A Frank Look at Making Videogames Professionally

Jul 4, 2014

I meet and speak with so many people that want to make videogames. This desire often begins from an interest in making their own game ideas. Over time, that interest tends to quietly morph into an interest in getting a job making games.

These are not the same thing, nor even as related as they seem. They can exist separately. Confusion between the two can do some real harm.

Let’s look at how they’re different.

Why Even Discuss This

As the speaker Bill Gove used to say, “You’ve got to tell people the truth. That’s the only way to give people a fighting chance.”

My aim here is not to tell anyone what to do or not to do, but only to provide some additional information to consider about the way things often fit together – acknowledging too that partial exceptions, while rare, surely exist.

I’ve seen some smart people spend years getting into the industry, to then soon wind up frustrated and disillusioned, changing career paths after spending less time doing it than they did moving toward it. I think this often happens at least in part because of the misunderstanding that I’m going to examine here.

The Main Point

People that do an otherwise fun activity at an expert, competitive level have to engage with it in a very different way than others who are not counting on it as their primary income. This is true for athletes, singers, hot dog eating champions, painters, eSports players, and dancers.

It’s true for making videogames, too.

Some Implications

1. Commercial game development involves a bunch of work that isn’t directly making the game.

When we think about what people or skills are needed to make a game, at minimum, we often split up our thinking into roles like code, design, art, and audio. Someone may be wearing multiple of those hats, and there may be need for a separate producer if the team has more than a few people total. However as long as those areas are covered a small game can get made.

For the game to exist properly as a commercial product, there are other business, legal, and marketing responsibilities that enter the picture: incorporation, business taxes, pursuing funding (if applicable), contracts, engagement with fans and press, and so on.

With a larger company, those other positions outside of development tend to be filled by separate specialists. At a smaller company, those obligations often tie up a surprisingly large fraction of the time, attention, and energy of someone that’s also trying to juggle one or more of those developer roles.

2. Many people that work at large game studios are unable to (or never have) made a full game of their own.

I found this mind boggling when I first realized it.

A large professional team, unlike a small non-commercial or typical indie team, is largely filled with specialists. Those specialists may be world-class experts at what they do, but what they do is often a comparatively small piece of everything that comes together from dozens of other specialists: model rigging, scene lighting, network backend, dialog writing, implementing someone else’s design spec, texture artist, outsourcing coordination, management layers, and so on.

This is not at all to discredit, disrespect, nor devalue what professional videogame developers do. Altogether the coordination of specialists is essential to making some truly amazing end products possible, which many players enjoy. Clearly, a simple capitalist argument can be made that they are demonstrably among the very best people at what they do. They are all, as a part of the total team, professional videogame makers.

Yet surprisingly few of them have ever worked on something that was truly their own personal game, their own original idea, or their own direction. They may have worked on dozens of commercially successful games that you’ve heard of, however on each game their individual input or exact contributions to the overall project may be difficult to pinpoint. It couldn’t have happened without them – or someone with a similar skillset filling in for them – but their work seamlessly blends into the whole.

That leads naturally to our next point.

3. Large commercial games often divide work among multiple specialists, yielding less clear artistic or authorial ownership.

On a small team, one person might think up how an enemy should look, then do the concept art for it, 3D model it, texture it, rig it, and animate it – maybe even code its behavior in-game, too. That’s a lot of creative freedom, and in some ways amounts to being ones own boss since work earlier in the process affects what the work is like further ahead. In small enough projects the same person may even be doing that for every enemy, item, and environment piece in the game.

By contrast, on a large team, the person or people best at each step of the art process (say, texturing), and/or for a particular kind of art asset (environmental, character, UI, etc.), may be working only on that slice of the process, forming a digital assembly line of sorts. The end result may be more impressive, as though the output of someone incredibly talented, well trained, and inhumanly consistent in every step of the process. It requires more sophisticated collaboration and scheduling. However this also shifts the nature of personal ownership from “I created these whole things within the game” to “I helped fill in aspects of many different things in the game.”

