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A Letter To Students: Experimental Games Can Get You Jobs
A Letter To Students: Experimental Games Can Get You Jobs Exclusive
August 9, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield

[In this editorial, originally printed in Game Developer magazine's special Career Guide 2010 issue (available for free online) editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield asks that students use their time in school to try new game concepts -- while they're still in an environment that supports experimentation.]

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’ve at least entertained the idea of attending a school with a game development program, or using your time at school to work toward a career in the game industry.

Assuming you do go to school, more questions emerge. For instance, how should you best use your time? Obviously, you want to make something that will either land you a job or become a viable commercial (or indie, or freeware) product in itself.

If your passion is to work on the next Halo or Call of Duty, you have a straightforward yet incredibly difficult path ahead of you. It’s straightforward because it’s the most traditional, and thus the simplest to quantify.

During your time at school you may want to focus on working in teams, specializing in one area, but diversifying with knowledge of other areas (such as learning a scripting language as a designer, or some programming as an artist).

By the same token, it’s difficult because this is the area that everyone will be competing in, from all levels of experience and all other disciplines. It can be hard to differentiate yourself when everyone has a couple UE3 mods under their belt, or a decent portfolio of Maya-based school projects. Make sure you go the extra mile, and inject some passion into your work.

As The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom creator Matt Korba says in our panel interview in the digital/physical Career Guide magazine, “School is a great time to be in a safety net to create something. So, that’s what you should do. You should make something. If you want to be an artist, you should make art. If you want to be a designer, you should design things. Nobody is going to give you a job for something you haven’t already done. So, you should really use school as a time to do something and show it off.”

Express Yourself

If you’ve ever thought of making something a little different, this is when you should do it. School is safe place to try new things, and that extends to game development. In school you can develop games without worrying about your budget (unless you count loans), or turnover, or the whims of a publisher. More importantly perhaps, you can develop games without worrying that they’ll sell.

What this means is that you can truly develop whatever you want. If you’re really excited about traditional FPS or third-person action games, you can do that, provided you have the skills to match. But if you’ve any interest in experimental games, or reaching players on an emotional or metaphorical level, or even creating a new genre, school is a great place to do it.

If you look at the Independent Games Festival you’ll see that a large percentage of the games in the Student Showcase are non-traditional, making the best of what resources they have, and striving for something innovative. Developers appreciate new ideas, even if they can’t always implement them into their own games.

How should you do this? Korba has more to say on the matter: “I think you just have to do something personal,” he says. “Whatever makes you unique and your own personal experience, use that. A lot of times, in student films, people reference other films, and it’s becoming the same way in games. It’s like people are referencing a lot of other games. But if you take something that’s outside of games in your life or your experience and put that in, it’s always going to be unique because nobody else has that experience besides you.”

Some might argue that more experimental games might not put you in the good graces of a more traditional game developer who’s just looking to hire someone to tidy up textures. I submit that these experimental games demonstrate creativity and forward thinking that all developers will appreciate. Not only that, your demo reel or the games you submit to prospective employers may stick out more in their minds simply by virtue of being different.

Iterate! Iterate!

If you just put in your hours and coast through your classes you’re not going to get a very exciting job when you emerge. You’ve got to go above and beyond. Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany (Flower) says that polish is a good way to rise above. “Certainly, if you look at IndieCade and at the Independent Games Festival now, every year, the bar is getting raised on the level of polish in both festival games and also what’s coming out of schools,” she says. “I think that’s a new standard that we’re seeing ... as a way of standing out, just having a polished project.”

Kim Swift, designer of Portal, agrees, saying “... for you to get that polish, do not bite off more than you can chew. It’s incredibly tempting to go, ‘Oh, I’m going to make this and this and this and this.’ No. One idea. Focus. The more time and energy you can put into that one thing and polish the hell out of it will make for a better experience. You’ll get that grab in the first five minutes.”

