I’ve spent most of my career working closely with artists, and they were usually paid less than me. At first this was just awkward, but I began to realize it was part of a deeper problem. Most business owners didn’t understand what artists were even adding to the product, and the pay was just a symptom of the lack of respect they had for their contributions. I remember at my last game industry job the owner began replacing experienced 3D artists with high-school graduates being paid a third of their salaries.
I’m a capitalist, red in tooth and claw, so why did I have a problem with that? At that point, I’d spent six years at the coal face of a creative industry, and I knew how much those people contributed to a successful product. The trouble was it was often in subtle ways that were crucial but easy to miss. In the short term you could easily continue producing sequels, recycling assets and ideas, but it wasn’t sustainable. It was a great way of cutting costs, but you ended up with a boring product that was indistingushable from the competition, which meant a lot lower profits over time. If you don’t value the craft of experienced creative people, you’ll never get a hit, and that’s where you really make money.
I learned to find places that valued artists, not just because they were better places to work, but because I thought they had a much higher chance of success. I was never an Apple user before I was asked to join the company back in 2003, and my biggest concern was that they were about to go bust(!), but I was attracted by their reputation. I wasn’t disappointed, the designers were very definitely in charge! Dedication to the intangible details of products was the core of Apple’s success, and that meant valuing artists. It wasn’t always easy, it was a challenging pressure-cooker environment for a lot of my friends, but the importance of what they were doing was never in doubt. I always believed Steve would happily ship off the software engineering side to the other side of the world if he could, but the designers were the company.
That’s why I’m sad when I see industries throw away the talent that made them great. The Visual Effects Oscar speech was cut off when the winner started to mention the bankruptcy of Rhythm and Hues, the team that was behind a lot of the shots that won the award (and where several of my friends work). It’s the latest casualty of a wave of VFX closures, and a sign that film industry bosses think they can get away with cheaper, less-experienced artists, and audiences won’t notice the difference. It’s like Detroit in the 70’s, they have enough momentum that it will take a while for the problem to be noticeable, but by the time it’s obvious, the talent will have disappeared. Fit and finish matters, and when capital-intensive industries like cars, film or games forget that, disaster looms. A free market will eventually correct the problem, but only after a lot of money has been wasted, and a lot of people have gone through hell.
Learn from Apple’s success; valuing artists makes you money!