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Design a Career in Computer Games

Creating computer games for a living is the dream of many young people. Fortunately, there are more opportunities than ever to break into the field.

Austin Fitzpatrick focuses on developing games that are played online. He's a game developer for NASA. He creates games for three online sites: The Space Place, Climate Kids and SciJinks.

These sites are about combining education with entertainment. They make learning about science fun.

"I've always been interested in computer programming," says Fitzpatrick. "I was pretty sure from a fairly young age that was what I wanted to do."

Fitzpatrick went to college and earned a four-year degree in computer science. When he was still in school he landed a part-time position at NASA.

"When I was a young kid, I wanted to make video games," he says. "And then... as I got older and played with more of the languages, I got into the web side of things. I did projects for families and friends and made websites. I kind of have the best of both worlds in this position because I run the website here, and I also develop all of the game content."

Fitzpatrick is part of a three-person team. One other member of the team creates the art for the games. And another member, Diane Fisher, is the content developer. She works with Fitzpatrick to develop game ideas.

"[The website's] purpose is to educate but in a way that doesn't feel like school," says Fisher. "We call it informal education because we're hoping that it's enough fun that kids will come to it on their own."

The game sites promote NASA and the work it does. "It's kind of a combination of marketing NASA... along with teaching kids a little bit about science and technology," says Fisher. "And hopefully getting them excited about the space program, so maybe they'll want to have a career that involves engineering or science, or maybe become an employee of NASA someday."

The Space Place site is sponsored by several NASA missions. Scientists from those missions ask the game design team to create games that relate to specific missions. For example, the team recently created a game about the Deep Space Network. It's a network of large antennas around the world that maintain contact with spacecraft in deep space.

"We took that idea of having these big dishes that are tracking distant objects, and we tried to make that into a game," says Fitzpatrick. "It turned out a little bit like a shooting gallery. You control the dishes, their rotation, and you have to... maintain contact with these spacecraft. So, we took what the mission actually does in real life, and we tried to turn that into a video game."

The training required for a career in computer games depends on the aspect of game development you focus on.

"It really varies because 'game developer' is really a generic term. It could mean programmer, it could mean artist, it could mean designer. The different specific roles have different training that they require," says Dave Warfield.

Warfield leads game design at a film school. He has worked in game design for more than 20 years. He was also a designer and producer with Electronic Arts (EA), a large gaming company.

Game developers can work for large gaming companies like EA, or they can create their own games websites. Some have had huge success creating their own sites. The interactive website Club Penguin is one example -- it was sold to Disney for several million dollars.

"It's definitely changing now with the advent of the Internet and tools that make it easier to develop something," says Warfield.

Rather than creating your own games website, Warfield suggests it's easier to create games for other games sites.

"Creating your own website and getting people to come to it and be hugely successful is definitely much harder to do than creating an independent game and getting that on the iPhone Apps (store) or on the PlayStation Network or something like that," he says. "So we're starting to see more and more of that kind of independent development. But typically, it is small teams, like two, three, four, five people that are creating most of those."

"As far as making your own website, I think you would need a few pieces of content before you start," says Fitzpatrick. "And these things take some time to develop.

"There are websites out there with affiliate programs where you can develop Flash games, online games... and then they'll pay you based on the advertising revenue that your game brings in. So that might be a good place to start," he adds. "It's not going to be a whole lot of money in the beginning, but if you're going to have to build up a catalog of titles anyways, you might as well start there. And then once you have a decent little catalog of your own, then maybe move on to your own site.

"That might be a good way to build a resume, build a portfolio, even if you're going to look for jobs at big companies, too," says Fitzpatrick. "It might be a way to start and at least see some return on all the effort you're putting in."

Warfield focuses on preparing people for the role of game designer. "[The game designer] is really the creative visionary for what a game should be and what the features, mechanics and different elements of the game need to be so that you can have a successful, fun, playable game at the end of the development process," he says.

Developers, programmers and artists work for online games sites as well as companies like EA, which develop games for consoles (such as the Sony PlayStation or Nintendo Wii). However, there are differences between the two types of games.

"The online experience is very different from sitting down at a game console, holding your controller and playing," says Warfield. "The audience is quite a bit more varied (online), the age range tends to vary quite a bit more on the website. And the type of experience that people are looking for (online) tends to be more 'Come in, play, have fun, and get out.' Whereas console (gaming) tends to [mean that you] sit down and work your way through the 30- or 40-hour game experience."

Typically, computer game artists, designers and programmers have a diploma or degree under their belts. But employers are especially interested in seeing what a person can do. This is where a portfolio comes in handy.

"Ultimately, companies looking to bring people in are going to be looking at the portfolio of what they have done," says Warfield.

Many programmers have degrees in computer science or programming. They need to have examples of applications they've created to demonstrate their ability to accomplish certain tasks.

Many artists attend arts school and take courses in 3D modeling. Formal education may be less important for artists if they have an impressive portfolio of work.

Designers often have backgrounds in programming or computer science. Others attend programs specific to game development.

Whatever role you play in game development, you can expect to be part of a team. A lot of aspiring game developers don't realize how much teamwork is actually involved.

"I'd say the biggest surprise for a lot of people starting out is they think they can be the rock star designer and create their own ideas right off the bat. And that very rarely happens, especially in a game company, regardless of whether that's web based," says Warfield.

"When you're starting out, you need to kind of prove [yourself]," he adds. "You need to come in and work with other designers and see what it takes to go through that development process before you really get that chance to go, 'Well, here's an idea, let's develop that.'"


Interactive games for kids up to age 12

The Space Place
Space-themed games and puzzles brought to you by NASA

A place to learn about science while playing games

Climate Kids
A site with information and games about climate change

Club Penguin
A popular game and activity site for kids

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