Lately, I notice that when people tell me that they want to work in video games, I feel a sense of panic on their behalf, like they’re telling me that they’re about to go and do something dangerous or negative. It’s almost like having a close friend or somebody that you care about say “ I think mainlining crack cocaine would be super fun.”
I certainly don’t feel that my own time in video games has been bad or unusually difficult, so I took the time to figure out where this feeling was coming from.
I entered the capital-letters Games Industry as a professional in 2007. In this time, I've worked on four shipped titles, designed game levels, co-op and multiplayer game modes, and had a generally good time. I've worked with great people, I've learned a lot and I've made things that I’m proud of. So, why do I feel apprehension for people when they say they want to work in “my” industry?
I feel the need to warn people away unless they’re right for this.
If you’re pondering a career in video game development, please first consider the following:
(Note: All my indie-scene buddies will have totally different perceptions, and to be honest: I’m not writing about indie, because I know nothing about that. I’ll check out the indie scene on my free time once I retire from triple-A maybe, but for now I just don’t know jack about being an indie dev, so I’m not writing about it.)
Nobody Cares That You Have Creative Ideas
Seriously, we don’t care. Over beers, on Friday, maybe. This is an industry that uses creativity like trains burn diesel fuel, but your ideas only matter when you can do. something. with. them. As it turns out, everybody has creative ideas — we’re hip deep in creative ideas, most of the time. The only ones that matter, though, are creative ideas that can be realized in a useful way that support the current project.
Big games have 200–700 people trying to “be creative” working on them. If we actually allowed that kind of creativity to be set free, a giant festival of money-burning chaos would instantly ensue. Here inside the industry, we’re looking for creativity in the sense that we’re looking for creative solutions to very specific identified problems or tasks. For some newbies, the kinds of tasks you might get are “place these crates in areas where the player can hide, while following a very detailed set of guidelines.”
We run on creativity. But we also run on schedule, for a very measurable amount of dollars, and large groups of people working together mean that the domain in which you will be encouraged to express creativity is likely (at least initially) very, very small.
AAA GameDev Work Is Your Life Now
Before working in games, I worked in Information Technology, doing what I thought at the time was many hours of unpaid overtime. I worked out three days a week at the gym, I was down to about twelve percent body fat, and I had constant exposure to people outside my own industry.
Seven years later: I work out once a week if I’m lucky, and my ‘workout’ is what my warm-up used to be. I miss the gym, but I feel a wild surge of anxiety when I think of the time commitment.
95% of my friends work in the games industry, because frankly it’s hard to relate to people who don’t know what JIRA is, or who say things like “well, I mean, more than 45 hours a week is just unreasonable, why are you doing that?”
We’re not sewing running shoes or lifting metal on a factory floor; time in the studio is rarely ‘bad time’. In fact, studios go out of their way to make it a great place to hang out all the time. Please realize that being at work all the time is not like having a normal job. It’s more like being in a hypothetical, very not-dangerous branch of the military, or joining a cult. It’s addictive having 200 friends waiting for you whenever you go to work, for however long you want to be at work. The job readily becomes your whole life, and if you’re the kind of creative weirdo who loves doing this, the reward loop is stronger than most other things you can be doing with your time.
My wife is the most understanding human being in the world, dealing with me coming home “when I get home” several days out of every week. I’m lucky that my wife was in those LAN parties back before I joined the industry, so she understands my love of what I do… But believe me when I say that the Games Industry has killed more relationships than it has supported.
I mean, people whose family members are doctors, soldiers, or police often feel under-appreciated, and those family members are actually saving lives… AAA Game Devs are coming home six hours late and missing family events because a copy of a video game that isn't done yet has to cross a magical finish line called “Alpha”.
Talent Is Not As Important As You’d Think
Generally speaking, the games industry is populated by smart and passionate people. Yet the people who are industry “winners”, the people who become bosses and whose voices ring out the most loudly, are people who have great skills at leadership, politics and networking. Sometimes they are also extra-creative or extra-talented, but luck and networking has more to do with success than creativity or talent.
This is not a meritocracy any more than any other professional or creative venture, like television or music. We are an industry. We value artistic talent, creative passion, technical excellence, and hard work, but getting and keeping a career in games is based on who knows and supports you, just like any other entertainment industry. There are standout cases of raw talent pushing people forward, but the vast majority of people who succeed in games succeed because they understand office politics, networking, and PR, not because they are more talented than the rest.
Honestly: I love what I’m doing. I love making games like the way I love eating, like I love running. But this industry isn't for everybody — making an entertainment product that has to sell to several million consumers to succeed is a complicated, stressful task and those of us playing in this space are working very, very hard.
It’s not only a job. Game development is a lifestyle, an extremely long walk with smart friends in a specific direction, an adventure. Please only show up here if you want that.