Showing posts with label careers advice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label careers advice. Show all posts

Guest Post: A Career in the Video Games Industry

I don't normally have guest posts on here. It's not that sort of blog. But I make an occasional exception - and what better exception than a post from my professional video game designer son? I'm hosting this post because I know that it's a dream job for many young people. The industry itself, worth some $180 billion worldwide, is developing and changing at speed, but for anyone looking for advice about getting into the industry, this is a good starting point.

A Career in the Video Games Industry

In the eyes of many, a career in game development is seen as the holy grail of working life. Video games are a fascinating and rapidly evolving entertainment medium, and by their very nature, are a special blend of technology and art, the likes of which is encountered in few other areas of creative work. As a result of this, I firmly believe there is something for everyone within the video game medium, extending from simply enjoying playing games to a variety of career opportunities within the industry, not all of which will be recognized by careers advisors.

The focus of this post will be one of the most sought after roles: the game designer. It is often a misunderstood role, and is notoriously ambiguous and challenging in terms of finding an entry point. In all honesty, a little luck is needed to enter the industry as a designer: being in the right place at the right time for the stars to align. However, for anyone genuinely interested, I'll go through some of the pragmatic things you can do at different stages of life and education to swing the odds in your favour.

The Game Design Role

One major caveat is that the design role will vary somewhat from company to company, but in general, you can think of designers as essentially architects for the games. Designers come up with the rules and create the experience a player will have when playing a game. This differs from programmers, who are actually coding the tangible product or ‘things players do’ (e.g. mechanics like shooting a gun), and artists who are creating the perceptible visuals (e.g. environments and characters) that players will see in the game. Game designers are working ‘between’ programming and art disciplines to craft the player’s enjoyment.

Design work typically involves documentation, spreadsheets, and special software tools, along with open communication between the various disciplines. This ability to communicate is important. There are different sub-specialities within the broad scope of design, and of course differences between how various companies approach the role. To name a few, there are narrative designers who create the story, system designers who work on various features such as combat, and my own speciality, which is economy design. This involves working on those aspects of the game concerned with the long term progression and engagement of a player. There is also level design, which is often seen as a separate branch of design. Level designers use special software to physically lay out game environments and create the actual minute-to-minute experience for the players.

Despite the various specialisations, members of a design team will work closely together, with overlap in the work, so it is important to keep an open mind, and enjoy a working environment where no two days are the same.

Stage 1: In High School

At this early stage, even if you see yourself as a game designer in the future, one of the most important things you can do is to keep your options open! I can’t stress this enough. You never know what you'll end up truly enjoying or being good at. Despite this, you will likely gravitate towards science or art, so if you’re technically minded, consider subjects like Maths, Physics and Computer Science. If you are more arty, then naturally you'll choose Art but try not to abandon the STEM subjects entirely, because a working knowledge of some of them will help. The key is versatility.

If choosing school subjects is proving challenging, the general guide of sticking to the core traditional academic subjects at this early stage will put you in a strong position for a future career in games: Maths, English, Physics, History, Computer Science, Business Management, etc. are all helpful.

As a young teenager, there can be occasional opportunities to take short (week long) placements at game companies. This is something to go for if you have the chance. Even if this is not an official part of school, don’t hesitate to approach game companies and politely enquire about any opportunities they may have. Some companies see this as part of their outreach programme, so you may be lucky. Always make your approach personal and courteous. Never send out group emails to different companies at the same time. The scattershot approach just irritates the recipients.

Outside of school, it will be helpful to try to make games in your spare time. This can be tricky, as making a full game requires many different skills (which is really the whole point of this post!), not to mention expensive high-powered software. However, there are many more options out there. Try downloading software such as GameMaker, and see what you can put together. Maybe you can also take the chance to team up with a few other like minded people to create something original.

Stage 2: Higher Education

Although you will hear of exceptions, 95% of the time you will need to be educated to degree level to enter the games industry (with the exception of QA, see below) and sometimes to postgraduate Masters level.

