Making a Career in Digital Gaming – The Complete Guide

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We can say that digital games (or video-games) are already part of popular culture. But it wasn’t always like this. Just as cinema wasn’t initially considered an art form, digital games for a long time were considered only as a form of entertainment for children and teenagers.

This scenario has changed rapidly in recent years, both from an artistic and a market point of view. In fact, today the market for digital games is already bigger than even the cinematic market, turning around 93 billion dollars in 2013 (data from Gartner, see here). Therefore, we can safely say that today it is possible to pursue a career in the digital games market, since it already has a great maturity and scope.

In this article (which will be divided into four parts) I will explain everything you need to know about a career in the gaming world. We will see the types of careers, the profile of those who work with digital games, average salaries, types of market, besides talking about some Brazilian digital game companies and institutions (national and international) that offer digital game college and courses in various industry segments.

In this inaugural post of Game Production, I will discuss the profile of the professional who works with digital games, in addition to specifying what makes two of the most sought after professions in this sector: the programmer and the graphic artist.

The truth is that a lot of people are wrong when they think that to pursue a career in the world of digital games all they need to do is enjoy video games. Quite the opposite. It’s even worth saying that it’s not a prerequisite to like videogames: several successful professionals in the gaming world started their careers in other areas.

Professional’s Profile

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Anyone who wants to pursue a career related to the development of digital games should cultivate some important qualities. To begin with, knowing how to work collectively is fundamental. The development of a game usually involves a very large number of people who need to interact with each other to develop the project. Knowing how to explain details of your area of work to colleagues in other areas is fundamental, as well as documenting your own progress.

Even if you choose to be an independent professional, working through contracts with companies or managing your own project, the ability to communicate to others your progress and needs is very important.

In the three sections below we will discuss some of the key qualities that a career in the gaming world requires. In the first section, I’ll talk about what a career in the game world is not. I consider this an important topic, since many young people decide to pursue a career in digital games with a mistaken idea of what their career will be like. In the following two sections we will see some of the differences between working in a company and independently.

What a Career in Digital Games?

To succeed in a career in digital games it is not enough (and sometimes not necessary!) to like games, just as it is not enough to like watching movies to work in the film industry.

Some people even think that working in a gaming company will spend most of their time playing. This is clearly far from being true, not least because the game will only start to get really fun at a very advanced stage of the project, when it is already close to completion.

There is, however, the professional who plays prototype games all the time, looking for bugs (graphic or programming defects). Note that this means playing the same part of a game dozens and maybe hundreds of times, until you are sure there is no bug in that part of the game (which will not always be fun). We’ll see more about this career, the digital game tester, in the third part of this article.

Working for a company

The profile of an employee of a gaming company varies according to the profile and size of the company. In small companies, most of them in Brazil, multi-faceted professionals are sought. That is, professionals who can contribute in various segments of the game, such as design, programming, audio, etc. The more comprehensive the professional’s contribution within the project, the greater its importance.

In larger companies, the highly qualified professional in a specific area (say, for example, texture painters) tends to be more sought after. Large companies usually work in large, high quality games, which is reflected in the need to hire highly qualified professionals in their sub-area of work.

In both cases it is important to have a good general notion of how the whole process of game creation takes place, since they all work on the same product: a game.

Let’s see an example. The graphic artist when creating a 3D character must know what the game’s target platform will be, i.e. whether it will be a game for Playstation 3 or Android phones, for example. This information is necessary for him to make the character with the appropriate level of detail for the processing power of the device on which the game will run, ensuring a good performance of graphics.

Independent developers

It is also possible to pursue an independent career in the gaming world. Independent professionals usually work from their own residence, and can be a full or partial job (only in their free time, if they have another job). There are basically two types of independent developers:

Freelancer: the freelancer is the professional who works through contracts, without an employment relationship. Freelancers can work for both independent producers (see below) and small and large companies. Usually freelancers are hired to execute a very specific part of the project, such as the creation of the weapons of a shooting game.

Independent producer: the person who produces (manages, organizes) a complete game, usually of his own authorship. According to the project and his personal skills, the independent developer can develop all parts of the game, from its conception to the publication in some game market. He can also focus on a specific part of the game (for example, the story behind the game) and hire other people (freelancers) to develop the other parts of the game. We’ll talk a lot about that kind of career here on this site.

