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Ageism, Benefits, Education, Experience, Locations, Competitiveness, Industry Crossover, Contracts


My Big Qs about the game industry before I get into it. I wanted to contact HR from several companies to ask these questions, but I can’t figure out how. I don’t know anyone in the industry. I want my answers straight from the horse’s mouth because I’m in a bit of denial about my ability to join the industry, so here I am.


A little about my position. I loved art in high school and I still do projects here and there. I joined the military straight out of high school and am looking at the end of my enlistment (+2 extensions due to my inability to decide what to do with my career). My problem is that I want to change my career field, but the only thing I have interest in is doing digital art (2D, 3D, environment, character, what have you) for a AAA animation or video game company. I realize it will take time to get there. I’ve been so interested that I have experienced emotional stress by the thought that the industry might not be right for me and my family. I’m looking at 3 big options at the moment. 1: Separate from the military with my GI Bill, go to college full time for Media Art and get a part time job. 2: Separate from the military and get a well paying job doing what I do in the military, and slowly work towards games over the next several years. 3: Stay in the military, work on art education and skills, retire in 13 years, then go for games.
So here are my questions.


Ageism: I’m 26 and would like to get into the industry now, but I likely will be unable to for a few years due to financial trouble. That’s why options 2 & 3 are good. But 3 means I’ll retire from the military at 38. And 2 likely means not making game art a career for another 5 years or so. That makes me worry about my age in the game industry. I’ve seen a disturbing number of articles and posts talking about how there are very few in game development older than 40. I don’t want to work towards a career that wont hire me by the time I’m ready for it, nor do I want to join a field that will be done with me by the time I’m 40. Is all this hype about age discrimination in the game industry really that bad? Is it any worse than any other career field? How many people work in your studios who are 40+, relative to the size of the studio, and what kind of roles do they play?


Benefits: I realize these are different company to company, but what is typical? Of smaller companies and of AAA ones? Health insurance, family insurance, education, time off (paid/not paid)?


Education: Do game companies typically hire from particaular schools, famous ones, or ones nearby the studio? Or is it solely based on portfolio? I’m enrolled at a state school (UNO) that seems to me has a pretty good Graphic Design/Media Arts program. What might the employer think of state schools?


Experience: What kind of experience should I be looking to obtain to get into a AAA studio? What should I have on my resume and in my portfolio?


Locations: It looks like 80% of the jobs in the US are in California. Mostly based on the population and cost of living, I’m not sure I want to live there. Will I be hard pressed to find opportunities outside CA? I know there is some stuff near Seattle, WA, which sounds great. Pretty sure there isn’t much here in Omaha, NE.


Competitiveness: I know crunch time (whether a management failure or not) is a big thing. I’ve worked 70 hours in a week before and studied on top of it, so I’m no foreigner. Is it a regular thing though? Besides that, what do the managers expect from their employees as far as skills and growth? Do you have to be the best to advance in your career? What does advancement look like? Where is the glass ceiling?


Industry Crossover: As I mentioned before, I’m interested in game art as well as animated movie art. I imagine these are so closely related one could readily hop between the two. Is this true, and if not, why?


Contracts: Are most game development jobs temp jobs? Will I be hopping from studio to studio for years on end? Are AAA studios like that? It sound like an adventure, but I don’t want to have to move my family every year or two.
I thank you greatly for any answers you provide.

Edited by Weston Bradford
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Ageism: the problem isn't getting hired when you're older. The problem is people not wanting to stay in the industry when they're older. I've never seen any age discrimination myself.

Benefits: totally depends on the company, the country, etc.

Education: it's helpful but not essential. For art and design positions your portfolio will be the main thing they judge you on. A good education will help you form that portfolio.

Experience: depends where you want to work and what role you want to do. There are lots of different types of artist jobs in games - character artist, environment artist, vehicle artist, concept artist, UI artist, VFX artist, etc etc. Smaller companies might need artists to wear several of these hats, so a broad range of experience can help. There's no real secret to what should be in the portfolio - you should show your best work, and ideally work that is relevant to the job you want to do.

