zophar53's Blog

Posted on Mar 30th 2018 at 08:00:00 AM by (zophar53)
Posted under Game development, careers, programming

I'm willing to bet I'm not the only member of this community who, when they were a kid, wanted to make video games when they grew up. Kids are asked what they want to be when they grow up pretty much their entire lives by their parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles, and teachers. Heck, when I got to high school there was a long survey we all had to take that spat out individual printouts of what careers would be good fits for each of us. I don't remember what mine said, but I certainly remember my apathy at reading a machine's assessment of what I should be doing with my life. I knew what I wanted to do, and no one could convince me otherwise. So what happened?

I've been playing video games since I was about 6 years old, but they didn't really become an obsessive hobby for me until I was 8. That was when my friend Desiree got her NES, and I played Super Mario Bros. for the first time. It was unlike any game I'd ever played. The graphics, color palette, music, level of control, and overall quality blew away anything else I'd played to that point. I bugged my mom at every opportunity that I wanted a Nintendo for my 8th birthday, and she didn't disappoint.

The story of that wonderful birthday in 1988 is the subject of an article for another day, but it's safe to say that between the ages of 8 and about 14 or so, that's all I wanted to do. I played every game I could get my hands on. I read Nintendo Power religiously, and although thoughts of girls and the pressures of middle and high school became major parts of my life once I became a teenager, I didn't lose the passion. It was such a fascination for me that when anyone asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would say I wanted to make video games.

This game literally changed the way I thought about video games

The first thing about saying that as a 10-year-old in 1990 is that even though games were exploding into pop culture like they never had before, most adults didn't really take them seriously, and at that early age I wasn't taken very seriously when I said this. They would laugh a little and assumed that I'd grow out of it eventually, but what they didn't realize is that I literally had no other career goal in mind, even into my teenage years. When I was in the heart of high school and starting to think about college, I started seeing the first ads for Full Sail University pop up in the pages of NP and GamePro.

For those unfamiliar with Full Sail, they've actually been around since 1979. They were originally called Full Sail Recording Workshop and their curriculum specialized in video, film, and music production. In 1995, Full Sail started branching out into computer animation and game design, and eventually offered full bachelor's degree programs for them.

"Whoa whoa whoa. There's an actual school that will teach me how to make video games??!!"

Alas, there were some issues. I had no idea how I was going to be able to afford going to school there. My dad had set up college tuition savings accounts for my brother and I, but convincing him to let me use that money to go to video game school quickly proved to be futile. As I've mentioned in past articles, he didn't do much to discourage my gaming habit; quite the opposite more often than not. But there's a big difference between encouraging a hobby and spending mass amounts of time and money to dedicate your life to such a pursuit. The other issue was that Full Sail University was in Florida, and online colleges weren't really a thing yet. Adding the cost of moving and dorm living in FL only added to the list of reasons why game school just wasn't in the cards for me.

The second (and in hindsight the more significant) thing about wanting to make video games at 10 years old was that I didn't really know what that meant. I was too young to fully understand what it took to work with computers on a technical level, and in those pre-internet days information was hard to come by. Now, you better believe I wrote letters to Nintendo Power asking how I could make my game development dreams a reality, but I'm sure they must've gotten similar letters from thousands of kids like myself, and the most I would get out of any of them was that I should learn computer programming.

Another thing I didn't understand at that age was the people answering those letters probably weren't all that educated in such things either. They worked for a magazine or for Nintendo's game tips line. They weren't programmers or developers. Regardless, I adopted the more mature-sounding answer of "I want to be a computer programmer" when I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. I still didn't really know what it took to make a video game, but at least now I had something to call it that adults would take seriously.

Programming isn't nearly as visually interesting as it is in the movies

I was rather proud of myself when I volunteered for independent study classes in high school to learn BASIC and PASCAL programming languages. By the time I got to my freshman year of college at OSU, I'd signed up for a more advanced programming class and had learned of a language called C++, which seemed to be the fancy, powerful language most mainstream developers were using at the time. I would think to myself, "this is it, I've figured out a path to actually do this. I'm on my way!" How naive I was.

Over the next 5-6 years, the rise and fall of my time at OSU and transition into a career that has absolutely nothing to do with video games is a tale that is too complicated and irrelevant to address here. Suffice it to say that I never really got the game development spark back after I lost it, but it's interesting to think about.

In my adult life, as games have gotten infinitely more complex, I've been able to learn so much more about what it takes to make a video game, the people and companies that make it happen, and the industry as a whole. To this day I'm fascinated at what developers did to create the games I loved so much as a child. The limits they had to work with and forced creativity that came out of it. I've learned about cutscenes, level design, combat mechanics, sound design, voice recording, hardware limitations, and how it's kind of a miracle every time a game comes together at all, let alone on time and within budget. A game takes lots of people and countless hours with very little to show for it until the home stretch. And when it doesn't work, gamers' expectations are shattered, the game doesn't sell, and people lose their jobs.

