The Digital Game Industry - Game Design and Paper Prototyping - Introduction to Game Design, Prototyping, and Development (2015)

Introduction to Game Design, Prototyping, and Development (2015)

Part I: Game Design and Paper Prototyping

Chapter 14. The Digital Game Industry

If you’re taking the time to read this book and learn about prototyping games, it’s probably safe to assume that you might have some interest in joining the game industry.

This chapter presents a little information about the current state of the industry. Then I talk a little about university games education programs. I give you some tips on meeting people, networking, and looking for work. Finally, I tell you about how to prepare for your own independent game projects.

About the Game Industry

The most definitive thing that I can tell you about the game industry right now is that it is changing. A lot of big names like Electronic Arts and Activision are still around, as they have been for the last three decades, but we’ve also seen the rise of new startups like Riot Games (which went from just a few employees in 2008 to having the most played online game worldwide today). Even just a few years ago, no one would have believed that a cell phone could be one of the most successful game platforms, but sales of games for Apple’s iOS devices alone are now worth billions of dollars. Because everything is changing so quickly, I’m not going to give you specific numbers for most things. Instead, I’ll point you to resources that can (and that will be updated yearly).

Entertainment Software Association Essential Facts

The ESA ( is the trade association and lobbying organization for most large game development companies, and it was the ESA that successfully argued before the United States Supreme Court for games to be protected by the first amendment. The ESA releases a yearly “Essential Facts” report on the state of the game industry that you can find by searching for “ESA essential facts” on Google. There are certainly some bias issues with the reports (it’s the ESA’s job to see the game industry through rose-colored glasses), but it’s still a good way to get an idea of what the overall industry looks like. Here are ten facts from their Essential Facts 2013 report:1


1. Fifty-eight percent of Americans play video games.

2. Consumers spent $20.77 billion on video games, hardware, and accessories in 2012.

3. Purchases of digital content, including games, add-on content, mobile apps, subscriptions, and social networking games accounted for 40% of game sales in 2012.

4. The average game player is 30 years old and has been playing games for 13 years.

5. The average age of the most frequent game purchaser is 35 years old.

6. Forty-five percent of all game players are women. Women over the age of 18 represent a larger portion of the game-playing population (31%) than boys age 17 or younger (19%).

7. Fifty-one percent of U.S. households own a dedicated game console, and those that do own an average of two.

8. Thirty-six percent of gamers play games on their smartphone, and 25% play games on their wireless device.

9. Ninety-one percent of games rated by the ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) in 2012 received a rating of “E” for Everyone, “E10+” for Everyone 10+, or “T” for Teen. (See for more information on game ratings.)

10. Parents are present when games are purchased or rented 89% of the time.

Things That Are Changing

The things that are changing in the industry have to do with working conditions, the costs of producing games, freemium games, and the renaissance independent game development.

Working Conditions at Game Companies

If you know nothing about the game industry, you might think that working at a game company would be fun and easy. If you know a little about it, you might have heard that game company employees routinely work 60-hour weeks with mandatory overtime for no additional pay. Though the real story now for most companies is better than that, the stories you may have heard were based on fact, and I do have friends in the industry who still have mandatory 70-hour workweeks (10 hours/day, no weekends) during “crunch time” on their projects, but luckily that trend has diminished greatly over the past decade. Now, most companies, especially larger companies, will still ask you to work overtime sometimes, but the stories of game developers who haven’t seen their partners or kids for a week are more and more rare (though sadly, they do still exist). However, when interviewing with any game company, you should definitely ask about their overtime policy and history of crunch time on projects.

Rising Costs of AAA Development

Each generation of gaming consoles has seen a rise in the cost of developing a top title (also known as a “AAA” game, pronounced “triple-a”). This was especially true with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versus the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and the trend will continue for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 as well. Teams for AAA titles are now routinely over 100 or 200 people, and even some with apparently small teams actually have outsourced several aspects of the game’s development to other studios with hundreds of their own employees. It is still unusual—but no longer unheard of—for a AAA game budget to exceed $100 million and have a combined total team of over 1,000 people spread across several studios.

