[In part one of a new series on getting into the game industry, Paragon Studios' Destin Bales outlines the importance of understanding the industry and preparing for a future career.]
In this new series for aspiring developers, Destin Bales shares his experience and offers advice on starting a career in the game industry. Bales has been working in the industry for 11 years, and now serves as the director of product development at Paragon Studios, which manages the superhero MMO City of Heroes and is working on two unannounced titles. The following are excerpts from his blog, "I Need To Make Games."
Step 1: Understand the Market
Students are often introduced to the concept of working in the industry simply by enjoying the games that they love and daydreaming about being a part of the process. Being a gamer is a great start, but there is much more that can be done right now to understand the market.
You may already be familiar with a number of web sites that target consumers by showing news, reviews and gameplay footage. Most game developers are gamers first and frequently visit these sites on a daily basis. Some of our favorites include:
Visiting these sites each day can give you a great overall view of what games are popular today. It's an investment that takes time however, but understanding which games are successful, niche, critically acclaimed and unique is an important knowledge base for any game developer to have.
"If you want to get into the games industry, then get into it. Play all kinds of games, read the news on web sites, stay up to date on the latest changes, learn it inside and out. In the eyes of a prospective employer your knowledge will help prove your passion."
- Matt Daniels, Designer | Bethesda Game Studios
Where the sites above show the perspective from the outside looking in, listed below you can find resources that show the viewpoint from within the industry looking out. Many developers view these sites on a weekly basis to learn more about their craft and the market around them. The most popular pages tend to be:
For more concentrated and direct exposure to the industry there are a number of conferences and events that take place each year in which you can learn quite a bit about game development, gaming culture and the hottest products of today. Attending these events is not necessary to achieve your goal, but if you find that you have the means to do so you will likely learn quite a bit from the experience.
The Independent Games Festival at the 2012 Game Developers Conference
Last but not least, the most important thing you can do starting today and forever more is to play games. Play a lot of games. Play as many games as you possibly can.
"To make games you must know games. It isn't enough to play the best or the worst game that everyone is currently talking about. You must experience everything that the industry has to offer.
It may be difficult to play through the last ten levels of some poorly reviewed game, but you never know what you may learn from that very last level. That painful experience could teach a lesson that saves you when you need it most in your career!"
- Maurice Nelson, Director of Development | BioWare Mythic
There is something to learn from each and every game out there. Whether the game is good or bad, big budget or indie, on console, PC, mobile or tablet, there are valuable lessons in each title.
It is easier than ever to play games today, even for free! Do you have a Steam account? In addition to the ease of use and the ability to buy games instantly from your PC, Steam offers a simple way to download and play free game demos of all kinds.
If you own a console like the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 you can access free game demos weekly via Xbox Live or the PSN interface on your system. Also, consider trying out Gamefly -- a game rental service that works much like Netflix, allowing you to play many more games for your money.
Understanding the market is the very first step towards achieving your goal. It serves as the foundation for all future steps and is a process that takes time. Many developers have spent years accumulating a wealth of knowledge thanks to utilizing these types of resources. No matter your age, amount of disposable income, or working experience it is easily possible to dive in head first right now!
It's time to take your first step.
Step 2: Recognize the Opportunities
The process of creating games often requires a significant amount of people from varying disciplines to contribute to the success of the product. Here we outline the many different jobs that are a part of the business, share insight into what it's like working in these roles today, and offer origin stories from accomplished developers.
Over the years the complexity of creating (most) games has increased dramatically. That fact, combined with the recent rise of new platforms (iOS, Facebook) and distribution methods (Steam, direct to consumer), means that there are more roles than ever involved in bringing a game to life. Below we do our best to capture a high-level snapshot of each of those roles to help you recognize the sheer amount of job opportunities that exist today.
Many people who think about making games picture the role of the game designer in their heads. There are many different types of design positions but in general the designer establishes and communicates the key concepts of how the game should play to the rest of the development team. What systems will the game have, what the levels or areas of the game should look like, and how challenging the overall experience will be are all typical questions that designers are tasked with answering.
