Ask the Experts: 'Staying Employed as a Programmer'
[In this week's Ask the Experts column from educational site Game Career Guide, contributing editor Jill Duffy talks with GameRecruiter.com's Marc Mencher to find out just how stable programming jobs really are, and what skills a programmer might want to add to his or her repertoire in order to stay competitive in the job market.
We're also running this useful breaking-in column on Gamasutra - please consult the Game Career Guide 'Getting Started' page for more advice on entering and progressing your career in the game biz.]
I've heard that having a job as a game developer is on a per title basis. Just how stable are developer jobs currently? Will I be tossed out like dirty laundry after a project is completed?
Another recurring theme I see in articles and from developers is the need for future game programmers to be as flexible and versatile as possible. What does this flexibility entail? Should I learn business management? Or should I just learn new programming languages and concepts? What should I be focusing on?
-Eager in Ontario"
While it's true that developers count their experience in the industry by the number of titles they've worked on or shipped, I haven't actually heard this rumor that staff is laid off after a big project. And although many companies hire contractors, these employees know full well going in that they are not considered full-time employees. They don't receive the same benefits as full-timers, and most likely, they are people who choose to be in this more flexible position, preferring the lifestyle of freelance work, consulting, and "free agency," as game designer Michael John has called it. (See "Free Agency: Opening Up the Game Developer Market," March 2, 2007, Gamasutra.com.)
"At most studios you will not be tossed out to the curb when the project is done," says Marc Mencher, president and search consultant of GameRecruiter.com. Mencher's company is one of the leading recruiters for the video game industry, so he's especially knowledgeable regarding how and why developers look for a new job. He says the misconception that developers work on a per title basis might stem from the fact that most game employees won't leave a company in the middle of a project. They may be motivated by team loyalty, project loyalty, or the desire to list another shipped title on their resumes-but for whatever reason, developers generally don't shop around for a new job while they're in the middle of making a game.
"However," Mencher cautions, "the entire industry does not operate this way." He explains that "well-funded middle size to large size development studios" are safer bets for developers who want a long and healthy career. "Believe me: It's too expensive to hire you then lose you one year later. Most companies want and need to hang on to their staff."
On the other hand, financially unhealthy studios that can barely pay the bills, turning profits on a per project basis, are more likely to hire and fire more frequently, depending on whether they can afford to pay payroll from one month to the next. "Only small, under-funded development studios hire staff on a per project basis," Mencher says.
When it comes to being a programmer who's in demand in the work sphere, there are a few keys to staying "flexible" and "versatile"-and I commend you, Ontario, for recognizing that these are important aspects of the job and for asking for clarification about what they mean.
Game development jobs require you to be an amicable communicator, and that's true whether you're a producer, animator, tester, or programmer. Being able to function in a team setting is absolutely essential, so excellent communication and cooperation skills are paramount. No matter what else we at GameCareerGuide.com-or anyone else-tells you, those skills are foremost, especially because they verify your overall reputation others will have of you; and the game industry thrives on word-of-mouth knowledge.
More specifically to programming, Marc Mencher suggests keeping you "technical skills sharp and varied." I have a trick for finding out exactly what those technical skills are: look at job ads. Pay special attention to the key words you find in the "preferred" or "desired skills" part of the job description. I'll even pull some examples for you. These are all from active job listings: Scrum/agile experience; some Max Script/exporter experience; knowledge of Lua programming; experience working on cross platform; tools programming experience with MFC; working knowledge of Java internals; GameSpy.net technology development experience; experience with network game play coding.
You can also probably guess what skills companies will be looking for by following trends in the industry. For example, most of the latest consoles have been pumping their online connectivity and multi-player support abilities, so chances are studios will need programmers who are knowledgeable about networking.
"I know it's hard to keep focused on your current projects and at same time watch the industry trends," Mencher says, "but you must do this and ensure you're gaining the next generation coding skills needed for the next killer job. For programmers, it's never safe to stay focused on only one technology or one platform. It is safe to keep learning and increasing your skill base even if this means doing it off work hours."
Good luck, and thanks for reading!
[Jill Duffy is managing editor of Game Developer. She has more than seven years experience in publishing, writing, and editing. If you have a well thought-out question you'd like to ask her about working in the game development industry, email her at email@example.com.]