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The Exponential Growth of Social Gaming

By: Steven Granieri

In a universe where all things are in continual flux, constantly changing and evolving, it would be silly to expect the Video Game Industry to exist outside of these governing principles and remain static. In fact, if you are looking for variety, there is no better resource for entertainment than video games.

Innovation and creativity are what help companies flourish, this is universally understood, and it’s apparent when you look at the progress of console gaming over the past 20 years. Even if you boil things down to a small scale example such as a timeline of Nintendo’s controllers, the amount of change and innovation is incredibly overt. From a D-pad to help you traverse the two dimensions in Mario Bros, to a Wiimote, helping you traverse the three dimensions of your living room; it is clear that things have changed.

But what happened to “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Why ditch a conservative mindset when it comes to video games? Well, there will always be the old-school, 8-bit enthusiasts, but I’d like to believe that this desire for innovation is inherently human. It’s quite simple: We like to be entertained, but humans grow bored of repetition, so the desire for a variety of stimuli is naturally spawned. We want devices and games to intellectually captivate us. We want something we haven’t experienced before.

With the aforementioned in mind, taking a look at the market today is very telling of society as a whole. In the 90’s, consoles flourished, but now they’re tackled with a daunting competitor: The Social Gaming Industry. Now, you may tease your friend if you walk in on him playing FarmVille, but the numbers for Social Gaming are nothing to joke about.

BI Intelligence, Business Insider’s research division, has predicted the market to grow to $5 Billion by 2015, currently valuing the industry at about $3 Billion.

(“We think social gaming will reach new audiences and new people, and we think it’s disruptive to current models of video games. Because games are provided as a service they can be optimized on the go to improve the product and monetization, and they’re inherently viral because they live on social platforms.” 


                Due to accessibility, Social Gaming is reaching a broader audience via Facebook and mobile apps. According to the Wall Street Journal, the number of people playing video games has risen 241% since 2008, and they feel this is due large in part to the craze of Facebook games such as FarmVille and CityVille, along with the multitude of mobile apps being downloaded.

But how is this possible? How are games with low production values making so much money? This, my friends, is also inherently human. The social connectivity that allows you to be a part of a community, and allows you to either play with or best your friends is what fuels this market. The compromise in production values is supplemented with social interaction and accessibility.

However, this must end at some point right? When are gamers going to start demanding more from the games they play? As it stands now, you either spend anywhere between $40-$60 and you get an isolated experience, sans Xbox Live, PSN, etc. Or you take the free-to-play route and you compromise in terms of graphics and cutting edge hoopla. When I try to forecast the future of gaming, I see a bridge being drawn between the two. Microsoft had a hunch in 2002 with Xbox Live and they unearthed a market with limitless potential. The ability to share experiences with people all around the globe is powerful.

I imagine that the consumer is going to get the better deal in the end, with the console market taking a big hit in the long run. People have so many outlets to play video games for free now, so they won’t to be willing to pay $60 for a single-player game without some “Level 99” apprehension. I feel like in the end, mobile gaming will conquer all, it just depends when technology will catch up and be able to provide the gamer with all the power they need in the palm of their hands.      
 

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Catch 22 – (Game Artists): Prior Experience Required

You know the routine: there’s this job you really want but you don’t have the experience. You could pretend you did but then they want to see your portfolio and odds are you probably haven’t finished it (or even gotten around to starting it.) Does this mean that you’re doomed to sitting in front of your monitor dreaming about a career as a Game Artist?

No!

Put down the game controller and pick up that stylus! You’ve got a ready audience for your work—all you need is a website and some determination. (Oh, and maybe a class or two if you’re not up on the latest game art programs, but it’s easy enough to get going on that.)

Instead of wishing for a job, it’s time for you to make it happen. . .

The Art Stuff
If you’re serious about working in the video game industry, you need to get serious about your job hunt, and that includes creating your demo / portfolio. Here are a few pointers whether you’re doing one for the first time or updating the one you have:

If all you have is art completed for coursework, don’t submit your resume (yet). Competition for these jobs is pretty fierce so you have to have an established career or be a complete (if undiscovered) superstar. A degree doesn’t prove your ability and does not entitle you to a job, it just equips you with the core skills you need to perform in the job and to build your demo / portfolio. Apply the knowledge you learn in school and continue to create art assets. Keeping pushing yourself to increase your skill level. That said, if you have an opportunity to get your portfolio reviewed, do it! Practice makes perfect.

It really helps to have a well-maintained blog with interesting articles showing your experiences with game development and game art. What if you can’t post anything from your current game? It’s ok to explain that you can’t show anything from the game-in-progress but you can clearly demonstrate that you know how to use the tools. (If you’re working on an indie game, creating a production blog is a good way to create some buzz.) Just remember that you’re trying to build a career here so don’t use the blog for political rants or questionable art.

