I would kill to work in the games industry. But how do I break in? Where should I go to school? What should I be doing?
I get asked this question a lot, and the answer is…complicated. So I thought I’d answer it here, once and (mostly) for all.
Game development is a relatively new industry. If you want to be a pilot, you take aviation. If you want to be a doctor, you go to med school. But when the profession you’re interested in has only been around for a handful of years, there’s no clear way into it.
Here’s how I got into the industry.
The long and winding road
After graduating high school, I took two years of university, studying philosophy, acting, and playwriting, with no plan for any of it other than they seemed like fun at the time. I switched from university to college and completed a two-year multimedia diploma.
That was the end of my education (well, kind of–I did end up going back and finishing my BA this year, but that’s not really relevant). During my last two weeks of college, I interned at a local web development company. They ended up hiring me full-time, and I worked there for the next two years.
While I was there, we got a contract to do some work for the Air Force, and I championed doing a series of animations–I’d taken animation in college, and while I was mostly spending my time programming, I’d been itching to do more creative work.
We ended up moving from Winnipeg to Vancouver, and I applied at a local animation company–a company whose work I had mimicked when I was working on the Air Force project. It turned out I had perfect timing–they needed someone who could do that exact style of animation, immediately. So, I started there as a junior animator.
Over the years I worked there, I went from junior animator to being an animation lead and technical director. We’d mostly been doing short animations, usually work based on movies to be used as DVD special features. We ended up catching Microsoft’s eye, though, and managed to get a contract working on Halo: Anniversary.
We grew very close to Microsoft, and I’ve managed to work on every single Halo game released in the last five years. All this work got the attention of other game companies–on top of working on Halo, I also ended up animating on stuff for Capcom, Sony Santa Monica, and Deep Silver.
By this point, I’d been working pretty closely on a number of games. Now, I’m a story artist at Hinterland Games, working exclusively on the game The Long Dark.
(I also got a BA somewhere in that mess, but it’s hardly worth bringing up–it was just something I did on the side, and didn’t really affect my career at all.)
What does it all mean?
The moral to the story is this: very few people plan to end up in the game industry. Most of us just…fell into it. And everyone has a totally different story. It’s an industry lots of people sidestep into, as opposed to launch into headlong. There’s no “correct” path, if there is a path at all. I’d always wanted to work in games, but looking back, I got here through equal degrees hard work, luck, and timing.
That said, I think that can be said for a lot of careers. Most people find that the place they’re heading ends up being totally different than the place they end up. The world is a big place–there are a lot of jobs that you don’t even know exist until you bump up against them. I pursued whatever interested me at the time–first web development, then animation, and now game development.
Okay, but seriously, what do I do?
Up until now, this has kind of been a history lesson. Everyone followed different paths into this industry, but now the industry is here. And it’s huge. So there must be something you can do, right?
Well, the first thing you need to do is decide what exactly it is you want to be doing. Saying “I want to work on video games” isn’t going to cut it. Like I said, it’s a huge industry. Where do you want to position yourself within in? Do you want to be a 3D artist? Animator? Level designer? Producer? This is the first, and most important, question you should be asking yourself. And odds are that once you’ve answered this question, the path you should take will be pretty obvious.
If you don’t know what you want to be, boot up your favourite video game and check out the credits. Google the ones that catch your eye. Maybe you want to be a 3D character rigger? You’ll never know if you don’t know that position even exists.
So, what are some of your options?
You want to be a 3D artist. Cool. Odds are you have a local college that teaches 3D. Research them, go on tours, check out how successful their grads are. Dedicate the next two or three years of your life to being the best damn 3D artist you can be.
You want to be an animator. Same deal, though a little more complicated. There are only a handful of great animation schools out there, and if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, odds are you’ll have to relocate if you want to take it seriously. And probably say goodbye to your social life–animation school is notoriously draining.
You want to be a 2D artist. Awesome. Learn to paint, especially digitally. Again: college is your friend.
You want to be a programmer. Go to university. Get a computer science degree, learning C, C++, and/or C#. If your university insists you learn Java, you’re at the wrong university.
