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Let's Make a Deal!
by Robert Madsen on 07/19/10 09:39:00 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.

 

You probably don't remember watching the game show Let's Make a Deal as host,  Monty Hall, asked the proverbial question: "Is it behind door number 1, door number 2, or door number 3?" Picking the correct door meant winning the grand prize. Picking the wrong door meant, well, not winning the grand prize.

Although finding a job in the game industry is not a game of chance, it is important that you understand the viable entry points (or we'll just call them "doors") so that you properly prepare for that position. As it turns out, there are three common doors to choose from.

Door Number 1 - Game Tester

Becoming a game tester is often touted as one of the easiest ways to at least get your foot in the door (boy, how far will I be able to stretch this analogy!). Behind door number one you can expect many hours of playing games, finding bugs, and documenting those bugs with great alacrity. The movie Grandma's Boy might be your reference for this position, or perhaps you have watched The Tester, a reality TV show where participants compete for the rare prize of a job as game tester for Sony. Consider these two references as "dramatizations" only.

One thing is true about game testers...they actually do sit around all day long and play games. As fun as this might sound, get ready for some really grueling work as you play the same game over and over and over. A student once asked me if game testers got to choose the games they tested (indicating that Pokemon might not be his thing). No such luck. As a game tester you will play games you love, games you hate, and everything in between. The important part of being a game tester is the ability to spot, reproduce, and then accurately report bugs. This is mostly done by comparing the game you are playing to the game design document (often over 100 pages long). 

Game testing is tedious, and the pay probably won't allow you to buy your dream car (or even your dream game system), but it is a valid door into the game industry. For example, in the company I work for, one game tester was recently promoted to producer while another tester was promoted to designer. The key to climbing the ladder is to do your job well, take initiative, and communicate your desired career goals with others in the studio.

Door Number 2 - Game Programmer

It is quite possible to get an entry level position as a game programmer. These titles often go by the name "Junior Programmer". As a junior programmer, it will be your job to be part of a team of more experienced programmers. You will be expected to make a real contribution to the project, and you will also be expected to listen, watch, and learn from the other programmers around you.

Keep in mind that even a junior programmer is expected to have mastered the core concepts of game programming. For most game jobs this will mean having a Bachelor degree in computer science, being fluent in C++, and having a working knowledge of both 2D and 3D game programming concepts. You will almost certainly have to complete a programming test before you will even be considered.

Being a junior programmer means lots of hard work, and probably some overtime (especially during crunch). Since this will be your first game programming gig, you will probably find yourself putting in some extra hours as you learn more and more about what it is to be a game programmer. In this position, it is important to get your assignments done, research skills that you don't have, and ask for help when you need it. Most of your companion programmers will be more than willing to take time to help you better yourself.

Door Number 3 - Artist

Entry level positions are also available to artists. As an entry level artist, you will be expected to work as part of a team of artists on a particular project creating assets that will be used in the game. Depending on your skill level and the type of game, this might be anything from creating marketing materials to creating 3D models. Another common area for entry level artists is creating art for the UI (UI = User Interface).

Just as with a junior programmer, even a junior artist (I'm not totally sure they use that title!) will be expected to have mastered the core tools which may include Adobe Photoshop and one or more 3D modeling programs such as Maya or 3ds Max. Most employers will want to see a portfolio of your existing work before they interview you.

As with any game development position, being an artist will mean hard work and some overtime. One of the most essential skills you will have to learn is the ability to get large amounts of work done by a certain deadline. This often means knowing when a piece of art is "good enough" and moving on to the next item. Artists rarely have the luxury of poring over a certain piece of art until it is "perfect". However, you often have a chance toward the end of the project to add additional polish to your work.

Door Number ?

To keep this article short, I have intentionally limited my discussion to the three most common doors for entering the game industry. There are certainly other ways to break in, but these are the most common entry level positions.  In my next post I'll discuss more of the positions that make up a working game studio. 

One important thing to keep in mind is that you should have an idea of your target entry level position long before you are looking for a job. For example, if you are getting ready to choose a college, make sure the college offers a program that will prepare you for the entry level job you are targeting. Even if your entry point is as a game tester, you will most likely have a career goal that comes after that, and this is what you should focus on during your education.

R


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Comments


Angela Williams
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Where do you work and are there any testing positons open?

