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by Lewis Pulsipher on 07/02/12 06:50:00 am   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.


"A goal without a plan is just a wish." -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

An amazing number of teenagers dream of making games for a living, if my informal surveys at local schools and colleges can be expanded to the entire generation.

There are all kinds of individual delusions (see ), but I’m talking about the big dream: “I’m going to be famous (and rich) as a video game maker.”

Perhaps the dreamers fall into two categories, those who dream without having any idea how to get there and no plan to get there, and those who dream while doing something to try to get there.  The first group is much the larger, as is likely true with any kind of dreaming.

Teachers are “stuck in the middle” when dealing with dreamers.  I’ve heard many people say “you shouldn’t destroy their dreams” while others, including me, think that people of adult/near-adult age (as are college and high school students) need to understand reality, and the ones who dream strongly and are willing to do something despite the odds still have a sufficient chance to succeed.  In other words, they won’t be put off because one teacher or even all their teachers show them that their dream will be very, very hard to attain. 

We have a K12 school system (in the USA) that has endeavored for years to avoid the negative, to pump up student self-esteem without requiring any action to earn self-respect.  People are awarded merely for participation, and competition is discouraged.  It is the opposite of the real world.   When students enter the real world they're shocked that they're not special, that people won't do things for them "just because" of who they are.  Part of a college teacher's job is to help students realize what the real world is like, to help students learn to take responsibility for themselves and to *earn* respect.

When kids are quite young then they’ll have many dreams and a teacher is probably going to encourage them to find dreams that really fit their personalities and desires.  When the student is close to graduating from high school or is in college then they need a big dose of reality so that they don’t waste years pursuing something that they may not be suited for.

A disconnection with reality seems to have become the norm amongst pre-adults.  In 2007 I had a class of high school students taking a college course in Web design.  We had a discussion about fame and about famous people, and I asked them to think of famous people from the local county.  In the end we could only come up with three football players, all of them retired by that point, and one deceased governor, out of 300,000 people.  We did a little math to show that it was quite unlikely that anyone from a group as small as the class would be famous.  Then I asked them how many of them thought they would be famous in their lives and about a quarter raised their hands.  I understand that this is not an unusual proportion for millennials (Gen Y).

This is an extreme of dreaming.  You can dream of being really good at something and enjoying it but that doesn't make you famous; these folks dream that they're going to be famous.

The tremendous lack of initiative of young people as a group (there are of course many exceptions) has really impressed (or depressed) me.  A "generation expert" speaking at a teachers’ conference described the "ambitious but aimless" tendencies of millennials. They have a goal, but not only don't know how to get there, they may not even be willing to pursue a path to it when the path is available. The expert's example: millennial says "I'm going to be an astronaut".  Well, that's very praiseworthy, but that requires a lot of work, you'll likely need at least a master's degree in some science-related subject, you have to take physics, math, etc. "Nope, I don't do math," says the millennial. Then how can you be an astronaut? "I'm going to be an astronaut". They don't see the connection between where they are and where they're going, but somehow it's going to happen.

Dreams are not a bad thing--as long as you DO SOMETHING about them.  Dreams should be about goals and how to attain them, not pure fantasies.  Talking about dreams isn't likely to go well, as you'll get a dose of reality from those with more experience.  Dreams on their own are empty, vacuous even.  You need to try to get results.

It’s common to hear people say “well, I could do as well as teh experts if I tried that”.  But they never try it.  And while it’s usually not true in practice that they’ll do as well, sometimes it is, as with the 35-year-old Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, Barsoom) in 1912 when he felt he could write stories as good as the ones he was reading in magazines.    The difference is, ERB went for it, he didn’t just talk about it.

Sid Meier, talking about the original Civilization game, said  "Most of the letters we'd get were almost a standard form.  They were like, 'Dear Sid.  I liked your game Civilization.  Here are the five things I would change to make it a much better game.'"  People who almost invariably had no clue about game design, but thought "I can do just as well as he did," told Sid where he went wrong.  Ridiculous.  (And that’s as much the previous generation as millennials, in the early 1990s.  Many things cross generations.)