The effect of all of this on the game industry has been the same as the effect that budget inflation had on the film industry: The more money that a company will be spending on a project, the less willing they are to take risks. This is why in the ESA’s list of the top 20 best-selling games of 2012 you will not find a single game that isn’t a sequel (see Figure 14.1).


Figure 14.1 The 20 top-selling games in 2012 by units sold (according to ESA Essential Facts 2013)

The Rise (and Possible Fall) of Freemium Games

According to Flurry Analytics, there was a six-month period between January and June of 2011 when free-to-play games rapidly overtook paid games in terms of iOS revenue.2 In January of 2011, premium games (which are purchased upfront) accounted for 61% of the game revenue on the iOS App Store. By June, that number had crashed down to 35%, with 65% of revenue then coming from freemium games. The freemium model—where the player gets the game for free but is asked to pay small amounts of money to gain gameplay advantages or customization—catapulted Zynga from a two-person start-up to over 2,000 employees in just a few years. However, this model has been shown to work much better for casual games than more traditional genres, and some developers of more traditional genres who are now creating mobile games have chosen to return to the premium model because they believe that their market is averse to the freemium model.

2 “Free-to-play Revenue Overtakes Premium Revenue in the App Store” by Jeferson Valadares (Jul 07, 2011),

A few freemium games have done well with a more core (that is, less-casual) audience of gamers. The primary differentiating factor between these and the casual freemium games is that many of the casual games allow and encourage players to purchase a competitive edge in the game (i.e., pay more to win more), whereas core games like Team Fortress 2 (TF2) only allow players to purchase aesthetic items (e.g., clothing) or items that change game mechanics without making them imbalanced (e.g., the Black Box rocket launcher for Soldiers that has -25% clip size yet grants the Soldier +15 health whenever it hits an enemy). In addition, nearly every item that is purchasable in TF2 can alternatively be crafted by players from items gained through gameplay. The critical element in this is that core players don’t want to feel that someone else has bought a gameplay advantage over them.

Whether you choose to go for freemium or premium for your game relies largely on the genre of game you want to develop and the market and type of players that you are seeking. Look at other games in the market and see what the standards are, then decide whether you want to go along with them or buck the trend.

The Rise of the Indie Scene

While AAA games have become much more expensive to create, the ubiquity of free or cheap game development tools like Unity, GameMaker, and Unreal Engine has led to the rise of a worldwide independent development community to an extent that has never been seen before. As you’ll see when you read the rest of this book, almost anyone can learn to program, and dozens of developers have now proven that all you need to make a game is a great idea, some talent, and a lot of time. Many of the most famous independent game projects started as the passion project of a single person, including Minecraft, Spelunky, and The Stanley Parable. IndieCade is a game festival that started in 2005 and is dedicated exclusively to independent games. Beyond that, there are dozens of other conferences that either focus on independent development or have a track or contest for indie developers.3 It is now easier than it has ever been to make video games, and the rest of this book will teach you how.

3 Full disclosure: Since IndieCade 2013, I have been the IndieCade Chair of Education and Advancement and programmed the IndieXchange and Game U conference tracks. I’m honored to be part of such a fantastic organization and conference.

Game Education

Over the past decade, game design and development education at the university level has gone from a curiosity to a legitimate field of study. The Princeton Review now ranks the top graduate and undergraduate game programs yearly, and there are now even programs offering Ph.D. degrees in games.

There are generally two top questions that people have about these programs:

Image Should I attend a games education program?

Image Which games education program should I attend?

I will attempt to answer these questions in the next two sections.

Should I Enroll in a Games Education Program?

As a professor who has spent the last several years of my life teaching in these programs, I can say that my answer to this question is a qualified yes. There are several clear benefits to game education programs:

Image You have a concentrated space and time in which to build your design and development skills in a structured way.

