One of my Facebook friends is a fairly well-known figure in the game industry, and today I asked him how things were going at a new venture he joined not too long ago. “Not well,” he confided in me. “I haven’t received a paycheck in several weeks. So, I have to keep plugging along until either I get paid or find a new gig — whichever comes first.” Man, do I empathize with his situation, because I’ve been there too many times myself. In fact, any one out of a couple dozen of my Facebook friends right now who is in a similar professional pickle could be the person who shared this with me.
Many of those thinking about working in the video game industry only consider the imagined rewards of creating a hit game and reaping in millions of dollars of revenues. Unfortunately, the vast majority of game developers simply earn a regular paycheck. Yet a middle-class salary isn’t a guarantee, because the game industry is as full of risk as it is reward, and that risk includes working for months without pay to get a start-up going, or being laid-off from even a successful company when times are tough. According to a survey conducted by the International Game Developers Association in 2014, the average game developer held four jobs in five years.
Working in the game industry involves a lot of risk, and to survive, it helps to think like an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk. In this case, the risky enterprise you need to learn to handle is your own career.
Here are some tips for applying entrepreneurship to a career in the game industry:
- Be passionate about video games. Game development isn’t just a job; it is a competitive industry where you will be spending long hours trying to create a product that will stand out from all the others on the retail shelves and in the digital store. You will be a much more attractive candidate if you really care about video games enough to know what the competition is like and what makes a game stand out. But it’s not just enough to be passionate about playing video games, you have to be passionate about making them. Entrepreneurs have a drive to build things that are successful, and that’s what you need to be constantly doing to have a successful career. It’s their passion that gets them through the tough times.
- Be devoted to your career. I once worked for a manager who told me, “If you’re not working sixty hours a week, even when you’re not a deadline, you’re not a real game developer.” While I don’t believe it’s a good idea to constantly be in crunch mode, game development is hard work and sometimes involves long hours. But a devoted entrepreneurs doesn’t mind such hard work and late hours. Devotion to the game industry is also needed to the constant cycle of losing one job and finding a new one, as well as the day-to-day frustrations of programming bugs, equipment failures, and playtesters who don’t find your game to be as fun as you hoped they would. Entrepreneurs aren’t deterred by such difficulties; they realize that it is all part of the journey and are willing to fail a little now in the hopes of succeeding a lot later.
- Constantly reinvent yourself. The game industry is constantly changing: new technology, new platforms, new business models, new companies. If you don’t keep up with the latest and greatest, you’ll quickly fall behind, but the more you learn, the more you’ll earn. Entrepreneurs place value on learning about what’s happening in the world around them and are constantly reading.
- Be confident but not cocky. Your prospective or current manager and co-workers want to be sure you have the skills and experience to do your job, but don’t oversell them on your abilities to the point that it doesn’t look like you are unaware of the risks. While good entrepreneurs are very confident of their ability to deliver value, they know they constantly need to make improvements, even in themselves.
- Keep sight of the big picture while tackling your individual tasks. Entrepreneurs dream big, and in game development, that big dream is the vision for the game on which you are working and the hope for its success. Since games are made by teams, everyone needs to share that common vision and do their part to achieve it. That means getting your assigned tasks done. Entrepreneurs understand that they must take care of all little details so they can achieve the big dream.
- Learn to be comfortable working both on your own as well as part of the group. Entrepreneurs often burn the midnight oil doing things that no one else can do, and boy, is that ever true with game development. Most members of a team are specialists who have skills and knowledge that are their own unique contributions to the team as they work on the invariably tight schedule. Not only does no one have time to hold your hand, no one else may be able to help you on some of the tasks assigned to you. So, you’ll have to find ways to keep yourself motivated, especially when you are working late into the night to meet a deadline and not let the other members of your team down.
- Remember that working smart is even better than working hard. Hard work is unavoidable, but too often you have hard work because you (or someone above you) didn’t work smart. While best entrepreneurs are not averse to working hard, they’re more interested in working smart. You should constantly looking for ways to be more effective and efficient so that your productivity give you a competitive edge over everyone else.
