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So, You Want To Be A Rock Star?

Why it is necessary to "break into" the game industry versus just getting a job?
I thought I would start the year with a series of posts related to getting into the game industry. I get emails from students and others all over the world asking me questions about this.

In some ways, the game industry is like any other industry. You get an education, typically with a major in the area that you are targeting. Once out of college you start looking on job boards, etc., for jobs that interest you and send in your resume. Like any other job, a college degree doesn't guarantee you a job, and it sometimes takes months to find your first one. Once you get your first entry level job, you work your way up the ranks. Sounds easy, right?

The Creative Industry

Although the path indicated above will work in general, there are some aspects of the game industry that set it apart. People often talk about "breaking into the game industry" in the same sense as people talk about "breaking into the music industry" or "breaking into acting". Because the game industry is a creative field, their are several barriers to getting a job that you don't find in other industries.  Saying you want to be a programmer is like saying you want to be an accountant or plumber -- learn the skills and you'll eventually get the job. But saying you want to be a game programmer is more akin to saying you want to be a rock star. Not only will you need the skills, but you'll have to be the best of the best just to get considered. The same is true of most jobs in the game industry.

What makes the game industry different? Here are a few thoughts:

  • The game industry requires higher levels of technical skills compared to similar jobs in other industries.

    Game programming typically requires cutting edge skills to create cutting edge software that pushes the envelope of the technology. Art must be top notch. Designers must be exceptionally creative. Producers deal with the worst possible scenarios for keeping their projects on track.
  • The game industry requires higher levels of creativity.

    Making games is still more of an art than a science. Just like it's hard to define what makes a great song, it is hard to define what makes a hit game. Everyone making a game is required to implement technology in creative and innovative ways. For example, a graphic designer has to do good art. But a game artist has to do good art and make it move or make it 3D or make it any number of things, all while keeping within a memory or resource budget! Programmers have to make computers do things that they don't want to do while remaining usable, responsive and fast. You get the idea. Also, some people are able to break into the game industry by demonstrating their creative talent alone, completely bypassing the traditional route.
  • The game industry is part of the entertainment industry.

    Like the film and music industries, the game industry delivers entertainment. This has two consequences. First, our products are non-essential in the sense that people could live without them if they had to. Second, we provide a way for people to escape reality or experience alternate realities or just have 15 minutes of fun! In other words, if people are going to shell out money for our product, then it had better meet whatever emotional need they had for buying it in the first place!
  • The game industry has an aura of celebrity.

    Gamers aren't just consumers of our product. They become fans. They perceive those in the game industry as wizards who concoct a special magic. Although the game industry hasn't quite reached the level of celebrity as the film and music industries, it is still perceived as a field where it is a privilege to be involved.  No one talks about breaking into the banking industry, but you have to break into the game industry. This means, for example, that getting in might be as much about who you know as it is about what you know.
So there it is. I'm not suggesting that other industries don't require just as much skill and commitment. I'm simply pointing out that the nature of the game industry and the aura surrounding the entire entertainment industry make getting a job in the game industry a little harder.

That's it for this post. Next week I'll dig a little deeper into the ramifications of trying to break into a field based on the entertainment industry.

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