Image You’ll be surrounded both by faculty who can give you honest, meaningful feedback on your work and peers who can become great collaborators. In addition, many faculty in these programs have worked in the game industry and have connections to several game companies.

Image Many game companies actively recruit from the top schools. Being at one of them means that you could have the chance to interview for an internship with one of your favorite studios.

Image When new employees are hired out of university game programs—especially master-level programs—they usually enter the company at a higher level than others. Traditionally, people got into game companies by working in QA (quality assurance) and testing games. If they excelled at QA, they could get noticed and move up into one of the other positions. Although this is still a very valid way to enter the industry, I have seen new people coming out of university programs often get hired above talented people with several years of seniority who came up through QA.

Image Higher education in general will push you to grow and become a better person.

However, there are some definite caveats. School takes both time and money. If you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, I personally think that you should absolutely get one. Throughout your life, it will open more doors and grant you more opportunities than not having one. A master’s degree is much less necessary in the industry, but programs at the graduate level are able to offer a much more focused education and can be truly transformative. Masters programs generally take between 2 and 3 years and can cost $60,000 or more. However, as my professor Dr. Randy Pausch was fond of saying, you can always make more money, and loans or scholarships can help pay for school; the thing you can’t get back is time. You shouldn’t ask yourself whether grad school is worth the money; it’s much more important to ask yourself whether it’s worth the time.

Which Games Education Program?

There are many, many games education programs out there, and new ones are being added every year. The Princeton Review’s list of the top schools is generally well respected, but it’s much more important that you pick a school that is right for you and what you want to do in the industry. Take time to research the program and learn about their classes and faculty. Investigate how much emphasis they put on the different aspects of game development: design, art, programming, management, and so on. Are the program’s faculty currently working in the game industry, or do they focus entirely on teaching? Each school will have certain aspects that are their particular strengths.

As a student, I attended Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) for my Master of Entertainment Technology degree. At its core, the ETC is based around teamwork and client work. In the first semester (which was for me the best educational semester I have ever experienced), each incoming student works on five collaborative two-week assignments with a randomly selected team of peers in a class called Building Virtual Worlds (BVW). The incoming class size is generally more than 60 students, and this helps them experience working with new people continuously throughout the semester. In that semester, each person works about 80 hours each week on her team assignment in addition to taking two or three other classes that supplement BVW. Then, for the remaining three semesters, each student is assigned to a single project team for the full semester and takes only one additional class. Most of these semester-long projects have a real client for whom they are being produced, so ETC students learn first-hand how to manage client expectations, work with peers, handle internal disputes and external change orders, and generally get several years’ worth of industry experience in two years of school. The goal of the ETC is to prep game designers, producers, programmers, and technical artists for work on industry teams.

In contrast, the #1 ranked Master of Fine Arts program in the Interactive Media & Games Division (IMGD) at the University of Southern California (where I taught for four years) is structured very differently. The size of the incoming cohort each year is generally 15 or less, and all students take several different classes together in the first year. Though there are group projects, the students do several independent assignments as well. In the second year, students are encouraged to branch out and explore their personal interests. Roughly half of the classes in the second year are taken with their cohort, but the other half can be selected from across the university. The third year in the IMGD is devoted almost entirely to each student’s work on her individual thesis project. Though each student leads a thesis project, students very rarely work alone. Most thesis teams are 6 to 10 people in size, and the other team members are pulled from interested students across the university. Each thesis project also has a thesis committee composed of mentors from industry and academia who are interested in the project and led by a thesis chair from the IMGD faculty. The goal of the IMGD is to “create thought leaders.” It is more important to this program that the individual students grow and produce something innovative than that they are prepared for industry jobs.

As you can imagine, each of these programs benefit students in very different ways. I have chosen these two to illustrate the point because they are the two with which I am most familiar, but every single school is different, and you owe it to yourself to learn the goals that each school has for their students and how they hope to achieve them through the classes they teach.