When students come fresh out of schools that have game development classes and join large studios they are often going from a background in which they enjoyed substantial ownership over a large fraction (often all) of one or more smallish personal projects, into a new position where they’re being paid to concern themselves only with one very specific aspect of a far grander and longer term project. That transition can be a comfortable, healthy, desirable one for some people that prefer to specialize, especially if they see it coming and understand the implications. It can be a very difficult and unexpected change for others.

4. Creativity within large commercial projects requires good process, not following whims.

With so many people’s work interconnected, the misuse or misdirection of time by one person can have a ripple effect on dozens of others on the team. This can make it terribly expensive to simply mess around, or to pursue our pet ideas within the project.

Running a business often involves a lot of processes, quality control, and office politics. Together these serve to filter, refine, and sometimes dilute individual contributions. This means conducting market research, having rigorous approval and testing processes, ruthless editing for quality, and on large teams, many team members having relatively little leeway or input outside of their specific area(s) of expertise.

While potentially frustrating from the inside, to the outside world this can ultimately yield a product more likely to fare better in the marketplace. A game that’s a mishmash with dozens of people’s divergent interests and personal ideas about matters beyond their main skillset is likely to lack focus, coherence, and the level of fidelity that comes from specialists sticking to their specialties.

When people occasionally write war stories about their time in industry, with regard to burning out or finding it exhausting, beyond the total number of weekly hours worked I think it’s often also because of how this process tends to grind up, pulverize, and over time wear down creative impulses. An environment must be fostered in which only the fittest ideas survive to reach customers. When the outcome affects the salaried jobs of many people, having that filter process built in makes a lot better sense than just making whatever exploratory stuff comes to mind.

5. Business pressures have to affect commercial game design.

When making games professionally there’s potential for frustration and conflict all along the way between what you personally feel like creating and what you (or your managers, or backers) think is most likely to be the profitable decision.

If entertainment business worked on a linear scale, and was more predictable, there might be more room for someone to simply opt to make some conscious trade offs between making a little less money in exchange for some personal creative calls. However it’s not a simple slider. If dealing only with profits from internally designed projects, as opposed to buffering it with outside contract work, the decision doesn’t fall between “do it our desired way and maybe earn a little less” but instead it comes down to “do what we think will be profitable, to hopefully stay in business longer” versus “ignore what we think will be profitable, and risk going out of business.”

The videogames business, like many professional entertainment domains, tends to be hit-driven, and public taste is a rapidly moving, unpredictable target. A very small percentage of participants do exceptionally well, meanwhile a much larger percentage scrape by, or even work at a loss, just for a shot at joining that small percentage at the top.

In that kind of environment, a creative call outweighing business pressures, like the controversial opening of House of Cards, is so rare it’s deemed newsworthy. For that matter, in practice even then it’s at least partly a calculated, justifiable gamble to stand out, or to generate discussion, like the No Russian mission in Modern Warfare 2.

This isn’t just about small detailed decisions, either. Some people get into making games because they are drawn to a certain gameplay genre to only later realize that by the time they’re making games professionally that entire genre may be over saturated, widely deemed outdated, dominated by entrenched companies that had a massive head start, or otherwise has become a very unwise domain in which to focus a business.

Or, as a matter affecting many people currently in industry: some developers were drawn to the types of games designed around an older payment model. Then when the ways that people primarily pay for their games subsequently changes which types of games do well in the marketplace, many find it hard and unnatural to rethink the design ideals that they grew up with in a different way which is, for example, compatible with free-to-play, ads, in-app purchases, social network integration, crowd-funding strategy, etc.

I’ll never forget something that I learned from the first professional Lead Game Designer that I met: when he gave talks to students about making videogames professionally, he challenged them to think about how they’d go about the game design for Jar-Jar Binks Racing. He picked that case to illustrate that even as the Lead Game Designer, at a large company there are often business people higher in the chain deciding what can get made at a profit, and your task is to make the best version of that you can.

