So last week I tried to talk you out of going to Game College and marching into the jaws of some AAA meatgrinder. I’d hate to see all your talent go to waste in a place that doesn’t value your creativity, and burns you out before you’re 30, leaving you with a crippling load of debt.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t learn to make video games. This medium isn’t going anywhere and the demand for quality games is as high as ever. It really is possible to earn a living out there. It’s just that you should avoid following the crowds along the obvious routes.
My advice applies to coders more than artists. I realize these articles have blurred the line between the two, but it’s important to note that there are some pretty big differences between people who make art and people who write code. Coders are in demand (the demand is usually in un-fun jobs, but it exists) while artists have always faced a tough climb to securing steady work. We are a culture that loves to consume art and hates paying for it, and that doesn’t change when talking about video games. There are a lot of amazingly talented artists out there who are mopping floors for a living.
But here is my advice if you’re going for the more technical side of things:
1. Figure out what you REALLY want.
Why do you want to make games? Is it because you have a grand vision for a game? (Lots of people do, but they usually lose interest before they can realize their vision.) Is it because you think the work will be fun? (Take it from me: Coding is super-fun, but bringing a product all the way from concept to product gets really tedious at the end.) Is it because you want to be the next Notch: A world-famous billionaire? (Protip: The lottery has better odds.)
This is an important step. If you can figure out what you’re really after, it can help you decide how far you should go and how much risk to take on.
2. Don’t wait until you graduate!
This is not a secret priesthood. Anyone can learn this stuff. And it’s never too early to start. I started coding when I was 12, and frankly I could have started a lot sooner if I’d had access to a computer. What is it you want to do? Code? Make 3D models? Design characters? Try and do a little of everything. This will help you find out what you love and it will show you where your talent is.
Most importantly, it will give you a good “big picture” view of what other creative people are doing. You’ll find it a lot easier to work with (or even lead) a team someday if you have a rough idea of what everyone else does. More than once I’ve been frustrated working with programmers who didn’t understand the art pipeline, which usually created needless extra work for people down the chain.
The years before graduation are a perfect time to dabble in lots of different things and see what you like.
3. Consider a general Computer Science degree.
I’m entirely self-taught. But that route isn’t for everyone. Some people would rather have someone else guide their learning. It all depends on your finances and your learning style. Also, it’s really hard to get a “real” job with no degree. If you’re going to self-educate, then you’re going to need to make something special or inventive to get your foot in the door.
But if you are going to go to school, it’s probably much safer to get a generalized degree than one aimed at game development. A compsci degree can get you into game development, but it’s very hard to leave game development and get a regular job with a degree focused on games.
4. Go Indie
Yes, being an indie developer is risky. But the truth is, so is going the AAA route. And at least if you go indie you’ll fail doing what you love instead of fail working on a corporate conveyor belt. And anyone can be an indie developer, so you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars and four years of your life to get started.
There has never been a better time to be an indie developer. The Unreal Engine is free. So is Source Engine 2. Unity is royalty-free. And RPG Maker is dirt cheap. There are more wikis, tutorials, articles, and blogs than ever before. Mobile games and Steam are making it easier for small teams and individuals to bring a game to market. YouTube has made marketing nearly free. There are huge libraries of textures and models out there for cheap or free. (Again, that whole thing about it being tough to get people to pay for art.) Big gaming sites are giving more page space to indie titles. The early wave of indie darlings like Minecraft, Braid, Terraria, Octodad, Banner Saga, and “Papers, Please” has invigorated the public’s interest in the indie scene.
This is not to say that jumping into indie game development is easy. Or even a good idea. But it’s a less bad idea than at any time in the past, and it’s possible that despite all the risk it’s actually a safer bet than taking a job with EA or Activision.
5. Go Hobbyist.
This might be the safest route of them all. Find a career you can live with (or maybe even enjoy a little) and work on your indie masterpiece on evenings and weekends. All the advantages of going indie apply to this route as well: The tools are cheaper, the education is easier to obtain, and the barrier to entry is lower than ever before. Best of all, if it doesn’t pan out you will still have a job and a roof over your head.
6. Don’t listen to me.
I’m a middle-aged guy who has yet to ship a title. (Although my game might hit Steam Greenlight this month.) This industry moves at supersonic speeds compared to other disciplines. Even good advice from the experienced and successful can lead you astray, because the road that worked 10 years ago might be a dead end by the time you get there.
“Be smart and work hard and you’ll make it.” I think most people realize this isn’t strictly true. But it’s still really good advice. Be smart and work and and you’ll have a chance. That’s all any of us can ask for.
Don’t get discouraged. Good luck!
Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank. You can read more of his work here.