Avoid fan art in your portfolio (unless it was commissioned by the show and / or the author, and you have permission to show it or link to it.) If you want to join LucasArts to work on the next Star Wars game, don’t re-create Darth Vader or any of the original characters. The hiring manager is trying to assess not only your skill but also your creativity, so design original assets that could be used in a Star Wars game. (It’s also a chance to show your knowledge of the IP as long as you don’t get too geeky.)

Be sure the art in your portfolio is 100% yours. A candidate who went for an interview at a big company included some gorgeous screenshots in his portfolio from a well-known game. The interviewers were very familiar with the game, and queried him about that art. It turned out that those were shots of levels he’d played in the game, NOT levels he’d created! Needless to say, he didn’t get the job.

The Technical Stuff
Today’s game industry artist needs to be specialized and technical. Showcase your strengths. Is it 3D? Create some strong environment pieces: one natural, one man-made, maybe something futuristic or fantasy but always totally original.

Character art is harder to break into but not impossible. Maybe show a progression of how you got from sketch to character with brief explanation (probably in a blog) about your inspiration and your tools.

Thriving platforms include Steam, XBLA, PSN, mobile, and Freemium. (Yes, there is a definite bias towards social games.) With the shift towards social and casual, you should know Flash, especially with recent announcements by Epic and Unity about their in-engine support for Flash11. This requires strong 2D skills and facility with a Wacom tablet.

It (almost) goes without saying that every artist needs to be good at drawing if for no other reason than you can illustrate feedback or suggestions to others–look good doing it. Split your time studying from life and drawing and painting from imagination. You might even try doing master copies of great artworks (that’s how students back then learned), studying human and large animal anatomy, and knowing key artistic foundations like perspective, color and composition.

Study the path of those whose work you really admire. You’ll be amazed at some of the secrets you can pick up from doing a little research.

Pointers for Specific Specialties:

  • Modelers: No Moving Videos. Show still images from different points of view. Show wireframes, unwraps, normal maps, spec maps (all as separate files). Hiring managers wants to see the modeling decisions you have made. Stick to Modeling; we see way too many demos where the modeler is also showing animation or special effects and this gets confusing. Focus on what you do best and show only the best work within that piece, whether it’s Characters, Weapons, Apparel, etc.
  • Concept Art: It’s really hard to break into the games industry as a concept artist. Hiring managers want to see a lot of early and quick exploration of rich strong shape design, good understanding of color and color theory and the ability to render—all of which their current art department already knows how to do. That said, if you can do amazing concept art AND have an equally good specialty, you might be able to show your creative process through a progression.
  • Animators: Focus on a couple of high quality moments of animation in your demo and really pay attention to weight, push / pull tests, and fluidity. You’ll get hired on two seconds of push / pull rather than an entire unfocused demo. Study the basic motion loops needed for the genre of games your target company publishes and prove that you can do that.
  • VFX: Show quality in-game effects that make sense and fit the genre. Understanding the Unreal and Unity Engines and their related particle effects systems is a big help. Innovate, don’t imitate.
  • Technical Artist: Understand Unreal and Unity, specifically their scripting languages (MEL and MaxScript). Learn Python. Show examples of your scripts (code), along with little movies of the scripts in action.
  • About Unreal:
    • If you’re an awesome modeler who can do awesome textures, everything needs to end up in Unreal—and it needs to work.
    • If you’re an animator, make sure you have some Animation Tree going shoe me what your animation. Show me what the animation are doing to textures and your assets in Unreal. Take everything you know about art and apply it in the engine.
    • If you do Visual Effects, designing particle effects and coding Cascade (using Unreal’s Particle engine).
    • About Engines in general: Plain and simple: demonstrate a mastery of your craft and knowledge of the engine your target game company is using.

 The Networking Stuff

Regardless of your area of expertise and / or interest, you need to network. Join one of the Social Game Developers groups on LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. It’s ok to read and “listen” for a while. Find the sweet spot between total n00b and flashy know-it-all.

Online Art Community and User Groups

  • MeetUp
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • PhotoShop
  • Digital Art Groups

Online Resources for Artists

There are a lot of sites out there that provide all kinds of helpful information. Here are a few of the bigger ones:

  • www.CGSociety.org (www.CGTalk.com is the site’s forum)
  • www.3DTotal.com (3DTotal was founded in 1999 as a simple 3D resource website. Over the last decade the site has evolved into one of the premier CG art websites.)
  • www.PolyCount.com (Polycount offers 3D videogame artists news, resources and a forum)
  • www.DominanceWar.com (The website of a massive annual game art competition)
  • www.ConceptArt.org (Offers a forum, news, information about a variety of classes, and contests)
  • www.visualliteracyprogram.com (The Visual Literacy Online Program is for both the serious student of any age and the professional artist.)
  • http://www.unrealengine.com (If you don’t know what this is, don’t apply for a job until you do!)
  • www.design3.com (This site has over 1K amazing demo’s to teach you 2D and 3D art skills.)

