Jon writes: Hello. I have some questions I would like to ask you because my class is doing a project on what we would like to do when we get older. I chose video game design. I was wondering if you could answer my questions to help me with my interview? The questions I have are listed below.
1. How long have you been doing this?
I started programming games as a hobby starting around 1998 when I was in middle school. For a year or two before that I experimented a bit with modding commercial games (making levels, characters, and weapons for full games that I already played). I have making games professionally off and on since 2005.
2. Do you mainly work with people, data, things, or ideas?
In this line of work I begin by coming up with ideas, followed by working with those ideas to figure out how to turn them into data, after which I present that data to other people as though the data were things. The work a lot of my peers do in game development involves gathering a ton of data about how people interact with these things, leading to ideas about what to change about their games.
Since the chain of events begins with ideas, in response to the mainly qualifier in the question, I will pick: ideas. Though not in the sense of “just” having ideas, a bunch of work with people, data, and things is required to test, develop, and deliver on those ideas.
3. What do you like most about it?
I like that each project is different, bringing new and different types of challenges. I also like the ability to “wear many different hats,” performing a variety of types of work on each project. I get to lay out levels, program exactly how things work, pull together the work of other talented people creating music and art, plan out and oversee the player’s experience (what they first see, how the menus look and work, what we show or give them for winning and doing well), etc.
4. What are the most frequently recurring problems?
Communication is a challenge every step of the way. When starting a project, there’s a challenge of communicating with other collaborators to make sure people understand what they’re getting involved with, since even a very talented developer will be unhappy with the results if working on a mismatched project. Even on a solo project there are difficulties in what amounts to communicating clearly with myself: sorting out and prioritizing my plans. During a game’s development, there’s another challenge in integrating the ideas of team members while providing sufficient communication to keep everyone on the same page. Further into a project, there’s a much different but very important challenge in trying to communicate with potential players regarding where they experience frustration or confusion during testing, then after release what the new game is like and about.
5. How did you get started?
Although I began modding commercial games in late elementary school to get more out of single player games that I enjoyed on PC, I didn’t really produce anything complete so much as use it as a context to practice digital image and audio editing, and thinking in detail about how games are put together. As a middle school student I taught myself the basics of C programming from books. I pretty quickly shifted from writing text programs into figuring out how to use my programming for simple games instead by displaying graphics and playing sounds. To do that at that time I first copied assembly functions I found in the back of programming books. A little later the Allegro game programming library, but there are now many other alternatives with various advantages and disadvantages. I originally mostly made variations on classic games, since those were projects small enough to do well in a reasonable time frame while working alone. When I began my undergraduate years at college I helped start a computer game development club, leading to larger and more involved team projects. I landed my first internship in the game industry through a recruiter that we invited to speak at one of our meetings.
6. What type of training is needed today?
A computer science degree can be very helpful, however people come into game development from a variety of backgrounds. Many people continue on to a masters degree in a videogame-related field to further help their qualifications to work in the game industry. All of that is primarily if you are looking to do it professionally, though. If you’d like to explore it first or primarily as a hobby, no formal training is necessary. Much of a modern game developer’s training today is finding ways to make (or mod) videogames on our own time.
7. What type of technology do you use?
I work on a home computer, no different from the sort used by everyone else (probably pretty similar to the computer that you’re reading this on).
In terms of software, I tend to use plain text editors to write code, and recompile using simple bash/batch scripts. That’s a bit of an old-fashioned way to go about it, many developers prefer managing their projects in more robust editors designed specifically for programming.
8. What changes have you seen in the past few years that affect this as a career path?
Every few years a different business model appears that draws the attention of investors and businesspeople. In order to work professionally, game developers have to find ways to design projects that work well with those new business models. 30 years ago it was paying a quarter to play at the arcades, for the next 10-20 it was largely selling games as $60 retail goods, then the MMO/subscription model seemed to dominate for awhile, followed by cheap/$0.99 mobile games. More recently the free-to-play micro-transaction model used by social games seems to have taken over. Old business models remain of course – there are still new arcade games, and a major part of the industry continues to be $60 console games sold retail – but the arrival of new, larger market segments makes those an increasingly small percentage of professional game development.
What I can say for sure is that this space is sure to continue evolving and changing, so it’s important for a videogame developer to be ready to frequently adapt and always be learning new techniques, platforms, and audience considerations.
9. What personal qualities do you feel are needed to succeed in this?
Like many cutting edge fields, success in game development relies upon determination, persistence, patience, and willingness to self-educate/self-direct. Many skills are needed that go beyond and build upon what anyone currently teaches, and the only way to pick up those skills is through experimentation, working through problems that arise, connecting with peers working on the same challenges, and getting a lot of practice.
Another personal quality that helps is knowing how to be flexible while still finishing the work. Rather than stubbornly sticking to something until it’s exactly the way originally intended, in many cases being a good listener and open-minded observer can save or productively redirect work by noticing what parts of the task matter most. Ideally this leads to finding a clever way to achieve those goals without getting stuck on the many details that may turn out to be much less important, or even distracting.
Lastly, but importantly, it will go a long way to learn how to present well. Seek opportunities to practice presenting your results, your mid-process progress, and even presenting yourself (as a potential collaborator, as the right person for a particular task, etc.). Think about any game that you enjoy – if someone hadn’t figured out the right way to show that end result to strangers, and to win others in their company or team into collaborating on it, we could never have had the opportunity to play it.
When you begin making nifty projects that you’re proud of, don’t hide them from the world. Be prepared to show and share them in an appropriate way.
10. What advice could you give to me while I am pursuing this?
Game design involves doing a lot of different kinds of tasks, working with a lot of different kinds of information, and communicating with a lot of different kinds of people. Working to become well-rounded is important in this.
Technical understanding is useful (math and science), creative practice is useful (English and art), and the other random information someone knows about (history, literature, film) is what separates their ideas and work from that done by other equally capable people. Even clubs and sports can provide useful insights, habits, and ways to relate that might be missed otherwise.
There were times in school when my friends wouldn’t see the point of a geometry assignment, but I would be excited about it because I knew how I could use it to make my videogames do things I didn’t previously understand how to do. Writing classes, which didn’t seem so obviously applicable to me at the time, have turned out to be every bit as important, as I use much of the same process and ways of thinking now for my non-writing work.
In other words: despite my previous point being the importance of teaching yourself things that other people can’t or don’t yet teach, this point is the importance of paying attention and learning from others about the material that others can and do teach. Self-education is often the only way to learn certain things worth knowing, but when it comes to material that people have spent thousands of years finding ways to explain, don’t insist on reinventing the wheel and trying to rediscover all that yourself.
If you ever have more specific questions about getting started in videogame development, or run into hurdles along the way that I might be able to help answer or get you past, please feel free to write back again at any time.
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