All three of us Bscotch bros regularly get asked, "Hey Bscotch bro! How do I become a game developer?" That could be a very simple or very complicated question, because the answer, as any good lawyer will say, is: "it depends." It depends on where you want to live, what your goals are, how you like to work, how much you like to work, how fast you work, who you want to work with, and how broad of a set of skills you would like to master.
On the one hand, you can go work for a giant megacompany and spend four years rigging face bones for pre-created art assets. You could work on a cinematics team and be a "lighting specialist." You could become really good at managing web-based programming and become a database administrator. Or maybe you could be a designer, and come up with ideas and make all those other suckers do it for you!
On the other hand, if you're looking to wear a lot of hats, probably be kinda poor (at least at first), and be extremely busy all the time, you could strike out on your own and form your own studio.
We don't have the answers, because it all depends on what you're looking to get out of it! But what I can tell you is how I got here, and maybe you can extrapolate that to your own experiences. Let's take a trip down MEMORY ROAD!
Like many people, I had dreams of becoming a game developer as a youngster. I was a World of Warcraft junkie, and I spent an extravagant number of hours gaming. I wanted to turn my passion into a career, so naturally, I settled on game dev. I loved playing games, so it stood to reason that I would love making them, too! Even though those two activities have literally nothing in common, I was young and ignorant and didn't know any better.
I enrolled in a computer science course my first semester of college, anticipating that I would be diving into a world of code that would allow me to produce magical worlds with my fingertips. What I got instead was a professor whose accent I could barely understand, two TA's whose accents I could barely understand, and a series of assignments revolving around abstract concepts like "pointers".
By the end of the semester, my grade was hovering around the D range, and I hadn't acquired any skills that brought me closer to become a game developer. I realized then that game dev just wasn't going to be in my future. I had failed. So I did what anyone would do: I gave up on my dreams!
From there, I changed majors seven times, ultimately ending up in economics and finance. It was my meager attempt to keep the door open, so I would still have something that might allow me to get involved in game development, even if that was just balancing the books of a game studio. Still, I hadn't done anything in particular to push my way into the games industry. I was being passive. I was just taking classes, getting my certifications (I'm a level 1 CFA, woo!), and hoping for the best.
But as I approached my final year of college, I had an awakening of sorts. It occurred to me, quite suddenly, that there must be hundreds of thousands of people around the world making games. Perhaps millions. It's not some fabled, mysterious thing that only a handful of people are lucky enough to do. It's just a job. I began to wonder what it was that separated all those people from me. And it struck me that maybe, just maybe, the only difference was in effort.
I had to take stock. What had I done so far to become a game developer? I liked to think that it was something I cared about, but if that were really true, why had I done almost nothing at all to push toward that goal? Thinking through all this was like a big self-slap in the face. It quickly became apparent that I had to make a decision. If this was something I really wanted to do, I needed to go and do it. Nobody was going to hand it to me, and I wasn't going to fall into it.
So I did the only thing I knew how to do well at the time: I picked up a shitload of books and began reading. I read about level design, game design, art, UI design, and the games industry as a whole. For six months I spent every evening reading book after book. But soon I ran out of books.
Reach for the Sky
I had consumed just about every scrap of knowledge I could find, so I figured the next step was to try to make a game. I was in Iowa (University of Northern Iowa), and there weren't too many game developers around I could consult with. But I could write, and I could draw (sort of). So I began compiling a game design document for my dream game: Skybrawler.
It was to be an enormous, action-RPG platformer with over 100 levels. It would have cutscenes, a huge story, dozens of branching storylines, alien races, and hundreds of unique characters. I crunched on the game design document for this game for months and months. Wanting to get a better feel for how things would look in the game, I found an artist at my university who was willing to work up some concept art for my game idea.
By the time the game design doc hit about a hundred pages, I ran out of steam. I had a somewhat-finished design for a huge game, but still nobody to make it. I certainly couldn't make it! I had only marginal art proficiency, and no programming skills. Once again, it seemed I had run into a wall. Not knowing where to go from there, I did it again: I gave up. I put my game idea on the backburner and carried on. I applied to law school and got accepted at the University of Iowa. So there I went.
That same year (2010), my younger brother Sam had landed a summer internship with a company whose product was to be marketed to game developers. His job that summer was to "grow the game dev community in St. Louis," so this company would have some people to market to. So he organized the first-ever St. Louis Game Jam, a 48-hour game creation event. And at that event, with no programming background and no art background, he and another guy managed to hack a game together over a weekend.
Later that year, in October, Sam and I were chatting over Google Talk. I expressed my frustrations with all of my false starts in game dev, and how I felt like I was going down the wrong path. It was hard to focus on my law school classes when all I really wanted to do was make games. But I just didn't know how to do it.
In response, Sam sent me a link to Game Maker, a game creation program that could be used by veteran programmers and total newbies alike. "This is what I used at the Game Jam, and I made a game in a weekend," he said.
I downloaded the program and started poking at it. Within an hour, I was completely enthralled. I picked up Inkscape (which we still use to this day -- here are some of Sam's tutorials, by the way) and began making crappy vector art of my Skybrawler characters, then spent that first week trying to get an in-game character to stand on the ground without falling through. Once that problem was solved, I tackled the problem of getting my character to jump. Then I animated his legs and got him to walk. It was like watching a baby take its first steps.
I began spending every spare hour I had working on Skybrawler. I had no idea what I was doing, but I pushed forward anyways. I added enemies, environments, new abilities, and all kinds of nonsense. From October through January, I hacked together what could be considered a prototype.
In retrospect, it was quite bad, pretty mundane, and the game concept itself was dramatically blown out of scope. But I didn't know better, nor did I care -- I was MAKING GAMES! I WAS DOING IT!
