The computer game industry has evolved a great deal over the last twenty years. As a result, what were once just one or two career paths and job qualifications have split and split again into a plethora of career paths and jobs. For those who are willing to work hard to educate themselves and to prove themselves in the industry, a fantastically enjoyable and financially successful career is available to them for the rest of their life. It’s an exciting and wonderful set of fields in which to build one’s life—one that is constantly changing and reinventing itself.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was only one job title for those who wanted to create games, and that title was “game author.” Actually, that wasn’t so long ago or far away—it was less than twenty years ago. The total number of career paths in the entire industry was an astounding number of about two: the aforementioned game author and, on the business end, “game publisher.” But that was it—the game author was the designer, writer, programmer, artist, musician, sound technician, and tester for the game! The business model was similar to that of a book author in that the game author would hide away in a dark and dingy room with Jolt Cola for six months and a game would come out the other side, then earn royalties based on the number of copies the publisher could sell.
Times have changed. While initially the industry was a garage hobbyist industry—an industry that produced t-shirts that said: “It’s hard to believe grown-ups do this for a living”—today, it is no longer an anti-establishment garage industry but is instead a mainstream multi-billion-dollar industry demanding a multitude of degreed individuals with engineering, programming, art, writing, and management skills. Universities and colleges all over the world are now trying to turn out qualified individuals for this demanding industry.
If you go to any game industry employment site, the plethora of job titles boggles the mind. A sampling of job titles include 2D background artist, 2D game programmer, 3D animator, 3D modeler, animation engineer, art director, audio programmer, brand manager, character artist, cinematic animator, community services specialist, composer, content designer, content programmer, creative director, director of marketing, effects artist, engine programmer, game designer, game programmer, game tester, hardware manager, human relations manager, tools engineer, network game programmer, online AI programmer, particle artist, producer, production coordinator, quality assurance analyst, scenario designer, script writer, sound designer, storyboard artist, test tools engineer, texture artist, user interface artist, user interface designer, and even world artist! And this is just a sampling of the possible jobs in the industry.
What are all of these titles and how does one design an education or career to evolve with them? In this article, I will attempt to boil down the job titles one finds in the game industry to a set of archetypes or idealized models of the various fields in the game industry to make it a bit more manageable. Finally, I will touch on what this might imply to a student seeking an education to prepare for entry into the game industry.
While there are a great variety of careers and skills in the game industry, I would first like to touch on a couple of commonalities. The first of these is the tradition of flexibility and blurring of the lines between job descriptions. In the game industry, job descriptions do not act as barriers to accomplishing the job, but instead act as a guide to current needs. If you are a game engine programmer and a project needs some network coding, you may end up doing network coding, or, as a level designer, you might end up writing dialogue. This tradition arose for several reasons. The first is that, twenty years ago, one individual did, in fact, do everything. So even when technology created a need to divide labor into skill sets, individuals still tried to maintain a diverse understanding of the whole process. Another reason is tied to the creative process involved with games: unlike other software where most of the components are understood before the first line of code is written, game software is a creative work involving many unknowns. These unknowns change both process and product continually during development, requiring flexibility in the members of the development team. The ability of all members of a team to shift their resources and skills to adapt to these unknowns is a survival trait of any good development team.
The creative nature of computer games leads us to a second common characteristic of working in the game industry. The computer game industry is a highly technical discipline that creates artistic and entertainment works. In other words, it makes extreme use of both “right brain” and “left brain”—the creative and the technical, respectively—to create computer games. And while any single job may stress one aspect or the other, both parts are a necessity for every member of a team if the final product is to succeed.
We can divide jobs in the game industry into about ten different archetypes or idealized professions: the Designer, the Writer, the Programmer, the Visual Artist, the Audio Artist, the Manager, the Tester, the Businessman, the Journalist, and the Educator. Within these archetypes, one may find a great diversity of jobs and specialization, but, by examining each in turn, one may get a comprehensive feel for the industry as a whole.
Just as the movie director is the center of creativity in the film industry, so the game designer is the center of creativity in the game industry. From the designer’s vision emerges the entertainment, in the form of game play and story. The star system in the game industry, such as it is, puts the game designer on a pedestal. People like Sid Meier, Will Wright, Richard Garriott, Chris Crawford, and Brian (“Professor”) Moriarty are all famous game designers. As such, the position of game designer is the position most desired by individuals new to the industry. The proven game designer is much in demand, but to get that experience is a hard row to hoe.
What does it take to be a great game designer? In no other career area does an individual need to master by turns the creative and the technical. Certainly, the need to be creative—or right-brained—is obvious: the designer is creating entertainment and possibly even fine art in his game. But what about the left brain? Why is that important? The reasons are tied to how games create their entertainment through both story and game play.
Let me touch on a definition here first. In the game industry, when we speak of story, we are not talking about a narration that the game player may see in the form of cut scenes between game play. Story is actually the end result; it is the actual unique experience that each game player has with the game. It is the combination of both the narration and game play that the designer provides and the interactions and decisions that exist between the game player and the game. In this way, games are uniquely different than other media in that the player is an integral part of the story-telling process.
What does this imply for the game designer and the left brain, the part that forms logical connections and structures? Because the designer cannot control the story directly, he creates structures and relationships. He cannot just describe the adventures that Odysseus will have in his travels, but instead must invent an interesting universe populated by interesting people and creatures such that when the game player interacts with the game world, an epic story is then created. My own definition of a game designer is that individual who creates a universe, and the items in it with which the game player will interact to create interesting entertainment and story. The inventors of chess accomplished this millennia ago, and game designers have been doing it ever since.
Amazingly, almost all famous designers have first been programmers, the pinnacle of logic and relationships. While I am sure there have been some successful designers who arose from right brain arts such as visual arts or writing, they have been far fewer in number. The left brain ability to assess relationships is a critically important trait. Thus the game designer needs to be a Renaissance man or woman—they must be able to understand people and story and character, but also to understand logic and sequence and interaction in a very precise way.
A couple of subfields within the realm of game design are those of the level designer and the content designer. Although there are some differences between the two job titles, both are concerned with designing specific game play details within the framework of the overall game design. The level designer is concerned with a specific level or world or scenario, while the content designer is more concerned with adding detail to the world to support the themes, quest, and back-story. Another design subfield is that of the interface designer, who is responsible for how the game communicates with the game player and how the game player communicates with the game.
Closely related to the designer—and often found working hand-in-hand with one—is the writer. While the game designer is concerned with the how to assemble a universe such that the game player interacting with the universe creates a story, there is often a specific need to integrate a rich narrative into the game, both as prose and dialogue to advance the story. These require the right brain creative skills of the wordsmith.
Contrary to their roles in other media, such as movies and plays, writers are not (typically) the first step in creating a game. Narrative and complex story, the tools of the wordsmith, are for the most part subordinate to game design and game play. Few games have succeeded when the story has been given priority over game play. As such, the writer is creating his work in support of the game designer and the game play. Yet, as games become more complex, and the need for rich narrative and dialogue increases, the importance of the creative writer in the game design and development process likewise becomes more important.
There are also other opportunities for the wordsmith in the game industry: probably the next most important writer on the team is the manual writer. For this, a writer needs to have the ability to understand a complex piece of software and then be able to communicate it clearly to the consumer. Likewise, composing internal documentation that communicates clearly with the development team requires a skilled writer as well.