One image I'll never forget is that of God of War II creative director Cory Barlog, during a Making Of documentary included as a bonus feature. He's explaining how insanely complicated it is to make it all work and how stressful it is while looking super disheveled, like he hasn't slept in about a month. God of War II is an incredible game, but I can't imagine working yourself to the bone for years at a time on a thing without knowing if people will even like it.

Making a bologna sandwich for lunch. Game developers living the dream.

I'd like to think that if I'd stuck with it, I could've handled the technical side of game development. I don't know much about how modern game development tools work, but I truly did enjoy those programming classes I took so long ago. I have no doubt I would've enjoyed learning whatever new software came along that would allow me to make a better game. What I think I would've had a harder time dealing with is the instability. Game companies merging, closing, hiring, firing, and potential for long stretches being out of work or having to move across the country for a job at a new studio. Putting years of your life into a project that gets cancelled and having nothing to show for it. By the time it became possible for a small team of indie developers to make a game I was so far down my current career path that I would've been terrified to start over again even if I'd wanted to.

Looking back, I have no regrets about my early career aspirations. I wanted to do what I loved and held it up as a beacon for so long that I wasn't wise enough to think about anything else. Now that I think about it, it's not unlike an aspiring actor or musician who doesn't have a backup plan in case they don't get that record deal or breakout starring role. It's fun to think about for sure, but I'm not sure if the stresses of being a game developer would be something I'd enjoy at this stage of my life, and at the end of the day I'm pretty happy with the career and life I have now. Besides, I think it'd be harder to enjoy playing games so much if I was so entrenched in creating them. And if making games means I would end up not being able to enjoy playing them as much, that's not a trade-off I'd be thrilled about.

I'd love to know if there's anyone else who had dreams of working for a video game developer when they were a kid. Were you able to make it happen? If so, are you still in the industry? If it didn't work out for you, why not? Feel free to share your stories in the comments below.

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It is quite stressful making games...

I didn't have the dream while young of wanting to make games, I didn't get into it until after I started programming in high school.  I eventually went to college to study software engineering and we had some game dev classes and a club as well.

I took part in all of that and started working on a game my senior year of college.  It was made in a weekend for Global Game Jam.  The game was done (concept, code, art, etc) in that weekend with 3 other guys.  We decided - hey it might be fun to try to polish this and put it out there on Steam.

That's were the fun ended haha.  Shortly after that, I had to rewrite the game a 2nd time from scratch to improve performance.  Then 2 of the 4 guys dropped out of the project entirely.  That just left myself (doing design, code, marketing, and business) and the artist who handled all the assets (images, sound, etc).  After a few months we got it on greenlight and started trying to promote it, all while working to get everything working and ready. 

About 9 months after that, it got greenlit (yay).  Well, by this time I was graduated and working a full time software engineering job.  Most of my days were work 8 hours, then come home and work 2-6 more hours on the game, then work on the game 4-8 hours Saturday and Sunday. 

This continued for nearly 2 more years before we finally got to a point where we felt it was ready for release.

So yea, its a lot more daunting then a lot of people realize - and this was just a side project that I was doing.  I decided it wasn't worth my time to actually go into the industry working for a larger company.  There are plenty of horror stories on the working conditions there, so I won't go into them.  But I met a lot of professional developers as well who have gotten burned out and either went indie or left the industry.

I am currently working on another game side project, but I'm taking it a lot more slowly.  It wasn't worth my health and social life to work those kinda hours and the stress of trying to manage everything and release a complete product.

Anyway, that's my experience.  Nice article, and yea sometimes it's better off to just not get into.  Really got to evaluate whether its worth your time or if there are more important things in your life that you'd rather do.
I used to want to be a game designer, then I saw the old Gran Turismo making of video on PlayStation Underground, and saw how most of the devs slept in bags under their desk or in cots (if they were important).  Hats off to anyone who is dedicated enough to do that for a living.
This article hit me hard - well done!  I had a plan to go to college, learn computer programming, and become a hotshot programmer who would go on to work in the games industry and be involved in designing video games.  My first week in Computer Science class, I was expected to code in C++ (which I hadn't learned yet) to calculate a mathematical equation that I didn't understand.  From that point forward, it was an uphill climb that I was not prepared for.  Suffice to say, at the end of my freshman year, my dream was pretty much dashed, because I was barely pulling a C in the 102 class, and only accomplishing that by basically plagiarizing from another student because I didn't understand the code well enough to write it on my own.  I don't regret the experience, however.  It did give me some foundational knowledge that I parlayed into helping me land my first IT job, and that set me on the path to the systems administration career that I have now.  Would I like to have had my name in a game's credits at some point?  Absolutely.  But I can't say it would have been worth the frustration and heartache it would have taken to get there.

@Misto: What an incredible hassle that must have been, from the sounds of it.

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