By:Alan Bell Published: Thursday 12 Jul 2012 4:30 PM
So who makes games, anyway?
Once upon a time, the idea of making games for a living was a pipe-dream - and we're not talking about the things that fill Mario's head when he goes to sleep. Time marches on, however, and gaming is big business. The industry took in nearly $95 Billion in the last financial year, growing some 10% in a tough economy, with forecasters predicting it will eclipse $140 Billion in 2015.
Someone's got to make all of the games that are going to make all of that money, of course, and now - more than ever before - it's perfectly viable to consider game development as a career; even if you live in New Zealand. Between 2010 and 2011, the game development industry grew by 46% in this country, adding 110 jobs - bucking the trend, once again, of an economy in downturn. Not only that, but people who learn their trade here have gone to work in other countries on franchises like Halo, Resistance, and many more.
But how do you get your start? Just what sorts of things do you need to be able to do, to have a shot at making games for a living? That's exactly what we're hoping to explain, starting with a look at what sorts of jobs actually exist under the "game development" umbrella.
The Sidhe team in Wellington, circa 2008, have long been one of the biggest game developers in the country. But what does each of these people actually do?
Making games is about much more than simply liking to spend time in front of your console when you're done at work or finished your homework. It's a results-driven business, with a number of discrete roles that each will appeal to - generally - quite different sorts of people.
Let's take a look at 'em:
Producers, often also known as Project Managers, are the guys that sit across all other teams on a project, and have one simple goal: get it done. If you like the idea of having a bit of variety in your day, and don't mind the buck stopping on your desk, this is the role for you.
Yoshinori Ono, Producer of Street Fighter 4, is one of few Producers you might have heard of. Generally, Producers are fairly low-profile.
Often, Producers will be promoted from other teams (Quality Assurance is a popular source for them), but a love of games and experience in Project Management or some Project Management qualifications should at least get you an interview for an Assistant Producer role.
Typically referred to as QA, or those douchebags from upstairs who are always finding fault with my work, this is the group of people whose job is perhaps most misunderstood. While technically, it is true that they spend a lot of their time playing games for a living, that concept is actually quite a bit more arduous than it sounds. The games aren't finished for a start, and trying to replicate bugs by repeatedly hammering a car into a wall isn't as much fun as it sounds to start with - let alone when hour 17 rolls around.
Game testing is almost exactly nothing whatsoever like it was portrayed in the charmingly awful Grandma's Boy (2006)
Fortunately, qualifications are generally not a prerequisite for a job in the QA team. Instead, you'll need to show a passion for gaming, an eye for detail, and an ability to stay on task - even if the game genre doesn't interest you or the bug you're chasing is particularly elusive. Just be aware that these sorts of jobs are fairly hotly contested, so bring your A-game to the interview.
There might only be three letters in this category but, in general, this is probably the most diverse discipline within game development. On any given project there will be any manner of artists involved, from concept artists (the guys and gals that sketch or otherwise mockup the first-draft images that bring a character or concept to life) through to the various sub-disciplines needed when turning those concepts into production models for use in the final game.
Roel Jovellanos, a Senior Artist at SOE, narrates a time-lapse video showing the development of a large PlanetSide 2 weapon concept all the way from the initial sketch right through to the final design.
If you've got a propensity for making pretty pictures in the back of your maths book (instead of, you know, adding and subtracting stuff, or whatever quadratics is), this could well be the route into videogame development for you.
While Producers are useful people to have around and Artists can conjure up the most amazing things, the team in QA will have nothing to test if not for the coders. Working largely in text-heavy interfaces, the programmers literally build worlds, slotting in the various outputs from the art team along with magic of their own to create something interactive and - hopefully - fun for people to play with.
If you want to be a good programmer, you need to be extremely smart. Numbers and high-level concepts smart, not smart as in "arse".
Like art, there's a lot of potential for specialization here, with programmers often finding themselves working in niche areas like physics or hardcore graphics routines. If you like maths, and solving complicated problems by throwing science at them, this is very definitely the pursuit for you.
One of the more underappreciated branches of the game development arts, Animators are very important when it comes to giving things character. Subtlety of facial animation, for example, is exactly what Rockstar leveraged in an effort to make the recent L.A. Noire's detective sub-game so unique, while Quantic Dream - the team behind Heavy Rain - similarly utilize nuanced movements as a method of communicating non-verbally to the player.
Motion Capture, which is what Jonah Lomu is doing here, is just part of a modern animator's toolset. There's loads of stuff you'll have to do from scratch, too.
If you have megalomaniacal tendencies, or just want to bring things to life, it's hard to go past animation as a career. Just be mindful that many studios get by with just a few animators on-staff, so jobs in this field are rarer than many of the other disciplines, and they're also not as transferable to non-game development activities (other than, perhaps, working in TV or Cinema...)
Game design is one of the most desirable roles on a game development team. After all, it's from these heads that the core mechanics and detailed systems for game interactions must flow. It's also one of the most difficult career paths to plan out, as there's (generally) no set path from where you are now to becoming a fully-fledged game designer.
Could you be the next Shigeru Miyamoto? Probably not, but who knows? Someone has to be, why can't it be you?
If you're still keen, however, there are plenty of things you can do to improve your chances at landing the dream job. First, read - lots of stuff. Theories of not just game design, but design in general; interface, aesthetics, human interaction. Look around you, see what people are doing, imagine ways in which you could make the random tasks that fill their days easier to accomplish.
Most importantly, perhaps, spend time actually making games. There are loads of ways to do this now, and taking the time to find out how, and teaching yourself what to do, will count for a lot when you're being considered for a designer's role. It also teaches you a lot about the process of iterative design, and - handily - gives you an interactive demonstration of your ability when applying for your first job.
Depending on the company - particularly on its size - there are always other opportunities for someone with a good attitude and a solid work ethic. Often, a studio will need things like lawyers, accountants, and HR managers, for example.
If you're interested, the best thing you can do to improve your chances at a job in the industry is to get yourself involved with an amateur project; a mod or simple game that's being built by a bunch of keen enthusiasts. Find one (forums on game-related websites are usually a good place to start, including right here on NZGamer.com), stick your hand up, and get stuck in.
Experience gleaned through this process will help you figure out which of the options is for you, as well as giving you a chance to back out if it's not what you were looking for. Once you actually release something, it will also give you a great line-item in your CV - particularly if what you and your team of friends put together is actually half decent!
If you have any questions about this topic, please feel free to post them in the comments below. Anything we can't answer based on our own experience (which is considerable; several on the NZGamer.com team have worked on all sorts of different videogame projects), we'll take to the industry on your behalf.