How much game developers earn in South Africa – “Not a smart move if you care about making money”

Game development companies in South Africa have produced several successful titles over the past few years – including the likes of Boet Fighter and VR hit Gorn.

The field encompasses a wide range of job opportunities for game designers, producers, studio heads, lead programmers, and art directors. 

According to Game Industry Career Guide, the United States has the largest game development industry in the world.

Developers in that country can expect to earn an entry-level salary of around $44,000 (R768,000), which could grow to over $120,000 (R2.1 million) for senior or lead programmers.

MyBroadband spoke to two South African game development companies, Nyamakop and Clockwork Acorn, about what aspiring developers should expect to earn in the local industry.

Nyamakop released its debut game, the puzzle platformer Semblance, in 2018.

It became the first African-developed game to launch on any Nintendo console and was rated as the 71st Best PC game of 2018, according to Metacritic’s review score aggregation.

Clockwork Acorn’s major projects include Monsters and Medicine and Jetstream, both of which have received overwhelmingly positive reviews on Steam.

What game developers earn

Below is a summary of rough game developer salaries based on the feedback from these companies:

  • Entry-level (Graduate) – R12,000 – R18,000
  • Software Developer or Engineer moving to game development – Around R25,000

Nyamakop producer Limpho Moeti said starting salaries in game development vary depending on skill and speciality.

“We don’t have a ton of studios hiring juniors locally, so it can be hard to pin down average salaries,” she said.

“For a graduate fresh out of university, you could probably expect anywhere between R12,000 to R18,000 a month to start off with.”

“Worldwide, game developers aren’t paid as highly as those with similar skills in other fields.”

According to Clockwork Acorn developer Francois Van Niekerk, money should not be the main consideration for those looking to design games – either in South Africa or abroad.

“Depending on what you care about in life, it’s potentially not a smart move. If you care about making money, it’s definitely not a smart move,” Van Niekerk warned.

“I would expect nowadays if you’re coming from the software development or engineering side, I would be surprised if it was less than R25,000.”

“Most of my colleagues overseas can earn a factor more if they moved into an adjacent field next week. They could just double their salary or more,” he said.

Like being a musician

Van Niekerk told MyBroadband the potential to make a career purely out of game development in South Africa is low.

“Almost everyone in the industry is either an entrepreneur – they started their own thing – or are part of a very small company,” van Niekerk noted.

“There’s not a lot of people who can afford to take the risks to potentially get into the industry,” he said.

While van Niekerk believes training opportunities in the technical skills required is sufficient, the lack of companies that can provide further learning experiences to graduates is a problem.

“Games tend to be one of the fields that benefits best from a lot of on-the-job learning,” Van Niekerk explained.

Without the necessary investment, there is not enough capacity in the industry to absorb people who have completed their training.

“It’s a bit difficult to invest in for people that expect it to be the same as a tech startup and it’s really not. If you treat it like a tech startup, you’re in for a world of pain,” Van Niekerk said.

He said this was because game development involved much more creative input than other software development.

“People currently still view it too much like engineering or software development, and it’s way more like the music industry,” Van Niekerk said.

He said this was because the chances of a break-out success were similar to that of a musician.

Qualifications

Both Moeti and Van Niekerk said Wits offers a qualification which may be of interest to aspiring game designers.

“Wits has a great game design degree, and this is useful if you want to design games, code, or do art,” Moeti said. 

However, she said the absence of a degree was not a deal-breaker for Nyamakop.

“This is a creative industry, and a passion for games and being proficient with the programs used to make games is more important,” Moeti noted. 

“What is necessary is having a strong portfolio of work in your field of speciality,” she advised. 

Van Niekerk said he would advocate for people to study courses that would be applicable outside of game development.

“Honestly my advice to people is not to come into the game industry. You should only try to get into the industry if you can’t stop yourself,” he said.

He noted there was a wide range of careers which had the potential of breaking into the game industry, but could also provide job security in other areas – including art, design, music and programming.

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How much game developers earn in South Africa – “Not a smart move if you care about making money”