Choosing where to apply for your higher education will present an important but tricky choice. Nowadays, there are very good degree courses specifically for game design. In Scotland, Abertay University in Dundee is a top place for computer games degree courses but there are plenty of others, worldwide. These courses do put people on the correct path to join the games industry, and if you are dead set on a career in games, across any discipline, then you should seriously consider one of them. However, you should also bear in mind that if you suddenly decide half way through such a course that it’s not for you, then choosing an institution where it’s possible to switch or perhaps just tweak your course options might be no bad thing.

If doing a dedicated game related degree is not feasible, or you are potentially unsure about what role you want, then getting a good degree in a core academic discipline will serve you very well. Look at English, Maths, History, Physics, Computer Science, to name several solid choices. Many people do an initial core degree, work for a few years and then do a dedicated postgraduate video game Masters degree, once they have more certainty about what they want and need.

This is also the time when it would be valuable to try to get an internship in your chosen field, or a place at a company in the Quality Assurance (QA) testing department. Some of these roles are part time, so can be fitted around a degree. Some are full time jobs which will allow you to get valuable experience after graduation. It’s worth stressing here that QA is not ‘beta testing’ where individuals play an almost completed version of a game. It is an important and often tricky job within game development where you test games intensively, usually sections of games, finding and reporting bugs. It is generally, although not always, a junior job and you can sometimes get work with few or early stage qualifications. That said, it is a vital job, and good testing jobs at very well-known companies will naturally require some qualifications.
Stage 3: Entry Level Game Design Jobs

The catch-22 of requiring work experience to get work is common within the game design discipline, but there are ways around it. As mentioned above, QA is a very good place to start for many designers, even after becoming qualified to degree level. Many companies actively promote good QA testers into the design team. This is because QA testing will allow you to experience the complex realities of working on a game and that practical experience is invaluable.

Other junior design roles are available, but you will need to be persistent and enthusiastic about the industry you hope to enter. It should go without saying that if you are applying for a position, you should be very familiar with the company and the product. With little or no experience, you really will need to be able to demonstrate your design ability through some sort of tangible artefact such as a working game prototype. This is something that doing a game related degree will help you with, as you will certainly graduate with a portfolio of prototype game projects and some knowledge of working in teams. On the other hand, you will be investing years of time and money into studying, so don’t let it completely define your decisions.

Some Final Words

In conclusion, a career in Game Design is a worthwhile, lifelong endeavour, so don’t be discouraged. For me, personally, studying mathematics at university level was by far the best option as a game economy designer although I also went on to study game development at Masters level. I knew roughly what I wanted to do, back then, but very little of the well-meaning advice I received as a teen reflected the rapidly evolving situation in the industry. It is certain that similar changes will happen for us all in the future. The best advice I can give is to love and play games, keep up with developments, study as broadly as you can, but prepare to be flexible, adjusting your goals as you learn more about what suits you as an individual within this extraordinary industry.

Good luck!

Charles Lees-Czerkawski

Beware of Advice

From Wormwood, about Chernobyl, at the Traverse, 1979

While chatting on a professional Zoom meeting the other day, I found myself suddenly articulating something that has been growing on me for a number of years.

Looking back over a long switchback of a career as a novelist, non-fiction writer and playwright, I can now see that almost every piece of advice I've been given about what to write and how to write it has been wrong.

Let me clarify. I don't mean editing. In particular, I don't mean the intense editing that looks at style and structure. As a playwright and prose writer, I've had some wonderful directors, publishers and editors. (I've had a few appalling experiences too, but that's another story!)

We all need a fresh eye when we are too close to a project to see the wood for the trees. But the best of them shared a quality in common.

None of them told me exactly what to do.

Instead, they asked a series of tricky questions. They invariably honed in on aspects of a project where I felt uneasily that something wasn't right. 'What did you mean by this?' they would ask. And 'Can you clarify here?' and 'This seems somehow clumsy' and 'Can you look again at the structure here?'

