What It Takes
Making games isn't for everyone. It requires a certain kind of person. You need to be:
The game industry is also looking for people who are passionate about games. Possibly because of the long hours many of us put in, we assume that only someone with the same passion would bother to put in the extra time it takes to get it right. My brother runs marathons, which is probably a good analogy. It's not enough to run 26 miles; you still have another 385 yards to go.
Passion is something you can't fake. I had a friend whose son with a PhD in math needed a job, so he asked me if a game company could use someone with his background. "Absolutely! Does he like games?"
"Then tell him not to waste his time applying."
One of the most important questions almost all game companies ask in an interview is "Which games do you like and why?" If they think you're faking it, they ask, "Which games did you play in the last week, and how many minutes did you spend playing each?" Once you've named a game or two, they'll ask you how far you got or which level you liked best. Of course, it would be nice if you also were excited about their company. If asked, "Why do you want to work for us?" and the answer is, "Because I'd like a job in the game industry," that doesn't explain why you've selected this particular company from all of the others out there.
Even Earthworm Jim has a PhD.
While it may seem obvious, to become a game programmer you need to know how to program, preferably in C++, which is by far the most widely used language in the game industry. If you've never tried your hand at programming, your mathematical ability is usually a good predictor of future programming ability. Do you do well in math? Do you like math? Did you take advanced placement math classes or get as far as calculus?
If you didn't do well in math, maybe you don't really like it that much. You may think you have acquired a new interest in it since high school, but realize that programming a game is solving a continuous series of math and logic problems. There are lots of easier ways to make a living if math is not something you really enjoy.
For example, if you enjoyed art classes or have dabbled at computer art, you might be interested in creating art for games. The game industry needs a variety of artists to create 2D menus and title screens, 3D models, 2D textures for those models, and so on. We also need storyboard artists to conceptualize what a game might look like before we make it. The game industry also needs talented musicians and audio technicians. Unfortunately, a lot of musicians with quite a few movie and TV credits have no clue how to create music for games. Game developers realize that they don't know how long a player is going to stay in any given room or level, so they set an intro and then loop a variety of tracks while the player is in one room and then play some kind of transition when she or he leaves. The average musician has had no experience doing this, not that one couldn't learn. As far as job prospects, there are far fewer jobs for audio positions than programming or art. A company of 100 people might have 40 programmers, 30 artists, some executives, sales and support people, but only one or two audio people, if that.
In game programming, the money is good but the work is hard. The latest salary survey, available in the Career section of this site, shows that a starting game programmer can make between $50,000 and $60,000 per year, and after a few years and a couple of completed project can earn almost double.
Often, though, students see dollar signs but don't realize that if the job were as easy as playing a game, the industry would have a lot more great games on the market, and no one would need to pay us that much. I cannot emphasize enough that programming games is not a job for everyone.
The game industry is very specialized. Try to get a software programming job after having the word "game" on your resume. I tried it myself many years ago. "Games? What we do here is serious!" To which I answered, "When we press the fire button, we expect to see the bullet leave the gun immediately, not two or three seconds later, as is the case in many non-game Windows applications." The company's response was, "You're just looking for a job until you find another game!" I have yet to find a convincing response to that.
Be sure programming is what you want to do, before you head down this path. If you change your mind halfway through, you will have wasted a lot of time and money. Because of the wide availability of student loans, you can start school almost entirely on loans. And if you see it all the way through, you'll have a better chance than most of being able to pay back your loans in a timely fashion. If you stop your education halfway, you'll just have a lot of loans and an eerie sense that you'd better hurry up and figure out a way to pay them back.
Of course, if you're like me, when you're done with school and working in the industry, you wouldn't trade careers with anyone. My real payday is going to stores and seeing my games on the self and talking to people who remember playing them. It's also a career you can be proud to talk about at a high school career day.
Better than some paydays.
Some fields are very difficult to get into, like the movie business for example. My daughter went to a specialized school, fought the odds, and is now working in the costume department of a popular TV show.
In any competitive industry, you have to ask yourself, "Is this what I really want to do," possibly to the exclusion of all other possible careers. If the answer is yes, you've already made your decision and you just need to make sure you do what it takes to make it happen.
I'm not so convinced that the game industry is that hard to break into for the right people. Games are becoming more and more complex. Development teams are larger than ever. A generation of consumers raised on video games has pushed the industry ahead of both the movie and recorded music industries, some even say ahead of both combined! If eight million people pay $15 per month for a subscription to a popular online game, the company takes in $120 million, some of which will go back into creating new content and additional levels to keep players interested.
The game industry is also sorely in need of more professional females, so the market is less competitive for women. So far we have been doing a good job making the kind of games for an audience of 18 to 34 year old male players. Perhaps with a fresh female perspective we can make games that appeal to a new or much wider audience.
Learning Your Trade
Video game education programs didn't exist when I was in college; neither did video games for that matter. A lot of us early pioneers were self-taught or learned at the hands of other, more experienced people. I taught myself to program the Apple II, and I had the good fortune to work at MicroProse with Sid Meier (of Civilization fame) and got to port (or translate) his early games from the Commodore 64 to the Apple II and later the Apple IIgs. I learned a lot about programming from that exercise, kind of like an apprentice craftsman learning from a more experienced master craftsman.
Quite a few years ago, I took some students to visit Shiny Entertainment (the creators of Earthworm Jim) and asked one of the lead programmers, "How important is a degree?"
He held up his hand and touched his forefinger to his thumb to make a zero. "We throw resumes in the trash. If you don't send us a demo that shows what you can do, we don't care where you went to school."
Today, the chance that you'll be able to teach yourself and get a job at a top company is slim. With more and more schools around the country preparing students for careers in the game industry, game companies can choose from a well-qualified applicant pool. Game-specific schools typically require students to create a portfolio of work, a variety of sample games that showcase the student's abilities in a variety of areas.
Choose your educational path carefully. The best schools for people who want to have a job in the industry straight out of college have close contacts with industry professionals, some of whom serve on their advisory board or teach an occasional course. A good program should balance both theoretical and practical education as well. In addition to studying theory, you should have some hands-on activities where you apply the knowledge you learn in the real world. Look at the game companies in your area or near the school you attend. Does your school offer any kind of placement service for full-time work or internships? Ask good questions before you accept an offer.
Your First Job
Don't assume your first job will be in your home town or state. There are certain areas of the country where game companies have concentrated. Southern California (where I grew up) is a major area, as is the San Francisco Bay Area and greater Seattle. Since I've been in Texas the last four years, I've come to appreciate the thriving game industry in both Dallas and Austin. There are some companies clustered around a few other cities in the U.S. and Canada as well. And large publishers often have multiple studios located all over North America, as well as overseas.
Early in my career, I moved from Southern California to Baltimore for the opportunity to work for MicroProse. A few years later, I moved back to work for Cinemaware. Moving to Virgin Games and Park Place Productions were reasonably local moves. Once I started my own development studio, I could relocate wherever I wanted. Being near a major school program is a big plus for me, so I can help run an academic program and make sure the next generation of game developers has their chance to succeed.
Ed Magnin has worked for more than 25 years in the game industry and has taught courses at the college level for the last 10 years. He is currently director of development for Magnin & Associates, an authorized Nintendo DS developer, and is also chair of the Game & Simulation Program, at DeVry University's Dallas-Metro campus.