Game Companies Seek Creativity, Math Smarts

If you can combine engineering/computer science with an artistic bent, you’ve got a leg up.

How can you create worlds of carnage and interstellar travel, Jedi knights and Greek warriors, race cars and space ships – and get paid for it? By working in video games, of course.

Like Hollywood, the industry promises a creative career track many consider more interesting than a typical IT job. And, it’s certainly booming: In 2007, U.S. sales of video games including portable and console hardware, software and accessories was estimated to be nearly $18 billion, a 43 percent increase 2006, according to market researcher NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y. The most recent Grand Theft Auto video game, released in early 2008, reached $530 million in sales in the first week of its release.

By 2009, estimates the Entertainment Software Association, video games will support more than 250,000 American jobs, with many calling the industry “recession proof.”

What Kind of Skills?

The bulk of jobs within video game companies fall into the categories of software engineers, programmers and artists/animators. The firms need software engineers who know C++ inside and out, who have 3 D math skills, and a strong computer science background, says Kate Ruddon, director of staffing for Activision, headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif. Greg Costikyan, chief executive of Manifesto Games in New York, adds knowledge of Direct X to Ruddon’s list, and says other sought-after skills include experience with Microsoft’s Visual Studio and Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. Also important: Having a solid understanding of physics and advanced math.

“I would certainly say if somebody wants to get into the game industry as a software engineer, math is important,” says Colin Sebastian, senior research analyst for Lazard Capital Markets. “As a game software engineer, there are a lot of math-related problems or issues that have to be dealt with. It’s not just about programming: There’s code logic to create certain results or effects and math is one of the most important elements to do that.”

On the creative side, comparisons to the movies business are inevitable. Specialists in animation, art, lighting, sound, voice over, and even actors contribute to the production of many games. Because of this, there has been some crossover of creative professionals to and from Hollywood and game companies, Ruddon observes.

“Video game production has gotten very complex,” Ruddon says. “If you were to view some of the credits to video games, you’d be hard-pressed to decide which is a theatrical film versus a video game.”

The main skill set game animators need is knowledge and experience with Autodesk’s 3ds Studio Max, and the ability to create key-frame animation.

Better yet, if you can combine engineering/computer science and artistic bents, you’ve got a leg up, says Jason Chu, chief operating officer for DigiPen, a Redmond, Wash., video game school. “I think part of the skill sets needed for game designs are (from) people who have undergraduate engineering or computer science experience, with a more creative bent,” he explains. “There are a lot of artistic jobs – like drawing characters and settings – that are not just physics-based but artistic, so I think combining skill sets is important.”

How They Pay

In 2007, average salary for video game employees in the U.S. was $73,600, according to Game Developer magazine. That’s just a notch up from the up from $73,316 they earned in 2006. For software engineers/ programmers, the average salary was $83,383, while animators received an average of $66,594. Game producers/developers, who typically are the project leads for game projects, earned an average of $78,716. The highest compensation in the field goes to those in business and marketing, where the average salary was $101,848.

And those quality assurance jobs, where people play video games all day? They’re a great way to break into the industry, but often require long hours of playing a single level, checking for errors. They pay an average of $39,063 a year, Game Developer says.

Team Work Counts

Another key requirement often listed with game jobs is collaborative experience – working with teams. “As far as non-technical skills, we need people really good at working at teams, who are collaborative, since engineers will work with artists and project managers,” Ruddon says.

Finally, game companies want to hire people who are passionate not only about playing games, but creating new ones.

“People that really want to make games in many respects already are,” observes Brenda Brathwaite, a professor at Savannah College of Art and Design who worked in the industry for 26 years. “I hired a guy out of college because I asked him, ‘why do you want to work in video games?’ He said, ‘Because my brain is going to make games whether I get hired or not.’ That’s the type of person I look to hire and work with.”

Chandler Harris is a business writer based in California.