I spent months and months working on Skybrawler. I sat toward the back of my classrooms in law school so I could write lines of code during lectures. I loved weekends because I could work from 8AM-10PM with no interruptions. I would cook a huge amount of food on Friday nights so I could chain myself to my desk all weekend and work, without being distracted by such nonsense as cooking.
Pretty soon it was July, and I had been working on Skybrawler for 9 months. I was releasing developer videos about the project, and I was supremely confident that it was coming together well. Nevermind that almost none of the characters were animated, and after 9 months of work I was only five levels in to a 100-level game. (Spoiler alert: at that pace, it'd take me 15 years to finish.)
By this point, after only a year, the St. Louis Game Jam had grown into a veritable monster. Sam asked if I would be willing to attend a game jam that month, and I agreed. Maybe this will be my chance to finally meet some other developers, I thought! Up until that point, I had been building my game almost entirely alone. The only other person involved with the project was one of my law school buddies, who was doing the music. So I hopped in my car and drove down to St. Louis to check out the game jam.
The Game Jam
I arrived in St. Louis on Friday evening, just before the jam started, and I met Sam at the location -- the office building of a game studio called Simutronics. We received the theme from the organizers, which was "Twice upon a time." In many game jams, there is a suggestion that you group up with people you haven't met before. So Sam and I paired up with two other guys.
I asked one of the guys on our team, "Is this your first game jam?" He looked at me with a confused expression. "I've been making games for 30 years. This is my studio," he said, referring to the office space. I said, "Oh."
Then we got to brainstorming and came up with a crazy idea. It was to be a platformer that would play itself, and you would have to get the protagonist through the levels by speeding up or slowing down "time" by left or right clicking on the deadly objects that were flying at her. By the time we all agreed on the mechanics, it was late, and our two partners were ready to go to bed.
But Sam and I weren't tired AT ALL. Partially due to energy drinks, and partially because we had never made a game together before, and we were pumped.
Sam and I went to his place, and we began working. By 3AM we had a functional prototype. Sam was floored by how capable I was with Game Maker, and I was pretty disoriented by the fact myself. All this time I had been grinding away with the sole purpose of trying to create Skybrawler, and I didn't even realize that I was actually becoming a proficient games programmer.
We brought our prototype to Simutronics the next day, and our team was galvanized by the progress we had made. We refined the concept some more, and David, the guy who owns Simutronics, worked up some flashy particle effects. The result of our efforts was a quirky game called "Lanturn".
The Big Lesson
Creating Lanturn at the game jam taught me something important. And it's something I now tell every person who is getting started in games. When you're first getting started, it's better to make a lot of small games than to make one big game.
I learned more from that 48-hour game jam weekend than I had during any one-month period while making Skybrawler. And I had more to show for it: a finished game.
From there I realized I had been going about things COMPLETELY WRONG. So I put Skybrawler aside, buckled down, and started making a bunch of smaller games. I made a simulation game about bacteria (iTunes, Google Play). I made a puzzle game about gravity. I entered the Ludum Dare competition and made a game about being a goat trying to escape being milked.
The Big Moment
Within a few months, my programming and game dev skills multiplied rapidly due to my prototyping dozens of game ideas. I sent an email to David, the CEO of Simutronics, asking if there was a possibility for an internship at his studio. He said that he'd definitely be interested, and to chat him up when I got back from India (where I was going to visit family).
January of 2012 rolled around, and Sam shot me an email letting me know that there was another game jam coming in St. Louis: the Global Game Jam. I got super pumped (because the last jam was so much fun), and drove down to St. Louis once more.
This time around, Sam and I decided to just partner up and not bring anyone else onto the team, so we could work full-time the whole weekend without having to consult anyone. We jammed all weekend, ultimately creating our first game as a two-person team: Towelfight of the Gods. Sound familiar?
We presented our game at the conclusion of the Global Game Jam, and the reaction of the audience was fantastic. People were laughing at the absurdity, and they were impressed at how quickly we put together something that solid.
We chatted with David after the Jam, and he was pretty pumped about what we had made. It seemed that our game solidified his interest in bringing us into his studio as interns, and he officially extended the offer. Within three weeks after the jam, I had all my things packed up, and my wife and I moved to St. Louis. And my career as a professional game developer officially began.
I learned a ton at Simutronics and got to meet dozens of insanely talented people (including Eric Hibbeler, the guy who now does all of our box art). I got to see what it was like to work as part of a large team (I had been mostly solo up to this point), and I learned to work with Unity, Blender, and a whole bunch of other cool programs.
Buttering the Scotch
As time passed, though, Sam and I started to feel the pull of the game jam atmosphere we had experienced long before. It was fun to work on a bigger team because you can make much bigger games, but at the same time, everything moves a lot slower. When you have 15-20 people who all need to communicate regularly in order to create a game, it takes a lot of time, energy, and work to coordinate all those ideas. We wanted SPEED. And further, we wanted to wear more hats and learn as much as possible, but being on a bigger team naturally means you have to specialize more narrowly.
Over time, we came up with the idea of breaking off and forming our own studio. So by the end of 2012, we struck out on our own, and Butterscotch Shenanigans was born. That story is still being written (in life) and one of us will take a crack at recording it to digital media before too long.
As I said earlier, there's no one path to becoming a game developer, and being a game developer can mean a huge variety of different things. But if there's one thing you take away from my experience, it should be this:
If you want to make games for a living, do it. Don't let the fact that you have no skills, no background, or no connections get in your way. I lost years upon years of experience because I gave up at the outset. I could have been making games all the way back in high school. I could have dug in, done research, spent hours on Google looking for tools to use to make my games. But I didn't. At least, not at first. It took me a long time before I realized that the only thing standing between me and my goals was real, conscious effort.
Don't make the same mistake. If you really want it, go and get it.
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