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by Tadhg Kelly
Most of the time I’m a consultant game designer. Sounds cool doesn’t it? But I bet if I asked you what I actually do all day you’re probably not sure. You might say I do something like write a lot of documents or spreadsheets or something, and sometimes that’s true. Sometimes I’m more hands on, helping folks out, fixing their games, whatever. I’m an example of how this industry supports all kinds of people from all walks of life. I live in Seattle doing this cool job largely from my house, half a world away from where I grew up. But it’s not obvious to many readers how I got there.
The games industry is opaque. It’s a great big mystery to most outsiders. How it works, where the great games come from, how the money works… these are endless questions that never have a definitive answer. The industry seems populated by insiders whose origins are hard to divine, and it often seems like a scene as a result. Folks just don’t know how it works, and other folks on the inside find it hard to explain. To be fair, not knowing is actually part of the fun.
Anyone who thinks they have a handle on what the industry is doing from one year to the next is deluding themselves. At best you can hope to have partial knowledge. The industry moves too quickly for anyone to be current. It never stays still. This year we think the future is going to be about one thing, last year we thought it was going to be about something else, next year who knows. For outsiders that’s frustrating. For insiders it’s a bit like the industry is one of Douglas Adams’ eternal parties (from Life, The Universe And Everything) that just keeps going.
However the fact that it changes is why I always tell prospective students not to get too fixated on finding a job. A lot of industry professionals go down the job route. They go work for Microsoft or EA, Activision or Ubisoft, or any one of a number of mid tier developers. Why? In part because they want to work in a professional environment, but I think the bigger reason is that they believe there’s no room for them to make big moves. They see the industry as full of “powers” making big games or chaotic indies living on the breadline and that their only option is to get themselves conscripted. Even though they know that industry working conditions are terrible. And even though they know that initiative can potentially lead to a Minecraft-sized success. They see no room.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This industry is built on chaos and illusion. Those jobs that you think are secure really aren’t. Trust me, I know. I’ve worked for some hallowed and some not-so-hallowed studios over the years and I’ve seen just how illusory they are. Even the mightiest names are often far closer to flirting with disaster than they appear to be. And the corollary is even the most sewn-up market is always teeming with opportunity. You just need to believe in that.
Some opportunities are real and some are not. Some ventures don’t work out, some do. That’s life, that’s games. The trick is whether you see risks as learning opportunities or causes for self-damnation, whether you see the market as always having room for the new and the interesting or as being this entity which you can never reach. One path leads to panic, excitement and frequent bouts of happiness. The other leads to a career. Did you really join the games industry just to have a career though?
There is always room for you to try. There is always opportunity for those willing to take a chance. Even if it doesn’t work out, never forget that.
Tadhg Kelly is a consultant game designer here in Seattle. He also writes the leading game design blog What Games Are (www.whatgamesare.com), as well as for publications such as TechCrunch, Edge and Gamasutra.