Becoming a game developer is no easy feat. I would be doing you a disservice by saying that the pathway is easy and clear. Unlike other professions, there often is no direct path.
Consider becoming a doctor, the general path is to get good grades in high school, get accepted into a major university, do well in undergrad, and go through medical school. In the end, you are officially a doctor when you make it all the way through. There is nothing similar for becoming a game developer.
When students come into my program, they are often looking at me as a major step towards being able to refer to themselves as game developers or getting into the industry. In reality, there are so many different pathways you can take. There are so many areas you can learn. I believe it is the single-most diverse industry in existence when it comes to the different skill sets needed to develop video games.
When students approach me about being in the industry or working for a major company, below are the steps that I try to encourage students to take. I believe these steps are the most assured way of becoming a successful game developer.
Phase 1: Learning
It begins with the learning phase. If you are a gamer and want to be a game developer, I want to be very clear that there is a significant difference between playing and making video games. This is a common misconception. You can love playing video games and not enjoy making them.
Learn About Game Design Theory
This is typically not the most fun aspect. However, I am going to provide a few resources that I think stand out. If you struggle with why a game might be good, you should look to these resources to determine what it is about the game that makes it interesting.
Learn about Bartle’s Taxonomy of Player Types
I heard about this quite a few years ago, but it is still something we talk about frequently in my program area. When a student brings up a game, I generally ask them which player type it appeals to most and why.
The original theory was really geared towards multiplayer games, but I think it is applicable to other single-player games as well in many cases. Though, Bartle himself may disagree.
Extra Credits did a quick overview of Bartle’s Taxonomy of Player Types. I think it is a good foundation but I would recommend that you take a few quizzes to determine your own player type, and then you might consider how your influence may be impacted in a game you would like to create one day.
Watch Game Maker’s Toolkit
This is one of the best YouTube resources I have witnessed when it comes to understanding game mechanics and theory. The whole channel is dedicated towards breaking down some of the most popular games. He looks specific details from mechanics such as stealth to the implementation of a tutorial system. I personally feel as though Game Maker’s Toolkit can take relatively mundane topics and turn them into something interesting and fun.
Read Game Design: Theory and Practice (2nd Edition)
I know that of the three this is probably the one you are least likely to do, but I thought I would throw it out there anyway. I have a copy of this book in my program. It is not required curriculum, but as students come in and have some interest in theory, it provides a basis for being able to talk about it.
I find this book an extremely easy read. Instead of just giving you theory, it talks about the application of the theory as well, which I think is very important to students. The students that have read it, often enjoy it and say that “it made them think”.
If you want a good resource and a better foundation on theory, this is a good resource for it. You want to be able to talk about some of the basic theories behind WHY you do certain things in your game. This will likely be something that is asked of you in an interview, especially if you have a portfolio that showcases gameplay.
Learn About Asset Creation
Once you have a good foundation of why a game might be considered a good or bad game, I think it is time to develop some skills. The first area I would suggest is asset creation. You will need to make a decision pretty early on to determine if you want to do 3D or 2D.
My suggestion here is to do whichever appeals to you more. If you enjoy playing 2D games, such as classic platformers, I would recommend sticking to 2D. However, if you are into modern first person shooters such as the Call of Duty series, and those are the games you think you may want to work on most, I would say go ahead and make the leap to 3D.
In my opinion, there is such a difference between the two, I would not recommend going to 2D before 3D, although some teachers may disagree. Instead, I think you can learn some of the basic 2D skillsets along the way that you might need.
The software for 2D that I would suggest learning is Photoshop. You can do most things in the software that you would be interested in doing, including creating background environments as well as character creation. You can then take those images (sprites), and create animations and things inside of Unity.
For 3D, on the other hand, it is a bit more expansive. I think the workflow is a bit more drastic, making it feel a bit more intimidating. In place of rehashing some of what I have already written, I would like to refer you to my article about the best software for game design.
Learn Game Programming
I would be doing you a disservice if I did not encourage you to at least learn a little bit about game programming. I am surprised every year. I always have students who show a bit of hesitation about learning programming, then find out that they have a natural knack for it. They end up loving it.
Even if you decide not to stick with it, at least knowing a bit about that side of the process will help you as an artist understand how to better build your assets. As a Unity user, I find that there are a lot of great resources for understanding the game programming workflow in their software.
In my game development program, I ask all students to go through the Create With Code series that Unity offers. I find it to be a great resource for learning game programming. They also provide several game assets for you to use, so you do not have to focus on that part while also learning game programming. It keeps the games looking interesting while allowing you to focus on developing a new skill.
Find an Area of Expertise
I think a lot of the game development programs around the country do a disservice to you by encouraging to be an expert in all areas. To be quite honest, I hope that you do quite the opposite. Learn a little bit about each, enough to make a good decision, then dive head first into one of the major areas that you are interested in.
If you a phenomenal 3D modeler, you can bet that you will have a job ready for you at one of the major studios. If you love programming and know how to solve complex problems, I can assure you that there will be some other opportunities for you as well.
