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Career Paths in the Game Industry

July 10, 2006 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

The Programmer

The programmer is the oldest profession in the game industry. In the bad old days when one individual created a game, that individual had to be a proficient (if not outstanding) programmer above all else. Even today, the game programmer cannot be a “turn the crank”-style programmer, especially in the case of individuals such as John Carmack. Although game play and story are vitally important to computer games, the technology that presents the game to the game player has always been critical. For better or worse, the audiences want their games to push the technology envelope to its extremes. They want faster games, better AI, higher resolution graphics, better special effects, and so on. In addition, games, by their very nature, are almost always unique in how they process the game play and story. This requires that innovative methods be incorporated into almost any new game. This constant innovation in the code for a game requires the programmer herself to be constantly innovative.

Besides the “typical” game programmer, there are a number of other specialties among programmers these days: 3D and graphics programmers who specialize in putting the game scenes on the screen; engine developers who specialize in the foundations that the game is built on; tools programmers who build tools in support of developing the game; interface programmers who specialize in code that supports the communication between the game and the game player; network and multiplayer programmers who are interested in how parts of the game can exist on more than one computer, and communicate between them (this is especially hot currently because of the demand for network game play); AI programmers who specialize in writing artificial intelligence for games; audio programmers who implement the sounds and music created by the audio artist; physics programmers who are concerned with how objects move and interact in a consistent physical world; and quality assurance programmers who develop the tools and means to test and ensure quality in the game software.

The Programmer

The Visual Artist

Visual art—what is displayed on the screen during a game—is a critically important part of almost all games these days. Gone are the days of presenting the entirety of game play through text. Typically, 25-50% of the cost of a game is for the visual art. When I first started writing games, I was my own visual artist. And, if you look at those old games, it shows. But very quickly, it became apparent that game designers and programmers shouldn’t be doing their own art. When I hired my first employee to help me with my games, I hired a visual artist.

Before 3D graphics, the visual artist was typically concerned with background 2D scenes and the design of characters/pieces that would move across the screen. But 3D changed art drastically: instead of creating 2D images that represented a 3D world like a painter might, the artist actually had to become a part-time architect, designing and painting 3D objects in a 3D world, much more like the sculptor.

These days there are a number of specialties for visual artists: 2D painters who are still creating 3D scenes in a 2D environment; concept and storyboard artists who specialize in creating representations to assist in the design process—often, these are not even created on a computer, but are instead created using traditional paint and paper; animators (2D and 3D) who are concerned with how objects and people move within a world; special effects artists who create all the fun explosions and magic spells; 3D modelers who are basically architects creating 3D objects—from houses to spaceships—to go into the world; texture artists who create 2D images that then map onto 3D models, giving the world and characters their depth and richness; character artists who create the characters we want to relate to; user interface artists who are concerned with how to aesthetically present the vast amount of information a game needs to communicate with the game player.

The Audio Artist

The first sounds in games were beeps and boops (remember Pac Man?) that emanated from cheap speakers which were often more annoying than enjoyable. Today, music and sound are critical to drawing the game player into the game world that supports the narrations and story. In addition, sound and music may be critical to the interface design as well. The sound artist gives us this exquisite audio.

Because of game interactivity, sound and music design differs slightly from the film industry: music and sound are not fixed constants in a game, but are instead variable and dependent on the actions and decisions of the game player. Thus, the audio artist must be directly involved with the minutiae of the game design and structure.

Within this archetype, we will find the composer who writes, the musician who performs the music, and the sound effects artist who creates the audio environment that enriches the world. Additionally, we have one additional artist (often outsourced): the voiceover artist who provides vocal narration and voice to the characters we love.

The Manager

The resources needed to create a computer game have grown enormously since the advent of computer games. While, initially, creating a game may have cost half a man-year with a budget of under $50,000, today’s games typically cost 10-100 man-years with budgets in the multi-millions of dollars. Some of the largest games—Halo II, for instance—have had reported budgets of $40 million for over 100 team members. Games are not cheap to create, and, if the game is not completed successfully or on time, companies can be (and have been) destroyed. This creates a need for individuals who are skilled at managing large, complex projects.

The producer is the primary management leader of a development team. It is her responsibility to ensure that the project is completed successfully, on time, and on budget. To do this effectively, the producer needs to master a great number of management and personnel skills, a task that takes a uniquely skillful individual. In support of this, the software industry has developed a complete discipline on managing software development called software engineering. These skills and methodologies are now coming into high demand in the game industry.

Creative director, lead designer, lead artist, lead programmer, technical director, and many other leadership roles across the game industry spectrum also need to access their management skills and knowledge.

The Tester

Games are very complex constructs. Not only do they have to perform as successful and relatively bug-proof software, but they also must succeed as entertainment. The technical problem of developing software that works well is handled by the quality assurance and testing team, and one can draw a great deal from software engineering training in general to develop methods and techniques for testing a game’s software.

