Career Corner #2 – Should I Switch Into Games?

Hi! So – I’m a full-time doctor and a father of 3. I also love gaming, and have a creative mindset. How easy is it for me to get in to a gaming career having had no formal education in it?

Hi Katie, what career advice would you give to me, a 38 year old civil engineering project manager who dreams of working in the gaming industry?

I get a lot of questions like these. There were more in my Curious Cat inbox that I’m not including here, along the same lines: I’m doing something not in games, and I want to work in games. What advice do you have for me?

I am not going to waste a bunch of time telling you things you probably already know. For example, the games industry, like most entertainment industries, is full of truly abysmal working conditions and exploitative employers. You won’t need to get any sort of game dev degree or training, but you will likely need to spend a reasonable amount of time pouring through documentation to learn game engines like Unity or Unreal only to make something very small like a Pong clone which disappoints you. You will then need to do it again, ten or twenty times if possible. The little things you make will get slightly better, but will still suck to a trained developer’s eye, and you won’t understand how or why until you’ve actually broken in– so it’s OK, just make things. You will need to build an impressive online portfolio out of these little tiny things and shake hands at every convention you can get to until you somehow get lucky and a studio calls you back for an entry level role. You may even need to move to a big city with a thriving game industry in order to even be considered worthwhile for that initial call because there are so many other entry-level folks competing for those roles. If you cannot do these things, then unfortunately, your odds of breaking in become far slimmer. The industry is still largely built on the backs of young, fresh-faced single people with no obligations, those who are able to give up everything they have and throw themselves into making games. This is one of many minuses in the “con” column.

Some less obvious things I will tell you: At your first gig, you will likely make close to minimum wage when all the overtime is accounted for– or possibly even less. You will spend a very long time working on a title or titles you deeply care about, and then one day you will show up and there will be a mysterious all-hands event on your calendar for 10 AM scheduled by an HR person you’ve never met and then you’ll be suddenly jobless. Even later in your career, you will get paid a lot less than you thought you would given the complexity of the work you do. You will work for people who have big egos and poor communication skills. If you’re not a straight white guy, you will be subject to discrimination. It won’t happen in the overt, “hand on your ass” kind of way. It will be far more insidious. You will be left off meeting invites, dinged in performance reviews, asked to do more and remark less, asked to make yourself smaller, asked if it’s OK to touch your hair, asked if you want to be in the product promotional video because you’re the only nonwhite person on your team and it makes the company look “less homogeneous.” A guy on your floor will get too drunk sometimes and say really weird shit to you. You will tolerate it. Someone else went to HR about that guy and nothing happened. Why rock the boat?

During a particularly bad period you will stumble into the work bathroom and start to cry in a stall, head between your knees. Then you’ll clean yourself up, look at yourself in the mirror, and think: A million people would kill for this job. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. And the worst part is, it’ll be true.

You will think about quitting games. A lot. Even on the good days, sometimes. Especially if you have small children or a family member to care for or any kind of significant disability. It will simply feel like you cannot commit the way the game expects you to– the way the company needs you to if this thing is going to get out the door. The feeling of a slow backslide will be constant. Your weight will fluctuate as the crunch meals start. Pizza and chicken tenders every night? Is it too much to ask for someone to order a fucking salad?

You will sometimes dream of endlessly scrolling through your JIRA task backlog.

You will have to move multiple times for jobs. You may have to uproot your kids from school, your wife or partner from their career or social circle. Eventually, because of this, the majority of your social circle will be other game developers and their friends and partners. You largely talk about industry news and play games together and talk about Reddit. You introduce your partners to each other, hoping they hit it off so your own partner resents you a little less for making them uproot their life. You form little inside jokes with your coworkers. You actually like most of them, but even if you don’t like some of them, you feel close to them on some level: the craft of building creative works with other human beings inevitably draws people close. Every now and then at lunch or over beers someone will spark a conversation about game dev “war stories,” the worst things you’ve been through in your career. Everyone goes around trying to one-up each other. Even the gruffest dudes at the lunch table are glassy-eyed, shaking their heads. No one can believe it. That studio did what? Oh, my God. How horrible. I’m so glad our team isn’t like that.

Six months later, your team will be exactly like that.

Sometimes, you will write a one-pager for a feature based on an offhand conversation you had with another designer. You’ll shop the one-pager around your team. At first you’re not really sure about it, and your teammates aren’t really sure, and your lead needs some convincing. It’s a tough sell. But after a few drafts, the idea seems solid enough to be worth prototyping. People feel good about it. You’ll build the first version of this feature on your own, staying late a couple nights. You put it in front of your teammate to try it for the first time. “Be really honest,” you ask them. They start to try it. You immediately see the joy light up in their eyes, or they shout with enthusiasm. They comment that the feature is rough, but there’s something there– definitely. You feel a tiny flutter of hope.

A few months later, your producer wants to cut it. It’s a little experimental and it doesn’t quite fit the product definition and you’re spending a little too much time on it. It’s probably wiser to just can it. Build lock is in a few weeks and this is risky. Normally you agree with your producer on this sort of thing– you don’t want to be an asshole– but this time you really think it’s worth fighting for, so you grit your teeth and you push back. This thing is special.

Then launch day comes. The game is live. Real people you’ve never met–absolute strangers–are playing your game. They’re streaming it, they’re writing about it, they’re probably complaining about it, they’re chatting about it on the sidewalk, they’re tweeting at you about it. Maybe you even get a physical box to hold in your very own hands and you look down at it and think this is real; I don’t own this thing anymore. It belongs to the world now. At the launch party, everyone goes around sharing memories about the process of making the game. Everyone drinks a little too much and gets kind of silly. When you get home from your launch day party, people are streaming themselves playing the game you helped make. You click on one of the streams. The player’s about to get to the feature you worked on. You inhale sharply. You forget to exhale.

But then… they react in amazement. Their eyes light up with joy, just like your teammate’s did back when the feature was a prototype. And watching this absolute stranger experience this thing you made just for them, you feel close to them in a way that’s indescribable. It’s this incredibly intimate thing. They like it. They really like it. 

You brought that player some real happiness in a world which does its absolute best to leech joy out of everyone and everything, every moment of the day.

Maybe you’ve never felt that before. Maybe when you were a doctor or a civil engineering PM you did things that were useful and necessary and good, things which helped glue the world together, but you want to make things that bring meaning to people’s lives. If that’s you, then this career is for you, my friend. If that’s what you’re looking for, I know you’ll find it. It’s not going to be easy. I hope I made that part clear. But maybe it’s the thing your soul calls you to do. And if that’s the case, then like me, you have to pick up the phone and take the call.

Oh, and in regards to the actual breaking in advice– I’ve written about that before, too.