Paul Herrera
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I work for a video game publishing company. most places expect you to have some form of experience now. always try schooling first then. after that do not apply for places that say you can make 20 some dollars an hour they are a scam because you always start with a base pay of 9.50 or 10 dollars as a start.

Gabriel Kabik
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What about making your own game? The tools and even the distribution models are out there; plenty of "garage band" studios have had success with their own ideas (thatgamecompany, for instance) recently.

Paul Herrera
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You can make your own game and that is something that is perfect for getting into a big production studio because then you would have a portfolio to show them that you have real skills.

David Tarris
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I'm glad to see a break in all the "where is the M.C. Escher of the games industry" prattle on this site for something actually practical. In an age where Collins College would have you believe you can go to their school and get "paid to play video games", I have no doubt there are many people I know who could benefit from the words of wisdom here.

Glen Swan
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I work for a independent game developer and publisher. Some alternatives to getting your foot in the door is through game publisher positions that may not be offered at game developer studios. Positions like Customer Services Representatives, Community Specialists and various entry or training level positions that have to do with publishing aspects of the gaming industry like Distribution, Marketing, Localization and etc.



I've known a number of developers who got their foot in the door simply by starting out as Customer Service Representatives (Game Masters) and moving up.

Sean Farrell
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For artist and programmer positions it is almost required that you can "prove" experience in games. That is having done some substantial work on your own time. For artists that is a demo real of work and for programmers some nifty working demo.

Robert Madsen
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Wow! Great responses to this article. Let me try to respond to the questions and issues so far:



1. Angela: I am currently a game programmer at Other Ocean Interactive in Charlottetown, PE, Canada. We have a sister company that does game testing called Sculpin QA. You can go to their website at http://www.sculpinqa.com/ and then click on Contact Us for a link for job inquiries. However, unless you happen to live near Charlottetown, I have no idea if they consider out-of-town applicants for game testing.



2. Glen: I think your note on starting at a game publishing company is a good tip. There are other avenues I haven't mentioned either, including internships of various sorts. There are also people who have started in game media (e.g. game websites, journalism, etc.) and then moved into game development.



3. Gabriel: Making your own independent game is certainly a good idea. Whether or not this will get you a job in and of itself is a topic of wide debate (see my earlier post "To School or Not to School" and the comments at http://tinyurl.com/2d7d8pg). Certainly there are examples of people who got jobs with developers based on an excellent game or mod they developed. Also, there are examples of people who successfully started an independent studio. However, by far, the widest path into the industry is through getting a good education, starting at an entry level position, then moving up from there. As Paul and Sean commented, having a demo reel or working demo will go a long way toward getting you that first job.



4. David: I share your skepticism of schools who give unrealistic expectations in their advertisements. In my opinion, a standard four-year college degree is still considered more highly than degrees from technical schools (an entire discussion on this can be seen in my earlier post "Which School Is Right For Me?" at http://tinyurl.com/yhvdq9m). That said, I worked with a graduate from a technical school at my last studio and he was an excellent programmer, and my own son graduated from Full Sail and now has a job as a game programmer. As always, it is the student who makes the program and not the other way around.



5. Paul: Thanks for the tip on salary expectations. I believe that you are correct that an entry level position may start at $10/hour or less, especially as a tester or other support role. Talented artists and programmer can get entry level positions making closer to $20/hour. I think the thing to be most careful about is advertisements for schools that make it sound like their program will get you a job making $60,000 a year right out of school!



You can now access the Salary Survey (http://tinyurl.com/2d96vyk) which gives great information about salaries at all levels and positions in the industry.



R

Christian Allen
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It's a myth that you can't start as a designer. I did.

Rob Schatz
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One of the things I'm hearing from professionals at AAA game studios is that the video game industry is more competitive now than it's ever been before. Case-in-point: I saw a game tester position that required you have played an RTS for 5+ yrs, and have played competitively, i.e. a league. And the peace de resistance was that an AS or BS in Computer Science was a plus. FOR A $10/HOUR JOB.

Robert Madsen
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Christian: The studio I work for has also hired entry level designers, so I agree that the idea that you can't get in as a game designer is not true.



Most studios want designers who have proven skills and it's hard to have proven skills if you have never worked in the game industry. Until recently, there weren't schools teaching game design, and most game designers got their positions by first working in some other capacity for the company.



