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Game development is a hot area in a cool tech climate. If you’re ready for a new career, here’s a question: Have you got game?

Remember when tech was fun? Although geeks are still chic in many ways, the current employment scene has put some clouds over planet IT. With outsourcing, layoffs, and chronic unemployment, it’s tough to imagine a bright light on the tech employment horizon. But one niche profession is, indeed, growing fast enough for new jobs to be created regularly. Welcome to the gaming world.

The games industry is poised to be the next big employer of tech talent, and already its ranks are swelling. About 30,000 people are employed in game development in the United States, and analysts predict that around 5,000 new jobs will be created every year.

As with any field, breaking into the game industry requires more than dedication and enthusiasm. It necessitates some serious education. Fortunately, there are plenty of programs available for those who are thinking about getting their game on.

School craze

Formal game education is a fairly new phenomenon, and programs are still being tinkered with at many institutions. However, that doesn’t mean that the field lacks educational opportunities.

Carnegie Mellon was one of the first schools to recognize the need for game development degrees, and many colleges and universities have followed suit. Programs draw on a range of talents, from design to programming to writing, and can be found throughout the country.

Up until now, academia didn’t think of games as anything more than what their students did instead of studying. Then the industry started to grow, and suddenly major developers like LucasArts, Electronic Arts, and Microsoft Game Studios needed talented designers, artists, and programmers to meet a huge demand for new games.

Classes began to sprout up, but it wasn’t until two years ago, when the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) recognized the need for a standardized curriculum, that things really began to take off. The IGDA worked with schools, which in turn crafted better degree programs. Employers, too, were happy to see that they could depend on schools to supply skilled game workers.

“The industry is really moving ahead quickly, and it needs a well-educated workforce,” says Jason Della Rocca, IGDA program director. “Game companies are being very supportive of these educational efforts, because they know that if they hire these students, the companies will have to do less training.” Despite a wide range of programs, all the schools do all have one thing in common, no matter where they’re located or what classes they offer. “These students are just very excited, and unbelievably motivated,” says Andy Phelps, assistant professor of information technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology and developer of the school’s master’s-level concentration in game programming.

As fun as it might be to think about playing shoot-’em-up all day, students need to hunker down and excel if they’re going to land a position in the industry. Because there are many avid game designers, the field can be crowded for anyone looking for a job. Any kind of advantage over the next guy in line, like a degree or a internship, can be crucial.

“The game industry is hard to break into, there’s a lot of competition, so you need a good portfolio,” Phelps says. “That’s where these degrees come in.”

Talent pool

Game development used to be a single-person operation, akin to the garage start-ups of the Internet boom days. Programmers would design a game and spend countless hours hammering out the intricacies of play. Although that image of a lone hacker toiling in his workroom is a charming one, it’s not a model that works too well anymore.

Della Rocca says, “The industry can’t survive on that one-person effort anymore; it’s evolving too quickly. Different skills are needed now.” Because today’s games are so detailed, and demand multiple levels of interaction and complexity, companies need a range of individuals to develop each title. He notes, “If you look at some of the games today, they have insanely amazing graphics, and really compelling storylines. To do that requires very large teams of craftsmen of all types.”

To even begin building a game, companies need writers, character development experts, artists, and audio gurus. Within each field are sub-fields as well. For example, within the “artist” category is a bevy of different jobs like scene creator, character designer, even texture artists who can whip up a gravel road or a marble palace wall.

Beyond development, the industry needs people for marketing, distribution, public relations, and project management. It’s not unusual for a major game to have more than 100 people working on it, all with different abilities and training.

Schools have recognized this, and many offer a wealth of classes that give students an overview of the industry, but also help them strengthen their particular skills.

“Each student is unique in their ability to excel,” says Jerril Yoo, a designer at LucasArts. “Programs like these schools are offering are important, because it propels people into getting excited about what they’re doing with their lives. It helps them find that spark.”

Bright horizon

As “The Matrix Reloaded” has shown, games have the ability to be integrated with other media, which can only provide more of a boon for the industry. When the movie was released, the accompanying game, “Enter the Matrix,” continued the storyline of one character. Other movies and TV shows have had similar success, from “CSI” to James Bond.

This integration with other forms of entertainment means that people are becoming more comfortable with high-tech games, and also growing hungry for new titles. It’s even possible that those who get gaming degrees today won’t even be working on shooters and mazes in the years ahead.

Chris Tedin, academic director for game art and design at The Art Institutes, notes that as the gamer population grows, so too will the demand for game environments outside of the click-and-shoot world.

He says, “As the game paradigm becomes more common, people will game their way through shopping experiences online or even in the real world. I can imagine that you could have a virtual tour of a city you want to visit and that would be game-like. Gaming could be used in education or training as well.”

A whole generation of gamers is maturing, Tedin says, and they demand interactive environments. For those who’ve learned to build them, that could be good news in terms of job security. The best thing about learning to build games, though, isn’t about a paycheck or a solid 401k plan.

“It’s a very dynamic industry,” Della Rocca says. “Changes are going to happen, it’s going to get more complex. That’s pretty exciting.”

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