Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Game devs Vs Athletes

Why it's hard and why it'll get harder

The game industry is one of the most demanding industries to work in. There’s no education that truly prepares you for it. Production techniques are constantly updated, employments are bottlenecked as hell, working hours can be extreme, your efforts are constantly judged, you need to deliver all the time etc. and that's just to mention a few complications... 
(More on that: Link1, Link2, Link3, Link4) 

  Yet a lot of people target it as their career path. 

A couple of things annoy me regarding many game career pursuers, because they don’t realize what they are up against and more or less naively follow the path anyway. Thinking that if they just acquire a university degree, with some courses on game design and game prototyping, well then it's all gonna end happy. But it wont! It will end in frustration without a job. 
That's a waste in so many ways, so this is one of  my efforts to improve on that! I wan't people to realize what it is they are aiming for and what it takes, before they take that decision. I love being a game developer and it's been worth it so far for me. But not without consequences.

You better want it!

The future will only get harder, that’s what this one is about, later I’ll write some approaches I personally find relevant to increase your chances of getting a good career.

I’m from Denmark, and I will focus on that part of the game industry in this one. In Denmark a rough estimate of active game students would be 800, and each year around a 100 people with different backgrounds finish their bachelor/master with a wish of working as game developers. 

The danish game industry is very small, but it includes 1 AAA studio (180+ employees) two major companies (40+ employees) and approximately 5 medium sized companies (15+ employes), and then a ton of small companies (less than 10 employees). E.g. my own company BetaDwarf would count as small, as we are two founders and zero employees even though our crew includes 10 full time developers and 5+ part time. But we aren’t able to provide for those guys and the girl, i.e. they don’t count as employed. 
Finally a rough estimate would be that there are 600 full time game developers employed in Denmark. You see where i’m going? Yea, a huge bottleneck. What that essentially means is that around 15 students gets employed after each year. And those persons are the absolute brightest, these are the smart ones who figured out that this bottleneck exist and that a casual career route would probably not do it for them. 
To make it even worse, 5 years ago the number of active game students would be less than hundred, so competition is increasing at crazy rates. The few companies that do well, will have a ton of applicants to select from, and in the games industry, portfolios are easy to relate to and often tell a lot more than grades. 

So what should you do if you’re challenged by wanting to form a career in one of the toughest industries? Well I can tell you what I do...

Realize what’s required from you

You should start realizing that you want to achieve what’s similar to a professional athlete career. Basically you should think of game development as you would do if you wanted to live by being a professional tennis player, runner, basketball player etc. You should realize that only a small percentage of those who wants that - succeed. 

Realizing that will offer you a huge advantage compared to those who doesn't. And when you realize it you can start investigating what these athletes do to reach their dreams.

To start with they probably don’t think of their training as work or duties, chances are that they enjoy it, and the better they get at it, the more they enjoy it, because they start to be capable of doing things that very few people on this planet are capable of doing. Furthermore, they are a good at gamifying their progression. They constantly challenge their results to become better. 

There might be times where they don’t enjoy it as much, and that’s where their second weapon applies - reason. They have a solid reason for why they want it so extremely bad. Reasons like doing what they like for as long as possible, competitional reasons like being the best, achieving what others haven’t, being able to experience things that are hard to experience without money, entertaining other people, provoke people's feelings etc. It doesn't really matter, as long as it matters for them. 

They have also learned to deal with the necessary sacrifices required for their specific career path, no alcohol, less parties, less family/friends, less everything else than their passion. 

But there’s more to learn from these people, because they are very good at knowing what they are up against. They sure as hell don’t compete with unknown people, they study what advantages/disadvantages they have, they have quite an accurate idea of what they should be able to do, and they know rather precise how their competition train on a regular basis. 

