As video games and gamified applications get bigger and bigger (Video games generated $130 Billion in revenue in 2018), game-making as a career choice becomes more viable, layered and holds more and more potential. However, as the game industry is relatively young (40-50 years old), there isn't a lot of clarity about what career strategies one can adopt in order to achieve maximum potential.
A career strategy is a must, because it means that you're thinking 5, 10, maybe even 20 years ahead and aligning your present actions and decisions with your life goals. Without one, you could spend years and years in endless loops without making any real progress. More than anything else, it is about doing meaningful work- the kind that makes you look forward to Monday morning. It also means that you earn enough to be able to live your life the way you want- be it raising a family, buying a home or a car or taking a vacation.
I've been teaching game-making and mentoring for 10 years now, and I hear these questions a lot:
How do I get started making games?
Is it a good idea to go indie and start making games on my own?
Should I get a job at a game company/studio? What's that like?
How do I advance in my game career?
I've been making games since 2008; I've worked with huge multinational companies earning hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue as well as small studios with twenty people. I also do consulting, and have run my own Indie outfit. All of this has given me some perspective on what steps to take to make career progress in the game industry.
CREATING A STRONG FOUNDATION
To start with, you need to build a strong foundation for your career by understanding the basics of the trade, so to speak. To help illustrate, let's have a look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.
The pyramid above represents the hierarchy of human needs. Once the basic needs at the bottom are fulfilled, more advanced ones like creativity and self-fulfillment arise. To start with, it's important to have a good grasp of the basics and build your understanding of the art and science of game-making. It's okay in the beginning to make a Flappy Bird clone that nobody plays; you'll get to your masterpiece if you stick it through. In order to reach a creative pinnacle, you have to be in the trenches first.
It does not matter what age you start making games! I was 33 when I quit my Merchant Navy career and started making games for a living. You need to start out with the attitude of a student and understand the general process of game making, and then the specific basics of your craft, be it design, art or programming.
A great way to learn the basics is to go to a Game School, like I did; I went to Vancouver Film School and did an intensive one-year program in Game Design. Here is a video I made about Game Schools:
If you can't go to game school, that's OK too; there are other ways of learning the basics. One is to get an Internship at a game company, like I did with Piranha Games in Vancouver. It allows you to observe the process of making games closely, with gradually increasing responsibility that comes from getting better at your chosen discipline.
Speaking of disciplines, it's vital to understand that in game-making, there is often an overlap in what work people do. There is rarely a sharp distinction between design, art and programming in the sense that some people perform dual, even triple roles. I personally do Design and Art direction, but don't write code. If you are starting out, it's very much possible that you are unsure about what role is for you, and that's totally OK; no need to rush into a decision and choose a particular discipline.
Generally speaking, knowledge of multiple disciplines is a HUGE plus in a game team, because someone who understands the different aspects of the game development process well, can communicate with the entire team and occupy a leadership role with relative ease.
Going to game school or doing an internship is a great way to figure out what exactly it is that you like doing an are are good at...you may well realize that you can combine roles with your skill sets, like the way I combine Design and Art.
SETTING CAREER GOALS
It's important to try and get a broad understanding of your own long-term career goals. Are you ultimately looking to do your own thing (set up your own studio)? Do you want to join a AAA game studio and make the games you like playing? Or maybe you want to be a freelancer and work for hire. If you aren't sure yet, that is fine too.
This is a very popular choice, as the barriers of entry into game development have never been lower. It's easy to download a game engine like Unity or Gamemaker, watch tutorial videos on YouTube, make a simple game and upload it on the Google Play store or Steam. It's a great way to make a start in game development. As I always like to say...
"The only way to learn how to make video games is to actually make them!"
I have a lot to say about this topic, all from personal experience, and I will simply put it into points as below.
PROS of going Indie:
Diving right into it will teach you a lot about tools and workflow for making games
Releasing a game into the market will teach you the basics of marketing video games!
It's easier to get a job if you have experience working on game projects, even if they are your own games.
If you are a solo developer or you are part of a small team, you will get 360 degree experience (art, design, programming, marketing, testing)
You will learn the process of creating a game end-to-end, from coming up with an idea (conceptualization) all the way to release.
It's a fantastic experience to make your own game, and extremely fulfilling and creatively satisfying!
CONS of going Indie:
It's a very high-risk choice! Most indie projects do not get completed, and of those that actually find their way to the market, very few actually earn enough to even recover the cost of making the game, leave alone a profit.
Indie games struggle to find visibility in game stores. Large companies, who have dedicated teams for marketing and selling their games (not to mention large marketing budgets) usually occupy the limelight and Indie developers, who spend all their time making the game rather than selling it, find it difficult to be featured.
As Indie projects are mostly passion projects that explore new ideas, concepts and mechanics (also there is usually a lack of proper pre-production and project planning), they almost always wildly overshoot time and cost budgets, which often leads to a lot of financial and psychological distress.
Going Indie is definitely a viable option, but be aware that if you are looking to make enough money from the sale of your first indie game to make another (which is another way of saying that you will be making a living making games) you are probably in for a nasty surprise.
All the successful Indie game developers out there took years (and multiple projects) to figure out how to get it right; the trick is to realize that one is actually running a business! To this end, it may be a good idea to do a course in business management (I'm doing a Executive Program in Business Management now) to understand how to run a business.
