Recently, Laralyn McWilliams published her personal thoughts and tips on game development from her perspective as a game industry veteran. I found her blog post to be incredibly insightful and beneficial to developers of all demographics, and I wish to offer my take on the matter as well as someone who stands on the opposite side of the age spectrum.
Not only that, but this desire to share my beliefs on the nature of game development also stemmed from a month-long reflection I performed during the holidays, which involved looking back at all of the achievements I had accrued throughout the latter half of 2015 and 2016 as a whole.
In this response of sorts to the aforementioned article, I shall be listing 15 pieces of advice I’ve gathered from my relatively short but highly eventful experience as a game designer and writer. Most of these come from the many Tweets I write every day, and they aren’t listed in any particular order.
1 - Build up your portfolio and resume in your spare time. If you’re a student who’s aspiring to break into the game industry, make an effort to set aside some time to work on something that truly piques your interest. This can be anything from writing game design documents and articles (like this one) to drawing a character portrait and landscape. Try not to rely on classwork to beef up your catalog of work as this can inhibit your ability to pursue an endeavor of your own initiative and carve out your own personal niche. Instead, use what you’ve learned from your peers, professors and other developers to find your own voice through side projects that feel like something that only you could have created.
2 - Network extensively with fellow game developers. In addition to having a sizable list of personal works, one must also have an extensive pool of connections with whom they can share their insight and foster a solid rapport that can benefit the aspiring game developer in the long run. By networking, I don’t just mean going to game conferences and rubbing shoulders with the folks that you admire. It can also mean going on LinkedIn and social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook to connect with people in your field of interest and join groups such as the IGDA. The bigger and more relevant your network, the more likely it becomes for your work to catch the attention of game developers the world over.
3 - Seek opportunities and confidence for and while creating content, don’t wait for them. If there’s one thing that I learned from my time in college, it’s that the best kind of endeavors you can partake in are the ones that you stumble upon through various means, such as perusing the Web or hearing about them through word-of-mouth. Be open for commissions, send tips to media outlets who solicit work from freelancers, search for and partcipate in game jams to foster your design skills... Whatever you do, keep an eye out for any event, request or competition that may enable you to create something for the entire world to see. The same goes for confidence, which is something that naturally crops up WHILE you’re working on something. Waiting for it to emerge will only lead to more missed opportunities for creating and sharing new works with the world. Instead, one should be able to pursue new endeavors whenever they see a window of opportunity open up. Doing so will lead to increased confidence in one’s creative capabilities and a better work routine.
4 - Maintain a solid work/life balance. Words fail to describe the importance of this invaluable but all-too-often ignored principle. While the drive to create things of your own volition and pressure to make a name for yourself as an up-and-coming game developer can certainly tempt you to work to your fullest potential, take a moment to recharge often. Whatever you do, DON’T OVERWORK. Not only will it sap you of your energy and ability to operate normally during the day, but it can also accentuate feelings of loneliness and misery, which are the biggest creativity killers one can possibly imagine. Be productive, yes, but be responsible as well. Watch a movie, play a game, read a book, spend time with your family... Heck, take a walk! It’ll do you lots of goods and even allow you to come up with new ideas for future endeavors.
5 - Get into the habit of researching your work extensively and broadly. We are all shaped and defined by what has come before, and we all aspire to create something that feels unique and appealing to us and the world. Research is one of the finest tools a creative talent can wield since it can beget massive databases for inspirations that can span several sources and, when combined, create experiences that feel different enough from what’s already on offer to make the author stand out. As Craig Hubbard, former developer at Monolith Productions, once said, “Creativity is recombinant, and the more inspiration designers take in, the more they have to draw from and the higher the chances they’ll produce something with a distinct perspective.”
6 - Solicit constructive feedback from your audience, and respect it. In the perpetual quest for self-improvement, one has to keep up with what the market offers and craves. Feedback is the ultimate molder of projects and content that can allow the talent to adapt to what folks like and would like to see. Whether it’s making the dialog in a visual novel sound more natural or adding warmer/cooler colors to a painting, asking for feedback and taking into account what people like and dislike about your work can provide you with another opportunity to grow as a game developer. Whatever you do, DON’T PROTECT YOUR EGO. Rejecting criticism and claiming that the people reviewing it are wrong not only burns bridges and prevents you from overcoming creative obstacles, it can also deprive you of essential design and life lessons that can make you a better developer and individual as a whole. Don’t be a lout; listen to what others have to say about your work, treat them respectfully and intelligently, and incorporate feedback that can make your creations more polished and refined.
7 - Fail faster. This might sound a bit strange for me to say, but this is crucial for constant self-improvement. Great creative talents learn from their mistakes and use them as springboards for concocting new works while drawing from their personal failures. In fact, failure is what drives people to learn, and to learn rapidly is to learn effectively. If you feel like you’ve erred a bit while working on something, check to see if that feeling is well-founded by looking at what you’ve done. Whether it’s a boo-boo while drawing something and it doesn’t look quite right, or dialog that sounds either unnatural or bone-dry, noticing your errors early will enable you to better avoid such mistakes in the near-future and deal with potential creative roadblocks in a more careful and conscientious fashion.
8 - Talent in and of itself means little to nothing without a solid work ethic. We are all born with a talent for something, be it writing, art, programming, audio, and so on. That being said, talent is very much like a refrigerator that needs to keep the food inside unspoiled: if you don’t keep it running (i.e. not practicing your craft frequently), then you’ll be left with lots of wasted opportunities to build upon that talent and this will be reflected in the quality of your work. Draw, write, program, and design on a frequent or daily basis in order to improve your skills in your respective fields, which can translate to better works in the long run. Practice makes perfect, after all!
