So You Want To Be a Game Developer?

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So You Want To Be a Game Developer?

Game development is hard, and if you want to make it your profession, you have a lot to consider. Shamus lays out the nitty gritty details.

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(Gossip says working for Value is pretty nice.)

Don't you mean Valve?

viggih7:
(Gossip says working for Value is pretty nice.)

Don't you mean Valve?

Pfft. Yup. Thanks for pointing it out. I re-read this multiple times and never caught that.

Shamus Young:

viggih7:
(Gossip says working for Value is pretty nice.)

Don't you mean Valve?

Pfft. Yup. Thanks for pointing it out. I re-read this multiple times and never caught that.

Well, Valve is synonymous with Value, so...

I read that Valve employee handbook. It seems like they only hire "jack of all trades" types. So you'll need to know some coding, modeling, texturing, animation, art design etc. They don't hire people to to do just one specific thing unless they're working on hardware. It's not how their company is structured.

Would this article have something to do with it being GDC week again?

Yes, Valve has a very different hiring policy because of its unique corporate structure (or lack thereof). They do not have any specific positions and anyone can work on whichever product they wish to. If someone wants to make Half Life 3 they can start the project and people interested in working on it will join in. They only hire senior talent with lots of experience and have no starter positions. I got this from the handbook and from the tour I had at their office (plus chatting with some of the staff on the tour).

What I meant to say is if you're a new grad you're not getting a job at Valve because they don't hire new grads.

Alek The Great:
What I meant to say is if you're a new grad you're not getting a job at Valve because they don't hire new grads.

That's not true. Portal 1 and 2 teams were predominately hired straight from college. The difference is that they had been working at something that got Valve's attention, not that they sent in a resume with their graduation cap. I think the original CS modding team had a similar hiring story, but I'm less sure on that.

As someone currently enrolled in a Game Design program in college, there wasn't a whole lot new for me in this article. There also wasn't a lot of difference from stories of other creative industries, like film or television. That sucks. There's a reason I picked a school with a co-op focus, as it helps students realize what the job will be like, as well as building a resume. Because hiring new grads is nice, but hiring someone who can do the work is better. I've seen devs quit on Twitter, claiming they're done with the industry. This isn't something limited to AAA development (Phil Fish and Angry Bird Guy). I've also met with general developers and graduates from my college's program who thoroughly enjoy their work, and haven't been bounced between jobs. I've seen the trend of industry veterans starting game studios with a claim to remove crunch, and care for the talent. It'll be interesting to see if they maintain that vision, or revert back to the film industry strategy of only caring about the top folks, and the rest get one shot if that.
I agree that people shouldn't go to a purely game design school. It only limits experiences, learning opportunities, and the people you'll meet. College is a chance to try tons of new things, and learn about tons of topics - having the entire university limit that seems ridiculous to me, especially considering those schools don't have cheap tuition, or great financial aid plans (I applied to them, and balked at the final bill). But the statement that the industry has a high turnover and little talent appreciation applies to journalists (especially with game journalism, look at JoyStiq closing for no good reason, or the recent Escapist changes), filmmakers, comic book writers, musicians, writers, and even lawyers. There's a reason I don't want to send a resume to Ubisoft, but the idea that I should give up because it's going to be really hard to do what I love doesn't sit well with me.

You forgot to mention that not only will you be tossed out the door when a project is winding down, but it is also entirely likely be tossed out the door and told to re-apply in 3 months because they don't want to pay you benefits. Because, like the article says, they know you probably will to keep paying the bills, and if you don't there's a clone army lining up to replace you.

I can't speak for the rest of it, but holy shit did the years between 20 and 30 fly. I was about 28 before I realized I was no longer fresh out of high school.

Alek The Great:
Yes, Valve has a very different hiring policy because of its unique corporate structure (or lack thereof). They do not have any specific positions and anyone can work on whichever product they wish to. If someone wants to make Half Life 3 they can start the project and people interested in working on it will join in. They only hire senior talent with lots of experience and have no starter positions. I got this from the handbook and from the tour I had at their office (plus chatting with some of the staff on the tour).

The weird thing about the "anyone can start a project and get other people interested" is that no-one ever has. Or at least there has never been a case where an employer at Valve had an exciting idea for a new IP (since Half-Life 1) and got everyone else excited and made that game.

