Playing to win – how to prepare for a career in Canada’s digital gaming industry

Video gaming isn’t just fun, it’s an incredibly lucrative industry and potentially, a richly rewarding career for students willing to train for it.

This was a recurring motif at the first Go Into Games (GIG) Speaker Series event held at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. recently.

The event was organized by Interactive Ontario, a non-profit trade organization representing more than 200 members in the digital media industry.

Attendees were offered an overview of Canada’s gaming industry, and practical tips on how to equip themselves for a career in this sector.

“For starters, realize it’s something you can get paid very well to do, if you take a disciplined approach,” said Trevor Fencott, president and CEO of Toronto-based Bedlam Games Inc., a mid-sized developer of frontline console games.

Gaming is serious business

Fencott urged the students in attendance to notify the naysayers — “perhaps your parents or grandparents” — that there are valid careers in this sector. “It’s a real industry with sophisticated games, big budgets, and an enormous market.”

At a time when other sectors are lagging, video gaming revenues are soaring, he said.  

This market’s 12 per cent compounded annual growth is exceptional when compared to other industries, Fencott said.  “And growth hasn’t abated though we’re in a recession or whatever it’s being called now.”

Video gaming, the Bedlam Games CEO said, is an entertainment as well as a “software technology” industry – and this blend of disciplines is one reason it’s doing so well.

But he cautioned listeners that working in this industry isn’t all fun and games. “It involves structure, requires a high degree of discipline, and a more than average amount of intelligence.”

Those considering a career in video games should plan their training now, he said.

Another senior Bedlam executive spoke at length about the kinds of courses that could equip someone for career in the digital gaming industry.

There are plenty of options to choose from — and much would depend upon what you want to specialize in, noted Jon Paul Schelter, technical director and lead programmer at Bedlam.

He said core disciplines represented in most frontline developer teams are: Art, Code, Design, Production, Quality Assurance and Business/Management. “There’s plenty of interaction between these.” 

Frontline teams, he said, typically comprise around 50 people, while the budget for creating a frontline console game could range from $5- $20 million.  

Of the 50 or so team members, the engineering group alone would comprise around 14 persons.

While the actual game is the “fun part” to work on, Schelter said those who want to get far in their gaming career would need to acquire certain technical skills in areas such as:

Artificial intelligence (AI) – AI, he said, is used a little bit in managing the actions of NPCs (non-player characters) used in a game.

“For the most part the actions of these NPCs are fairly simple. But AI is useful in [devices] such as the Wii Controller. It’s got motion sensors that are a little bit of voodoo to program correctly.”

“Camera control” is another task that AI is used for, Schelter said. “It’s not the most intuitive thing, as in many cases, you’re trying to mimic actions a human camera operator would take – looking for objects of interest to the player, and trying to frame them: panning, zooming and so on.”

He said such actions are really difficult to program. “But with AI they tend to be much more doable.”

Algorithms and data structures – While this is one of the harder courses, algorithms are used everywhere in game development, the Bedlam lead programmer said.

“Development challenges are not simple, but can be solved by techniques you learn early on in algorithms courses.”

He said developers often have a hard time figuring out which is the best algorithm is to use – based on constraints of run time, space, and data, and how it’s organized.

People with a background in algorithms can make those decisions quickly, he said.

“And this means you’ll be much more efficient at generating fast code,” an invaluable quality given that games are generally real-time, so performance is incredibly important.

Hardware architecture – “People who understand platforms,” said Schelter, “are in high demand.” 

He said even a fundamental grasp of how a CPU or memory works – or familiarity with concepts such as latency, fetching and what caching algorithms do – can come in very handy.

“It means you can optimize algorithms for specific architectures.”

Compliers – Schelter admits he initially thought the course on compliers “very theoretical” and a waste of time.

“I couldn’t see how it could ever be applied,” he said. “As it turns out, I can now think of two very good reasons – if you’re interested in games – to do some compiler courses as well.”

The first reason is because understanding compilers gives you a handle on optimization techniques, how they work, and the kinds of problems you run into when switching from one technique to another.

He said frontline games are often developed for multiple systems simultaneously. “This means you will use multiple compilers: GCC for Sony PS3, Microsoft Compilers for Xbox 360 and so on.”

Another reason is using compilers speeds up the “debugging” process.

Schelter noted there isn’t a project he’s been on for more than three months before someone on the team runs into an obscure compiler bug.

“The work of debugging and optimizing is crucial,” he said. “Many have done it without understanding a thing about compilers. But it’s a whole lot easier if you do.”

Tools programming – a foot in the door

According to Schelter, one of the easiest ways to get a foot into a gaming firm is as a tools programmer. “Your output is generating assets instead of producing frontline code.”

He said in tools programming, developers generate tools that process assets the artist creates, or that designers use to define AI behaviour. 

In this context, he said, understanding multiple programming languages is useful, because while today the bulk of development for TripleA console titles is accomplished in C++, there’s a good amount of work also done in other languages.

Often it makes sense to do something in Perl or Unreal scripts – so understanding more languages is useful. (The Unreal Engine is a popular game engine developed by Epic Games).

Graphics – Graphics programmers today actually end up implementing all the core techniques they learned in graphics courses, Schelter said.

“Today, you can write shaders that actually plug in and do specific parts of a pipeline instead of just using a monolith pipeline.”

Understanding the market

Often people are held back from a career in gaming because of common misconceptions about the industry, said Bedlam CEO Fencott.

He listed some of these.

For many, said Fencott, video games are synonymous with AAA (pronounced Triple A) console games.

That’s misleading as the AAA flagship titles are just one category in the broad “gaming ecosystem.” Fencott discussed others.

Advergaming – Though it’s a “dirty word” in our industry, advergaming is a billion dollar market, said Fencott.

He recalled the runaway success of King Games, the series of three advergames sold at Burger King as part of a promo in 2006, during the Christmas season. “It was one of the highest selling games of all time – because Burger King was distributing it,” the Bedlam Games CEO said.

The games were compatible with both Xbox 360 and Xbox. Though originally created as downloadable games for Xbox Live Arcade, they went through certification and were considered of high enough quality to be moved to ‘box product’ and distributed directly at Burger King stores.

MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) – video games played on the Internet, capable of supporting hundreds or thousands of players simultaneously.

Edutainment – or instruction in gaming format. There are many applications in the area of language learning, Fencott said.   

A sub-category of this is serious games used for training. For instance, simulation games may be used to teach store employees certain procedures. “Or there are military applications, where you learn how to avoid an ambush.”

Fencott said those kinds of games are very big business in the U.S. alone, each year.

Skill gaming/gambling – At the end of the day, online poker is still a game – it’s an MMOG, Fencott said.

For those seeking a career in gaming understanding the profile of various gamers is vital, the Bedlam CEO noted.

For instance, he said many don’t realize that women comprise more than half number of video gamers.

“But they play different games than men.”

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