Designer's Notebook: How to Get Started in the Game Industry: Part I
December 11, 1998
a funny thing about computer games: a common reaction to playing them
is to want to make them yourself. That's exactly how I felt playing my
first computer game. Five minutes into it I thought to myself, "I have
GOT to know how to make these!" I don't know of any other medium that
creates that feeling so strongly. As a kid, I watched TV without wanting
to make TV shows; I saw movies without wanting to make movies; I listened
to music without wanting to make music. I did want to write books after
having read books; but of course kids are always being encouraged to write
creatively. Nobody encouraged me to make computer games. It was just something
I knew I had to do.
I get a lot of letters from people wanting to break into the industry. Many of these people are high school or college-age, and are fascinated by computer games in exactly the same way I was. I always write back to them with advice and encouragement, but I've written the same letter so many times that I realized the best thing to do was to put it in a column that will live on the web. That way I can just point future correspondents to Gamasutra. By the way, one thing I'm not going to cover is how to start your own development or publishing business. That's the subject of a book, not a column. This is about how to get a job making games.
If You're in Elementary or Junior High School
worry too much about it right now. The best thing you can do for yourself
is to get a solid education. If you concentrate your whole life on learning
how to make computer games at this age, you'll end up good for only one
thing, and by that time, you might not even want to do it any more. Now
is the time to generalize, not to specialize.
However, there are a couple of things you can do to start yourself on the right road. Take algebra and geometry, and if your school offers classes in using or programming computers, take them too. Even if you don't want to become a programmer in the long run, it's very helpful to have a general understanding of what programmers do. If you get any chances to work with computer art programs or electronic music tools, take them as well. Get familiar and comfortable with computers. Learn to type well - if you can type fast and accurately, it will save you a lot of time in the future.
If You're in High School
when you didn't need a college degree to get a job in the game industry
are about gone, I'm afraid. Some years ago it was possible to get a job
purely on the strength of some programming you had done in high school,
but now that companies are big enough to have Human Resources departments,
entry-level résumés that come in without college degrees on them are likely
to end up in the trash. Take the classes that you need to get into college
- preferably a four-year college.
In addition, take any classes that seem as if they would be relevant. Art, programming, animation, creative writing, even photography or filmmaking are all skills that can come in handy. Remember, the game industry is an entertainment industry. Learn to use the tools of entertainment.
If You're in College
point you need to start thinking about what talents and skills you can
bring to the computer game industry. What do you like? What are you good
at? Can you draw, paint, program, write stories, or compose music? Now
is the time to sharpen those skills, both by studying the masters of the
past and by practicing yourself.
Although it sounds corny, I strongly suggest that you get a well-rounded liberal education. Bruce Sterling, the science fiction author, once said that well-rounded people were smooth and dull and it was better to be a thoroughly spiky person who stuck in people's throats like a pufferfish. This is good advice to an independent artist, but it isn't good advice to somebody who's looking for a job. Most people don't want to be programmers or artists all their lives - the stress eventually burns them out (as it did me). To move on to game production and design, you need to be a well-educated individual who has something to offer her company besides programming or art skills. Be sure to take some anthropology, history, and literature classes. The Star Wars saga didn't suddenly jump into George Lucas' mind; it came about - and was so successful - because he understood the power of mythic themes: the heroic young man on a journey to confront his hidden past. Lucas had that understanding because his education went beyond just using a camera and editing film.
Study The Games!
of what age you are, you should play as many computer games as you can
afford. Form a collective with your friends to buy them and swap them
around. Play different kinds: graphic adventures, shooters, military simulations,
sports games, puzzle games, kids' games, "games for girls," and so on.
Don't just play them for fun, think about them seriously and look at how
they work. Most games have an internal economy - some value changes over
time, and without it, you lose (or die). In Monopoly, for example,
it's money. In a game like Doom, it's ammunition, armor points,
and hit points. How do resources flow into the game? How do they flow
out? How much is luck and how much is skill? How is the game balanced?
If they have "easy" and "hard" modes, play them in both and take careful
note of what things are changed.
Also, look at the user interfaces: the way the keyboard, mouse, and joystick are used; the way the screen is laid out; the progression of menus. Are they logical and convenient? Do you find yourself wishing for a special key or button that the game doesn't supply? What is the "camera's" perspective: first person, like Doom or Quake? Observer from behind, like in Tomb Raider? A freely-moving aerial perspective, as in Dungeon Keeper? An isometric perspective as in Starcraft? Can you change camera angles (as in Madden NFL Football) and if so, how does the game's playability change when you do? All these things go into the analysis of a game's design.
There's No Such Thing As A Game Designer
an overstatement. But with one or two extremely rare exceptions, there's
no such thing as a full-time game designer. Trip Hawkins, the founder
of Electronic Arts and 3DO, used to say that there would never be a job
titled "game designer" as his company, because everyone on the project
contributed to the design of a game, and it was unfair to give one person
all the credit (or the most enjoyable work).
There's another, more practical reason for this. The initial design of a game normally takes from one to three months, depending on its size and complexity. During the rest of the production cycle there are always more design decisions to be made, but not enough to devote one person to it full time. Usually the game's designer starts doing other administrative or production work once development gets under way. A company can't afford to have a person on the payroll who does nothing but design all year round.
The rare exception is someone like Sid Meier, who's so famous as a designer that he gets his name on the front of the box. But Sid has been around a long time, his games are phenomenally successful, and he has more than paid his dues. Don't think you're going to get an entry-level position in the industry as a game designer. Unless you start your own company - and can afford to pay yourself to do nothing but design - it's just not going to happen.
Game Testing Isn't As Much Fun As You Think
sounds like one of those dream jobs, like being a chauffeur for a guy
who owns a Porsche (and, inexplicably, doesn't want to drive it himself).
Getting paid to play games! Who could ask for anything better?
Unfortunately, testing games for bugs isn't much like playing games for fun. When you test a game, you have to test every single feature in every possible combination (or at least, as many as you reasonably can). You can't play competitively; you can't play to win; you have to play according to a test plan which tells you what to do. Hour after hour, day after day, for weeks and weeks and weeks. Testing a game is like eating nothing but hot fudge sundaes, all day, every day. You may like them at the beginning, but you'll probably hate them at the end.
If you're testing a simulation of a real-life game, you also have to test every conceivable condition to make sure it matches what the real game does. In a football game, on a kickoff, what happens if the ball goes out of bounds? What happens if it rolls out of the end zone? If it's touched by the kicking team first? If it's touched by the receiving team? If they call for a fair catch? If they call for a fair catch and drop it? If they call for a fair catch and the receiver gets hit by a defender? The possibilities are nearly endless.
The job takes a lot of patience and self-discipline. It also takes a keen eye for observation. You need to be aware of exactly what you were doing at the time a bug occurred, and to have the verbal skill to describe it clearly and accurately. Not everybody can do this. You have to be more than a gamer; you have to be a gamer who can read a programmer's mind, a programmer that you'll probably never meet.
A lot of high school students wonder if it's possible to get a job testing during the summer. In my experience this doesn't happen very often. Most of the interns I've met have been college-age. I don't know whether it's a maturity thing, or it has to do with child labor laws, or what, but I think it's unlikely.