How often do you ask yourself what your competition do?
  • Do they work harder than you?
  • Do they improve faster than you?
  • What progression methods do they use and are they effective?
  • Do they want it more than you?
  • How do you compete with them?
Chances are that if you can’t answer any of these questions or you don’t really give a fuck, you might as well give up your career wishes and start expecting less from life. Unless you’re extremely unique and then it wouldn’t hurt you either.. 
You have a huge disadvantage if you start asking these questions after your education, and yes! - the educations can to some degree be blamed for not giving you an accurate idea of what’s expected, making you focus 80%+ of your time on theory instead of learning how you actually do things (which is why a huge part of game students end up starting their "Real game education" after the university). 
Stop thinking that things will work out, they won’t! And you will be in twisted loop of noobness for many years if you don’t realize that early on. 

So unless you want your best case scenario to be a usability designer in a bank’s IT department, with a creative freedom equal to drinking four or five cups of coffee, you better start answering those questions.

Answering the questions

To answer the questions you must track your efficiency, you need to know if you are approaching your goals right. But how do you track your progression towards such complicated measures as becoming a badass game developer? There are so many things you need to master.. 
Well to start with, you can take a look at what successful game developers has done to get as talented as they are, check what interesting companies look for, or if you want to start up your own development studio or as an independent indie, check what persons who are doing that has done or are doing.

Note: The following is rather indie focused, and if you are one of the best network programmers in your country, you might benefit from just focusing on that. Nonetheless, the more of the development pipeline you understand, the more creative power you'll have.  

Master at least one aspect, but know em all. Game development involves many elements, programming, 3d, 2d, animation, audio, design etc. Master at least one of these and try to avoid being stuck there. If you master animation but want to be part of a small team, well that most often won’t do, because at some point the production won’t need anymore animations, and you won’t be relevant anymore. But if you animate, do 2d and 3d, or effects programming, hell even marketing. Well then you can suddenly help out with GUI, particle effects, asset creation, website updates, and take on a full pipeline of character creation etc. And in that way you’re probably really hard to replace. That's cynical but very important. If your team suddenly had to cut from 10 to 5 people, ask yourself would you be an essential pick? 

Become unstoppable! Need a rig at the middle of the night because you have some genius idea you wanna surprise the team with the next morning? But the rigger isn't available - fuck that! You've dealt with rigging before, no problem. And while you make your simple rig you suddenly realize a few settings in Maya that increases the outcome of your genius idea even more. Afterwards you lean back with a confident smile thinking about a few things you want to discuss with the rigger over lunch tomorrow.. 

Everything is just a system, I personally think that every subject you can learn and master is basically a system with various rules, whether it’s programming, portrait painting, math, freesbee throwing or jazz ballet. Now the more systems you master, the better you will become at analyzing and understanding how to approach yet another system. Obviously there are systems that are closer to each other and the gap will be easier to cross. Fortunately the various systems relevant to game development can significantly enhance one another, because each of these systems has an interdependent relationship. Artists who know a bit of programming, can suddenly bend the rules in Maya. They realize that the tool they are using isn’t a relic left behind by space predators who got tired of killing our ancestors, but merely another carefully constructed system, that can be interfaced by themselves via Mel Scripting. The less you say “That’s not part of what I do, so i’m gonna sit at my desk until you have a square or an octopus I can texture” the more important you'll become. And before you know it, you will be able to create game systems from a to z all by yourself. Which suddenly mean that your are the person people want’s to team up with, because you are important all the way through the development process. 

I must admit that from my experience as a game director and game development entrepreneur, it’s a pain in the ass to work with a lot of technique isolated developers. Which is why i’m a strong believer in the “Development profile” rather than the “Animator”, “Programmer” etc. profile. And I try to inspire developers to enlarge their expertise areas. It might be a bit different in massive AAA studios, but those studios are also beginning to search for developer profiles rather than “GUI programmers or texture artists”. 
Have a look at the [Valves employee Handbook] to see what they expect from you there.   

3 important attributes

When you’re to master the art of game development. This is the three primary attributes I value - Talent, Teamwork and Agency.

