“How do you break into the video game business?” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that most oft asked question of game developers, let’s just say I’d be piloting a diamond-encrusted jetpack to the studio. It feels like ages ago when I sought the same answer. But it wasn’t until I bullied my way into my first paying gig that I realized there are countless ways to break in to the game industry. You just need to understand your options and focus on your strengths. So whether you’re a high school graduate evaluating college programs, or a working adult considering a mid-life career switch, you should educate yourself on the benefits and challenges of making games for a living. By the end of this first article installment, you should have a basic understanding of what’s out there in terms of jobs and opportunities, along with some suggestions on how to map your path to employment.
The first step on your journey is to answer some basic questions. Above all else, be honest. Provided you’re not dissuaded by some of the harsh realities of the business (no, we don’t just play games all day and get paid for it) you should have a clearer path toward achieving your goal of employment.
What Job Do I Want?
Your answer likely depends on your current (or desired) skill set, as well as the feasibility of positioning yourself competitively against your peers. You should also know your career options, so let’s discuss some of the most common ones by identifying the major divisions of labor.
The body of a typical game development studio is broken into four functional parts: business, art, programming, and design. Each discipline is then further divided into specialized tasks depending on the scope of the project. Some of the most common jobs are listed below for reference, and are in no particular order. Titles and responsibilities will vary from company to company; the lists are by no means exhaustive.
Executives function as the brain of a company. They keep the lights on, the employees paid, the litigators at bay, and the teams productive. These positions have arguably the most crossover with non-game development ones. It’s entirely possible to transition from an outside career to a position at a studio with little additional training. If you’re a business professional and also knowledgeable about games and their development, such a career at a studio or publisher might appeal to you.
- Marketing – promoting the game to prospective buyers and existing fans; managing community relations
- Legal – representing the studio for all legal concerns
- Human Resources – hiring talent; managing employee benefits
- Operations – managing the studio’s general “health” and production
- Localization – handling text and voice-over translation for non-native markets
- Quality Assurance – testing game system integrity for bugs; providing usability feedback
- Production – producers are often embedded in each development department, and are tasked with identifying goals, adhering to schedules, and solving blocking issues
Artists are the eyes of a company. They are essentially responsible for a game’s visuals. Art positions range from concept artist or digital painter to character modeler, animator, prop artist, effects artist, and more. Artists must constantly balance technical restrictions with stylistic solutions to ensure a game has a unique look and performs well on target hardware. As game and film production continue to converge, you’ll find more crossover between the two industries.
- 2D Artist – texturing game assets; designing the look of user interfaces; graphic design on print products and Internet sites
- 3D Artist – modeling objects and characters based on concept sketches
- Animator – animating modeled objects; motion capture; cinematics production
- Effects Artist – creating effects like smoke, fire, wind, and particles
- Concept Artist – working with designers to determine the general look and feel of the game world from environments to characters
- Level Artist – building or editing of environments; placing props; lighting areas; optimizing visual performance
Programmers are often thought of as the spine of game development. Without them, we’d have no content creation tools, rendering engines, or core gameplay systems with which to build our digital worlds. Game programming is technically challenging work, which is why talented coders are often the most sought-after applicants. Depending on your current skills and your aptitude for learning new programming and scripting languages, you might be able to transition from an outside industry with targeted code samples and a solid understanding of the specific discipline.
- Engine Programmer – developing core technologies that handle graphics rendering, artificial intelligence, animation processing, sound playback, and more
- Tools Programmer – architecting and developing of content creation applications for artists, designers, and quality assurance testers
- Content Programmer – implementing content created by designers and artists
- Web Programmer – developing front- and back-end systems for game and company websites
Designers are the hands of the company. They craft a tangible experience that includes story, characters, rule systems, combat, and interactions with the game world. The responsibilities and influence of a talented game designer are many, which is why it is a popular career choice. It’s common for a designer to wear many hats and contribute across related disciplines.
