Even though I absolutely love game design, there are some significant disadvantages to this industry. I would not be doing students or website visitors justice if I were not being honest and forthcoming on this industry. Unfortunately, it is not always rainbows and flowers.
Disadvantages of game design include high levels of competition for entry level positions, frequent layoffs at larger companies, and long hours at the end of projects. Game Designers are required to have knowledge in many disciplines to be considered for entry level positions.
I do not want to encourage those that have aspirations to be in this industry to shy away from these things. Instead, I want to address them, and hopefully provide some advice on how to counter some of these disadvantages.
Disadvantages of Game Design
There is No Guarantee of Success
This is fairly specific to those in the indie scene. If you are a on a small team, you may invest days, months, and potentially years into a single project. In the end, it may not reach the level of success you would hope for.
There are plenty of meme’s on this very topic in the indie scene. People joke around about how some game developers are making far less than a minimum wage. The sad truth is, that not all projects will be successful.
The good news is that there are some steps that you can take to help ensure your success, or at minimum make an educated assumption. If you are developing a project and it has a good following, this is a good indication that people will make the purchase when the game is released. This, of course, will need to be something that designers have to work towards consistently. When neglected, there is no great indicator of when or if the project will have a return on investment.
Competitive for Entry Level Positions
The game design industry is not a small industry in terms of the amount of money that is being spent on it. The number of positions in the industry continues to grow as companies are producing larger and more detailed games than ever. However, the number of people wanting to be in the industry is growing at a fast rate as well.
In the case for some of the larger companies that can afford larger salaries, they have a huge number of people applying to those positions. Blizzard, in 2017 took on 64 interns. This sounds great until you realize that over 12,000 applied for those intern positions.
This is not out of the ordinary either. Companies that can afford to pay for entry level positions, have no problem finding people. There is an overwhelming number of applicants seeking out those positions currently.
On the upside, many applying for those positions have related experience or no experience at all. Seeking out an education in game development or gaining some level of experience will place you ahead of the vast majority.
High Level of Knowledge for Entry Level Positions
In the event that you do go to school for game development or if you have learned a little bit about programming, this does not ensure success in the game design industry. As noted above, those applying for these positions may or may not have experience, but those that rise towards the top have a fairly high level of knowledge.
In many industries, you can start at the very bottom with almost no experience. For example, just this week I had four students hired in the web design industry. The benefit there is that those companies were willing to take on students and teach them.
In game design, you do not have this luxury. There is no shortage of people, so the barrier to entry to so much higher.
You will truly need to develop and learn a wide variety of skills to be considered. Take 3D Design as an example. You will probably need to know at least Photoshop, a 3D modeling software such as Maya or Blender, a texturing package similar to Substance Painter, and perhaps even a sculpting software like Zbrush. This is a lot to learn, and it is consistently changing.
High Turnover Rates at Larger Companies
I speak mainly of the larger companies here. It seems like the vast majority of people looking to enter into game design often think of working on their dream game series in the future. The sad reality is that layoffs are the nature of this industry.
As games gain popularity, companies need to people to help support the game. As a game loses popularity, slowing in sales, that number of staff is no longer needed or profitable for the business.
As an example, Blizzard, even after a very successful Overwatch launch and World of Warcraft relaunch, laid off over 800 employees. The writing is on the wall. When a project starts losing its popularity, those companies with huge overhead have to find ways to cut back. Most often this means a reduction in staff.
Smaller companies (or indie companies) that are successful have a tendency being able to move their staff from project to project. For this reason, many people have preferred separating themselves from larger companies, and working in an industry where they have more control.
Long Hours at the End of Projects (Crunch Time)
My experience has been that any project I have worked on, there is at least always some nervousness and a little bit of a “push” at the end. I suppose things start getting real when you only have a few weeks left to complete a project. The truth is, the same is true in game development.
It not unheard of for game developers to spend a lot of time on a project during this crunch period. Rockstar CEO, Dan Houser, bragged that his game designers were spending up to 100 hours per week to finish their Red Dead Redemption 2 game.
Likewise, watching the moving “Indie Games” is a good indicator of the number of hours spent on projects. You can see in the film many of the developers were spending a lot of time, often losing sleep, to keep up with their project and meet deadlines.
Steps Game Designers Can Take to Be Successful
The good news is that there are a few things I think we can do to help in some of these areas. Particularly, for those who may be reading that are new to this industry or contemplating a career decision, take a little bit of time to do these things.
Find Opportunities to Refine Your Skills
This industry gives people a lot of opportunities to refine their skills. Game jams have recently become very popular. These are just one of the many ways to refine your skills. The process of developing video games, particularly smaller ones, will give you chance after chance to learn new things.
I would encourage you to take it a step further. When you start feeling comfortable with a skill, add something else or do something different. As an example, if you are great at creating 3D environments, try making a character. This will push your learning to a new level, force you to learn other parts of a software package or new techniques.
Diversify your Portfolio
Similar to above, I would recommend that you not show the exact same things throughout your entire portfolio. I think it is great to show what you are best at, but leave quite a bit of room for areas that show your ability to do something different.
In some cases, I have found portfolios to be page after page of the same type of work. In some cases, students will provide 30 pictures of nearly the same character in concept art. If I am on the interview committee, I am looking for an ability that either fits exactly what I am looking for, or an ability to change to what I need. I tend to think that the latter will provide more opportunities for you.
Spend time developing new techniques. Do something that is a bit out of your wheelhouse. Push yourself to do things different. Create something you have never attempted before, you never know if it will lead to a job opportunity in the future.
Gain Experience – Even if it means on your own time
There is little substitute for passion. When people tell me how passionate they are about something, I look for action. There is no difference in the game design industry.
If you want to be taken seriously, you have to take the industry seriously. Spend time developing some experience, it will turn heads. Most of the people landing careers have some form of experience. That experience can at times be their own projects.
I know that one of the greatest ways to develop experience in the game design industry is to build a small project, and release it on your own. I have heard others talk about how much value this provided. I know if I am on an interview committee, seeing that would certainly draw my attention above someone that has spent a couple of years in school. For this reason, I encourage students to develop projects outside of class time, and take them further than what I am able to do in class.
Although there are many disadvantages that may prevent people from joining this industry, there is much to be said about those that have not left it. In other industries that have some of these same disadvantages, people are leaving those industries in droves. Instead, people remain passionate, interested in pursuing this as a life long career. I am confident that if you take small steps now, those can turn into major benefits to a career in game design in the future.