Here's a trick to get Mom off your back: The next time she tells you to stop wasting so much time playing Madden NFL '07, tell her you're just training for a career.
There are now about 500 new videogames hitting the shelves every year, according to market research company NPD Group, and all those game studios need teams of driven, highly skilled gamers who can develop and produce virtual worlds.
There are many ways to break into the videogame industry, experts say. The pathway into sought-after studios like Electronic Arts, THQ and Ubisoft Entertainment isn't always glamorous, but the payoffs can include financial success and the chance to create something enjoyed by kids from Boston to Beijing.
The first thing to realize about working in the videogame industry is that playing Gears of War is a lot more fun than working to create it. The hours of a professional gamemaker can be grueling, says Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association. "It is a common myth that working in games means that you play games all day," he says. "In fact, that doesn't happen. It is extremely hard work."
When deadlines approach, expect to work around the clock, says Matt Flegel, lead artist at gaming studio Volition, which created the game Saints Row. Flegel says that members of his team worked non-stop as the project neared completion. "There were times when people were working 100-hour weeks," he says. "It's more work than people assume."
Just as challenging, Della Rocca notes, is the fact that despite the long hours, your game might never make it onto the shelves of Wal-Mart Stores or GameStop. In fact, games are often cancelled as publishers change their minds about the marketability of the product and choose to cut off the funding. "Staff gets laid off," Della Rocca says. "You will jump around from studio to studio."
Still interested? One of the most successful methods of landing a full-time gig in the industry is to seek out an internship. Dale Jackson works at Electronic Arts, where he serves as executive producer on the Madden NFL franchise. He says that his company invites students every year from colleges like Georgia Tech, University of Southern California and Carnegie Mellon to intern at his shop. More than 50 percent of those interns eventually become full-time employees.
"Our interns come in, and they work on stuff that ships," Jackson says. "They do real work that contributes to the game."
Unfortunately, most game studios don't have formal internship programs. So what's Plan B? Try working on a "mod" — a program that allows players to edit and modify certain parts of an existing game.
Creating a mod proves to prospective employers that you're not just another starry-eyed fan. "If we see someone who makes games in their spare time for fun, then we know they will be dedicated employees," says Coray Seifert, an associate producer at New York City-based game studio Kaos.
Still another avenue into the industry is to start at the bottom and work your way up. While many of those working in videogames come into the office boasting advanced degrees in computer science and fine art, a game tester can walk in with just a passion for playing games.
The tester's job is to search for glitches and hiccups by repeatedly playing a game, or even just a single scene in a game. Dennis Allard Crow is an associate producer at Kaos, but he broke into the industry by working as a tester for Activision in Santa Monica, Calif. The gig was tough. Crow says you should expect to work those sweaty controllers for up to nine hours a day. "It's hard on the fingers."
But here's the upside: Working in the studio day in and day out gives you the chance to show your bosses how motivated you are. "Since everyone is working long hours, there is always something to do," Crow says. "Testers can pitch in, get noticed and move up."
While finding a paying job in the industry can be tough, there are plenty of games out there. Indeed, many of the teams developing these products now resemble small villages of game-addicted worker bees. More than 70 people, including 20 programmers and 30 artists, worked on Madden NFL '07. Similarly, Maxime Beland, creative director at Ubisoft's Montreal studio, says that 150 people worked with him to create Rainbow Six Vegas. "There were some people on my team whose names I didn't even know," he says.
So long as demand for games stays strong, companies will need eager young gamers who want to turn their late-night hobby into a full-time gig. "If you have passion and skills, then there will be opportunity," Della Rocca says.