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Making Games for a Living: 11 tips from Levelord

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What is my advice for people who want to become game developers? After 25 years in the industry, I do have some advice to offer.


→ This text in Russian: «Заработок на жизнь и создание игр: 11 советов Levelord’а»

→ Read also: «Levelord, an Ordinary Moscow Resident: Interview with the Creator of Duke Nukem»

  1. Remember that you heard this here, from the Levelord — "I love eating pizza, but I don't want to work in a pizzeria!". When you think that you want to make games for a living, make sure you understand that making games is not like playing games. I’m often asked, "Levelord, how can I become a level designer like you!" I always ask back, "Well, how many levels have you made?" Then the answer comes, "I haven’t made any yet, but I really want to make games for a living!"
  2. Making games is indeed great fun and very rewarding some of the time, but other times it is extremely demanding and very hard work. There isn’t anything much better than releasing a game that you’ve been a part of, but it is always after a long and arduous road, and it won’t be just you traveling down that road.
  3. You will be working with other people and doing things you may not have originally intended to do. If you go to a large company, be ready to work with large teams in which your participation will only be a small part of the whole. If you go to work at a small company, be ready to do the job of more than one discipline.
  4. Be ready to have your heart broken. It’s not unusual to work for long periods on something, only to have it discarded. It’s a job with its own agenda, and your hard work is not always part of that plan. Be ready to lose your ego, too. You may be the greatest at what you do, but you most likely will not be doing it alone. Your creation is not yours, it is the game’s. You may have your work taken away from you to be finished by someone else. You may have to finish someone else’s work.
  5. Be ready to make someone else’s ideas happen, not yours. Most often you will be making things that came from the ideas of other people, such as the game designer, or your lead, or the design committee. Be ready to work on things that you believe are stupid or won’t even work.
  6. Before you even think about asking how to get a job in the industry, you should have a large portfolio of your work. If you’re an artist, you should have art to show. If you’re a level designer, you should have many levels. Programmer, you should have examples of code. Musician, music.
  7. Your portfolio, for the most part, needs to be filled with completed projects. Nobody wants to see a half-finished piece of work. Even worse, this shows that you are not committed to completion, even on your own work. Your portfolio needs to look like a professional’s because that is who you want to be.
  8. Go public! Get involved in forums and places where gamers and game developers hang out. Make your portfolio accessible to these people. When I was hiring level designers, this was the first place I would go to look for new talent. It was also, often, the last place I would look because I hired most of my level designers this way. I knew they had the talent and the passion because there they were right there in front of me.
  9. Getting hired should not be your main objective. Your main objective should be to fulfill your passion, regardless of getting paid to do it. If I had never been hired as a level designer, I would still, 25 years later, be making levels on my own. You need to have sincere and strong passion for what you think you want to do.
  10. No company will hire you if you are not already trained. Most games let you design levels, create art, make code modifications, etc. There are development tools on the internet that are as good as the professional versions, and they are completely free! Unity, which can do almost everything needed to make a full AAA title, and is free to use as an amateur. Unreal is the same way. Do a search for «free open source game development tools». When I made my two hidden object games as a one-person game company, I paid nothing for development tools! There are also many schools around the world that will teach you your desired craft.
  11. Do NOT think you will be hired as the game designer! The game designer is the one who has the idea for a good game and usually directs the development as a whole. Everyone thinks they have a great idea(s) for a game … everyone! Great ideas are plentiful, but making them actually happen is difficult. Nobody just becomes the game designer (unless it’s a very small, indie company or some special situation) without years of working towards the title.

Have I turned you away from wanting to work on games for a living? Don’t let me do that if you really want to make this dream come true for yourself. You won’t do that if you have the passion. Being a game developer has been one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

It has been brutal at times when I almost walked away. Even now there are memories that still greatly sadden me. There are the rewards, though, like releasing a game and seeing it on the shelves and hearing people talking about it that make tolerating the pain and depression worthwhile.
If you’ve read through this and still feel the passion, then go do it!

Special thanks to Habr and RUVDS! They have been such good friends and colleagues of mine. Lastly, if you’re interested in seeing small snippets of past projects and levels, I’ve been posting updates on Facebook’s Levelord Games. Take a look!

I also invite you on June 1 in the St. Petersburg Museum of Soviet slot machines at the Duke-con festival in honor of the 22nd anniversary of the first release of Duke Nukem 3D. The Museum will also host my lecture, admission is free, you can sign up for a lecture here.
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