Fantasist-dreamers can get to the point that they're personally offended by someone who describes a reality much different from the one the fantasist-dreamer would like to imagine.  And blame the person "delivering the reality".  For example, many people love tabletop RPGs so much and imagine what great work they can do, then meet the reality of a market that used to be very active, but collapsed several years ago leaving only a few companies able to make much profit.  Some of these folks are actually offended when someone describes how and why the market is quite small (beyond the efforts of those few big companies).

Before I taught curriculum game design, I was at a college where I mainly taught computer networking, and taught a game class on the side.  I was able to find enough students for the curriculum (for college credit) game class, even though there was no degree, but when I tried to do a continuing education (inexpensive, not-for-credit) class almost no one signed up.  A 16-year-old who did sign up said he tried to get some buddies to come as well, but they were "too busy".  I'd bet a lot of their busy-ness amounted to killing time playing video games; but if you're a person who thinks that somehow things will just work out, you're not likely to take the initiative to change the state of affairs.

Admittedly, this lack of interest in learning isn’t confined to younger people.  At my Origins seminars about game design this year I asked people how many had read a book about game design.  Very few.  Admittedly, there are very few books in print that even begin to discuss tabletop game design (though one is a free download), and most of my audience were interested in the tabletop, not video games.   Nor did I ask how many regularly read blogs and sites about game design.  The audience did take the time to come listen to what I had to say.  But surely, if you’re really interested in game design, wouldn’t you read at least one of the well-known game design books?

Remembering that this blog is about game design, my point is this: it won’t just come to you, you have to do it, you have to pursue it, you have to take every opportunity to learn about it (read!).  Then again, if you’re reading blogs like this, you’re already ahead of most of your contemporaries who dream of being game designers.

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Roger Tober
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Interesting. I find the same thing at some game sites. About every month or so someone will come on and ask how to build an MMO. When anyone tells them they have to start by learning a computer language and write small games, they immediately get angry and are never heard from again.
I notice there's been a cooling off of that kind of thing lately. Games are being seen as collaborative even by the dreamers, except small indy games. I find writing games to be an enjoyable hobby and I don't really want to try going professional. I like making free games.

Daniel Gooding
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The Fantasist-dreamer posts on forums always give me a chuckle.
It's like a competition to see who can ask for the most help, and offer the least amount of effort.

The problem with this, is that now those same people are discovering Kickstarter, and taking advantage of emotional memories of past games, and promising generous people a dream game.

William Volk
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You know, in the arc of my game career I have seen an interesting progression in the opportunities out there:

1979-1990 Pretty much wide open, more so in the earlier years.

1991 - 2008 Closed up markets. Hard to get into the industry.

2008 - Present: Frictionless markets with no barrier to entry. i.e. mobile, digital delivery etc..


Stephanie Bryant
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Thanks for this article-- very interesting and useful information.

Could you recommend some books on tabletop or video game design? Specific to design-- not marketing or programming, but the nitty gritty of game design.

Katie Chironis
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As someone who has just entered the industry as a designer (I'm at my second internship now) I will say that this article comes off as slightly condescending.

Twenty years ago it seems like the field was wide open. All the time I hear stories about designers walking in without even a high school degree. Now to make it in games you have to be downright cutthroat to stand a chance. In fact, every developer who makes it into the industry these days is likely facing ten times the competition that candidates faced in the past. No college degree? Hah, fat chance. No portfolio of indie/group game projects to prove your worth? Get out.

I've worked with peers who didn't have the ability or know-how to understand where they needed to start to get into games. That's what this article completely ignores -- that there's a complete lack of information on "hey, how do I do this?". It's not laziness, it's complete ignorance of the process coupled with a lack of clear information. Learning to make a game to put in your portfolio is a behemoth of a task in and of itself. (And no offense, but tabletop games rarely cut it on portfolios these days.) Applying to developer houses is even more hectic, and there's no protocol for what to do or how to do it. If an AAA game company hadn't literally walked onto my campus and asked me for an interview, I would have had no idea where to begin.

It's easy to generalize millennials as "a bunch of lazy kids" who want everything thrown into their lap. I've been to the career fairs -- both at schools and at GDC -- and I can tell you that's completely untrue. In fact, the young developers I know in my age bracket are the most driven, hard-working, intelligent, realistic people I've ever known.

