5/26/2016

Get paid thanks to games: A game developer

This one's been a long coming. Over a year, actually. I was putting it off because I didn't quite know how to put it together in one short article. I mean, studios can really vary among themselves. And the roles within the industry are very different as well. A blanket article on how to become a part of the game-making industry is likely to become either very general or very long and both these options will make it pretty useless. Finally, I've decided on a format that has a chance of making some sense. If it doesn't, at least I tried. Oh, and some of it might seem very obvious, but after talking to some high schoolers about game development, I feel that there's a lot of people that still require this kind of knowledge.

When you decide you want to make games, the first thing you have to realize is how many options you have. Game industry is very diverse and there are tons of doors and windows you can enter through. The biggest question though is what kind of games you want to make.

Inside of the Blizzard Entertainment studio.
On one hand, you have games done by single people and very small teams (under 5 people), like Banished, Darkest Dungeon or Undertale. On the other - huge blockbusters like Assassin's Creed, GTA or Uncharted, with hundreds of people on board and hundreds of millions of dollars in the budget. The rule of thumb here is that the smaller the team, the more skills you need. However, they don't have to be as highly developed as in the big teams. What I'm saying is that in small teams, you will often have to wear several hats. When there's just two of you, one becomes (for example) a programmer and a designer, while the other one draws, animates, writes and takes care of the soundtrack. When you're trying to do so many things at once, nobody expects you to be the best at everything. You just make a game you can make. In the big teams, you don't have to be a few people in one. You get to specialize. If you want to be an animator there, you need to be a good one. That's not to say that a great game desiner can't make a smaller game. Or that there are no average people in bigger companies, but they seem to rather be an exception. It's quite logical, really - Blizzard won't hire guys that are mediocre but some small company with small budget and less applicants might.

Once you know what kind of game you want to make and how big the company you want to work for is, there remains a question of what role you will play in it. You see, there are many elements of games that need to be made while the game is being put together. To get a job in the industry, you need to have skills needed to make some portion of these elements. Also, these skills need to be in demand. Let me give you an example. A lot of people think they can write and could write for games or could come up with game ideas. Now let's put aside that it's actually not that easy and that at least 99% of those people are wrong. Let's assume you are indeed an excellent writer and would be perfect for games. Still, most studios don't need full-time writers and ones that do rarely look for them, because the job is taken. And with maybe 20 openings like that in the whole world, you can imagine how huge the competition is. On the other hand, in an average studio, there's around 10 times more 3D graphic artists than writers and many of these studios constantly recruit for the 3D art positions. That means it might be much easier to get a job in the art department rather than writing and the required skill level might also be a little bit lower. It's a simple function of supply and demand, really.

This graph might seem funny but it is actually very accurate. Thanks, SharkBomb!
So what roles are there? Let me give you a very quick overview to help you decide what you might be best suitable for:

1) Programmers: need to be skilled in a programming language. Usually C++ or C# if the studio uses Unity Engine. The bigger the company, the higher the chance that programmers will specialize: engine / UI / AI, etc. Very high demand, companies are often willing to take juniors without much experience in the industry, but great programming skills are a must.

2) Designers: there's a lot of types of designers and not every type needs to exist in every studio. It highly depends on a game they are making. Free to play games will require Monetization Designers while RPG's will require Quest Designers. There are general Game Designers, story-focused Narrative Designers, self-explanatory Level Designers or Mission Designers. The role of designers is to come up with game systems and mechanics (or levels, missions, etc.), which is much harder than just coming up with ideas - you have to expand these ideas to cover every possible outcome in a balanced, logical and fun way that possibly helps tell the story and positively surprises the player. The demand for designers is quite high, but good designers are very hard to find. Also, everyone wants to be a designer (as it seems to be the "coolest" role), so the competition is very high as well.

3) Concept artists: these 2D artists design the mood of the game, characters, locations and props that are used. Their concept art serves as a reference to the 3D art team. These people also often end up producing all the 2D elements that you find in the game, so if a game is in 2D, it means pretty much all graphical assets. The requirements are simple: you need to be skilled at drawing and Photoshop. The demand is high, but good artists that have a great sense of color, lighting and composition are very rare.

4) UI artists: these are 2D artists that specialize in the user interface. They don't draw characters. They draw health bars, icons, charts and menus, which is a lot harder than it seems. You need to be great with Photoshop and to have an eye for usability and clarity of visual communication. Studios don't usually need more than one person like that so the demand isn't that high, but the good ones are considerably hard to find.

5) 3D artists: these are the guys who put together 3D models for the games. Everything from a simple stool to a huge monster. They usually specialize in either characters or pieces of environment. In bigger studios, they specialize even further: humans / monsters / buildings / rocks / vegetation. There's a lot of software that can be used for that, but the most popular programs are Zbrush for 3D sculpting and 3ds Max for blocking. There is a huge demand for these artists and there seems to be an everlasting shortage of really good ones.

6) Animators: whether it's in 2D or 3D, these are the guys that make things move. The true 2D animation is fundamentally different from 3D technology- and toolwise, but the common requirement is to have a sense of every detail of motion and what makes a movement natural. In 3D, you will likely have a chance to work with Motion Capture, which is a lot of fun. Popular tools for 3D animation are MotionBuilder and Maya. For 2D it's Adobe AfterEffects and Toon Boom. There is a huge demand for animators as the number of good ones in the world is very small and animations become a bottleneck in most of the studios sooner or later.