There are a lot of people who think they have a great idea for a game and that this will be enough to get them a job as a designer. As with any position, in order to get an entry level position as a game designer, you will have to be able to demonstrate that you can design games. There are many ways to do this. Modding existing games is probably the best way because this is a tangible way to show that you understand good level design, game balance, and most of all, how to make something that is fun. Another route is to design non-computer games such as board games.



Rob: All I can say is, Wow!



R

Jeff Bumgardner
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As someone looking to get into the games industry, I found this article and the comments very informative. Thanks, Robert.

dominic cerisano
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Its this kind of Flintstonian pigeon-holing that ensures we will never see a Jetsonian game effort.



Maybe Standard Orbit from Standard3D comes close, but its a one-man effort that took years to produce. If we all had the time (like George J) on our hands to create complete games individually, then we could live like a Jetson!!

Daniel Kinkaid
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Even though I've never been a game tester, I know all about the testing/reporting aspect. Also, 100 page Document Designs are nothing compared to what I work with. :D



Testing is NOT fun, but if you do it well, you get noticed really, really quickly.



I tried getting in the industry; my problem is I'm a large scale thinker/designer. I'm good at overall design, but pretty bad at implementation of said design. I'm thinking of concepts the industry won't touch (Real time physics engines and how said engines would interact with enemy AI and level design, for instance), but we simply don't have the processing power to implement said concepts. All good ideas, but unles someones willing to give a producer job to a newb in the industry, it doesn't exactly help me get a job within the gaming industry...[I'd LOVE to have a design chat with some of the Bioware guys at least...I have RPG ideas that go far beyond what anyone has even attempted.]



In hindsight, Bioware took a lot of my thunder with Dragon Age; I was working on something with a simmilar party system [whether they liked you and how each individual action affected them, and their own actions]. I started this project over a decade ago, and was just finishing some AI bugs when DA:O released...speaking of which...

Chris Gielis
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In regards to the second door.

When going down the programming path would there be any special advice you could offer?



Personally, i work in IT as a developer (not in games =(... yet) and with most of the jobs that I've seen they ask for people with experience only the term "Junior" programmer basically has come to mean "Overseas(usually Indian) programmer", does the same hold for games?



When applying for such a position a formal degree (Bach in IT or Bach in Game programming) would be a definite benefit (going for a Bach of IT myself). However, given that you're aiming for games and the IT degree isn't specialised for that, would it be of worthwhile to provide a demo? (something you wrote yourself).



If so, what sort of features would they be looking for? Clean code? Fast running code? Certain graphics features implemented? or just something creative and inventive?



I know this may beyond your personal knowledge, but perhaps you have some insight. Given that this is the path I'm aiming for in a year or two when i finished my degree (and have 5 years of development experience under my belt) it would be useful to know so i could start preparing now.



Thanks in advance.

Peter Wynia
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I have been pursuing a Masters in IT with the goal of re-careering into the IT field. At 37 I have my PMP and ten years of operations and project management experience involving projects valued in the tens of millions.



Even with this experience, however, with no or game industry experience other than as a hobbyist, the prospect of entering the gaming industry is daunting - especially without contacts. I've been looking for analyst or customer service positions as potential back-doors into the industry but without success. I also have a concern at how my age may hinder me as not being that of the typical first-time hire for the industry. Even though I'd be willing to even take an internship, would companies be wary of investing their energy into someone who already has 15+ years of their careers gone by?



Any experience seeing non-tech types have success coming into the industry at this point in their career?

Rob Schatz
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Hi Peter - I'm in the process of switching careers myself, from PR to 3D Game Artist/Game Designer. I've chatted with a ton of professionals to get their input and what it comes down to is this: if you can show that you can do the work, you'll get hired. For example, I want to specifically be a 3D Texturer so I need to show in my portfolio that I can lay out UVs, create sophisticated shaders, put textures on characters, buildings, anything, and so on and so forth.



There are plenty of people in the industry that don't have gaming degrees. And like I said, if you can show you can do the work, a degree doesn't matter.

Peter Wynia
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Thanks Rob, I appreciate the response.

Rob Schatz
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Happy to help, Peter. Let me know if you have any other questions.

