Getting into Gaming

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Posted by Liz Seasholtz on June 19, 2011
Getting into Gaming

You might consider your impeccable punts on Madden '09 or keen use of the crowbar in Half-Life 2 melee fights as qualifying skills for a career in the gaming industry, but scoring a position in this growing field requires more than a couch-based education and passion for playing. As insiders say—pardon the pun—it's more than just fun and games.

Learning to Game

Because the gaming industry is still relatively new (the origin of home consoles dates to the late 1970s), a clear-cut path into it does not yet exist. Even choosing which degree to pursue can be confusing, as recruits come from many programs and majors. 

Gaming is no different than most industries in that it includes many subspecialties and requires people of diverse interests and educational backgrounds, with varying skill sets. "It breaks down into granular detail," says Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). "Students coming from high school need to make that decision before college because it determines what path you're going to go down."

The program you choose depends largely on the role you want to play in the industry. Future game programmers develop the software that turns concepts into reality, and typically major in computer science. Game artists create the visual aspects of the game, such as animation, texturing, or game environments, and study fine arts or media arts. Game producers manage the overall collaboration of the game, and often pursue management programs. Game designers should be well-versed in a few areas: computer science for the technical requirements of the job, as well as drama, history, philosophy, or English for the concept-development and other creative aspects.

Another decision to make is which segment of the gaming industry to enter: PC, online, console, handheld, or wireless games. Keep this segment in mind when choosing a school and eventually sending out resumes.

"Don't look at the game industry as one thing, because it's too big," says Marc Mencher, president and CEO of GameRecruiter.com and author of Get in the Game! "Don't try to make one resume for 500 companies, but decide what you really like, and then focus on that market segment."

Ultimately, students need to do their homework before choosing a school. Programs typically focus on the specific segments, and students need to make sure their school has the right software development courses for the career they want to pursue. "If they want to go into the console industry, they better go to a school that teaches with console software and not say, handheld," says Mencher.

That said, there are many schools that cater to majors in gaming, and have developed or are in the process of developing a gaming track within their computer science departments. FullSail University, Digi Pen, Guildhall at Southern Methodist University, Carnegie Melon, and Stanford are all stand-out examples. Schools like Georgia Tech, MIT, University of Michigan, University of Southern California, Brown, Cornell, and University of Pennsylvania have also become target schools for gaming recruitment.

"If you can get into one of those programs, it's going to give you a big leg up," says Colleen Wheeler McCreary, director of strategic education and outreach for Electronic Arts. "But we also hire students from really small colleges that are just really talented students who've been making games for a really long time. At the end of the day, the work you've done in the past can open doors for you."

Once You're In

Starting salaries in the gaming industries can range from $40,000 to $70,000, depending on the position. The annual intake for those involved in the creation of a blockbuster game can double from bonuses and royalties. But expect to work hard for the money: Gamers punch in 40 to 80 hours per week, especially during what the industry calls "crunch."

"Don't expect to sit in the pasture watching the flowers grow," warns Della Rocca. "It's extreme working conditions, a quality of life like doctors, journalists, lawyers. Students need to be aware of this, and in job interviews they should ask about crunch or overtime. If companies say, 'We do whatever it takes to get the job done,' it means bring your sleeping bag."

In fact, the video game industry has come under scrutiny for the long hours and pressures exerted on developers, and the toll these problems take on people and companies.  In 2005, the IGDA held a Quality of Life Summit to address the problems. Since that time, the industry has been salvaging its reputation by cutting back employees' hours.

The intensity of gamers' hours and work product presents a dichotomy in the workplace, because the office culture is friendly to Nerf balls, flip-flops, and of course, constant videogame playing. When she started at EA, Wheeler McCreary was told to play a different game every day - she's currently into a new Scrabble application.

Mencher says the industry is in a hiring war despite the appealing work conditions. "I go to work everyday wearing a hard hat," he says. "I joke about that now, [but] the problem is there's not enough American talent to deal with the demands of the game industry, let alone the related industries that want game industry talent-the medical simulation industry, the military simulation industry, and traditional video game industry."

Another challenge industry recruiters face, is finding experienced hires, meaning applicants with an appropriate education, namely a university degree, and the ability to demonstrate their talents through a demo, or a short game they have created.
Job seekers at all levels equipped with a relevant degree, clear vision of the kind of career they want, and a willingness to work long hours should consider one more thing: relocation. According to Della Rocca, half of the gaming industry workforce is in California, which makes moving to the Sunshine State a strong possibility for potential candidates.

The Future of Gaming

One great reason for pursuing a gaming career is that it has yet to be affected by the economy's downturn. "The industry just keeps getting stronger, as it has surpassed the movie and music industry," says Heather Ellertson, vice president of marketing for the Entertainment Consumers Association. "I feel that there will always be room for new people."

And for the foreseeable future, there will be room. In 2007, sales within the gaming industry reached a record-setting $17.9 billion-about 43 percent higher than in 2006. Globally, sales are expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 10.3 percent and reach $68.3 billion in 2012, so anyone thinking about going into gaming shouldn't fear industry burn-out.

The demand for gamers includes opportunities for both the industry-standard male gamer, who currently dominates the industry demographic, and women, who are showing a growing interest in gaming careers, especially in the casual market. This market targets nontraditional gamers like women and people on the higher end of the age range, and includes less-committal games like cell phone applications, online puzzles, or handheld games on Nintendo DS.

In fact, EA's Wheeler McCreary says casual gaming is the fastest growing division. The industry is also moving away from single-player experience toward collaborative experience games with the massive multi-player games of Xbox live, virtual worlds, or Sony PlayStation networks. There is also more of an emphasis on user-generated games, which companies use as research for the next edition of their games.

"Ten years ago, a flight simulator game only appealed to air-force guys or pilots, but now you or I could play that game," says Mencher. "There's an immense movement from hardcore to casual."

It's likely that gaming will soon be omnipresent in our culture, becoming part of everyday life, like television, movies, and music. "What will happen is that games will move beyond entertainment, and be for education, government, etcetera," says Della Rocca. "You eventually won't have 'gamers' just like we don't have 'watchers' of TV or 'listeners' of music."
This means is that the industry is need of talent, fresh ideas, and fun-loving workers.

"From a career point of view, it's a good path to pursue," says Della Rocca. "But you have to have skill and talent. Just being able to beat up friends at boxing doesn't mean anything."

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