We spoke to people working in games who joined the industry from a different background about how they did it.
Career changes are more common for people than ever these days, so it may not be a surprise that this applies to the games industry. There can be an assumption that you need to be a coding wunderkind or study in the relevant field, but coming from a different background can be an advantage when getting into games as you can bring in a fresh perspective.
Indeed, even Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto has previously spoken about this as an important asset, telling the New York Times: “I always look for designers who aren’t super-passionate game fans. I make it a point to ensure they’re not just a gamer, but that they have a lot of different interests and skillsets.”
We spoke to five individuals from different generations and fields who made the leap into games later in life, who demonstrate how such a career change is possible, whether it’s transferring your existing skills like art to a different medium or heading up your own studio for the first time.
Max Rea - Studio Head
Having gone from working visual effects in film, including Oscar-nominated World War Two drama Hacksaw Ridge, to releasing brutally realistic World War Two shooter Hell Let Loose, one might assume this was a natural progression for Black Matter Games’ Max Rea. However, he describes it as technically “the equivalent of being a structural engineer and becoming a lawyer.”
He calls Hell Let Loose “a hobby that kind of got very out of control,” beginning in 2014 when Unreal Engine was made available for free. It was also his introduction to game development, with no prior coding experience, although ultimately it was about being able to assemble the best team to execute on his vision. Nonetheless, he still needed to throw himself in the deep end to understand the technical side.
“The parts that I really needed to learn and understand was: What role does code play here? What are the realistic expectations for achieving something? How does the code plan sit next to animations? What are our different graphics pipelines?” he says. “A lot of what game design is, is figuring out logic. Our approach is that you can solve any game design issue before you even get to programming. It's very multidisciplinary, there are lots of different interconnected disciplines to understand.”
As a studio head, Rea believes the most valuable transferable skills are being able to work with other creatives by giving clear creative feedback. “You need to give your notes in a very clear way,” he explains. “You can’t just say to someone, ‘This doesn’t look good’ – no one can work with that. The biggest challenge is to bring people on the journey with you, immerse everyone in the project so that they're able to make the best decisions without you micromanaging.”
Since becoming a developer, one misconception Rea had about the industry was just how difficult it is to fix any issues in a game. “Now that I'm on the other side of the wall, I have a real sympathy for developers who are subject to that kind of conversation,” he says, comparing game development to an enormous Rubik’s cube. “You might have all faces but one perfectly aligned, and if you move one of those rows, you might have fixed that side and then the other sides become undone. Quite often putting a fix can upset the already delicate ecosystem of the rest of the game. That was my biggest learning.”
Allen Murray - Producer
Before getting into games, Allen Murray had already racked up numerous jobs, though it was teaching himself how to build websites during the early days of the internet that led him into a decades-long career in the games industry, first working as a program manager for Microsoft’s online Xbox Live service and then into production, starting at Halo creator Bungie. His current role is vice president of production at Private Division, publisher of The Outer Worlds.
Murray describes his career progression as “leveraging” his experience: “I look at it like, this is what I can come in and do and I feel pretty confident about but also what are the opportunities for me?” Prior to joining Microsoft, he was among the first employees hired at Amazon when it was just about to expand internationally. That retail focus led him to implementing promotional banners on the Xbox 360’s Blades user interface. “It's like basic web ads, but [Microsoft] didn’t even have that technology – that concept was a bit anathema to what they wanted to do at the time.” Of course, nowadays, this is the standard for every platform with its own digital storefront.
Moving into the production side, joining Bungie to produce Halo 3, adding, “It wasn't really until we shipped the game that I felt like I graduated.” The role of producer had also not really existed at the studio previously, so Murray and two other newly hired producers at the time were tasks with building up the processes.
“The thing that I've learned since then is every place treats producers a little differently and their processes are a little different, but the core thing is they’re the ones shepherding the game as a product and making sure it's high quality, on time and on budget as much as those things can ever be managed, and then work with all of the various other disciplines.”
One perception of games he didn’t consider previously was getting around just how long game development takes, where projects can take two to three years, or even longer, to ship. “I came from a background at Amazon, where we were conceiving a new feature on Monday and launching it by Wednesday,” he says. “Things were so fast, we were launching several things a month.”
Emma Rogers - Programmer
As a graduate in fashion buying and merchandising, Emma Roger’s career path was more likely set for working at the head office of a fashion brand rather than becoming a programmer for Sumo Digital, one of the UK’s largest work-for-hire studios. However, it was the Sumo Digital Academy, a talent development programme launched in 2020 to open new career pathways into the games industry, that made her realise she could get into games.
“I've always been interested in games, but I just never thought it was a sector that I could go into because I didn't have any experience at all,” she says.
During her studies, she worked at an RPA (robotic process automation) company where she learned to program basic software bots that could complete repetitive office tasks. While it didn’t require learning a programming language, it laid a foundation for logic that she would be able to transfer as an Academy intern where she learned C++ from scratch.
“Working in IT, I also had experience with deadlines, sprints, and all the milestones that were also useful, not just coding but also experience with a project environment and working with higher ups.”
While learning C++ programming for the first time in just a year may make for an intensive learning curve, she says the Academy provided lots of guidance. “We weren't really given any expectations, it was all take it at your own pace, and we could ask as many questions as possible, it was all very comfortable.”
It also helped that they had a template they could learn from, which was to try and recreate Amiga classic platformer Zool in C++ for a modern PC. “It was good to have something to compare to, and also because we didn't have any artists or designers, we already had the foundation there. All we had to do was do the code.” It was only later that the decision was made to take this exercise and actually publish the game on Steam as a modern remaster, Zool: Redimensioned
When it comes to perceptions she had about the industry prior to joining it, she had assumed that programming was “a bit of a boys club” – understandable given the business’ reputation as a male-dominated sector. But she found the barriers to women getting into games to be lower than she expected.
