A large portion of the world’s population now enjoys spending their free time playing video games, and a select number of them even make it their job. It’s only natural when enjoying something like games that you want to be a part of creating the thing you love, as well as enjoying the end product. Lots of people have an idea of how a game can be improved, or have an idea for a totally new game, and want to get a chance to put that idea to paper, as it were.
But games are complicated, and how to create them is not as straightforward as you might think. It is very possible, however, and with the right plan, you can get there. When I started my career path I only had a vague idea of how to get into the industry and it was a winding path that took many turns, simply because I didn’t know what to expect. This guide has been written for anyone who is in the position I was in, where I knew I wanted to work in games but wasn’t sure how to, and it contains all of the information I wish I knew.
Is Game Development Right For You?
Game development is hard, and not for everyone. It’s technical, it’s fast-moving so you always have to be learning and the hours can be long and brutal. The good news is that not every company has these awful working conditions and the variety of work available within the industry means that you can find the role that’s right for you.
You have to be passionate about games, which you most likely are if you are reading through this. Pretty much everyone in the industry is very passionate about games and there is an unwritten expectation that you will be as well. This helps people get through some of the more grueling stages of game development as well as makes people eager to work. It’s not something you can fake.
Is Game Development Hard?
Game development is complicated and sometimes stressful, but also very fulfilling. In relation to other jobs, it can be at times laid back, like hanging out with friends or similar to the days of working on uni projects. Everyone is passionate and working towards a goal that they want to achieve. Other times it can be very hard. The complexity of the work can be mentally draining, coupled with some companies atrocious over time and you can burn out and become depressed easily.
Finding the right job and the right project is the key to your enjoyment, but early on you may have to take whatever job you can get. Often people will endure some awful years and a company to build an impressive resume to apply to companies that will treat them better. It’s not a great system, but one we are currently stuck with.
Is Game Development Fun?
Game development can be fun. Getting to work on and at times play games means you get to live out your passion during your working day. As long as working conditions are good and projects are well planned out there will be an abundance of motivation and goodwill as everyone enjoys working on their passion.
Sometimes you may even get to work on IPs that you know and love. Although getting to see ‘behind the curtain’ and working on a partially completed version of the game for years and years can ruin playing the final game and many game developers don’t want to touch their own games once they come out as they have spent so long looking over every last bit of it for so long.
Can You Teach Yourself Game Development Or Do You Need To Go To University
The most common and straightforward route into the games industry is going through university. However, it is not essential. As long as you have the relevant skills and knowledge you can land a job on the strength of your work. University courses to study game development are still fairly new, so you’ll find a large number of people in the industry that never did that. That being said, university is generally the easier way to do it rather than teaching yourself and keeping a rigid structure to your learning. There’s an abundance of online tutorials available, many for free, so you learn everything you need.
The most important thing when applying for a job is examples of work such as a portfolio. For artists that means things like polished assets, for something like programming it could mean working prototypes. If you really want to impress, having experience in making games or releasing your own games or apps goes a long way.
Do You Want To Work On Major Titles Or Go Indie?
Whilst you can switch between working for other companies and being an indie developer, you will want to focus on one or the other to start with to get your career rolling. Whilst it’s possible to learn on the go and make a success of it, you have to be very driven and be able to support yourself, most likely, for many years. My advice would be to work for another company, get a real feel for how the entire game-making process works, and then use that knowledge to build your own games if you so wish, but any path is possible with a lot of effort and dedication.
Working For Another Company
Working for another company is the more traditional route into games. It means that, depending on the company, you can work on some of the biggest game titles out there. The advantage to getting a job in this way is that you can specialize and focus on your area of expertise to become the best you can be at it. This is great if you know you are a programmer at heart, and never want to touch art, for example. You can even specialize further to find a niche in the industry that few people cover, making yourself invaluable and earning more money.
When it comes to being paid, you will have a regular salary which is appealing to many who want a stable income to pay off their mortgage and feed their family. Sometimes certain areas of pay, such as bonuses, will be tied to how well a game sells or how well it reviews, but generally, there is a disconnect between the games sales and the money you take home, as long as a game doesn’t flop so badly the company struggles.