Here are a list of key resources you can follow to learn more about what the role of game designer entails:
One of the most rewarding elements of being a designer is having the opportunity to help steer the overall direction of a given feature or game towards your desired vision. Alternatively, many designers may be frustrated to find that they are beholden to the work of artists, engineers, and even other designers to actually see their concepts come to life on screen.
Key skills that a designer must possess include the ability to effectively communicate with others, a collaborative spirit, and an unrelenting passion for understanding the fundamental building blocks of what makes games enjoyable to play.
"Ever since I was a kid I loved telling stories to my friends. I'd run pen and paper RPG's with them and I learned quickly what kept their interest and what did not. The art of listening to the player was the greatest skill I learned before working in the industry.
When given the opportunity to write stories for games, I used that skill to deliver experiences to the player that they wanted to play."
- Joe Morrissey, Lead Designer | Paragon Studios
The QA tester position represents one of your best chances at obtaining an entry level role in game development. A critical part of the process, testing games as they are created is instrumental in ensuring a quality title and when done properly can be the difference between a hit game and a poorly reviewed disappointment. Working as a team, your main responsibility is to evaluate the game as it is being created and provide feedback to the development team regarding what is working properly versus what is not.
"I was able to get into the industry by networking. I graduated from college with a BFA in digital media art, and my brother was testing for a big game producer and publisher. He put in a good word for me, and soon after I started my first testing job."
- Jared Aizawa, QA Tester | Paragon Studios
Here are a list of key resources you can follow to learn more about what the role of QA tester entails:
One of the most rewarding aspects of being a QA Tester is knowing that you are the final line of defense between the development team and the consumers of your product. Saving a particularly nasty bug from finding its way into the final build helps the team tremendously. Additionally, many people use the role of QA Tester as a springboard towards other jobs in the game development pipeline. There are a number of potentially frustrating elements to the job however. The process of testing itself can be quite dull, especially if you are required to test the same part of the game hundreds of times in a row. Also QA Testers are frequently asked to work long hours towards the release of a project and in some cases this can impact their personal lives in a negative way.
Key skills that a game tester must possess include effective verbal and written communication, a superb attention to detail, and the ability to maintain focus while completing a potentially repetitive task.
"The hardest part about getting your first QA job is overcoming your lack of testing experience. I focused on my gaming history and how my previous job-related skills could apply to game testing, convinced them that I was passionate and had potential, and they gave me a shot."
- Daryl Hall, Lead QA | Paragon Studios
Programmers or Engineers are the backbone of the development process, writing the code that brings games to life. Though some are self-taught most engineers learn the trade in college and obtain a degree in Computer Science.
"Programmers work with other departments to get a high-level understanding of how the game should play. Their task is then to figure out every last little detail of how the game world should work and then translate that into code that computers can understand. Much of your time is spent building or learning re-useable libraries of code that provide common game features like physics or rendering."
- Neal Kettler, Technical Director | Paragon Studios
Here are a list of key resources you can follow to learn more about what the role of programmer entails:
One of the most rewarding elements of being a programmer is that you often get direct and immediate feedback of your work on screen without the reliance of any outside parties. While designers and artists are reliant upon others to see their work in game, programmers are capable of making it happen on their own. Furthermore, as the recent success of some indie hit games have shown, programmers are occasionally able to make compelling games entirely by themselves for mobile phones or on the web. The most successful example of this is the game Minecraft which was originally created by just one programmer.
Minecraft, the hit indie game originally created by Markus "Notch" Persson
While engineers hold the ability to most directly affect the game, they can sometimes be frustrated by their lack of involvement with regards to the overall design of the game. Good teams ensure that all disciplines are properly represented as concepts are approved, however this may not yet be the norm in the industry.
Skills required to be a valuable programmer include the ability to efficiently solve problems, a strong understanding of software architecture, the ability to work collaboratively with others (often in the same code), and a self motivated approach towards completing your tasks.