But just as important (if not more so) is how well the game provides the entertainment that was originally envisioned. Think of the painter who has a vision for a great work—he plans it in his mind and even in draft drawings. But as he starts to paint his masterpiece, the very process of creating the painting—the smells and textures and interactions of the paint—feed back to the painter; he changes his plan as he goes, adapting to what he is actually creating. Creating a game is a similar process. The designer can plan every detail of a game, but the process of actually building it creates interactions he never planned for. He needs to understand these changes and adapt his design throughout the development process. Much of this feedback—the designer’s information on what works and what doesn’t and where the problems in the game play and entertainment are—comes from the testers.

Testing as a profession does not get the respect it deserves. Many people think that anyone can test or do quality assurance, but it takes a great deal of detailed work and engineering skills to be effective in identifying and communicating the problems involved.

The Businessman

The game industry is a business. Product must be created, produced and sold, and someone must be responsible for finding the money and resources to allow all of this to happen. Thus, the businessman. Within this sphere, there are also jobs in such business-related areas as management, marketing, sales, manufacturing, human relations, packaging, public relations, and customer support. In addition, there are support careers in such areas as law and financial analysis. While not specifically a member of the creative team from whom games are fashioned, the businessman is still an exciting role within an industry in which there is continual innovation and change. Consider the fact that twenty years ago, a publisher might have spent $50,000 to develop a game. These days, game budgets can run in excess of $10 million (World of Warcraft was rumored to have had a budget of over $40 million), and a company’s life and death depends on making such a large investment pay off. Despite the risks, it’s a good time right now to be the businessman—the game industry has been an innovator in sales and marketing in the information age and other industries follow its model (in fact, the whole concept of stealth marketing developed out of the game industry).

The Businessman

The Journalist

The journalist—as mass communicator and evaluator—is one of the more exhilarating and important roles within the game industry. It is up to her not only to be able to look at a game, evaluate it and communicate that evaluation in prose to both the industry and to the game customer, but the journalist must also understand the intricacies of what a game is and how it succeeds as entertainment. This requires a general knowledge of both the theory and practice of creating games.

The critic or reviewer is important to any entertainment industry, but especially so in the game industry. The consumer, upon examining a product before purchase, has very few clues as to whether a game will entertain them or, more importantly, if it will do so at a reasonable level of quality. Game play, one of the most important qualities of a game, can remain very hidden when looking at the product, so the reviewer is a critical component in communicating this information to the consumer.

In addition, the journalist also evaluates the industry. She acts as the line of communication that allows the industry to learn and progress. Like many other roles in this industry, and perhaps even more so than other roles, a breadth of knowledge about how the industry works and succeeds is a necessary background in her job.

The Educator

The computer game industry is relatively new, but, as we have seen with the other archetypes, there is a huge breadth and depth of knowledge and skill involved in the industry, knowledge and skill that have been created through trial and error. For the most part, much of this knowledge has been preserved culturally and in the memories and experiences of the “old timers” of the industry, but, because of the rapid expansion of the industry and the retirement of the “old timers” (like myself), a more formalized system of knowledge preservation and transfer is needed. In response to this need, academia has assumed its proper role in recent years and stepped up to the plate: while a degree in computer games would have been laughable ten years ago, in 2006, it is almost a requirement to enter the industry. That means that there is a demand for individuals who understand the game creation process and who can teach it to the next generation of game designers, artist, programmers, and all of the other archetypes. It also means that there is a demand for individuals who will take up other aspects of academia and the educator, such as research.

The educator is possibly the newest archetype in the game industry. I’ve entered into it in the last couple of years because I find it to be a new challenge for myself after being a designer for twenty years. It has brought me new challenges in understanding this field I have spent so much of my life in, and I am having a blast developing and communicating my ideas to new people. In addition, because the whole field of game education is brand new, it is a frontier where everything is open to the innovative educator.

Educational Paths to the Game Industry

As mentioned previously, I’d like to discuss the educational paths available to the individual wishing to enter the game industry. In the past, education supporting the game industry was available through other fields—e.g., computer science or fine art—and much needed to be learned on the job. However, as specific knowledge in the all of the fields I’ve described multiplied, there arose a need for passing this wealth of knowledge to new individuals. Academia has stepped in to fill this need and to prepare the prospective student by offering various game degrees. This has become vital to someone wishing to enter the industry. The game industry is a “sexy” industry (would you rather write games or sell pork bellies?). Although the industry is huge, and there are thousands of new hires every year, the very sexiness of the industry creates more people wanting jobs than job openings. This makes for a very competitive process and having a game degree puts an individual at the front of the pack.

But I also pointed out that academia has only recently stepped in to provide students with this education. Which means academia is being forced to learn quickly, as well. To my knowledge, some of the professions I have described so far are not even being taught at any college or University yet. This puts a bit more responsibility on students to manage their own careers and design their academic path to prepare themselves for the specific career they wish to follow (if you are a student, remember this: you are hiring the school to provide you an education, so, like any purchase, make sure you are getting your money’s worth!). One of the purposes of this article was to help in understanding possible goals and paths that might lead to a specific career.


It was not my intention of writing this article to describe every job and career path possible in the computer game industry, but instead to give the readers a broad sweep of the possibilities that are available for someone who wants to enter this exciting industry. I hope that I have given you a little feel for this diversity.



Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

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