The video game industry is bigger than ever.
With the launches of Microsoft's Xbox One and Playstation 4 showing 3 and 4 million units sold respectively, as well as blockbusters like Grand Theft Auto 5 and Minecraft dominating global sales, the gaming industry is full of opportunity.
Level 1: Leading the way
And while some may think all the gaming careers are in Japan, Canada is actually a leader in the field. According to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada and Nordicity, there were 329 studios producing and contributing to games in 2013, directly employing 16,500 full-time employees and stimulating the economy of numerous other industries like no other.
The video game industry in Canada is enormous, says Colin Macrae, senior director of communications at Electronic Arts in Vancouver, a studio that takes care of EA Sports, producing industry staple titles like NHL and FIFA. We're the third-biggest developer of video games in the entire world, behind only the US and Japan.
With studios like EA, Ubisoft, Warner Bros. Games, Disney Interactive, and BioWare, just to name a few, it's easy to see why Canada is a powerhouse in gaming. With that said, many people still don't understand what goes into creating a game or how to carve their own path to a gaming career.
Level 2: The components
Video games is still, in some ways, a new-ish industry, says Macrae. The perception is that it's just a group of five guys in their basement building games. In reality, the industry has matured exponentially, even since he started eight years ago. We're much more effective in terms of how we manage our projects, we're much more predictable in terms of how we do what we do, and it's just exciting.
In rudimentary terms, games are created by two groups of people: programmers and designers.
On any given team, typically the largest community of people is the programmers and software engineers that are working on the game he says. Essentially, programmers are the people that know the technological side of things and assemble code to make the game a reality. They typically have a bachelor's or, in many cases, a master's degree in computer engineering and programming, many of whom arrive in a studio through co-op or entry-level placements.
The next biggest community on a game team would be the art team, the people that are actually building the athletes or characters within the game. The art team creates everything visual, from landscapes to model animation and everything between. Like the programmers, designers should have post-secondary education as well, likely from visual arts or animation programs.
This doesn't mean there aren't thousands of other positions across Canada for non-techy folks. Gaming companies need salespeople, accountants, marketers'you name it. So if you're not tech-savvy, don't worry; there could still be a place for you.
Level 3: Indie gaming
With the drive from the mainstream gaming industry, the independent gaming community (or indie, as it's been affectionately dubbed) has exploded in the last decade, making Toronto and Canada central hubs for independent developers and studios.
Indie designers typically work alone or with a small group of other developers, working on smaller games distributed directly on consoles or online on platforms like Steam. While it may sound much less exciting than working in a giant corporate gaming office, indie designers make their own hours and guide every part of the game. And while sales are not the same as big titles like Diablo III, there are major blockbusters like Fez, Braid, World of Goo, and Super Meat Boy which has sold over 1 million copies.
Although education helps, independent gaming artists tend to be very into games themselves, oftentimes teaching themselves how to code from an early age.
For Jonathan Mak, developer of Everyday Shooter and Sound Shapes, his parents owning a computer store helped him become familiar with computers as a child. I learned about computers there and I met someone in school who knew how to make programs, he says. He wasn't making video games but he knew how to program a computer. He taught me how to code and I started making games from there.
Mak studied computers in university, but learned all game development on his own time. He says it's debatable whether his education helped. It's good in that it taught me a different way of thinking, he says. I don't think the practical stuff was that useful, but it was good in that it gave me a sampler platter of different ideas that I can dive deeper into. The idea of thinking theoretically and making that practical, that bridge, was good.
Throughout his life, Mak's created dozens of small games, starting extremely basic and working his way up from there. He hit it big when he created Everyday Shooter, a vibrant shooting game that made its way onto the PC indie game scene and eventually the PS3. Following that, he created Sound Shapes with musician I Am Robot and Proud, winning numerous awards and gaining more notoriety.
Although it seems like a quick and fun task to create a game, he says Sound Shapes took approximately four years, with nine prototypes.
Matt Hammill, designer of Gesundheit!, among other games, studied computer animation and illustration, also learning programming on the side. He says one of his obstacles starting out was that programming seemed like a whole other world. Until I was near the end of college, I thought I couldn't be a programmer because I didn't take computer science and I hadn't done programming before, he says, but then I downloaded an engine and just started reading some tutorials and realized that programming is not this magical, impossible thing for people to do.
He says Gesundheit!, a multi-platform game, took nearly five years to complete, but was the first to garner him a lot of awards and nominations.
I have a habit of working on games slowly over longer periods of time, he says. I probably started it five years before I finished it but it started as a side project while I was in school and working, so I'd work on it on the weekends. This is a consistent problem for indie designers: until you have one or two successful games under your belt, you rely on grant money and wages from other jobs, slowing down the creation process.
Level 4: Trudging through
Being an indie developer is tough for very different reasons than working for a gaming company. Because you're working for yourself, you have to be self-motivated and be an excellent multitasker.
When I started, I was entirely at home in my home office, so getting that separation between your work life and your home life was not the easiest thing, says Hammill. When your computer is set up next to your bed, you can just work all night and you try to go to sleep but you can't because you've just been working up until a minute ago, so that was a bit wacky. He stresses the importance of having people to get you out of the house and to bounce ideas off of.
Mak agrees that his days vary greatly, especially working from home. I don't really plan out my day, like ÔÇÿtoday I'm going to program,' he says. Sometimes I intend to write code but I end up just playing guitar or piano for the next three hours. Essentially, because you're leading so many elements of the project, you have to work on anything or everything at once.
When the inspiration hits you, you should capitalize on it because it could turn into something, adds Mak. It could only be four minutes, but those four minutes could be good. He says there is always an intent for the day, but if there's any inspiration, indie developers have to act on it.
Hammill is now working with two developers he knows from high school and college in a collective called Asteroid Base on a cleverly titled game, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime. In a small team, there are more hands to help out and more voices to weigh in. The tasks are typically divided depending on each member's skill set. We're a team of three people, so I mostly do art, design, and some programming, he says. One does all programming, and the other does some programming, marketing, PR, and business stuff.
Boss fight: The ideal developer
Although each game is different and each game designer is different, there are some things to keep in mind when deciding on this as your career path.
When we're looking for new candidates across any of the disciplines that go into making games, we're looking for people that are passionate about games, they're fans first, they love this, they make it part of their lives, says Macrae. He adds that they need people who are problem solvers, who are able to use critical analysis and critical thinking, no matter your role.
Mak insists that you make sure you're honest with yourself. It's really easy to make something and spend a lot of time engineering it and then it works. The engineering side of you says ÔÇÿThat's great! I built this thing! Under the hood, it's so pretty!' But when you play it, you have to ask yourself ÔÇÿIs it good? Does it play well' Keeping a critical eye on your own work can be difficult, so having some honest friends as testers and getting feedback is very important.
That said, be sure the people around you are supportive and that you believe in your decision to go into gaming. When I started making video games and was getting serious about it'I graduated, this is what I'm going to do, and I'm going to make money doing this'there was a lot of negativity surrounding that, says Mak. A lot of people telling me I shouldn't do that. He says not to ignore it, but to surround yourself with likeminded people and to follow your passion.
The biggest separator of who gets to do it and who doesn't is who's willing to put in the hours to learn how to make things in these engines, says Hammill. The best thing to do is to just start doing it, even if you don't come from a background in it. There are a ton of free resources online about learning game engines or learning animation.
Liking games is a different thing than liking making games, he adds. If you don't have a passion for making games, you probably won't want to stomach all the hours.
Photo: Oktal Studio/Thinkstock