Lewis Pulsipher
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Someone pointed out when I posted a version of this on Boargamegeek, that nowadays it is much easier than 30 years ago to find out about a great many things (including game development) because of the Internet. There is much more information about game design, programming, art, available *for free* than ever, thanks to sites like this one and Gamecareerguide and many others. There are lots of books. "Hey, how do I do this" can only happen if one ignores, or just doesn't try to find, all that information. And that's much of the point of my post, most young people aren't trying to find that information.

Many veterans of the game industry are self-taught, even though they struggled with many fewer resources than we have today.

Yes, there are fewer openings today. Which is true of almost all fields, not just games, and it hits young adults the hardest because they have little or no experience.

Christian Hellerberg
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you make it sound like finding useful information on the internet is easy as opening a book and all the information is right there but that is hardly so. There is a gigantic swamp of misinformation and uneducated rants by 'the blind leading the blind' stated as if it was a universal truth that you need to dig through before you get even so much as a hint of actual information. And yes, Gamasutra does also fall victim to this. The press coverage here is fine and reliable, the blogs however not so much. Like 'expert bloggers' with no meaningful success or a portfolio that boils down to "I made a mod for game X" or "hey, I just graduated from college" claiming they know how to make games better... It is a bit like you're suggesting "Hey, there's this library with 5 billion books and some of them are about game design. Why don't you go find and read them?"

You bring up self taught veterans, but those veterans learned their craft on hardware that was so limited there was only so much you can do, and expectations were equally low. And then they learned more and more as better hardware came out, gaining years of experience in the process. 20 years ago being able to develop a platformer or RPG for the SNES was considered quite awesome and the be all end all. Nowadays you're smiled upon and considered a rookie for acquiring the same level of expertise.

Eugene Seow
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Isn't it a given that one have to sift through countless hours of misinformation on the internet before finding something remotely close to what they are trying to do, that is the nature of the internet. Information on the internet will not be handed to you on a plate, one have to look hard for it.

I feel that finding information is so much easier these days through the internet as everything can be done in the comfort of your home and not constraint by library opening hours or public transport schedules.

I'm not sure about others but for me I did not get much actual technical information during my university studies and a lot of it was self sourced and taught. In my case I wanted to design a game on UDK(University Project) which required me to do Unreal scripting which I had no knowledge of apart from a few programming classes (html,.net,java) I took 3-4 years before. Thus I thralled through the countless websites, videos and forums daily for any information or ideas on how to achieve what I wanted to, constantly asking in multiple forums for help and guidance.

Veterans had limited amount of hardware to work on, however information available to them was also as limited, thus I feel it is the same for them as for my current generation.

The way I see it is all the information you need is out there, and its how hard you look for it, and how badly you really want it. Those who really want to be a designer bad enough and understands that he/she will have to put in the work for it even before getting anywhere close to having a chance to become one will be the ones finding the information they need and eventually getting to where they wanna be.

William Volk
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There are some good tools out there to create iOS and other apps. I think there's real opportunity out there, but as with every creative industry (books, music and film) you have to be excellent to succeed.

At least there is opportunity now.

Martin Petersen
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There sure are great tools, but it still require a very good chunk of knowledge -about the software as well as the regular skill set of the trade- to utilize these. This is something that is easy to forget once you've acquired a foundation of knowledge and experience, that allow you to solve most of your issues with Internet research... Game development is not like picking up a camera and a photography book and start snapping pictures.
Also, better tools equals more/better competition by raising the barrier of entrance. What might have been a good portfolio piece ten years ago, doesn't necessarily cut it anymore.
Considering the size of the industry then and now, it's possible things haven't changed that much. Making it in any creative field will always require you to apply yourself fully.

Robert Chang
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I hope you're joking about iOS. Even experienced Xcode users will not claim that Xcode is a good tool. I mean, unless you're an amazing Obj-C Cocoa programmer, when you hit an error, the debugger is an ambiguous useless piece of junk.

Let's be honest, programming is not easy. Program design on top of programming is even harder. And it's getting even harder. Knowing one language might be enough 10 years ago, but now you might need to know 3 languages or even more to be even considered.

There's almost no chance for a person to become a professional programmer outside of formal education. Formal education is horrendously expensive and unavailable to many special circumstances (older people, second bachelors, etc).

