The Education of a Computer Game Designer
So, my young friend, you want to be a game designer, and you have turned to me for advice. I will offer you my best advice, but I suspect that you'll reject it and take the advice of those who tell you what you want to hear. But that's fine with me -- all I can do is tell the truth and hope that it will get through to a few people.
First, you must make a major career decision: training or education? Training gives you specific skills that you can use to get a job straight out of school. Education gives you broader skills that won't have immediate application, but will in the long run serve you better. It's basically a choice between a quickie approach and a strategic approach. If you're in too much of a hurry to plan strategically, then go ahead and attend a school where they'll teach you the details of handling the latest, greatest computer technology. Energy, not patience, is the strength of youth, so I can understand if you just can't stomach the thought of not plunging straight into your avocation. When I was your age, I too was impatient with all the irrelevant courses that the University forced upon me; now I blush at my impertinence and thank those teachers who pushed me so hard.
The quickie route will indeed yield faster results. If you attend a school that is dedicated to game design, or major in computer games at a decent college or university, you'll likely learn many of the details of present-day game design. You have a good chance of landing a job right out of school at an actual games company, working on games before you're 23.
But hold on here, hotshot. There's a difference between working on games and designing games. That first job you land will surely be the gruntiest of grunt jobs. You'll be assigned to some tiny task, like animating a minor character in the game who does nothing but walk across the background, or writing the code that asks, "Are you sure?" when the user decides to quit the game. If you do a good job with that, after a few years you might get promoted to handling more complex animation, or writing a more important piece of code. And after a few more years, you might even get promoted to a position where you're handling some pretty serious work.
But don't count on it. The basic problem is that there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of students just like you who are bursting with eagerness to become part of the computer games industry. Think in terms of supply, demand, and price. When the supply of workers is ten or a hundred times greater than the demand for workers, the price goes way down. You can expect to be paid starvation wages, and you probably won't be treated with any respect. You can complain, but the answer they'll give you is simple and honest: if you don't like it, feel free to quit. There are a hundred more kids just like you who are dying to have your job.
In fact, that is exactly what happens. Sometime you ought to wander around the halls of the Game Developers' Conference; it's held in San Jose every March or April. You don't need to actually pay the money to enter any of the events; just wander around the San Jose Convention Center and take note of the people in attendance. You'll find two surprising rules: first, everybody is dressed in black, and second, the average age of the attendees is between 25 and 30.
I don't know why everybody dresses in black; it seems to be a standard that everybody conforms to. I can, however, tell you why they're all so young: everybody leaves the industry after a few years. The games industry is like a big building with one entrance and a lot of exits. There are thousands of eager young kids crowded at the front entrance, pushing and shoving to get inside; only a few make it in. But for every person who gets in, another person leaves -- that's what keeps the industry in balance. And the fact that so many of the people in the business are so young demonstrates who quickly people bail out of the industry. Not many survive until their thirties.
If you think about it, it really does make sense. If there are thousands of kids eager to work for peanuts to build games, then you can hire them at a dime a dozen, work them like slaves until they drop, and then hire replacements. You need only a skeleton crew of managers to keep the kids working. The system works perfectly.
The only question is, do you want to be part of this system? I hope not. However, if you're too fired up with enthusiasm about making your big break into the games biz, then go ahead -- no amount of talk from an old fool like me will deter you. You just have to learn these things for yourself.
But there is an alternative I can offer you. Here's how it works. First, get yourself a real education, not some one-night-stand training. Go to a real school and major in anything except games. Almost anything will do: biology, physics (that's where I got my start), art, literature, history, psychology, linguistics. Just make sure that you get what used to be called a "liberal education". Take lots of courses outside your major. And yes, you should probably minor in computer science.
On the side, you should be experimenting with building games. Don't go for the snazzy graphics just yet -- that can always be slapped onto the design. You want to concentrate on the guts of the game, the architecture and game mechanics. How do the little gears and levers inside the game operate? Don't try to build games that are just as good as the commercial games -- for crying out loud, those games have dozens of people working on them; anything that little ole you can do will look pretty pathetic next to those extravaganzas. Think of your process as rather like building a car. Don't worry about the chrome and the paint job just now; you want to concentrate on learning how to put pistons together, how the valves operate, what the carburetor does. You want to build little go-karts, not shiny Rolls-Royces. They're all experimental; you should never think that your designs have any commercial potential. Build them and throw them away. Creativity requires you to murder your children. If you are so enthralled with your designs that you can't let them go, then you'll never have the hard-bitten creativity of a truly good designer.
Meanwhile, keep building the intellectual foundations for your creativity. There's no way you can compete with the formidable creativity of a seasoned game designer, so for now, concentrate on building your strength. Hey, even Neo couldn't take on Agent Smith until he had spent enough time building the foundations of his skills. Learn everything you can. Do not graduate without having examined every bookshelf in your library; you'd be surprised what interesting things you will stumble on in those dusty aisles.
Once you get out of college, don't rush into the games biz. Get a real job at a real company and earn some money, but keep expanding your education. You'll learn a lot about organizational behavior and how to handle yourself in a corporate environment. You'll learn how and when to stand up to your boss -- which is rarely, by the way. And you'll prepare yourself to swim with the sharks when you do enter the games biz.
But continue to work on games in your spare time. Build lots of different games go-karts, trying out each one for its handling, its speed, and its other characteristics. Once you've gotten six or ten games built, you might want to think about putting together a substantial project, but still on your own. Recruit a few like-minded folk to help you out, and build something really impressive. Show it off to the world. Then you can use that game as your resume when you do apply for a position in the games industry. If your game is good enough, you'll get a job as an actual game designer, not some dime-a-dozen minion. You'll still be a junior assistant to the assistant game designer, but you'll be in the right place, and if you work hard and do your job well, you might actually have a future in the games biz.
I realize that this is not what you wanted to hear. What you want to hear is a quick fix. Take such-and-such courses and you'll be guaranteed a high-paid job with a big office, all the best computers, and complete creative control. Sure, everybody wants that -- but nobody gets it. Anybody who tells you that kind of story is a shyster trying to get your money. The sad fact is that the pioneering days of game design are over and it's now a big industry; nobody gets "discovered" and turned into a superstar overnight. It's a long, long slog for beginners.
You've got the passion, the energy, and the drive to make it happen -- do you have the strategic insight to plan for the long slog, or are you going to rush in before you're truly ready?
Good luck, kid. I'm rooting for you.