A Game Dev’s Guide to Working Abroad

“I won’t move for any less than 5000 Euros a month”, the programmer told me in a very convinced tone. He had a bit less than 2 years of working experience as a game developer in Romania, and he was interviewing for a job in Sweden, where your average Svensson makes about 33000 SEK a month before tax – that’s about 3600 Euro (4000 USD) for someone at least half way in his working life. This means you get about 25000 SEK in your bank account at the end of the month, which is about 2700 Euro (3000 USD). So the Romanian programmer was a bit off with his demands; suffice to say he did not get the job.

Having high demands is something admirable, but not knowing your value, or what and why you ask for, is not. Which is why I feel it’s necessary to talk a little bit about jobs in the video games industry, quite renowned for its international environment and frequent (and sometimes undesired) job mobility. We know about bankruptcies, about horrible layoffs and about game developers moving all around the globe to pursue their passion. Most of the stories that surface, though, are from the US, where it’s relatively common to move from state to state in case you find yourself without a job.

But what about Europe? And other parts of the world? And how do you go about planning your next move, literally? Most importantly, how do you know how to quantify your value, which is perceived differently from country to country, so you can ask a proper and fair salary?

A few universal tips

We lived & moved in a few European countries (Romania, Italy, Sweden, to be precise) to make games, and learned several general tips the hard way. This is not game dev related, it’s pretty universal, but it didn’t occur to me to think about it until I was faced with these situations.

  • Salaries are negotiated differently from country to country. In Romania, it is common to negotiate the net monthly salary, which is the actual amount of money you take home at the end of the month, so you never really care or even know much about taxes. In Italy, the offer is presented in yearly income before tax, so in order to realise how much money you end up having in hand every month, you need to subtract tax and divide by 12. In Sweden, you always talk monthly salary before tax. I am sure that there are many other ways that are common in different countries. If you factor in the currency conversion and various tax levels (in our case, we had to bend our mind to calculate in RON, EURO and SEK), this becomes pretty complicated so how you negotiate your salary is a very important topic to research before you move on with a job offer.  When it comes to tax, it’s very easy to make assumptions (OMG tax levels are super high in the Nordic countries), but if you compare them and especially if you take the benefits into account, reality might differ drastically. Don’t assume, research!
  • Contracts differ from country to country, and state bureaucracy might put you in strange situations. Some countries have strong employment laws, others, no so much, and this really is something vital to research. For example Italy – as well as France and Spain from what I hear from my friends – have an uncanny way to hire people on a contract basis, which generally grants very little job safety, and very scary situations should you end up without a job – you have no unemployment protection whatsoever. So you should think of a correlation between the risk of your contract and the level of pay – the riskier the offer, the higher the compensation. You must also read the contract carefully, as many offer fewer benefits, but the employers expect everyone to behave as if they were regularly employed (ie to request holiday even though the contract clearly states you don’t have to, as long as you provide the results stated, or to perform unpaid overtime because you are compared to regular employees who function under different rules).
  • Benefits differ from country to country, such as pension, health insurance, tax deductions for commuting, overtime rules and payment, and the list goes on. Some might be automatic and provided by state, while others might require your action. I am not trying to judge what is good or bad, just to point out that you need to be aware of all these different topics before you make a demand or, worse, end up in a bad situation because you did not do enough research (as I did). For example, in Sweden it is common to have income insurance, called a-kassa, but we did not know about this until quite late.
  • Life in general differs from country to country. But you can always find pretty accurate cost of living calculators.

You can never research enough, and your research can only bring you closer to the reality of that country, but don’t expect a precise match. As a side note, the quality of statistics differ from country to country and in Sweden, you can easily calculate your cost of living down to SEK if you really want to, whereas in other countries (such as Romania or Italy) you have little chance of that. Just remember that knowledge is power for you, ignorance is power… for others 😉

International game development salary resources

There are several resources I encourage everyone to study and support. Remember that an accurate statistic is one where a lot of people participate, so always take the time to fill in game dev surveys, especially those advertised by Gamasutra or other big industry websites. If you worry about your situation, rest assured that most surveys are anonymous, though I would argue that companies that disallow you to be honest about your income might have additional, sometimes bad reasons to do so (aka they probably underpay you, and prefer you to stay ignorant) (note that I said MIGHT; there are also valid reasons for salary confidentiality, so use your judgement).