Getting into the Industry

The content in this section is condensed from the “Networking with the Pros” talk that I gave at the 2010 Game Developers Conference Online. If you’d like to see the expanded version, you can find the slides on the website for this book.4

4 The complete slides from the talk are available at

Meeting People in the Industry

The best way to meet people in the game industry is to go where they are. If you’re interested in board games, this means Gen Con; if you are interested in AAA development, this means the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco; and if you’re interested in independent game development, this means IndieCade. Many other conferences out there are quite good, but those are the three that have the biggest draw from each of those groups.5

5 E3 and PAX are other famous game conferences, but you’re less likely to meet actual game developers there.

However, being at a dev conference only really means that you are co-located with game developers. In order to meet them, you need to find a way to go up and say hello. Some good times to do so include parties, after a talk that they’ve given, when they’re working the Expo floor, and so on. However, in each of these cases, you need to be courteous, concise, and respectful both to the developer and especially to the other people who want to talk to her. Game developers are busy people, and they each have a reason to be at the conference; they too want to meet people, expand their networks, and talk shop with other developers. So don’t take too much of their time, don’t ever make them feel trapped in a conversation with you, and always have something to bring to the table. That is, make sure that you have something to say that will be interesting to them before you start the conversation.

When meeting people for the first time, don’t act like a fawning fan. Every game designer from Will Wright to Jenova Chen is a regular person, and very few of them have any interest in being idolized. Along these lines, avoid saying things like “I love you! I’m your biggest fan!” Frankly, that’s pretty damn creepy. Instead, it’s much better to say things like “I really enjoyed playing Journey.” That way, you’re complimenting the game—a game that several people worked on—rather than complimenting the individual person, whom you actually know very little about.

Of course, the very best time to meet someone new is when you’re introduced. This gives you an in as well as something to talk about (your mutual friend). However, when this happens, you have a critical responsibility to the friend that introduced you—the responsibility to not make her look bad. Whenever someone introduces you, she is vouching for you, and if you do something embarrassing, it reflects badly on her.

Also, don’t just focus on meeting famous game developers. Everyone at these conferences loves games, and students and volunteers at the conference are some of the most passionate and creative people you can talk to. Plus, who knows, it’s possible that anyone you meet at a dev conference could be the next great designer that everyone is talking about, and later they’ll be a great person to have take a look at your games as you develop them.

Things to Take to the Game Conference

If you’re going to meet people, you should always have business cards on you. You can put whatever you want on the front, as long as you make sure it’s legible. I usually recommend leaving the back blank so that the person to whom you give the card can write notes on it that will remind her later of what you talked about.

Other things I tend to take with me include the following:

Image Breath mints and toothpicks. Seriously.

Image A pocket tool like a small Leatherman. It’s nice to be the person in the room who can fix little things that break.

Image A resume. I don’t carry these with me anymore, since I’m very happy with my current job, but if you’re seeking a job, you really want to have a few copies with you.

Following Up

So, you’ve met someone at the conference and gotten her business card. What’s the next step?

About two weeks after the conference, write the person an email. You generally want to wait a couple of weeks because everyone is completely flooded with emails and work when they get back from a dev conference. Your email should generally follow a format similar to that shown inFigure 14.2.


Figure 14.2 An example letter

Send the letter and wait a couple of weeks. If you don’t hear anything back, write them one more time with a lead in like “I’m willing to bet that you were pretty busy after the conference, so I wanted to write again and make sure that you got my email.”


If everything goes well, you’ll have a chance to interview at the studio. Now, how do you prepare?

Questions to Ask Before the Day of the Interview

When you interview, you’ll be talking to people who are actually on game development teams. Before the interview, the person you talk to will be a recruiter. Part of the recruiter’s job is to make sure that candidates are properly prepared for the interview, and her evaluation at the end of the year will be partially based on the quality of candidates she brings in. This means that it is in her best interest for you to be perfect for the job, and she is more than willing to answer any questions that will help you better prepare for the interview.