In Brazil there are several independent professionals working in the game market, either as freelancers (selling their work to any part of the world, through the internet) or as independent developers (developers of iPhone games, for example).

This is probably the best and safest option for those who want to work with games in a country where their market is not yet fully consolidated. Most independent professionals work in their spare time, and become full independent developers only when (and if) they can make a game or work of great financial success.

Career types

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There are several types of professionals who work in the area of game development, ranging from programmers to marketing professionals. But how to choose which career to pursue?

In this section I will try to help you answer this and other questions. We’ll see what each professional does, what training is necessary and the average salary for each profession. For this first part of the article, I chose to discuss two of the most sought-after careers: programmer and graphic artist. In the next parts I will talk about several other possible careers in the gaming world, such as game designer, game scriptwriter, audio designer, game tester and several others.

Programmer

The digital game programmer develops the basic code of the game. It is the programmer who creates the physics of the game (for example, how the driving of a car in a racing game changes with the wet track), which implements the game mechanics, the movement of the characters, among other things. The game programmer should not be confused with the game designer, whose attributions we will see in the second part of this article.

A game developer must have a solid background in computer programming, which can be obtained by attending a computer science college or taking high quality courses. The main languages to be mastered are C, C++ and JAVA, but some others are also used. Many people also get a good foundation by taking specific courses in digital game programming (we’ll see some of these courses in the section on courses and colleges in the third part of this article).

The salary of a game developer varies depending on the country and company where the developer works. A 2010 survey indicates that the average salary (considering several different countries) of a game developer is $95,000.00 (ninety-five thousand dollars) per year. A less experienced programmer, with approximately 3 years of career, earns on average US$ 72,000.00 (seventy-two thousand dollars) per year, while a highly experienced programmer earns on average US$ 127,000.00 (one hundred and twenty-seven thousand dollars) per year.

But what about Brazil? Around here, a beginner game programmer can earn up to $2,000.00 per month, or $26,000.00 per year (including the thirteenth salary). The salary of an experienced programmer is more than R$5,000.00 per month, or R$65,000.00 per year. These values are certainly much lower than those practiced internationally, since the Brazilian gaming market is still in its early stages.

Graphic Artist

The graphic artist who works with digital games is the professional responsible for the visual identity of the game. Besides defining the game’s graphic elements (color palette, styles, compositions) he is also responsible for the game’s visual communication.

It is common for the graphic artist to start his work before other professionals, such as programmers. This happens because the graphic artist is the professional responsible for defining the aesthetics of the game, something that is essential to the player experience.

In other words, the graphic artist is also responsible for translating into colors and shapes the nuances of game history and some game design concepts. That’s why only by looking we know when a character is villainous, neutral or good, or when a certain course of the game is dangerous or safe. These are examples of how the graphic artist can communicate with the player visually, through the colors, shapes and compositions chosen for each character or part of the scenario.

The graphic artist who works in modern digital games, such as those available for console, can work creating both 2D (textures, conceptual art) and 3D (character models, animations, phase layout) art. The annual salary of a graphic artist outside Brazil can vary between $50,000 and $100,000, depending on the region and experience of the professional.

In Brazil the salary is lower, mainly because we don’t have big game companies installed and with active production in Brazil. A graphic artist has an initial salary between R$ 1,500.00 and R$ 3,500.00 per month, (depending on the region of the country), that is, between R$ 19,500.00 and R$ 45,500.00 per year.

It is worth noting, however, that this is a profession where working as a freelancer in your free time is an excellent opportunity to earn more money and increase your portfolio. If English is not a problem, you still have the opportunity to work for independent companies and developers from other countries, receiving in dollar or euro. Not bad, right?

Conclusion

In this first part of the article on making a career in the gaming world, we talk about the main qualities that someone who thinks about working with games should have. We also began to go into more detail about possible careers in the world of digital games, discussing the main attributions and the average salary of two of the most sought-after careers: as a programmer and graphic artist.

In the second part of this article we will continue talking about the various career opportunities that exist in a gaming company. More specifically, we will talk about the famous career of game designer (the eye girl of most young people who think about working with games), audio designer, game tester, game scriptwriter, and several other careers.