Breaking In

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At some point in the career of most video game developers, a very particular, very familiar question will be posed:

How do you break in to the industry?

It’s not an easy answer, because in truth the video game industry is multiple, overlapping industries, each operating with their own spin and own culture. On top of that, the pathways into a job in the industry vary depending on the job you are pursuing.

Terms like “developer” and “designer” in particular get tossed around casually, and while their meaning is a lot more specific inside the industry than most people outside the industry realize, there’s still quite a lot of slush in how they’re used in practice.

Developer is sometimes used to generically mean anyone working directly on the creation of a game – designer, engineer, producer, artist, sound engineer, etc. Just to confuse things, sometimes it is also used as a synonym for programmer.

Engineer is probably the most common title most programmers hold as far as your job letter goes, though other variants exist – architect, programmer, coder.

Designer and Producer are even slippier. In smaller companies, or especially back earlier in the history of the industry, the titles were often interchangeable, or defined differently on a project by project basis. In modern usage, “producer” usually translates to either project manager, account manager, or general manager. Contrarily, “designer” implies generation of data based on the constraints and tools provided by the project’s engineers.

(And, just to make your head spin even more, all of these have countless gradations from associate, junior, senior, director, gameplay, systems, architect, assistant – and the exact authority, pay grade, and responsibility is by no means a clearly defined matter across the industry.)

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The broad development roles are:

  • Art
  • Engineering
  • Design
  • Audio
  • Production
  • Quality Assurance
  • Marketing
  • Community Management
  • Customer Service
  • …and others I am forgetting

Within each of these lie numerous sub-disciplines. Depending on the type of video game being developed, not all of these roles will be necessary. In smaller projects, developers are more likely to wear multiple hats, whereas on larger projects the specializations can become even more discrete.

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For example:

  • Art
    • Character Modeling (modeling the heroes, villains, NPCs, etc.)
    • Rigging (giving the characters bones for the animators to animate)
    • Animation (making characters move)
    • Environment Modeling (cliffs, buildings, sidewalks, cars, tables, etc.)
    • 2D (hand drawn concept art, icons)
    • User Interface
  • Engineering
    • Gameplay
    • AI (Artificial Intelligence)
    • UI (User Interface)
    • Internal Tools
    • Server Architecture
    • Client Architecture
    • Platform
    • Database
  • Design
    • Systems
      • Combat / Moment-to-Moment / Powers Design
      • Systems Design
      • Player Investment
    • Content
      • Mission / Quest / Content Design
      • Level Design
      • Writer / Narrative Design / Story
    • Itemization (sometimes placed under Systems, sometimes Content)
    • Achievements (sometimes placed under Systems, sometimes Content)
    • User Experience
    • Technical
  • Production
    • External Relationships (dealing with licensing interactions such as Marvel, or outsourcing providers)
    • Build Management
    • Internal Process (making sure that the eighteen-jillion steps something has to go through to reach the final build happen)

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Some of these sub-disciplines are fuzzy, and don’t have dedicated people on them or have varying roles depending on the company or even project. For example, the distinction between Mission Designer and Narrative Designer can be very debatable on some teams, and a particular designer may jump between Itemization, Systems Design, and Mission Design all on the same project. On the other hand, other sub-disciplines such as Level Design are much more specialized.

Depending on the project and the role there will be more or less position available, and this, combined with skills (or claimed skills) means that some roles on a project are much easier or much harder to get onto. Dedicated writing positions are a good example of this – only the largest RPGs tend to have more than one – if even that – dedicated writer, such that on many projects if you are not a published writer your chances of landing one of these positions is vanishingly small.

For Engineering, a Computer Science degree is pretty much a must. At a junior level engineers are rarely expected to have specializations, but by the time an engineer has reached the senior level it is likely they will have specialized in one or more sub-disciplines.