Here’s the bottom line: When you’re at school you have a golden opportunity. You’re learning, sure, but you have the right environment and opportunity to really try to differentiate yourself. To do that, you’ve got to treat your schoolwork like you’re already doing what you want to do for a living. A lot of us are used to doing the bare minimum when it comes to school, but if you want to succeed in the game industry, you’ll have to prove yourself to the maximum. Get started now!

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Sergio Basurco Mancisidor
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Thank you. I found this article very useful.

Andrew norton
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That was some good theory, for those that might still be at university, or learning in another way, doing, or wanting to do, such a course in the field of computer games... or those that maybe interested in delving into this kind of work.

David Wesley
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Kellee Santiago should know, given that her company arose out of the USC Cloud project. However, many student developers are not so fortunate. Nevertheless, college does offer opportunities to be creative that may never come again. Even if your portfolio does not lead to job offers or VC funding, the ability to experiment freely can be its own reward.

Once developers enter the corporate ecosystem, the limitations placed on creativity can become suffocating. For example, Tim Ryan discusses his frustration over the lack of creativity in his company in the Gamasutra Blog Article titled "Lead Designers Who Only Say No."

That is not because studios want to crush creativity, but rather because experimental designs can often lead to financially ruinous projects. One way to avoid that problem is be a part of a start-up or small studio, but that often brings its own set of challenges and stress. In any case, Brandon is right, college is a "golden opportunity," in more ways than one.

Nick Halme
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I think this is a bit misleading. An experimental game is synonymous with a prototype, not it's own genre, and you seem to agree with this -- make any game and you'll show that you know how to do something.

I think we have a strange loathing for games like Halo and Call of Duty, and in hindsight we say "Everything they do is par for the course, how boring and trite", but then we're forgetting that they're popular games expressly because they're designed so well and are the best at what they do. In fact you probably want to design in school for the type of game you'd like to work on in the future -- want to work on a third person action game? Maybe you should make one in school. Does it have to be derivitive? Absolutely not. I think we sometimes mistake the aggregation of good design choices for shameless copying and dilution; but the fact is that for the most part Halo was a breath of fresh air when it came out. Make your third person action game like anyone would -- part of the genre, but with a dollop of something new on top.

I think it's also turned into something of a wive's tale, that so-called experimental games are disastrous. Poorly made experimental games are disastrous, just like anything else. Games and the business of games is about taking risks; I think we're stuck in a very conservative period right now because the companies with the spotlight on them have their minds set on making huge blockbusters when profit margins would be perfectly acceptable if risky, interesting concepts were turned into highly polished 10-15 dollar games with shorter development cycles.

Gregory Fuller
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I don't know if experimental games will get you jobs, but I know that raw competence doesn't seem to be enough. As far as I know, I was one of less than 15 students in the US that worked on a Ps3 game for a year in their final year of college. I decided not to do projects in XNA like others had simply because I wanted the experience of working on an actual console, so I could show that I knew how to program. The game wasn't that far "out there" -- it was a RTS on the Ps3, which is something we don't see much of, but it's pretty standard besides that.

Out of the 13 gameplay programming positions I've applied to so far over the last two months, I haven't heard back from a single one. I haven't gotten a single job interview or rejection letter.

So, I've downloaded the directx SDK, and intend to start making a new game. I don't have any experience with directX, so it seems like a good thing to learn. No sense doing nothing. Maybe I'll do something more experimental this time.

David Wesley
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The "business of games" is not about taking risks, it is about making money, just like any other business.

To say that it is a "wive's tale" that experimental designs have (in some cases) led to disastrous results is to ignore the evidence. Sure, one could say that Lair and Haze were "poorly made" (even though both of these titles have a lot of positives and were created by highly skilled developers), but there are also examples of well designed games that failed because they strayed too far from proven storylines and mechanics, such as Psychonauts and Frequency.

Also, I think you misunderstood the context of my statement that "experimental designs can often lead to financially ruinous projects," which is discussed at length in the book and in several of my blog posts. There are numerous examples that show that experimental designs can be extremely profitable. However, managers of big budget projects usually are not willing to accept the risks associated with the type of innovation that you are referring to, which is why indie developers are often at the forefront of video game innovation.

