So, You Want to Make Games?

Some of you folks around here are gunning for the chance to make games for a living. Being able to make money while doing something you are passionate about is always going to be a smart move. Right now, gaming is booming, many people want to give it a whirl, many people are going to school and doing what they think they need to do to get the job that have worked hard to get. This is not industry specific stuff of course, grab any sector and it’s the same. So why is there still such a lack of information regarding game industry jobs?

Let’s consider that making games has only really been a viable job route for about 30 years. You could say that games were around before that, but in the last 30 years is when it was really something that could be considered professional to an extent.

Now, in those 30 years, so much has changed. And although 30 years can seem like a long time, for a profession it’s still far off any level of maturity.

The last 10 years has been something that just spun out of control. Not only did the industry grow in popularity, it also evolved successfully and far quicker than it had before. Each evolution expanded the already growing consumer base. Companies were trying to cope with the demand, and make sure they didn’t get left behind. This growth though, set out some fairly archaic internal structures, booming on the outside, but picking up pieces on the inside.

This does not mean that all companies were in pieces. Many still functioned well enough. But there was an influx of ‘talent’ at C level who where experienced with handling these kind of numbers that games were bringing in, but had little knowledge of what it actually takes to make a game. There were also people on the flip side, which knew how to make games, but didn’t know how to really run a business. Passion only gets you so far. It was mixed up, messed together and there hasn’t been any solid uniform structure put in place. Sure, you could question this logic as these companies are still making money – where could the problem be? But you could also ask why you don’t know really that much about what gets done at these companies, and how games are made. People who have masses of enthusiasm for the medium don’t even have that clear a picture on how stuff is done. Even learning about it in school doesn’t shed a lot of light on it. But why is this?

Gaming is in a current stage of ‘wingin’ it’. How else do these companies know what to do, when they have to jump onto a trend that was not there 8 months ago? It’s impressive in how flexible it is, but this ever changing state doesn’t do a lot to solidify the foundations.

Right now, there are thousands of people in college working on their degrees. They’re looking to get a game design/development degree and some for the purpose of actually using it to get a job. Now sure, there are some disciplines that don’t need to bend too much based on the climate. Programming languages stay around a bit, and people using art tools (the right ones) can be in an okay position too. But, the industry state that you enter college is different from the industry state when you leave college. How applicable is what you learned? Well, not very when you look at the job advertisements.

So, as good as the ever evolving climate can be, it’s not so good for those that want to build up some practical knowledge and ready themselves for employment. There are some basic principles that are always applicable, but does this guarantee a guy or gal a job? I think there are enough fresh graduates out there right now that can answer that.

In the next few years, and even beyond that, there is going to be a huge influx of ‘qualified’ people looking for a job in and industry, that frankly doesn’t have any system in place to employ them. More senior staff will be promoted to positions less development orientated and most vacant slots that appear at companies due to this progression will be open for senior staff only, or staff with a certain level of experience.

Another problem to layer on top of this is the inconsistencies in regards to the job roles. Were one company’s Producer, is another ones Project Manager or Director. Or where a company has all three and specifies who does what. There are some vague outlines, but the duties are not as defined as they should be. What does a Designer do? Is there really a ‘Designer’ or is there a subset, Level, Environment, Scenario, Principle etc… When in school, do you learn how to be a Designer? Is all of this covered? Do you actually know what you are studying for?

There are some companies that do have intern programs. They will bring in juniors, but unfortunately this is not really as ‘charitable’ as it may seem. It’s often a way that companies look to cut costs in salaries by hiring lower paid juniors. And with this kind of mentality, the prospects for someone stepping into one of these roles aren’t particularly good.

Some people will mention that mods will get you a job. This isn’t always going to be true. In fact, you’ll only get a job if the people employing you actually pay attention to mods themselves. Some do not; some will not care or have any idea on how much work you did. This isn’t a guaranteed entry, but it is at least a practical attempt. But keep in mind that the HR and hiring managers are not always the same people who have been playing your mod.

How about coming from QA? Everyone says that. After so many years, getting your foot in the door from QA is not the best advice to give. And that’s a good, thing; it should not be the only way to get a job making games. QA is now mostly outsourced, so your only chance of getting a job via the QA route is to work for 1st Party QA. And even then, there is certainly no guarantee that you will have any career path available to you.

So what’s next? My mods won’t get me a job, QA is a low chance, and loads of people are fighting for the same intern or junior roles. Can a person actually get a job making games?

Fortunately, it’s never been easier to make and release a game. So the best way to make games, is well, to make games. Your skill set that you build up in college can be applied in the way that suits you best. Colleges are still figuring out the best ways to teach game development, but it does allow you to develop a fullish toolset, although it won’t be massively deep to start with. But this isn’t a great option for people who need cash now, who have things that need to be paid for. So what can be done?

Unfortunately, there’s no perfect solution. The industry just isn’t working well enough to accept new developers, and frankly, it isn’t trying to change hard enough to change that. But there are options available to try and fine tune your skills. There are some tips you can use;

- Get started now; the gaming climate is ever evolving, so don’t play catch up and don’t wait for it to change again

- Learn how to program at least little, it’s an independence that can be invaluable and it can open the door a little easier than any other qualification that is game related

- Be prepared to travel; there aren’t many companies, so you need to know right now that you will not work in a convenient spot, you will have to move to get a job

- Be professional; as much as you want to make games, remember that it is a job and it is seen as a job by those who will employ you, so make sure you are not exploited and you take it seriously

- Get to know people; go to conventions and conferences, meet people and chat, make a business card just so you have something to pass around

- Try QA if its available; although you won’t really be able to progress through QA, it can help you get to know people and it can help you build up some other skills and knowledge

- Stay optimistic; the economy is bad, it’s hard to get jobs anywhere, but you just have to keep trying

- Contact directly; don’t always go the route of the middle man, contact a company directly, go to the company websites and look for opportunities. Sometimes they won’t even advertise. Send an email, give a call

Well, there you go. I’ve kept it brief, but I hope there is at least a little information there to help people. I’m no veteran, but I have been in this sector for around 6 ½ -7 years now, and have worked for small and large companies, and released games across a wide variety of platforms too, so I know a little at least.

If there are any questions, just fire away and let me know. I may not have all of the answers but I’ll give it a shot. And who knows, perhaps someone with a little more knowledge will be able to give you the information that you need.

Oh, and for those looking at choosing art, this is a great link to loads of ace information: http://www.cybergooch.com/tutorials/pages/gamejob/getting_a_games_art_job.htm

I haven’t seen anything as valid yet for other positions, but I’ll be keeping an eye out.