Check this list of their published games:
Half-Life (1998) - Valve's only original inside IP. Presumably Gabe Newell's idea
Team Fortress (1999) - Fan created mod. Valve hired the guys who developed it and then published it and made improvements
Counter-Strike (2000) - Fan created mod. Valve hired the guys who developed it and then published it and made improvements
Day of Defeat (2003) - Fan created mod. Valve bought the rights, published it and made improvements
Half-Life 2 (2004) -Sequel
Counter-Strike: Source (2004) - Remake
Day of Defeat: Source (2005) - Remake
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 (2006) -Sequel
Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (2007) - Sequel
Team Fortress 2 (2007) - Sequel
Portal (2007) - Game concept developed by a group at Digipen. Valve hired the guys who developed it, made improvements and published.
Left 4 Dead (2008) - Developed by Turtle Rock Studios. Valve hired the guys who developed it, made improvements and published.
Left 4 Dead 2 (2009) - Sequel
Alien Swarm (2010) - Fan made mod. Valve bought the rights and remade it.
Portal 2 (2011) - Sequel
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012) - Sequel
Dota 2 (2013) - Fan made mod. Valve hired the guy who developed it, made improvements and published it (with a 2 in the name)

I don't understand why, when anyone at Valve can start any project they want, no Valve employee (except Gabe Newell) has ever wanted to make their own game and then gone and done so.

In fact the only time that has happened was with Turtle Rock Studios, who quit Valve and then made their own IP.

Signa:
I can't speak for the rest of it, but holy shit did the years between 20 and 30 fly. I was about 28 before I realized I was no longer fresh out of high school.

I'm not even halfway, but the past six years have been a blur and I still consider myself nothing more than a teenager.

Its funny.
I'm a software developer, and I love videogames.
People *ALWAYS* ask me why I don't try to get a job making games.

Ridiculous hours, terrible pay, absolutely no job security.

And before you argue, "That's just what life is like in corporate America!" No, no it isn't. Sure, some companies overwork and under-pay their employees. But in other industries that's the exception. In video games, it's the norm. I ran into a lot of computer science types in my days as a professional, and I never met (or even heard of!) anybody who worked the kind of hours they work you at a AAA studio. And never for so little pay.

I can definitely attest to this. My job is about as cushy as it can get. I rarely work late unless something serious is going down. I make more money than most people that I know, get great benefits, know my job is solid for the foreseeable future, plenty of opportunity to move elsewhere if I feel like I need a pay bump.

The AAA game industry is a meat grinder for talent.

As somebody who graduated from a design college, took one look at the game industry, went "nope" and decided to get a job in graphic design instead... I have my reservations about my job (it's boring!), but damn I'm glad it's not that bad.

Thank you Shamus for making me feel better about my life choices.

Adam Jensen:
I read that Valve employee handbook. It seems like they only hire "jack of all trades" types. So you'll need to know some coding, modeling, texturing, animation, art design etc. They don't hire people to to do just one specific thing unless they're working on hardware. It's not how their company is structured.

Not quite right. They hire people with lots of general skills but also with an area of expertise. The logic being that people who only do one thing well don't collaborate well, while people without a specialist skill don't do anything useful.

The main issue is that they don't seem to make a lot of games.

Bad Jim:
The main issue is that they don't seem to make a lot of games.

Yeah, 13 games in the last 11 years isn't that much really when you think about it. -_-

I thought about making games back in high school 9 years ago, but something, a gut feeling, told me it will be a shitstorm by the time I get through college. Since then I've seen tons of those game college adds all over the place, and I cringe at how many people are probably signing up. No offense to those that did, but it seemed to me like the job market was going to saturated even back in '07. Now, for the past couple years, I've seen studio closures left and right, along with the horror stories of devs being laid off, usually just to cut costs until the next thing. It's a mess I'm glad to not be a part of, but my heart goes out to the people who are.

Really, something should be done about all of the shenanigans corporations pull to save money by firing nearly everyone on a project that just went gold, only to refill most, if not all, of those positions went the next project gets its ball rolling. The only problem with changing that is it has become the norm for so long that it will be hard to shake.

