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Designer's Notebook: How to Get Started in the Game Industry: Part II

December 18, 1998

Last week Gamasutra published part 1 of "How to Get Started in the Game Industry." This week is part 2, addressing "great ideas" and the two main paths in to game development. However, I want to start by covering something that I left out last week, which is…

If You Already Have a Job in Another Industry

The good news is, yes, it is possible to get a job in the game business after having worked in another industry, and I'm living proof. Before I came to game development, I worked for seven years in computer-aided engineering, writing software that lays out chips on silicon. I knew that someday I wanted to work on games, but I didn't want to do it on the small machines that were available at the time. When the 80386 and the VGA card came around, I figured the time was right, and that was when I made the switch.

Here's how I did it: I wrote a short, punchy cover letter with bulleted items that explained how working in the CAE industry had taught me software engineering discipline and teamwork skills that had hitherto been rare in the game industry; and that experience programming on a deadline, even in the wrong field, was still valuable. I also brought in a small demo of a game I had written for the Kaypro (!) and ported to the PC. To his everlasting credit, Rob Fulop, the founder of p.f. Magic, gave me a job programming the PC for an America On-Line game (back when it was still called PC-Link), and I didn't even have to take a pay cut to do it.

The bad news is that it's probably more difficult now. At the time, the game industry knew almost nothing about software engineering discipline; it was still one step above the "basement hacker" level. Nowadays team programming is the norm, and revision management, once sneered at by bare-metal coders, is accepted as a standard practice. Coming from a grown-up engineering community, I was bringing something the game industry didn't have at the time, and you won't have that advantage. But you may have others. Think carefully about the work you have been doing and how your experience might apply to game development.

Fortunately, it's no longer so vital that you be able to program the hardware directly. When I came in, people who could hack the VGA registers and write modem protocols were at a premium, but now such things are taken care of by system libraries. To the extent that you no longer have to be so close to the machine, it's easier than it was. I still think experience in hardware programming is extremely valuable, especially if you're going to program the console machines.

On the subject of pay, the news is worse. Programmer salaries, like everything else, are governed by the law of supply and demand. There are so many people anxious to get into game development that the salaries are depressed by comparison with other industries. An experienced programmer can expect to take a pay cut of from 10 to 25%. You might get lucky - I did - but be prepared for a shock. Incidentally, be wary of suggestions that you work for free in exchange for royalties. Start-ups are chronically short of cash, so this method is appealing to them, but I wouldn't take such an offer unless I knew the people personally and was a partner in the company. I can't even begin to list all the ways you can lose out here - they range from the game simply never shipping to outright fraud.

One thing I can't offer much advice about is coming in with art or music skills from other industries. I know it's possible, because I've met an experienced animator in the business who used to be in Hollywood, but I don't really know how she made the transition.

If You Have A Great Idea

A lot of people write to me to say that they have a great idea for a game, but they're reluctant to tell me about it for fear that I might steal it and make a fortune that's rightfully theirs. They want to know how to get started without actually revealing the idea. I'm sorry to burst anyone's balloon here, but great ideas are a dime a dozen. The chance that you have an idea that no one else has had is vanishingly small, especially given that there are now tens of thousands of people in the industry.

A game company is not going to give you a development contract on the basis of a great idea. What a game company wants to know is: can you build it and make it great, on time and under budget? What actually counts is not the idea, but the execution. As Thomas Edison said, "Genius is 1% innovation and 99% perspiration." He didn't just sit down and invent the light bulb; he ran electricity through every single material he could get his hands on until he found one that worked - and even then he didn't really get it right, since he stopped with carbonized cotton thread. It was another guy named Coolidge who invented the modern tungsten filament bulb.

Of course everybody knows about consumer fads that have made their inventors millions - pet rocks, mood rings, Rubik's cubes, and that kind of thing. However, such fads don't happen in computer gaming. I can't name a single game that people went crazy for in the same way they did for Rubik's cubes. Part of the reason is cost; people are a lot less crazy about shelling out fifty dollars than they are about shelling out five. And in any case, counting on starting a fad is like counting on winning the lottery. For every lottery winner there are thousands of lottery losers. For every Rubik's cube there are thousands of little gizmos that lived their day and died.

I've got a great idea that I've been telling people about for years: make a game about horses, and you'll sell a million of them to little girls. Now Mattel has finally gone and done it with Barbie Riding Club and they're going to make a mint. I don't feel bitter about this, first because I'm sure they didn't "steal" my idea - it's a pretty obvious one when you think about it - and second, there's no reason I can't make a game about horses too. Maybe mine will be better than theirs and sell more. This is an entertainment business, not a technology business. Great ideas are the cornerstone of companies like Du Pont and Dow Chemical, where research and patents are essential to their success, but in interactive entertainment, anybody can make a game about anything - what matters is making the game good.

Getting A Job

There are two very different ways to get a job making computer games, and each has its own pluses and minuses. There are other ways into the industry as well (sales, marketing, law, accounting, and so on), but they don't have much to do with actually constructing the games, so I'm not going to cover them here. The two ways in are developing and producing. I'll look at them both in turn.

Getting Into Development

The first and most straightforward way in is to develop a talent or skill that the industry needs, and sell it to them. There's a long list of these: computer programming, 2D and 3D art, sound engineering, music composition, creative writing, videography. Many of them have subdisciplines: 3D programming, sound programming, AI programming, user interface programming. These are the fundamental crafts that are required to build computer games, and this is what most people think of when they say "game developer": someone who actually makes and assembles the pieces of the game.

