Games Dev Advice

I’m often asked about breaking into games, so I thought I’d collate all my usual recommendations in one place – makes my life easier and might be useful to random browsers too. So, whether I pointed you at this info in person or you just stumbled across it online, hi!

Short version

  • If you want to make games, do it now. Do not wait until you’ve finished school or uni or “learned to code”. Dive in!
  • Download whatever tool you like the look of, and figure it out as you go, while making something you love.
  • Start with the smallest, simplest game you can think of. If in doubt, start with Pong or Breakout and add your own ideas.
  • Whatever you’re making, plan to sell it. “Just practicing” means leaving stuff out. Force yourself to finish it and release it to the world.
  • Enter game jams. Finishing a game in a time limit is excellent practice and stretches you (and me, for that matter)

Recommended Tools

Stencyl – a great way to get started. The free version will export Flash games, and if you create something you want to sell the pro version (Windows, Mac, iOS, Android) is affordable.

Unity 3D – a powerful editor. Simple enough for beginners but powerful enough for pros. Many professional games are built in Unity. Free version is missing a few high-end features, but supports most platforms.

Blender – a completely free 3D modelling, rendering and animation suite. Very advanced, but incredibly useful.

Career paths

There are two ways into games – you can either make games yourself, or get a job making games for a company. As with everything in life, there are pros and cons to both, and competition is fierce either way.

The traditional route is to get a job at a games company and work your way up, which was my way in. This route requires a formal education, usually to degree level, in a specific field; programming, animation, 3D modelling, design. The “easiest” entry point is QA because it requires no formal qualifications, but it is hard work and difficult to move into another discipline (though sometimes you can get into production or design via QA). Companies rarely want candidates who know a bit of everything – they want experts in a given discipline, or people with the potential to grow into experts. You will have to really love one specific part of the development process – building character models, for example, or programming AI. You will get the benefit of a regular salary, reasonable job security, and may get to work on big games, alongside dozens or hundreds of other talented developers. It’s quite a buzz, but can become stressful when the company needs you to deliver work to a strict deadline. And what you DON’T have is creative control – you’ll work on what the company needs you to work on, and the game will be shaped by the company’s needs. Even as a designer/artist you may only get responsibility for a level or two, which must fit in with the lead designer/artist’s vision. If you enjoy working within those parameters, you will shine.

Going independent is the other route. Modern tools are powerful enough that a lone developer can make a game by themselves, or in a very small team. You can make a game in your spare time and release it without quitting your day job. You have complete control of what you make, every decision can be yours (or your team’s). The flip side of this route is that working alone can be a real struggle. You will miss human company. You will doubt your own ability. You will run up against problems you don’t know how to solve and have no-one to help you. You have to do everything – not just making the game, but selling it and running your own business. If you work in your spare time you will be frustrated at how slow you progress. If you go full time you will have to sell X copies just to pay the bills, and that X may be a difficult number to reach. In either case you will be dragged away from the game to do tax returns and such like. You will have complete freedom but enormous self-imposed stress.

In all honesty, I’m playing up the down sides. There will be stressful days either way, but the majority of game development is enormous fun – solving new problems every day, creating art and stories and experiences for an ever-growing audience. I will suggest that even if you have already decided on your favourite niche and want to spend your career doing that, enter game jams anyway. Every one will give you an insight into your colleagues’ work and a nice demo for your CV/portfolio.

Useful Links

Ludum Dare – a wonderful game jam community.
Games Wales North – I maintain a list of useful resources here.

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One thought on “Games Dev Advice

  1. Hi. I have been reading your blog, and its really great. My son is very keen to get into this area of work and is taking Computer Science and Computing for GCSE. He has to do some work experience next July and has been asked to try to find something fairly soon and get the paperwork in. I wondered if you may be able to spare him some time – I can see you are very busy – but rather than just find anything to do, he really wants to get some experience within a field that he is likely to be working within (or aiming to!). Can you email me and let me know if this might be possible?

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