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Want to make video games for a living? Here’s how

For any gamer with a creative side, the thought has probably occurred at least once: What if I could make video games for a living?

But for a would-be game designer, the industry can be a tough nut to crack.

For starters, the field can be insular. Back in the day, most game developers were self-taught, creating their own games or designing levels in games like “Doom.”

Nowadays, gaming has exploded into a multibillion-dollar industry, and there are plenty of jobs in Austin, with such major studios as Electronic Arts and Sony Online Entertainment establishing development outposts in town. Colleges and universities have also caught up, offering various programs in gaming design, 3-D art and other related fields.

But still, the industry remains a bit mysterious. To try and clear some of it up, we asked some luminaries in the Austin gaming scene the big question: So how DOES someone get a job in video games?

Warren Spector

Creator of the ‘Deus Ex’ series, current head of Junction Point Studios, which designed ‘Disney Epic Mickey.’

The first thing I’d say is that you have to love games. There’s so much competition for jobs these days — often dozens (or more) resumes for every opening. If you don’t really love games, you’re probably not going to make the cut. But beyond that, the truth is that while making games can be fun, it’s often gruelingly hard work — long hours, hard problems to solve, high standards. … If you don’t love games, it can crush you.

And while we’re on the “loving games” topic, make sure you want to make games and not just play them. Things change when you move from player to professional. You might find that a steady diet of games and game-related work will leave you less time and inclination to play games just for fun. A career in game development can be incredible, but it can also change the way you think about games, feel about them, even diminish the “need” you feel to play them in your off hours. I guess I’m saying be careful what you wish for — once you start making games, your relationship with these things you love could change.

Assuming you’ve made it past the “I love games” hurdle, … there are some obvious ways to break into the game business. First is to know what you want to do in the world of game development. Whether you’re working on a small team or a team of 100 (or, more frequently these days, a team of 200 or even 300!), game development is a team sport. What position do you want to play? Video games are software — never forget that — so there’s a crying need for programmers, obviously. And you need artists capable of filling the screen with beautiful images. And, of course, there are folks called “designers” (though that term means something different to different developers) and audio specialists and testers and producers and so on and so forth. Before you try to break in, figure out who you are, what interests you most about games and game development, and decide where you think you’ll fit in best.

There are as many ways to get into the game business as there are people who want to make games. My path might not work for you — heck, I’m still amazed it worked for me! Having said that, there are some specific things I’d recommend — just don’t take them as gospel and understand that your path may be very different than anything I talk about here.

I’m going to assume you’ve followed my advice and figured out that you are (or plan to be) a graphics programmer or an environment artist or a technical designer (or whatever it is you want to do for a living). Step one is simply to become the best graphics programmer (or whatever) you can possibly be. Easy, right? Seriously, though, remember you’re going to be going up against dozens (or more) people for every job you apply for — if you’re not the best (or darn near), why would anyone hire you?

Now that you’re great at one thing, let me contradict myself and urge that you look outside your specialty and gain some other skills. Yes, we’ve become a business of specialists, but you may lack the needed experience for a specific job or be a great team fit at a company with no openings that match your specific skill set. You want to have some fallback skills to get in the door and prove yourself. Basically, have a “major” and a “minor” as you plan for your career, just as you do when you approach your degree requirements. (Also, as a newbie developer, you may find it easier to break in with a smaller developer — or even as part of a startup — and in that context, you need to be something of a generalist.)

With your major and minors worked out, look beyond your discipline and make sure you familiarize yourself with as many aspects of game development as you can. Unless you plan to be a one-man band, you’re going to be working as part of a team. You need to understand how the other team members work, what they do, how they talk about what they do, how they think about what they do. If you’re a programmer, take some art classes. If you’re a designer, take some programming classes. You get the idea.

I strongly encourage wannabe game developers to stay in school and get a degree. The benefits of a college degree are immense. Perhaps, most important in a hypercompetitive job market, why wouldn’t you give yourself every possible advantage?

