There's plenty of useful information out there on how to get your start in the games industry -- much of it on this very web site. There's a lot of choices out there though; a lot of possible paths you can take. Internships, placements, modding, schooling, and so on: it's a long list. Add to that the numerous unconventional ways of entering the industry and, well, it can sometimes be a bit confusing about exactly how you should go about it all.
So, sometimes it can be helpful -- or, at the very least, interesting and inspiring -- to hear first hand from industry veterans about their own experiences starting their careers. We spoke to four notable figures from the games industry to get their stories, and found that even if the exact opportunities have changed, a number of things, like the rewards for passion and determination, have not.
Philip Oliver is best known as one half of U.K. Spectrum design duo the Oliver Twins. Along with his brother Andrew, the Oliver Twins produced some of the most popular games for the system in the 1980s, and even launched their own franchise, the Dizzy series of platformers. In 1990, they set up their own business, Interactive Studios, more recently known as Blitz Games.
Philip officially became the company's CEO in 2001, and the company has remained one of the UK's top independent developers, with exceptional sales from last year's Burger King titles, Sneak King, Big Bumpin' and Pocketbike Racer.
The brothers' introduction to computers started in 1980, playing games like Zork and Night Mission on a friend's father's Apple IIe. With Space Invaders appearing in arcades at around the same time, Oliver comments that the 12 year olds were "hooked" on video games. The Olivers' parents bought them a Binatone Pong console for Christmas the next year, but this was soon forgotten shortly after, in 1982, when their older brother bought a recently released Spectrum ZX81 and put it "under the family TV."
It wasn't long before the twins had started learning how to program their own games in the BASIC language, thanks to instructions that came with the computer. "Most were derivatives of Pong," laughs Oliver sheepishly.
Not that it mattered, though. The biggest motivator for programming their own games was simply the fact that "games cost money", and the 14 year old twins were somewhat lacking in that, though Philip does admit that there was a degree of "wanting to show off" involved as well.
Later that year, they upgraded to a Dragon 32 -- a generally unsuccessful home computer that lacked the graphical power to even be able to display lower case letters easily. While the brothers attempted to write games for it, they all turned out "very slow." Fortunately, a further upgrade the next year to a BBC Micro Model B meant that they were not only working with solid hardware, but also that they were able to play a number of inspiring titles like "Snapper, Defender, Missile Command, Scramble, Revs, Repton and, of course, [David Braben's classic space sim] Elite."
The Olivers continued their work with BASIC, pushing each other to try and make better games, often by "not letting each other go to bed."
"I think the fact that we were brothers made a massive difference," Oliver says. "We stuck at it longer, we pushed each other harder and we learned from each other."
The twins believed that by using their own "ideas and perseverance" they could "write great games". Even at that point though - staying up until all hours of the night, working on their own games, which were steadily becoming more and more proficient -- Philip never "projected ahead" for a possible career in the industry. "Industry?" he laughs. "At that point in time nobody really believed there was an industry; just a passing fad for a few nerdy hobbyists. Our view was that if we could get paid to for our hobby then we'd see how long we could avoid getting real -- dull -- jobs."
So, with that goal in mind, the duo started sending copies of their games to local publishers like Europress and QuickSilva, though this was mostly unsuccessful. Their big break actually came when they entered a game making competition held by UK kids program The Saturday Show and won first prize: "a Commodore 64 monitor." More importantly though, they gained a great deal of exposure for their efforts and their game, Strategy, was later picked up by the leading publisher at the time, Acornsoft, and was released as Gambit.
This lead to more work, starting with a regular freelance position producing games for the cover cassette on Model B Computing magazine. Oliver explains that twins got the job as a result of a phone call to someone at the magazine's publisher, Acorn User, who "didn't want to publish" their games, but thought Oliver was "worth talking to."
"He agreed to send us some free games in return for us writing reviews of them which they he subsequently published," he explains. "It seemed a great deal for school kids and lead onto lots of reviews and then [producing] lots of mini-games for Model B Computing."
Still though, neither Philip nor Andrew felt that they "were 'in the industry,'" just that they were doing a few "gigs" for "pitiful" money. "But each game was a little better than the last," Oliver says, "and we slowly learnt the skills required to make good games -- efficiently."
With their reputation beginning to develop, the twins continued to shop their games around, entering into publishing agreements with numerous companies. But it was their signing with fellow British siblings Richard and David Darling, who were in the process of setting up Codemasters, in September of 1985 that really cemented their place in the industry. Their first title for the publisher, Super Robin Hood, hit number one on the Amstrad CPC charts, and netted the duo over £10,000 in royalties. "Up until then," Oliver muses, "we were amateurs just trying to get in. After this we knew we had the skills to create games that would sell and that gave us the confidence to start thinking of game development as a career."
Super Robin Hood, a classic.
Looking at how it would be to start their career now, Oliver notes that things would be quite different. "Starting an actual business would be very tough now," he considers. "Getting a job in the industry would be much easier if you have the talent. There's more companies, with lots of vacancies and the skills required are obvious and it's easy to contact them. The internet makes finding the skills required and the companies hiring so easy."
"Trust me," he laughs, "finding the smallest bit of information back in the early eighties was so tough!"