Patrick Coan
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What a dilemma! As a soon to be graduate of game design I have been torn the whole way through between traditional and experimental focus. Deciding just where to spend my time has been a challenge: art? design? mechanics? programming? "Pick one thing and go with it", they say. "OK", I tell myself, "But I want to design games, have an understanding of the components involved and a competent grasp on the whole thing."

So, that's what I've done. And I find my colleagues treating their work as a burden, finding more time to joke about posts on fail-blog, talk about and play games than actually make them. This article hit home because I have found that, for so many students involved with this industry, the light-bulb never turns on, they never realize that this is their golden opportunity to pull something out of their imagination and put it into the world.

In the remaining days of my collegiate involvement I look back with regret that I didn't get my hands on a game engine sooner. So much time spent in the art department with Max and Maya and the zBrush and the depths of Adobe's creative suite- oh man.

The bottom line is this: games can be born from imagination, but their workings are based on reality. People tend to get lost on one side or the other prior to completing anything worth while. Thus the publisher's hesitance to fund experimental stuff, thus a common dis-taste for the regurgitation of the widely successful FPS formula. And don't try and tell me that any recent FPS is innovative or experimental, unless we can agree on a new definition of those words, or unless our dictionary is written by the marketing department: good design does not mandate innovation. I'm sitting on a very well designed chair at the moment, it's design was innovated in 1825.

Nick Halme
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What I'm saying is that experimental design is a flawed term, or at least one that isn't being well defined. You seem to be using it to mean any mechanics used that aren't in best selling games already, which makes it odd that you cite Haze or Lair. Both games were rather conservative -- Haze's Nectar mechanic was new...but it was not exciting. Is the lesson that thinking outside the box is dangerous financially, or is the lesson that thinking outside the box isnt enough if the new idea isnt fun?

Lair let you spit fireballs as fast as a laser cannon -- as a result it felt a lot like Rogue Squadron, which were Factor Five's previous games. It didn't fail because they made a wonderful dragon flight simulator; it most likely failed because they tried to pull it off and didn't quite make it. You're telling me that nerds don't want a dragon simulation game if it plays well?

So many expensive games that figure "The popular game looks like this, so let's shoot for that too" end up almost but not quite hitting the mark, and end up, like Haze and Killzone 1, not stealing much of the Halo market. They don't out-Halo Halo and the things they do differently aren't very fun. Being innovative means nothing if you're innovating by implementing a new and terribly un-fun mechanic.

Risk is required to stand out among the crowd (for instance there are over a hundred game developers in Vancouver alone), and it's also, you know, really good for team morale. Most developers I know aren't interested in boosting profit margins by iterating on the same game every year so that investors can pocket the money; they want to build self-sustaining franchises. You don't do that by cloning, you do that by taking a risk and mitigating that risk by extending prototyping so that an experimental mechanic doesn't ship looking experimental.

As an example, Garry's Mod sold 312,541 copies on Steam, amounting to three million in sales. Dawn of War II was a risk; it segregated some traditional RTS fans and hoped to find a wider audience to attend to the new gameplay. If anything there is more evidence supporting the conclusion that well executed risks are profitable, while poorly executed derivations are not what people want to buy in a market saturated with them. It looks like if you execute well on an original idea you can make money and establish a community.

In fact, quoted from a Gama article on XNA sales, incredibly small teams making what are essentially prototypes are making very good profits considering dev cost "According to a Microsoft statement made during GDC, 'Several Community Games top sellers will be taking home more income from four months of sales than the average U.S. citizen earns in a full year' (about $32,000)" -- keeping in mind that some of those games are in fact developed by single individuals.

Dan VanBogelen
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As a non professional artist (I don't make any money at it), my tools for design are those unreal, or HL2 environments. I don't have a ton of options to do things on my own. While I have been schooled in Art, there wasn't any options to lean about the gaming industry in college.

