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Gaming the System: How to Really Get Ahead in the Game Industry

In this article, originally published in Game Developer magazine, pseudonymous developers of all levels share their honest, sometimes cutting thoughts on what it takes to truly succeed in each game industry discipline.

[In this article, originally published in Game Developer magazine, pseudonymous developers of all levels share their honest, sometimes cutting thoughts on what it takes to truly succeed in each game industry discipline.]

Success in game development takes a careful balance of hard work, timing, and company politics, whether we like it or not. And yet, getting ahead in your specific discipline doesn't always mean doing what you're told or following advice to the letter.

A few successful developers with some strong, honest opinions have agreed to share their thoughts on what it actually takes to get ahead in the industry.

Every level of employee is represented, from the most junior to the executive level. Pseudonyms have been used to allow the authors to speak their minds unconditionally.

Each company is different, of course, so some of the advice that follows may feel like it doesn't pertain to you -- or maybe you disagree entirely. But chances are, what these developers have to say will resonate, even when it comes from a discipline other than your own.

To that end, different positions are represented as well, from the "learn the rules of the game" approach of the production entry, to the "do it your own way" approach by the design author.

Don't like what you read? Send your alternate approaches to [email protected]. The most convincing (or contentious) responses may be published on Gamasutra.com.

- Brandon Sheffield

Programming

Just Do It! Constructive Disobedience

By Larry Hacker

There are many things you can do to advance your career as a game programmer. You can excel at the tasks you are given, you can learn new skills, you can research current techniques, you can document your code, you can stay late nailing down a tricky bug, you can follow coding conventions, and you can help others solve problems.

But all these things are simply doing what is expected of you. Let's step outside the box. How can you advance your career by doing things that are not expected of you, or even things that you've specifically been told not to do?

As a programmer, it's not uncommon to see problems that you think should be fixed, or to see an opportunity to improve some piece of code, or speed up a process that takes a lot of time. It's also not uncommon for your suggestion to be ignored, or dismissed with an "it's not broke, so let's not fix it" response.

Say your code uses a lot of hard-wired checksums as identifiers. Every time a new identifier is added, the programmers use a command line utility to calculate the checksum, and then copy and paste it into the code. Now, it would be vastly quicker if they could do this inside the editor with some hot key. You suggest this to the lead, and he says, "We don't have time for things like that."

What should you do? You should just do it -- on your own time. Figure out the macro system in the editor, hook in the checksum generator, and link it to a hotkey. Then quietly show everyone what you've done. The other programmers will be grateful that you've saved them work and will be impressed with your coding. And the lead will hopefully admire your initiative.

I say "hopefully" because the "just do it" approach is a potential minefield. While it's a great opportunity, you do need to be careful that you know what you're doing. Before taking the initiative (or rather, before telling people that you did), make sure it's really something worth doing. If possible, try it covertly first so that if it's not actually worth doing, nobody will need to know you wasted your time -- and make sure that "your time" is actually that. People have different opinions of what your own time is and might think any time you spend coding should have been company time.

"Oh, that? It only took 10 minutes!" That line usually absolves you of the time-wasting label, and makes you look even more impressive.

Art

A Political Party

By Mr. Confidence

For all you game artists looking to level up in your careers, here is a compendium of suggestions that might help you do just that.

Ask for forgiveness. There comes a time on every project when you know the solution to a problem, but you haven't asked permission from your lead to implement it. Sometimes, it's better to just do it and apologize than to request permission. You could do worse than getting a warning about going over your boss' head, but solving the problem will likely diffuse her anger.

Be the single point of failure. This sounds contrary to what you'd want to be, but it suggests increased accountability and ownership. This is exactly what you want! Make the team dependent on your skills. If you "own" part of the production process, then they can't live without you.

Introduce first. Well before the end of your project, you should spend time investigating other projects at your studio. Take time to meet people on the project that you want to be on and carve your own destiny. Don't wait for your lead or HR representative to tell you where you're going next. If there's one thing makes an impact on a team, it's passion for their project.

Be the hero. During production or even prototyping, always be on the lookout for opportunities to make a big impact. Finish early. Create a process. Solve an art issue. Whatever it is, nothing beats the kudos that come from being the person who saved the day.

Meet the world. Too many talented artists are content to sit at their desks and work hard as great employees, but you are doing a disservice to yourself and to your studio if you aren't making an impact outside the office as well. Opportunities to speak at the Game Developers Conference and other venues offer an opportunity to network and communicate with the industry as a whole, and the potential opportunities this leads to can be plentiful. One good art talk generally leads to more.

