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Am I Making the Best Career Choice?
by Kain Shin on 05/06/09 10:03:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


 We all need some source of income. Some of us are lucky enough to get paid doing something we love or believe in.

What found yourself able to do anything you wanted to with your life?  And you had a choice of either working for yourself, living at a friend's house until the efforts pay off, or working for somebody else in return for a consistent stable salary? 

There was a time when this particular topic would occupy my mind for quite a while.  After all, we're not going to ever get these years back, right?

The answer is personal to everyone.  Ultimately, what it comes down to for me is that I'd judge where I currently work in the same way that I'd judge any tribe of mercenaries that I might choose to align myself with.

Two disciplines within the company culture dominate my criteria for happiness potential more than any other discipline:

  1. Design Culture
  2. Production Culture

In the case of games, the programming and art disciplines involve very important skillsets that enable the product to exist and grab people's attention.

Games do not exist without Code and Art, but those are nouns that are relatively easy to duplicate and evolve because their form is so very well defined, and they are storable on magnetic mediums for turn-based iteration.

Design and Production are the fleeting realtime verbs involved in the creation of any product that will set the tone for that product's fate. The verbs of Design and Production become enablers of the adjectives associated with the nouns of Code and Art that are embedded into the final product.

I would go so far as to assert that those two aspects of a studio are the defining measures of a company's potential to create genuinely compelling games in this hit-driven market.

Design Culture:

People do not want to be associated with an embarassingly bad game. Most of us get into the games industry because we somehow hope to be a part of something great, and there are so many more lucrative options available to the veterans among us if our goal was just to make a steady paycheck.  

Design culture is the hardest part to change about a company. Everybody and their dog wants to design and will do so if given the chance.  That energy can be utilized in healthy ways, but if the people in creative power do not truly love the art, then the company is likely to remain in a survival mindset driven by dollar sign numbers over aesthetic intentions.  

If you are going for a stable salary, then this might be sufficient.  But if you got into this industry because you want to be a part of something that you would play, then this can become bad with the creative authority phoning it in and influencing the shape of design targets for the company based on ego rather than relevant knowledge and internalized methodical design sense.

This type of hubris and ignorance of the design craft can trickle down and infect the underlying creative process at the very core... starting with hiring practices and spreading from there.

If I were to evaluate the long term viability of a studio, I would start first by evaluating if the studio's design culture is built on a system of philosophical beliefs that provide a service to its customers. Examples of such beliefs would be...

  • Emergent Sims: Games that provide looking glass services of introspection
  • Sense Candy: Games as a bar-setting showcase for AV-philes
  • Narrative Channel: Games as a delivery service for worthwhile stories
  • Education: Games that teach
  • Expression: Games that allow users to express themselves with interaction
  • Tools: Games that lower the barrier to entry for the creation of art

The opposite of this service-based design culture is one in which a studio exists because the owners want to own a business and those they hire simply want to have jobs.

The rule is the same for studios and deities: A Belief System leads to Identity. Identity leads to Recognition, and Recognition leads to continued Existence within a highly competitive market with little margin for failure.

The belief system is a galvanizing compass that pervades hiring practices and culture in every discipline to ensure that all efforts flow in the same direction. It is this understanding of a studio's motives that enables trust in the company's intentions and confidence in their ability to cohesively execute those intentions.

Production Culture:

I define this as the ability to execute the design in a competent manner. What's their plan? Do they really have one? Yeah, crunch can happen, but would the producers of the company respect the personal lives of their employees enough to feel bad about it? Will producers actually stay late with their team if the crunch is their fault? Will they hold others accountable for making people crunch and take corrective measures to avoid this sort of thing in the future?

The culture of eating dinner and going back to work can be changed if the right people are given the chance to change it as the rewards are universally appealing to most employees within the company reguardless of their position.  Most projects will fail or end up embarassingly unpolished due to bad production culture.  

At the end of the day, the relationship that skilled employees choose to have with their employer is between equals.  The highly skilled employee can work anywhere.  Only those without options will allow themselves to be owned by a company to the degree at which objectification is apparent.  