The advantage to going indie is that you have complete control over your project and get to make exactly the game that you want to make without interference. The downside to this is that you will need to manage the ins and outs of the project and cover all the bases from programming to art to sound design and the rest. There’s also no one to fall back on when you have an issue you don’t understand. You can work with others, or hire other people, but many people are put off by sacrificing development time to do management work. You also need knowledge of the entire game-making pipeline or be willing to learn it all along the way, but that will add a lot of extra time to your development.
Pay-wise you don’t have that secure paycheck of working for another person, but any money you make from game sales you get to keep (minus cuts that any selling platform and programs like game engines will take). This can lead to the kind o paydays that had the developer of Minecraft outbid Beyonce and Jay-Z for a Beverly Hills mansion, but it can also mean working on something for years and making next to nothing from it if it falls flat. Unfortunately, there are thousands more games that go nowhere for every single success story, so it is a risk you have to be willing to take.
What Jobs Are Available In Game Dev?
This is more relevant if you are going down the path of working for someone else, as you will want to specialize in one of these roles. However, it’s also worth looking over if you plan to go indie as it shows all the areas that you will have to dabble in at least a small amount to get that game idea out of the door.
The beauty of games is that they are so complicated they require people from all walks of life to bring them into existence. A creative Concept Artist needs to communicate clearly with a technical-minded Engine Programmer to produce a character in the way that they want to. The combination of all of these specializations working towards a single goal is what makes games so special.
As games get more and more complicated, people are specializing more and more. An entire list of every job would be gigantic and would grow day by day, so we’re going to cover them broadly and talk about some of the more common specializations you might find in each role.
Art is about designing and creating the assets you see on the screen. This can be everything from the levels you play on and the characters you play to the VFX to the HUD. The process will go from the initial design stage where concepts are king, once these designs are agreed upon they will go through to the relevant artists to render into the final product, whether that be 2D or 3D.
Who Makes A Good Game Artist?
Needless to say, art favors people who are more creative. If you are in the early concept stages or don’t have concepts to work from then you will need to be able to generate ideas from scratch. Even if you are working from a concept, normally you won’t be able to copy it one-for-one, so you will still need to get creative about how you handle certain parts, as well as needing the artist’s skill to interoperate and generate that art.
However, game artists, more so than most other artists, also need to have a lot of technical know-how. A 3D character artist working on a realistic game, for example, will need to understand a 3D modeling program and a sculpting program, a clothing creation program, texturing programs, and how a character will be rigged and animated. The good news is that you don’t need to understand how it all works, but you do need to understand how to use it and how it all comes together to create a finished product.
Concept Artists are where it all begins. The ideas might come from the Game Designers, but they will go straight to the Concept Artists to start visualizing their ideas. Concept art is the most creative and least technically bound of the game art roles as it’s their job to come up with the ideas and get those to the rest of the team who will figure out the nitty-gritty of bringing that design to life.
Environment Artists are the bread and butter of 3D artists. These guys are responsible for everything from the terrain the world is based on to the buildings you enter. As it’s such a huge area it will often be broken down based on the needs of the project. A game focused around a city like GTA might have specialist building artists, whereas large open worlds like Red Dead Redemption might need multiple terrain specialists or foliage artists.
Prop Artists are a great entry point into game art, as the assets are much smaller and quicker to make, so make great personal projects. That being said, it’s no less skilled than other areas. Examples of more specialized prop artists could be Item or Weapon artists. A game like Call Of Duty might consider their weapons one of the most important assets in the game, so time and attention is needed to make these look as amazing as possible.
Character / Creature Artist
Character Artists are, unsurprisingly, responsible for the characters, human or otherwise. Creature Artists create similar assets but usually the monsters or enemies from a game. These are sometimes handled by the same artist depending on the project. A project with a handful of characters or where they are not a key part of the game like Starcraft might have the same artist work on the human Terrans and the alien Zerg. Another game like Final Fantasy will want specialist artists to work on the mainline characters and specialists to work on the host of creatures they have as both of these are an essential part of the experience.