Which Company?

If you’re just starting out, even if you have a degree but you haven’t landed your first job, keep applying to the smaller studios. It would be exciting to claim Bungie or Blizzard as your first job but you’re up against a lot of “veterans” who are already making gorgeous, cutting-edge art.

Apply directly! A seasoned recruiter will rock your world once you have at least two professional games sold on the market. Prior to having professionally published titles the best way to succeed is by directly applying for a job yourself. There is no magic bullet or easy way to skirt around the job hunt.

Stay current on big games or AAA tiles, especially the ones that use the Unreal and Unity engines. (This does not mean be obsessed because you need time to work on your portfolio!)

Creating a Killer Demo

Find other people who also trying to break into the game industry. (See Networking above.) There are plenty of Programmers; Game Designers, and Web Developers who also need a demo. Combine your skills and create an online demo that rocks. Create mini games that are a logical extension of your favorite games (or the games of your target hiring company).

Customize your demo for your target audience. If you excel at sci-fi images, approaching EA Sports probably isn’t the best career move. Unless the game involves some kind of futuristic sport, they probably don’t care that you can do a spectacular rendition of Fenway Park or Tom Brady throwing a perfect spiral pass.

  • Keep it simple and easy to navigate.
  • Customize and target your work for the interviewing studio.
  • Create original assets.
  • Never force downloads to view assets.
  • Create a “brand” for yourself and manage it via social networking sites, etc.
  • Pay attention to poly count and use it as a measuring stick. Hiring managers want to see how well you used polygons in the art asset itself.
  • If you are showing your senior project from school, make sure it’s finished. Often senior projects are too ambitious and don’t get completed so scale it back to reality. Managers hire folks who can complete things.
  • Show both low poly and high poly work. Tag each image with brief info; the 2D or 3D software you used and how many pixels is usually enough.
  • Show only your best work. Less is more!

 

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The “Catch-22″ – For Designers: Prior Experience Required

The big Catch-22 in the game industry is that to get a job you need experience and to get that experience, you need to get a job. It can be pretty frustrating for someone who wants to get a foot in the door.

So . . . if you don’t have “official” experience, CREATE YOUR OWN!

Picking up new skills is always a great idea. If you can, enroll in an accredited degree or certificate program where you not only learn the ins and outs of your chosen area (game programming, animation, game design, etc.) but can also create something that can go into your portfolio.

No matter what game job you want, you’ll need to show examples of your work and demonstrate that you have what it takes to do the job. The good news is that you don’t need to be employed or have a shiny new degree to create a portfolio. Create your own art, design a soundtrack or . . .create mods of your favorite games.

“Modding” means modifying software to design an element or perform a function that isn’t currently in the product. Many games, like The Elder Scrolls series, come with a mod editing tool that actually encourages users to create and share original content. Some games even provide source code for player experimentation and publishing.

Still others, like 18 Wheels of Steel, provide the non-programmed data (images, small code pieces and the like) in a simple archive. Modders take the game in directions that the developers may have never anticipated or didn’t have time or funding to create. Some games, like Neverwinter Nights, could never have been as successful as they are without a thriving Mod community, which is why a number of game companies openly support modding. In the case of Half-Life, a mod called “Counter-Strike” drove sales of the original software for years.

GECK

The Garden of Eden Creation Kit (GECK) allows you to edit and create game content for Fallout 3. The data is stored in files that are read directly by the game. The GECK allows you to build your own areas (towns, dungeons, etc.) and populate them with your own characters, creatures, items and storylines. Want a job at Bethesda Software, the developer and publisher of Fallout? Create a killer Mod and watch how quickly you’ll get the company’s attention!

Hammer

The Valve Hammer Editor (known as Hammer) was the official mapping tool for the Goldsource engine, the engine that ran Half-Life and Counter-Strike as well as other pre-Source Valve games. The latest version is included in the Source SDK, for mapping under the Source engine (under which all newer Valve games run).

Aurora

The Aurora Toolset (also known as the Aurora toolkit) is a set of software tools developed by BioWare for use with the Aurora Engine, the game engine first used in BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights. The toolset is included in the Windows version of the game, and allows players to create their own adventures. The tools include a visual tile-based terrain editor, a script editor, a conversation editor and an object editor. Use modding to show BioWare that you love the game AND understand the engine.

Unreal Development Kit (UDK)

UDK is Unreal Engine 3, a complete professional development framework. It includes all the tools you need to create great games, advanced visualizations and detailed 3D Simulations on the PC and iOS platforms.

Many game companies actually follow the mod communities and may approach the good modders for jobs. EA, for example, has a strong reputation of mining the Sims Modding communities.The good news is that you’re not helpless here, so roll up your sleeves and GET MODDING!

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