Adam Saltsman, of Canabalt studio Semi Secret, offers advice for aspiring game designers

Breaking into making games

When I graduated from high school in 2000, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life: make video games. There was only one serious video game curriculum at the time, offered by the DigiPen Institute, so competition for admission there was pretty intense. I didn’t even apply. The programs at Carnegie-Mellon and MIT were still in their infancy. GAMBIT didn’t exist yet, but they had some other programs that looked interesting. I couldn’t afford the out-of-state tuition, and the enormous in-state college I decided to attend offered a single, solitary 4-credit course on the subject.

Times have changed; finding a satisfying career in video games isn’t the impossible joke it used to be. However, the chasm between “I want to make video games!” and actually making video games still intimidates a lot of people, regardless of age, gender or background. If you find yourself on the wrong side of this abyss, don’t panic! Crossing this gap is a lot less complicated than you might think.

Before we start figuring out how to make our dreams come true, though, let’s clarify what that dream is. Contrary to the funny comic above, what we’re talking about is making games, not playing games. Hopefully this doesn’t surprise you, but these are wholly different activities! Just because you enjoy playing games does not necessarily mean that you will love making them too. There’s only one way to find out, of course, but now is a good time to seriously consider whether you really love the act of creation. There is no position at any company in the world that involves just playing games for fun. Seriously, ask a video game tester how much “fun” it is to play the same level 6000 times…

But our game-making dream still needs a bit more clarity. After all, a significant portion of the modern video game industry revolves around pumping out rushed, under-budget game versions of cartoon franchises to whatever console happened to be left over during publisher negotiations (this is not a slam on folks that do that work for a living; their dedication and resourcefulness impresses the heck out of me). So our dream is not just to make any old games, but to make satisfying, interesting games that reflect our passions and interests, whatever those may be.

So how do we do that? How do we escape from our IT/retail/food-service gig and start making games for a living?

A Fork In The Road

At the moment, interesting and original video games that satisfy our assumptions about these game-making dreams tend to come in two basic flavors: big, and small. Big games are usually realistically detailed 3D simulations with a focus on a cinematic narrative. Big games can have huge, open worlds or be more like a streamlined, “on rails” roller coaster ride. Big games are usually made by a big game studio with a team of 100 or more creators, and are sold primarily in plastic boxes at game shops. Big games are a pretty long haul; they usually take anywhere from two to four years to create, and sometimes much longer. There are lots of exceptions, but these guidelines apply to most of the coolest, high-budget games made in the last few years: Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted 2, and so on.

Conversely, small games are usually 2D or stylized 3D, with a focus on abstract or artistic presentation and the exploitation of simple game mechanics. Small games are sometimes hand-crafted, but sometimes the game worlds are “procedurally generated”, or randomly created by computer algorithms. Small games are usually made by a core team of four people or less, and are primarily distributed through electronic payments and downloads. Small games vary greatly in the time they take to produce, depending on the platform and the design, and can take anywhere from five days to five years to create. Like big games, there are lots of exceptions, but these guidelines apply to a lot of the most interesting low-budget games made in the last few years: Braid, World of Goo, and so on.

While many people work on both big games and small games (sometimes at the same time!), my advice about how to start making games depends a bit on what sort of game you’re dreaming about making, and what sort of team you’re dreaming about joining.

Don’t forget that taking a true game design role on a big game is almost impossible. The vast majority of the team, while they all have creative input and the ability to affect the outcome of the game, are largely devoted to producing the game content, not making decisions about the game design. Even in a game studio with a thousand employees, only a handful of them will actually work on game design on a daily basis, and they’re probably going to hang on to that job for a while. This is just the reality of it; if game design is the part of making games that you love, making small games is going to be a much better bet, at least for now.