Locations: there are jobs all over the world and the US but obviously there are certain hubs that are more popular than others. Look here: https://www.gamedevmap.com/

Competitiveness: Crunch time varies, from employer to employer, from sub-sector to sub-sector. Advancement usually either means gradually moving into management or gradually specialising in specific skills.

Industry crossover: There are similarities between movie art and game art, but many differences. Game art has to be renderable in real-time; movie art usually does not. Game art usually has to interoperate with a game engine; movie art, rarely. As such, some skills are tranferrable, some are not.

Contracts: most roles are permanent - at least as far as 'permanent' goes in an industry prone to periodic layoffs. If you don't want to run the risk of moving every couple of years then you probably need to head for an area with several employers to choose from.

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Aegism: I was 39 when I got my first (and only so far) game development job. I've been a professional programmer all my adult life though and game programming has always been a hobby of mine. I had a decent portfolio to show off: some developer journals, a custom game engine framework, a few games. And enough financial stability to say hell yeah, let's give this a go. I personally haven't seen aegism and the studio I'm in has a few 40+ hires. So for us at least it seems skill/desire is more the limiting factor. 

I think Kylotan is right - it's mostly the older crowd thinking about retirement and not wanting to go through the extra stress/lower pay for a game developer career vs. a "normal" job. I could make a decent chunk of cash more if I went back to business application development.

Benefits: I'm a programmer (not an artist) but I hypothesize that things are similar just due to supply and demand. Lots of people want to be game developers and there aren't that many game development jobs out there. That means companies can get away with paying employees less, working the employees a little harder and a little longer. Definitely some shops are worse than others so do your research.

I get paid vacation, holidays off, and crunch only happens when absolutely necessary so it's a pretty sweet gig.

Education/Experience: Most shops are more worried about can you do the job. So create some badass art that you're proud to show off. Draw in your free time as much as you can. Watch tutorials on how to draw cool things. Practice practice practice.

Location: House prices are ridiculous in California - and Seattle WA (and the surrounding area) are nearly as bad. Take a look through some property sites. I wound up moving out of WA because I couldn't afford a house. If you want a game dev job, you'll have to move to where the jobs are. Pick some studios you want to work at, figure out where they are, and move there. It's good to have a place where LOTS of studios are though because you probably won't get your first choice. 

Leaving everything you know behind: Family, friends, heck even local restaurants was a bigger deal than I gave it credit.

Competitiveness: Crunch varies from studio to studio. Some shops will squeeze you to work 80+ hour weeks, chew you up, spit you out, and hire fresh talent. DON'T GO TO ONE OF THESE SHOPS! Do your research. Also make sure to be ready for a bunch of rejection. 

Contracts: Varies from shop to shop. Some people give you a contract to try you out for a few months and make a decision of whether or not to review. Others hire a salaried position and have a probation period. And other times the shop folds because money ran out.

Actual Job: So you've drawn your awesome original characters and environments in your portfolio. But the actual job might be something entirely different. You might be making rocks. Lots of rocks. And crates. And more rocks... 

Stability: You mentioned you and your family, so I thought I'd comment about this. Gaming jobs are NOT stable. Even the big studios aren't immune to layoffs or even closures. Make sure your family is 100% on board instead of begrudgingly allowing you to follow your dream. 

I hope this helps. Good luck in your new career. :)

- Eck

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Ageism is a problem at bad studios, but you don't want to work there so it works in your favor.  The bad studios intentionally hire young, single, naive developers and abuse them, so you avoid that abuse. It is a smaller problem at the good studios, and generally (across all industries, not just games) it is harder to get an entry-level role as an older individual. 

Benefits tend to be regional in addition to unique to the studio.  At mid-sized and large studios you can expect whatever are 'normal' benefits for the region.  Small studios tend to have fewer benefits up front since they have fewer resources, with the hope that you'll get bigger rewards later on by sticking with the company. 