For Art, school is much less important, but you categorically must have a portfolio, and an awesome one at that. As with dedicated writers in design departments, 2D art positions tends to have a lot more people applying for relatively few spots. Unless you are impassioned by 2D specifically, 3D is a much more in demand, albeit technical, career path. Photoshop and Illustrator are pretty much assumed for almost any art position, and for 3D, familiarity with and proficiency with Maya, 3D Studio Max, Zbrush are among the tool sets you should target. Fortunately, most of these can be acquired relatively easily with student or non-commercial licenses, and most are as well taught in numerous academic courses.

For Design, you can sometimes get a leg up from taking the various design programs; they weren’t around when I was starting, and have since then gone from being an awkward joke to actually being pretty good in a lot of cases. In my experience most designers coming into the industry still do not come from the various design programs, but a significant chunk do. Even so, what the hiring manager will look most closely at is not what school or program you were in, but what you did there as a project.

Other routes into Design include starting in QA or Customer Service, or, sometimes simply being that rare individual who is both a fan of the particular game they are applying to and having the ability to think abstractly and innovatively about that hard-to-pin-down thing called “fun”.

Whether you are an engineer, artist, or designer, if you at all can, find a game, or use Unreal, or Unity, or anything else that has the ability to create a game experience or mod and make something. Preferably several somethings. Release it. Iterate on it. Support it. Talk about it. Figure out what you did wrong the first time and either fix it or make it work better the next time around. Doing this well is probably the single best thing you can do to break into video game development in a professional capacity.

For Production, routes in are much like Design, but the design program part is obviously less important, and Customer Service is probably somewhat more likely a route than QA (whereas with Design, the reverse is true, though I have seen exceptions for both).

Quality Assurance or Customer Service are, in the game industry, usually entry-level positions. Both studios and publishers will usually maintain QA groups. Some studios (such as Gazillion) are also their own publishers. Getting into a studio QA group is generally better in the long-run if you want to get into Design, but you can also leverage experience in a publisher QA group (e.g., Sony, Capcom) to parlay yourself into something closer to the action – this is, in fact, exactly what I did. (Most publishers as well maintain their own studios in addition to any third party studios they work with).

Note, as well, that the video game industry uses the term “Quality Assurance” where most of the computer industry would use “Test”. What most of the computer industry refers to as “Quality Assurance” is only sporadically present as a separate entity in the video game industry in the form of “Subjective Testing” or “Design Support” teams.

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It is also very important to recognize that the type of game matters a lot. Studios generally make games within a particular type – mobile, console, MMORPG, ARPG, exploration, FPS, etc.

As a general rule, play the kinds games you want to develop. If you don’t play MMORPGs, don’t expect to easily get a job at a studio focusing on MMORPGs.

Studios – even departments within the same studio – may weigh differently such factors as how much of a fan you are for a particular game, a particular genre, communication skills, etc. It can be a bit of a crapshoot, so keep trying. Some studios won’t even look at you unless you’re a dedicated fan of their particular game, others are more interested in your industry experience (if any), while others focus more on your paper design skills.

One concern many people have about working in the game industry is stories of substandard working condition.

Personally, I have found this varies a great deal depending on the studio in question. In general, poor working conditions seems to have been much more of a problem in the past than it is today.

It’s true, I have my own share of 20 hour a day workday stories, one particular run of which landed me in the ER with viral pneumonia. Not fun.

That being said, as the years have gone by, and exposes like the famous EA Spouse incident have arisen, and, frankly, as the average age of game developers has risen and more people have gotten married, had kids, and so on, the industry has eased up considerably as a whole. The ability to patch has also probably contributed a lot to easing the infamous pressure on the Goldmaster cut.

When I started, death marches lasting months or even more than a year were not uncommon. These days, periods of overtime are rarer, and when they do occur more often closer to a few weeks, and instead of being 20+ hours a day are more like 10-14 hours a day.

Obviously, this still varies a lot depending on the studio, the game you’re working on, and the financial straits of all involved. Abusive overwork does sometimes happen, but is much rarer.

On the plus side, game studios have some benefits that are very nice indeed, including relatively flexible hours for most disciplines, casual work environments, and probably most importantly of all, getting to work on something you can be passionate about.

As with any industry, there is definitely room for improvement, but I think the general trajectory has been positive. If you have the passion, it is definitely within the realm of reason to break into.

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