And, of course, there are now plenty of schools offering game degree programs — even a few that offer dedicated programs. And while a Bachelor of Science in game development or a graduate degree or whatever won’t guarantee you a job, these dedicated programs are getting better all the time. The one thing I’ll say about the dedicated programs is that I worry a bit about graduates coming out with nothing but an education in gaming, and that doesn’t serve anyone well. You need to come to game development having lived a little, with life experiences that go beyond playing and making games — if all you know are games, all you can bring to future games is imitation and more of the same. The business — no, the art — of games needs developers who have as broad an education and as varied and diverse a set of life experiences as possible. If all you do is play and study games, don’t come knocking on my door!

The one thing you shouldn’t get hung up on is knowledge of specific tools. Fact is, most game developers create or buy proprietary tools that aren’t available to most institutions. And even where there are standard tools — Maya, say, for artists — the fact is, by the time you’re in the job market, we might have adopted an entirely different standard. Whether you’re self-taught or school-taught, learn skills, not tools. We can teach you what buttons to press, but we can’t afford to take the time to teach you why you’re pushing the buttons or what to do with the tool.

Anyway, if you really want to roll some big dice, you can try to make a go of it without a degree, but you really will be playing on expert if you do that. Better, I think, to look at the various institutions that offer game studies programs and find the one that seems the best fit for you. Or check out where some of your favorite developers or teams came from and see if you can follow in their footsteps. The team that did “Flow” came from (the University of Southern California); the team that made “Underworld” and “System Shock” (and even “Guitar Hero”) was largely (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)-trained; the “Portal” folks studied at DigiPen. Do your research and find the school that’s right for you.

Regardless of the path you choose, it’s always a good idea to come to a potential employer with a portfolio. For artists, that’s relatively straightforward; for programmers and designers, a little tougher. I always tell people it’s great to make a game you’ve made a part of your job application. Working on a mod, reverse engineering and re-creating an existing game, building your own game from scratch — these are great ways to show that you’re serious, to show off your design sensibilities, art chops or programming abilities. I’ve hired plenty of people over the years based on their re-creations of games I’ve worked on or their mods to existing games. Just be sure of one thing — if you use a game or mod as part of your portfolio and you didn’t do everything yourself, be sure to make crystal clear exactly what you did on the game/mod and what you didn’t. Not doing so is the quickest way to be shown the door!

If I were starting out today, I’d start my job search by thinking about the kinds of games I love to play — the ones I’m expert in, the ones I understand inside out, the ones I think I can stand to think about 24/7 for months or even years at a stretch. Then I’d find developers who make that kind of game and not give up until I got my foot in the door with one of those developers. Frankly, that’s how I got into the game business — first with Steve Jackson Games and later with Origin. Those were the places that made the games I was neglecting my studies (and my health and hygiene!) to play. If I’d gone to work at Some Random Game Company making sports games or kiddie board games or something, I probably would have washed out in a hurry.

One last thing — maybe the most important thing. If you really are the world’s greatest (Fill In The Blank), you probably won’t have too much trouble getting a gig, but if you’re just a really, really good (Fill In The Blank), the job of your dreams might not fall into your lap quite so easily.

In that case, apply for a job in quality assurance and do some time as a game tester. Game companies are always looking for smart, articulate gamers to test, break and help fix their games. QA is an incredible way to break into the business.

Richard Garriott

Creator of the ‘Ultima’ series, founder of Origin Systems and the social gaming company Portalarium

The game industry remains an exciting, growing, creative and potentially lucrative field. All prospective employees should work hard to get diverse training in multiple fields of game design when possible. Programming, art tools and design principles are all needed skills in a hirable candidate.

Programmers should expect to show strong code samples and even take programming tests with their job application. Artists will need a skill-demonstrating portfolio of tools and techniques.

Design and management candidates, while in reality being the most valuable parts of the team, have the least ability to demonstrate strong skills before working in the industry.

If your desire is to become a game designer, you might expect to start in more of an entry-level position, likely not even in direct development, but more often in quality assurance or customer support. Only if you can prove your stripes in house, will you slowly move up, through somewhat of an apprenticelike system.

Bottom line: 1) Get the best education you can at the best university you can find that actually deals with games, and 2) take any job you can get in a games company, then work your way up from the inside.