Questions to ask include:

Image What would my job be? You want to know the answer to this as specifically as possible so that you can prep, though you don’t want to ask for any information that is already made clear in the job posting.

Image On which project would I be working? This will also answer whether they’re interviewing you for a specific position or if they’re interested in hiring good people without a specific project in mind.

Image What is the company culture like? Each company culture is different, particularly in the game industry. A question like this can also lead to a discussion of things like overtime and crunch time. You don’t really need to know the answer to working conditions questions like those at this point, but you definitely need to know them before you sign a contract.

Image What would be appropriate for me to wear to the interview? Many, many people skip this simple but important question. In general, I tend to dress more formally than I would on a normal workday, but for most game companies, that doesn’t mean wearing a suit (and it almost never means wearing a tie). Remember, you’re not going to a nice dinner, a party, a date, or a religious ceremony. My wife, a professional costume designer and professor, recommends this: You want to look nice, but you want to make sure that the focus is on your skills and mind, not how you look.

Another thing to consider is that while you definitely want to wear something that makes you feel comfortable, you also want to wear something that makes the interviewers feel comfortable. Every studio talks at some point to investors, the press, publishers, and other people who tend to work in more formal cultures than a game development studio. One of the things that the studio needs to know about you is whether you can be part of those discussions or whether they would have to hide you in a back room so you don’t embarrass them when guests visit. Be sure that they place you in the former category.

There are a lot of different opinions out there on the web about what is appropriate to wear, so the best thing you can do is ask the recruiter. The recruiter will have seen every candidate who comes in, and she’ll know what works and what doesn’t.

Image Are there any games I should make sure to play before the interview? You absolutely must play games made by the studio where you’re interviewing before you go in, and if you’re interviewing to work on a specific game, it is unforgivable to have not played it or its prequels. This question is more about which of their competitor’s games they think you should have played.

Image Can you tell me who will be interviewing me? If you know ahead of time who you’ll be speaking with, you can do some research into their background. Knowing other projects that your interviewers worked on before coming to the current studio or other studios where they worked previously can give you more insight into their background and more things to talk about.

There are also questions you should definitely not ask. Questions to not ask include the following:

Image What games has the studio made? / How long has the studio been around? The answers to these questions are easily available online. Asking something like this makes it seem like you haven’t done your research before coming to the interview (and consequently like you don’t really care much about the interview or job).

Image How much will I get paid? Though this will eventually be a very important question to ask, it’s inappropriate to ask this of an interviewer or recruiter. Instead, it will be part of your negotiations after you have been offered the job. For information on industry averages, you can look to the Game Developer Salary Survey at

6 The salary surveys were traditionally a yearly article in Game Developer Magazine, which has the same owners as However, the magazine ceased publication in 2013. The salary survey that was published in 2013 can still be seen at

After the Interview

After the interview, it’s best to send handwritten thank you notes to the people with whom you spoke. Try to take notes throughout the actual interview so that you can comment on something specific to each individual. “Thank you very much for walking me through the studio and especially for introducing me to Team X” is much better than “It was great to me you, and I’m glad we talked about things.” Just like items in games, handwritten letters are valuable because they are rare. Every month, I get thousands of emails, over 100 printed letters through postal mail, and less than 1 handwritten thank you note. Handwritten notes are never spam.

Don’t Wait to Start Making Games!

Just because you’re not yet a game company employee doesn’t mean that you can’t make games. After you’ve finished this book and gotten some experience programming and developing prototypes, you’ll probably be looking for a game to work on. Here are some tips for that time.

Join a Project

I’m sure you’ve got a ton of great ideas for games bouncing around in your head, but the best thing you can do if you’re new to development is to join a team that already has some experience developing a game. Working with a team of other developers, even if they’re still learning like you are, is one of the best ways to quickly grow your skills.

