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Can I be a Game Developer?

Many young Wizards seek information about what it takes to become a game developer.

If you’re serious about exploring this industry, there are three schools that specialize in various aspects of video game development. Most companies, including our own, require employees to hold a degree, preferably in their field of employment, and some of the staff at KingsIsle come from these three schools.

Digipen: http://www.digipen.edu
FullSail: http://www.fullsail.edu
GuildHall: http://guildhall.smu.edu

To get started, here are some valuable online resources:
Python: Python is a FREE programming language. "Invent with Python" is a free book about Python. It was written to be understandable by kids as young as 10 to 12 years old, although it is great for anyone of any age who has never programmed before. For more on this free book and language, visit http://inventwithpython.com/

Scratch: Scratch is a programming language that makes it easy to create your own interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art -- and share your creations on the web. As young people create and share Scratch projects, they learn important mathematical and computational ideas, while also learning to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively.For more information about Scratch see this website:

Gamesalad: GameSalad Creator is the perfect tool for teaching game design as part of STEM education. Its unique drag-and-drop user interface lets students build their own games in hours and days, not weeks and months! Deep educational discounts and a wide array of teacher resources are available to help you get your program up and running!

Just keep writing down and refining your ideas, look for new ways to do something that currently exists, and continue to expand your knowledge of math, physics, geometry and history, all of which play a vital role in making and designing a video game.

Best of luck, young Wizards. I hope you will all continue to enjoy your adventures in Wizard City and beyond, and keep creating!

Interested in creating video games for a living? This is the first in a series of thoughts and suggestions from J Todd Coleman, creative lead behind Wizard101 and Pirate101

So, you want to make games for a living?

I hear quite often; people tell me that they love the idea of creating games for a living and ask me for tips on how to get started. While I’m not exactly qualified to be a career guidance counselor, I can tell you what worked for me and for a number of the people that I work with. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a few tidbits that you’ll find helpful.

First off, you should realize that no one comes out of school and is hired to “go think up a game.” That just doesn’t happen, any more than a newly minted film school graduate is given the chance to direct a Hollywood blockbuster. Games are extremely risky and expensive endeavors, and one of the biggest thing that publishers and investors (i.e. “the people with money”) ask is: how can we reduce risk?

And the easiest answer to that question is: repeat what has worked before. Realistically, this means that everyone wants to invest in proven teams, proven leadership, established brands/stories/characters, and (more often than not) in gameplay mechanics that are known to be fun.

So, where does that leave you? How do you get started if you really, really want to make games?

Well, there isn’t just one answer, so over the next week or so I’m going to do a series of short updates to cover some of the avenues that I have seen work for others.

Step One: Education

Education, Education, Education! I can’t stress this one enough. Look, everyone thinks they have great ideas. some people are wrong, some people are right. Let’s assume that you’re one of the latter. Even if you DO have a great idea, it’s not worth anything unless you can take that idea and effectively document it, turn it into a plan, and communicate that plan to others. This means that you are going to need the core skills that can only come through education: writing, math, logic, technology, public speaking – all of the stuff you are exposed to when receiving a well-rounded education.

Having a high school diploma is an absolute must. Seriously, no one will even look at your resume without one. Even beyond that, a college degree is usually expected -- especially for any technical jobs (programmers, technical artist, database administrator, etc.)

To use KingsIsle as an example, it is rare that we hire someone without a college degree. We have – but they really have to be an absolutely exceptional candidate for us to put aside our degree preference.

There are a lot of universities that offer game development programs now. Some of them are quite good. and other degrees can be just as valid: we get programmers with degrees in computer science, engineering, physics – you name it. It doesn’t have to be specifically “game related,” it just needs to be related to the career path in question. My lead writer on Pirate101, for instance, was a triple major in college (English, Anthropology and Music!) Personally, I went to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, earning a degree in Business Management with a minor in Computer Science (and, oddly enough, a focus on Religious Studies – just because I enjoyed it. Interestingly enough, that additional focus has helped shape my career as much as anything.)

A college degree won’t guarantee you a job in the game industry immediately, of course – but it definitely helps.

Feel free to ask any questions you like. Next update, I’ll cover another vector into the games industry, which I will call "Entry Points."

Q&A with J Todd Coleman in relation to his ongoing series: "So, you want to work on games for a living?"

Question from Don D: "I'm not sure if the school I pick is crucial to learning the things I truly need to be in the video game field. I am going to ... University for computer art and animation. I'm really interested in creating the story for games and art. My friends say I should be taking programming and the University says computer art an animation..kind of lost on what actually to take, lol...any advice would be greatly appreciated."

J.Todd Coleman:Great question, Don. The first thing you really need to decide is the type of games that you want to focus on. Think of it this way: what you want to spend your time on every day when you show up to work? do you want to work on a big team, working on a single thing that you really enjoy -- or a small team, where you have to wear a lot of different hats?

