If you ask me, developing video games is about the coolest job you can have these days. Where as everyone else works hard doing something that just pays the bills, you can work hard doing something creative that you enjoy already and get paid for it! It is indeed the cool club that everyone wants to join, as it has become quite competitive and difficult to get noticed. Fear not though, for I have broken down the major job disciplines and will illustrate a few ways you can get prepare yourself to get hired as a professional video game developer. One last important thing to mention before getting into this is the game industry is one of the industries where you can be a high level professional WITHOUT a college degree in any field. This industry is still portfolio driven. If you can do the work, you can get the job, it’s as simple as that. Yes going to a game school will help you better prepare for the game industry, but in the age of the internet, with tutorials everywhere, you can get all the skills necessary for any role in game development without getting a degree in any of them. Now, before we begin let me state that I am a professional video game developer with over 7 years of experience and as of this writing. I have worked for independently for my own game company and also at companies you may know like Obsidian Entertainment or Sledgehammer Games. Now that my credentials are out of the way let us talk about getting YOU some.
In video game development there are many different disciplines ( or jobs / roles ) that must be filled in order for a full game to be developed. First you have Designers, who are responsible for the story, or the action and events that take place in a game. They create the fun, the challenge, the rules and choices for the player gameplay experience. Artists populate the game world with characters, props, effects, Interfaces and environments that make the game beautiful. Animators manipulate rigs (or bones essentially) to move characters and props so that your world comes alive in a believable way. Audio engineers or sound designers create the sounds and music that provide sonic believability and audial ambiance to your games. Project managers or producers make sure that everyone listed above has everything they need to perform their job free of hindrances while also making sure the project is always on track to delivering on time. Producers focus on team efficiency. Once the software is in development you have your Quality Assurance or QA team, that spends their time focusing on finding ways where the software doesn’t work as intended. With everyone listed here combined, you have a full game development team. Now that we’ve identified the major development roles, let’s talk about becoming your favorite one.
Being a Game Designer is like being a movie director. You get to set the pace, you get to control the action, you get to create the perilous experiences that really test the mettle of the hero or player. Being a designer is all about communication. You have to create a believable world, give the player rules, and information about what they can, cant, should and shouldn’t do then sit back and let them play. If you want to become a level designer or a game designer the best hope for doing so is to start making games, and you would be wise to start small. There are free tools you can download right now like Unreal Engine 4, UDK, or Unity 3D which after a few hours of following free online tutorials, will have you ready to make small games on your computer today! The most important thing you can do to make yourself successful is to MAKE. Make small games, take games that are already made and make them better. Get yourself used to coming up with ideas and implementing them using a tool. Having a portfolio of software that shows a great understanding of game design or level design is paramount. Coming up with ideas is only a small part of what designers do, implementation is the biggest part. If you don’t have any knowledge of game design or level design, you would be wise to continue researching the topic. The best book I can think of to get started is “Level Up: A Guide to Great Video Game Design” written by Scott Rogers. After reading this and learning a software package mentioned above, you will be ready to start building a portfolio of demos that you can show to an employer and apply for entry level design jobs.
There are a vast multitude of jobs for artists, so many that it requires specialization now. Environment Art, Concept Art, Character Art, Prop Art, Lighting, Technical Art, VFX etc. My suggestion for trying to land any of these roles is to demonstrate your mastery of traditional art. Learn about color theory, composition, form, lighting and learn how to recreate things you see. The stronger you are in traditional drawing and painting, the better you will be in any of these fields. Going to art school is heavily recommended for ANY artist position, it is not a requirement but if you have the option to go to an art school, I would go no questions about it. Regardless of going to school or not, your next priority should be building an incredible online portfolio. Compare your finished works to the work of artists who have the job you want. If your work isn’t as good as theirs, you need to improve. You want your work to be as good or better than other people doing the job you want.
Programmers are the darlings of the game industry, in a good way (not like a diva). Good programmers are very hard to come by so when a company finds one, they will move mountains to gain or keep them. Programmers for sure have the most job security because their work is incredibly difficult to do at all, let alone do well. If your aim is to become a programmer I would also highly suggest you consider getting your degree in C.S. (Computer Science). It’s a no brainer if you’re the brainy type. Much like designers though I would advise any budding programmer to build a portfolio of working samples that show off your prowess. Your potential fellow engineers want to see how you think, and problem solve as well as how well you know programming languages. Making a demonstrable path finding system that is unique in a cool way is an example of a programmer’s portfolio piece. A good programmer will have a thorough understanding of C++ if you want to go into making video games.
Sound Engineers need to have a deep understanding of audio technology and plugins. Having a background in music or music theory is fantastic, but you will often find you do more audio editing than musical arrangement. Knowing how to record audio, clean audio and mix audio is a great start. Knowing how to synthesize sounds and an even better step up. Personally I know more audio engineers that did not go to college than ones that did and many of them came straight from the music industry. So if you’re good at making music, you have a good shot as traditional education for this field is not as plentiful as it is for other disciplines.
Animating for games is likely one of the most taxing but rewarding jobs in the game industry. Taking a character and making it move is one thing, but taking a character model and making it feel alive through your movements and expressions is euphoric (especially if you do it well). You can learn the basics of animation online for free, but this is another role where I would really lean on going to school vs doing it on your own without professional instruction. There are so many subtleties in animation that you would be wise to learn about through proper guidance at a college or intensive online animation program like iAnimate Games or Animation Mentor.
Producers are loved, loathed or both depending on who you ask and what time of day it is that you ask them. To comically sum up the responsibilities of a producer, you will either be clearing paths, or cracking whips. The best way to get experience in project management is to manage a project. Start small, join an online mod team (or even better start one) and facilitate communication between all departments. Get experience taking small teams from idea to exe (executable, or software release). You can only be told or taught so many things about production from a book but there are books available on the subject. A favorite of mine is “The Game Producer’s Handbook” by Dan Irish. Having an understanding of project management software packages, or database systems are a big plus, and having an understanding of the various type of production pipelines will make you a star producer. Often, being one or more of the developer jobs listed above will make you more qualified to be a producer responsible for that department. Having experience and or understanding for a discipline will yield a significant return on investment if you go into production.
The game industry is still in its infancy and is somewhat volatile at the moment. But the opportunities are bountiful. You can find a full time game development job, or start a full time job making games for yourself or with a small company you start. I know this because I’ve done both, and both are profitable, but they all take hard work, sacrifice and dedication. Persistence overall. I wish you the best dear reader, and good luck on your journey.
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