As a software engineer (retired) who was also a software engineering manager I have long viewed the AAA video game industry as a disaster. It is incompetent to its core, one small proof of this is one of the most important aspect of a software development environment is growing/building a core team. Yet, the industry consistently disassemble teams, cutting their departments to the bone. Indeed, even the bones from time to time. Many studies have shown that there are many different ways to run a project. Yet, regardless of the methodology a solid team will deliver the goods. Fancy MBA ideas or not.

Now, the software business itself isn't picture perfect. Many of the faults in the video game industry can be identified there as well. But, the video game industry is based on harsh conditions, multi-year crunch cycles and minimal pay. Even when the pay is good, it is common for publishers to kill projects, refuse to disburse rewards and to steal IP from anywhere it isn't tied down.

As to the software of the industry itself, I find many of the articles in the trades are cringe-inducing. Announcing discoveries of ideas that were well known in the 80's. Wow, what will they think of next. I know, let's check out the 90's. The video game industry might get there in twenty years.

I will be interested to read your next piece.

I wanted to be a programmer for videogames. I flunked out of comp sci though due to my incompetence. I switched to biology, but in my spare time I still want to learn coding and maybe try at it again. Hearing this is a bit depressing, but I knew it from stories I heard beforehand sadly.

Mm. I went to a college, majored in game dev, with a focus on 3D graphics. Graduated over a year ago, haven't managed to land any sort of job in the industry. Spend my time these days looking for part time jobs and still trying to make my art portfolio good enough that maybe someone will hire me.

Sucks.

Actually to put things into a different perspective: From a lot of what I've heard and run into over the years things aren't QUITE what Shamus paints or haven't been. Game developers tend to be seriously overpaid for relatively safe, easy, white collar work. The value of a degree in a world where nearly everyone has one isn't much, sure it takes a lot of money to go to school to learn this stuff, but that's true for just about everything. I spent a fortune taking Criminal Justice classes (specializing in Forensics) for example, and wound up working Casino Security, never had many serious problems, but the dangers were present, and I made a fraction of what the white collar brigade did.

At the end of the day like a lot of white collar professions, management, travel and tourism, various artistic professions, etc..., tend to get it into their head that they aren't going to have to work at all and are going to enter into some kind of individualistic position where they are going to spend less time working and more time socializing as they do things at their own pace. In reality someone who say goes into Resteraunt and Hotel Management usually winds up being a gofer for the owners rather than being someone who runs the place and tells other people what to do. Someone going into IT fields is expected to actually run around and fix things, and do it at a rapid pace since things are always going to need work, not to hang out and smoke and joke in a workshop, doing a bit of work here and there, while raking in the money.

Some game developer needing to go out and actually work constantly, pounding out lines of code, allegedly surprises people who aren't expecting to have to work that way on the job. Having a pile of debt as Shamus puts it is simply being a modern of American, that's what everyone who goes to school winds up with, and as far as how much you get paid it's never as much as you hope for in school. You take a look at what a game developer actually makes and compare it to oh say a Casino Security Officer, all without every having to wonder if he'll get his neck sliced with a beer bottle while responding to an incident in a night club, and it's a pretty sweet racket.

Of course then again there is the whole other point to the game development racket that a lot of people overlook which is how the cost of computers and materials are minimal compared to these massive budgets, the big cost is of course going towards human resources which gives you some idea how much game developers are making. The game development costs constantly rising as these people demand more and more money even with the layoffs and such. What's more one of the big reasons why a lot of games go over budget and such is because apparently a lot of game developers DO have rather bohemian policies which means that the developers get paid out of the game budget without doing all that much in the way of actual game creation. Occasionally leading to these infamous "Crunch times" where it turns out all the time goofing off needs to be made up to get a game out before the release date and the publisher comes hunting for heads. Such last minute rushes are also apparently why a lot of games are released in such a craptastic stake. Developers might have spent 3.5 years of a game development cycle ordering pizza and playing Magic The Gathering, and then had to do the meat of actual game creation towards the end.