This "human equals" aspect of the employee-employer relationship is the heart of production culture for me.

Reframing the Question

For the design side of things, another way of framing that part of the question to myself is...

  • What would I crunch for?
  • What would I give up social life for?
  • What external cause am I willing to adopt as a part of my own life?

For me, it's an easier and more personally relevant question to answer than "Am I making the best career choice?"

On one end of the spectrum of self-confidence, we can give an easy answer to the question by rationalizing based on what we are able to obtain at this point in our career.  However, having the audacity to reach for the sky can serve as a compass for the numerous micro-decisions we make every day.

So with that far reaching compass in mind: Why would a badass like Wolverine give up his leather jacket and join a tribe of pajama wearin' X-Men?  Maybe he...

  • believes in the vision of the tribe and wishes to add to the force that flows in that direction
  • enjoys the tribal customs and rituals; daily life is good when aligned with the circle
  • can learn from the tribe and evolve within the tribal sphere of events in order to better oneself
  • is obligated to stay with the tribe, because leaving at a time of need, either in body or spirit, would be an unforgivable act of betrayal

In the end, it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you believe in something.  And if that something is not work, then it becomes something else... we address what's important in life with the only absolute resource we truly own: time.

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Mac Senour
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I've been making games professionally for almost 28 years. I started as a programmer back when there was one programmer on each project and btw, I did the art too. I was working for Broderbund and I had just finished the conversion of Serpentine to the Commodore 64. My boss asked me what I wanted to do next. I wrote him a nice long letter describing the duties of the job I wanted. I didn't know it at the time, but the job I described EA later called "Producer". His only response was: "Why would we ever need someone to do this job?".

It took a few more years to get to that job, but I'd never go back to being a programmer. I still dabble, like many others I'm working on an iPhone game, but I am a Producer. I feel passionate about it, I love it. I like to think I'm not bad at it.

You can read more about game development in my blog...


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I think this is a very creative article. I agree with you Kain Shin. You hit the mark with this article.

"Games do not exist without Code and Art, but those are nouns that are relatively easy to duplicate and evolve because their form is so very well defined, and they are storable on magnetic mediums for turn-based iteration.

Design and Production are the fleeting realtime verbs involved in the creation of any product that will set the tone for that product's fate. The verbs of Design and Production become enablers of the adjectives associated with the nouns of Code and Art that are embedded into the final product."

I totally agree. An Idea is worth a million dollars, but I don't think this has been the case with the game industry. I think that most of the guys with the ideas are no longer being so productive because they know they'll always get a paycheck at the end of the month. COMFORT ZONE.

But what if you were freelance and your making money was dependent on whether or not you can come up with a game idea a company will like. Truth is you'd work harder and think harder.

And if you can't come up with an idea means you're not meant to be a game designer in the first place. You'll just have to go on and look for another career to pursue. This way we won't be seeing too many terrible games cos the guys with the terrible ideas would have moved on to another career or else they wouldn't be able to pay the bills.

And If a game designer comes up with three ideas and sells it to three game companies, we'd see three companies releasing one great game each, and that way you're happy, they are happy, everyone is happy, its a win win situation.

Hollywood learnt to operate like this over time. I think we should emulate that structure for the good of the industry. I believe a little travel every now and then won't hurt the game designers and game directors if they're making good money for the ideas they are producing and the directing skills they are offering.

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Hi, Mac, you must have posted while I was still typing. So you were once asked "why would we ever need someone like that?" when you first described the duties of a producer to your boss. Looking at my above post, the same way I bet some companies would be wondering why the heck they need their game designers to come from outside. They prefer to own them in-house.

But I won't stop emphasizing the need for this and I believe that one they we'll all see the positive impact it will have on the industry.

Alan Youngblood
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Intriguing topic. I think part of the problem is that people know they are game developers and are so desperate to "break in" the industry (due to low supply of jobs and high demand) that they take what they can get. After all, "beggars can't be choosers" to throw out another cliche. Something most people dont' realize about job hunting or interviews in general is that the company you are applying to is not only interviewing you, you are interviewing them. When you go to their office, see what they do, talk to people that work there you are learning whether or not you'll fit in or if you would enjoy the job enough to work there, or if you'd actually be passionate about it.

