Most parents probably don’t dream of their kids becoming video game developers, but it’s a real career—and potentially a lucrative one.
Finding your way in the industry is tough, though. The video game business can be volatile, reacting quickly to changes in the economy or the success or failure of an individual game.
As with more traditional industries, the steadiest course centers on acquiring a job at a large, established company. But more and more, aspiring developers are leaving big companies to create their own studios, or even going their own way right from the beginning of their careers.
Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and the availability of digital distribution to PCs and consoles has fueled a rise in “indie” game development, and provided a model for aspiring entrepreneurs to follow.
Tracy Fullerton, a game designer, professor and director of the renowned game-design program at the University of Southern California, told Dice that, while many of her students take jobs at big companies such as Microsoft or Sony, “the other, really popular route has been entrepreneurship. We’ve had a number of teams come out of the program and start their own companies…. It used to be that getting a job was more common, but more and more these days, teams are really interested in trying their hand at starting a business.”
One such entrepreneur is Erin Reynolds, founder of a studio called Flying Mollusk. She’s new to the startup game but is an industry veteran, having worked at Disney in the mid-to-late-2000s before going back to school for a Master’s degree in interactive media.
USC now has game-design degrees for both undergraduate and graduate students, but didn’t when Reynolds first enrolled at the university as an undergraduate in the early 2000s. “Before, if you wanted to go into games you had to cobble together your own curriculum,” she said. “I had to do that. I was a fine arts major, but I tried to take computer science classes and figure out how to make games with what was available to me at the time.”
Reynolds interned at Disney while in school and got a full-time job there in 2006, helping build various games before leading the design of Ultimate Band for the Nintendo DS. It wasn’t until her Disney years that Reynolds realized making video games could be a real career. “I certainly didn’t think it was a career until I started at Disney. I was like, ‘Oh wait, this is a real job, that’s awesome.’”
Reynolds went back to USC for her master’s from 2009 to 2012, taking everything from coding to business classes. At USC she created Nevermind, a horror adventure game that adapts to the player’s mental state by monitoring their heart rate.
Reynolds worked at Zynga for a time after obtaining her master’s degree, but “at the end of the day my heart was always really in Nevermind,” she said.
Nevermind will play like a mainstream game, but it has a deeper purpose. “The more scared you get, the more stressed you get, the harder the game becomes,” Reynolds said. “It’s really all about stress management for the quote unquote everyday person. It’s about teaching yourself to take on uncomfortable scenarios and learning how to stay calm and cool.”
Flying Mollusk—so named because of “our vision of combining science with fantasy, technology with wonder”—is a four-person shop in Los Angeles that just moved into its first real studio space last month. The company plans to add more staff and release the finished game in late 2015.
Good Work If You Can Get It
Last year, CNNMoney/PayScale’s list of the top 100 careers put video game design at #15, with healthy job growth and median pay of $72,000.
Exactly how many jobs there are is a bit unclear, but a Bureau of Labor Statistics report on video-game development careers points to industry research that found, “in 2009, the video game industry had sales in excess of $10 billion and employed more than 32,000 people in 34 states.”
“Fewer and fewer of those great big games are being made,” Fullerton said. “Yes, it takes a lot of people to make those games, but I would say that the difficulty of getting into those companies is still quite high. They’re very selective.”
There are probably thousands of developers trying to break into the industry, judging by the number of people seeking money to build games. More than 3,600 games have been successfully funded on Kickstarter, while another 6,600 fell short of their funding goals.
As much as the video game industry is booming, starting a new company is risky business. Fullerton developed games for Microsoft, Sony, Intel and other companies throughout the 1990s before creating her own studio, Spiderdance, in 1998. It closed in 2002 when the economy went into recession.
“It was a really exciting time. We were able to raise venture capital and worked with a lot of amazing partners,” Fullerton said. But, “with any startup you’re usually a little bit fragile and any big swings in the economy can hurt you.”
For Startup Studios, Making Money Is No Guarantee
Graham Smith is another developer who has experience both working for studios and starting his own. Smith is one of the co-founders of DrinkBox Studios, a small company in Toronto that made the highly regarded games Tales from Space: About a Blob, Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack, and Guacamelee!
Smith and his co-founders started DrinkBox in 2008 after their employer, Pseudo Interactive, shut down. DrinkBox’s first years were precarious.
“About a Blob took three years to develop, and was a pretty difficult time for the company,” Smith recounted. “We had to split our focus between making the game itself, building up our technology—editor and game engine—to support the game’s development, and work on contracts to continue bringing money in so that we could actually pay ourselves.”
The revenue of DrinkBox’s three successful games “now actually support everyone’s salaries,” Smith said. “We don’t have to do any external contracts any more, which allows us to focus more fully on making our own titles.”
Smith encourages aspiring developers to make small games or make levels for games that support level-building. “These can be used as examples if you ever want to apply as a designer somewhere,” he said. “We hired one of our designers after playing the levels he had built for VVVVVV. It’s also a good way to practice your creativity and explore the boundaries/rules of a game though its level design.”
“Working for a bigger company is a good way to gain experience, and learn how games are made,” he said. “It’s also nice to have a steady salary coming in as you learn the ropes. On the flip side, depending on the company, you might not have much control over the game’s design, or even be making the types of games that you enjoy playing.”
Smith cautions that while starting an indie studio “sounds like a lot of fun,” it’s important not to underestimate how much hard work is required to succeed: “How will you fund the development of your game (e.g. how will you pay the bills)? How will your game stand out from the hundreds of other games that are released every week? How will people hear about your game, and why will they buy it?”
Like all game designers, Reynolds is well aware of the challenges. “My heart and brain is really is in the creative side of things. To start a business you need a whole different set of skills,” she said. “It’s exciting and fun in a way because I feel like every day I’m learning a million new things but it’s also terrifying because I don’t want my inexperience to impact the state of the company, the state of the game.”
Experience working at a big company can be invaluable when starting your own. While “the Internet is rife with stories of people who have had all sorts of unpleasant experiences at large companies,” Reynolds said her own time at Disney and Zynga was positive.
Granted, she couldn’t have made a horror game at Disney, and many developers have visions that are incompatible with those of established companies. But working at big studios let Reynolds see “what people do well and see what mistakes they make…. I don’t think I would be where I am now if I didn’t have those experiences with people that I worked alongside.”
Free and Cheap Tools Help Developers Get Started
Reynolds also had the advantage of her USC schooling, which combined game design with business training. Those without the benefit of a game-development degree might look toward cheap online courses and tutorials. There are also free or inexpensive options for game engines, the software developers use to create games.
“Unity is such a prevalent engine now, you can get a free version and you can make great games on the basic Unity engine,” Reynolds noted. Flying Mollusk uses the professional edition of Unity.
The makers of the Unreal Engine also “launched a pricing system that makes it much more in reach to people who don’t necessarily have a large budget,” she added. “Things are much much easier now for people to just get their ideas out there then they have been. I hope that’s a trend that continues.”
Luckily, software-development skills are highly sought after by employers in many industries, cushioning the blow if one’s video game dreams don’t come true. “Creative software developers are really in demand, people who can make something not just work but make it fun and usable,” Fullerton said.
Even if you’re not making what people think of as a “video game,” the ability to make software that with game-like elements is applicable to many fields.
“Let’s just say you decide you’re more interested in healthcare, you could use your skills making games or apps that help people track their healthcare,” Fullerton said. “There’s a lot of expansion into areas like the tracked self, the quantified self,\ and wearable technologies…. It’s not just entertainment anymore. There’s a lot of places where you can use those skills.”
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Images: Flying Mollusk/Drinkbox Studios