Big Games Need Specialists

By necessity, most big game studios are looking for specialists: experts in a specific discipline. A big studio is looking to hire the absolute best 3D Modelers, Animators, and Programmers they can get their hands on. Robin Hunicke (Flower, Journey) published a nice breakdown of some of the different disciplines and job titles in this Game Developer Magazine Career Guide article. With few exceptions, these responsibilities do not overlap in practice. For example, a 3D Modeler will rarely spend time programming the game engine, and vice versa. There is so much work to do that having each person focusing on their greatest strength just makes the most sense. The level of detail is staggering: one artist might do hundreds of iterations on a single character, while another might spend months modeling hair. Hair.

To find a place on a project like that, you need to zero in and focus on the specific part of making games that you love the most. If 3D sculpting is the part of making games that really engages you, dedicate yourself to making the best 3D models you can. It will take a long time, and you will make a lot of bad 3D models along the way. You may also figure out if you have what it takes to model crates for months at a time. The same goes for Programmers; you will spend a lot more time debugging frustrating hardware problems than you will elegantly solving interesting problems, or designing cool systems. You need to be able to appreciate the details. Plus, in any discipline, I think it’s fair to expect to spend two to three years of nights and weekends honing your craft in order to perform at a level that will attract the attention of a big studio.

Hopefully that’s not a terrifying idea! If 3D modeling, or animating, or graphics programming is something you love to do, spending your free time getting better at it should be a no-brainer and an enjoyable pastime anyways. But in my experience, and the experience of my peers, if you don’t spend that extra time on your craft you won’t cut it. Plus, if you don’t love it enough to pursue it in your free time, then why on earth are you trying to get a job in the game industry? Compared to other tech industries, the hours generally suck, and the pay’s usually not great either! But more importantly, most of us need a couple years of failing and doing things wrong in order to figure out how to do things right.

What about schooling? At a lot of large studios, just having a great portfolio isn’t enough. Even if the studio is pretty liberal, sometimes their investors will require at least a two-year degree. You don’t necessarily need a four-year degree or even a degree in the actual discipline you’re pursuing. One way to think of a college degree, from an employer’s perspective, is a piece of paper certifying “I satisfactorily completed a multi-year commitment”. This can be reassuring to an employer who is taking the risk of bringing on someone new. If you are attending one of the many game art or game design schools that have sprung up over the last decade, be careful that you aren’t just comparing yourself to your classmates, or even the faculty. It’s important to honestly and sincerely compare your portfolio against the art in recently shipped games from major studios.That is your real competition, not just the folks in your afternoon class.

If you want to be at a big studio, and work on big games, the most important thing to do is to start honing your craft now. Right now! Don’t even bother finishing this article! Just launch the appropriate software, open some tutorials, and start failing; you will be awesome by this time next year.

For more specific advice about taking this path into the industry, I highly recommend thoroughly reading professional animator Kiel Figgins’ Industry FAQ, which has all this advice and much more, including tips for prepping your website and portfolio. Figgins also suggests this simple step-by-step approach to gaining some perspective what goes on behind the scenes of big games:

  1. Load up your favorite game, the one that inspired you to make games.
  2. Skip the game and go straight to the credits!
  3. Google each name and see if they have a website, blog or portfolio.
  4. Check out their resume. What companies did they used to work for? What software do they use? How much experience do they have?

I also recommend checking out the tail end of the following section for some links to high-end 3D game engines that are free, and might be useful for familiarizing yourself with modern game technology, as well as testing animations, models, level designs or sound effects. If you feel like you have reached a plateau in your discipline, especially if it involves 3D modeling or animation, you could also look into a variety of online mentoring programs with industry veterans.

Small Games Need Generalists

Dividing these approaches into “specialist” versus “generalist” is a bit unfair. Employees at big studios always have ancillary skills and hobbies. I know of Programmers who are sound engineers, architects, and even armorers. And creators at small studios are still pretty highly specialized. Our day-to-day work rarely requires us to create floral arrangements or groom pets. That said, in any given month at my two-person company, my responsibilities might include computer repair, web design, marketing, production, programming, prototyping, concept art, production art, testing & QA, UI design, tool creation, tool maintenance, game design, and sometimes catering. My old boss used to call this the “Swiss Army knife” approach.

