Mailbag do I get to work in games?

Since I started talking about MMOs and gaming in general on this blog I started getting questions and the occasional mail from folk curious about life behind the scenes. Those of us who work in games are seen to be in a very fortuitous position. It must be so cool to get to make games for a living right?

The good news is that it is indeed a very fun and usually exciting job, that can give a lot of satisfaction when people enjoy the games you put your blood, sweat and tears into creating...but it is also a job. It is a lot of hard work, is often stressful, frustrating and demanding as any job can be. I wouldn't swap it for anything though...

...and that leads to the questions. Given quite a few people have asked I thought it was worth getting round to answering on here (I usually do answer the mails as well, but since people keep asking I figured it was worth a post).

I love playing games, I think that means I'll be a great game designer, how do I start?

It might, it might not. Just because you love playing games, or are really good at them, doesn't mean you will necessarily have what it takes to make games.

Playing games is one thing, understanding how they are put together and being able to dissect and comprehend how all the elements of design come together is not something that everyone will have. I have interviewed many people over the last few years who clearly loved gaming, and were very knowledgeable about games, but by the same token weren't able to demonstrate any real critical thought as to how they were put together.

If you are the type of person who comes across something inconsistent, strange or seemingly misplaced when you are playing a game and thinks 'The guys who made this must be morons' you probably might not have the right frame of mind...if you think 'I wonder why they did that?' or 'I wouldn't have done it that way'...and more importantly know why you think that, then you might just be on to something.

If you are passionate about games and want to see if you have what it takes you should give it a go as a hobbyist first. Try your hand at something like Game Maker or see if you can get involved with any of the multitude of amateur mod teams out there. They are usually grateful for dedicated volunteers and it is a great first step to seeing if you can get to grips with the creation of a game.

Even something simple in a tool like Game Maker starts to give you some insight into how much thought goes into creating something.

One of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, has a simple piece of advice for those that ask him how to become a writer:

If you want to be a writer, write. You may have to get a day job to keep body and soul together (I cheated, and got a writing job, or lots of them, to feed me and pay the rent). If you aren't going to be a writer, then go and be something else. It's not a god-given calling. There's nothing holy or magic about it. It's a craft that mostly involves a lot of work, most of it spent sitting making stuff up and writing it down, and trying to make what you have made up and written down somehow better.
[link] The whole article is worth reading if you are interested
I tend to take the same view of making games. I you want to try and become a game designer then design some games. It doesn't have to be a professional large scale game to teach you whether you might have a talent for it or not...

It is great to have the dream to make games, I am never one to tell people to not follow their dreams, but the best avenue for those ambitions is to give it a go and see if you truly do have what it takes to understand the components that go into creating games.

Playing games is one thing...making them is another beats entirely...

How do I get a job in the actual gaming industry?

There are many ways, and it mostly depends on the type of job you are looking for. Some require technical backgrounds, as is the case with coders and technical artists. That's not really something I can advise on. Those specialist roles require specific knowledge and if you don't have it then it is unlikely that you will be able to land one of those roles.

If you have the knowledge but lack the experience never be afraid to apply. If you are good enough, and can demonstrate those skills (coders are usually tested, artists need a good strong portfolio), then it is never a bad thing to apply. Everyone has to start somewhere and I personally will rarely dismiss a really strong portfolio just because the applicant hasn't worked in games yet.

In terms of designers it starts with what I mentioned above. There are really three routes into game design, the amateur approach, a more professional academic one, or working your way up through another entry point, like Quality Assurance.

Let's take the amateur approach first...

As I mentioned above being good at playing games alone, or knowing a lot about them, will rarely be enough to get your foot in the door. Just like an artist, having a good portfolio of things you have worked on is a great start. Mod projects, independent projects, student projects, web based games, or personal projects can all help demonstrate the skill set you might have.

Taking part in something like that also demonstrates you have dedication to the process, as most of them require quite an investment of your free time. In the case of mod projects and such it can also show that you have an understanding of what it is like to work in a team.

This is something I stress to everyone who asks, the best way to demonstrate to a potential employer that you think you what it takes to be able to make games is to be able to demonstrate that you have already done so.

Then you have the academic approach. There are quite a few good solid game design degree programs springing up in both the US and Europe (and probably beyond). A good education is never a bad thing, and we have hired a few people over the last couple of years from such programs, and the knowledge they are entering the industry with is growing more and more impressive as these programs mature.