In addressing these issues I always felt that I had made the piece of work better and I was grateful to them.

I don't mean practical advice either. We need to know about being self employed, using business bank accounts, budgeting, sorting out our taxes and a hundred other things.

So what kind of advice do I mean?

I mean advice about what to write. What to do and what not to do with that writing. How to shape a career. The sad thing is that writing is a lonely job. So we crave help and advice. I'm craving it now. We never learn. We expect too much. As William Goldman says in Adventures in the Screen Trade,  'Nobody knows anything.'

Many years ago, I had some success in a particular area of writing with what turned out to be a groundbreaking piece of work. And on the strength of it, I was approached by somebody in a related field, who wanted me to pick up that piece of work and run with it. Hesitant, suffering from imposter syndrome, I consulted a more senior colleague, who told me that it wasn't a good idea, pointing out all the drawbacks.

I took the advice and turned down the proposal. In retrospect, I can see that turning it down was entirely the wrong decision for me at that time. I was just too young and too easily swayed to see it.

I can think of many other occasions where professional people have confidently told me that 'nobody wants' this or that subject or theme or medium. They turned out to be not just wrong for me, but wrong in general too.

One of the very best things about the late, much missed David McLennan when he ran his A Play, a Pie and a Pint seasons at Glasgow's Oran Mor - and for whom I wrote three plays - was the way he responded to so many ideas with cheerful positivity. He would point out that success would be great, but failure would be OK too.

It was the trying, the experimenting, the exploration that mattered.

As A Writer: Five Things I Would Do Differently Now

Whether you are in the early stages or in the middle of a career in writing, but struggling, you may find this post helpful. It arose from a conversation I had recently with an artist friend. We often compare notes about our respective professions and it's always illuminating for both of us.

'Would you do anything differently?' she asked me. 'Knowing what you know now?' 

It struck a chord with me, because it's something I think about quite often these days - how I might have done things differently; how I might have approached things, so that I ended up struggling less and enjoying the process more. Opportunities are very different from when I was starting out: it was better in some ways, much worse in others, so I realise that hindsight is a great thing. Nevertheless, here are some thoughts on where I went wrong. 

1 I would pay a lot less attention to advice about what I should and shouldn't write
Practically every single piece of advice I've been given about what to write as opposed to how to write it, has turned out to be wrong. I don't mean technical development advice. All of us need some of that, and if you can find a good editor or mentor  - somebody who is willing to work with you and whose advice you know you can trust - then seize it with both hands.
We all need to learn our craft.
But I mean the casual, throwaway advice, often from people who are in 'the business' in some way.

Write this, don't write that. 
There's a market for this or this but not for that. 
Don't turn this radio play into a stage play. It won't work.  
Don't write non fiction. 
There's no market for the supernatural.
There's no market for ... just about anything you fancy writing.

When I felt in my bones that I wanted to write something, I was right and they were wrong. Often, I was simply ahead of the game.
Read William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade and then write what you want because he was right. Nobody knows anything.  

2 I would do a postgraduate business studies or marketing course.
I've only learned about the business side of writing and publishing as the years have gone by. I'm still not great at it, if the truth be told, but I'm better than I was. The 'creative industries' are full of writers who don't know nearly enough about the business side of writing and publishing, about being self employed and running your own business.

This means knowing your responsibilities as well as your rights. Being professional. Meeting deadlines. Writing for love but publishing for money and treating it as a business at the same time. Knowing what the cost of running that business involves, even if you're working from home.

All those years ago, when I started out, a knowledge of business wasn't deemed important for people working in the arts, on the creative side at least. We left all that to the middle men and women. Silly us. Because suddenly, we found that we were working in something called the Creative Industries, while still being advised not to worry our little heads about such things. I suspect even now, many university creative writing courses do little to address the business and marketing side of creative practice.

