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Issue: October 1, 2007

PREPARING FOR A CAREER IN GAME DEVELOPMENT

By: Patrick Jamaa

Finding a job in videogame development may seem like a dream to some, but it is a dream that is realizable. If you are looking to work in the videogame industry, one of the most important things to recognize is that development teams are often quite large and diverse. This is a boon to someone who wants to break into the market because there are many job opportunities in a broad range of fields.

Today, those opportunities are more prevalent than ever, as the industry is currently in an era of unprecedented growth.

For instance, the US Bureau of Labor predicts that the growth of software publishing, of which videogame development is a part, will expand by 67.9 percent between 2002 and 2012. This makes it the fastest growing industry across all sectors. In fact, revenue from computer games now exceeds that of Hollywood box office, and this will likely continue — that's because players can now get a feature film's complex and lifelike art with which they can interact.

Regardless of the industry's growth, a job in the videogame industry is very desired, and competition is cutthroat. While the career paths listed below are nearly always present in a top team, they are not the only ones available. Understanding the types of jobs that are available will help a person get started quickly on a rewarding career.

KNOW THE TERRITORY

What are the magical career fields that add up to a videogame development team? The primary ones are: programming, visual arts, audio, production, design and quality assurance.

The first four usually require extensive training and/or a degree in the field. To get anyone's attention within the industry, programmers must know more than just the basics of object-oriented programming — usually more than can be learned in the average school. Artists must demonstrate that they can produce quality work with Adobe's Photoshop and, quite often, with 3D packages like Softimage|XSI or Autodesk's Maya or 3DS Max. Audio people must be ready to produce and record the myriad sounds used within a game and/or be able to compose drop-dead musical scores to compliment the action within a game.

To make things more confusing, or intriguing perhaps, there are more advanced positions like technical artist (something akin to an artist and a programmer combined) or an audio programmer (someone who is able to make the audio inputs work within the game's engine). Quite often, these are careers that someone attains only after learning and growing for a period within the industry.

The last two positions on the list are jobs that are less specific and more magical.

Designers come from a wide variety of sources, but they must be passionate about the way games play and be interested in devising new ways for users to play them. In most game shops, designers must also be able to use or learn to use software-based tools that help establish gameplay modes and missions.

Quality assurance in the context of a videogame development team means game testers. Testers are hired because they can demonstrate an ability to play a wide variety of games, to categorize various aspects that don't work or need improvement, and to validate aspects of a game that work exactly as they are expected to. It is common to see the best testers moving up into designer positions.

KNOW THE INDUSTRY

If you're not in the industry, how can you possibly know it? Don't despair. First, be a voracious reader of industry Websites such as Gamasutra.com and of trade publications. They chronicle the ups and downs of the industry, provide information and reviews of industry-standard software, and provide an idea of which companies are hiring and what the requirements are. (An updated job board, for instance, can be found on the Website of Post sister publication CGW — www.cgw.com)

Second, network your butt off. Chances are that if you apply the "six degrees of separation" rule, you know someone, who knows someone who works in the industry, and it's up to you to find that contact. Don't worry about being a pest; a lot of people working in the industry are pests — and now you know why. Shy people only make it into the industry if they have a Ph.D in applied physics (or something geeky like that). So get out there and find that person who will give you a break.

KNOW YOURSELF

What are you good at? Do you sketch in a notebook? Do you doodle out a more elegant piece of looping code on a napkin at a posh restaurant?

Well, that may be enough, but probably not in an industry that is increasingly packed with very competent job candidates. Compared to 20 (or even 10) years ago, there now are myriad schools that not only provide training within art and programming, but actually offer courses and majors to help students make the direct jump into the games industry. So, if you truly aspire to a job in videogame development, identify your skills and work out a direct path to obtaining demonstrable skills that will help you to shine.

WHERE TO GO, WHAT TO LEARN

As mentioned, there are many houses of learning with programs of study dedicated to the videogame industry.

Videogame artists are born, but they are also trained. The first place to start is by reviewing the numerous Websites, books and magazines to find examples of character and environment designs. This information is more prolifically available than at any other time in history, so take advantage of it. If you need to, get yourself into a degree program that will also help you to produce a portfolio of your work.

The Art Institute, for instance, has outlets in most major US cities, and it offers a comprehensive degree program in Game Art and Design, as does the Savannah College of Art and Design. Such institutions are a good place to start on the pathway to becoming a videogame artist.

In fact, a large number of colleges provide degree programs that will enable a person with the appropriate skill set to learn what is required in C++, DirectX and OpenGL programming. In addition, programmers with the "right stuff" can sometimes obtain internships with large videogame developers, an opportunity that allows them to hone their skills in a real-world environment prior to graduation.  

GETTING NOTICED

I want to emphasize this again: don't be shy. Once you are armed with a good resume and samples of your work, get yourself and your work in front of employers as quickly as possible. There are jobs out there available for people of all skill levels, but the benefits don't always go to the best, but rather to the quickest (and the loudest).

While it is always possible to blanket the world with resumes and to contact every recruiter on the planet, one of the most valuable tools that anyone (even someone who is still in school) can use is called the "informational interview." You conduct an informational interview to enlarge your professional network, but sometimes it leads to employment.

Here's how. First, identify the occupation you're seeking (hopefully it is one of those mentioned above). Assess your own interests, abilities, values and skills, and evaluate labor conditions and trends to identify the best fields to research. Read all you can about the field before the interview. Decide what information you would like to obtain about the occupation/industry, and then prepare a list of questions. This preparation helps expand your knowledge of the industry even before you conduct the interview.

Second, identify influential people within that industry who would be beneficial to interview. These can include, but are not limited to, friends you already have in the industry, working professionals, or members of industry trade organizations.

Third, schedule your interviews. Contact the resource person, preferably by telephone or letter, although you can also have  a mutual acquaintance or friend make the appointment for you. Above all, be professional, and be sure to follow up a written letter with a phone call — many industry pros are too busy to respond to a letter.

Last, never ask for a job during the interview. It's entirely possible that if you are prepared, organized, and professional during the interview, the interviewee will think highly enough of you to offer you a position sometime at a later date. However, remember that is not the express reason for this type of interview.

Informational interviews (and job interviews) have many benefits. They allow persons to obtain information about a specific career field, expand their network, gain insight into hidden jobs that might be available, become more savvy about the hiring process that company executives go through, and gain confidence in themselves as well as their capabilities.

FINAL THOUGHTS

In summary, be organized in your training, prepare a resume and portfolio of your work, and approach employers — in the end, this will help you realize your dream and stop it from turning into a nightmare.

Paris-born Patrick Jamaa received a MSc. in Computer Graphics. Four of Jamaa's six years in the videogame industry have been spent with Rockstar Games; he has worked on Grand Theft Auto 3, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Midnight Club3: Dub Edition and Rockstar Table Tennis. Today, he is a Senior Artist with Rockstar Games (www.rockstargames.com). He can be reached at: Patrick.Jamaa@rockstarsandiego.com.