Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Training to be a Game Developer

Recently, I posted a massive brain-dump on /r/gamedev, in an effort to further disseminate some of the info I've collected here. The results were very positive, and I'm thrilled that so many people found useful topics to peruse.

One question came up, however, which involved an underrepresented topic on my blog: training. Further, another developer pointed out that most of my advice was more applicable to folks who already had skills and experience in game development.

With that in mind, I thought I might share some of my experience on training and skills in game development, both as an indie and a former decision-maker in hiring at BioWare.

How to Become a Skilled Game Developer: The TL;DR Version

If I were to summarize this post in one statement, it would be this:
Learn and practice your chosen craft full-time for 5 years.
There. That's it. That's all you have to do. Figure out what it is you want to do as an indie or game industry employee, and start learning and practicing the craft full-time. That means 8 hours per day, 5 days per week, taking time for holidays and vacation. Do that earnestly, and you'll be a skilled game-maker and master of your chosen craft in about roughly five years.

Already have a job? Cut the hours per day down, and add an appropriate number of years. E.g. 4 hours per day instead of 8 with 10 years instead of 5, or similar.

What About School?

That's a good question. What about school?

Consider [the way we define] a master's degree. In much of the world, a master's degree represents professional-level mastery in a practice or field of study. It is typically about 2 years of advanced study after completing a 4 year bachelor's program.

According to the ECTS standard, that equates to roughly 1500-1800 hours of study per year, over 6 years. By comparison, one year of full-time work represents roughly 2000 hours.

Masters program = 6 years * (1500 to 1800 hours per year) = 9000 to 10,800 hours.
5 years full-time = 5 years * (2000 hours per year) = 10,000 hours.

As an aside, Malcom Gladwell has written an interesting book about several of the world's great success stories. One thing many have in common? 10,000 hours or more of diligent work in their field. It's not the only thing that got them there, mind you, but I tend to agree with him that it's an important component.

Is School Better Than Self-Training?

That's hard to say, really.

On one hand, an accredited degree program includes much more than simply study of related topics. It includes experience with different learning methods, socializing in different settings, learning to be independent of one's family, access to contacts in academia and industry (including valuable experts, a.k.a. professors), and access to facilities that would often be beyond the reach of a single person.

On the other hand, school isn't always the wise investment it used to be. With tuition rapidly outpacing housing costs, and free educational resources abundant all around us, one could probably have an equal (and sometimes, better) self-directed education.

Some Degrees Are Better Than Others

If you do choose to attend university, carefully consider the program you're following. Some degrees carry more weight, and are more valuable in the world, than others. The same goes for institutions.

When I was a hiring manager at BioWare, I looked at a lot of resumes and portfolios. I not only made decisions on hiring for my own team, I sat in as an advisor on decisions for other teams. When deciding on which applicants to invite for an interview, we looked at three things:
  1. Their work experience.
  2. Their portfolio.
  3. Their schooling.
Numbers 1 and 2 were, by far, the biggest factor across all hires. We wanted to see what you've done, and if that level of quality was high enough that we wanted you on the team. A killer portfolio of work (art, mods, tech demos, etc.) would almost guarantee an interview. Similarly, a significant role on an awesome game or team would get our attention.

In the absence of those two (or sometimes, despite them), school could sometimes tip the balance. Seeing a programmer graduate of University of Waterloo or MIT, or an art student from Sheridan would usually be a worth a second look.

However, unless the school was reputable as a consistent, quality source of students in the given field, it rarely did more than tell us the applicant had enough diligence and social grace to graduate. Important skills, no doubt, but not exclusively learned in a university, and not enough on their own to warrant an interview.

Work Hard, No Matter Which Path You Choose

One thing is certain, though, and that is discipline matters. Whether you enroll in an university program, or decide to teach yourself, take it seriously and work your ass off. Kicking your own ass to learn as much as possible, and putting that into practice, will put you head and shoulders above the sea of applicants around you.

Whether watching online courses and practicing your craft, or sitting in lecture halls and doing homework, the amount of effort you put into your education will matter more than where/if you enroll.

Be Well-Rounded

One thing to be careful of, whether studying in an accredited program or on your own, is to be well-rounded in your curriculum. Skill in your craft is important, but fairly useless if you can't relate it to the rest of the world.

Learn a bit about history, psychology, art, science, writing, and anything else you can manage. Learn the scientific method and quantitative analysis. Learn objectivity, various problem-solving methods, how to brainstorm effectively, and how to find info that you need.

And please, for the love of all that is holy, learn how to work well with others. In fact, make this your top priority. I can tell you with 100% certainty that if you are a douche, your career will be short and painful. You could be brilliant, a virtuoso, or a damned modern-day Leonardo DaVinci. But if you're also a douche, you're out. (Unless you're a rich-enough douche to call the shots, in which case your career will be longer, but probably still painful.)

Also, a note of caution: some crafts are less employable than others outside the game industry. If you can't think of another industry using your skills besides games, you may want to consider making said craft secondary in your studies. Look for complementary, more in-demand areas to study, and use that as a way into games. You can still specialize in your preferred craft, but you'll have a broader skill to fall back on.

As an example, I know quite a few game designers who were programmers or quality assurance before they became designers. In contrast, I know very few designers who started out in the industry as a designer. As another example, most of the tech artists I worked with came from programming or art backgrounds. None of them came from a "tech art" degree program.

What Did I Do?

So how did I get into the game industry? A little bit of everything above, amounting to a mainstream education mixed with lots of self-training in my spare time.

I started describing that process here, but it was quickly turning into a story of its own. So with that in mind, maybe it's best saved for a separate post.

Stay tuned for part two!


  1. Ouch full time practice for five years? That seems like a long time. You better have skills after working out for that long.

    Then again, five years at 40 hours a week makes about 10,000 hours. That is that magic number that gives you expertise in an area, right?

    1. No one becomes a skilled gamedev and THEN goes into the industry.

      Before getting into the industry, all you're really doing is minimizing the amount of training your employer needs to do AFTER they hire you.

      It's why extra emphasis is given to experience. For fresh graduates, we look for people who've done more beyond the set curriculum. They've racked up 6000hrs versus someone who's just stuck to the program and done their 4000hrs.

      2000hrs might not seem like much, but that's a whole year less an employer has to fork out to just to train you up.

    2. Like insidethemagicshop says, an employer ideally wants someone they can hire and ramp-up as quickly as possible. If you already know the ropes, training is mostly minimized to corporate culture stuff, rather than your chosen skillset.

      10,000 hours is just a ballpark figure that represents a high likelihood that a person has explored the entire range of their skill, and has tricks for most stumbling blocks. Folks with less experience are still employable, they'll just need some extra guidance and investment.

  2. Dan, I'd add 'make some mistakes and learn from them'. It typically gets rolled into Work Experience and is an expected part of what you should have learned when you do get to 10,000 hrs.

    It's possible to pad up your hours - but really, I'd be looking for those that actually failed fast and often and survived.

    1. Definitely! Learning from failure is integral to work where failures are commonplace (especially workplaces that subscribe to fail early and often).

      Besides, interviewers LOVE to ask "what was your biggest failure, and how did you respond to it?" :)