The size of project really determines how focused you need to be. For larger games, like Wizard101, we have a lot of different teams, who own the different areas of the game: one team (writers) work on storyline and dialogue and character visions, another team (artist) who craft the look of the characters and environments and spell effects and interface, another team (design) will determine the rules of the game, and yet another team (programming) writes the code and tools that bring it all to life. not to mention testers, producers, etc.

for smaller games, like a DS title, you could find yourself wearing a lot of hats (like "writer-designer-programmer-producer".) For a game like Wizard101, you would own one area and become really great at it.

really it's a question of what you want to work on. the larger the game project, the more you'll need to choose an area of focus.

Hope that helps. Good luck!

Step Two: Entry Points

The most comment entry points into this industry – unless you already have experience as a programmer or artist – is to start in Game Testing (commonly called “Quality Assurance”), Community Management or Customer Support. I would say about half of the people that we’ve hired to be new designers or producers (i.e. project managers) over the last year have come from other teams within the company.

All of these organizations are the ones more likely to take a risk on someone that might not have experience, but can demonstrate intelligence/problem solving, a positive attitude, and willingness to work hard. I’ve seen many people start in these organizations and do quite well there. Some of them decide they love it, and never want to leave – others do it for a few years, and then jump the fence into (typically) design or game production (i.e. project management.) The upside of this path is that you really get to learn the game, you get to know the team, you get access to the tools of the trade (and can spend time to learn them, if you want to) and, most importantly, you get a chance to prove yourself. Remember, for most project managers, a big part of hiring is about reducing risk!

A word of caution: these jobs aren’t easy! They often entail a lot of detail-level work (defeat this boss 500 times, to make sure the % chance of dropping the Staff of Doom is working correctly!) and long hours (spend the next 12 hours working through billing issues with frustrated customers!) but you didn’t really think it was going to be easy, did you? Anything worth doing takes a lot of hard work. You can’t become a concert pianist by plinking a few keys for a few hours. You know how it works! Practice, practice, practice. You have to play until your fingers ache. Then you go to sleep, get up, and do it again.

If it was easy, everyone would do it. As people have said for years, "you've got to want it!"

That’s it for this update. Next week, I'll cover another option (and walk through an example of how it worked for a friend of mine) in a writeup titled: "Step Three: Ask for Help."

Another week, another tidbit of advice for those looking to make a career in the video games industry. This week, I want to tell a quick story that I’ll put under the heading, “Ask for Help!”

Back when I was working on my first game, I remember being at a tradeshow (2001? 2002?) when a kid named Alex came up to me and introduced himself. He was an artist, and while his portfolio was small, it was pretty cool – he had a unique anime/cartooney style that (while rough) was pretty impressive. He wanted to know how to get a job working for our company. Unfortunately, his skills were limited to 2D, he was an illustrator… he did comic book style art. He didn’t know how to model and paint 3D characters or environments, much less build them in a way that an animator could rig them up and teach them to move, which is what it takes to “bring them to life.” We were a small company, only around 20 people at the time, and all the jobs that we had open (there weren’t many) required artists who could do work in both 2D AND in 3D. When you have less people to rely on, you need people with a wider array of skills.

Unfortunately, it’s a very different skill set -- 2D illustration is more like sketching or painting, whereas 3D art is in a lot of ways like sculpting. You basically have to “mold” the creature, tree, or castle wall out of digital clay (it’s not a perfect analogy, but it works.)
So we sadly had to turn him down for a job interview. He had talent, but without the skills we needed, it wasn’t even worth discussing.

A resilient young fellow, he took our rejection in stride and decided to learn the skills we needed – so that the next time he approached us, he would have a better shot at getting an interview. To make that happen, he reached out to people inside our company to narrow down the exact set of skills he would need to get the job. What is out process? What tools do we use? What standards do we use when we create characters or monsters for the game (how many polygons? What size textures are appropriate?)

Asking around at the conference, he eventually found his way to one of our artists, Jeff Toney. (I’ve mentioned Jeff before, he’s the artist that created the environment for the Wizard City hub, and also invented the “doodle art” style that we use everywhere.) Jeff agreed to give Alex his email address, so that Alex could hit him up with questions and Jeff would respond – not immediately, but eventually – with tips and pointers.

Over the course of the next year, Alex worked tirelessly to learn how to create 3D art. He learned the tools – the same tools we used, every day – and he started to practice. He sent his work to Jeff for critiques. I’ll be honest, his first stuff wasn’t great (sorry, Alex!), in fact I remember he sent in a tree stump that looked like a rock. But he kept doing it, and like anything else, the more you do it the more you improve.

It helped that he had raw talent – as I said, he was an incredibly talented illustrator. The challenge was learning to adapt those muscles to a new way of thinking, and a new set of tools. About a year later he sent in a character that looked pretty solid. We hired him as a full time associate artist, and that’s how he got his start in the industry.

Alex doesn’t work for us anymore, though we did work together for five (eight? ten?) years – and I wouldn’t be surprised if we work together again in some capacity. It’s a small industry. (Who knows, maybe I’ll work for him some day.) In the meantime, he has started his own game company, Stoic Games, with two of his buddies from Bioware. He is now working as the creative lead on the upcoming game, "The Banner Saga."

As I said, everyone has a different path. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in finding yours.

ps. No, I don’t mean ask me! I’m happy to answer questions, but I can’t be a personal mention to everyone. There are plenty of people in the industry, and most of them are pretty nice. Reach out, you’ll be find someone willing to help.