While experimentation might be a good route to go if your a programmer, I don't see how an artist can get outside the "free tools" box when it comes to showing the Art side of it. As a texture artist I don't see anything that could be "experimental" so to speak, experimenting in art really only works on canvas, and not on a 3D mesh. Most of the fancy experimental texture work I see involves shaders and effects that would require a lot more programming knowledge.

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I can get behind the premise of the article; I focused quite a bit on experimental designs in school, and being able to articulate what worked and what didn't while justifying the original intent went a long way towards helping me land a game design job.

I would also point out that if you are truly gifted you might pull off something like 'Tower of Goo' which you could eventually transform into a product that could make you incredibly rich.

A word of caution to the kids though: don't get a game design degree! Get a degree in a relevant but valuable sphere that you can fall back on (like CS or art), and try to focus on game development while working towards that degree.

David Wesley
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First off, congratulations on your degree! Second, you might want to look for a position in a smaller company. Although small companies also require specialization, they offer more opportunities to contribute to other areas of game design.


I agree that a traditional degree with game design electives (or minor) would be the ideal route for those who are beginning their academic careers, not just because it makes you more marketable as a graduate, but also because it provides a stronger foundation of knowledge and skills.

Sean Sweeney
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While it is heart-warming to hear encouraging messages to the industry's youth, I often feel that they underscore the value freshness and novelty far more than competence and pragmatism. Sure, the former are attractive and the latter embittering, but at minimum they are both equally required. A student needs to be researching and implementing not simply the freshest, nor necessarily the most utilized, but the actual best choices to make.

There is much grief recorded about the tight schedules, requirements, and creative control in the game industry. I am sure that much of this is a result of the pressures and frustrations of professionals. Student life is not without its own deadlines, resource limits, and creative shortcomings. Straight-off, many experimental paths cannot be approached by a typical student or student team in an under-equipped environment, on a year-ish-long development cycle, and rife with inexperience. Your art is not going to be state-of-the-art.

It perpetrates a honeyed lie to pretend that there is not risk involved while in school. While one is relieved of the pressure of a career-sinking failure (don't have said career yet anyway), the pressures of time and money remain in full effect. A misguided student project remains a career setback in time and money. Students should never forget that it is an investment in education, especially at a for-profit school. Even for full-ride scholars it is still an investment of time, which has a cliche-but-true exchange rate with money. That often-touted safety net in academia is still made of money (your money), and you will need employment to replace that money.

When you stop being a student and seek employment, it's just that: you're not a student anymore. Many of the things that you've accomplished may be professional-equivalent, but you're now in competition with the other resumes. You've got youth, malleability, and a generally lower pay-scale on your side, but you still need to be the actual best candidate. You need to stand out. A hiring manager noting your years of related work experience is in the single-digits does not want to see a spectacularly failed project, especially given a student's general lack of resume depth. You need to succeed to survive.

For education alone can failure be as valuable as success, but if it does happen, try not to lose hope. Failure is not final. There are great depths to learn from one's own incorrect assumptions, and if you're a student you're paying for this pursuit of knowledge. One then, however, needs to apply this knowledge in tangible form, or else the knowledge simply fades into anecdote. Work outside of the standard assign-research-deliver cycle of academic success, and pursue the failure. This essentially means making an entire similar game again by borrowing time/money from other pursuits.

This new, unforeseen iteration requires gobs of unplanned, additional time--potentially even a framework or design lobotomy. It is an emergent need from the (always) unexpected poor result. For this reason, one simply cannot anticipate its entirety. And to truly get what you set out to learn and achieve, it must be done. This is what your career rides on, and what the industry thrives on. Even in the immaculate successes, let alone profitable successes, there are places to improve and polish.

This extra time is not, in fact, a waste; though certain choices that led you awry most definitely are. Don't fall into believing that your 1.0 post-mortem contains a moral. The shortcomings are simply hints, and a re-application--overcoming them--is the knowledge.