Another really important factor that can help you to succeed as an indie is the presence of a Financial Safety Net, which basically means that if your game(s) fail to make money, your finances (and life) won't fall apart.
Here are a few factors that help to create a safety net:
> Keeping your day job/another source of income
> A spouse or partner that has an income
> Significant savings
> Owning a home or living with parents (no rent to pay)
> The ability to borrow money or be supported by family
So even if you have a long-term plan of going indie some day, it may be a good idea to get a job in the beginning to take a few years to develop an understanding of the art, science and commerce of game development.
The reverse could also be true...diving into indie game development in the beginning will help you to get a good grasp of the essentials of game-making and prime you to hit the ground running in a game studio job!
GETTING A JOB AT A GAME STUDIO
This is how the vast majority of game developers work- in a team, for a company. If you decide to get a job, there are thousands of studios/companies to choose from. To understand the different kinds of game studios out there and the kind of work you can expect, watch this video!
So as you see in the video, if you are looking to go get a job at a game company, it comes with it's own pros and cons.
Path of progress in game companies: If you are looking to get a job, there are some things you can do to get ahead, get promoted and do the kind of work you want. Here they are below:
1. Take initiative: Don't stay static in your skill set, it's a big mistake in the fast-moving world of game development. Learn new things!! If you are a programmer, learn new languages, new engines. If you are a designer, keep exploring newer genres and deconstructing them. Participate in game jams to hone your skills. If you are an artist, push yourself by practicing art outside of your comfort zone. This will give you the adaptability to keep up with the fast-moving nature of tech, tools and processes and allow you to take on new opportunities as they open up. This is hard, as you will have to find time apart from your work..but it can be done!
2. Develop Leadership skills. As you gather experience and skill, be prepared to take (and accept) more responsibility. From handling one project, you may go to handling several at the same time. Build authority by sharing knowledge and passing on your skills to the less experienced members of your team. This can lead to promotion and higher salaries. Many studios offer incentive-linked bonuses, and the only way to get them is to be in senior management position.
3. Build a network-inside the company and outside. It's very important to know people in key positions in your company (HR and Business Intelligence for example) and build a rapport with them, inside your company and outside. This is kinda hard for creative people to do, I get that (it's the same for me) but the truth is that we suffer because of our general aversion to talking up people we don't know very well. It's a huge plus if you know your way around the company (or the industry) because most of the breaks that one gets are due to personal relationships.
4. Understand the video game business: At the end of the day, game studios/companies are running a business. If you wish to rise beyond a certain point, in addition to being a creative leader, you will have to be something of a business leader as well. This means that you are thinking strategically about the business- how the company makes money, how it can increase it's revenue and market share. This may sound very far removed from the world of game-making, but it isn't...it's what the folks making six and seven figure salaries are doing. One great way to do this is to actually do a course of study in Business Management or leadership.
5. Educate yourself: This is a big one; it's never too late to update your skills through a course of study! Identify what it is that you need to learn-it could be a distance learning program in business management, data science, a new programming language or even a language learning program. I know someone who spent the first five years of her career as a programmer and then went to a school to study concept art, and now works full-time as an accomplished concept artist! It's not easy to find the time and money to educate yourself while doing a job, but it's no easier to be stuck in a professional rut. If you are looking to get into upper management in the game industry, it may be necessary to get a business management education.
Here's a video that I made, that talks about some best practices for thriving in the game industry:
CREATIVITY VS MONEY:
A great thing about going indie is that you get t o explore your creative potential to it's fullest; if you work for an established company, chances are that you will be working with many more creative constraints. I know lots of folks who quit high-paying jobs to go 'scratch that creative itch'; I happen to be one of them! There is a trade-off here; a job gives you security and regular salary but limited creative expression and the indie life, though creatively satisfying, can be very financially risky. Here's a video on this topic:
Here's a little story; It was 2010, and I had just relocated from Vancouver to Hyderabad. In two years, I had gone from senior merchant naval officer to game designer (I was working at Gameloft at the time) and my income had dropped to 25% of what it used to be. I saw a large sign advertising a newly-opened game school and on a whim, walked in and offered to teach what I knew about game design. A month later, I started teaching the basics of game design to my first class. Now, ten years later, that teaching gig as made ALL the difference to my game-making career.
My point is that side gigs can be awesome; just make sure that you are not violating the terms of your employment agreement with whatever you do apart from your day/regular job. There are things that you can do on the side that bring you creative satisfaction if not much money; teaching is one of them. I have learned so much from teaching and mentoring that it is difficult to put into words; apart from teaching, consulting is an option, and so is making games on your own. Side gigs are a wonderful 'Creative Pressure Valve' that allow you to express your creativity, perhaps earn a little and be part of something that you are passionate about.
This is a huge force multiplier in terms of career and reputation. Do your best to be an active part of the game development community and work towards it's improvement. I have been a part of the IGDC (India Game Developers Conference) for the last five years, earlier as a regular speaker and now as a curator of the careers track at the yearly conference. Do volunteer at game conferences and industry events; be a part of building the local game development scene. As you grow, advise and mentor those who also want to break into the industry. It's a great way to get to know people and build a reputation in the industry.
In conclusion, understand that you need to treat game making as a career and not just a job. Building a strong foundation and making intelligent decisions to shape your game career will go a long way in ensuring that you do work that you love, and earn a good living that can support your aspirations!