Start Your Own Project

Once you’ve either gotten some experience on a team or if you just can’t find a team to work with, it’s time to start creating your own games. To do so, you will need five critical elements.

The Right Idea

There are millions of different game ideas out there. You need to pick one that will actually work. It needs to be something that you know you won’t lose interest in, something that doesn’t just copy a game you love, something that other people find interesting, and most importantly, something that you know you can make. This leads us to...

The Right Scope

The number one thing that stops teams from finishing games is overscoping. Most new developers don’t understand how long it can take to make a game, so their game concepts are drastically overscoped. Scoping-down is the process of getting the game down to its bare essentials and eliminating fluff. For a game to have good scope, you must have a true and realistic understanding of the amount of effort it will take to implement the game, and you must make sure—you must be absolutely certain—that you have the team and the time to finish it.

It is drastically better to make a tiny game and expand upon it than to start by trying to make something huge. Remember that most games you have played took a large team of professionals about two years and millions of dollars to make. Even indie games often take years of work by an extremely talented team. When you’re just starting out, think small. You can always add more to the game later, and having a small, finished game is much more impressive to people in the industry than having a large, unfinished one.

The Right Team

Working on a game with someone is a long-term relationship, and you need to treat it that way. It’s also sadly true that the things that make you great friends with someone might not be the same things that are required to make you great team members. When you’re thinking about working with people, you want to make sure that they have similar work habits to yours, and it’s best if they tend to work at similar times of day as well. Even if you’re part of a remote team, it can really help to be text or video chatting with your teammates while you work.

While creating your team, you also need to have a conversation about ownership of the intellectual property (IP) of the game. If there is no agreement in place, the default is that everyone who had anything to do with the project owns an equal share.7 IP issues are really sticky, and they may seem kind of ridiculous to talk about before any game exists, but it is a critical conversation to have. However, the flip side of this is that I have actually seen game teams never get started because people were bickering about the IP ownership of a game that didn’t exist. You definitely don’t want to get stuck in that trap.

7 I am not a lawyer, and I am not trying to give legal advice. I’m just sharing my personal understanding of the situation. If you have any friends who are lawyers, I recommend asking them about it or looking for information online.

The Right Schedule

In Chapter 27, “The Agile Mentality,” I cover agile development practices and burndown charts. Make sure that you read it before you start a project. Though your mileage may vary, I have found that for the vast majority of my student teams, burndown charts are a fantastic tool to keep them on track and aware of where each person is in their individual development tasks. In addition, burndown charts do a fantastic job of helping you to understand the difference between how long you estimate a task will take and how long it actually takes you to accomplish it. By looking at the difference between the two in the chart up to the point where you are currently, you can get a more realistic estimate of how long it will take you to complete the remaining tasks.

The Will to Finish

As you make progress on your project, you will come to a point where you clearly see all the things that you could have done better. You’ll see that your code is a mess, your art could be better, and the design has some holes in it. A lot of teams get to this point surprisingly close to the end of the project. If you are near the end, you need to push on through. You must have the will to finish your game. If the number one killer of games is bad scoping, the number two killer is that the last 10% of the project is always the hardest climb. Keep pushing, because even if the game isn’t perfect—and trust me, no game ever is—even if the game isn’t all you hoped, even if it is far less than what you hoped, it will be done. You will be a game developer with a finished title, and that means a tremendous amount to everyone you hope to work with in the future.


There is much more to be learned about the game industry than was able to fit in this single chapter. Luckily, many websites and publications cover the game industry, and there are often talks at conferences about both what it takes to join the industry and the process of starting a company. A simple web search should surface many of them.

If you do choose to start a company, be sure that you find a lawyer and an accountant that you can trust to help you before you actually run into any bumps in the process. Lawyers and accountants have years of training in how to build and protect companies, and having them available to consult with can make your path to incorporation much, much easier.