Friday, December 28, 2007

So you want to work in the Games Industry?

Blogger's note: I originally posted this as a reply to a thread in the Help/Advice section on the Penny Arcade forums. When I got to the end, I realized it would be a good fit here, so here it is. It was meant as a reply to someone considering the games industry, except that that person didn't seem to know much about how the industry works, and also didn't really seem to know what he wanted, apart from seemingly looking for an easy path.

The games industry is NOT an easy path. In general, almost all the jobs you can hold in the games industry have analogues in other types of companies, and in many cases, either the money will be better, or the pressure will be lower. But it can also be very satisfying.

So you want to make video games?

Do you want to become a game designer, or a game programmer? Or perhaps you feel you would make a good producer? Maybe you're a good enough artist that you think you could do game art?

First, you need to know what each of these positions involve. The days of the solo designer/programmer/artist are long gone, except for very small games, such as the flash games you see on web. Even simple cell phone games typically have 2-5 programmers, a few artists, and one or more designers.

1. Programmers

To even get hired for such a job, you will have to show that you can program a game. If you're lucky, some of the projects you make in school will help fill out your portfolio. But make sure you pad it out with other things, such as mods, and ideally, full, but small games. Showing that you can program impressive games for smaller platforms, such as GBA, DS, or cell phones, could help. The graphics don't need to be kickass, unless you're trying to get a job programming graphic effects into games.

When you do get the job, you'll likely be assigned to a very specific part of a game, such as programming pathfinding AI for NPCs, or programming the physics for particle graphic effects. And you might end up doing that for a bunch of games, one after the other, for a few years, before you even get to program anything more "substantial". Things might go differently at a smaller studio, though.

2. Artists

Can you draw? If no one has complimented your drawings in a while (except for your parents...) you might not be ready for this path. Then again, you might still be qualified to become a good 3D modeler, as the skillset is somewhat different. Play around with 3D Studio Max if you have access to it, or Blender if you need free software. If you can't draw, and can't make something interesting using 3D modeling software, you're probably not cut out to be a games artist.

Then again, if you think you're good enough, start building up a portfolio, and maybe look into courses to help you learn to really use your tools. And then, when you finally get the job, they'll probably assign you to draw or model things you really hate (for example, you love modeling robots, dragons and spaceships, and they'll assign you to model football players.) You have to learn to like these challenges, or you'll be miserable all the time. Then again, some artists do their best work when miserable. I'm not that kind of artist, so I wouldn't know.

3. Producer

To become a good producer, you don't absolutely need any academic knowledge, although some management training or experience can go a long way. It's good to be a people person, and it's deeply crucial to be organized. You need to be good at driving meetings, and at leaning on the programmers, artists and designers on your team just enough that they keep their focus, and not too much that they start seeing you as a tyrant. Knowing a little bit about each task helps, because you'll be in a better position to talk with each "specialist" using their own terms (i.e., using artistic terms when talking with artists, using programming terms when talking with programmers... knowing Elf and Klingon might help in talking with designers, as they're a weird bunch.) Actually, failed programmers, artists and designers can make great producers, if they have the aforementioned qualities, even though most producers are usually good programmers, artists and designers who ended up in that position because the responsibility makes it seem like they are helming projects from a higher level than when they were in their prior position.

(I've been a producer, but I was a bad one, in that I wasn't organized enough, and I'm bad at exercising my authority on other people. My abilities are more on the design side of things.)

4. Designer

If you constantly think about how you could make a game you're playing better, you might be a game designer at heart. If you feel the urge to take someone through a story or experience of your devising, you might be a game designer (then again, you might simply be writer, screenwriter, or amusement park ride designer.) The problem is, many gamers think that, but they still don't have what it takes to become game designers. The post that DrFrylock linked goes into a lot more detail here, and it makes most of the right points.

A few of the things that helped me realize the kind of game designer I was were when I played really unique games, such as the original Wario Ware, many of the DS games that use the touchscreen in novel ways, Portal, Guitar Hero, and basically any Wii game that properly uses motion controls. When I first play such games, I get giddy, like a little kid whose parents finally let him have that candy or toy he's been requesting for a long time. I get giddy when faced with completely new ways to play games.

But not all good game designers get giddy at new game design paradigms. See, game designer is the hardest job to define, as it can only be defined recursively, in the sense that to be a good game designer, you have to be good at designing good games. Many game designers are avid readers and good writers (if for no other reason than being able to convince others that the story they're writing for the game is good enough)

To see if you might be a good game designer, take the level editor in one of your favorite games, and try to create levels that make for a new experience. DON'T try to reproduce something you've already played elsewhere. If you can't come up with something that feels new, you probably don't have the needed creativity. Put the best levels in your portfolio.

Don't expect to get hired as a game designer with no prior experience. Most designers start out as level designers (in some cases, artists also become designers) for bigger games under a lead designer with a lot more experience. Knowing how to use many game/engine editors will really help. Knowing your way around 3D Studio Max or other 3D modeling software, even if you can't make anything that looks good, will also be an asset. Knowing a lot about storytelling (read books about writing fiction, and screenwriting, that will really help) also goes a long way.

What Else?

Other jobs you could do in the games industry, which might even lead to one of the positions above if you play your cards right and are lucky:

QA / testing: in some places, it happens often, and they use QA almost as a proving ground, whereas in other places there is an almost impermeable wall between QA and the rest of the company. I've done 3 years of QA in three different companies. In my view, almost everyone in a games company should do 3 months of QA before moving into the position they were hired for. I know it's impractical, but it would go a long way towards increasing respect for QA and reducing the animosity that often exists between QA and developers/artists. QA rarely pays well, and the hours are often the worst, but it doesn't require as much in the way of education (although being able to think logically, and being good at writing concisely, clearly, and well is a major asset.) The reason QA is a good starting point is that it's at the very end of the chain, which means you see all the good and bad moves that go on before a game comes out, and you (normally) get to interact with all the other teams working on the game. It's a great way to learn how a game comes together (or not! disasters can also be very educational!)

IT / internal tech support: could be a good position to start in if you're aiming to become a programmer, as you'll get to interact and become familiar with most of the staff while you're helping them. But I have to admit I haven't heard of many IT people moving into "production" positions.

External tech support: if the company actually has in-house people supporting their games, that could be your way in. The same point I made with IT applies here, although you do end up becoming familiar with the games.

Sound and Music design: that has more chances of leading to other production positions, but then again, you ARE already working on the game. Sound Design can be very fulfilling, as long as you don't mind that most producers / designers / programmers / artists / testers still see sound as secondary to graphics and gameplay. If you do your work really well, you might not get as much positive reinforcement as visual artists do, mostly because good game sound reinforces what's already there, so it becomes a subconscious thing. But believe me, sound is an important component that can break a good game if it's shitty, and it can make a good game great when done really well.

Content writer: for games that have a lot of text content, sometimes, writers are hired. Otherwise, designers often end up writing this (which is why the writing in many games sucks... even when they're good writers, they often have time to both design and write well.) But don't expect constant, full-time work from this. On the other hand, it could lead to some game design work.

I haven't covered everything, but some of this should be of help to some of you.