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  • Industry Hopefuls: Prepare Intelligently!

    [07.07.09]
    - Lewis Pulsipher
  •  Hundreds of thousands of young people want to be part of the game industry. Yet relatively few succeed. There are many reasons for that, but the most common one is: those people don't prepare themselves properly or adequately.

    I'm not here to tell you what to do. I'm here to make you aware of possible consequences of your choice of actions, based on my experience with aspiring game creation students. Some of what I have to say is indisputable fact; some is my take on "how the world works" and cannot be proved with available statistics or references. You decide what it's worth.

    While this is written primarily for people who want to "break into" the video game industry, especially as level/game designers, video game teachers ought to read it as well.

    When you're trying to attain a goal, you need to determine your intermediate goals: the things you need to know, the attitudes you need, what people expect of you. Here are three sets of three intermediate goals that ought to be important to you:

    Three things you should want for yourself, for the good of your long-term future:

    • Prepare yourself so that you can obtain non-game industry jobs as well
    • If you're going to a college or university -- a good idea in most cases -- get a real, and useful, degree
    • When you learn game design, learn game design, not game production

    Let's add the three things the video game industry wants from "new blood":

    • Ability to work in teams
    • Ability to think critically ("critical thinking")
    • Understanding of the pipeline process

    Finally there are three things every employer wants from you:

    • Good written communication skills
    • Good oral communication skills
    • Ability to work in a team (yes, that again)

    Finally, the tenth item, which may be the most important: develop a productive orientation.

    I'm going to concentrate on the first three items and the last, as they're the most specific to what you decide to do with your life in connection with video games. Let's be as organized here as I hope you'll be in your quest, and take these ten needs in order.

    There are things you should want for yourself, for the good of your life:

    Prepare yourself so that you can find non-game industry jobs as well!

    Ask yourself, are you certain this is what you want to do for the rest of your life, to work in the video game industry? Even if you say "yes", I say, you can't know that. On average, people stay in the game industry five or six years and then move on: why are you so different? Individuals tend to move through several careers, not just one. Heck, a great many people change their minds in college about what they want to do, before they get into the industry they thought they wanted.

    So you need to plan for the possibility that you'll move on to something else. This means you've got to learn skills that apply to other fields, and just as important, you have to have a degree that will help you get jobs in all those fields where degrees count for a great deal.

    As many people have observed, you don't need a degree to work in the game industry, yet degrees tend to open doors even there. Unlike most industries now, where a degree is virtually a necessity, game studios care what you can do, now what degree you have. If you teach yourself programming (as Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic, did), and can do the work, you can be hired. Yet a degree is quite desirable if you choose to move outside the game industry.

    Widely-applicable skills

    Programmer

    If you want to be a programmer, concentrate on learning programming, not just game programming. C++ is most commonly used in games and in general use, along with some C# and Java. Some university programming curricula now concentrate on Java, but Java is rarely used for games except on cell phones.

    The ideal would be to find a "computer science" program (which is close to, but not the same as, computer programming) that offers a minor or concentration in game programming, as at NC State University in Raleigh, NC.

    This means a four-year college is more likely for you than a two-year school, but remember that in most states you can start at a community/junior college and do better when you transfer to a university than if you started there. The important thing is to make sure you know which of your classes will transfer to the university, and which may not. My state (North Carolina) has this formally organized between the community college system and the state university system, others may be different.

    A two-year programming degree is good if you attend the right school. Yet outside the game industry, people with four-year degrees are much more likely to get programming jobs.

    Artist

    A BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) is a recognized route for artists. Sometimes this is associated with, or primarily, a "design" curriculum (artistic design, not game design). Once again, a program that has a game-related concentration may be the most marketable approach. (An example is at NC State -- no, I am not associated with that school!)

    Yet art is primarily a matter of good practice. Artists draw, draw, and draw some more -- and draw a variety, not the same thing (such as anime characters) over and over. If you don't love to draw, if you don't do it regularly, are you really interested in a job where you do art all day? If you love to draw, you may choose a two-year school and then, if you're good enough, try to market yourself to the game industry.

    Game Designer

    If you want to be a game designer, there's no direct "real-world" analog for it. History, psychology, physics, math, there are all kinds of degrees held by well-known designers.

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