When I first considered building a game, the amount of hours that it took to fully complete a project was something that has really kept me away from attempting to build anything large scale. However, there are a lot of people that do it, and do it successfully. There are many more that attempt it unsuccessfully.
So, how many hours does a game developer work? Indie game developers are often more casual in the number of hours they invest into their game development projects. It ranges from a few hours per week in hobbyists to 100 hours per week required late in projects for some AAA studios.
Clearly, the range is quite broad. If you hope to be releasing a game with commercial intent, you can expect to put in quite a few hours. However, you will see as we look deeper into the game, smaller games can take a significant effort, but considerably less time than the AAA games that we have grown to love.
How many hours do indie game developers work?
An indie game developer will spend quite a few hours on their projects, even for those that would be considered quite small. For hobbyists, they generally spend evenings working on their projects here and there. As you watch some of the most popular Twitch streamers that do game development live, it is not uncommon for them to spend 3-4 evenings for a few hours each week developing a game.
I believe though to finish a game development project, there is always quite a bit to do. Here are a few things that you often see indie game developers working on:
- Artwork (2D or 3D)
- Sound Design
- Gameplay Programming
- User Interface Design
- Cut scenes
- Debugging and Patches
Some of the items on this list may be outsourced, or in some cases if the project has more than one person working on it, the workload may be split up to help cut the development time down.
For those that have commercial goals for their game and hope to make a profit, they often have to outweigh the balance of continuing a project, or setting deadlines for themselves. This helps ensure a return on investment on their time.
There have been quite a few indie game developers that have quit jobs to go full time in this industry. When they do this, they often work longer hours, particularly as the project comes close to the end. Crunch time is often inevitable for commercial games.
How many hours do AAA game studio employees work?
Video game companies are notorious for working long hours, particularly at the end of projects. This time is known as “crunch time” in the video game development world. As the project is growing closer to the end, developers are crunching weeks worth of work into a few days in an effort to meet the deadlines.
In AAA studios and large software companies, this is regular practice. I have a cousin who worked for Microsoft in the early days. While he made great money and left being quite wealthy, he says that he had a cot in his office. During crunch time it was easier and he could get more rest sleeping in the office than he would driving to and from work daily. It was not uncommon to put in 100 hour work weeks.
From a AAA perspective, Rockstar Games drew attention to their work practices when Dan Houser during an interview with Vulture had mentioned that they have put in 100-hour work weeks as well. This was an effort to get Read Dead Redemption 2 finished.
How many hours does it take to build a small game?
You may think that making a small game means significantly less hours. Perhaps it does if you have a larger team, but most small games are built by small teams or maybe even individuals. The games that I have seen released in the indie scene by individuals have often taken quite a bit of time.
Take Tim Ruswick as an example. The Game Dev Underground himself broke down several numbers from his game, Philephobia (see below). The surprising part is that the game is relatively small by commercial standards. He acknowledges that the game may been built in as short as six months. He had also mentioned that the game could have been released a year prior but he really wanted to release it on Valentines Day.
The math on the hours it would take to build a small game is fairly simple. If the average indie game released on steam is sold for $9.99 or less (which it is), and you know a realistic goal is that you may sell 800 units (this would reasonable with good marketing), then you can probably expect to make about $8,000.
If you wish to make $20 / hour on your time commitment to a project that would sell 800 units, then you can afford to spend 400 hours on a small indie game. As the marketing begins to reflect an increase in the number of units sold, then you can also afford to spend additional time and keep a return on your investment reasonably high.
How many hours does it take to build a large game?
Let’s talk about larger games. One thing I want to preface this with is that the number of hours spent on larger games can vary greatly. The sizes of teams range significantly, but we can look at some of the most popular games out there to get a pretty good idea of just how large these projects really are.
For one of the worst disasters for a gaming studio in recent history, Bethesda released Fallout 76 after about 2 1/2 years of development time. It is said that there was roughly 400 employees that had worked on the game. This means that Fallout 76 used an estimated 2,080,000 man hours to create.
MMOs are notoriously large games to create. It is quite surprising that Blizzard was able to make such an amazing game in World of Warcraft for what was reported to be 40 people. It took Blizzard five years to build World of Warcraft. This means that World of Warcraft used an estimated 416,000 man hours to create. This is a fairly modest number given the large budgets some of these studios spend for development of games in recent years.
The last example is Grand Theft Auto 5. Rockstar Games had 1000 people during development of GTA5 and took three years to complete. This means that Grand Theft Auto 5 used an estimated 6,240,000 man hours to create. It is no wonder that GTA5 is listed as the fifth most expensive game to create of all time.
Ultimately, there is a major discrepancy between the amount of time spent to create small games, or even medium sized indie games when you compare them to the number of hours spent on AAA titles. As well, the number of hours between AAA games can also be drastically different.
If you wish to get into game development, I would highly suggest that you look at just how many hours can be spent on a project before diving in. From a commercial standpoint, there is almost always a limit to the number of man-hours you put in and the number of units sold.