The advantage of this kind of job is that it gets you directly into building games, and it pays well right from the start, especially if you're good at it. Companies are always on the lookout for skilled artisans who really know their trade. Most of the different skills are taught in courses at colleges, and there are even starting to be courses specifically about game development. In general there are two kinds of companies to work for: publishers which have an in-house development group, and development companies which sell their work to a publisher.

The disadvantage of this kind of job, at least in a publishing company, is that it has a glass ceiling - it's hard to get promoted beyond a certain level. There are two reasons for this. First, if you're excellent artistically or technically, a company is going to want you to continue to do whatever it is you're doing. If they promote you into a management position, you won't have time to do the thing you're best at, the thing they appreciate you the most for. Unless you can demonstrate to them that you're a better manager than you are a programmer, they'll keep you doing programming. Growing publishers almost always hire their middle management from outside, rather than promoting their creative talent.

The second reason developing within a publishing company has a glass ceiling is that the higher echelon jobs in a company are fundamentally about money. To rise in a company, you have to have something to do with money, because making money is the company's primary purpose. In addition, it's best to be on the side of the people who bring the dollars in (sales and marketing) rather than on the side of the people who spend them (product development). Sales people are the heroes who "make the numbers," "make the quarter" and so on. Product development people are the ones who miss deadlines, blow their budgets, and constantly demand expensive new equipment. While there may be engineers at the top of engineering companies, there won't be many at the top of mass-market consumer product companies, which is the business we're in.

This isn't necessarily true at game development as opposed to game publishing companies. A development company is in the engineering business. Its customer is a publisher, not the retail consumer. It's not uncommon for an expert programmer to be a senior partner in a game development company. However, development companies aren't very stable. They live hand-to-mouth on their development contracts, and if they can't get a new contract when the old one is done, they fade away. This may not matter if you're just getting started, but if you have two kids and a mortgage, you might prefer working as an in-house developer at a publishing company.

Getting Into Production

The second way in to the game industry is as an expert gamer. These are people who love computer games passionately, who live for them, who like nothing better in the world than playing them and being around them and talking about them. Gamers often get jobs as summer interns at publishing companies, doing testing. If they're solid and competent, they might get hired full-time as testers, or if they have a lot of patience and good explaining skills, as customer service people. From there they can work their way up to quality assurance (not the same as regular testing, these are people who make the very last tests before a product goes out the door), then assistant producer, associate producer, and full producer. Producers oversee everything about making a computer game. They negotiate a deal with the developer; they're responsible for the budget and schedule; they work with sales and marketing to figure out how to make the game sell well; they work with the legal department on licensing issues, and so on. Producers don't actually work with the art or the code or the music, but they guide its overall direction. Assistant and associate producers often design missions or levels, and they help out in a thousand other ways, depending on the needs of the project at the moment.

Producers require a lot of different skills, the most important of which is an extremely subtle one called "product sense." Product sense is an ability to tell when a game is going to be fun and when it isn't, and more importantly, to know what's needed to fix it if it isn't fun. This might seem easy, but after you've played a game a few hundred times during development - most of the time with buggy, half-finished code - it takes nice judgment to know whether it's still on track or not.

This way into the business has the advantage that there isn't a glass ceiling - or if there is, it's a lot higher than the one for developers. Since a full producer is involved with money - setting the development budget, working with sales forecasts - a successful producer can keep moving on up. A producer whose game is a hit may get promoted and start overseeing a whole line of similar products. From there he might head an entire studio, with multiple producers working for him, and so on.

The downside of this way into the business is that there's a long period of low-paid donkey-work at the beginning. Testers, customer service reps, and assistant producers do a lot of boring, repetitive work. It's vital to making good games, but it isn't very glamorous. All that experience is part of developing the "product sense" to become a good producer.

Finally, I should add that it is possible to move from the "development" ladder to the "production" ladder, because that's what I did. After eleven years as a software engineer (four of them in the game industry), I stopped programming and became an audio/video producer, and I have been doing that for the last five years.


This, from my experience, is how games get built, and how people get into the business of building them. If you want a job making games, this is how you get one, and most of the rules are the same as for any industry. Finding a job is a job; perseverance is essential. Study the games. Read the news. Research companies you're interested in. Follow up every letter with a phone call. Be polite. Spell things correctly. Don't be arrogant or flippant. Take yourself, and your work, seriously. Attend industry functions, as many of them as you can afford, and especially, especially, the Game Developers' Conference, whose job fair is second to none in the game business. That may sound like a blatant plug, but don't dismiss it: the GDC is unparalleled as a way to meet game developers and learn about the industry.

This column may at times have seemed a bit cynical, at least to those of you who haven't worked in the game business before. I don't mean it to be cynical at all; it's just how the industry functions. People who are good at schmoozing and glad-handing get to be President of the United States; people who win Nobel prizes don't. It may seem unfair, but the country probably runs better that way.

I'll end with one more hard truth: almost nobody gets to make exactly the game they want to make. That's because games made for sale aren't made by single individuals; they're collaborations, and collaboration means compromise. The developer compromises with the producer, and the producer compromises with the marketing and sales departments. The only people who can make exactly the game they want are those who build them themselves, without worrying about whether or not anyone will want to buy them. It's wonderful if you can do it, and I think we need more of that kind of independent development, but it's not the same as having a paying job at a successful company.

If after all this you're still in love with the idea, then go to it and good luck!

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