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Does Size Matter: Big vs Small Developers

Originally appeared in "The Games Game" column on IGDA.org. The IGDA website was massively redesigned in 2013, making old columns unavailable, so select columns are now being reposted here on an as-needed basis. This column first appeared in January, 2008

Dear Tom,

I am a college student in a game programming degree who will be graduating in approximately a year, and have begun to start planning for the next step after college. What I am wondering is which type of company would be better to start in: a small independent developer, a larger developer, or whichever I can obtain a position at.

The reason I ask is that there are a number of small independent developers in the area where I live, but no larger developers that I could potentially work for. This means that if I were to try to get a job at a larger developer I would have to relocate.

Thank you,

Matt Pascoe



In this world, there are very few black-and-white answers. If there were, the grocery store would never ask which kind of bag you want your groceries in. They would just give you the "better" kind of bag. If the world was black and white, we wouldn't need two political parties here in the U.S.A. Everybody would know which party was "better," and it would be just silly to have another one.

So I won't be able to tell you which type of company is "better." I can just share some of my thoughts on the matter of small companies versus large companies.

Small developers and large developers are equally good for developing one's skills and work ethic. It often happens that small companies offer more opportunities to experience tasks that one might not get at a larger company. If you're at a large company, you may get "pigeonholed" as someone who mainly does a particular task. Because there are many other people at that large company, when a particular task has to be done, chances are that someone else has already done it, and that person will likely be asked to do that task. But at a smaller company, you might get the chance to do that task if the others also haven't done it, and/or they're busier than you. That new task could be something as exciting as writing voice-over dialogue or scripting a level, or it could be as uninteresting as filling out an ESRB application or FedExing someone else's game pitch. It's all good experience! And I'm not saying you wouldn't get chances to perform interesting tasks at a large company.

"Common wisdom" has it that working at a larger company looks better on the résumé, but that isn't necessarily so. Interviewers are very good at finding out what you did and what projects you worked on. Large companies have failed projects and failed employees, and so do small companies. Hirers care about what you've done. Not what company you worked in (unless they know someone there) or what school you went to (unless they matriculated there).

What's "better" is entirely subjective. While you're hypothetically saving up your money to relocate to where the game companies are, there's no reason why you should work at Burger Boy rather than your local friendly neighborhood small game company. And you might find yourself loving that job too much to ever want to relocate.

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© 2008 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.

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