THE STATE OF GAMING 2015
The week of March 1, 2015

The problem in the gaming industry no one is talking about

By Matt Oztalay

I have the distinct pleasure of making video games for a living. The work is fun but far from easy. Certainly, working in the game industry is fraught with issues. We face harassment and threatsovertime, and job security issues. Just recently a gentleman at Gearbox wrote an op-ed for Kotaku about the dissonance between his expectations and the reality of working in the industry. Indeed, everything in games is not fine.

Put all that aside. Right now there’s another issue we’re facing, but I haven’t seen it discussed to any great extent: We’re having trouble finding qualified and skilled entry-level talent.

I make it a point to try and provide critiques and advice to aspiring developers whenever possible. Anytime I go to a dev-related event around the country, I’ll end up meeting a few excited folks who want to be a part of this world. In so doing, I’ve noticed an alarming trend: There’s a certain set of expectations for entry-level candidates, and I’m finding these expectations are not being met. What’s even more concerning to me is the quality of candidates coming from for-profit institutions.

I have strong philosophical differences with the notion of for-profit education (not unlike John Oliver). The for-profit institutions that offer game programs do so through advertising that cultivates certain stereotypical ideas about what it’s like to work in the video games industry and the ease with which one can get a job making video games. I’ve been making games for about four years now, and I have never once had to seriously utter the phrase “tighten up the graphics on level three.”

We’re having trouble finding qualified and skilled entry-level talent.

Their advertising creates a much-maligned misconception about what it’s like to work in the industry. It’s all geared toward making a career in video games seem as simple as signing up for a degree or playing a round of Halo. I’m not here to debate the merits of the university model; that’s a different article for a different time. But if you’re interested in making games for a living, you need to research first on what you’d want to do and second on how to get there.

Consider this: The cost of many “game degree” programs can be as much as a house. While college as an investment can be worth a lot in the long run, it’s a mistake to think the return on the investment will be the same as an asset that you can live in while you’re fixing it up. It’s more like buying a run-down house you intend to flip. You’ve got to spend time and energy to clean it up, redo the paint, finish the kitchen, get rid of the termites, and cover all the holes in the floor. Even then, you don’t know thing one about renovating a house. You might end up talking to the wrong people about plumbing and end up with water leaking everywhere.

The biggest issue I see is that students don’t know how to best present themselves: Their websites, portfolios, or résumés don’t communicate what’s needed, and the content of their portfolios either doesn’t reflect their skills or the skills they’re showing aren’t meeting expectations for entry-level candidates.

The cost of many “game degree” programs can be as much as a house.

There’s certainly no prescribed path to break into the game industry. Believe me, we spent a considerable amount of time talking about it at last year’s Game Developers Conference and came out with an extensive list of ideas but no conclusions. There are numerous ways to learn more about game development from sources on the Internet and in person. Just check out the local Autodesk and Unity user groups, forums, subreddits, and game jams.

It’s amazing that so many excited young people want to make video games and grow the next generation of this medium. They have a passion that helps reinvigorate game studios that you can’t find anywhere else. I don’t want that passion to go to waste, though. I don’t want these people to languish in “still looking for work” purgatory with a set of skills that aren’t always applicable to other industries. I don’t want the industry to end up with an experience vacuum when we start to see the first big round of industry retirees.

None of this is to say there’s no hope for aspiring developers and game education. Game educators need to spend more time talking to the people on the front lines of development, finding out what they do on a day-to-day basis, and they need to find ways to incorporate those things into their curricula. Failing that, know that the two most valuable skills a candidate can have are the ability to solve problems and the ability to communicate competently.

We need to demystify the game industry.

It’s equally important for game developers to speak as visiting professionals, if for no other reason than to expose students to the people in the industry. We need to demystify the game industry; there are simply too many misconceptions surrounding game development.

Lastly, I call on developers to dedicate some of their time to mentoring students. Something as simple as a résumé or portfolio critique from a professional can make a huge difference in the life of an aspiring developer. Knowing they have someone to turn to for career advice when they need it is powerful and lasting. If you want to go the extra mile, contact your local International Game Developers Association (IGDA) chapter and see if they need speakers for presentations at colleges and high schools.

The game industry is growing and changing every day, and that makes it hard for educators to keep pace. We all play a part in developing quality entry-level talent for the industry, and we’re all invested in the success of that talent. Let’s get out there and make sure developers don’t stagnate.

Matt Oztalay is a technical artist at Certain Affinity. If you’re an aspiring developer and want some advice or a portfolio critique, shoot me an email at matt@oztalay.com.

Illustration by Max Fleishman