Let’s start with talent. I’m a true believer of talent being equal to number of efficiently focused work hours. In most cases people can achieve what they want as long as they are mentally powerful and physically well, what most people are when they are born, besides that it’s simply lame excuses and peoples own mental chains that hold them back and result in incredibly boring personalities encaged in their self-made prisons. Rasmus Ankersen has assembled some interesting observations in that regard, e.g. how both Mozart's father as well as Tiger Woods father both had very ambitious plans for their sons, hence it isn’t a mystery that due to training their whole life, they get fucking good at what they do.

So again simplified, talent equals number of efficiently focused hours.   

Team work, is a lot about social intelligence. It’s about understanding group dynamics. When you develop games you’re often very close and emotionally connected to the same vision as others from your team. You will have many discussions, you will have many challenges and you will have many compromises. All in all being able to relate to your teammates is key. Empathy and constructive honesty is vital, but hard to go around. To make it more difficult, all teams have their own dynamics, and it’s basically about being fast at learning and contributing to those.

Taking a group photo requires teamwork

Yet there are general guidelines. If you're among professionals, be sure not to compliment them on things you either don’t know shit about or simply just to be kind. You will lose their respect and trust and become irrelevant to them when they need feedback. In development teams you’re in it together. If your game fucks up, you will all feel it in some way or another. You are not employed by the state in some secure workshop structure or a giant organization that won't notice fuck-ups. 

You are on your own but with your team almost like soldiers in a war, although the penalties of losing occasionally differ. So utilize that common bond to forge a team bond. If you motivate or inspire a team member to greater achievements, it will boost that person and your own situation. It can be the smallest things like bringing coffee to a wired in programmer who doesn’t notice it before an hour later, but he/she will surely feel appreciated. Smiling also means a lot, I personally have a challenge with that, but i’m aware of that and admit it to myself, allowing me to focus on it. 

Conversations might be one of the most important things to master, especially when it comes to creativity and feelings, the less emotional you get in conversations, and the more objective and constructively focused you are, the better. Raising your voice, or again forgetting to have a warm attitude like smiling, will only lessen the outcome of the conversation. Even worse, it can lower people’s productivity for a long period afterwards. If you’re student, working a lot in groups, you know there’s often a lot of talk and no hierarchy to end it. Well learn to get constructive talks that don’t take hours, think “Will my next sentence increase our goal, my goal, my ego or maybe just waste time?”. Sorry for wiping the magic here, but when you have a long discussion 4-5 developers, you are burning serious man hours, so make sure they are worth it! And no matter how emotional that talk was, leave it with a smile, but not like Jafar in Alladin. 

Simply put, observe the team dynamics and add positively to them, always consider your communication at least reflectively and smile! 

Agency, the art of knowing what to do. On a game development team, knowing what to do is maybe the most complex knowledge to acquire. Often the designer, director or producer doesn’t know what to do either, essentially it’s all based on experienced guessing to approach a never before achieved vision, and often the vision might be complex to understand even for themselves. Besides that, there is a ton of different phases during development, where previous things that weren’t important now are and vice versa. When a deadline suddenly pops-up and you need that video for a certain PR opportunity, when the game website is showing outdated stuff, when you’re near release and all graphics are more or less done, when the community writes relevant feedback or posts an important question or you apply your own critical optics upon the game, and realize something needs a brush up. Don’t go around thinking some one else will take care of things, make sure someone addresses it or do it yourself. Keep in the loop, if you have a day off or you haven’t heard any new stuff for a while, ask what’s going on, keeping yourself in the loop is vital! 

How much is your work worth? Well what you do is essentially worth shit if isn’t shipped, and if it’s bad and shipped it might be not only worth shit, it might decrease the value of other elements - so get your agency rolling and make sure you’re in the loop! 

Development is a complex machinery, no one truly has an overview, if you’re able to understand where your expertise is best applied or that sometimes your next best expertise ends up creating more value, then you are mastering a complex art. 

So, now that you know of these three important attributes, you just need to establish an approach to shape them successfully.

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