Vehicles Artists are not quite as common as some of the others but are essential for some games such as the aforementioned Grand Theft Auto or a racing game like Gran Tourismo. Due to the fine forms and the fact that many vehicles in games are based around real-world examples, it can be a more challenging task than it seems.
A UI Artist works on the often overlooked (if it’s done right) menus and HUD. For some games this can be a simple start game and options menu and a HUD that shows player health or it could be the majority of how someone interacts with a game as is the case for something like Stellaris. There’s an art form to the simplicity of communicating information that is underappreciated within games.
A Technical Artist’s job may, on the surface, sound very similar to an artist’s. After all, did I not just say that 3D artists’ jobs are more technical than most other artists? In actuality, a Technical Artist can be seen as a job that sits between Artists and Programmers. They have the technical knowledge required to program but also have an artistic eye.
Very often Technical Artists will support other artists by creating tools and other things that can help improve the overall quality of the assets or the speed at which they can be done, ensuring the work is as smooth and polished as possible.
A VFX Artist is in charge of particle effects which can range from fire to fireworks to fireballs. Anything that isn’t made of a solid mesh-like object, and is usually made up of many flat planes with images on them that manage to recreate complex particle effects. As engines are able to handle more of these in more interesting ways these get more complicated all of the time.
A Tool Programmer creates tools that improve the ability of artists to do their job based on the needs of the project. If a program requires making lots of small similar objects, such as the cubes that make up a Minecraft world, a Tool Programmer might make an automatic UV unwrap tool or a projection system to make applying textures a one-step job for each asset. They might also create a tool for exporting the objects and setting up their properties so that the Artists can focus on the art and avoid getting bogged down in the technicalities of the job.
A Designer is the idea generator of the game development world. If you have your own idea that you want to pitch to a company then this is essentially the role you are practicing for. Their job is to figure out how a game is going to work, what the overall design will be and how all the pieces are going to come together.
The process of game development usually starts with the Designers and as they decide what’s needed, they will send out their ideas to the rest of the team to make a reality. The process usually starts with an in-depth ‘Game Design Document’ that covers all of the ideas in one place and covers as many of the potential questions that may arise in the process of making the game as possible.
A Game Designer or Gameplay Designer’s job is to work out how the game will play. They can be in charge of coming up with ideas from everything from what genre it will be (FPS, Third-Person Shooter, ect) down to the specifics like how much damage a weapon should do compared to another. Whilst many Game Designers’ ideas will not be used or changed throughout development, most of the ideas will start to get fleshed out here.
A Level Designer is more focused on the environment. It differs from an Environment artist as the designer is more focused on what the function of the level should be. Whether that’s what the area needs to do in terms of the story, such as needing the Ice Queen’s area to be snowy and icy, or it can be more specific such as where certain pieces of cover need to be placed in a level to create the most interesting firefight.
Often a level designer will start by ‘white boxing’ an environment. This is where they will build an environment out of white boxes or simple placeholder meshes to get the design of the level down and then during production the artists will create these assets and they will slowly fill in the environment.
An Animator’s job, as they often like to say, is breathing life into characters. They do this by moving the characters based on whatever action they need to be doing. This can involve anything from a detailed pre-rendered animation or a character leaping between rooftops down to a breathing or idle animation for a background NPC.
Game animation works differently from TV and movie animation. Where a regular animation might run from start to finish in one big timeline, the only parts of game animation that work like that are cutscenes. Besides that, other animations are broken down into individual parts, such as a loop of a character running for 2 steps, which can then be continually played while a character is running and then blended into a walking animation as they slow down or do another action.
A Technical Animator’s job is to prepare a character to be animated by an Animator. This includes the basics of things such as building a skeleton inside the mesh and telling the program which areas of the mesh should move with which bones, allowing basic animation, all the way down to the finer details such as realistic cloth physics on clothes and how muscles flex.
A Programmer is responsible for writing the code that tells the game how to run. The coding is written in a way that the computer understands exactly what it needs to do and how to run it. The code also has to be efficient as it’s very easy for the computer to get bogged down with trying to run too many processes and not be able to keep up.