How on earth do you prepare for that kind of “job”? The same way we prepare for a job at a big studio: by spending all our free time honing our craft and sharing it with the world. Except in this case, it could do more harm than good if we spend too long working on any one skill. We want to spend our time doing everything; making whole games from scratch all by ourselves. That’s right, non-artists: time to learn how to make art! You too, non-programmers: time to learn how to code! We all fear the unknown, but if we’re afraid to learn new skills, then our chances of getting to work on small games are sadly diminished.

Like honing our skills for a big studio, learning these new skills can take a long time. That means we’re going to do things wrong for a long time. And that’s ok! That’s the learning process. The point, after all, is not to become the best artist, or the best programmer. Repeat after me: “I don’t need to be good, just good enough.” That can sound defeatist, and I don’t mean to discourage anyone from pursuing excellence. The important thing is to not give up just because we aren’t good enough yet. Radio host Ira Glass says:

For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this.

The first game I released was a simple game with a spaceship that shot lasers at bad guys. There was only one kind of bad guy, and the game just repeated itself after about 30 seconds. There was no way to even win! But I learned a ton building it, and my next game turned out even better, even if it too was very small and simple. Over the course of the next year I abandoned some prototypes and released a fairly controversial platformer. More than two years after releasing my first “game”, I finally uploaded Canabalt, a game I made in less than a week. You can learn a lot from a few years of failure!

If you want to work on small games, the most important thing to do is start making small games right now. Even five years ago this would have been a harsh catch-22. However, in this glorious day and age there are not only amazing game-making software tools and tutorials freely available all over the web, but there has been a simultaneous resurgence and interest in tabletop games and game design.

Let’s let that sink in for a minute. Game-making tools: free, powerful, and cross-platform. Game-making tutorials: free, and well-written. Tabletop games: easy to make, fun to make, and require no programming or art whatsoever. The only thing stopping you from making a game right now, right this very minute, is you. If you have never designed a game before, video or otherwise, I heartily recommend starting with this fantastic article about a simple and fun tabletop game design exercise.

For making video games, here are some free and popular game-making tools that are pretty easy to use:

Google should yield up some great tutorials for any of those tools. While Game Maker, Stencyl, Flixel and FlashPunk are mainly for 2D games, Unity can also do some pretty high-end and complex 3D games. If you are feeling particularly intrepid, you can check out these other free 3D game engines:

For more resources, I recommend checking out this encyclopedic list of tools, tutorials, overviews and references. I also maintain a list of game making resources on my gamasutra blog which includes some links to communities that revolve around making games and game art. Meeting new people, learning from them, sharing my work and giving back to these communities has completely changed my life. This is not “networking”. This is establishing relationships and friendships with the people who inspire you the most, and, if you’re lucky, even getting to collaborate with them.

Finally, once you start something, you need to finish it. Game maker Derek Yu (Eternal Daughter, Aquaria, Spelunky) has compiled some fantastic advice on the topic in his article Finishing a Game. Read it and take it to heart!

So Make Some Games Already!

Ultimately, whether you are aiming for big games or small ones, or somewhere in between, my advice is the same: start creating something right now, and keep doing it every day. That might sound like simple advice, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Especially if you have a family and/or a mortgage and/or a day job, your free time is probably pretty limited already. Trying to build up these skills on the side can be hard on relationships and your other responsibilities. Like going back to school or getting a second job, this can’t be a unilateral decision if you have people in your life that rely on you!

If your partner decides to support you in this, or you’re young and unfettered by such concerns, then I am happy to report that it is entirely worth it. When I’m not writing articles, I spend most of the year making up games. I get paid to make games. In my underpants. I didn’t have to go to game design school (although a few of them are great) or buy a bunch of books (many of which are good as well). All I had to do was stay up late, make mistakes, and try to learn from them.

Special Thanks

Some shoutouts to the folks who helped out on this article:

And thanks to Jordan Mechner for the idea and opportunity!

[Opinion piece reprinted onto Develop with user’s permission]

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