Cheat Mode: Choosing a Career in the Games Industry

By Dan Jacobs [03.05.13]

 [In this excerpt from his book Cheat Mode (also available for Kindle), author Dan Jacobs outlines the many career opportunities available to games industry newcomers.]

In this chapter, we will examine the individual job roles within the industry, what they're really like, and what will aid your career more, experience or education. We'll also look at other aspects of the industry like the working hours, and how all of this affects the people working in the industry.

Let's explore the daily working life in the industry by looking at the roles themselves and what they're really like. Please keep in mind there are a huge amount of different roles in the industry and I couldn't possibly cover them all in this book. I've tried to give you a good mix of development roles and other types of roles in the industry, but this is by no means a comprehensive list.

Don't just know about your discipline (Audio, Art, Animation, Code, Design, Q.A., Production) get to know what the others do and how the whole team fits together. The more you know about the other disciplines the easier it will be to find solutions for what is in effect, the newest and most exciting industry of our age!

-Nathan McCree
Audio Director, Vatra Games

Animation Department:

If it moves, it's animated, and the Animation Department deals with all moving elements within a game, as well as any moving content within a game (characters, plants, animals, weapons, etc.). They also work on the game's cut-scenes, lip-sync and any trailers or attract modes the game may use.

Roles: Junior Animator, Animator, Lead Animator

As an Animator, I was responsible for creating all animated sequences for the game. As I was an animator of a sprite based game, my animation work was 2D sprite based animations, which included a range of images that are then played in order to create the animated sequence.

-Peter Clark
VFX Artist, Codemasters

Art Department:

Roles: Junior Artist, Artist, Lead Artist, Head of Art

The Art Department creates the game's look. From the environment to the characters, the menus to the objects, all of it is created by the Art Department. Artists also create the concept artwork used in the pitching process.

I manage the art style of the game and work closely with the individual members of my team to ensure they are working efficiently, they are on style and the quality of work is maintained for all art going in game. I liaise with my Lead Coder and Lead Designer to ensure their art requirements are met and when I can tear myself away from meetings I contribute to the game's art directly, usually in a fairly strategic fashion.

-Daniel Lodge
Lead Artist, Doublesix Games

Audio Department:

Sound (SFX) and music (BGM) all fall into the audio team's domain. These guys create and implement all sounds and music used in the title.

Roles: Audio Engineer, Lead Audio Engineer, Head of Audio

Well it usually starts with some idea for style. Sometimes it's very specific like "We want John Williams, Star Wars music", or "We want Edward Scissor Hands". Other times it can be vague and ambiguous. Then usually some temp track is put into the game to test the style. A temp track is a term we use for a piece of music that is classed as a placeholder. If the tests are successful and the Creative Director is happy then you can start to think about a composer. It may be you or it may be someone else who is more suited to producing that kind of style. A music brief is then put together and interviews take place. There are many different ways of implementing music into a game. So it's not always the same job.

-Nathan McCree
Audio Director, Vatra Games


Design Department:

The design team creates the game's story line, but this is just the beginning. They deal with a whole host of other things as well, such as making all the design decisions within the title. Every control method, level name or game rule has been chosen by the design team. The difficulty levels and the points within a level (re-spawn, weapons, health, etc.) are all carefully chosen by the designers.

As a game designer I'm responsible for all aspects of the game, from initial concept document through to the Game Design Document and post-production. This includes tasks such as narrative, level design, player character and A.I. design, U.I. flow, SFX, game mechanics, marketing and much, much more. I love the diversity that the job offers - from one day to the next I'll be doing completely different tasks, so I never get bored.

-Sophie Blackmore
Senior Designer, Rockstar Games

Roles: Junior Designer, Designer, Lead Designer, Assistant Director, Director

Production Department:

The production team is the central hub of any game. This team ensures the game is on track and within budget. They actively communicate between every department to ensure that from start to finish, the whole process is tracked and on budget in a timely manner. Although all the central communication, planning, and scheduling is done through the Production Department, all departments communicate with each other and from time to time with the publisher.

Roles: Assistant Producer, Producer, Executive Producer

It's all about reacting to the needs of the project at any given time, as every project and team is different, so too are those needs. However, there are of course some consistencies, which might include attending one or more of the daily scrum meetings; doing a build review and distributing feedback and specific tasks based on it; liaising with the publisher about any outstanding issues or upcoming milestones; catching up with the EP and game director on problems and priorities; orchestrating the commission and distribution of any outsourced artwork; and one too many cigarette breaks.

