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  • Making the Most of U. Time: Academic Paths to Working in Games

    [10.30.09]
    - Brandon Sheffield

  • Headlong Plunge

    There are multiple ways to get into the video game industry, and it helps to keep an open mind. Jenova Chen, for example, found that his educational experience started to shape his ideas for the future, prompting one hand to fall into game creation and the other into business. "I went to EALA to do internships twice," he says. "There are also a lot of industry people coming to the school to teach. In fact, a business class that was taught by Bing Gordon [of EA] had a big influence on me. That's actually how I believed that we could form our own game company and make our own games. If I didn't take that class, I wouldn't have even known that."

    Edwards wound up joining Chen's team after college, through the magical power of networking and the indie game community. "It's basically all thanks to the IGF and Slamdance and those competitions," he says, "where we were actually able to go in-person to those competitions and meet other people. The intent wasn't networking, but it just happens because you're with all these likeminded people who love to make games."

    Kim Swift, like Chen, was able to use her school's resources for her benefit, but in a much different way. "One thing that sets DigiPen apart is that they are really actively trying to get students involved in the industry and are very helpful in finding jobs for graduates. Every year DigiPen holds a job fair for seniors, where they invite representatives from many game studios to come in and take a look at the students' work and game projects," she says.

    "Because of the job fair, my team and I were invited to Valve's offices to show our senior project Narbacular Drop to Gabe Newell and several other notable Valve developers. After watching our demo, Gabe hired us on the spot to create Portal, which still completely blows me away even though I've been working here for nearly two years."

    Size Matters

     Ultimately, if you want to build yourself into a developer, you're going to have to knuckle down and start creating games. Edwards believes this is of utmost importance. "Make a game," he advises. "If you can't program, make a board game. When I was younger, that's what my friends and I did. But if you can program, or can convince someone to program for you, do that."

    Another crucial element for beginners is scope. "Keep it small," says Edwards, "so you can actually finish something. For Mutton Mayhem I had all these guidelines for how we should finish the project and I think 95 percent of them were completely misguided and probably hurt our productivity in the end. But the underlying thing that I said was most important was that we keep the game small. And by doing that, we were able to get it out."

    Swift agrees that making games is the only way to break in. Learn by doing, she says.

    "If your school doesn't have a game class like DigiPen's, make a mod or a small game project with fellow students or friends in your spare time. Practice makes perfect, and chances are you'll fail a few times before you can make a game you're proud of. I know that we did! [Making games] will help you become familiar with working in teams of people. Game companies want to know that you can see a project through from start to finish, and the more finished products you have on your resume, the better."

    Passion Begets Talent

    Given his success story, aspiring developers sometimes turn to Chen for advice, and he mentions two major points he likes to share with them: "The first is that there's no natural born talent -- but there's passion, and if somebody cares about what they're doing, they'll spend more time thinking about it and more effort practicing it. As you think about these things and try to do them, the passionate person gets better and learns more than the person who spends less time. When that gap becomes bigger and bigger, that's when you start calling this person a talent. If you love what you do, you will be great."

    His second piece of advice takes us back to where we began: design a plan for school as you would design a game. Chen is a believer in mapping out his aims and progress, laying out classes and short-term goals as though he were building stats in an RPG.

    He admits that setting goals is difficult, especially for people who aren't sure of their direction, but "it's really important to start," he says. "You probably can't have a huge goal, but when you do, you need to be aware of the intermediate goals, where you are and where you want to go in the future. You should establish something you can accomplish today, or tomorrow, or next month, or next semester. That way you can feel progress and the rewards it brings. Also like a video game, you want to adjust the challenges before you with your current abilities ... That way it won't become too boring or too hard. Make sure you're having fun!"

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