Breaking into the videogame industry

I graduated from University of Maryland, College Park with a citation for completion of the Gemstone Program, which is a four year long undergraduate group research project. Our project was an educational computer game for elementary school children called A Day in the Bay. If you have any children, you might want to check it out. We put a lot of work into it and it’s by far the most polished program I’ve ever seen to completion. It didn’t hurt that we had two other programmers in the group besides me, as well as some some graphically and musically inclined people.

But it’s those two programmers that this post is about. We all graduated with degrees in computer science in May, 2007. By that point, I had already accepted the job offer by my current employer, an IT Consulting company, and then started working in July. The other two programmers were both intent on breaking into the videogame industry. Unfortunately, neither of them have been able to find jobs yet (although one of them had a couple of interviews at big name game development houses like Epic and Lucas Arts). The bottom line is that breaking into the videogame industry is hard.

I’m not going to lie, I enjoy making videogames, and I do think it would be neat to make them for a living. Who doesn’t want to do what they love? I’m guessing the vast majority of computer science graduates fresh out of university feel the same thing. And therein lies the problem. Everyone wants to go and make games. But the market for game developers is actually pretty small. There are far, far more jobs available in the general IT field. For every game that is made, at least ten times as many in-house applications are developed, maintained, or modified. Yes, working for a corporation and writing the back-end for a new system isn’t glamorous, but it pays well, and there is no shortage of open positions.

It all comes down to supply and demand. There are a lot more people who want to be game developers than open positions for said profession. Thus, the companies that are hiring are free to pick and choose from amongst only the very best. If you aren’t a stand-out candidate for game developer — and by that I mean you’ve made amazing game demos, not necessarily received good grades — your prospects are very slim. And even if you are hired, the working conditions are terrible, yes, even worse than in China. Working many hours of unpaid overtime per week is expected and routine. And just forget about having an outside life when a release date looms and crunch time begins. Spending all waking hours working seven days a week is not uncommon.

And don’t bother complaining about these poor working conditions, because the company knows they can always just hire one of the thousands of other programmers out there who want to make games. There’s no real pressure to treat their employees better. Needless to say, the burnout ratio is incredibly high. And the pay isn’t even better than other, far less stressful programming jobs. It doesn’t have to be. And when expressed on an hourly basis, the pay is actually a bit less.

So I don’t mind my current job. Yes, the programs I write are sometimes boring, but I work a standard 40 hour week, leaving me lots of free time to do other things I’m interested in. I wish my friends from university all the luck in finding jobs, but I also wish, for their own sakes, that they weren’t so dead set on becoming game programmers. There are lots of other programming jobs out there that are much easier to get. Sometimes you just have to stop chasing your dreams and settle for what’s attainable, especially when that dream could easily turn out to be a nightmare.

8 Responses to “Breaking into the videogame industry”

  1. Will (green) Says:

    I think you just killed my Disney…

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    Come again Walt?

  3. Will (green) Says:

    Heh.

  4. lee Says:

    Disney is the enemy.

  5. kwicksandz Says:

    Geez cyde way to kill the dream!

    Damm harsh realities of the real world =(

  6. RedTuttle Says:

    That’s because PROGRAMMERS are a dime a dozen. People always get into programming thinking it’s going to give them a leg up to get into the game design field… It doesn’t. All my classmates think they’re going to design games, telling people “I can program in C++!” like that means anything.

    As a programmer, your bosses are the artists and designers. They don’t necessarily even have to give you any creative input at all. They may not even consult you. Often, they just give you an assignment, and tell you exactly how to do it. Your only job is to get from point A to point B, to do the gruntwork they didn’t feel like doing.

    I want to break into the games industry myself, but I realize there’s next to no way I’m going to be able to do that. So, I have to have a more realistic goal… To just design flash websites and interactive content for people, while designing games in my spare time to sell said service… And while I’m at it, hopefully get a cult following with them. And when it gets right down to it, that’s all I really ever wanted. To tell stories with pictures, in this case that go around blowing each other up. I don’t need to be involved in an industry where 90% of games don’t make a profit simply because nobody puts any effort into making them any good, just more to churn them out. All those crappy games on the shelf you’d never think of buying, which get forgotten in three months? Well, nobody else buys them either.

    Finally; Who are you Clyde Weys? You turn up in almost every fucking google search I run.

  7. Cyde Weys Says:

    The About Me link in the sidebar might answer that question. And what Google searches are running that I’m turning up in?

  8. RedTuttle Says:

    This one, the one on the Anon SAC, and the one about your roommate who believed in african traditions (I don’t remember what search I ran to get that one).