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So, You Want To Be A Rock Star?
by Robert Madsen on 01/15/10 04:22:00 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.

I thought I would start the year with a series of posts related to getting into the game industry. I get emails from students and others all over the world asking me questions about this.

In some ways, the game industry is like any other industry. You get an education, typically with a major in the area that you are targeting. Once out of college you start looking on job boards, etc., for jobs that interest you and send in your resume. Like any other job, a college degree doesn't guarantee you a job, and it sometimes takes months to find your first one. Once you get your first entry level job, you work your way up the ranks. Sounds easy, right?

The Creative Industry

Although the path indicated above will work in general, there are some aspects of the game industry that set it apart. People often talk about "breaking into the game industry" in the same sense as people talk about "breaking into the music industry" or "breaking into acting". Because the game industry is a creative field, their are several barriers to getting a job that you don't find in other industries.  Saying you want to be a programmer is like saying you want to be an accountant or plumber -- learn the skills and you'll eventually get the job. But saying you want to be a game programmer is more akin to saying you want to be a rock star. Not only will you need the skills, but you'll have to be the best of the best just to get considered. The same is true of most jobs in the game industry.

What makes the game industry different? Here are a few thoughts:

  • The game industry requires higher levels of technical skills compared to similar jobs in other industries.

    Game programming typically requires cutting edge skills to create cutting edge software that pushes the envelope of the technology. Art must be top notch. Designers must be exceptionally creative. Producers deal with the worst possible scenarios for keeping their projects on track.
  • The game industry requires higher levels of creativity.

    Making games is still more of an art than a science. Just like it's hard to define what makes a great song, it is hard to define what makes a hit game. Everyone making a game is required to implement technology in creative and innovative ways. For example, a graphic designer has to do good art. But a game artist has to do good art and make it move or make it 3D or make it any number of things, all while keeping within a memory or resource budget! Programmers have to make computers do things that they don't want to do while remaining usable, responsive and fast. You get the idea. Also, some people are able to break into the game industry by demonstrating their creative talent alone, completely bypassing the traditional route.
  • The game industry is part of the entertainment industry.

    Like the film and music industries, the game industry delivers entertainment. This has two consequences. First, our products are non-essential in the sense that people could live without them if they had to. Second, we provide a way for people to escape reality or experience alternate realities or just have 15 minutes of fun! In other words, if people are going to shell out money for our product, then it had better meet whatever emotional need they had for buying it in the first place!
  • The game industry has an aura of celebrity.

    Gamers aren't just consumers of our product. They become fans. They perceive those in the game industry as wizards who concoct a special magic. Although the game industry hasn't quite reached the level of celebrity as the film and music industries, it is still perceived as a field where it is a privilege to be involved.  No one talks about breaking into the banking industry, but you have to break into the game industry. This means, for example, that getting in might be as much about who you know as it is about what you know.
So there it is. I'm not suggesting that other industries don't require just as much skill and commitment. I'm simply pointing out that the nature of the game industry and the aura surrounding the entire entertainment industry make getting a job in the game industry a little harder.

That's it for this post. Next week I'll dig a little deeper into the ramifications of trying to break into a field based on the entertainment industry.

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Matt Riley
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Hi Robert,

I just wanted to thank you for the blog articles. This was the first one I read, but as a person in a similar situation (albeit with far fewer years of IT experience), I was interested enough in your take that I dug through the rest of your entries. I think most people on here naturally assume the game industry is a far tougher industry to get into than say IT, but I also think there are enough game wanna-bes in the IT industry that you bring a unique and valued perspective. I'd be very interested to hear if you found that any of your IT skills actually crossed over, or how your programming skills held up. The common thread on this site and others is that you need a portfolio of your work, and that you should be making games in your free time. From your previous entries, it doesn't like that was the case for you, so I'm a bit curious if, in either of your searches, that absence proved to be a problem.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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I don't want to sound critical but you missed the main reason that the games, film and music industries are much more competitive than other ones.

The reason isn't that they are creative industries. The jobs here don't necessarily require more creativity or technical skill than most. The important part is that they are media industries. The fruit of their labour is distributed on *cheaply reproducible media*. In theory one company could make the absolute best game to all people and everyone would buy it, to the detriment of all their competitors. In reality, a few games disproportionately dominate the market as with films and music. When practically unlimited copies can be made nobody need settle for second best. A tattoo artist, of course, doesn't need to worry about this issue.

