Saturday, June 24, 2006

So You Want to be a Game Designer (Part II)

In Part 1 of this article, I summarized the state of gaming industry careers and outlined some of the barriers to breaking in. I finished with a short list of achievements that can increase your chances of success in finding job. In Part 2 of this article, I will expand upon each of these critical achievements. I have avoided ranking them or numbering them as steps, because they are all important, and many can be accomplished at the same time.

Educate Yourself
In Part 1, I mentioned that education is critical, but a gaming school is not necessarily the place to get smarter. The burden of education is, and always will be, on your own shoulders. The Internet has a wealth of tutorials, wikis, and newbie-friendly forums where you can learn. Absorb every ounce of information you can find. Buy books if you have to.

If you do go to school, don’t just pass your classes, ace your classes. Are you going beyond the course, or simply trying to keep up? Don’t accept the school’s curriculum as the ideal level of education. Expect to teach yourself three or four times as much as you are taught in class.

Practice, Practice, Practice
As soon as you have even a little knowledge, begin to practice what you have learned. Build models. Create textures and art. Make maps. Create characters. Write stories. Start scripting. There is absolutely no substitute for doing it. I would strongly encourage you to join a mod team or start your own. A number of games come with free editors, scripting languages, and other mod tools. Learn them inside and out.

Go Public
Finally, and most importantly, publish something. I’m not talking about making money (yet); I’m just talking about releasing your work to the public. Get feedback and learn from it. Enjoy the positive response. Learn to take criticism, and learn how to use that criticism to make your work better. This is a more important skill than you may realize.

The purpose of doing work for free is to get noticed for contract work. Studios are sometimes willing to “sub-out” certain aspects of development to reliable contractors with proven talent. Contract work gives you invaluable experience as well as an opportunity to develop a professional portfolio. The money can be nice at times, but as a rule you probably shouldn’t quit your “day job” quite yet.

Don’t just troll the community forums, become an active member. Make as many friends as you can by developing an affectation of professionalism. Mod communities also attract attention whores, ingrates, and worse. Don’t sink to their level. You want to join a community to make contacts. Get to know people who are either in the industry or might one day be in the industry. Share everything you’ve learned as selflessly as you can. Leave them with a favorable impression of you. Stay out of political and religious discussions.

This is probably the biggest barrier for most aspirants. You need to live where the work is. It’s true that even in Green Bay I was able to find some work-from-home opportunities, but publishers are very shy about giving contracts to studios that don’t have offices and staff. If you want more than just an occasional contract job, you need to go where the permanent full-time jobs actually exist. Keep in mind also, that a job in a well-established studio with at least two successful titles is far better than a job with a startup.

Buy Time
The key word here is buy. To follow your dream, you’re going to need to accept reality. You must find some way to pay the bills while you’re still trying to make it. That means you’re going to have to work some other job to keep people like your creditors/parents/girlfriend happy. If you have a chance to go to college, take it. That’s an instant “Plan B” right there. You’ll have four years to learn what you need to know about gaming while keeping your parents happy. Imagine where you’ll be once you’ve had all that time to learn and make contacts.

Success in the gaming industry requires more than just talent and imagination. You need to understand the steps required to get yourself educated and noticed. Regardless of whose plan you follow, success is almost always a result of hard work.