It’s Still a Perfectly Fine Career

I think it’s important to point out that most of the above is probably true about essentially any office job.

My point here is to remind people that working on videogames as a career, especially at medium or large companies, is also an office job (or at a solo and small team scale, faces the same profit pressures and visibility challenges as any garage band or beginning novelist, but that’s mostly a topic for another day). It has to be, in order to consistently cover the overhead of the workspace and people’s salaries.

It certainly still takes talent and hard work, and often involves working with excellent coworkers. It challenges people’s skills, creativity, and interpersonal maturity. It’s a very hard thing to do at that scale. It’s just of a fundamentally different nature at that scale, perhaps like how preparing for and playing soccer in the World Cup likely involves a lifestyle and stress level quite unlike playing a pickup game at the park with friends and neighbors.

I am not trying to talk anyone out of doing it. There are people who deeply love the work in those environments. For someone that desires deep specialization, instead of being involved with all parts and details, it may be just what they want to do.

But It Doesn’t Have to Be a Career

You’re not a failure or wannabe if (or while) you do it non-commercially.

There’s sometimes a presumption with videogames that if you aren’t doing it full-time to make your living, you’re somehow illegitimate. I’ve heard the term “hobbyist” used derisively in developer communities, as in, saying someone is “just a hobbyist” to devalue what they make and do. That discussion wasn’t about me or my work, but my repulsion over hearing the word used that way was actually a big part of what inspired me to name this blog and my Twitter handle HobbyGameDev.

If someone bowls on the weekends, we don’t demean the activity by saying she is merely “trying” to bowl, or is “just a hobbyist bowler.” If someone likes to run and does so often, we don’t think he’s failing at it if it isn’t his career.

If you bowl, you’re a bowler. If you run, you’re a runner. If you develop videogames, you’re a videogame developer.

As long as you’re able to find ways to create games in your spare time, using resources that are free or priced for everyday people, you can make anything you want. Want to make a game with a dragon that flies through space? Want to make a fast paced puzzle game with mechanics you’ve never seen before? Want to invent entirely new vehicles and let people test drive them?

You don’t need an industry job to do that. In fact, getting an industry job may not even lead to the opportunity to see your vision through, much as the hundreds of crew people that work on Steven Spielberg’s films are unlikely to ever become the next Steven Spielberg – doing what they’re getting paid to do is generally not preparing them to replace him.

There are, granted, some people like him who are in positions in the entertainment industry where they can lead armies of others to realize their creative visions. Those positions are comparatively few (total, in the entire known universe) and many, many times harder to wind up in or hold than the already fiercely competitive entry level positions. That’s true though only if you are doing it as a career. In contrast, if you’re open to working on it as a hobby, you can start working on bringing your own creative vision to life literally right now, with the very same time and computer that you’re instead using to read this article on the internet.

The result might not look or sound like a Next Gen title, pushing the limits of the latest tools and hardware. It probably will not get shown at E3. You may have to get clever about finding ways to pull it off with your capabilities and collaborators. But most importantly: you do not need anyone’s permission to start making it, or to begin looking up and practicing the missing skills you’ll need to pick up in order to do so.

Maybe some people will fall in love with what you’re making. Maybe people will urge you to take it to another level, finding ways to make a living from working on improvements to it. Or maybe they won’t, in which case here’s the worst-case scenario: you’ll just be left with the game that you personally wanted to create. Along the way you also got practice at development skills that you can then apply to make your next projects better.

That’s not a bad outcome.

In this entry, I mostly distinguish between comparatively stable game development careers within medium-large companies, in contrast to non-commercial small teams. Small teams that make commercial projects operate in every form along the gradient between, ranging from being run much like non-commercial small teams (especially when done on the side), to being run like tiny version of larger companies (common if done full-time).

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