"Like many in the games industry, I started in a completely different field - I began my career as a Chemical Engineer in the Pharmaceutical industry. I really enjoyed creating computer simulations, which led me to games - where simulations don't have to obey the laws of mother nature!"
- Fred Ehnow, Co-Founder and Software Engineer | Hypnos Entertainment
Of all of the different disciplines involved in game creation today, the artist is arguably the most varied of the bunch. Aspects of the art discipline in development include Concept Artist, 2D Artist, UI Artist, FX Artist, Environment Artist, Character Artist, Animator and even Technical Artist. Traditionally artists create the environments, characters and effects that you see in the games that you play.
"The advice I give now to folks looking for a job is so much simpler than it used to be: Make stuff and put it on the internet. No matter your discipline(s) or interest, there are options. From iOS to Unity to UDK there are fantastic tools out there. From Minecraft to Skyrim, there are moddable games. The key is to find an online community (like TIGSource or Polycount) where you can feel at home and just keep making stuff."
- Lucas Hardi, Artist | Bethesda Game Studios
Here are a list of key resources you can follow to learn more about what the role of artist entails:
One of the most rewarding elements of being an artist is how easy it is to show off your work to friends and customers alike. Through the use of screen shots or video you can display your artwork for all to see. Like engineers, artists can sometimes be frustrated by their lack of involvement with regards to the overall design of the game. Good teams ensure that all disciplines are properly represented as concepts are approved, however this may not yet be the norm in the industry. Furthermore, evaluating art is a subjective process making the communication element of the job all the more challenging.
Skills required to be a game artist include superb digital and traditional artistic skills and experience in with the necessary authoring tools of your chosen profession.
"As a kid, I was always drawing. I got into the games industry after studying degrees in both fine art, and computer art - though I would personally hire an artist who didn't have a degree if the work was stellar.
The key for me has always been to focus on the area you are most passionate about. Find the most inspiring examples of the artistic discipline you want to work in - study it, learn the techniques, and compare your work to it. Then try and make something better. Five great pieces of work would be enough to show me that someone has talent."
- Arron Simpson, Art Director | Paragon Studios
The role of the producer can vary from company to company, but typically they are responsible for ensuring that the entire team and project are working efficiently and towards the desired end result. In some cases the producer also establishes the vision for the overall project and supports the team to achieve that goal. Most producers are hired from within the industry, making it one of the most challenging jobs to jump directly into without prior development experience.
"I've always imagined a video game and Hollywood producer to have very similar jobs. We both have the goal of completing our projects on time and within budget. We both must manage wildly different groups of talented people to collaborate and communicate effectively. We both need to have a strong vision for what our project should look like when it is complete. We both must adapt to unplanned changes, cut some of the features we cherish most for the sake of the schedule, and work long hours.
All in the hopes that our teams produce something that makes a large group of people smile and happily part with their hard earned money to be entertained."
- Mark Davis, Producer | Paragon Studios
Here are a list of key resources you can follow to learn more about what the role of producer entails:
As the producer you are ultimately held accountable for the success or failure of your project. As such, the most rewarding aspect of the role (responsibility) can also be the most frustrating as well.
"Good Producers make games. Great Producers build amazing teams whose talents go on to create moments for players that will never be forgotten. Champion your people and dare to believe."
- Jeff Skalski, Producer | BioWare
The key elements required to be a producer include extensive game development experience, the ability to communicate effectively both up and down the chain of command as well as across all disciplines, and a sense of urgency that can be applied to the task at a measured pace.
"The opportunity to become a Producer came after years of discipline and hard work. My first job in the industry was as an Office Manager!
Over time I learned many skill-sets: communication and respect; decision-making and organization; leadership and multitasking; and a knack for making myself an invaluable part of the company culture and workflow. There is an art to making yourself visible without being pushy which is important to grasp as you'll never get an opportunity to show what amazing things you can do if no one knows what an asset you are."
