So You Want to Be a Game Designer, Part 2
Mar 16, 2009 6:00 AM PT
Part 1 of this two-part series examined what it takes to be a professional game designer. Part two takes a look at other career paths in game creation and how to start.
It takes a village to make a video game. In the beginning, it is the game designer who develops the concept for the game, and while that designer may receive the lion's share of the glory, a video game would not be come to fruition without the skills and talents of scriptwriters, animator, programmers, sound engineers, musical composers, voiceover artists, producers, etc.
For Jesse Schell, assistant professor of Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon University, his path into the world of game development began at an early age.
"It was something I had always been interested in. I started making games when I was 12. It was easier back then because computers couldn't do as many interesting things, and every computer came with a programming language -- not like today," he told TechNewsWorld.
Making games remained more of a fun hobby rather than something Schell could envision doing as a career -- until he had the opportunity to take a position as a programmer at the Disney Design Studio.
"A good way to get started is by making card games and board games. Anybody can make those. If you don't enjoy doing that, you're probably not going to be interested in game design or development," he said.
Trial and Error
Game developers are constantly experimenting to see how changes to a given component of the game impact game play. The aim is to decide whether doing something one way will make a game more fun to play than doing it another way.
"You just keep making the changes over and over and over. If figuring out all those little changes sounds like fun, then it may be for you. People who put music in the game need to think about making beautiful music, and people who put the art in the game need to be able to think about making beautiful art," Schell explained.
A writer develops the world, characters and branching storylines for characters. This career path requires someone able to translate a concept into a full-fledged world. They come to the table and say, "I imagine a dragon that looks like this and characters with different traits and powers."
Good backgrounds for writers to have include familiarity with literature or an education in history and ancient civilizations, said Fiona Cherbak, chair, International Game Developers Association Women in Games. "They have a very vivid literary imagination and can create that world," she said.
A Little Education
As with game design, game development requires extensive experience with games.
"It's very difficult, if not impossible, to really understand game design, game development, write dialogue, etc., without being an experienced game player. Most of the top writers [have] almost invariably spent an awful lot of time playing games. In other words, the more immersed you are as a game player, the more skilled you'll be in your chosen game development field," Cherbak told TechNewsWorld.
Depending on the career, if one has a solid foundation as a gamer, a formal education specifically in game development is like icing on a cake -- good but not always necessary.
"Game development programs are growing and are certainly a good introduction into how games function. Some of the programs definitely turn out some very capable talent, but the dilemma with them goes back to depth of knowledge," Cherbak pointed out.
Someone entering the field with a degree in anthropology, ancient civilizations, English literature or Russian lit will be a much better developer. Earning a certificate from a game design program will provide an excellent foundation, but it is only one component. Another is being able to show a potential employer what you are capable of through a portfolio.
"These days, a college degree is more important than not having one, but a track record is more important still. If you have a portfolio that wows people, then you'll get hired," David Hodgson, co-author of Paid to Play: An Insider's Guide to Video Game Careers.
More technical careers in animation, however, do require some training -- that education can be earned through a vocational training program or a four-year degree.
While pursuing a technical degree such as animation, potential game developers should also pursue an education in other aspects of game development.
"If you're going to college majoring in game development, animation or another field, you will also want to minor in something that will also be useful. Maybe marketing so you can understand why games sell, so you have a number of assets you can offer. It's an easier sell when you say to a video game company, 'I'd like a job,'" said Hodgson.
The Big Break
Aspiring game development professionals may have more luck starting at small to mid-sized development studios rather than applying for a position at a big-name companies, according to Cherbak.
"The big companies aren't interested in you. They're looking for journeyman talent. They're not interested in a lay person because they have a very specific need to hire experienced talent. Unless they have an internship program to bring beginning talent in the door, they don't want to hear from you until you have five to 10 years of experience in the industry," she said.
Smaller companies know that they will have to spend money to develop the talent of entry-level employees. They do not necessarily pay a lot, but after a few years of work, it is possible to start moving up the career ladder.
Wannabe game developers can also break into the business by winning an internship at a larger company. Contacting their human resources department, combined with a little research, diligence and a good portfolio -- not to mention luck -- could be enough to inspire an internship offer from a company even if they do not have a formal program established.
Knowing the industry language and being able to network and promote oneself are also essential skills. It is about who you know, connecting with people and demonstrating a tenacious determination to get a foot in the door.
"Volunteering for a game industry event or at a local chapter meeting of the International Game Developers Association and learn how to talk to and connect with people in the industry. The more you understand their lingo, who's who and what's going on in the industry, the easier it will be to recognize your window of opportunity when it opens up," Cherbak advised.
Hodgson, however, recommends sending out resumes to any and all companies. "You should also have an online portfolio of your best work," he said.
Those interested in a career in voiceovers will want to start outside of gaming, acquiring experience in commercial TV, film or radio voiceover work.
"There's not really a career path for voiceovers in the industry. Studios will often tap people who work at the company to do their voiceovers or will choose actors who belong to an agency to do the job," Cherbak explained.
The situation is the same for anyone interested in composing music for games. In general, those assignments are given to experienced composers who typically have done work on a wide range of projects, including TV and commercials.
Show Me the Money
These highly sought-after careers are very competitive. A person just entering the field with less than three years of experience on average can expect to make US$57,665 annually as a programmer or engineer; $75,761 as a lead programmer and $80,833 as a technical director, According to a 2008 survey by Game Developer Magazine.
Artists and animators on average earn $43,657 annually, while the average lead artist stands to make $40,417. Game designers are looking at a yearly salary of about $46,208; $51, 731 for writers. An associate producer will pick up $46,667, and a producer will bring home $62,500. Quality Assurance personnel are at the bottom of the earnings totem pole, with salaries averaging $25,142 for a tester and $38,611 for Q/A leads.
Of course, educational factors also impact salaries. Whether it is an associate degree or a master's, a little education can go a long way. For programmers, the difference in salary can range from an additional $12,000 to $33,000 a year. Artists with a bachelor's degree stand to make $23,000 a year more than someone without a B.A.
Likewise, location also can significantly impact salaries. California ranked No. 1, with an average salary across all disciplines and experience levels of $81,502. Companies in New York, ranked fifth, pay $69,747 annually.