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Game careers and the mythical 'game developer / designer'

lawnjelly

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Probably one of my more controversial and patronizing posts, I'm sure some will disagree and I did think twice about posting but hey ho I've written: :) 

It seems that almost every day a naive post comes up asking how best for a budding 'game developer' to get into 'the industry'. Somewhere along the line, somehow many people seem to have bought into the myth that there is some generalist role in game development that is a viable career and will make them huge $$$.

It irks me that this is the case, because in my opinion it is a distortion of the truth, and can lead to mistaken career decisions - particularly wasted education where there may be another far more suitable alternative career they are overlooking as a result. Note that in this article I am addressing the big budget console etc games business, rather than independents, and smaller / mobile games, which may use different business models.

Follow the Money

One of the basic facts in the games business, is that profits charts tend to follow a classic L shaped curve (long tail). By far the largest proportion of the headline profits made by the industry are made by very few big players (on the left of the dotted line), names you will all have heard of, and the other 99% of the industry makes very little, if any profit.

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This is similar to the situation in many entertainment industries - movies and music being similar.

Newsflash - those companies that aren't making profit won't be able to support you in a viable longterm career. :o They might by random chance enable you to strike it lucky and make some money from time to time, but they are unlikely to be reliable for putting bread on your table / roof over your head / support a family kind of way. Note how many game companies regularly close down and developers have to move area / country to have a hope of keeping afloat. And that is among medium / bigger companies.

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This leads to 2 very important points:

  1. There are not as many career opportunities as you think. There are far fewer stable jobs than can support the number of graduates of game development courses. Hence there is high competition for roles (and some employers will take advantage of this).
  2. There is a high competition between game products. It is often a 'winner takes all' type market. If a kid has 50 dollars to spend he either buys your game or someone elses. To win your game is likely to need better content, better gameplay, better advertising, better hype.

Competition

In order for a game product to compete on the world market, it is not usually sufficient to buy some assets from the Unity asset store, put them together in an innovative way and expect the dollars to roll in. This is to a certain extent a lie perpetuated by engine sellers, either because it makes them money, or to encourage you onto their ecosystem. Producing AAA games is still a labour intensive business. There are expectations from customers in terms of content etc.

Division of Labour

To be competitive and profitable, the modern big budget games industry, like most industries, uses division of labour. That is, instead of having generalists who can do every job a little bit well, jobs tend to be done by specialists who are expected to be experts in their field. That means, aside from indie companies and those that make small games, careers in the games industry tend to be for specialists.

A comparison with house construction

I find the misplaced expectation that game development is filled with generalist careers to be analogous to the situation in the house building industry.

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Most of us use and enjoy houses on a day to day basis, in much the same way as many people use and and enjoy video games. And yet if you ask most youngsters, they are not so naive about the jobs involved in the construction industry. It is easy for them to understand the difference between using and enjoying a house, and building a house.

The type of people involved in building a house are architects, surveyors, planners, brick layers, roofers, plumbers, electricians, plasterers, etc etc. As a young person, you would not likely aspire to be a 'house builder', so much as aspire and train to be one of the roles within the industry.

And yet when it comes to the games industry, newcomers seem in denial that it might be the same. But big budget games are not built by generalist game developers. They are built by environmental artists, character artists, character animators, tools programmers, graphics programmers, AI programmers, sound programmers, animation programmers, scripters, designers, musicians, audio  technicians etc. In practice these roles are often split and specialized even further, look at some credit lists.

Final Ramblings

And so when I hear yet another hopeful announce that they want to follow their dream of making their living in the big budget game development world, I have to admit it makes me groan a little inside, and wonder whether they do have any potential career in a team environment, or are just a dreamer barking up the wrong tree. What is more encouraging is when people express an interest in their area : 'how do I educate myself to become an amazing 3d artist', 'how do I become a better graphics programmer', 'how can I improve my AI programming' etc. :) It is actually surprisingly easy to predict who has potential based on their forum posts, their ability to seek out information and learn and progress.

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Paradoxically a lot of people who *are* successful in games aren't specialized only in games. They are often quite adaptable and can work in e.g. movie / tv in the case of artists / sound / music, or other branches of programming in the case of programmers, and there is a lot of cross movement in these careers.

So many times I have heard people profess that they love games, as if it is the only qualification needed. I love chocolates, it doesn't mean to say I want to spend my life in a chocolate factory. The industry does not need more people that love games, it needs people who love doing the jobs that are involved in making games. If you identify more with the first category than the second, perhaps a career rethink is in order. :| 

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3 Comments


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MarkK.

Posted (edited)

I like the reality check. The construction industry is where I've made the most. I'm an independent. Solo for the majority of time. My expertise is structural steel but I also do what might be considered art or just your everyday component. Balcony, flagpole, you name it. If it's steel, aluminum, stainless or (apparently now) bronze, I'm putting my name on it. :D There is more parallelism than a guy might realize between the trades it's starting to appear(to me). We see it as well, a new kid on the block comes in to make it big, but their tool bag is mostly empty and driving the screw with a finish hammer. So it all appears to be relative, this life thing. I try to remember back to when I first started with the programming but 'creations colors seem to fade to gray'. Trying to 'write the final rhyme' on a good note is huge. Being a string musician also, playing on a 98% hand crafted bass and as many six strings I can get my hands on, the term generalist might have more meaning. But I'm 1000x on board with specialty. The smartest thing a field engineer ever said to me when first meeting was, "What is your expertise?" That was close to 20 years ago. :) 

Edited by GoliathForge

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On 4/12/2019 at 7:50 AM, GoliathForge said:

"What is your expertise?

I remember a friend of the family years ago said to me "If you want to get into the trade industry pick on thing and stick to it.  Become the best you can possibly be at it and build the 'guy to go to for...' reputation".

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MarkK.

Posted (edited)

That's it...It's clear, I'm an artist first (if that) I do like being in control. or something of that nature. Sup Jelly :) So I figure hang out with programmers, couldn't hurt :D I'll let you know. Joking aside, I think there is an element of 'how little can I do and get away with it' that is much heavier on this side of the fence compared to my usual's. My people come in knowing what getting their tail stepped on feels like, which I seem to prefer.

Edited by GoliathForge

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