- Melissa Bianco, Producer | Paragon Studios
Audio designers create the sound effects and music that play during gameplay. They often work alone and must be capable of managing their own time wisely.
Here are a list of key resources you can follow to learn more about what the role of audio designer entails:
One of the most rewarding elements of being an audio designer is the ability to independently improve entire games through the creation of sound and music. In many development pipelines the audio designer may find himself waiting for work (art, code, design) to be completed by others before he can begin. In some cases this leads to a large amount of work being dropped on the audio designer towards the end of a milestone or project, which can be a source of frustration in this role. I good audio designer will constantly be looking ahead, designing assets that he knows he will need by working from concept art and design documents to get ahead of the end-of-project crunch.
The key elements required to be an audio designer include a working knowledge of recording studio equipment, experience with sound design, music, and dialogue implementation into games, and a self-motivated mentality to independently drive towards deadlines with limited oversight.
"Download the Fmod Designer tool or Wwise and learn what you can about implementing with them. Any demonstrable skills you obtain with either of these tools will serve as a real win for an entry-level candidate interviewing.
If you don't have a demo reel, make one. Take a scene from a movie, some gameplay footage, or even an existing game trailer and remove the original sound building it back up from scratch. If you can show attention to detail and an ability to make a scene come to life, you'll have a real shot at landing that first job."
- Adam Kay, Audio Designer | Paragon Studios
The role of the community manager is to directly interface with the target audience for your games and create an avenue of two-way communication between the users and the developers. This not only involves the creation and management of forums, but with the rise of social media community managers now lead initiatives on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, UStream, Youtube and more.
"A great Community Manager has a thorough understanding of both the players they represent and the business needs of their studio. You're empathetic, understanding and diplomatic, all while remaining conscious of how your actions and words have a direct effect on the business of your game."
- Andy Belford, Community Manager | Paragon Studios
Here are a list of key resources you can follow to learn more about what the role of community management entails:
As the community manager you serve as the liaison between what the audience desires and what the development team delivers. The direct connection with users via the web and face to face at community events can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Players can be quite cynical however and it takes quite the thick skin to stay positive amidst an unending onslaught of forum negativity that strikes even the most popular games.
The key elements required to be a community manager include the ability to build solid relationships, an incredibly deep understanding of the products you represent from the players perspective, and the ability to understand content that will attract the player in a positive manner.
Step 3: Study the Trade
Armed with a growing understanding of the market and insight into the various positions that work together to create games, now you can turn your attention towards learning and obtaining the tools you need for your desired discipline.
Each discipline has a number of unique resources available to help you learn more about the job at hand. These range from articles, books and videos to previous GDC courses recorded and viewable online.
"Game development disciplines are like positions on a football team. Having some understanding of all of the roles and how they work together is important, but pursuing a mastery of one is how you help your team win. Your skill at your chosen discipline is also the first thing your future employer will want to know about you."
- Bruce Maclean, Senior Producer | BioWare
To help you get started, here are a few examples that you may find useful:
"One of the worst things you can do when applying or interviewing for a job in game development is lead people to believe that you just want a foot in the door or will take literally any job. We work in a dynamic and passionate industry and want to work with others who are committed to their trade, whatever it may be.
As a hiring manager, I am looking for that complementary puzzle piece that interlocks with the rest of the team and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table (or an aptitude and strong desire to succeed) in a particular role."
- Ken Shuck, Sr. Director of Product Development | BioWare
Your goal should not be to attempt to thoroughly understand each and every one of these disciplines. Instead try and focus in on a specific one, and begin absorbing as much information about it as you possibly can. What matters here is not that you learn how to make art or create code overnight, but that you get a good sense for what the experience might be like working in this field.
"By maintaining focus and dedication for a particular discipline you become an expert in your field and inspire those around you. Your passion is contagious and makes the rest of the team better in the process."
- Nate Birkholz, Producer | Paragon Studios
Take your time, explore the information that is out there and share your findings with others.
[This content was used with permission, and comes from Destin Bales' independent blog "I Need To Make Games."]