Programmers have to cover everything from how a player controls, to how the lighting reflects off of surfaces, to how weapon damage is balanced. No area of the game gets by without some programming working behind the scenes to tell the computer how it needs to perceive the inputs it’s getting. Due to the wide coverage of work and the complexity of each area, it’s common for programmers to specialize on bigger projects. We can’t cover them all here, but we’ll talk about the more common specializations.
A game engine is the foundation that the game is built on. Some may be familiar with the ones available to use like Unreal Engine or Unity. Engine programmers make these engines which the rest of the team will use to build the game and tells the computer how to interpret it all. You don’t have to work at Epic to be in the role though. Many bigger companies will use their own custom in-house engine that they build specifically for their game and even those companies that use a pre-built engine will often heavily modify it.
As you might suspect, a gameplay programmer focuses on how the player interacts with the game and how it plays out. This can include character control, combat, resource management or whatever the features of a particular game’s gameplay is. A large part of being a successful gameplay programmer is getting the ‘feel’ right so that when you are playing the game it feels smooth and enjoyable. We’ve all played games with terrible controls and know how important it is to get it right.
An AI Programmer focuses on how the NPCs within a game act. This can be as simple as a character that patrols backward and forward which will talk to you if you click on them to attempting to recreate the way a human could play in a strategy game like Age Of Empires as it tries to make judgment calls based on a large amount of information whilst also not using its superior computer power to overwhelm a player.
A Graphic Programmer is in charge of telling the computer how thing should render. This can include how materials on assets look, how the lighting reacts to objects and surfaces and how certain special effects like fog and bounce lighting works. Whilst the artist is ultimately responsible for the art asset that is created, the asset is then put through the code that a graphics programmer makes so both need to work in unison to create a truly amazing asset.
An Audio Programmer is responsible for anything sound-related in the game. Much like the Graphics Programmer, it is not the Audio Programmers’ job to make the sound effects or music, but these sound assets need to pass through the Audio Programmers’ code to run in the game. Effects such as reverb, echo, and how it responds to different speaker setups such as headphones or surround sound are also covered here.
QA (Game Tester)
A Game Tester or Quality Assurance is responsible for playing the game over and over throughout production, trying to break it in any way they can. An essential part of making a good game, they will report bugs and other issues they might have such as balance issues, and hand those bugs out to other members of the team who can fix them. They then have to confirm that the bugs are fixed by meticulously testing them under a variety of conditions.
A Producer’s main job is to attempt to organize the whole project. Games being as complicated as they are, and requiring as many developers as they do, a team of producers is sometimes required to try and keep track of it all, schedule it and make sure it runs on time and in budget. Games are also prone to issues due to their complexity so contingency time needs to be factored in.
Directors are in charge of keeping the overall direction of the project on target and making sure the project is the best that it can be. While they won’t often produce assets of their own they are responsible for taking a holistic view of the project and making sure that everything is traveling in the same direction and will come together to make a great final project. Due to all the moving pieces and how isolated individual devs can be in their own workflows, it’s important to have someone able to watch over the entire project from afar.
What Are Employers Looking For?
There are a few things that companies will generally look for. Depending on the position and role you are applying for it will vary, but there’s a good rule of thumb for what they’re looking for. The most important thing to potential employers will be years of experience within the industry and any released titles you have worked on. This is the most reliable way to show that you can work well in the game industry, but this is not something you can gain without first getting a job, so this isn’t possible for entry-level jobs. You can release your own games which is a good thing to show, but that’s hard and still doesn’t show you can work well in an office environment.
The next thing employers are going to look at, and the key to getting your first job is your portfolio. For an artist, this will be a portfolio of artwork relevant to whatever role you are applying for such as characters. For programmers, you might have some tools or programs you have made that are relevant to game development. Depending on the role you want you will want a selection of work that shows how good you are at it and you will want to make this stand out from the crowd however you can.
These are the two main parts you will need to work on to land a job. If you are successful at this stage you may be invited for an interview. As a rule of thumb, you’ve already passed the skill test at this stage. There will normally be a small number of people that have made it to this stage and your goal will be to come across as competent and friendly.