Education is typically a yes/no factor, with emphasis placed on the actual degree not the name of the school.  If you happen to share a school with someone it may help your odds.  If your degree matches (fine arts degree or computer science degree) it's a checkmark. If it doesn't quite match (digital animation, game programming degree) it will result in more quizzing during an interview, and slightly increase difficulty getting the job.

Experience is whatever you have, and it is unique to you.  It should show you can do the job and will be able to work with the company. 

Location is harder, companies have enough local applicants they won't relocate people to break in.  Sites like GameDevMap can help you identify companies near you, although you still need to do your own research to find current company lists.

Crunch is a management failure. It is not unique to games. There are great studios with management teams that absolutely forbid anything that remotely looks like crunch. There are terrible studios that assume everyone is working enormous hours, and some that skirt the law. Look for established companies and older workforces, since they're less likely to put up with it.  If everyone is in their early 20s, it's radically different from a studio built with a mix of people in their 20's, 30's, 40's, 50's, 60's, and even a few 70+.  The non-crunch studios usually have a great culture where people rarely leave, so the job openings are more scarce.  The terrible places tend to have high turnover, so job openings are more common.

Crossover between industries is common.  Moving from one entertainment industry is not too difficult to switch to a different one when the tasks and tools are similar. 

Permanent employees and contract work are both common. It depends on the company and on the project. A project where they know it is only six months and they aren't keeping staff you can expect contract work. Studios that are growing in a controlled manner will hire permanent employees for the long haul.  Many projects have a mix of regular permanent employees with a few contract workers brought in for short-term needs.

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7 hours ago, Eck said:

Stability: You mentioned you and your family, so I thought I'd comment about this. Gaming jobs are NOT stable. Even the big studios aren't immune to layoffs or even closures. Make sure your family is 100% on board instead of begrudgingly allowing you to follow your dream. 

Am I correct in assuming that this instability is because studios will hire a bunch of people for a new project, even into "permanent" positions, then lay them off once the project is complete?

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13 hours ago, Kylotan said:

Ageism: the problem isn't getting hired when you're older. The problem is people not wanting to stay in the industry when they're older. I've never seen any age discrimination myself.

Why is it, would you say, that people aren't interested in staying in the industry when they're older? Maybe because low pay, no management positions available, tired of drawing rocks and crates, tired of job hopping?

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4 hours ago, frob said:

Education is typically a yes/no factor, with emphasis placed on the actual degree not the name of the school.  If you happen to share a school with someone it may help your odds.  If your degree matches (fine arts degree or computer science degree) it's a checkmark. If it doesn't quite match (digital animation, game programming degree) it will result in more quizzing during an interview, and slightly increase difficulty getting the job.

For an example I did a quick job search and found "Technical Artist" for Walt Disney Studios which required the following:

"Required Education

  • Bachelor’s degree or higher in Fine Arts, Graphic Design, Computer Science or equivalent professional experience"

The degree Im working on is called "Bachelor of Arts in Studio Art", my major is "Studio Art", and it has a concentration called "Media Art". Do you think it would be in my best interest to change my concentration to "Graphic Design"? The difference is that "Media Art" has classes in media art, computer imagery, and game design. "Graphic Design" has a bunch of graphic design classes.

A link for reference if you want to see what I'm talking about: https://catalog.unomaha.edu/undergraduate/college-communication-fine-arts-media/school-of-the-arts/department-art-art-history/studio-art-ba/index.html#concentrationtext 

Do you think Disney would be less likely to give me an interview, or the interview would be more difficult because I'd have to explain my degree?

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12 hours ago, Weston Bradford said:

Am I correct in assuming that this instability is because studios will hire a bunch of people for a new project, even into "permanent" positions, then lay them off once the project is complete?

Sort of, but that's oversimplifying it a bit.

Many - if not most - studios develop a game on behalf of a publisher. The publisher pays them enough money to make the game, based on how long it will take and which staff are needed.

