Gamedev vs. creativity

I wanted to continue the topic of ideas for games. Last time I stated that the gamedev companies rarely need external ideas and I mentioned that they have enough of their own. Now many people might imagine that once they somehow get into game development, their ideas will finally get heard, used and praised. The industry oldies would probably disagree here, just because they wouldn't want to get your hopes up, but... Yes, once you are in, you do have a nice chance to show off your creativity!

There are of course various positions in the industry. Some are very strongly based on creativity, some can be completely devoid of creativity-based tasks. The most logical question to be asked here is "which ones are the creative ones?" and sadly, the answer is the all-hated "it depends". Sure I could, for the sake of argument say, that in general a concept artist gets to use his artistic ideas more often than a producer and in most cases I would probably be right. Sometimes though, the Art Director has a vision so strong, that the concept artists don't come up with too many ideas, they just follow the guidelines to draw armors, spaceships or ponies exactly like the ones the AD needs. At the same time, the Producer could be deeply involved in game design area and be in charge of the whole game's coherence.

Comparing the amounts of creativity in each role aside - I'd like to show how some of the gamedev jobs might be perceived and what "uncreative" elements they contain. This list is by no means complete, some jobs I just don't know enough about to include here.

Generalization: A guy that sits and draws cool stuff that then gets used in the game.
What can happen in reality: Tweaking the same concept for days or even weeks, recycling concepts, hours of looking for references, hundreds of feedbacks and overpaints for the 3D modellers.

3D ARTIST (character or environment)
Generalization: A guy that builds cool locations and models.
What can happen in reality: Tweaking the same concept for days or even weeks. Trying to work with a really blurry concept and then hearing "it's not as cool as the concept" and "it lacks details" at the same time. Months of adding tiny details to the architecture, tweaking the textures. This job requires patience. Really.

Generalization: The guy that comes up with the whole game.
What can happen in reality: The idea for the game might have just been given to him and his main role is to design gameplay elements on a very numeric level (how the damage changes thanks to strength, armor, upgrade level, weapon type, range, weather, type of surface, number of destructible walls and price of oil in 1950). 

Generalization: The guy in charge of whole project.
What can happen in reality: Lots of micromanagement, problem solving, motivation issues with team members, PR conferences, productivity reports, budgetting, middleware negotiations, paperwork, paperwork, paperwork...

Yeah, I know hot it sounded...

Of course, what these jobs offer is always somewhere in between. We all need to remember that a job in gamedev is a job. You get paid for it and it just so happens that a bigger or smaller part of it is something you love doing. 

Getting back to the ideas part - from what I have seen, internal input is very often appreciated. Cool concepts are flying around on a daily basis and really, lots of them get to be used. No matter what you do in there - test, draw or sign papers. If your idea really adds to the game's core esthetics and is reasonable productionwise, there is a big chance it might get implemented. In the end, after a project ends, you might not be able to say "I came up with the idea for this game", but there will be lots of team members that could say "this is my bossfight idea" / "this is my crew management idea" / "this is my idea for presenting achievements".

Trust me - in AAA industry around the world there ain't a single person that could say "I designed this whole game". All the biggest games are a joint effort and when working on them, you have a really big chance to add your ideas here and there. Just don't expect people to implement all of them.


"I have a brilliant game idea!"

A year ago I decided to get into game development. The basis of my decision was plain and simple: I had great concepts for games, so clearly I had to be destined to become a game designer! Anyone who knows at least a little bit about the industry knows how ridiculous it sounds.

Not aware of how abstract this was, I approached some game development companies - I mailed them that I have a great idea for a game and that we should meet and discuss it! Of course, I thought I will rock their socks off and they will hire me right away as a game designer while apologising they didn't discover me earlier. You can imagine what a round number of replies I got.

The sad truth is that big gamedev companies don't need new ideas. They have enough of their own. Currently, making a game lasts years and a number of people is working on them. Naturally, they keep having new concepts. Some get used in the currently developed games, some are saved for later, and many of them never see the light. Imagine a team of 30 people working on a game for 3 years... Imagine the queque of ideas they have lined up.

Another reason why the companies don't want to hear the concepts from the outside, is because in most cases you, as the idea guy, would like to sign some NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement), which would bound the company to not use whatever you present them without your permission. Now this has some consequences to the company. If someone presents them some solutions for game mechanics they are already going to use in one of their games, it might lead to uncomfortable situations - people claiming that the company stole their idea. It's just not worth it.

Ok, you will say - big companies don't want my idea, but maybe some indie developers would like to hear them? The answer here is most likely "no" as well. Indie developers mostly don't have the manpower to implement new concepts. They are struggling to deliver their own game.

Paradoxically, the easiest way to implement your game idea is to do it yourself. Even if you don't have the programming skills or graphic skills, you can try to get together a small team of game making wannabes and take on the role of the designer / producer. There are also free and advanced tools available for anyone who wants to try making a game: UDK (a free version of Unreal Engine), Unity (multi-platform development engine and toolkit). If you don't want to do a whole game, try level editors - lots of games have it included (StarCraft and Heroes III had them, I am sure lots of newer games do to). Some of really good level designers started with making some fan maps for Quake or any other popular game. The worst that could happen - you will fail, but will still gain valuable experience.