Depending on the company they may be looking for different things. A big AAA company may be less personable and be looking almost entirely at your competency and your work ethic and will be more likely to ask questions along those lines. A smaller indie company will be more likely to be interested in you and your personality and as such, they will be looking to see if you will be a good fit with the team. For a team that size working well together is more important than individual skill levels. Baring this in mind when interviewing will help your chance of success.
Building A Job-Winning Portfolio
There are a few things you will want to focus on in your portfolio. The most obvious one is quality. You want to really show what you are capable of. Have your best pieces of work front and center. If you have a large portfolio of work, consider cutting out older, less impressive work, or work that isn’t directly related to the position you are after. You can always keep your older work in the portfolio, but separate it out so that it shows progression but doesn’t lead to employers thinking your quality levels are inconsistent as this is a big red flag.
Always make sure your work is relevant. Even if it’s in the same field it might be worth considering cutting work out when applying for certain roles. When reading over applications for a character artist, for example, I focused on characters that were showing and mostly passed over the props and environments. The reason for this is, while characters may have props like bags and such on them which makes props relevant, there’s a specific skill set for creating characters that I needed to see if they could manage. In this instance, you might want to put one or two of your best non-character work to show, but most, if not all, of the portfolio you apply with should be character work.
There are two reasons for not having a scattergun approach to your portfolio. It may seem like it shows a wide variety of skills, but to an employer, it could seem like you aren’t dedicated to the role you are applying for, so you may jump ship and want a job change after not too long. There is also the Jack Of All Trades argument. With the games industry such a competitive place for applicants it can be better to focus and be really good at one line of work to land you that job. There are certainly some generalist roles out there but the majority of the time you will be expected to excel in just your field and you will want something impressive to show to get your foot in the door with your first job.
The other reason for keeping your portfolio small and concise is that the employees going through your application will not spend long on it. The truth is that we get a lot of applications all of the time, even when we’re not advertising for a job. We need to filter these out to potential applicants fast, so a quick skim of the resume and a glance at the portfolio might be all the time you have to impress. Once you pass the initial test there will be a deeper dive into the most promising portfolios. This might seem harsh or unfair, but it’s the reality of the workplace. As such you should always focus on having your best work front and center while keeping your application concise and relevant.
How To Apply For A Game Development Job
If the job you are applying for has a posting, usually online, it will normally state exactly what they want. If you are applying to a company without going through a job posting it can be less clear. As standard, you can expect to need a resume, a portfolio, and perhaps a cover letter. Make sure you are ready to respond quickly to questions or interview invites quickly. Unfortunately, you are unlikely to hear anything back from most companies, but some will respond very fast.
If you don’t want to apply directly to a company you can apply through a job agency. There are some advantages and disadvantages to this approach but if the fatigue of applying for a great number of jobs over a number of months without any response is weighing on you then it’s a feasible option.
Should I Apply Directly Or Use A Job Agency?
Depending on how you want to apply for jobs will make a big difference in how you are applying for a role. It’s generally better to apply directly to a company as you will be able to have communications with them and you can network to build relationships within the industry. The downside to this is that it can be difficult to get a job and you might have to send out hundreds of applications over months to get the job. If you already have experience and have built connections in the industry this makes this easier.
For those trying to get their first job, it can still be the best way to go and is usually worth investing some time into initially. But if you find you don’t have the time or patience for it there is another route. A job agency. A job agency will take your resume and portfolio and apply for jobs on your behalf, this can take a lot of the effort out of applying. There are some downsides to this though.
A job agency won’t apply with the same vigor as you would when trying to land you a job. They will have a list of clients and as long as they get one of them hired then they’re happy. This may not be you. Agencies also take a cut for matching a potential employee with a position. While this won’t affect your take-home pay it means the company has to pay more for you than someone else at your level as they are paying the agency as well. This makes you less competitive than those applying directly as, assuming you are at a similar skill level, the other person will be cheaper to hire.