“While it still is a bit of a boys club, it’s not as bad as it probably used to be, and having met more women coming in, I can see how more open it’s becoming.”
Alexis Dean-Jones - Character Artist & Animator
Emigrating from Australia to Canada in search of animation jobs lacking in her home country, Alexis Dean-Jones had not actually planned to get into games. However, she wound up becoming friends with many people in Vancouver’s indie game development scene and became the character designer for crowdfunded indie game Chicory: A Colorful Tale.
Given the game’s hand-drawn aesthetic of anthropomorphic animals, it was a largely transferable skill from Dean-Jones’ animation work so she wasn’t having to learn pixel art or 3D modelling. There were still aspects of games that differed from animation she had to consider, such as character concepting.
“I was used to coming up with a whole range of options for clients. But there are over 100 characters in Chicory, so I couldn't spend several days on each character coming up with designs A-F, handing it over, getting feedback, and then doing a second round.”
Animating for games was also a big learning curve in terms of understanding how many frames of animation were required. “For cartoons or films, there'll be a lot more frames, whereas in games, you're not going to have a long anticipation before an action because when a player hits a button they want to do whatever it is that the button does instantly,” she explains. “For a jump, my instinct would be to have a big crouch before the jump, but then Greg [Lobanov, Chicory’s director, producer and writer] would be like, ‘Let’s cut out the first five frames and just start here.’”
Dean-Jones’ entry into games is certainly different from other developers in that she collaborated with a group of friends and like-minded creatives to make Chicory (the core team is simply credited by their first names rather than under a studio), while the game’s themes also makes it a hugely personal project. It also occurred at a bit of a crossroads, just as she was landing work in animation storyboarding.
“I had to decide whether I was going to keep pursuing that or work on Chicory,” she explains. “But it was too good to say no to. There's something really cool about making a game because it feels like it's not really complete until someone's playing it, so you're creating this thing with hundreds and thousands of other people. There’s definitely a lot of cool things that I hadn't really considered before.”
Jen Simpkins - Editorial manager
It’s not uncommon for people in games media to find themselves with a career on the other side of the industry. But whereas the switch usually goes from editorial to PR, communications, or writing for games, Jen Simpkins has actually remained in editorial at Media Molecule and its incredible game creation tool Dreams.
Having been interested in writing and video games, and naturally combining the two, she spent many years writing for games magazines. However, it was during her time at Edge when she realised she wanted to be involved in making games.
“[Edge] is a little bit more focused on the process of making video games, and I just sort of fell in love with that,” she explains. “I was really fortunate to visit loads of video game studios and just take a few peeks behind the scenes.”
Having specialised in covering indie games, Simpkins became inspired by Dreams and the many homemade projects being built with it, but was also aware that Media Molecule was in need of letting its community and the wider world discover this. So while the studio was looking to hire community curators, she basically pitched her role as someone who would be able to do professional write-ups of these creations.
The result is the game’s very own digital magazine The Impsider, featuring weekly round-ups of games made in Dreams, as well as interviews with creators and Media Molecule members. “A lot of it has felt quite similar because what I did at Edge to cover indie games really works for a game like Dreams that is almost a little platform in itself.”
The studio’s collaborative nature has meant Simpkins hasn’t been limited to editorial but has also been involved in other projects, such as designing a narrative around in-game events like Dreams Con and All Hallow’s Dreams, or doing marketing and outreach, such as a recent stream with Professor Brian Cox and a Ghostbusters collaboration.
The opportunities to expand her skill set has also been due to working with producers, which she calls “the lifeblood” of game development. “Having a team member whose job is to just help me be organised, manage my schedule so that it's manageable and healthy, and I'm in the right place at the right time doing the right things, it's like schedule-Tetris. If I had a producer when I was making a magazine, that would have saved a lot of stress.”
If the above examples aren’t already inspirational enough, we asked what advice they would give people also seeking a career pivot into the games industry.
“If you want to get into games later in life, then a passion is going to take you an awfully long way,” says Rea. “But think about games that you love and think about the things that they don't do as well as they could. The more you think about that, the more you kind of give yourself these sorts of intellectual puzzles about how you might improve it, the greater the chances that you'll be able to invent something that other people might like as well.”
While some people may fret about not having studied games, Murray believes those kinds of courses can be too narrow and recommends young people opt for a broad liberal arts programme. “All of these things you're going to draw from to build your experiences. Some video game colleges focus on ‘This is what we need to do for a game’ versus ‘This is what we need to do for great art.’”
As someone who got his job at Microsoft through a former Amazon colleague, who knew he was a big gamer and so recruited him for the Xbox Live projects the company was building, Murray also stresses the importance of networking. “It all comes down to making good connections in the industry that can help you find a good fit for you and then figure out how your skills are transferable.”
These are similar sentiments echoed by Dean-Jones, who made connections with many indie developers and like-minded peers (“The skills and interests that I had just clicked with the game that Greg wanted to make”), as did Simpkins.
The latter adds: “If you're lucky enough for your work to take you behind the scenes of places and you do get to meet people, ask them about their jobs, and what it's like, learn more about the process and what happens day to day at these kinds of places, it really helps set expectations for thinking, could I do this, do I want to do this?”
Rogers concludes: “There's a lot more transferable skills that you may have from your previous career or previous education that you might not think are applicable, but they are. Games companies look for a lot more than just raw skill. They want your personality, life experience or personal experience that makes you unique and makes you a more interesting candidate than someone who's got the same games degree as hundreds of other people applying. So don’t underestimate yourself!”
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