Experienced, but still haven’t tried the jump to professional work? Or, currently doing professional work with a company, and thinking about how life might be different if you split off to be an independent hobbyist?
My own career path in life up to this point – from independent hobbyist, to a year with a huge game company, to helping establish a start-up, around back to an independent professional – has given some readers and friends the impression that I would discourage working for an established company. This is definitely not the case! Jobs are not one-size-fits-all, and the big company environment simply wasn’t the best environment for my particular strengths and interests at this time in my life. I know plenty of folks that are quite happy and productive in corporate environments. Let’s take a moment to enumerate the pros of working on a team of pros.
(As a disclaimer, it’s obviously possible to work on a team as a hobbyist, and also possible to work alone professionally. For a variety of reasons, most hobbyists work independently, and most people’s start professionally with an established company. That distinction is generally assumed in the points that follow.)
Room to Specialize
Want to focus your attention at being the among the best in the world at graphics optimizations, writing scalable networking code, 3D modeling futuristic settings within a memory budget, or creating complex 3D levels? Those kind of opportunities are virtually non-existent in the independent game space, due to smaller teams, smaller budgets, and smaller time frames.
Large, established companies with diverse product portfolios, distributor partnerships, and popular IP (“intellectual property” – Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter) can pay a solid paycheck on a consistent basis, and they can absorb the financial impact of the inevitable (but unpredictably) rough project now and then.
The other side of that stability point is that, for better or for worse, there’s high turnover in the game industry. Many people at many companies either leave or get fired within their first two years at any given company, either from seeking a better fit, seeking something different between projects, or internal shuffling. I knew this was true at companies besides the one I worked at because, here comes the point, I had coworkers from dozens of other companies that told me about it. And 4 years after I spent my first summer at that company, most of the people that I knew then have moved (or have been moved) on to other companies in other places. The result: by spending 3 summers at an established company, I now have friends and contacts all over the world, across dozens of companies. Not too shabby.
Generations of Know-How. In any company with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people operating for more than a few years, there’s an internal science of process created around keeping the company and projects on track. Whether or not you like what they’re doing, they’re pretty good at doing it by the time you get there, which means there’s a pretty solid chance that the game you’re working on will make it to the market place, and by the time you’re done with it several new opportunities will be starting up internally.
This absolutely, positively, had nothing to do with why I wound up where I did. But in hindsight, it was one of the most significant takeaway advantages. That I had been making videogames independently since 6th grade didn’t mean a thing to most recruiters or students, but as soon as I had an entry level internship at a recognizable company, people were open to hearing about my other work.
Large Project Visibility
When I entered a big company environment, my best freeware game had about 50,000 downloads, which seemed like a big deal to me at the time. A big company makes games that they can charge $50-$60 for, and if they sold that few copies they’d likely consider the project a failure. Magazine articles get written about these games years in advance. The games sit on store shelves. Strategy guides get written by outside companies about these games. FilePlanet hosts demos to them, cheat code websites have pages devoted to them, mod communities arise around them, and there are fans eagerly awaiting it when it comes out. Those are cool things to be a part of.
Big companies have positions that rank higher than “the guy that does most of the art”, “sound person”, and “programmer / designer / producer combo”. Positions with really impressive words in the title, like Vice President of this or that, and Chief or Executive (or even Chief Executive), and so on. At a big company, promotions are available to those people that consistently demonstrate a good attitude, sound decision making, and domain expertise.
If anything, I would encourage taking any formal opportunity that you’re able to line up in the game industry (except QA. See next section.). Whether as a design intern, entry level software engineer, or whatever other title you might be able to find someplace, it can be incredibly valuable experience, and time well spent.
QA/Playtesting is Usually a Dead-End
Playtesting is a very brief and unrewarding experiment for most of the people that go into it. I’m guessing 99%, and there’s a chance that may be a realistic number. I know only a few professional game designers, 1 professional software engineer, and 0 artists that got their start as a playtester. It’s typically short-term work, kept separate from development teams. Because it assumes zero background in videogame development ability, you’re unlikely to have any opportunity to differentiate yourself from the other faces in the crowd. In theory it’s a way to get paid to play videogames. In practice, it can be a two month monotonous job, paying you very little to keep replaying the same part of the same game all day long and filling out reports about it.
If you’re a playtester already, certainly there’s no reason to be discouraged from game making! I would however recommend figuring out and working on your next steps on how else to get involved in videogame development, and not to count on QA time to ever translate into a dev position.
Considering Keeping it Strictly a Hobby?
You’ll always have the option to find a less time-consuming job to focus on your own games in the off-hours, or to move home and spend time making games on your own. Now is as good a time to go job fishing as any. Despite whatever anyone says about this being a bad market for job hunting, (a.) as I’m sure you’ve read someplace, game industry employment went up while most other industries shrunk last year (and b.) statistics only affect charts and graphs, but you’re just one person. I.e. all you need to find is one opportunity, and they’re definitely still constantly popping up and finding their best available fit, every day of every week.
Additional Info on Job Searching
Slides from a game careers talk that I gave at Carngie Mellon in 2006.
Links to industry career resources:
(Originally posted as part of GameDevLessons.com Vol. 4 Sec. 3)
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