Life moves fast in the games industry and whether you’re just starting out or an experienced professional, it’s always a good idea to re-evaluate your skills from time to time. Whether you should be a generalist or focus on a narrow but deep skill set depends on what your career goals are and what kind of games you want to make.
For those entering the industry with a degree in Computer Games, many have a range of design, art and basic coding skills. This is a great foundation, however most studios tend to look to fill a specific role when they are hiring and need either a programmer, designer or artist, so be prepared to make some career decisions about your chosen discipline early on. Within each of these broad areas there are varying degrees of specialisation that depend on the studio size and the type of game being developed. As a general rule of thumb the bigger the studio the more niche skills they tend to hire.
Programming: language or function?
People with a Computer Science degree have already specialised up to a point, but within code there are lots of options for developing increasingly niche technical skills. When it comes to languages being multi-lingual in both C# and C++ tends to open more doors than having C# alone. Cross platform development has meant that C# in particular with Unity is hugely in-demand, but C++ is an industry standard language. Dedicated C++ programmers have been in demand for decades within the games industry and there is no sign of this changing.
Language is not the only skill to consider, the functionality of where your programming will impact the game is another consideration in where to specialise. Many studios build coding teams with specialist roles such as tools, engine, gameplay, physics or graphics programming, especially within console and PC developers producing photo-realistic titles.
Virtual Reality has brought many unique challenges and from a base of C++ programming we’re already seeing demand for specialist deployment in VR even at this early stage of evolution. Other coding specialisms such as UI and UX are a feature more typical of mobile developers, and as more and more games have online elements, networking and server developers also command high levels of demand and reward. Programming specialisms typically bring the highest financial career-gains, but at the same time the skill-level required is uncompromising and rare.
Art: building a portfolio
When it comes to art and animation, for console we typically see focus on either characters or environments. Larger studios break art into specialist disciplines for example terrain or world artists whereas in other studios this would all be managed under environment art. Further still is the breakdown of organic or hard surfaces, lighting, texture, particles or even hair and fur which can all be key features in photorealism.
Some studios not only look for character artists and animators, but human, creature, quadruped or biped expertise – the list goes on. However for smaller-scale or mobile studios there is a greater need for people who are multi-disciplined so they can cover more aspects, taking work from 2D concept to finished 3D. If you’re a designer, do you want to create entire games, levels or more commercial components? There’s a lot to think about. Either way, it’s a good idea to make sure your portfolio highlights your core skills with a couple of very strong pieces rather than have too many trying to cover all bases.
Generalist or specalist?
If you enjoy great variety in your work then life as a generalist could be the way to go. Many hugely successful and talented games professionals have made the proactive choice to be a generalist, whether that be within programming, art or design.
Focusing your career around one specific skill or function does have advantages. It allows for clarity in job applications, it is easier to create an online portfolio and this focus can be attractive to employers when they see a clearly defined progressive career path, underpinned with cumulative work in the same area.
Specialists with willingness and ability to nurture select skills in addition to their core expertise can be worth their weight in gold to a studio. These ‘T-shaped’ people with expert depth in one skillset but a broad reach of knowledge in related areas are highly sought after. One way to achieve this is by branching into other related areas of your discipline to expand your chosen skillset. It’s also possible to combine select niche skills in to a specialism, a great example being art and programming which combine to create a Technical Artist.
Overall there is a case for and against specialising, but ultimately it’s down to individual preference. Ask yourself what you enjoy, what’re you good at and what scale of development environment you prefer.
Whether you chose to be a specialist or a generalist, the key to safeguarding your career potential is flexibility and adaptability. Try to keep your skills as up to date as possible with the latest tools, software releases, platform tech, working practices or art and animation packages. Employers look to hire people that are good at what they do but also are able to adapt as requirements change.