An important aside: school is becoming increasingly irrelevant to most tech and creative jobs. No one cares that you went to school. All that matters are your skills–if you can get those skills better outside of school, don’t waste your time (or buckets of money).
Okay, that was a easy stuff. These are all career paths that exist both in and out of games. What about the careers that are specific to games? Game designers, level designers, system designers, narrative directors…
What if I want to design games?
Yes, there are schools. A lot of colleges offer courses in game development, training up students for exactly these kinds of jobs. Since they’re pretty tech-heavy and extremely popular programs, they can cost an insane amount of money, too.
A popular local college offers a 12-month game design program, described as such:
You don’t just play games – you create them from concept to completion. You know that a great interactive experience comes from combining unique game mechanics, inspiring graphics, compelling levels, and expert coding. You see high-tech game engines and analog pen-and-paper games as equal ways to create memorable player challenges. You are a game designer.
The cost of becoming a game designer? $32,250.
Run away. Run very, very far away. Because there a very simple truth about this industry:
There’s no such thing as being hired by a company to be a “game designer”.
The person in charge of designing a game, in coming up with the ideas and systems that make it tick, is not someone who took “game design” in college. They’re people who have spent countless years in the industry, slowly building up a sphere of influence, gaining connections. They grow from within the industry, without exception, and worked a variety of positions before they found themselves at the top.
Okay, there are exceptions. But odds are you won’t like them. If you graduate as a “game designer”, you might be able to find a job at some mobile company, spewing out adgames and apps designed to get kids to accidentally spend their parents’ money. That’s not the world you want to be in, though. You want game design that’s passionate, meaningful, thrilling, engaging.
You get there through a long process of jumping from position to position, learning new skills, trying different things. And, maybe, one day, suddenly spotting the opportunity to step up into a position with more creative control.
Now, the good news
And it’s very good news.
Everything I said up until now, it’s a little archaic. Even though the industry is new, even though people are only now making sense of how you get into it, it’s also changing at an insane rate. And that desire to make passionate, meaningful, thrilling, engaging games? To be part of a killer team, making things that matter?
Let me tell you the good word about indie games.
A lot of the larger game developers are struggling. A lot of games have budgets of tens of millions of dollars. And that’s created a void in the industry, where people are hunting for new things that are creative and daring. Or just plain fun.
The majority of the games released these days are games developed by small teams, or even individuals. A lot of games come out every week designed by people who had never made a game before. Some have been made by people who don’t even know how to program, but were able to use various tools to design and complete–and sell–an entire game.
I said earlier that the simple truth of the industry is that there’s no such thing as a “game designer”. But that’s also a lie, because the barrier to entry for the industry has suddenly become so low that anyone who wants to design video games, can.
No one can stop you. The only financial barrier is $100-200 for a used computer–a lot of the best game development software is already available for free. It’s a long, hard road–making a game isn’t easy. But this is also where we’re seeing a lot of the most important game developers cutting their teeth. They don’t go to school, don’t worm their way through the industry, don’t spend years weaving networks and building influence. They’re just people who want to make games, so they do.
And you can, too.
If what you really want to do is make video games, go make video games. Game developer Zoe Quinn already made a great resource for you, Sortingh.at, a website designed to point new game designers in the right direction. Make a game, then make another. If you make a good one, sell it. You’re not limited to making computer games, either–most major game platforms support independent game creators. You can put your game on the PS4, or Xbox, or iPhone, or 3DS. And many people make a career of this.
It’s easy to find others like you, too. A lot of cities have meetup groups of independent game developers, or even game jams–events where people get together to make games in very limited amounts of time. Go make some friends, join some teams. Or, you know, don’t. You can go solo, too.
This is the very best thing you can do, even if what you want to do is work for some giant, faceless game company one day. This is one of the best ways to learn and get experience in game development, and you can leapfrog those who opted for school instead. Of course, there’s no shame in school–but if what you want to do is design games, the best thing you can do is make games at any cost.
So, there it is: my answer. That’s how to get a job in game development. It’s not a simple answer, and no matter how you approach it it’s rarely an easy path–and almost never a predictable one.