I run a small blog at Effective Programmer, which, as the name suggests, is mostly about software engineering. Incidentally the number one question I field is not about software development, instead its about a career in game development, more specifically about mobile game development and how to get started.
Before lending any advice on what I think are some possible ways of getting started, I must point out that game development comes with some very unique and interesting challenges. Even though gaming in general is seeing explosive growth with some experts expecting it to reach 180+ Billion Dollar industry by 2021.
However, don’t expect all sunshine and rainbows. There are plenty of failed gaming companies, layoffs are all too common, and news of employee burnout are abound. It could get stressful. Most importantly:
Pro Tip #1: You should only consider working in this industry if you are genuinely passionate about gaming. You do not need to be a gamer, but it helps to be one.
How to Get Started
So now that we got all the scary stuff out of the way, lets talk about how to actually get started. While some people think that gaming jobs are mainly about software development, art, or game design, a lot is actually required to run an industry of this magnitude. Which is good because it means there are lot of different ways to get in. Lets go over some of the salient ones.
This is what most people allude to when talking about getting into game development. Its a great choice for someone with a degree or diploma in computer science and interest in gaming. This Gamasutra post by Amit Thakur is a good read on that topic.
Regardless of how you get your basic programming training, you have two main entry points: client development and server/backend development. You can possibly do both but having a focus area will expedite your launch.
Client Development: If you have more interest in graphics and user interface go for client development. I highly recommend learning Unity 3D. There are other frameworks and tools but to be honest, you can get to them later. Unity will give you the best bang for your buck.
Pro Tip #2: Focusing on platform specific solutions, such as Android SDK or Xcode for iOS, is not a good idea. It considerably limits your options in the market when starting up.
Server Development: If your interest area is more towards databases and backend game server, then I recommend learning any popular open source backend technology to get started, more specifically I’d go with learning PHP, Python or NodeJS based systems with a healthy dose of any modern relational or NoSQL databases like MySQL or MongoDB. Having good hands-on DevOps experience is a huge plus. I would stay away from heavy hitters like Java and .NET in the beginning, I feel the learning curve is way too steep. Unless of course you are already familiar with them, then go for it.
Pro Tip #3: If you are already a software engineer in a non-gaming industry and struggling with the enormous amount of things to learn, I highly recommend making your own game in your free time using Unity and a serverless backend. You can find or hire team members in non-engineering areas to compliment your work. This is by far the most effective advice you can get from me.
Graphics Design and Art
Very few games were able to succeed without good art, and its almost impossible to do that in today’s market. Getting a degree or diploma in an art related field is a big plus but not mandatory. I normally split gaming art development into two sections and I believe having a focus area can be helpful.
One of them revolves around Creating game assets that you actually see in a game; such as drawing concept art, sketching, painting, animation, and rendering are all available options. On the other hand you have UI Design and User Experience; this involves making UI elements such as: HUDs, menus, icons, buttons and dialogs with a deep understanding of user behavior.
Pick the focus area you enjoy the most and build your skill. It will take time and consistent practice to get good at it.
Pro Tip #4: I recommend mastering Photoshop, even though it has a steep learning curve and will take time to get good, it is a must have for any gaming artist and I highly recommend it.
A big part of today’s gaming world is the game content, gone are the days when games are released with a set of content and players will wait for months if not years for an update or new version. Content production and release is part of any successful game launch, specially with free to play games where the user pays for content, this becomes critical to the game’s survival and success.
To get started as a content producer, a good understanding of game design and mechanics is a big plus and several institutions now offer courses in it. Even without it, I have seen people from all kinds of backgrounds succeed in this department. If you excel in time management, multitasking, have great interpersonal skills, and have a sense of ownership and detail, this would be a great fit for you.
Having said that, If you don’t have any game industry experience it could be a challenge to get started as a content producer, you can either start at a very junior position and build your way up, or alternatively, take some basic game design courses to improve your chances.
Pro Tip #5: Remember to play the heck out of the game(s) for the company you are applying for. It shows initiative and resourcefulness, both of which are extremely important traits for a content producer.
Game Design is hard, trust me on this. Yet a lot of people seem to believe they are good at it, they are not. If they were, you would see a lot more successful games out there. Instead you see a lot of poorly designed ones.
Having said that there is a science to it. If you enjoy doing game design then there are ways to get good at it. It’s not a complete yes and no situation. Its just difficult to use game design as your starting point in the industry.
Pro Tip #6: Even if you received formal education in Game Design you might find it easier to get going in another area and slowly making your way back into Game Design. For example: QA, Customer Support, or Content Production are fantastic starting points for a Game Designer.
Quality Assurance (QA)
Without any formal education in computer science, art, graphic design, or any other fields — QA could be a great starting point to get into the gaming industry. I know for a fact that some folks were able to get in through this route and then switched over to doing other things based on their skill, interest, and opportunity. Bungie Studio’s former President Harold Ryan had famously started his career as a tester.
The most important thing needed for a game QA person is a keen sense of game mechanics, an eye for detail and a healthy dose of skepticism. It does help to be familiar with some of the popular testing frameworks and related tools like Selenium, Test Rail and JIRA.
Pro Tip #7: Learning the basics of programming, shell scripting, and using command line tools is a big plus for a QA engineer. You can get a lot more done with simple automations.
Pro Tip #8: Often times you are bearer of the bad news, being amicable and having a good sense of humor does go a long way.
Customer support is a great starting point for non-technical folks. But rest assured its not an easy job and its definitely not for everyone. Dealing with unhappy and unforgiving customers day in and day out could be soul crushing. However if you love games and genuinely love helping people it could be the greatest job you ever held.
Being familiar with some of the common help-desk tools could be useful, for example Help Shift, Live Agent, Fresh Desk, Live Chat or Zendesk.
Pro Tip #9: Customer support is a great way to learn deep game mechanics and user behavior. It could be an excellent starting point for an aspiring game designer.
Pro Tip #10: In some companies customer support agents use social channels like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Forums to help its customers. Each of these is very different and I recommend being active on these platforms to build a sense how people interact on those.
This post has become rather long, I couldn’t get to some of the other uncommon areas in the game industry. Uncommon, in the sense of starting a gaming career, not that they are less important in any way. Here is the list, I may decide to follow up on them in a separate post:
- Project Management and Game Production
- Analytics and Data Science
- Marketing and User Acquisition
- User Experience Research
- Finance and Accounting
- Sound and Music Production
- IT and DevOps
I hope you found this post helpful. The key point to leave you with is that becoming a game developer, designer, or artist is not the only way about getting in the gaming industry and you can always transition into different roles. Don’t think you’ll be stuck doing one thing forever, use the best opportunity presented at the time and always keep the end-goal in mind.
If you need more specific advice feel free to contact me here or on Linked In’s Career Advice portal.
Also, if you are a software engineer, you may find my Effective Programmer blog useful. Cheers :)