Career Paths in the Game IndustryBy Mark Baldwin
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.
The General Archetypes
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.
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 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 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.
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 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 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 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.
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