July 7, 2015

What is it really like to work as a game developer?

Image: Flickr, Sergey Galyonkin


By Quora

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Game developers, what is getting into the gaming industry really like? I ask this because this is one of the fields (computer science) I’m seriously thinking about. Is it really as cutthroat as I’ve heard? How is the pay? What is the indie scene like, and how is it different from the AAA scene? Is going to a CC for a game development degree a good thing? How are the hours, etc.?

Answer below by Quora user David Mullich, video game designer, producer and instructor.

The video game industry is currently growing at a healthy rate that is four times faster than the growth of the overall U.S. economy. However, there is a lot of chaos associated with this growth as publishers try to figure out appropriate business models that work with free-to-play and [the trend of] games becoming more of a service that you regularly purchase online rather than a product you purchase at a store.

As a result of uncertainty in the business, people are frequently laid off despite the industry’s overall growth. According to the IGDA’s 2014 Employee Satisfaction Survey, the average game developer has held four jobs in the past five years.

Getting a game job can be difficult even if you are experienced because, like other creative and “fun-sounding” industries, there are more people applying for jobs than there are jobs available. But once you are in, the pay can be pretty good (the average programmer with fewer than three years experience makes about $70K/yr — though you can probably earn more working as a programmer in other industries), but the job itself is not as glamorous as it sounds.

Days are usually spent either in meetings or staring at a computer screen. The work can sometimes be monotonous, as you are often required to do simple but precise tasks over and over again. The stress level can be high as publishers make unrealistic demands in order to get maximum value for their investment, and the results are inevitably disappointing, for which the developer inevitably gets the blame.

Although crunch (unpaid overtime) is not quite as bad of a problem as it used to be (one executive producer at a large publisher once told me that you’re not a “real developer” unless you’re working 60 hours a week even when there is no deadline), it is not unusual for game developers to work 60, 80 or even more hours a week when there is an upcoming deadline. Once the game does ship, the team may be compensated by getting a week or two off, but that time off doesn’t necessarily coincide with your spouse’s or kid’s vacation time.

Working for an indie is different than working for a AAA publisher in that you are not under the thumb of a publisher, but your game (and salary) may not be as securely funded and you have less of a chance that your game will break even. You might be working for months and months on a game with other people who aren’t much more experienced than you, at low or no pay, only to find that your game doesn’t get any traction when released.

I recommend that people get into game development only if they are very passionate about making games and can’t see themselves doing anything else with their careers. It can be very rewarding to feed that passion, and that makes all the downsides of working in the game industry worthwhile.

If you are interested in pursuing a career in the game industry as a programmer, I think that a Bachelor’s Degree in computer science would serve you much better than a game development degree from a community college. When I hire a programmer, I am looking for good programming skills and knowledge, regardless of where it came from. (The game industry is a meritocracy, where only the work you do matters.) Game-specific experience is secondary with a junior programmer, because I will likely be hooking him or her up with a more experienced member of our team who can teach about our various protocols. But I don’t have the bandwidth to teach someone who has made only GameMaker or Flash games how to be a more sophisticated programmer working with a game engine like Unity or Unreal.

Still, having a portfolio of games to show off is essential for getting a job in the game industry. So, even if you do pursue a computer science degree, you should be making games on the side in addition to your schoolwork. That’s what I did: While studying for my computer science degree, I made small-scope games for a publisher as a freelancer, and so I already had a portfolio to show off [upon graduation].

On the other hand, a game development degree can be worthwhile if the school you are attending does have a lot of programming courses, or if there are many opportunities to work with other students on teams and produce games, since game development is a team sport for geeks. It also helps if the school you are attending has a track record of placing graduates in good entry-level game industry positions at prominent game companies. (Almost every job I’ve had in the game industry, I got because someone who worked at the company told me about the opportunity or recommended me for it.) Unfortunately, I doubt that any community college program satisfies that criteria.

There are many paths to getting jobs in the game industry, and when examining any path, whether it be getting a game production degree at a community college, a computer science degree at a major university or learning on your own through YouTube videos and programming tutorials, make sure that it helps you get everything you need that you are currently lacking to land the job you want:

  • Skills required for the job position you are pursuing (you can find this out by going to game company websites and looking at the job descriptions on their Job Opening pages).
  • A portfolio of work demonstrating your skills.
  • Experience working in a team environment.
  • Contacts for learning about job opportunities.

Remember that even if you do have all the required skills, experience and everything else you need to be a good candidate, there is no guarantee that you will find a job quickly due to all the other people who are likely applying for the same position. Perseverance, devotion to working the game industry and luck are also necessary elements for success.

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