Matt Riley
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Are you sure that's the driving force? Commercial software is distributed on cheaply reproducible media, but I never hear about anyone "breaking in" to the Anti-Virus industry, for example. Textbooks should theoretically work the same way (the supply is not limited), and I've NEVER heard of that being a tough industry to crack. Conversely, all professional sports aren't "reproducible", but the odds of making it to the NBA, for example, are astronomically low. I think the reason these industries are competitive has a lot more to do with people actually wanting to do the job, than with the implementation of distribution.

Prash Nelson-Smythe
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I'm not saying it's the only factor, just that it's probably the main factor and I was limiting my arguments to games, film and music.

However, professional sports are reproducible in the sense that they are broadcast around the world for all to see. Without broadcasting technology most of us would never have seen world class players, our standards for the sport would be lower and the money we pay to watch would be distributed more evenly among more local players, as opposed to the top few in the country/world.

As for the anti-virus industry, some types of software require a certain amount of support (applies more to AV for organisations), which is a service and is not reproducible. This limits the number of customers that can be served by one AV company. But you are probably right that the lack of desire for people to work there would probably make it easier to get a job. Not least because technically inclined people tend to realise AV operates as a kind of protection racket for people using inherently insecure operating systems. That said, we really don't know how hard it is to get a job in AV. There are some great minds in computer security with relatively reproducible work. Perhaps the only reason you hear about people trying to break in to games and not AV is because you read about games and not AV.

Similar situation with textbooks. Do you think it's easier to get your brand new textbook selling enough to make a living than it is for your new game? In my experience, textbooks are quite standardised at lower levels of education, meaning a similar situation of a few big players taking all of the customers. There is more room for variation and finding niches in higher education but the higher you go the more expertise you need. It doesn't sound like an industry easy to break in to. It feels to me that the games market is more fluid and open to new competitors, though that is wild speculation.

I suppose that what follows from my points that is actually relevant to the article is that you shouldn't hold up the games industry as something so much more difficult to penetrate than other media industries, *without specific evidence that it is*. Perhaps such evidence exists...

Stephen Northcott
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I think games can be an art form, and those that are truly "art" have a less rigidly defined set of parameters. What I mean by that is Sports Sims can be done well, but cannot be compared to something like say "PixelJunk Eden". Having said that those sports sims may have cost more to produce, be more technically complex and overall be a better simulation of something - rather than a cartoon. (I am using sports sims as an arbitrary example. Just in case any of you think that I think Madden is a masterpiece - I don't. ;-) )

If someone came up with a completely new and novel way of eliminating viruses. For example: A college kid who was doing a science or computer degree defined something totally new for virus detection and elimination, and that took the Anti-virus industry by storm... Or like say Google did with search.. Or that student who recently redefined how electric plugs should work.. Then they too could be said to have "broken into their industry". They are "rock stars" without any formal qualifications in their field who have changed their industry. So it is very possible elsewhere too.... We just don't see it that often from our perspective. But then how many of our parents or grandparents, or non-nerd friends have heard of, or care about PixelJunk?

So coming back to my first point. It's just with games it's easier to redefine the rules.

It's just with "art" as opposed to search, power sockets or viruses, that we don't have a rigid set of guidelines that a "breakthrough" product has to conform to.

Taure Anthony
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Nice post needed to be said thank you.

@ Matt I too would like to know this regarding your first post questioning Robert about his experiences with IT crossing over into the Games Industry.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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I think the main difference simply lies in the fact that games are just .... sexier and more exciting, than say, the next Office Suite. Games are entertainment and therefore something that many many people get excited about. It's like, when you ask a child what it wants to become in the future, you'll get more often than not an answer like "an actress", "a football player". These jobs are just more interesting, they don't just 'pay the bills', which is something only the fewest children would consider when being asked such a question. When it always has been your dream, your fascination to become an actor, or a game developer, naturally you'll see this industry as something to 'break into'. If I grew up fascinated with cryptography and the exciting challenge of the eternal fight against hackers/virus creators, I'd also think of the anti-virus industry as something to break into. But since most people are more passionate about games, being a medium of artistic expression (or at the very least, entertainment), the game's industry more perceived as a break-in industry.

Robert Madsen
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First of all, thanks for all the replies! I'm glad I could spur such a great discussion.