The person that only knows basic knowledge of each is going to have a tougher time landing a job. No one is looking for a mediocre modeler and programmer. For this reason, everything you build here on out should have an area that you are really trying to improve at and showcase your abilities. As an example, if you decide you want to be an environmental 3D artist, I would expect to see some beautiful custom trees and landscape in your game or a room filled with amazing attention to detail.
At this point, you qualify for jobs, but the vast majority of employers will want you to have some form of a portfolio. Your portfolio will be far more important that a college degree in game design. Keep in mind that tutorials should not be implemented in your portfolio in most circumstances. What you want to do from this point on is gain some practice, refine your skills, and anything that you deem worthy should be added to your portfolio. You should be critical of your own work. If you’re not, know that others will be.
In my mind, you place your best items in your portfolio, not all items. This means that you have to be fairly picky about what you want to showcase. Show your best work only. I would rather see three really impressive items than 20 mediocre items. For this reason, I rarely encourage people to place game jam work into their portfolios. It’s generally just not high enough quality.
Phase 2: Develop Prototypes
To really showcase your work and even continue to develop your skillset, build several prototypes.
For artists, this would likely be several different scenes or environments made up of your models. What many people do is try to go out and find a concept artist who has done an amazing piece and posted it online. Contact them and ask if you can take their concept art and convert it to 3D (if you are a 3D artist). Most are willing to let you use their art because it helps bring them exposure as well.
For 2D artists, I would recommend creating really awesome character sprite sheets or potentially creating some art that you can place in the Unity Asset store. This would be some real-world experience, potentially you may make a little bit of money, and you are also getting feedback.
For programmers, this is a bit more difficult but I would recommend sticking to very simple shapes. Think of games like tic-tac-toe or some mobile puzzle games. Most of the complexity is not in the graphics but in the programming side of it. These are the types of games that can showcase your abilities really well.
Phase 3: Release a Commercial Video Game
If your goal is to get a job in the game development industry, but you are still struggling to land a job, this phase will likely be what separates you from others. Aristotle said it best when he said that he believes “the best way to learn is by doing”.
If I have two game developers walk in and want a job. Both have roughly the same skills, but one has released a game already, the decision is fairly easy for me. In fact, I might even go to the extent to say that if I have two people, person #1 seems to be slightly better, but hasn’t released a game. Person #2 still has some techniques they need to learn but has released a game. I am still likely choosing person #2. That experience is invaluable.
The key here though is that you should do something very small. Small doesn’t mean low quality. Think of games like Firewatch, built with a small studio. Do something you are interested in, but the game changes a bit when you consider doing something with the intention of making money.
Building a releasing a game is going to give you the other side of the perspective. It’s not just about building a game but doing it with a budget in mind, trying to keep your hours in check so that you get a return on investment. These are all decisions, sometimes very tough ones, that cut pieces out of games that otherwise you might want in it. It forces the developer to work towards promotion in addition to the development.
In coming up with a game to create, I suggest that if you want to keep control on the project, you should be a solo developer. When you begin taking on others, you are really going to be forced to take into account their artistic views as well. This is especially the case if they are complete partners, which most likely the case if they are not being paid.
If you decide you want to keep control of the project and artistic direction, then consider funding the project on your own. There are a lot of indie game developers working a job to help fund their passion. In other words, if you have to work a job at a fast food chain in order to gain a bit of extra money to pay for a few assets or some programming, then it may pay off in the end to get the project you want.
There are a lot of freelancers working in the industry looking to do contract work just want to have their name put on a serious game. Putting any type of investment out there will likely land you quite a few people interested in working with you.
Lastly, in my case, I don’t like working alone. I like working with others. It has it’s own challenges, but I like a team environment. In this case though, you will need to be extremely picky about who you bring on. They will need to have a similar creative perspective. In addition, it is almost always a challenge to find a proper balance in how much work is being put in. Some of those standards and expectations are things you have to work through early and often. When someone isn’t pulling their weight, you have to address it early.
In addition, you will have to be flexible on what you are creating. You may feel like you have an awesome idea, but the others you team up with just don’t see it the same way. It’s not uncommon when working with others to find that what your original idea was is quickly morphed into something different. If this would bother you, I probably wouldn’t recommend working with others on the project.
The path I mention above is not something to be done in weeks, or even months. Generally it is a path that will take years. However, I believe that students who wish to be in the industry will need to take their learning serious early. Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed path to success in this industry.
I hope that what I suggested will help you set yourself apart from the vast majority of students I see who want to be in the industry. I sincerely believe that if you apply all three phases to your career, at the end you will have many options to choose from.
If you were successful in the commercial game, you may find out, as many do in that phase, that they love having that flexibility. If you did a good job, you may realize you have the potential to make far more money doing that than working for someone else. Still, I want students that pass through my classroom to have opportunities. This is the same path I suggest they take when truly eager to get into the industry of game development.