But before you decide, what to do with your concept stop and think for a moment. Why didn't anyone think of it before? Because others are dumber than you? Well, maybe... But maybe your idea just wouldn't sell? Or maybe it would be way too hard to implement and just not worth it? As a person from outside of the industry, you are often unable to assess the worth or doability of what you thought of. After six months in gamedev I have reviewed my ideas from a year ago and - yeah, no surprise there - these were all pretty unrealistic.


"Working in gamedev = playing games" a myth? really?

It is one of the most common things you will read when you try to find some insight about work in gamedev. Everyone keeps repeating that "game development is not at all about playing games" and "being a game tester has little to do with playing games".

Ladies and gentlemen, please...

This whole myth feeding and myth busting situation just got a little bit out of hand. Obviously, at some point there must have been some common misunderstanding that implied that working in gamedev is about playing games and shortly after gamedev professionals reacted in a very strict and a very contradicting way. Too strict and too contradicting in my opinion.

Working in gamedev is about playing games. Almost everyone there plays games, talks about games, shares their ideas and opinions. When I started working, one of my first assignments was to "do some research" which meant that half of the time when I was at work I was playing games in some ways similar to the one I was about to help developing. When a new game in the genre came out, we sat down for almost a whole workday and "tested" the co-op mode in that game. We even stayed for some "overhours" :).

Of course, the more duties I got, the less time I had for this. And I soon figured out that many people do not have time for playing games at work at all, as they spend most of their time drawing or modelling. Still, every time a new build of the game comes out, everyone plays it. If someone walks in and sees me selling loot in Diablo III auction house, they will more likely ask if I have something nice for their Shaman rather than having any problems with me having a game installed on my work computer. We can't say that in gamedev we don't play games. It's like publishing house saying they don't read books or a rock band arguing that they don't listen to music at all!

There is a strong need in this industry to look professional. I honestly don't know where it came from, probably some early days, when game developers were treated like a bunch of nerdy never-grow-ups and had to prove their worth to the world. And as a result, these "professional and serious" developers prefer to say (best in a basket chair, wielding a Pipe of Wisdom +5) "Making games is no walk in a park, kids... It's hard work, not playing games!" and well, I can understand that. It certainly sends a better message than "Yay, come and play with us". Still, none of these statements is completely true.

The truth is gamedev is based on playing games and everyone in gamedev is - more or less often - playing games, also at work. But that is not the core task for any of the gamedev positions. It truly is lots of hard, highly rewarding work with little (but existing!) time for occasional gaming.


What the hell am I doing here?

Ok, so I got a job in gamedev. As far as I know, it's a dream of a pretty vast percentage of gamers out there. Been kinda a dream of mine too, I have to admit. What's more... Me getting the job was a matter of luck more than reason. What's even more - I got to learn from people who really know what they are doing. Not some indie startup, but one of the biggest companies in my country.

Why am I writing all this? Did I just create this blog to rub it in the faces of those who dream of someday entering this industry? The ones that work hard to get their major in photoshopping or code producing? On the contrary.

When I came up with the idea to work in gamedev, I started researching, what the industry is really like. I found a crapload of articles on an average salary or the booming industry of gamemakers. I found brief opinions of testers that quit after a month on the job, I found some rare insights from people who actually work in the field, but these articles or interviews were mostly very politically correct: "yeah, we do crunch, but only when it is needed, and we make cool games, so in the end it is worth it". I found some coders forums where I couldn't understand a single word they were saying and a bunch of discussions between kids of various age, with "I have a game idea, I'll tell it to someone and they will make it" and "wow, I wanna play games and get paid for it too" being the dominant topics. And one cool site that actually explains this and that very briefly, but pretty accurately most of the time - Extra Credits.

Now that was some fruitful research! I went to the interviews in gaming companies, showing off my brilliant ideas of game designs. When asked, how I imagine the process, I was partly quoting Wikipedia, rambling about a good Design Doc being the answer to all the problems in the games world and it was pretty much the closest I ever got in my blind search for the right answers. On this occasion I would like to thank all these people who interviewed me and were professional enough not to laugh at me. Looking back, I am laughing my ass off. Literally. My ass is now a few meters away. Getting the actual job was a matter of sheer luck. It was actually such a ridiculous coincidence, that I won't even write how it happened to prevent anyone from hoping it will happen to them as well.

That is all why I am starting this blog. To share my experience. To document my struggle as a noob in game development. To provide some insight to those that need information. I will write about everything. About things that might be painfully obvious to some people, but they weren't to me. About my thoughts on topics I encounter - however outdated these might be. About the process of making games, even if it can be totally different in any other company. All of this is fresh for me and I strongly believe it is fresh for dozens of people out there, too.

Yes, I may be a noob and I may be underequipped for this, but there is only one way to find out how far I can get.
Let the story of my struggle begin...