while growing, is still relatively small and highly specialized. There is game development going on all around the country, but if you want a job (rather than being a hobbyist or starting your own indie project), you need to be somewhere with studios large enough to need people. There are a lot fewer locations where this is happening, and there are a number of places (Boston, Austin) that seem to be shrinking at a remarkable rate. On top of that, if you’re looking for work, the odds that someone is looking for someone like you at that exact time are slimmer the smaller the amount of game development is going on where you’re at. The more specialized you are, the more likely you are to find work by broadening your search to include relocation options.
This is not an absolute rule. I know several people who have spent 10+ years working in games in the Raleigh/Durham area, for example, and scale-wise, the Triangle has nothing on Austin. Nonetheless, working in games is a lot like working in film. There are a few places where there’s a critical mass of work, and if you’re not in one of those places, chances are good you’re going to have to move to do the kind of work you want to do. Again, you can make indie films wherever you like (although ancillary concerns like screening venues, audiences, critical exposure, etc. are still going to be limited), but if you’re looking for work, you either have to go where there is work or go indie. The people I know who have stayed in the same location for a long period of time have had to make other sacrifices (less advancement, less pay, fewer opportunities to work on diverse titles, etc.) in exchange for location stability.
Another force here is that advancement is more difficult within an organization than it is when changing organizations. Particularly in an industry as volatile as the games industry, the people in top positions do not have a lot of incentive to go elsewhere. If you are a Director of Production, for example, at a reasonably large, stable studio, that’s a tough gig to give up. There are not many such positions, and if you actually have a stable environment in a volatile industry, going anywhere else can look pretty scary. So, if you’re working as a senior producer under that Director, you’re going to have to go somewhere else, or outlive the Director. Even at (maybe particularly at) huge operations like Blizzard, advancement can be difficult, because without massive growth or some other form of instability, there just aren’t going to be many openings. Let’s say you’re the VP of Product Development at Blizzard; something is going to have to be extremely tasty to lure you away from what is one of the most desirable roles in the entire industry.
It is also true that people tend to get pegged at a particular level of responsibility. Once you have worked with a group of people for years as, say, a level designer, it’s going to take something exceptional to get them to see you as more than that. It’s not that it can’t be done, but it’s going to take a lot of work, and not just design work, social work, political work. For example, you might need to create a new position (“Lead Level Designer” or “Multiplayer Lead Designer”) in order to show that you’re taking on more responsibility without displacing or discrediting the lead above you. That takes serious cultural capital. How much easier is it to just apply to a Lead Designer role at another studio, using the portfolio of work that you’ve done as evidence that you’re ready to take the next step. Hiring managers love up-and-comers; they’re cheap, relative to experienced talent. But, that other studio also doesn’t have this preconceived notion that you are a level designer first and foremost. Switching gigs, much like switching schools, is an opportunity for self-reinvention.
Finally, in some ways, this is a classic triangle problem (more on this later): fast, cheap, good, pick any two. Applying this to work, you can pick your location, your role, or your industry; if you’re very good, you might be able to pick two; only a rare few get to pick all three. If you want to work in games and you want to be an artist, chances are very good that you’re going to have to go where the work is. If you have hard skills (like programming), you can choose your location and your role, as long as you’re willing to consider working outside of games; the softer the skill-set, though, the harder those transitions can be. Part of the reason I started Better Realities is that I want to live in Colorado (where there isn’t a lot of game development) and still work in games. In order to accomplish that, I’m willing to be flexible about what role I play, what projects I work on, genres, scope, platform, etc. The more specific you are about these things, the more you limit your own options. If you want to work in film, but you’re a cinematographer devoted to living in Billings, Montana, you really shouldn’t be surprised if you’re not inundated with offers.
There has never been more game development going on than there is now. There have never been more opportunities to be a game developer than there are now. But, it’s still a small industry; it’s still highly specialized, highly localized. The more particular you are about location, role, and other details, the more limited your options are going to be. The volatility of the game industry just makes this more visible. The opportunities for other highly specialized fields (like, say, being a tenured professor of Music) are similarly challenging, but you don’t see constant relocation because the jobs themselves are stable. It is possible that the industry will grow out of this, but it is just as likely that, like other entertainment industries (film, TV, theater) if you want to work at the highest levels, you have to survive the instability and go to where the work is. Nobody said it was easy. Relocation expands opportunities. At the end of the day, I think that’s why it’s so common.