How To Nail The Interview
As mentioned above, there are different types of interviews that should be prepared for slightly differently. I was once told by another recruiter ‘If you have got an interview you’ve already impressed us with your skills, we’re just checking that you aren’t mad.’ The point is that your work has already spoken for your skills and an interview is to determine your personality. This might include competency questions to ensure that you do know what you’re talking about and that your portfolio isn’t stolen, but for the most part, it will be to see if you are professional and likable.
If you are applying for a job at a large company they are likely to be interesting in your individual skills and competencies over anything else. You’ll be expected to be handed work and to complete it well and fast without the need to leave your lane or work with large parts of the other teams. In this case, you will want to show that you know what you are on about.
For a smaller company, they will likely be looking for someone more personable. You might be expected to be more of a generalist and be able to jump in to help out with other tasks and communication will be key as you might have to talk to the entire team. Smaller teams also rely more on team cohesion and so they will be looking for someone that’s the ‘right fit’ for the team. I’ve seen competent people lose out on jobs to less skilled people because they came across as abrasive rather than friendly. This may seem wrong but it shows the importance of being a good team player on a smaller team.
Are Game Developers In Demand?
Most games companies will have multiple job postings at any one time, but you hear about people unable to find jobs in a competitive industry. Why is this? The reason comes down to the positions. Certain jobs such as graphics programmers are always in high demand. It’s a difficult and highly skilled position that requires both programming and art knowledge so there are not many people who can fill it. If you can fill a role like that you are all but guaranteed to get a job and a decent wage packed to boot. The seniority of the role also helps as lead or senior roles are highly in demand, but there’s not a huge number of people to fill those roles, so you may find companies headhunting you rather than you applying for roles. A dream situation.
However, the majority of us will be in roles that most people are trying to get into, especially when starting out. Roles like Junior Artists or Junior Designers have a lot of applicants and not enough positions for all the applicants. These positions are highly competitive and you will have to work hard and stand out to get that position.
Is Game Development Profitable?
The game industry is now a bigger industry than movies, TV, or music. So how much make this into the hands of game developers. If working for an employer then this is normally directly tied to how competitive and in-demand your job is. If you just starting out in a popular role you could be paid way under what you deserve for a skilled job. On the other hand, if you find yourself filling an in-demand role you can be earning quite a wage packet.
The real money, and also difficulty, would be making your own game. Games can be made by a single person who makes tens of millions of dollars, however, expectations should be realistic. Only a few games reach that level of success and many, many more make next to nothing. Going indie is risky and hard, but if you want to earn the big money it’s the best way to do it. Due to the difficulty, it’s rarely advised you go straight to indie games. Gaining the knowledge of game development while in the industry and then utilizing that to create your own games is the more common route.
Securing Funding For Your Indie Project
If you are going to make your own game, you are going to need funding, even if you intend it to be a solo project you have living costs and program costs that need to be covered. You can fund this by working another job, but that will eat into precious development time. As an added issue, if you are working in the games industry then most contracts have a clause that means the company you work for owns the rights to anything you make. You can get confirmation that you can release a game from some nicer companies, although none will be too pleased with the idea of you making a career elsewhere and leaving.
So what other options are there other than saving for a while and risking those savings to pursue your passion project? Crowdfunding such as Kickstarter is a great place to start. You will have to make a pitch to the public and there’s no guarantee that it will be a success, but one of the best benefits of doing this is being able to judge the public reaction to your game idea and get a good sense of if it will be a success.
Another way to do it would be to get a publisher to fund it. The difficulty with this is usually getting it off the ground. Publishers won’t pay for an idea. You will need at least a working prototype, if not a finished game, to get a publisher on board. They won’t give you an endless supply of funding though, you will lose some artistic freedom and have to run to deadlines, much more like a traditional job that most people will have wanted to avoid. But there is an advantage.
Getting a publisher on board can mean they get external help which can help you finish the game. I specialized in helping out projects exactly like this where games would be mostly complete but they couldn’t quite finish them out. A publisher brings people like us in to get it finalized, optimized, and ported to the platforms they want it on. Again you lose more independence over your game but it ensures you will get the game out the door.