To Matt's question:

Yes, my IT skills have been immensely helpful. The core skill of any good programmer is problem solving, and I find that the same problem solving skills that I used for business applications serve me well as a game programmer.

My coding skills were adequate, but I found that there were many techniques used in game programming that I had never been exposed to. These were things that could mostly be picked up from someone else who had that experience (rather than in a book or class). Fortunately, I had a technical lead who was more than happy to help bring me up to speed. I also found that programmers who had just come out of college had a set of knowledge that wasn't covered when I got my degree. A key example would be design patterns, which didn't exist when I went to college!

One area where I did have an advantage was in planning. I found that I was able to look at a problem and pretty well grasp how much time it was going to take and the level of complexity for the task. My just-out-of-college cohorts typically underestimated these two areas.

Perhaps I'll go into more detail in a future blog. Also, if you haven't done so, you can read my article at

As for a portfolio, you are correct that I didn't really have one. This was mostly because I was just too busy surviving (running my own business) to put the time into making a good demo game. I still think this is a good idea to show your coding skills. I was counting on my portfolio of business applications to show prospective employers that I had a wide range of experience developing computer applications, and I created my website as a way to present those. Now that I am in the industry, I have made it a point to keep samples of my work and build a portfolio specific to games.

Finally, I don't want to give the impression that the game industry is SO glamorous that "breaking in" is an unatainable goal. I only think that there is some difference because of the "aura" of the game industry. I agree with Dolgion that it is really in they eye of the beholder and games was definitely a "sexy" industry that I just had to become a part of!


Bob Stevens
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I think the "game developers as rock stars" thing is often overstated. At least for programmers, most people don't care. There are a couple of celeb programmers of course, but they're very rare. And if you're expecting a rock star salute from your fans, just remember that for every game released there's a very vocal community that hates it and hates you for making it.

Robert Madsen
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True, true. Game programmers get very little if any of the limelight. More often the producer or others in marketing will share most of that. Still, I find that in average conversation, telling people that I program games automatically piques their interest (in a positive way!). Also, by my own admission, I'm still a fanboy of my own industry!

Justin Nearing
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Understanding that the games industry is one you have to 'break into' is the first step, but understanding how to break in is an entirely different matter. For recently graduated students or people from other technical industries, its important to realize how things are done in game development. The most important thing is understanding the concept of the hidden job market. Put simply, it's not *what* you know, it's *who* you know.

One of the reasons its so hard to break in is because 90% of the jobs available in the industry are not advertised. The gamasutra and other job boards make up a vast minority of positions available. The way to get a job is to know someone who you worked with in the industry, was impressed with your performance, and wants to hire you on.

Of course, this leads to the industries infamous catch 22: How can I impress people in the industry if I'm not in the industry? Thats the real question, and their is no easy answer. It certainly makes good subject matter for another blog article.

Dave Endresak
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Pretty good post, I think.

I'd like to point out that gaming as a whole is not solely entertainment. It's also educational and training, especially in the simulations arena. Granted, some people may want to differentiate between areas, but I don't think that's a very practical approach in real world applications. After all, other media does the same thing: films can be educational (either explicitly or simply used as pedagogical tools), same with books, plays, etc.

I'd also argue that media industries as a whole tend to be viewed as something to "break into" due to their incestuous approach to consideration of people to welcome rather than making genuine proactive effort to include diverse members. For example, as Robert points out, gaming is a creative field... so why doesn't the industry focus on areas outside formal game education such as liberal arts education and other areas of training where people who happen to love gaming could offer important contributions to the industry? By the same token, why do such areas of study continue to ignore gaming as a very possible field of specific endeavor (creative writing, for example, or journalistic review)?

Robert Madsen
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Justin: I agree that networking is very important. I have found that many people in the industry are very open to being contacted by students and others who aspire to become a part of the industry, so the first step is to find opportunities to meet such people (e.g. Game Developers Conference and especially the Game Career Seminar).

I have seen various statistics on how many positions are are advertised vs. not advertised. I think that saying that 98% of jobs are not advertised is too high, but it is true that some positions will not be advertised. The real issue is that, even if you apply for a position posted on Gamasutra or any other job board, your chances of getting considered will greatly increase if you actually know someone at the company.

Dave: I'm glad you brought out the fact that "game programming" goes beyond just games. Many of the same skill sets are required for creating educational games as well as simulations (from medical simulations to space applications). So, anyone looking for a job may want to consider these fields as well.