- Know when to hold, and when to fold. Good entrepreneurs aren’t afraid of risk, but they have an exit strategy for when that risk isn’t paying off. Unfortunately, too many game developers working at a failing studio fall victim to the Sunk Cost Fallacy: reasoning that further investment is warranted on the fact that the resources already invested will be lost otherwise, those resources being the time they spent working at that studio. When your employment decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you have made to an employer, you may not rationally appraise whether the company is worth your investment, and the harder it will be to abandon it. You should always be looking out for the next opportunity and be emotionally prepared to switch jobs if the current opportunity doesn’t look like it will reward you for the risks you have taken by joining it.
Above all, remember that you need to be the one to make things happen for yourself, whatever the odds. No excuses. No wavering. No delays. If you don’t have the skills or experience you need to land a job in the game industry, get them. Any way you can. And then start knocking on those game studio doors until one finally opens. And if one day you find yourself kicked out into the street, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and find yourself a new position. Game development is for those who can’t imagine themselves doing anything else, and if you are truly thinking like an entrepreneurs, you aren’t going to let anything stop you from making your career happen.
“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” American spy Nathan Hale famously said in 1776, just before his execution by the British after being captured while on an intelligence-gathering mission in New York City. Old Nate obviously wasn’t a video game character, or he might have had more than one life to lose. In fact, if he were a character in Super Mario Bros., he might have been able to finagle himself an infinite number of lives.
As anyone who has played Super Mario Bros. or just about any other video game knows, lives are a resource determining the number of times a player may catastrophically fail before a game session is terminated. Players can lose lives in games variously by losing in combat with an enemy, being the victim of a deadly trap, or running out of time. The player may keep on playing the game as long as he or she has a least one live left, providing the player with the continuous goal of surviving.
It can be said that all video games provide the player with at least one life, but game designers may choose to allow the players to have more, based on the experience they are trying to create for players.
One factor designers take into account when determining the number of lives to give to players is the game’s threat level. Threat is one of the domains described by Jason VandenBerghe in his landmark article The Five Domains Of Play: Mapping Psychology’s Five Factor Model to Game Design. Threat is the negative tone of the game that can evoke negative emotions in the player, such as addiction, anxiety, anger, or sadness. The fewer lives a game has, the greater the threat of the game. And when players believe that one of their lives, especially the last one, is at risk, the greater the feeling of anxiety for those players. Such feelings can make a player become more emotionally immersed in a game.
The number of lives granted to players can impact another of VandenBerghe’s domains: challenge. Challenge is the part of the game that requires the player to use self-discipline: overcoming obstacles, work, avoiding danger, and (literally) collecting achievements. When players have multiple lives, they can repeatedly attempt tackling a particular deadly situation in a game, eventually developing the skill and/or information necessary to overcome that challenge. A game with only one life available would require the player to start over again and progress all the way through the game until encountering that challenge and having the opportunity to try another tactic.
Another factor that a game designer takes into consideration when determining the number of lives to give to a player is how long he or she wants the game session length to be, providing there is no way to gain more lives during the game session. If the average game session is intended to be short (say, for a quarter-eating arcade game), the designer will give the player fewer lives than perhaps for a game intended to be played for a lengthy session at home.
By varying the number of lives given to players, the game designer can make significant changes to the overall game experience. However, there are other game elements that the designer can alter to modulate threat, challenge or game session length. The designer can lower the game’s difficulty by allowing the player’s avatar to accumulate damage before losing a life. Or, the designer can place pick-ups for the player to collect in the game level to replenish lost lives. Both of these elements also increase the game’s complexity, while a damage attribute additionally increases a game’s tension as players watch the damage level reach the point where their avatars are in danger of losing their lives.
A game designer can alternately make a game more difficult without adjusting the number of lives by adding more enemies or deadly traps, or by shortening time limits, which increases the game’s tension level as well.
So, one life or many? It all depends on the type of experience you want to create for your player.