Understanding the business side of things is vital for anyone hoping to build a career as a writer - and it would have been so much easier if I had known more about it earlier.

3 I would never work for any big company on the promise of exposure or jam tomorrow or a  future commission.  
This is closely linked to 2 , above. I've done this two or three times, mostly with television proposals. I don't mean a basic proposal or submission. Getting a foothold in any area of creative practice means actually doing it. When a fellow writer told me, a long time ago, that the only way to learn how to write was to write, he was absolutely right and most writers do an awful lot of writing on spec before publication or production.

This was something different. I already had a track record, but this involved months of unpaid work, encouraged by a script editor. When I look back on the waste of time, I could scream, and yet it was my fault. I was a willing volunteer. I went along with it in pursuit of all that lovely jam tomorrow. Eventually, it occurred to me that the script editor was being paid - not handsomely, but a whole lot more than me - to work with a number of different proposals, most of which would never be made. This would have been fine if they paid development money for the work involved. But they never did. There was 'no money in the budget'.

Whenever anyone says this to you, bear in mind that it means that there is, in fact, a budget. They have just never included the writer in it.  There should be a fee for this kind of speculative work that they are asking you to do. And if they decide not to use it after all, there should be a kill fee - a sum of money to give you some compensation for your time and effort. 

4 I wouldn't write radio drama at all. 
This is a big - and quite emotional - issue for me. I began my writing career as a poet and short story writer (with a decent publication record by the time I was thirty) and in parallel with that as a radio playwright. I loved the medium. But with hindsight, radio drama was a dead end for me.
I worked with some fine producers, people I still admire and they taught me plenty.
I used to say that radio taught me how to write dialogue, but I was pretty good at that anyway and I could have learned.

As a career pathway, it was useless.

After a while, radio drama that had once been exciting and experimental for me, became something of a treadmill, albeit an enticing one. It was hard work, but it was fun to do. It was difficult to turn down commissions, because it paid some of the bills, but it wasn't nearly as well paid as a 'proper' job would have been, and yet it was equally time consuming and tricky. While I was writing for radio - sometimes ten part serials for the Classic Serial slot - I wasn't writing other things. And yet I was always a single commission away from financial disaster.

There was only one real outlet for an experienced radio dramatist, and that was via the BBC. If the work dried up, as mine did, almost overnight, there was nowhere else to go, no other outlet for a very singular set of skills. Just at the point of commission, there was a change of personnel and the plug was pulled on a major series. I did a bit of audio work for various visitor attractions. I turned to theatre for a while, and enjoyed the experience, but eventually I returned to the work I should have been doing twenty years earlier: writing fiction and popular non-fiction. I'm glad I did, but I wish I'd done it much sooner. Radio allowed me to feel that I was making a living as a writer, but the reality was that I was going nowhere and had relinquished control over my future to a single editor.

5 I wouldn't be ever so humble.
The truth is that now, writers do have options, self publishing, blogging and podcasts to name a few. As I said at the start of this small rant, hindsight is a great thing and most of us find it hard to plan out a creative career. Life takes us where it will. Perhaps all of us should - with the provisos of being polite, businesslike and responsible - learn to be a little less accommodating.

As with every single area of life and work - and the creative industries are no exception - people will want to look after their own interests. This doesn't make them bad people. It just makes them human. But the 'creatives' working at the sharp end tend to get into the habit of seeing themselves as supplicants, of being scared to rock the boat, of assuming Uriah Heap levels of humility. Actually even this isn't always true, and I'm told by publisher friends that those with the least talent are invariably the most entitled and rude. So don't let's get carried away with ourselves!

All the same, what we are looking for is a modicum of professionalism in the way we are treated, with the proviso that we behave professionally in return.

To that end, we need to be aware of our own agency, aware that we are sole traders, navigating difficult and precarious waters for the sake of ourselves and the work that is so important to us. In the words of Bill and Ted, we should at least try to 'be excellent to each other.'

That shouldn't be too much to ask for, should it?

Starting out.