The grim truth for me personally is that there are very few companies in the game industry (at least in North America where I live and have connections) that I would actually really want to work for. I'm gonna pick on Valve for a minute, because they are a perfect example of what makes a game developer worthy of working for IMO. First, Valve has a sustainable business. This is important because if I love my job I want to know for a fact it will be there for me like I'll be there for it. Valve has commented on how they treat game development as a service to the players and community, not a product that ships once and their hands are clean of it. People continue buying their games because they know that TF2 is going to continue to improve, grow, and change such that it will still be fun years later. They know that Valve cares enough to listen to player feedback from many sources and incorporate that into L4D's latest patch/update or DLC that they don't miserly charge extra for.

This leads me to point #2, my final point: It's all about the people. NOT the money, NOT the ideas. Those are both good and well, but invest first in people and those will follow. Ed Catmull of Pixar gave a recent keynote at Siggraph where he discussed his company's success. It had nothing to do with the amazing story concepts, the insanely magical technical achievements, but it was all about the people. He said too many people don't know the right answer to "what is worth more, a great idea, or a great group of people to work on a project?" I want a company that cares primarily about it's people: the workers, the end users, the tech support, and the community surrounding it.

Consequently, I'm working for my own start-up company, Matreya Studios. We all tend to care more about each other, our project and the players more than we do about our own egos. So far it's worked well.

Kain Shin
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I think Production culture is a reasonable goal assumption that applies to all studios.

Ideal design culture is a personal definition that runs the spectrum of gaming tastes. This article lists my personal definition of ideal design culture, but different people have different tastes on what they deem worth crunching for, and each differing vision of an ideal design culture is equally valid to the individual.

It is true that this article is intended for an audience whose goals are to make a great game that they would play while maintaining a reasonable quality of life, but I hope nobody takes this as an attack on the "workhorse" studios out there who are merely trying to survive by making game product for hire.

A lot of companies in this industry are run by good people who make a living developing game product for hire. They have garnered a useful set of skills over the years that enable them to finish product on time and within budget, and they are able to stay in business as a workhorse studio. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. A lot of these folks started out wanting to change the world of video games, and they simply found another definition of happiness that suits them better. We are all entitled to pursue their personal means of happiness.

Ultimately, we take the path of least resistance towards our own goals, and not everyone has the same goals. Not all goals are achievable with just one person. Running your own company can be scary, and you also have to work harder than one who is merely an employee. It's all about taking that path of least resistance towards your own personal goals... and even those goals can change over time.

Jason Weesner
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I've been making games professionally for almost 100 years. These days I'm just a nebulous cloud of creative gas that occasionally coalesces into a pair of barely integral hands so that I may convey my opinions on the internet. When I started, I was the artist, the programmer, the designer, the producer, and everything else: a young, high fore-headed stallion with ideas and notions of how the industry would change once my light was allowed to shine over the development landscape.

In all seriousness, there are some things that people need to keep in mind when they make the decision to get into this industry:

1. Even though every company starts off with the greatest of aspirations in relation to all aspects of development, things will inevitably not go according to plan (theirs or yours). Based on your experience and professional maturity, you will either perceive this as something catastrophically bad enough for you to leave the company, something that you are willing to just deal with, or, perhaps, something worth taking a stand against in order to make it better. A vast majority of the people I've worked with fit in the middle category whether they realize it or not. That has included myself on many occasions.

2. The best design culture is based on a careful balance of inspiration, communication, listening, and compromise. Notice that I included the concepts of "listening" and "compromise". This is the equivalent of shouting "fire" in a crowded room to many creative entities who feel that the honor of being creatively empowered is somewhat akin to being crowned the King of England.

3. Nobody wants to work indeterminable periods of crunch, but no company is immune from some amount of crunch. If you truly love your job, you won't have a problem with it. In some cases, you will actually thrive off of it. To be honest, I get very worried around people who say they refuse to crunch. They are generally people I can't count on.