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$330,000 to $1.8 million? Video game workers question public salary ranges.

The video game industry has a big footprint in California. A new pay transparency law in the state has raised as many questions as answers.

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)
6 min

As California becomes the latest state to enforce pay transparency law, video game companies in the state are sharing salary information in job postings. But some of the newly available salary information includes wide pay ranges for positions — with some spanning six figures. The revelations have raised questions among game developers and other industry stakeholders: Chiefly, how and why can one role offer such dramatically different salaries?

As of Jan. 1, companies in California with more than 15 employees are required to provide salary ranges in job listings and make that information available to existing employees as well. Companies could face fines of $100 per employee if they fail to comply. Washington, New York and Colorado have enacted similar pay transparency measures.

The video game industry enjoys a meaningful footprint in California, supporting over 200,000 jobs in the state, from development work to hardware manufacturing and supplying, according to a 2020 study by the Entertainment Software Association, a video game trade organization. California employs over 17 million people in total, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Video games are viewed by some as recession-proof — people will always seek home entertainment, the logic goes — and the industry benefited from a boost in attention and revenue at the start of the pandemic.

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Some of the newly available listings show very large salary ranges. An open role for a California-based senior designer for Electronic Arts’ “Apex Legends” has a range of $90,550 to $137,700, with EA’s listing noting that ranges are based on location, as well as other factors. EA declined to comment.

A senior game designer at Riot could make between $136,000 and $190,000, and a director-level head of insights for Riot esports could earn between $207,000 and $311,000. A senior game engineer at Blizzard could earn between $101,000 and $186,754, and a lead game designer on Blizzard’s “Diablo IV” could earn between $97,200 and $179,900.

Netflix’s gaming studio posted that a senior games producer could earn anywhere from $50,000 to $600,000, while a gaming director of engineering could make $330,000 to $1.8 million. Ranges of that breadth caused some to wonder if studios were intentionally keeping salary information vague. Netflix did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The new law going into effect in California sheds more light on how companies compensate employees relative to one another. For instance, some game developers on Twitter found that Riot appeared to pay quality assurance testers more than Activision Blizzard, and speculated that the difference could be a reason they had witnessed employees leave companies like Blizzard for Riot. According to listings, a quality assurance tester at Blizzard could make $49,600 annually, compared to a tester at Riot, who could make roughly $98,000.

Activision Blizzard spokesman Rich George told The Washington Post in a statement: “All U.S. job postings on our Careers website include the national pay range for the role. We’re doing this to represent the full range of salaries that we would expect to pay across the different labor markets in the U.S., given the geographic flexibility of many of our roles, and in order to expand our transparency nationwide and not just to the states required.”

Joe Hixson, a spokesman for Riot Games, explained that Riot had “relatively few job levels,” and that the salary ranges the company was posting online were not different from what current employees are earning.

“Within those levels, there are three levels of competency (learning, proficient, advanced), and so we’d expect that someone in the learning group would be compensated pretty differently from someone who is advanced,” Hixson said. “We want people to have good opportunities for compensation growth even if they aren’t quite ready for promotion.”

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Pay transparency is viewed as a useful measure to reduce pay gaps between workers and across industries. Economic data from 2022 shared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows gender and racial pay gaps persist: White women earned approximately 17 percent less than White men; Black and Hispanic workers earned less than their White and Asian counterparts.

One game developer tweeted that the wide salary discrepancies could be reflective of how a job posting encompasses multiple potential roles. A senior role could represent an employee who worked at the job for more than three years, receiving raises but not promotions, resulting in the large pay range.

“The industry can barely agree at all on what a ‘producer’ does, let alone a Producer I versus a Producer II,” Javiera Cordero, an operations manager in the games industry, told The Washington Post. “Bravo on these companies for putting ranges on these job descriptions, but also, like, they only get a crudely drawn star on an old, reused sticker because they only did so because legislation forced them to.”

For job searchers, broad and vague pay information may obscure how much money they should negotiate for and can expect to earn. Wide salary ranges were also seen when New York’s transparency law went into effect.

Brandon J. Huffman, founding attorney at Odin Law and Media, said California’s wide salary ranges were not necessarily an attempt to skirt the pay transparency laws, though in his opinion, he didn’t “love the practice of using wide ranges.”

“With remote and hybrid work more common, salaries may vary with flexibility, location,” Huffman said. “A technical worker with more directly relevant experience will be paid more than someone with less. A wide range may encompass all variables, and may truly be what the employer ‘reasonably expects’ to pay while casting a wide net for which applicants they’ll accept.”

If wide salary ranges in a listing appear unfair, lawyers say that workers do have recourse.

“Workers who encounter overly broad and unrealistic pay bands in job postings should consider bringing this practice to the attention of the California Labor Commissioner by filing complaints, which could, in turn, help clarify employers’ obligations under the law,” said Pawanpreet Dhaliwal, an attorney at employment law firm Outten & Golden LLP.