- Systems Designer – designing and implementing core game systems including combat, movement, object interaction, items, and economy
- Content Designer – creating and implementing scenarios that utilize the core systems while also tying in with story
- World Designer – creating and evolving lore, story arcs, main characters, and cinematic dialogue
- Writer – writing and editing of spoken dialogue scripts, cinematics, conversation trees, user interface text, and more
- Level Designer – building of game environments with an eye toward gameplay and pathing
How Hard Am I Willing to Work?
Developing games is a business, and therefore work is involved. (Shocking!) Studio culture varies from place to place, but it’s fair to say that game development is commonly less about a 9-to-5 schedule and more about flexibility—namely you adapting to a flexible schedule based on production milestones, deliverables, and other criteria. Depending on variables too numerous for this article, you may find yourself working long hours to meet a deadline, be it for shipping a finished product, polishing a demo for a trade show, or implementing a critical feature for review. Some studios embrace a work schedule in excess of 40 hours per week, whereas others adhere to a strict 40-hour rule to prevent “burnout.” Either way, you should be aware that game development is physically and emotionally taxing at times, and sometimes requires you to put in extra time and effort. Whether or not you agree with a company’s practices will ultimately result in your happiness and satisfaction, so be brutally honest with yourself when answering this question.
Do I Play Well With Others?
We’re not talking about team deathmatch, but about the ability to collaborate. Game development—especially on large teams—is frequently about establishing common ground on which to build everything from an art style and story to game mechanics and a technology infrastructure. You have to be willing to discuss and debate your decisions with your peers. If you’re the kind of person who refuses to compromise, you could easily alienate yourself to the point of ineffectiveness.
Of course that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stick to your guns and that you should design everything by committee. The key here is finding a balance. Pick your battles, stand up for what matters most to you, and be willing to negotiate on everything else. If you can’t do that then you might not last in game development (or in any collaborative environment, for that matter).
Should I Get a Specialized Game Development Degree, or Go for Something with Broader Applications?
That’s completely up to you. Game companies often hire new graduates of specialized schools like DigiPen, Full Sail, and the Guildhall at SMU because of their portfolio, but a degree from such a program doesn’t guarantee employment and it can limit you to a single industry. On the flip side, a more general education from a public or private university can provide you with more career options—at the possible expense of being less competitive for game jobs. A passion for games and a solid portfolio can make or break your chances at landing a job, though, so regardless what school you attend you’ll need to put your best work online for people to evaluate.
It’s worth mentioning that some jobs don’t require a degree or certificate of any kind for entry-level spots, and some companies even finance continuing education for their employees. Ultimately, you should do what’s right for you, but if you can afford a relevant education past high school it should give you more career options later in life.
I’m Successful in My Current Career, But Would Like to Work in the Game Industry. Should I Quit My Job and Go Back to School?
Unless you’re independently wealthy and can afford a high-priced education coupled with long stretches of unemployment, I wouldn’t recommend it. I say this from experience because I’m on my third (and hopefully last) career switch, which gets harder with each birthday. Radical shifts into unrelated fields often mean you have to start from the bottom, and if you’re like most people you have a lifestyle that requires a set income. Instead, find a way to learn a desired craft at your own pace. You may discover talents you never had, or find out that you’re not cut out for a life of game making.
There are scores of freely available game development tools that you can tinker with, ranging from full-blown content creation suites and modification tools like the Unreal Development Kit, The Elder Scrolls Construction Set, and the Garden of Eden Creation Kit to low-cost engines for independent commercial game development like Torque. Developers and users of these technology solutions often post tutorials and manuals online, and discuss their ideas and issues on public forums. Poke around these communities and find one that suits you. Converse with other hobbyists and industry professionals who can answer your questions. Stick with it long enough to build a portfolio or release a game modification. If you’re still energized to work in the field, you’ll have something to show for all your hard work—all without sacrificing your current income (but at the expense of your free time).
Choosing a career path is a serious and personal decision, and there are additional things to consider like relocation, compensation, and upward mobility. We’ll save those topics for the next article. In the meantime, you should have plenty to think about.