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All work and all play

There’s a solid career in those silly little games.

Some wise person once said, “There’s not much money in poetry, but there’s also not much poetry in money.” The truly creative people in the world, for the most part, are willing to scrape by in order to follow their muses. But imagine making a good living, a very good living, doing what you would prefer doing in your free time anyway. For a lucky few, a career in video-game development is turning out to be a dream come true.

The video-game industry is shaping up to be the next revolution in entertainment, on par with television in the ’50s. Figures released by New York-based market research group NPD Interactive Entertainment Services shows that sales of game software generated more than $6 billion in 2001, and projected future figures could make that number seem puny. About 50,000 people were working in game development in 1998, and most studies project that number will at least triple by the end of 2003.

The training realm for the video-game industry is still getting its feet under it. There are few studies, statistical or anecdotal, that present solid evidence showing one track as steadier than another when it comes to getting established as a game developer. There are few one-stop shops where you can get all the necessary training to become a game developer–at least at this point. So while the industry is still somewhat in frontier mode, you’ll likely need to get your training in bits and pieces.

To the nth degree

That’s not to say that dedicated video-game trainers don’t exist. Two of the best-known are Redmond, Wash.-based DigiPen Institute of Technology and Winter Park, Fla.-based Full Sail University.

DigiPen advertises itself as the first school in the world dedicated to computer science instruction as it applies to real-time interactive simulation programming, as well as being one of the oldest computer animation schools in the world. It offers two- and four-year degree programs in Real-Time Interactive Simulation (RTIS) and a two-year degree program in 3D animation and graphics. The latter program focuses on story development, character design, storyboarding, lighting, camera composition, and sound design, pushing students through multiple production cycles to simulate real-life deadlines. Meanwhile, the RTIS program contains extensive training in mathematics and physics as a foundation for studies in general computer science and computer graphics, with each student joining in the creation of a game project each year. In addition, DigiPen offers summer workshops (with two levels each) in Video Game Programming and 3D Computer Animation.

Meanwhile, Full Sail seems tailored for the geek who seeks to get behind the screen and start creating immediately. Using training in C++, Direct X–and as a foundation, Full Sail’s Game Design and Development–an Associate of Science Degree Program can be completed in 15 months by the full-time student. Courses in Full Sail’s degree program cover artificial intelligence, asset production, C++, Windows programming, network operating systems, physics and math, real-time 3D modeling and gaming, game design structure, multimedia audio, design fundamentals, and immersive multiplayer playing. The curriculum also includes a full video-game project as a required thesis of sorts.

Across all disciplines

Game development is a profession that calls for a lot of skills–skills that you may already have, or that you may be accumulating without even knowing it.

The main thing to remember about game development is that you’ll be working as a member of a team. Even if a game’s concept is your baby, you still need scenarists, writers, artists, musicians, programmers, and artificial-intelligence specialists, to make your brainstorm a reality. That takes managerial skills, as well as a rough idea of how the creative process works in all those other disciplines. That’s why most successful game developers have a college degree before all else, often a liberal arts degree.

And, of course, you have to understand the nuts and bolts of it all. Few game designers at any level have gotten there without learning programming and software design via C and C++ certifications, since those are the programming languages used most often in video games. It’s also important to learn assembly language, and to be flexible and curious enough to learn new programming languages as they come along.

That’s not to say that a computer science or other B.S. degree isn’t valuable in this field. Let’s say you’re designing a racing game. In order to make the cars in your game turn, spin, accelerate, and stop with any authenticity, you have to understand the physical laws at work in each scenario, and maybe even be able to write algorithms that can translate into action on the screen. Degrees in cognitive science and electrical engineering are also a good fit.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer engineers across all industries earned an average of $59,850 in 1998. Programmers across all industries earned an average of $47,550. BLS does not collect data specifically for software engineers and programmers in the video game industry. But a survey at the 1999 Game Developers conference found that game programmers with more than a year of experience earned an average of $59,127 in 1998, while lead programmers earned more. At this point, an experienced game programmer usually earns a base salary of between $60,000 and $80,000 annually.

If you’re still wondering whether game development is for you, look at your current state of immersion in games. If you love playing them but have never had a hankering to create one, you might not be be prepared for the the long hours and technical challenges that face developers. But if you’ve already programmed a couple of crude working PC games (or any software program) of your own, or at least have toyed with the idea, game development might be worth a look.

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