Here are a few annual reports you should always read and, I hope, participate in:

  • Gamasutra’s dedicated salary survey page, featuring many shiny reports which, as of late, even include an indie section. The same report is always published in the Game Career Guide magazine, which is in general a great resource no matter what your gamedev interests are. Gamasutra runs a yearly game dev salary survey, which I always participate in and spread. Lately they started to include reports about indie earnings, too.
  • Develop also run their own surveys, and they are more focused on the European – specifically UK – market.

Do you know of any other good gamedev reports and surveys? Please tell me! 

There are also quite a few websites, such as PayScale or Glasdoor, who offer salary statistics and comparisons which can help your research. Many local job search websites offer such insights, too, but in general game development is not as well documented as software development

Other More or Less Practical Tips

Some countries are simply better than others when it comes to providing information, and the rule applies to game development as well, with a mention: game developers are generally a very helpful, social bunch. So… reach out and ask! You might just get an answer.

You can also research the company you want to apply on on LinkedIn. Most have a company page that shows how many of their employees are listed on LinkedIn. You can then research their names and find their social network activity. My personal rule of thumb is that happy people tend to be outgoing and helpful so when I browse someone’s Twitter activity, I make an assessment on how helpful the feed is, how nice the tone, and if we could be friends from a moral values perspective. How do you value your contacts?

It goes without saying that you should research the company you consider applying for. Their website, web presence, consumer conduct (do they reply to their fan base on forums, Steam, social networks?), and – of course – games quality should speak volumes about themselves. My personal take is that you should aim to develop the games you’d rather play, because it makes the job easier, but any job comes with many lessons to learn.

You can also research the studio you aim for on Glassdoor, a site which aggregates employee feedback. Take everything with a grain of salt though; seems to me that many people tend to be overly negative.

An important topic to think about is the necessities of living well in your chosen new country. Do you need to know the language? If you do, is there state offered education, does the company provide lessons – how do you go about learning? Keep in mind that, while it’s a common assumption that all game developers speak English, it’s not always true, especially in a day to day, working environment.

Language is the easiest way to crack the cultural barrier, but even if you do know it decently well, that’s just step one in creating a good way to really understand your colleagues and make yourself understood. Do not underestimate cultural differences! And especially if English is not your first language, sometimes it’s better to use it for business reasons for the sake of clarity, rather than misunderstand important details and nuances in another foreign language.

Oh and make sure you talk to your employer before you move regarding their assistance in finding a place to live and simply learning to get by. From buying unwanted food by mistake to pondering possible homelessness, there are myriad of things that can go wrong because you are new, and you will need assistance. Make sure you’ll get it, and how.

You must be financially prepared when you move. For example, in Italy you need to pay 3 rents in advance, and that’s A LOT of money. In Sweden, you spend time in a rental queue system, and it can take years. It’s a complicated system to understand, and housing in general is a big problem here. It’s important to understand what rent includes, and what additional bills you have to pay (for example, you almost never pay for warming in Sweden, but you pay for that a lot in Italy).

Some of My (Funny) Stories

It took me over 2 years in Sweden to finally find the sour cream I was used to. Took me about half a year to find what I call “normal” bread (without sugar; there is a lot of bread with sugar in Sweden). We once spent about 2 hours in a supermarket trying to explain that we are seeking manna-croup (is that the right word in English??! We just wanted to make That Traditional Romanian Soup everyone should know about ;)).

I speak Italian, but sourly regretted my choice to use it as business language at work, because I set incorrect expectations and placed myself in situations that I couldn’t even realise I do not grasp. Its very good to use the native language, but when unsure, just summarize the conversation and conclusions, in English.

During winter holidays, in Sweden it’s traditional to drink glögg. But no one tells you that it has to be consumed warm, otherwise it tastes like a bad liquid soap. My friends still laugh at this story. If you want to try the traditions, ask how to do it, first!

Yo should never go against Italian cuisine rule publicly. You simply don’t put grated cheese on fried potatoes, or combine parmiggiano with sea food, or a thousand other rules. If you must, do it in private. Secretly.

I am always interested to learn about other gamedev expat stories!

 

A final tip, probably quite personal, is this: openness and a positive attitude goes a long way. Kindness can disarm even the most aggressive conversations. If you remember to think about cultural barriers, and take that extra step to ensure clarity in conversation, this can go a long, long way. It’s a hard attitude to put in practice, but it gets better the more you use it. Besides, anyone would rather have happy people around, and happiness catches around; you might just lighten someone’s day, and that’s a nice thing to do in itself.