Wanting to switch careers to pursue a vocation that would be more enjoyable and satisfying is what drove playwright and screen writer Haris Orkin to turn his passion for videogames into his new job. The steps he took to become a writer and narrative designer for such high profile titles as the Call of Juarez series, Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, and the soon-to-be-released Dead Island can serve as a template for anyone trying to make the difficult lateral career move.
The first and most daunting question is, "Where do I begin?" There are many books on developing videogames, maybe too many. An Amazon.com search for "videogame design" returns more than 1,000 titles; a search of "videogame programming" returns more than 1,100. "Apps development" returns more than 700.
There are a number of schooling options, such as the specialized schools like Full Sail University, DeVry University and ITT Technical Institute, or part- and full-time programs at traditional liberal arts and sciences universities. Northeastern University, Stanford University, and DePaul University now offer courses of study in videogame design and development, and you can even teach yourself the fundamentals using online lessons and software provided by companies like GameSpark.
The choice may be a bit easier for the 18-year-old about to graduate from high school, but what about the 30- or 40-something with family and financial responsibilities? Is paying thousands of dollars in tuition and fees worth the investment? Can you learn to develop the next Angry Birds by reading books and working on your home computer?
After graduating from the University of Southern California with a Master's in Creative Writing, Orkin started building a successful career writing and producing stage plays in Los Angeles and New York City. "But all along, I was a hardcore gamer, and have been since the advent of Pong. When my son was born, my wife claimed I wanted a kid primarily to have someone to play videogames with, and she wasn't totally wrong," he says, laughing. "As games grew more sophisticated and more reliant on narrative and vivid characters, I saw an opportunity but I wasn't sure how to make the move."
The good news is that the industry is hungry for new talent, and while a degree in a directly relevant discipline such as engineering or computer programming can open doors for you, having one isn't a requirement. That's according to Mary-Margaret Walker, CEO of Mary-Margaret Network, a firm that helps place its diverse clientele into the game, mobile, web, multimedia, IT, TV, and film industries. Walker says the industry is cyclical, and now we're in a phase that's favorable to making lateral career moves.
"I've been in the industry for more than 20 years, and have seen these cycles several times," she adds. "There are times when a handful of really big developers and publishers dominate the landscape and the opportunities are limited. Then, all of a sudden, the corporations become big, slow behemoths that can't move fast enough to keep up with the trends and go through rounds of layoffs. Those people then start their own companies and suddenly the smaller companies are more numerous and more on the cutting edge, and that's the cycle we're in now."
Walker says there are two kinds of hiring going on today: companies that want the hot shot industry professional with years of experience, and those that will gladly trade experience for someone who is passionate (and typically willing to accept a lower salary).