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Abstraction Games calls for better programmer pay

Developer and porting expert discusses challenges around attracting and retaining specialist staff

Abstraction Games says it plans to increase the pay of its programmers in an effort to attract more talent from abroad and encourage more coders to join the games industry.

The port specialist, which is now creating its own internal projects, says that expecting programmers to choose the games industry based purely on their passion for the subject is not enough anymore.

"Passion for games is what ultimately motivates folks working in our industry, and employers back in the day benefited from it," explains Abstraction boss Ralph Egas. "And it then became the norm to rely on that. It's time we break the mould and recalibrate, of course without trading in healthy work ethics, atmosphere, fun of working in this industry and so on."

Ralph Egas, Abstraction Games

He continues: "I've been on the other side of the fence [as a programmer] and always felt I was being underpaid even though I had special skills, worked my ass off beyond what was stated in my contract, and generally tried to drive innovation. The argument always was that salaries are lower in our field and there's no way around that. But that shouldn't be the case."

Part of Egas' call for better programmer pay comes from Abstraction's location in The Netherlands. He says generally across Europe pay is lower compared with the US, and that means attracting talent from overseas, and keeping them in this continent, is extra challenging.

"European companies tend to pay - salary, benefits, pension, health care packages, all of that combined - less than US companies, even after cost-of-living conversion," he explains. "We're looking to hire folks from the US, among other places, so we need to accommodate for that.

"Programmers tend to be treated a bit more luxuriously - or should I say: less indifferently - than other folks in the games industry. Whereas QA people have huge turnover, programmers tend to get courted initially and then treated well, especially if it's discovered they're on the cusp of hopping jobs. Still, this is within the limited set of perks that are available throughout Europe. In our company we cherish all resources. This isn't going to change. We do feel programmers ,and generally tech, is at the core of our business. We have a hard time expanding on tech capacity, so therefore increasing the pay of programmers are the first of a series of positive changes we're thinking of making. It's not all about programmers. I'm seriously thinking about progressive moves like four-day weeks instead of 5, for all folks, not just our programmers."

The other challenge the games business face in attracting programmers is not just competing with US wages, but also what's on offer from other industries. Coding systems for Finance and IT companies may not be as exciting as creating Grand Theft Auto, Ark: Surival Evolved or Fortnite, but the money on offer from those businesses is (often) significantly higher. And for older coders with family commitments, pay and financial security is a major factor in choosing a different industry.

"I've had quite a few talented programmers that I've offered jobs to who passed on the opportunity in-order to work for some IT firm on dull database systems."

"I've had quite a few talented programmers that I've offered jobs to - both at Abstraction and at other places I've worked - who passed on the opportunity in-order to work for some IT firm on dull database systems. And that's because such jobs would facilitate a more convenient lifestyle and more freedom to support their families with double the salary. They always said they'd then work on video game technology in their spare time because they loved it so much. So clearly something is off."

Egas says paying programmers a higher wage makes competitive sense, but it's also a good thing to do considering that video games often asks much more from their coders compared with other sectors.

"[Raising the pay] is really about reflecting how important they are to our business," he says. "Programmers in the games industry are structurally paid less than those in other areas while at the same time, more often than not, what we as an industry demand from programmers is quite a fair bit more than in other areas.

"It's not just about the salary, of course. But for other benefits you're largely dependent on the laws in the country of residence, and whether you get punished by tax regulations. The Netherlands is particularly bad at encouraging entrepreneurs and employers in general on many fronts. So for us residing in The Netherlands, there's not a lot of options in terms of what we can offer talent, so that we're able to recognise the hard work that they do."

He concludes: "But ultimately good programmers are scarce. There's a huge demand and we're having a super hard time attracting programmers with the right set of skills and personality. We're not the only ones in this situation. So we as an industry need to make a change, and we as a company are taking the first step."