With the industry getting more and more competitive, the academic approach is a very sound one. A good degree program from one of the established institutions really offers a comprehensive platform from which you can move into the industry.

However, there is a flip side to the increased popularity of 'game design' programs. if you are ultimately looking for one of those specialist roles I mentioned earlier, in code, or technical art, you might be better off keeping to one of the many excellent degrees in your chosen field. Those roles require specific knowledge and skill sets and by trying your hand at a more generalist 'Game Development' program you might be doing yourself a disservice. That's something you have to assess for yourself, but is worth bearing in mind. If you want to become a network programmer, render programmer, or a 3D animation specialist it is most likely that you are better of sticking to a degree program that is specific to the relevant role.

Then we have the third approach...the 'foot in the door' style. Starting out in another department with the view to becoming a designer later. Most look at roles in quality assurance for this purpose. While it is definitely possible, and does happen, you should also be aware that quality assurance is a job, one that requires focus, dedication and isn't to be taken lightly. In many ways a good QA specialist is just as important to what we do as any other role on our teams. If you come in expecting quick promotion to 'the fun stuff' that is exactly the attitude that will probably see you fail to progress.

Good quality assurance is an under-appreciated role, but is vital to what we do. If you want to take that route and are serious about progression you had best be ready to be serious about being a good QA professional first and foremost. That also goes for applying for any other position to get your foot in the door, maybe project management or marketing. It is very unlikely you will get many opportunities to cross over unless you are serious about the role you have been given in the first place.

Then there is one last thing worth mentioning. This one is more pertinent at the moment than ever before. You have to have patience...possibly a lot of patience...

A lot of people want to work in games, on top of which the current global economic situation has been hard on the industry. There are a lot of talented and experienced people out of work right now. Many studios have gone under and many others have had to cut staff. That means there is a lot of people looking for jobs which rather obviously means that at the moment the competition for positions is even higher than it has been in previous years.

So you will need to be patient. Keep working on your portfolio or other projects and keep trying. is a job worth persevering for...

Can you give me a job?

To be honest, at any given time, probably not. It would depend on quite a lot of things, most of which I mentioned above. If you are really interested in working on our games in particular your best bet is to keep an eye out on the jobs listing on our corporate site and see if anything fits the bill!

...So there you have it. Some questions answered. This really is a fun industry to work in. I love my job. (quite possibly all the more so for having had a few serious jobs outside the industry beforehand!) It is a dream worth pursuing...but even before that just have some fun with making games if you think it's something that might be worth chasing as a career. With outlets like Game Maker, mod projects or going for something slightly more serious like Microsoft XNA development or trying your hand at the iPhone or Unity platforms, there has never been a better time to try your hand at game design.

So if you really have the ambition to be a game designer, go out there and make one! It is unlikely someone will come along and hand you a job role for the hell of it. Making games can be fun, educational and teach you skills that might have other applications in whatever you go on to do (in particular if you work in a team on a project). Start looking for other like minded souls, they are most definitely out there, and see what you can come up with...

Times may have changed since my dad taught me to make my own games in Basic back in the 80s (he very cleverly refused to buy us games, but bought us books instead that contained the instructions for making them...oh the joys of when that was possible in a language like basic) and games generally require far more technical knowledge now, but the fundamentals remain the same. You can even start with map editors in one of your favorite games. One of my favorite mod projects I did before I worked professionally in games was as a member of a mod team on the Mech Commander series, where I made maps and AI brains. That can be a great place to also offers the benefit of being able to start out slow. You can usually start off alone, and not have to publish anything, while you learn the ropes. Then once you have published some maps, learnt about feedback and got used to the tools and gained some experience in your chosen editor, you can look to get involved with a mod team.

Honestly, that is I think the best advice, there is no trick to it, no magic formula, no way to cheat the system...the best way to get into creating games is to try it out and work on a game! me, it's fun!


Dale Lewis said…
Interesting point about education. I had a friend who was an amazing coder who dropped his computer science degree for one such game tech type degree and I think he has regretted it since (graduated last year and is still to find work)
ForGwend said…
I think all I have heard over the last year is about game studios closing and people being laid off. I would hate to think how many experienced people are on the market right now! Not an easy time to break into the game industry I imagine. Maybe it means more roles for juniors? Experienced people are also more expensive, that might open a few doors
Jay said…
Interesting read, thanks for that. Personally I'm currently teaching myself the ins and outs of level design using the Source SDK. Managed to put together my first 'complete' level in Left 4 Dead in eleven days. :) Now to just keep plodding on!