What this means is that at the end of a project, if there isn't another project already underway, there may be no money coming in at all. Therefore a company's survival may necessitate reducing the headcount to the bare essentials.

In an ideal world the management will have already started a 2nd project before the 1st one is fully completed, and if that's not possible, they would at least have a 2nd project lined up ready to go. But that's not always possible, so layoffs happen.

12 hours ago, Weston Bradford said:

Why is it, would you say, that people aren't interested in staying in the industry when they're older? Maybe because low pay, no management positions available, tired of drawing rocks and crates, tired of job hopping?

Pay is lower for programmers than in other parts of the tech industry. I doubt that's as big of a problem for artists, where other work might be relatively rare.

I don't think the 'management positions available' aspect is relevant - games are like any other industry in that you always have more people at the bottom than the top, so not everyone can advance into management. But then many people never want to.

Some people just get bored of games and the industry, some experience burnout if they end up working too much overtime, some want a more stable job that makes it easier to raise a family, some get their skills to a level where they can start working as an independent contractor instead, etc.

11 hours ago, Weston Bradford said:

For an example I did a quick job search and found "Technical Artist" for Walt Disney Studios which required the following:

"Required Education

  • Bachelor’s degree or higher in Fine Arts, Graphic Design, Computer Science or equivalent professional experience"

The degree Im working on is called "Bachelor of Arts in Studio Art", my major is "Studio Art", and it has a concentration called "Media Art". Do you think it would be in my best interest to change my concentration to "Graphic Design"? The difference is that "Media Art" has classes in media art, computer imagery, and game design. "Graphic Design" has a bunch of graphic design classes.

A link for reference if you want to see what I'm talking about: https://catalog.unomaha.edu/undergraduate/college-communication-fine-arts-media/school-of-the-arts/department-art-art-history/studio-art-ba/index.html#concentrationtext 

Do you think Disney would be less likely to give me an interview, or the interview would be more difficult because I'd have to explain my degree?

A Technical Artist position is half-programmer, half-artist - this may not be the route you really want to take. Certainly do not change your course based on one single job description.

If you want to know what to do, look at 20, 30, 40 job descriptions, make sure you understand what they all involve, discard the roles you aren't interested in, find the common skills and requirements for the rest, and then ensure your degree matches those as closely as possible.

I don't have the patience to go through all the permutations on the link you shared but on the whole you're likely to need to be taking the classes in digital art if you want to work in games.

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13 hours ago, Weston Bradford said:

Why is it, would you say, that people aren't interested in staying in the industry when they're older? Maybe because low pay, no management positions available, tired of drawing rocks and crates, tired of job hopping?

Well, everyone is different so here are some possible reasons:

  • maybe their dream didn't live up to the hype
  • maybe they want more money
  • maybe they want to start saving for retirement
  • maybe everyone else is young and they can't easily relate socially
  • maybe they want a less hectic job
  • maybe they want more stability

For me, I was absurdly lucky enough to get my dream job the first time - working on an IP that I lived and breathed through my teen/college years at an amazing studio with passionate people. While working here I realized that the thing I love about programming is the problem solving which I can get at a normal job. If it was anything but Battletech at Harebrained Schemes, I probably would have moved on after we shipped. I do want to start saving for retirement, but I'm having too much fun living the dream. :)

- Eck

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14 hours ago, Weston Bradford said:

Do you think Disney would be less likely to give me an interview, or the interview would be more difficult because I'd have to explain my degree?

"Disney" isn't interviewing you.  Individuals like Alice and Bob and Charlie and Dave are interviewing you.

Charlie may think the degree is so-so. Alice who went to the school might think the program is amazing, or know from experience the program is actually terrible and people needed to self-educate. Dave might have some questions about it. Bob might not care.

You cannot change what your history is. You have no control over who is interviewing you, nor what they are looking for.  Do some research to figure out what their needs are, present your history in the best light you can toward what you think they need, an submit your application.

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