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  • Ten Survival Tips for Aspiring Game Development Students

    [05.13.10]
    - Michael Prinke

  • 7 - Do what serves your focus best; work on individual projects in your spare time.

    That's not to say that there isn't a place for your ambitions, though, or appealing to professional standards. If you know what your focus is, it's not hard to work on something close to it. For every job to be done, there's an equivalent outside game design.

    For artists this is an easy step. If you're an animator, animate. If you're a modeler, model, and if you're any kind of artist at all, study art and try to be a better artist in general, not just a better game artist. If you're a writer, write and get published. If you're a programmer, program, but not just games, and don't preclude yourself from scripting either. With as many third-party engines as are out there to take the place of one you build from scratch, it doesn't hurt to be familiar with a few of them, and their scripting languages' coding at this point has reached the level of complexity of full programming languages.

    If you're a designer it can seem especially difficult since entire games are your business and it takes the skills of both you and everyone else on the team to do it, but here's the key fact that people forget a lot of the time: games are your business, and they've been around since well before we were putting them on computers. Make it your prerogative to know the non-digital side. Pick up role-playing game books and war games like Warhammer 40K. Check out board games like Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan. Don't just play them, though, learn what makes them tick. Make board games and tabletop role-playing games. Make design documents, plan out paper prototypes of all those complex digital games you want to make, and analyze games like a Literature major analyzes a piece of writing.

    On the technical side of things, remember that the entire game isn't the only thing that needs a designer -- levels and user interfaces, for instance, are mere components of the whole, but at the same time they're each so sophisticated that they require the attention of level design and usability experts. Build levels in Unreal 3, Hammer, Crysis, or any other major engine, organize modding groups, make flash games, and develop ideas for user interfaces into prototypes that you can test; all of these look good in a portfolio or on a resume and all of them are important things to be able to do in order to work as a game designer.

    As a general rule, though, a group project shows that you can work on a team and produce. These individual projects are where you can show your individual skills, contributions, and ideas free from the pressures of a group project, like game designs that are beyond your means to produce but that you can theorize, think out, and learn how to pitch properly; or models, characters, and levels (well, plans and artwork for them at least) that are normally too complicated to be able to implement on a strict timeframe. You've got all the time in the world to develop this stuff; after all, it's your number one interest!

    8 - Work on things outside of class

    I've told you enough about what you should be working on already. As to when you should be working, the answer is simple: all the time. The game industry is a meritocracy that's known for its twelve-plus hour work days. If the limit of what you're doing to prepare for your chosen field is classwork, then you're already failing to live up to that standard -- even if you're getting straight A's.

    To put in perspective just how much you need to do:

    • Character modelers will often crank out a Zbrush sculpture of a character or creature each day, if not then within a week. These practice sculptures have exactly nothing to do with their day job. They do them because they like doing it and for practice.
    • Game designers don't just design games, they produce and test them, and keep video records of their tests, and make continual refinements to their designs.
    • Same with level designers.
    • Game writers are expected to already be published before they're employable. This means publishing a novel, short stories, or actually getting screenplays made into films and television shows.

    These facts can be daunting at first, but if you think carefully about what you pay the most attention to in a game then you can probably identify something that you think you do better than the pros. The reality is that you probably don't and that you probably just have a different point of view or philosophy, but you're probably still right up there if you've done enough research and put enough thought into that subject that you feel like you can challenge professionals.

    The problem that we sometimes face is finding a way to materialize that passion and to keep materializing it. It's especially problematic when we're in school, split in a dozen different directions by classwork, conflicting advice, pressures of scholastic legitimacy, and both our peers' and our own expectations of ourselves. The key to solving that problem: just let go. Forget scholastic legitimacy, forget what other people think about your interests, just do what you'd already be doing in your spare time. But be official about it; keep records of important milestones in your personal projects. Keep a blog and a portfolio of them for your prospective employers' reference and show them your passion for your work.

    9 - Never stop playing games.

    For obvious reasons, you should be playing games. They help alleviate stress, they engage and exercise the mind, and they make for valuable material for analysis and learning.

    This rule goes much deeper than that, though. When you're up for a job interview, you will be asked what games you've been playing recently, and there's an expectation that you're familiar with the company's catalog. If you answer "I haven't had a lot of time to play games lately -- I've been too busy working," consider the interview as much a failure as if they asked what work you do in your spare time and all you have to say is "I only do classwork."

    If you aren't up to date on current trends or if you're a strung-out workaholic who never just finds time to relax, you're a good deal less desirable an employee than someone who can do the same work as you but knows how to have a bit of fun every now and then. You may be going into an environment that has twelve-hour days, but that just means that knowing how to enjoy yourself -- especially on the job and with your peers -- is even more important.

    10 - Never give up

    The working conditions as a game design student are a hundred times more stressful than the working conditions in the industry itself. You're spending money rather than making it, probably accruing a huge debt while that's going on; your living conditions probably suck; you're probably being torn in a hundred different directions; the job market you're trying to break into is aggressively exclusive -- such that there's no guarantee that you'll even find gainful employment once you get out of college; and to top all that off, every week as you keep an eye on gaming news and trends you'll be given reason to wonder if it's all even worth it. You will get discouraged; you will doubt yourself; and you will consider giving up.

    Don't.

    It's my observation that most people who want to work in games are dreamers, and a dream is worth fighting tooth and nail for. Hopefully with the survival tips I've shared with you that fight will be a little easier, but the most important part of all this is you and what you want.

    Go for it.

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