7) Sound designers: these people take care of the sound in our games. They don't compose the music, but make sure the ambient sound is the right volume, the sound effects are all in their places and that every single torch can't be heard from miles away.  There's a lot of tools for that: Audition, Reaper, Cubase, Nuendo and if you're fluent in any of them, you should be ok. The demand isn't huge, as many studios don't even hire in-house sound designers, but there's still some possibility to do it in freelance for a number of studios at a time.

8) Composers: the folks that actually compose the game music. And music in general. They rarely focus only on games. Pretty much all you need here is to be able to actually write music and some basic knowledge how the game music loops. Studios don't hire full-time composers so it's purely a freelance job. One where it might be very hard to get noticed unless you've won some solid awards for your music.

9) Narrative designers / writers: Narrative designers put the story together and are the ones that make sure it goes well with gameplay. Writers are the ones that create all on-screen text. Very often, narrative designer is also a writer. Don't be fooled: it's not like these people write a script and then everyone follows it. Most often, they have to adjust the narrative to what's going on on the screen to give it at least some logical continuity. The requirements here seem to be very easy to meet - you need to be great at writing. Unfortunately, there are thousands of people who think they can write when they actually can't and they spam companies with their applications. The demand itself is pretty low as many studios don't even need a dedicated writer for their types of games.

10) QA testers: one of the most crucial and underappreciated roles in the industry. Testers are the ones that play the game over and over and over while it's being made. It requires a lot of patience and eye for details. There are no hard skills required, but deep interest in games, displayed by messing around in game engines, learning to draw or code or at least making your own maps in popular editors is very welcome. The pay is the lowest in the industry, but so is the required skillset. There is a high demand for testers, but also a lot of people apply, so when you do, make sure to stand out somehow.

11) Producers: the "managers" that essentially take care of the schedules and budgets, but they are also responsible for making everyone's job as easy and smooth as possible, by solving problems, providing good communication and resolving any conflicts that might arise. The top producer is often the product owner and is personally responsible for delivering the game to the market. Producers need to be skilled in business, management and development methodologies and software, as well as have great communication skills, because they are the link between all the departments in the studio. The demand isn't too high, though good, experienced producers are hard to come by.

One thing to keep in mind when thinking about salaries in gamedev are usually lower than in other industries. An average business software programmer can earn even twice as much as a game programmer, even though their skills are comparable. That's, unfortunately, what you get for working your "dream job".

Nowadays, even Barbie can develop games.
There are generally three ways of getting into the industry. First is assembling your own team and just starting to make games. Nowadays, with digital distribution, it is relatively easy to publish your own game. And it doesn't even have to be very complex either. You are most probably just learning and you never know where it might lead you. You may continue to work on games on your own for years to come, eventually turning into your own business - your own studio. Getting better at what you do and working with more talented people. Even if your first 30 games were absolute crap, you will learn from them. And even if your team splits up before actually making money on your games, the games you did are now your portfolio. Portfolio that will help you a lot when applying to a gamedev studio as a programmer, designer, writer, artist, producer - whatever you learned to do while making those games. I can assure you that having finished some, even small projects, helps you land a job tremendously. Just remember to know where to aim. Making two small 2D games won't help you when applying for a Senior 3D Artist position.

The second way is to become a QA tester. Even if you want to write or code, there's nothing wrong with starting out as a tester. I know lots of testers that managed to move on to design, programming or production. Being a tester lets you get to know the industry from the inside. Watch closely how more senior positions work and what is really needed in your studio. Then, when the time is right, you might be able to move on. I believe it is actually the easiest way to get into the bigger companies. The biggest drawbacks are the low salary and often long working hours which is okay early on in your career, but won't let you support a family if you're planning on getting into the industry later in your life.

The third way is the hardest, but often the only way acceptable for people that already have a career and cannot afford being a tester or staying in their mother's basement figuring out how to make a game. It is using your current career to transition to games. If you are a really good programmer, you might be able to transition quite smoothly. If you're a writer, graphic artist or a project manager you'll have to make some adjustments to be suitable for games, but you still can land in the actual development as well. There are other professions, however, that let you work in gamedev studios, in roles supporting gamedev. If your skills and professional experience allow it, you might get into the marketing or PR team. Or become an in-house lawyer. Or an HR manager. Or a finance manager. It might not be that easy then to transition into development itself and you might discover you don't even want to (game marketing can be pretty awesome with all the travels and game fairs). If you show enough interest though and prove you can be a great addition to the team, you might be able to become a dev. Oh, and keep an open mind - being a manager in a gamedev studio can be quite different from your usual work at some bank or consulting firm and sadly, the salary will likely not be as high either.

You should also remember that not only development studios are involved in making games. And I am not talking about youtubers or journalists here. I mean companies that play a supporting role for game development studios. Backend solutions companies that maintain servers for online or mobile games. Motion capture studios. Motion capture actors. VoiceOver studios. VoiceOver actors. Orchestras that record game scores. All sorts of 2D and 3D outsourcing companies. Localization companies that translate mostly game texts. These are all highly involved in production of many great games and it might be a good idea to start in one of those if you can't find a place for yourself in a gamedev studio.

Whichever way you choose, the success will highly depend on your skill and knowledge of the industry. The more you know how it works, the better chance you have at learning the right skills and attitude. Then, with just a bit of luck, it's a matter of time before you are able to call yourself a game developer. Good luck!



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