Now you might be saying "Hey Theru, what's your source on this?" well, while it's not popular there have been some exposes of sorts over the years. While it was blasted by those with "friends in the industry" I still remember an old Maxim article about "Why Game Developers Drive Ferraris" which gave a list of job titles and the actual pay scale expected at each one (albeit years ago). In addition I've actually paid attention to some of this "behind the scenes" stuff over the years where they do tours of game development studios and the like, going past the cubicles where people work, and so on. To say that they aren't professional looking workplaces, full of toys, people goofing off, and so on is an understatement. If I did a walk through of a cubicle farm at the casinos (IT, accounting, human resources, etc...) and it looked anything like that I'd probably be called upon to make a report while upper management went on a bloody warpath. While again it was years ago, I remember seeing some behind the scenes stuff for Alan Wake that had me thinking "you know, I'm not surprised these guys started out with plans for this open world horror game, and then created a linear shooter that wasn't even close to what was originally suggested". When Relic (I think it was) went out of business I read some articles about their abandoned offices, and one thing that got left behind was a broken statue of a 40k Space Marine. Now granted that is one of their IPs, but I do have to ask what that is doing in their work space, and furthermore who exactly commissioned a one of a kind plastic (presumably) statue, and who paid for it?

Now yeah, this does kind of make me a jerk, but the bottom line is that I think Game Development is a fine field for those who want to go into it, I just think a lot of people that do get involved tend to be drama queens, like a lot of the white collar brigade, not bothering to look at how everyone else is doing. Of course then again I have a fair amount of disrespect for most white collar professions. Respond to a rowdy hotel room party, fight at a gaming table, alcohol shut off, disturbance in a bar or night club, or try and help handle a drug overdose at a concert, or any one of dozens of other things I've done (albeit not constantly, mostly security is very quiet) and then QQ about how underpaid and stressful your job is. Piles of student debt? Welcome to America. A work commute that might take an hour, again, welcome to the real world. No time for a social life? Yep, that's the real world. Toughen up buttercup, and be glad you've never had to hold up a sheet to give the EMTs privacy while they try and save someone's life and fail (which has happened to me incidently) then tell me about how crappy your job can be. Worried about getting fired constantly? All employees are disposable, I did 6 years at one casino 4 at the other, in today's world that means I saw people come and go through the job, all people are disposable to employers, it sucks, but that's life. It's not something unique to "game development" it's simply normal. In any job you need to find ways to make yourself indispensable (in my case I went in for every bit of special training and every special qualification I could get).

Zakarath:
Mm. I went to a college, majored in game dev, with a focus on 3D graphics. Graduated over a year ago, haven't managed to land any sort of job in the industry. Spend my time these days looking for part time jobs and still trying to make my art portfolio good enough that maybe someone will hire me.

Sucks.

by chance do u have a portfolio website you could link?

I'm almost in your position, went to GMU's game design program and will graduate in december. Right now im thinking about using the bachelors to get into army OCS, or just regular enlisted e-4 rather than spend another 1-2 years struggling to find a position

natenate95:

Zakarath:
Mm. I went to a college, majored in game dev, with a focus on 3D graphics. Graduated over a year ago, haven't managed to land any sort of job in the industry. Spend my time these days looking for part time jobs and still trying to make my art portfolio good enough that maybe someone will hire me.

Sucks.

by chance do u have a portfolio website you could link?

I'm almost in your position, went to GMU's game design program and will graduate in december. Right now im thinking about using the bachelors to get into army OCS, or just regular enlisted e-4 rather than spend another 1-2 years struggling to find a position

I would, except I kinda like keeping my forum life disconnected from the places where I use my real name...

Bottom line:
Don't do it!

...

Except if you are going to work for From Software.

Woah, seriously now: the life of a game dev can be boring and grim... I agree with the general advice here learn to your hearts content (save up your money on the process) and make games for yourself, if they are complex and fun enough and I hope they are...! you noob!! Sell them on Steam.

Therumancer:
snip).

nooooo ooooneee caaaaaares about your apparent vendetta against white collar workers

OT: yeah even compared to other "creative" industries games seem pretty bad

After Reading this blog, I really interested to Become a Game Developer.

Going to be honest here, I don't want to be a game developer. Or a game-centric YouTuber, gaming "journalist" or anything else to do with the industry. I like playing games and its one of my main hobbies, I tried turning a hobby into a profession before and it was a terrible mistake that ruined the hobby. Worse still it didn't appear to be a mistake until I had committed too much into it, over a decade on (15+ in fact) and that hobby is still ruined for me.

