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Facts About the Computer Games Industry

A top-selling computer game usually takes between 1.5 and 2.5 years to complete. Perversely, this time period seems to increase as the technology improves bigger hard drives just mean we need to fill up more space! Faster and higher-resolution graphics card mean more detailed artwork is possible (and therefore needed), and there are more pixels to push! Faster processors mean more complex gameplay and better AI are possible (and therefore needed), so more code to write and more bugs to find.

By the time it's finished, a top-selling computer game usually involves the work of 20, 40, or even 60 or more people, just on the development side alone! But most join the project in the final year or final months a "core team" is often about 10 people.

A typical game development team consists of a designer (who may or may not also be the lead programmer, producer, or occasionally art director), several programmers, a sound engineer, a multimedia specialist, a producer to manage schedules and budgets, and ten or more artists and animators. Towards the end of a project, even more artists and programmers are often added, as well as a whole raft of testers who do in fact spend the whole day playing the game over and over and over and over.

This is the entertainment industry! That means "hits" and "flops". 10% of the games on the market make 90% of the money. A flop might sell anywhere from nothing at all to, say, 10,000 copies. An average game might sell 20,000-50,000 copies. A "near hit" might sell 100,000 copies. A "hit" might sell 250,000-500,000 copies. And the holy grail of the entertainment software industry, a "smash hit", "classic", or "game of the year", can sell 1,000,000-2,000,000 copies or more. The best selling computer game of all time is as far as I know Myst, with somewhere around 5,000,000 copies sold. Multiply that by $30 a copy, remember that you may have had to pay 50-100 people's salaries for over two years to get the thing done (not to mention marketing and distributions costs, and the royalties on any technology or licenses you bought), and you will have some idea of the scale of the risks and rewards of the industry.

Being in the entertainment industry is fun! But that means lots of people want to do it and the job market can get pretty competitive. Among other things this has the effect of making it hard to "break into" the industry from the outside.

Everyone wants to "design games", but actually to get a position as a designer requires years of experience and dedication; nobody ever gets an "entry level designer position". Designer positions are few and sought after, and so fall to seasoned veterans who have meanwhile developed skills in other game industry career paths. If design is your eventual dream, you'll need to start in one of the 3 main career paths (programmer, artist, producer) and work your way up. You should also nurture excellent writing and communication skills as well as broad general knowledge of subject areas you'd like to work with and learn everything you can about how games are put together.

The three main career paths within the game industry are Programmer, Artist, and Producer. These positions come in many flavors and levels of seniority, varying by company and project.

Depending on the company, producers variously organize, schedule, manage, budget and lead projects. If you don't think of yourself as an artistic or technical person, or you know some coding but don't have absolute confidence in your programming skills, the "producer track" would be a role for you to consider. But a full Producer position almost always requires prior industry experience, and the competition is fierce for the few Assistant Producer roles which come open.

So, one way to "get in on the ground floor" and obtain coveted "industry experience" is to take a job as a professional tester, and learn the ropes while playing games for a living (not always as fun as it sounds, unfortunately!). Most of the major game publishers support a large testing staff, often working right alongside the in-house development staff of programmers, artists, etc. So you get a chance to rub shoulders with more experienced developers and eventually move into a development role. Also, entry level development positions are much more numerous at large publishing houses.

No one will hire you because "you have a great idea for a new game" or "you've thought of an idea to make an existing game even better". Pretty much everyone who loves games enough to want to make them for a living has a great idea for a new game. Saying something like that in your cover letter or resume is usually perceived as a negative, since it shows that you misunderstand what the developer or publisher is really looking for in an entry level hire (they're looking for someone with demonstrable skills as a programmer, artist, producer, or tester who can help them with their current projects).

A college degree helps a lot but your major probably doesn't matter as much as you think. My own degrees are in history and philosophy, which I suppose makes at least some sense now that I'm a designer, yet I began my career as a programmer. I now work with a lead engineer who got his masters degree in physics, a designer with a degree in dramatics, a producer with a degree in international studies, and (aha!) an artist with an art degree. A degree mostly signifies the dedication which was required to obtain it, a positive sign but not nearly enough in itself to land you a job. An employer will look separately for other signs it wants to see. Signs of intelligence, writing and communication skills, and mastery of a skill set useful in the industry.


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