Circumvent the boss. This is the sneaky, dark secret. Honestly, if your boss is not helping you advance your career, or if he's making bad decisions that you think will adversely affect the project, communicate that knowledge upward. Most of upper management is insulated from knowing what's happening on the project on the team level. You may do more than just help the project -- you could also be helping your career in the process. Just make sure you express yourself in a professional manner, and don't sound like a complainer.


Design

Show and Tell

By Daxter Crate

As a game designer, your job is to design games. As obvious as that sounds, it's easy to lose sight of and get sucked into having the wrong priorities.

You have to contend with company politics, unreasonable requests from publishers, the stroking of egos, and other baloney that has nothing to do with the game itself.

I recommend taking a vow to make the game the best game it can be, no matter what that means for all that other hogwash. Little Jimmy in Iowa who buys your game doesn't know or care about any of that other stuff, and neither do game reviewers. They judge the game you put in front of them, so put the best game in front of them you can.

On one project I worked on, an outside art contractor we were using created an elaborate standoff about fixing art bugs. My company wanted the contractor to fix all the art bugs on principle. Nice principle, but Little Jimmy and all the other Iowans only care if they are fixed, not which politics prevented them from being fixed. I personally fixed several and recruited an artist co-worker to fix more on his own time.

In a different situation, we wanted to add a set of sound effects but had no one allocated to do the sound processing. I downloaded free sound processing software and learned how to do it myself because I knew it would improve the product. These anecdotes aren't even about game design, but they help create a culture where "make the product good" is the highest priority. If you can get other team members to buy into this mindset, your team as a whole will be capable of making that much better of a game -- and that is how you'll be measured in this industry.

In addition to doing good work, try to let the general public know exactly what you're doing. As a designer, your decisions shape what the playerexperience is. Players will be very interested to hear why you made those decisions, and that raises your value in the industry outside the company.

The reality is you're probably not going to be at the same company your whole career. (Although if you do work at an awesome company, staying put could be great!) It's to your advantage to let the outside world know exactly what you did. Your company or publisher might not want to see you self-promote because they might see an advantage in preventing you from getting credit for your work. Fair is fair though, and what you have on your side is that the marketing and even the design of your game will benefit from keeping players in the loop. Make that argument if you get any resistance from within, and try to let the world know what it is you actually do.

Production

The Unspoken Rules

By Tracky McProject

It might sound crazy, but sometimes, shipping something awesome on time and on budget isn't enough.

Don't forget that as a game producer, you are judged on not only the results you get, but also how you went about getting them. There are a lot of ways to interpret the job of a producer, and one thing you'll want to do early on is make sure you're doing things the way your boss imagines them being done. A pitfall for people in the production field is finding out after the fact that their production style or methods weren't what the powers that be actually wanted.

And don't expect them to tell you what they want right off the bat, either! I've seen them wait until the project is done and it's employee review time for it to finally come to light. So before you get in too deep, spend some time learning what the boss wants in terms of process. If she doesn't seem to care either way, don't believe her. It will come back to haunt you later.

Another thing to watch out for is unspoken rules. Unfortunately, nobody will tell you about these upfront. I once watched my boss in the production organization give some creative feedback on the game's story, and I naively assumed this was an acceptable practice. My own small attempt at creative feedback turned out to be a strike against me when it came time for a performance review! My boss explained that he had a rapport with the creative director that I didn't have. Okay then, lesson learned!

Most of the time, you find out that these rules exist only by breaking them, but sometimes you can spot them from someone else's turmoil, such as when the co-founders of a company are fighting. Be very careful when sending emails on sensitive topics like these. Everything, including your language and who is on the To and CC line, can turn into a landmine. When in doubt, talk to folks in person. If you break one of these unknown rules in conversation, well, at least there isn't a permanent record of it.

Finally, don't forget why you're putting up with all this crap to be a producer. For me, it's the guys on the team. One time, the company I worked for bought a limited number of new monitors and decided to dole them out based on tenure. It happened to be my turn to receive one.

As the IT guys installed this big, brand new screen at my workstation, I couldn't help but think about an animator we had just hired, fresh out of school. He was working hard and doing amazing things in Maya using small, crappy monitors. How could I look up from an Excel spreadsheet on my beautiful wide-screen display while this poor kid who actually made content was struggling with 15 meager inches of visual real estate? "Hey, give my new monitor to him,"

I told the IT guys, who were happy to comply. Pull for your guys like this, and pretty soon you'll have their trust. That might not get you a promotion immediately, but remember, these are the people who actually make the game.


Audio

Shut Up and Listen!

