Game development curriculums around the world—especially ones that teach game design—tend to focus on what’s fun for the students rather than on what they need to know to do the job. Rapid in-engine prototyping, short projects, high level game design theory, boardgame development, etc.
But focusing on the fun stuff sometimes means you forget what’s important. Or that important knowledge about how the industry works and what you should expect from a job in the industry is left out in favor of having more fun.
The following is a more introspective treatment that aims to highlight other things you should be aware of. The goal is to help you figure out if you really want to make game development your career or have simply fallen in love with the fun.
The goal isn’t to scare you, but to sober you up just enough.
Game development is a job. Many who seek to work in the industry forget this. Especially on the design side of things. There can even be a sentiment that all a game designer really has to do is have some ideas and that’ll be a whole day’s work effort.
In this section you’ll find a number of questions. Try asking yourself these questions.
It works like this:
- Each ‘yes’ without even a moment’s hesitation scores you one point.
- Each ‘no’ or ‘uh’ or hesitation scores you zero.
Your score is graded at the end.
Are you comfortable sitting at a desk 8h / day?
If you’re 20 and think this is a nonsensical question you’re probably right. But not indefinitely so.
Many of my colleagues through the years have suffered lasting injuries due to the office lifestyle. They would’ve done so in other deskjobs too and many game studios provide massages, electronic desks, and other excellent benefits that help alleviate some physical dilemmas. But the truth is that the human body was never intended for deskbound indoor monotony. Not to mention staring at a screen for hours on end. It can end up harming your eyesight and cause a long list of physical ailments.
Working against this is a lifelong effort and any game studio where you are expected to do considerable hours of overtime—sadly, too many still do—will easily end up taking priority over any workout regimen you may have.
Are you fine doing repetitive work?
This depends more on what you’ll do. But at the end of the day, especially at a big studio, you’ll do some amazingly repetitive things. Maybe you’ll have to compile lighting for your level for a few hours every day. Move spawn points around to tweak them just so. Go through all the assets of a specific type and check the right flag on them. Make a hundred different sets of boot textures. Add stat variations for five hundred guns. Refactor a messy codebase that was rushed together in advance of E3. Etc.
This work just has to be done, and the more junior your position the more likely it is that the person doing it will be you.
Are you OK getting paid less than in similar careers?
Overall, the game industry’s salaries are lower than equivalent salaries elsewhere. Even at big companies. If you practice a very game-specific profession, there are no similar careers. There aren’t many level designers beyond video games for example. If such is the case, this point matters less for you.
Beyond senior personnel, programmers have the higher salaries, but these are still rarely equivalent to programmer salaries outside game development.
This is another one of those issues that may seem a non-issue if you’re 20. But again, it’s not going to be a non-issue indefinitely. At some point in life, you may want to get a nicer apartment, or even a house.
Will you enjoy working on games you don’t like?
Not everyone makes dream games. Every obscure title and rushed movie tie-in had developers working on them, same as any other game project. That developer may very well be you. All projects are not created equal. Even the really cool high-profile titles will have positions where the work is all but romantic, as well.
If you dream of making cars for a racing simulator, then get hired by a racing simulator developer you may be hired to make the trees that fly by at 200 km/h—will you still enjoy it?
Can you handle criticism without making it personal?
Many join the game industry because they truly enjoy one of the many crafts that go into making them. Designing user interfaces perhaps, or sculpting faces, or writing massive documents about wood elves and starships.
But in a professional environment there are decisions that will be made and concerns raised that are entirely out of your control. Sometimes you’ll disagree with it or it may even touch on something you value highly. You have to be able to accept it.
If this is something that makes you uncomfortable, or if you’re not ready for it, then a creative environment with other people may not be for you. This may sound harsh—because it is—but you have to be able to move on and do the job. Swallow your pride.
Is lack of job security not a big deal for you?
One unfortunate effect of the project-based nature of game development is that you’re rarely secure. There are some exceptions to this in particularly stable companies, but the truth is that fortunes can turn on a dime. Your company didn’t get the new contract. Your project failed or wasn’t extended. Most of the time, it won’t even be due to a fault of your own. Some companies rotate staff as a project runs its course.
This is stressful, makes it essential to keep an updated CV ready as a backup, and is cause for great concern. No one is entirely safe.
Some don’t mind this stress and some never have to face it. Know how you handle it before you commit.
Are you fine with having your work thrown in the bin?