The industry is more competitive, more complex, with fewer opportunities, and lower budget.

Falk F
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Even in the final year of our BA Game Design course we aren't going to make a finished game. I currently make an iOS game during my summer term break. I was faced with some completely unexpected challenges that I would've never considered as a designer before. So don't forget to MAKE games in addition to the studying suggested in the post.

Robert Chang
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This article really irks me. It puts all the onus on the youth as if all of a sudden, kids stopped trying, when all of the facts show that kids try just as hard as any other generation. What's changed is that a college education costs $4000 per quarter instead of $1000. What's changed is that instead of a class of 25, it's a class of 45. What's changed is that parents are being laid off work and kids need to work at fast food joints to barely make ends meet.

I find articles like this one accusatory without really looking at the issue. Did you really think that all of a sudden, kids who are born past 2000 just suddenly got "aimless"? The real problem with education lies in its system. The kids haven't changed, it's the adults in power that's become selfish and self-aggrandized.

Lewis Pulsipher
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You've assumed that you can only learn through classes. Good classes are worthwhile, certainly, but there are many people in the industry who learned without classes.

Believe me, I know the education system is failing in many ways. And yes, the USA is fundamentally going downhill as we've consumed more than we produced for decades. But if you suppose the only way to learn is through the formal education system, you've gone a long way down the road to failure.

Yes, the onus is on adults to do what needs to be done. That's part of being adult.

k s
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Personally I found when I decided to get into game development there were no resources on how to. I knew I'd have to either start on the art or technical and since me art skills were never awesome I decided to study programming (a good choice for me as I enjoy programming). I knew before I started that I wasn't going to get a job designing right away as no one will hire someone without something to show (be that skills or an art portfolio).

As I studied programming I watched the industry and ultimately decided to go indie cause I didn't really want to become a cog in the machine and the kinds of games I like and like to make are rarely given the green light anymore. Now what I did may not work for everyone but it did for me.

@katie a lot of the millennials are lazy and expect everything handed to them on a silver platter and even though I love technology I have to admit that the problem largely lies with technology and the younger generations' dependence on it. That doesn't mean they're all lazy brats but the vast majority are.

Luis Guimaraes
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When I played games as a kid they did teach me to tackle on challenges and be creative, find solutions to what seems impossible or makes little sense at first glance and acknowledge that failure and retry is part of things really worth doing.

Today's games teach you how you're awesome (positive reinforcement) and you can never fail (avoiding frustation) and that everybody can it if they keep doing it for long enough (level grinding), and program you to grind through endless repetitions of brainless boring actions (achievements).

Lewis Pulsipher
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Years ago I wrote something called "Are video games turning us into a nation of losers?" They aren't the cause, of course, we are just seeing the effects of larger social changes, but you've hit it spot on.

Someday perhaps I'll write "Achievements, My Ass"--that achievements aren't that at all, they're just busy-work added to a game because the game itself isn't (in the long run) very interesting.

Adam Rebika
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"Then again, if you’re reading blogs like this, you’re already ahead of most of your contemporaries who dream of being game designers."
Hahaha thanks, you're making me feel less worried about my future ! Even though I would say that I have been a long time dreamer, and it's only pretty recently that I started really working (well, thanks to some awesome professors I had last year that did a great work motivating us and making us more confident).
Anyway, I think the three things you should tell to those dreamers are :
1) Start small. I have no idea about how many "big MMO that will change everything" I have been involved with teams composed of people between 14 and 20. Obviously, none of them ever worked. But if you start with smaller projects, there is a much higher chance that you'll eventually finish them.
2) Do something, anything with whatever you have. You want to be a game designer but have no coding skills ? Write game design documents. Not just 2 - 3 word pages telling how awesome your game will be. Write everything down, every dialog, every room, every item. Too much work for you ? That's because you forgot rule number 1 !
3) Networking. You can't stress how important networking is in today's world. Knowing the right people is necessary. So don't stay there alone on your own, talk to people, show them your work. It will help you. If you can't get them hooked on what you're doing, you won't get your future customers hooked on what you're selling.

And finally, let us not forget about the strong feeling of achievement given by finishing a project.