Advice for Artists and Writers Wanting to Get into the Game
Last week game producer Jamison Selby invited me to speak to a group of high school students attending a “summer camp” he was leading at the New York Film Academy’s campus in Los Angeles. This summer camp was for kids interested in game development, a discipline that film schools such as NYFA are increasingly incorporating into their curriculum.
After introducing myself, I asked the six students attending the camp what role in game development they would like to have. To my surprise, half of them wanted to be 3-D animators and the other half wanted to write the stories behind games – none of them expressed an interest in game programming or design.
However, I shouldn’t have been surprised – this was a film school, after all. I had also told the students my own story of having gone to college back in the 1970’s, back when the only videogames most people could play were Pong on their home Odyssey systems and Asteroids in the cards, I wanted to be either an artist, a writer, or filmmaker. However, when I saw the long line of people waiting in line to preregister for classes at the Radio-Television-Film Department, I realized that not all of these people were going to find the jobs they wanted, and I decided to just pursue General Education courses until I found a more practical major to study.
I took class in Introduction to Computing just to fulfill my liberal arts requirements, but as I sat in the computer lab waiting print out my homework assignment on the shared printer, I began to type out a Star Trek game. It suddenly occurred to me that a computer could be a creative medium just as is an easel, typewriter, or movie camera. Mathematics could be used to create graphics, logic diagrams were one way to tell a branching story, and coding was essentially directing the computer. The next day I changed my major from Undecided to Computer Science.
One of my college professors later took note of how I was using the college’s mainframe to print out images of the Starship Enterprise, and he offered me a job as a clerk in an Apple Computer store he owned, the second computer store ever to open up in the Los Angeles area. There I met some of the people who started the some of the first game publishers, and after I graduated, I went to work for one of them. After a couple of years of doing game design and programming, I went on to becoming a producer, and I haven’t written a line of code since. However, my basic knowledge of programming has been an invaluable asset to me throughout the rest of my career because it informs me on how games are put together and why all the roles on a game development team follow the practices that they do.
And so my first bit of advice to the aspiring game developers was to take a programming course, regardless of whether they planned to become artists or writers… or even going into game business development or marketing… because if you’re going to be part of a game development team or company, you are going to have to talk to programmers. If you drive a car, it’s a good idea to know what the carburetor and other parts of the engine do if for no other reason that you have some idea of what your mechanic is talking about. Some passing knowledge of code may not make you a coder, just like changing a sparkplug doesn’t make you a mechanic. But it is helpful when you need to talk to one.
I then singled out the aspiring animators in the group. My main advice was to earn a four-year art degree. I have hired a lot of artists who went at specialized art schools such as Otis Parsons or Art Center, as well as those who studied computer animation at film schools such as NYFA, but what matters most is that you study art at any school. The biggest complaint I get from art directors about artists is while they may have good technical skills, many don’t know the different between good art and bad art. Study the principles of art, color theory, human anatomy, art history – don’t just focus on the tools.
Animators should then build a portfolio of their own. Employers look for passion in their artists. If you just create some art because you “have to” to get a job, you’re not going to get very far. The successful artist is constantly drawing, sketching, animating. Talking about comics, cartoons, animated films, anime, manga, even classical art. Don’t just limit yourself to game art.
Next, I turned my attention to the would-be writers and offered them similar advice: write. You can’t be a writer if you don’t write, it’s just that simple. All people who regard writing as a profession write consistently. Those who only regard it as a hobby usually don’t. (The same advice can apply to any role in game development.
When you are ready for college, earn a four-year writing degree. Once you have your degree in hand and have amassed a portfolio of writing samples, contact a variety of game companies. There are probably very few writing jobs at small game development houses and even those at the larger probably freelance positions, but pursue any opportunity you can – including those at marketing companies. If you want to be a writer, be open to all writing gigs, including technical writing, instruction manuals, box copy advertising copy, websites, game reviews, and strategy guides. However, if you want to write game story or dialogue, your best bet is to get some film and television experience first.
My second bit of advice to the writers was to read, and read a lot. A lot of books by a variety of writers in a number of different genres. How many characters were there? Too many or too few? How long was the novel? How did the author build suspense? Did the author come out of nowhere with a surprise? Or did the author drop hints earlier? If so, how many hints? Where in the novel did he put them? By reading a lot of novels in a variety of genres, and asking questions, it’s possible to learn the mechanics of writing, and which genres and styles you gravitate towards.
My final advice, to everyone in the group, was to play A LOT of games. Not just the games in the genres you like, or the games that your friends play, but all types of games – including board games, card games, and pen & paper roll playing games. Do a Google search for someone’s list of “The 100 Best Games of All Time” and try to find and play as many as you can. I guarantee that when you’re applying for a job, in no matter which role, and you tell the hiring manager that you’ve actually played the 100 best games of all time, you will vastly improve your changes of getting the gig, no matter what the odds.