Somewhat related to criticism but more personal. Your stuff is highly likely to get cancelled, canned, thrown in the bin, ignored, redone by someone else, etc. If this merely makes you shrug and move on, then go right ahead. But if it makes you feel empty inside or makes you want to stab someone in the eye with a rusty spork, you should probably reconsider. Because it will happen.
Do you have the discipline to maintain your private life?
Crunch culture is a fixture of the game industry. Not all companies crunch, but many do. There’s also sometimes a mentality that promotes self-sacrifice. For the project. For the company. Maybe even for king and country.
Worst case, this completely ruins your private life. You stop seeing your friends. You neglect your spouse, possibly your kids. You stop going to scheduled activities, like workout. You stop cooking, start eating food that isn’t as healthy. Etc.
There are many consequences of the workaholic practice that may not be immediately obvious but are maybe even more ruinous than sleep deprivation.
However, if you have the discipline to maintain your pre-game industry private life and to juggle a healthier work/life balance, you’re set. Saying ‘no’ can sometimes be hard. If you come prepared to say no from the start, you’ve already won a minor victory.
Do you have other work experience?
It’s relevant to live a little before you go into games. Many of the industry’s disciplines—especially the creative ones, like game design—have zero value outside the industry. If you’re applying for jobs elsewhere ten years from now, you may shockingly realise that you have nothing to fall back on. That you’re “stuck” in games.
Beyond that, it’s simply a richer life experience to do different things. No matter what those things may be. It also serves to inform your game design.
Basically, the suggestion is this: if you really want to make games a career, do something else first, then make games.
Are you willing to stomach sexism, racism, and other social problems?
This part is probably the trickiest of all. Off-hand comments, systemic salary cuts for women, and offensive behavior at get-togethers – drunken or not – that shouldn’t be acceptable anywhere ever. These are tragically common.
I have seen this many times. Sometimes in the seemingly innocent conversations that happen behind closed doors. Sometimes in the composition of meetings. Sometimes in the inability to acknowledge the #gamergate conversation as legitimate, or to make fun of its major critics or most famous victims.
It’s not always rotten and not all companies have these problems. But they exist – and if you have a problem with it I’m so sad to say it, but you are highly likely to encounter it.
We need you, theoretical pro equality person! But you should still give this a long and hard think.
Are you fine working on someone else’s idea?
Something you need to remember if you look to become an employee somewhere is that employment means your time is purchased by someone else. You’re not there to fulfil your lifelong dream—you’re there to fulfil someone else’s. Or merely to deliver on a board of directors’ promises. A lot of the time, it’s about as glamorous as industrial assembly work.
If you’re highly specialised, this won’t be as big a problem, because you have niche protection. But if you actually want to make your game, understand that it’s not going to happen at someone else’s expense.
Do you like making games – not just playing them?
One of the clearest signs that a student may not be a good fit for the game industry is when they focus on how much they play. Yes, play games and keep playing games. Engage with your art form. But playing is not the same as making.
Think of Breaking Bad’s Walter White and contrast him against someone buying his product. No buyer needs to know what the blue stuff White puts into his product is called. All they care about is how much it costs and what they get.
The buyer is a gamer in this analogy, and Walter White a developer. You need to know which one you want to be, and if it’s not Walter White, then working with games is probably not a career you should pursue. Oh, and the blue stuff is called methylamine.
Please note that this metaphor is not intended to promote addiction of any kind, nor is it a suggestion that you should be a Walter White-level asshole for a successful career in games. But you can definitely read it as comparing gamers to addicts. We make a product they don’t need and expect them to spend lots and lots of hours with it. It’ll be your job to hook them on this product.
How Did You Score?
0-4 points: game development is not for you. Stay far away.
5-7 points: game development may be for you, but you should consider other options and probably make sure to have a solid backup. Your answers to the questions may very change down the line. In a study made by the IGDA, about 50% of people who start out in the industry leave the industry within five years. One common reason is that they discover it’s just not their thing. Nothing is wrong with you if that’s the case! Another common reason is, unfortunately, burnout.
8+ points: game development is definitely maybe possibly for you. Definitely, because you’re mentally prepared for it, or think you are. Maybe, because this is just a stupid points-scoring test based on a bunch of random questions based on anecdotal evidence, and you shouldn’t take it too seriously. Possibly, because you still have to compete against everyone else who wants their foot in the door.