So I learned my lesson about trying to turn something I was interested in and passionate about into a job, I won't be making that mistake again.

Huh, I only saw a little bit of this in my first year at college, but now it kinda sounds good I didn't stay all four years. I hope all my friends still in it end up being the lucky ones. I wish developers could form unions or at least shine more light on all the shit they have to go through so that us consumers could help change the system.

It's kind of wierd/sad when I read about a career and the first thing that comes to mind is "Man, being a military recruiter doesn't seem so bad after reading that".

BrotherRool:

The weird thing about the "anyone can start a project and get other people interested" is that no-one ever has. Or at least there has never been a case where an employer at Valve had an exciting idea for a new IP (since Half-Life 1) and got everyone else excited and made that game.

Check this list of their published games:
Half-Life (1998) - Valve's only original inside IP. Presumably Gabe Newell's idea
Team Fortress (1999) - Fan created mod. Valve hired the guys who developed it and then published it and made improvements
Counter-Strike (2000) - Fan created mod. Valve hired the guys who developed it and then published it and made improvements
Day of Defeat (2003) - Fan created mod. Valve bought the rights, published it and made improvements
Half-Life 2 (2004) -Sequel
Counter-Strike: Source (2004) - Remake
Day of Defeat: Source (2005) - Remake
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 (2006) -Sequel
Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (2007) - Sequel
Team Fortress 2 (2007) - Sequel
Portal (2007) - Game concept developed by a group at Digipen. Valve hired the guys who developed it, made improvements and published.
Left 4 Dead (2008) - Developed by Turtle Rock Studios. Valve hired the guys who developed it, made improvements and published.
Left 4 Dead 2 (2009) - Sequel
Alien Swarm (2010) - Fan made mod. Valve bought the rights and remade it.
Portal 2 (2011) - Sequel
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012) - Sequel
Dota 2 (2013) - Fan made mod. Valve hired the guy who developed it, made improvements and published it (with a 2 in the name)

I don't understand why, when anyone at Valve can start any project they want, no Valve employee (except Gabe Newell) has ever wanted to make their own game and then gone and done so.

In fact the only time that has happened was with Turtle Rock Studios, who quit Valve and then made their own IP.

They only have 300 odd people working for Valve. By the time you take away those supporting steam, the normal HR and legal functions that does not leave many people. When you take all those people away that just leaves enough to build a new engine. In theory you free to start any project you want be you are under the direct view of a multi billionaire boss everyday and in the real world any idea that he doesn't like you will soon know about. Fundamentally Valve is a retail platform with a side line in games. It didn't used to be that way, but post steam, that is what Valve is.

I've always been told during my high school years about how most "Game Design" universities were essentially huge scams. Now while it may not apply to all of them, it certainly makes me happy knowing what I am studying can apply to many different businesses. A lot of the gaming culture has made "game careers" look very appealing, so its nice that you are able to lay it down a peg and explain the possible reality behind working in AAA.

But again, its all a matter of circumstances. Not every job is going to be a cubicle hell, just like not every job is going to be in a pimp graphic design dream office with massage chairs scattered around the building. Although I feel like these AAA "norms" point to why so many people have left to become independent game developers now (which can be both a good and bad thing).

I would love to get into game development but sadly I don't have the head for making a game at all. The only way I could ever get into any type of game development is getting picked to be a writer. I took an introductory class in programming but I dropped the class about half-way through because I couldn't(and still can't)understand programming at all. I have stories written that I would love to turn into indie games but sadly I can't.

Therumancer:
snip

How many aspiring game developers are going to get a job in a casino? Almost none of them. Instead, you should compare to a job that they could have had instead, with equivalent skills and training. As Shamus points out, going into the private sector tech industry instead, you'll get paid more for less work, more stability, and an equally cushy white-collar office environment.

It sounds like your career path is just as unstable, underpaid, and unhealthy as game development, but that doesn't have to be the norm. I spent a lot of time and money getting a job that doesn't have any of these problems. I'm sorry to inform you, however, that it doesn't involve goofing off all day for 6 months and then realizing I actually needed to write some code. If you think your security job is more action-packed than mine, we are hiring :)

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