Harsh Realities of the Game Industry — Part 1
The video game industry is truly an amazing place to work. It’s creative, fun and fulfilling, taking a seed of an idea and working with a team to turn it into a fully realized game that potentially millions of other people can enjoy. But like anything else in life, there are also some downsides to working in games; things you might want to consider if you’re looking to make it your career. So let’s get real — what are some of the worst parts of the industry?
This article was written with game development students in mind; but anyone that wants to make video games as a career may find it useful.
Harsh Reality #1: You probably won’t be the Creative Director, ever
One of the most common questions I get from students is about how to become a Creative Director. Everyone wants to be the “idea person,” the chosen one that comes up with the initial idea for the game, and then guides the team to deliver against that vision. Students usually ask this question because they have an idea for a game, and they want to know how to get that idea out of their head and into reality. And when I say “students,” what I really should say is “most people in the game industry.” Almost everyone I’ve ever worked with has a game idea or two they’d love to pursue.
But the hard truth is that the large majority of them will never be in the position to make that a reality. That’s because at game development companies, there are very few creative lead positions. In most cases, there is only a single Creative Director on a game team, no matter how large that team might be. Sometimes, there is only one Creative Director in an entire company.
Most people working on a game are part of the “meat” of the team. They are the implementers — coding features, creating models and animations, or determining combat balance in a spreadsheet, for example. They are designers, they are artists, they are audio designers, they are coders, and working together, they make the wheels of development move. Perhaps it was the Creative Director that had the initial idea for the game, but without a doubt, it is these hands-on creators that bring the vision to life.
So what I am saying is that being a Creative Director may not need to be your goal. Unless your team is incredibly small, Creative Directors almost never get to work on the game directly; instead the job is more about carrying the vision, ensuring others are excited about the game, delegating responsibilities, and empowering others to create. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth aspiring for — building your dream game can be incredible — but just remember, no matter what role you hold on the team, you will always find ways to impact the game and leave your mark.
A note for indies: Yes, if you create games independently, you can become a Creative Director immediately! However, if you are planning on working with even one other person, you’ll find that soon all efforts become collaborative — creative efforts included. Truly, even a team of two people requires ideas to be shared. The only way you’ll ever have 100% control is to create a game from start to finish on your own. That’s no small task because you’d need to perform every role yourself — but there are games out there from people that wanted just that.
So, you may not get to be the Creative Director. While we’re on that subject, I should also mention something else — most of the time, if you’re working for a larger company, you won’t get to work on your dream game.
Harsh Reality #2: Sometimes you have to work on a game that doesn’t inspire you
When students think about game development as a career, they usually only think about what it will be like to work on games that they love to play. Of course — everyone wants to work on something they are truly passionate about. When I got my first game job at Blizzard Entertainment, I was able to work on games I already adored. But the truth is that I was very lucky to start out that way. In reality, it’s very common for game industry folks to work on a few (or even many) games they just don’t dig all that much.
Some studios crank out sequel after sequel for an existing IP. Other studios focus on movie companion games (a game that follows the basic general plot of a newly released film, scheduled to be released right around the same time). Sometimes studios focus on one particular target audience or game genre. The point is, you’re an employee of a larger entity, and generally, you’re going to have little say about the game you end up working on. You may love the game you work on! Or you may not be excited about it, at all.
So we know that once you’re hired onto a game team, you will be assigned to work on a specific game. But what happens when that game ships? At that point, you may stay on that team if there are further updates planned, but sometimes you might be moved to a different team to work on another game. And when that game ships, you might find yourself again on something new. Hopping from game to game, you can’t have the expectation that it’s always going to suit your tastes. Some, you may love. Others, not as much. It’s still your job to bring your best.
Shipping a project isn’t the only time this can happen, either, especially for programmers, who may be shifted around from team to team more often than other roles. If help is needed on another game team within the company, you may suddenly find yourself “on loan” to that other team. During pre-production on The Sims 4, several of the best programmers on the team hopped over to The Sims 3 team temporarily, to help get the game out the door.
Even if you do like the game you are working on, there are times where you might be assigned work you don’t particularly like. While working on The Sims team, I was asked to manage monetization, game currencies, and micro-transactions. At the time, I had been doing monetization research, and played many free-to-play titles to get a good understanding of the best techniques. My manger recognized that I knew more about this than anyone on the team, so the assignment made sense in that I was qualified for the job. However, I wasn’t all that passionate about it at that time in my career — I would have much rather remained on the world team, working on game content.
When this happened, I had to find a way to keep myself motivated. So I made my new role about building relationships. I reached out to other teams within Electronic Arts that were running free-to-play games. I asked questions, gathered information and even traveled to several other EA studios, exploring the ways that each of these teams approached monetization, and bringing back knowledge that could help my own team make decisions. I enjoyed doing this — I got to learn about a subject that has ended up driving a large portion of my career, plus my team benefited from the results as well. I made the role work for me by finding something that I really liked about it and putting all my energy there. No matter what your role on a game might be, you can always find joy within the project, if you’re looking for it.
So the takeaway here is that you need to put your goal of working on a specific game aside when you’re first trying to get a job. You’ll need to be open-minded and willing to apply for any job for which you’re qualified. For example, you may not love mobile match-3 games targeted at the age 45+ audience, but hey, working on that team could be the role that launches your incredibly successful game career. Every shipped game on your resume puts you one step closer to landing that dream job on your favorite game.
This is the first part in a series relating the harsh realities of the game industry, (and trying to find a silver lining, despite the challenges!). These are drawn from my own personal experiences working at companies like Blizzard Entertainment and Electronic Arts, among others. Stay tuned for more!