Introduction

Over the years I have been involved with game development, I have been approached by a large number of people asking for advice on getting into the games industry. In truth, I have only a limited view on the process, having created my own games industry job and being involved in managing a small company of only nine.

However, in my relationships with other game development companies and individuals I have gleaned a fair amount of information on the subject (and hopefully by now I should understand what it takes to be a successful game developer). Although everyone has a different story and each company has different policies, there are certain trends which run throughout. Below I will try to outline what I believe to be the most effective methods for obtaining a job in the games industry with somewhat of a New Zealand slant.

I will start by saying that I will concentrate on the two most popular areas; programming and art. These two areas make up the bulk of people working in the industry and have been the focus of most people’s enquiries to me.

The game designer role is another popular area that people are interested in. In fact, I would wager that the majority of people actually employed in the industry would like to be designing games. The sad truth is that game design is a lot harder than it seems and there are few individuals that can do it well. The path to becoming a successful game designer is a subtle combination of contacts, timing, education and natural talent and as such I feel it is outside both my area of knowledge and the scope of this article.

Education

The first crucial step in your journey towards game development is obtaining a solid education. The days of self taught, back room game developers are over with the advent of sophisticated gaming platforms, complex game environments and skyrocketing development budgets. To be part of the game industry now, you have to be able to work as a team, possess a solid foundation of applicable skills, and have a highly developed ability for learning in short periods of time. In short, you need to know stuff before you start.

Education also forms a valuable safety net. If you find you aren’t able to break into the games industry for whatever reason then at least you have a set of skills with can be applied to other careers in IT and multimedia. For those with parents who might be worried you are wasting your time, this is also a useful comment to bring up in conversation.

A lot of you may currently be in high school which probably seems about as far away from game development as you can get. But although most subjects at high school are very general you can study some very relevant material. High school also sets you up for higher education which we will discuss shortly.

As a programmer calculus, statistics, physics and English are key high school subjects. Games programming involves a lot of maths and a lot of formulas. Get used to it now.

As an artist graphic design, photography, painting, history and English are what you should be looking into. I think a key word in computer game artists is ‘versatility’ - you have to be able to turn your hand to a number of tasks in a constantly changing environment. The broader your set of base skills the more valuable you’ll be. It is also about this time that you can establish whether you have ‘what it takes’ as a large part of your success will rely on natural talent.

The more astute among you will notice that English features in both streams but you may be puzzled as to why it is there at all. I believe strong English skills provide a solid foundation for communication and understanding as well as offering a creative aspect. Expect to be writing and reading a lot of documentation, no matter what your role in the team.

Of course, high school should only the beginning of your training. Tertiary training of some description is often considered a minimum requirement by a large number of developers.

For a programmer the obvious choice is a Computer Science degree at an established university. This will provide you with a well rounded understanding of software development and give you the opportunity to study object orientation, artificial intelligence, human/computer interaction and computer graphics at higher levels. A bachelor degree in Computer Science will take three years.

For more information on available programmes, try the Auckland University, Victoria University, and Waikato University websites.

A polytechnic programming course is an alternative if university training is not available, although I don’t believe it gives you the same broad platform of understanding. Courses vary from institute to institute, but generally you can do some sort of polytechnic programming course in between one and two years.

For an artist the choice should be a design or multimedia course (or some combination of both). Few institutes in New Zealand will provide exactly the skills you will need, but you’ll get the basic skills you require and hopefully access to the right kind of software. Selecting a training programme that has a 3D animation component is a good start. Depending on the type of course you end up taking you can expect to spend between one and three years at study.

For more information on available programmes, check out the National College of Design and Technology and National College of Multimedia and Technology websites.

It is unfortunate that, at present, there are no courses in New Zealand which offer a focus on game development. However, the expanding game development infrastructure in Australia has prompted some institutes over there to offer targeted programmes. If you have the cash to study overseas then these courses may be appropriate for you. For more information check out the Academy of Interactive Entertainment or QANTM Cooperative Multimedia Centre websites.

As well as staying informed about the games industry in general (what’s hot and what’s not) you should also seek out information on game development itself to supplement your formal education. The Internet provides a wide range of research material, tutorials, and interviews that you can tap into. The Gamasutra and Flipcode websites offer extensive content as well as links to a variety of online resources. Game Developer magazine, which has surprising availability in New Zealand, also offers some valuable insight.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this column next week!