In the latest
"Ask the Experts" advice column, from sister site GameCareerGuide.com
, a reader asks if he’s too old to go back to school, learn game programming, and start making video games for a living, seeing as he’s almost 30 (gasp!).
Gamasutra.com is also running this exclusive breaking-in advice column about the game industry. For more information about game education and getting your feet wet in game development, visit GameCareerGuide.com’s Getting Started
I am 28 years old and returning to college next spring for a degree in computer science. As a young adult, I was quite a game programming hobbyist, but I haven't taken up any computer programming in years. My friends and family are discouraging me from pursuing a career in game development, telling me I'm "too old" and I'd be better suited taking a more practical major, like business. I'll be over 30 when I graduate.
Are gaming companies primarily looking for younger hires, or is it possible for a late bloomer to succeed in this industry? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
The Thirty-Something Graduate
Oh my god! You’re 30? That’s so old! You need to get checked for osteoporosis! What do you mean you want to go to college? Aren’t you, like, almost ready to retire?!?!
Maybe you haven’t been watching enough Sex and the City
reruns -- but 30 is the new 21.
I don’t think you’re crazy. Game companies are desperate for good programmers. Thirty is not old. I routinely talk to students who are between the ages of 25 and 35.
However, it would help you immensely if you had at least some professional programming experience. I would advise you to try to get some part-time programming work, whether it’s game-related or not, while you’re completing your studies. If you already have a job, maybe you can initiate some kind of programming-based project that would somehow help the business. If that sounds far-fetched, listen for a moment to what I did:
When I was finishing my undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to work in publishing, but the job I had to pay the bills was at a bakery and sweet shop. These two fields of work couldn’t be more unrelated, but I was determined to do something that would look good on my resume. One day, I approached the bakery owners and said, “You know, our cake-ordering menus are really outdated. And the chef’s recipe book is stuffed with sloppy, chocolate-stained loose-leaf pages. Can I type up everything and make new, clean copies? I’ll redesign the menu and write new cake descriptions for the employee reference book. I’ll create a professional-looking recipe book with laminated pages and a table of contents.”
They said yes. I was allowed to devote about one hour per shift that I worked to this project. The whole endeavor eventually expanded to involve linked databases for wholesale and retail sales and some other stuff that was new to me. Suddenly, I wasn’t just slicing cakes. Mind you, I was still getting paid as if I were only slicing cakes, but I was doing something that I could use later as real experience. And it was all self-initiated and self-directed. Employers love that.
A Word on Ageism
“I haven’t noticed any overt ageism within the digital arts field. You can either do your job or you can’t,” says Tom Carroll, a game industry artist who has about 25 years’ experience in digital art. “You make a commitment to updating your skill set periodically to keep up with new workers in your field, or you don’t.
He adds, “Keeping or losing a job isn’t so much a matter of the age you are, but how readily you are able to keep yourself up to the industry standards for what you’re expected to do.
“Personally, I have a wife and two kids and need to keep up with the rigors of family life as well as perform well on the job and learn new 2D and 3D skills that might come along. All of this is much more difficult for me than for, say, someone who is 25 years old with relatively few responsibilities outside of the workplace. And while I may have a wealth of experience, having been in digital art now for roughly 25 years, if I don’t keep up with the younger, fresher, and more focused folks, I might find myself on the outside looking in,” Carroll says.
Another thing you should be doing is making games outside of class. And I really mean outside of class! Don’t cut corners. You have to create independent projects on your own or with friends. Game developers actually care that you do that. It matters! A whole lot of what aspiring game developers show as their sample work smacks of a classroom assignment. Because you were a game programming hobbyist when you were younger, this shouldn’t be too difficult for you.
“No matter if you’re a programmer or an artist, it’s absolutely necessary to develop challenging new materials for your portfolio outside of the workplace,” Carroll says. “You’re rarely able to use materials from games you’re working on your portfolio or personal web site, but having up to date code samples or exciting visuals help potential employers form a good opinion of you regardless of your age or relative experience.”
Your Two- to Four-Year Plan
You’re long-term goals so far should look something like this:
1. work on completing computer science degree
2. get professional programming experience, even if it’s part-time or an internship
3. create independent game projects.
At least one more thing comes to mind: Pick an area of specialization. Lately, I’ve been hearing about the need for network programmers, though I can’t promise that the demand will still be there in a few years. I also hear that employers need programmers who are experienced with next-gen hardware, but again, who can say if that will be the case in two years.
Do you have an area of specialization that interests you yet? If not, hang out with game programmers (it’s easy -- just go to an IGDA meeting, which are free and open to the public) and ask them what kinds of trends they see in game programming. Follow those trends over the next two years. Imagine how cultured and educated you will be in a few years if you start doing this now
I’m actually really excited for you, Thirty-Something. The more I think about your situation, the more I feel like you’re in a good place to take advantage of what’s out there -- much more so than an inexperienced 18- or 19-year old student.
But I also see where your friends and family might be coming from.
You didn’t disclose any information about your work history, financial situation, or lifestyle (including whether you have a significant other or children), the three things that would most affect your decision to attend school full-time at the ripe old age of 28. If your friends and family are reacting to those issues, then it has nothing to do with video game development.
It is tough to get a job in the game industry -- I fully acknowledge that -- but if you are a talented programmer with decent communication skills, and if you get some programming experience and work on game projects in your spare time, it can be done.
Tom Carroll adds, “Also practice turning those negative vibes to your own advantage, even when talking to your family and friends. Thirty-somethings are more mature, take less time to become acclimated to a new field or company, and generally make a better showing to employers than their twenty-something counterparts. If you’re confident in your outlook, you’ll quickly make backer out of your worst doubters.”
I think you can do it. Go get your education, get a job, and then start a 401K as soon as possible!
[Jill Duffy is editor-in-chief of GameCareerGuide.com and writes this bi-weekly advice column. She has zero financial expertise and made that reference to 401Ks half in jest. If you have a question about working in video game development that you’d like to see answered here, send it to [email protected]]