-Jez Harris
Production Manager, Supermassive Games

Programming Department:

The Programming Department is the driving force behind any game studio. Everything in a game needs code to work, so this is one of the few teams who will work on a project from start to finish. As well as coding the game itself, they may also work on studio tools for other departments, or they may be found working in research and development creating new engines and tools for the next generation of games.

Roles: Junior Coder, Coder, Lead Coder, Development Manager

I'm a Lead Programmer so I write code for various systems. I architect systems, mentor juniors, work with other Leads.

-Rhys Twelves
Lead Programmer, Bioware

Quality Assurance Department:

The Quality Assurance (Q.A.) Department is responsible for the quality of the product. As well as testing the game itself, they will also help with balancing the difficulty of the game, checking the box and manual, localizing the game into other languages, and ensuring that the game passes the submission process. Additionally, they may also liaise with external test teams from the publisher and manage the bug database throughout all departments. It is often seen as a way into the industry, but should not be ignored as a possible career path in itself.

My job is to break the game and make accurate records of how it was done so that the Development team can fix the issue. Sometimes this is easy as the bug will happen naturally, but then sometimes you have to really think about how you are going to force the game to break.

-Paul Sedgmore
Q.A. Manager, Colossal Games

Roles: Junior Tester, Tester, Lead Tester, Q.A. Manager


Other departments:

There are so many people involved in a video game that I can't possibly mention them all here. Many people make their living in or around the actual creation of the game. So many folk aid us in creating, marketing, managing and selling a game; it's wrong to think that a games career must involve development in some way.

Games journalist:

You read their reviews regularly, you've read the breaking news they present, and they're the number one communication method between creating and consuming a game. So what does a games journalist actually do and how can you become one?

I do mostly news and features really, but also I do co-ordination of stuff for events with companies and things like that. So we'll sort out media partnerships or just arranging stuff with TIGA to get on board with their awards and various other things, so sort of relationship building as well. But day-to-day it's mostly writing news in the mornings, getting on with features stuff in the afternoons and occasionally getting on with more long term stuff.

-Dan Pearson
Senior Staff Writer, Gamesindustry.biz

Recruitment agent:

The specialist recruitment agencies and agents provide a valuable service to the industr,y so what advice can they offer someone starting out in the industry?

Recruiters are really useful in a number of different ways, they manage your interviews, they are usually first to hear about new jobs or jobs that perhaps aren't public, they can give you vital advice on your C.V. and general career advice so I would say you could use a recruiter at any point.

-Eamonn Mgherbi
Managing Director, Avatar Games Recruitment

P.R. Manager:

P.R. managers run all the publicity for the games we make. From when details are made public to how these details are presented, everything comes through the P.R. manager.

I'm a publicist, which means it's my job to make sure that the games I work on are as visible as possible. If you read about one of my games and it's not an advert, I was almost definitely involved in that coverage in some way.

-Leo Tan
Senior P.R. Manager, Capcom

Community Manager:

A Community Manager is often the public spokesperson for the game. These guys manage the game after launching, ensuring that customers have an open line of communication with publishers and developers.

You act as a bridge between the person consuming whatever it is your guys are creating. So if I was working on a game, say I was working on the new F1 game, I'd be the guy who was the voice between the people playing that game and the guys who were making it...

-Tom Champion
Community Manager, Eurogamer.net

Conclusion

So far we’ve covered how a game is made, and hopefully, I’ve shown you a little about the daily lives of those who work in the industry. We should now consider other elements of their working life.

There are many articles regarding the hours worked in the industry and what is called "crunch." Crunch is usually when a game is nearing completion or an important milestone, and a final push is needed to get the game completed and released on time with the highest possible quality.

To do this, companies require their staff to work much longer hours to achieve the highest quality product they can deliver. This can easily be 10-14 hour days and weekends. A lot of the time there will be little or no reimbursement for your efforts. You may get paid, but more likely, you will be reimbursed with food and time off for the extra time worked, sometimes known as TOIL.

I personally have done 3 days and 2 nights without leaving the office, and I regularly pulled 24-hour shifts. Crunch is without a doubt the number one reason people leave the games industry. However if you’re willing to pull out all the stops and make every sacrifice you can for the sake of the game, then crunch can also be a fun, rewarding time which could make the difference between a temporary position and a permanent contract.

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