9 - Experiment with various forms of endeavors within your field. Variety is the spice of life, and one cannot develop the creative equivalent of a one-trick pony throughout their lifetime. Instead of relegating yourself to one particular form of writing/art/programming/etc..., try to experiment with sundry endeavors that lie outside your usual medium of creativity. In my case (as a writer), I sometimes concoct dialog scripts, game design documents, and character profiles that complement my slew of game design articles on my personal blog and Gamasutra. Environmental/character art, voice acting/sound design... Make an effort to branch out since you may never know whether or not you’ll excel in another aspect of your field, which can make you a more well-rounded and multifaceted developer to work with.
10 - Don’t aim for success, let it ensue. If the past couple of years have been any indication, it’s that recognition for your work is something that happens further down the line and comes out when you least expect it. Viktor Frankl once said that the more one aims at success and make it a target, the more they are going to miss it. If you start working towards an external goal or source of satisfaction (e.g. awards, trophies, attention) and diverting your attention from your work, you’ll end up with something that can feel rushed and lack the TLC that your creations usually benefit from when performed in an autotelical manner. Enjoy and immerse yourself into the productive field that you wish to pursue; don’t worry about whether or not it’ll get recognition. Success will eventually occur, but it generally does so when you don’t think about it.
11 - Share your work with others regularly. It’s one thing to have an amazing repertoire of works that you can be proud of; it’s another to have people realize that you have an amazing repertoire of works that you can be proud of. Rather than keeping your creations for yourself, share what you’ve created with the world (e.g. social media, conferences, gaming websites, etc...), be it a piece of writing that you did in your spare time or a doodle that you did out of sheer curiosity. People like to see content from developers, both young and experienced, since it can inspire them to do similar things and even make them follow your progress, a win-win that can benefit both the individual talent and game development community in terms of keeping the wheels of creativity and insight-sharing running..
12 - Plan for the long game. Reading lists such as Forbes’s 30 Under 30 and hearing about young folks who achieve success from the get-go may compel you to work briskly and non-stop without a shadow of a doubt. However, for every lucky fellow who knocks it out of the park at a tender age, there are thousands who fail to do just that. Life doesn’t end at 30 if you have yet to make a splash of some sorts. Instead, use the following years and decades as temporal opportunities to fine-tune your skills as a game developer. People like Leonardo da Vinci, Victor Hugo and Harrison Ford had to wait a long time before they began getting major recognition from their audiences. If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend that you check out this three-part video essay on the subject of working and achieving success in the long-term rather than within a self-imposed and arbitrary time limit.
13 - Broaden your interests and influences, and be attentive to the little details. We may be tempted as developers to look at games and games only for sources of inspiration that will impact our endeavors. This unfortunately severely limits your worldview and prevents you from creating something that transcends the gaming medium. Playing and reading about the latest titles to keep up-to-date with the latest trends and figuring out where you can find openings to fill with your own brand of creativity is crucial, certainly. However, looking at other art forms such as movies, literature and music, and sundry topics such as politics, history and philosophy can enable you to come up with concepts and ideas that may have never been tried out in the past, which increases your chances of having your work stand out from the pack. Personal experience and life events are also fair game! As a bonus, having a wealth of influences under your belt can help you incorporate neat bits of detail into your work, like direct/indirect references to certain events and people in a script or a drawing. This can spice up your creation and make it more than surface-deep to those who enjoy looking for hidden meaning that elevate the worth of the work itself.
14 - Write down ideas and interesting information immediately in a journal or other repository. Ideas are limitless in our world, and the human brain can only process and remember so much before it forgets about them, meaning the talented mind has lost an opportunity to create something interesting and authentic. Whether it’s from a dream, a conversation or a major event, whatever we experience in our daily lives can serve as the foundation for something in our work that can make it all the more compelling. Keeping a journal or other data repository on you so that you can write down your thoughts and translate them into game concepts/ideas and mechanics is key to carving out a niche and crafting content that doesn’t feel derivative or trite. Bookmarking game design articles and videos that you find highly valuable is also a wise tactic for referring to information that may improve your skills and even broaden your overall level of creativity as a designer seeking to, forgive the pun, step up their game.
15 - Don’t be hard on yourself. Look, I understand that you want to do your darndest to be the best at what you do, and there’s nothing wrong with going the extra mile to have your work go from good to great. That being said, don’t beat yourself up if you feel like you’ve under-delivered or failed to achieve a milestone. We all make mistakes as individuals, and the best we can do is to learn from them and ensure that such unfortunate scenarios never happen again. Dwelling on them can not only lower your self-esteem, it can also prevent you from moving forward and leveraging opportunities for self-growth and improvement that can yield long-lasting and beneficial results that enhance your creative skills and subsequent works.
Despite my limited experience as a designer and writer, I feel like I’ve learned a lot over the past couple of years when I first began writing about video games in my spare time and designing them as well of my own volition. The world is indeed large, and people are vying for attention and satisfaction every day.
What I’ve provided above has enabled me to go from a point where I was feeling doubtful about my prospects as a game developer to one where I could be proud of what I’ve accomplished. I intend to keep that ball rolling as my academic days are drawing to a close.
If there’s one thing I would suggest to anyone thinking of pursuing a career in game development, here it is: start early, and keep fostering your love of the medium by honing your creative chops on a daily basis!
Let me know what you think of my article in the comments section, and feel free to ask me questions! I’ll do my best to get back to you as promptly as possible.