Robert Madsen
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To Peter and Chris:



First of all, read my earlier blog entries where I give a wealth of information on how I got into the game industry. I got my first job at the age of 46 after spending 25 years in IT, so if I can do it, so can you! Also, you might enjoy this article that I wrote for gamecareerguide.com at http://tinyurl.com/2u57o86. I began my path into the game industry when I was about 42 and running my own IT consulting business. It took me some time to self-educate to the point where I felt I had some skills to market, but the hard work paid off.



Peter, you are correct that even with a wealth of IT experience, gearing up to become a marketable programmer in the game industry is still difficult. One of the most difficult barriers to cross is the fact that almost all programming positions require that you pass a programming test, and these vary from "really hard" to "insane" in difficulty level.



Rob is correct, though: If you can demonstrate your competence you can get a job. As a programmer, there are three components to demonstrating your ability:



1. Any kind of completed game is a good game, so make a game. If you are already pursuing an IT degree of some kind, then make it a point to make your projects about games or game technology. "Package" any completed games and related code so that you can show it to prospective employers.



2. You will have to take some kind of written programming test, almost always testing your skills in C++, general game programming concepts, and often 3D concepts including math and matrix manipulation.



3. You will almost always have to pass an oral programming test. This generally happens once you have reached the phase of getting an interview. Often, a technical interview will be given over the phone to gauge your knowledge. Then, if you make it to a face-to-face interview, you will probably spend at least half of that interview in a room working through programming problems on a white board.



Now for Chris's questions:



>>The term "Junior" programmer basically has come to mean "Overseas(usually Indian) programmer", does the same hold for games?



- Junior Programmer does not equate to outsourcing. Although the game industry does outsource work, this usually involves outsourcing a particular part of the project to a team in another country. Most studios that use outsourcing still maintain a local team of programmers. That said, a job as a Junior Programmer might be just the thing to get your foot in the door. You definitely have to realize that, even if you have several years of IT experience behind you, you are still only a beginning game programmer and may have to take a less lucrative position to get your first job.



>>Given that you're aiming for games and the IT degree isn't specialised for that, would it be of worthwhile to provide a demo? (something you wrote yourself).



- First, as I noted above, focus your college work on gaming as much as possible, even if you are in a standard IT program. Many IT classes involve putting together some kind of project, so try to make your project relevant to games if you can. And yes, it is VERY valuable if you can provide a demo that you have written yourself. On that note, it is better to create a small game that you completely finished and polished than a large game that you never complete!



>>If so, what sort of features would they be looking for? Clean code? Fast running code? Certain graphics features implemented? or just something creative and inventive?



- Yes.



(ha). But really, all of these are good features. If I was hiring I would put clean code above fast running code because clean code can be turned into fast running code. The more you can demonstrate an understanding of graphics the better. Try to target the demo to the kind of job you want. For example, there are many 2D positions available in the web, mobile, and casual arenas, so if this is your goal, create a really good 2D game. However, if you want to work on a first-person shooter, then your demo needs to demonstrate a mastery of 3D. After you have met these goals, then the more creative and inventive you are the better.



>>Given that this is the path I'm aiming for in a year or two when i finished my degree (and have 5 years of development experience under my belt) it would be useful to know so i could start preparing now.



- YES. Absolutely start preparing now. If you have 2 years to go before you are done then make those two years count and apply everything you can toward honing your skills as a game programmer.



Robert



P.S



Also, thanks to everyone else who has contributed to this post!

Chris Gielis
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Thank you very much for the feedback. You're a legend. :D

I've just started a major development project for uni. So now i know that my choice to make it a small game (probably something not much harder than a 3D pong) was a good one.



Thanks again.

Roberto Caldas
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Nice article Robert, thank you.

Those tests seem very intimidating. I'm wondering if I would be able to succeed. Could you please post some technical questions that you've seen in those interviews? Just to ilustrate how hard they can be.

Robert Madsen
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Keep watching my blog. I plan to go into more detail in the future on the types of questions that are asked on tests. Here are some examples:



- Find the highest point solution to a Scrabble move given the initial board and the players tiles.

- Write a small version of breakout

- Write a 2D text adventure

- Reverse a linked list with not addition memory allocatiion

- Create a simple memory manager given a fixed block of memory (without using additional memory allocation)



Those are just a few. Hopefully I can go into more detail in the future.



R


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