This guide was written by April "CuppaJo" Burba, the former Online Community Representative for NCsoft and manager of the official City of Heroes forums.
Inspired by all of your questions about working in the game industry, I thought I would put together a guide of sorts to working in the industry.
First, let me direct you to a link elsewhere on the boards that includes an interview with Christopher Straz, a game developer at NCsoft.
So you want to work in the Video Game Industry, huh? Do you really? Because it is not the easiest industry to get into, the hours can be long, and the pay can be less than optimal. Sure, there are stories of those who just "fell" into the industry, but many others worked long and hard to get here, just like any other entertainment-based profession.
What do you want to do exactly? Do you know enough about how games are made to even be able to answer that question intelligently? Let's shed some light on the subject.
Industry Jobs - Not Just Developers! Edit
Just like every other industry, the game industry has a large group of people who handle the business side of things and help keep companies going. Human resources, executives, accounting, sales, marketing, public relations, IT, and administration are some examples of "non-development" type jobs that are available.
Just because you want to work in the industry doesn't mean you need to give up your old line of work. While you may not be "developing" games, it can be a great way to transition into the industry and get a taste of the opportunities. The culture of game companies is generally very laid back, fun, geeky, and accepting of all kinds of people. Imagine being a lawyer and being able to wear shorts to work. The environment alone can be reason enough for someone to keep their current job description but move to the game industry. That, and the free games.
There are also support jobs. Customer support, tech support, billing support, and GameMaster (GM) are other jobs that can be options to break into the industry. Many of these positions are "entry-level" and require as little as a high-school diploma, a love for gaming, and some customer service experience. Yours truly started in tech support since I had previous experience working in tech.
There is also online/creative support. We have people that design the game boxes, T-shirts, posters, web graphics, build web pages, throw contests, write for the web, run in-game events, moderate message boards, and help the devs and community understand each other.
Finally, there is a large demand in MMOs for network professionals to design and maintain large networks of hundreds of thousands of players and there are publishing coordinators that make sure patches get from the designers, through QA, and out to you.
But Cuppa, I Want to MAKE Games!! Edit
Great. Which part? Game development takes a team of specialized professionals. Artists, musicians, designers, coders, and writers just to name a few.
You should be an experienced C++ programmer to think about going this route. If you are trying to break into the industry I would suggest working on some open source or freelance game projects so that you have a few games that you helped code to submit. Mods are also good.
Quality Assurance (QA) Edit
Like Vyvyanne says, making games better one Bug at a time. You start in this field as a pool tester checking bugs. You get a sheet of paper that lists a million things to check and try. It can be rather tedious. As you gain experience you can move up to be a senior tester, a QACC (Vyvyanne, Valdermic), and eventually, a lead for a game. Attention to detail, unconventional thinking, and patience are required in ample amounts. See also, overtime.
You have to not only love to make art and be great at it, but you have to be able to use (at a professional level) industry standard software for 3-D art and animation such as Maya and 3D Studio Max. Again, working on open source or freelance game projects is a great way to get experience and network with other game creators. You can get into concept art (more pencil and paper), environment (landscapes, buildings), modeling (characters, computer-based objects, where you take the concept artists drawings and make them happen on the computer), animator (take the modeled objects and bring them to life), texture artist (incredibly detailed, the skin of a model), FX artist (takes all those neat physics engines and has them fit game actions - ex. blood spatter, explosions).
A job of not only composition, creation and technical skill, you have to be more like a movie sound person in that you have experience with Foley and voice acting. One of the most challenging musical jobs you can have. Are you expecting me to say you should work on some open source or freelance projects here? Good. You should.
Where would we be without producers? Nowhere. I mean that. You have to have someone to coordinate all of these separate parts and make everything come together and out the door. Someone has to talk with the publisher. In the non-entertainment field these are called project managers or product managers. There are levels to this. If you can't stand stress, do not choose this path. Most producers have less hair than anyone I know from pulling it out all the time.
I made you read this far to get to this point for a reason. It is not easy to be a designer. Everyone, and I mean everyone, wants to be a designer. Of course, this means that designer jobs are valued commodities and very hard to get, unless you have buckets of cash and are willing to start a design house yourself.
As with other positions, there are different types of designers.
UI designers Edit
User Interface/Heads-Up Displays. You need to know how people interact with things on a screen, a mouse, keyboard, joystick. Where do people look for things? Quality of Life issues - menu ease. Think about it. Ever played a game and wanted to throw the controller because you couldn't control your character or navigate a menu? Yeah - bad UI. This person is the one who is always simplifying things or making them easier (thanks for the third menu tray!). A good education of ergonomics, and lots of game play help here. You know what I am going to say about open source/freelance projects.
"Cuppa, that's not a designer." Yes, actually, they are. More accurately called "Story Designers," these people help take the original concept of a game and distill that all the way down to mission text. Often seen at NCsoft walking around asking things to themselves like "How would a grok speak? What would they say? How do they spend their day?" It's the little things that are the bulk, but also the overall story must be compelling. Manticore does this. There is more story there than you realize. You should be a fiction writer for this position.
Systems Engineers / Tools Design Edit
Lower level coding (closer to the hardware level), networking issues, game engines, hardware compatibility. Go to University for this one kids. Then help make open source engines. C, assembly language. Python. I bet doing this for an open source project would help.
Level Designer Edit
This is the person in charge of fun. You spend the majority of your gaming life in a level/mission somewhere. You have to work with the story designer to define the point of the mission and where the mission takes place. Once you have a goal and a setting you design the level. You work with the artists and do level layout and art. Define challenges. How many baddies? What difficulty? You think about every type of character that goes through it. Mods/open source projects are good ways to do this in your spare time to see if it fits and learn about creating fun for players. You do this before you can be a...
Game Designer Edit
Not just one person usually. You may have a lead designer that makes/takes the concept and works with the other developers to create the game play systems (influence/XP/ATs/Balance).
Not all developers get to come up with the concepts. Some are handed concepts and then make the game. You should have a background in level design and understand games fluently. Know what fun is. This would be a good time to mention open source/freelance projects if I haven't already. In this case, you want to start the project and get people to help you with it.
I am a very big proponent of research. In the Internet age, there is no reason not to be able to learn as much as you want about anything. There are a few links below to help get you started, but the bottom line is read, research, play games, critically evaluate every game you play - what's good, what's bad, what you would like to change, what really really stands out, why you keep playing. Then pick a direction and work on a project. You meet people and impress people this way. Action speaks louder than words.
Finally, I will tell each of you the same thing I have told every single person who has asked me this question. The axiom goes, writers write. If you really ARE a writer, you will write if all you have is a hunk of charcoal and a tablet. Writers care less about money, fame, and being a writer than they do about actually writing. This is no less true about game makers. Game makers build worlds and make games even if the only people who ever play them are their friends and all they have is a deck of cards.
- Check out the Tabula Rasa website for some great info on what the devs do and how they got in the industry.
- International Game Developers Association
Your local bookstore should also have a few books in the computer section on game design and getting into the industry.