So you want to be a game developer?

jwatte's picture

Once in a while, I'll hear a question like "I'm tired of flipping burgers/school/my job as a sewer cleaner; how do I get into games programming?" Some people will say "don't do that -- game developers are treated like the scum of the earth, and careers are brutal and under-paid." I think that doesn't quite capture reality, though.

In the US, a game programmer is likely to make less in pay than a financial services programmer, true -- but he (or she) is still likely to make more than, say, a middle school teacher, or a registered nurse. Game development also has the benefit of working on creative things with mostly fun people. If you work at a small studio with a hit, you'll probably get a nice bonus, too. I would not say that game developer is at all a bad job, in the same way that "house cleaner" or "burger flipper" or "wall-mart greeter" are low-end jobs with little chance of advancement.

Games artists don't make as much money as games programmers, unless they are really good. However, a really good technical artist (who really understands skinning, animation, scripting, shaders and game engine technical requirements) may make more than many of the programmers on the team. There's clearly a possibility of advancement in that position.

Also, after working on games, you're going to be qualified for a number of other jobs in movies, entertainment or plain-old business, that may provide saner work hours, higher pay, but perhaps more boring work. Game development is a hard-working trade for hard-working individuals, and learning the skills necessary is hard work for a long time. (Then again, so is becoming an architect, or a lawyer, or a CPA)

Developing games is a cooperative art. Skill #1 is to be able to work well with others. Make sure you listen to everybody, understand what they're saying and why they're saying it, and then contribute your own opinion in a non-confrontational, constructive way. ("like an adult" some people would say -- but many adults don't know how to do this!) Skill #2 is whatever your specialty is. Because so many people go into making a professional game, each person is highly specialized. Someone might be a game asset modeler, building chairs, buildings and ships. Someone else might be a character modeler, building heroes and enemies. Someone else might be a texture artist, painting the textures and other maps, yet someone else is an environment artist, putting it all together to a good-looking, well-playing level. Then you have the game designers, who are trained in psychology, story-telling and pacing, the programmers, who specialize in AI, or physics, or graphics, or networking, or gameplay, or core/low-level programming. Add sound designers, composers, producers (keeping track of the schedule, and prioritizing which things should be done out of the hundreds that could be done), quality assurance / testing, and a sprinkling of management and support roles, and you have a modern game studio. Rather than saying "I want to do it all," you pretty much need to pick one or two specialties, and focus on those.

If you don't know which specialties work out best for you, you can try them all by making your own game, although that will look a lot simpler and smaller than a full professional game. On the upside, you'll be able to try things out that might totally fail, and thus would be barred from a professional (expensive) game project. If those things end up not failing, you may have invented a new kind of game! (A game named "Narbacular Drop" tried a portal-placing gameplay strategy, that ended up being turned into the hit game "Portal")

I recommend you start out with a good book or two, to get a flavor for what you're doing. The Indie Game Development Survival Guide is a good start, because it covers a lot of what it takes to make a game, and the environment within which you can do it, across the board. It doesn't talk about how to write code, or model environments, but talks about how you should apply those skills towards making your own game. It's also not terribly long, which is a good thing :-)