By Johnny Foley

Audio always gets forgotten. It always ends up being last -- in everything! Meetings, production, you name it!

It makes sense, then, that audio developers, be they audio directors, composers, sound designers, or voice directors (all sensitive souls who strive for quality), are generally evangelists by nature. At any audio-exclusive gathering, you'll hear the same war stories and tales of producers and senior management making horrific decisions that adversely affect the quality of the audio.

Venting is natural and, I would argue, actually necessary to mental well-being and survival in video game audio development. However, that same airing of grievances can often be the downfall of audio developers who cross over to the dark side and start overtly speaking their minds and generally losing it with senior development staff.

I have seen and interviewed many of the fallen, those who were let go for disagreeing with a fundamental product or studio decision because it affected their audio in some disagreeable way, and who, rather than working in a bustling team atmosphere, now work in a lonely home studio.

Developing audio for a video game is, ironically, intensely collaborative, not just between the audio, design, art, and code, but (and this is something that never gets talked about) between producers, senior producers, and executive producers. The top brass often likes to be involved when it comes to casting, dialogue recording, and directing, and sometimes composing There's always a corporate creative guy who owns a studio and thinks audio is his "thing." There will always be an exec producer whose "thing" is dialogue direction, especially if someone famous is involved.

The same thing happens when product and marketing people get involved, too. And, oh yes, they are also your collaborators. Marketing and PR always had a presence in voice casting meetings, and often it was my job to fight for quality and common sense casting, while they bounced around the latest pop stars as wouldbe lead characters in the game.

The trick is to view this as a part of the collaborative process as an inevitable part of development. Get them involved and listen to their ideas. In all likelihood, they'll be distracted by a shiny object and will leave you alone.

Survival Tip: Always treat senior publisher staff and producers with respect (through all communication channels), as they are collaborators, too. Often, they see the bigger picture on a product with a clarity that you don't have. Listen to their ideas, try to understand what they want to achieve, and give them a way that it can be done. Compromise of creative ideals is unavoidable, but it need not always be negative.

If you can make things happen for them and make what they want actually happen, they will sing your praises and adorn you with all the respect you can hope to get. This will ultimately make future projects a lot easier.

Quality Assurance

Getting the Hell Out of QA

By Bugsy Checker

QA is often thought of as the standard point of entry into game development for careers outside the programming and art fields. While this is true for some, it also means you're far from alone in trying to make your move. Because of this, the most basic rule for getting the hell out of QA is to get noticed.

Know your producer, and make yourself an asset to her. Find out what extra work needs to be done, and do it. If the company doesn't have an associate producer role, try to forge one by taking on some of those tasks. Get yourself known as the guy who is interested in learning new skills and going the extra mile.

Unfortunately, just being good at your job and eager to learn often isn't enough. You'll need to play politics.

Some companies develop an adversarial culture between QA and the development teams. Do your best to avoid this. It's going to be difficult to join development if you see each other as the enemy. Beyond that, you'll need to know people socially.

Be friendly around the office, go to company events, and get to know people in the positions that will be making hiring decisions when the time comes. The smaller your company, the easier it is.

There are also a few things to watch out for. When taking on extra tasks and learning new things, don't do it to the point that you're ignoring your duties in QA. It's also important to not become Free Work Guy. You don't want to be seen as the person who doesn't need to be promoted because, after all, he'll do all the extra work for free.

Do as much as you can, but don't hesitate to make it clear that with your QA responsibilities, you can only do so much. And don't overdo the socializing. You want to be friendly and easy to talk to, but not a social butterfly who can't walk to the bathroom and back without chatting for 30 minutes about the last episode of Battlestar Galactica.

Assuming you can walk these lines effectively, you should be in good shape, but nothing is sure in this world. While working at a small company makes it easier for a QA staffer to get noticed, the budget there may be too lean to accommodate an associate producer or junior designer position, meaning getting out of QA could require you to jump two or three steps up into a role that's a little out of your league.

Larger companies, on the other hand, are more likely to have one-step-up openings, but that also means more competition and more distance between you and the people doing the hiring.

Naysaying aside, QA is still probably the best place to get a foot in the door. You'll develop familiarity with development cycles; working as a lead will give you important experience managing people and schedules; and creating test plans and scripts develops your technical writing abilities -- all of which are essential skills for both game producers and designers. And, of course, the longer you're in the industry, the more people you'll know, and the more connections you'll make. Don't assume that the promotion you're hoping for will be at the company where you're currently working.

---

Photos by Lasse Havelund and Laurence Borel, used under Creative Commons license.

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