Fred Schmidt

Former general manager of Origin and current CEO of Portalarium

Anyone interested in breaking into this field (should) take full advantage of internship and apprenticeship opportunities. These are not always formally posted or announced, but can often be created by networking with founders, managers and professionals already working at game studios and other creative companies. Start anywhere you can to get your foot in the door. Add as much value as you can. Learn all you can. And then let opportunity work its magic! If you’re any good, before you know it you are likely to find yourself in a “real job,” on staff, with some reasonable level of pay — and well on your way to a career in an industry where average salaries are easily in the $70,000 range for four or five years of solid experience.

While many parents and skeptics still may be in disbelief that “making games” could possibly be a “real job,” after 20-30 years of doing this sort of work, I/we are evidence that games is a bona fide career field in which one can now spend a lifetime. Much like Mick Jagger proves that point in earning a living playing rock ‘n’ roll.

Rodney Gibbs

CEO of Ricochet Labs, which created the ‘QRANK’ smartphone game

Project-based work is key. When I hire, I look for students who have experience working on a team to complete a project. The project may have been a flop, but if the student can articulate what went well, what went poorly, what she learned and what she would change the next time around, she has a leg up on most other applicants.

Initiative and drive are paramount. To break into the industry, a student doesn’t need to have a game degree on his resume. What’s more impressive to me is if the student pushed himself to do something above and beyond what’s required of him in school, particularly something that requires managing a team. Managing the student radio station, leading a fundraising concert, starting a business, editing the school paper — these show drive, management experience and an entrepreneurial spirit.

At the high school level, the best prep for the game industry is to take a wide array of classes. Students interested in the technical side of game dev, such as programming or technical art, should maximize their math and science courses. Students interested in the creative side should push themselves in art and design but by no means skirt math and science. A game designer can never know too much math or programming, for example; nor can a programmer have too much communication or design skills. In acting, someone who knows how to sing, dance and act is called a triple threat. If a student can be proficient in programming, art and teamwork, that’s a triple threat in the game world.

Specific software packages don’t matter all that much. Software changes all the time. What matters is being able to use the tools you have well and having something to show for it, such as sample artwork, sample levels or (self-modified levels), or sample games you programmed, however small. A completed art portfolio or game demo, however limited or flawed, is much better than no sample work at all.

When hiring, I don’t look for a game degree on an applicant’s resume. Some university game programs are excellent, but kids can prepare for a career in games at most any college. However, outside of a formal digital production program, often the onus is on the student to assemble a curriculum that prepares him for a career in game development. It takes some hustle and creativity to structure one’s own program.

Texas has three of the best university game programs in the country. Guildhall at SMU is a graduate program whose graduates are highly desired by game companies. Texas A&M’s Viz Lab is an undergrad and graduate program, and its focus is broader than just games. Pixar snatches up many of its grads, and the others go on to work on games, digital special effects and other forms of creative technology. UT Dallas’ game program may be the best-kept secret in Texas. It is a stellar program with excellent faculty.

I often meet students, many of them young, who’re already making and, at times, distributing games. Cheap or free tools like Game Salad make it easy for novices to make games. Thanks to digital distribution and the App Store, some of the better novice games even find an audience. I strongly advise aspiring game developers to start making games. Build a team of two or three of your smart friends, brainstorm the game, split up the tasks and start building it. The experience of trying and even failing is valuable. And nothing beats having an actual game in hand to show a potential employer or college admissions office.

Gary Gattis

CEO of Spacetime Studios, which creates smartphone games, including ‘Pocket Legends’

Game developers look for experience and passion. There is very much a chicken-and-egg thing going on, but with today’s tools and publishing pipelines there is no reason that an aspiring game developer can’t get something on the market under their own steam.

I’d suggest trying to figure out what they love to do first and how it slots into game development: typically art, design, technology or production. Hook up with some buddies with complementary skills. Get ahold of an open-source game engine (like Game Salad) and start building something. Put it on the App Store or the Android Marketplace.

Use this experience to either build more games or leverage it into an interview. Who knows, they may just invent the next “Angry Birds” along the way!

I think education is helpful, but there is nothing like real-world experience. Formal schooling can certainly help hone skills. There are specific educational institutions like Full Sail and the Guildhall at Southern Methodist University that have a huge placement rate. Many regular schools are also starting to offer specific video-game-related curriculums.

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