Game Changing : Thriving During Game Industry Seismic Shift

Games are changing.

The landscape once dominated by behemoth AAA titles is almost gone.

Gamers have more choices. Social games and free-to-play models have transformed the game industry you thought you knew. And ballooning budgets for high-profile titles mean you need a blockbuster of Modern Warfare proportions to turn a profit.

As The Verge wrote in their July 22nd article: “Developing an AAA game is rapidly becoming one of the most expensive enterprises humans can undertake, outside of building battleships, launching space vehicles, or making movies.”

But here’s the thing. For the emerging game designer — or animator or sound editor, for that matter — none of this a bad thing. It actually means opportunity.

Dave Warfield, Head of VFS Game Design, has seen the shift play out in his graduates: “There are still entry level positions at the big studios, but there has been a huge increase in creative roles in smaller companies that are booming with the growth in mobile, social, and casual gaming areas.”

The advice of Susannah Skerl, a producer and industry consultant who works with East Side Games, is simple — pay attention: “It’s more important than ever to treat your career development as an ongoing level-up process, with a passion for making games at your core.”

“I think the main thing in any field to bear in mind is to really research the industry,” she says. “As someone newly entering the job market, you need to align yourself with what prospective employers’ requirements are. Companies in the social and mobile space will have a demand for certain skills, the core AAA space others.”

That’s exactly what Warfield is encouraging in his students: “The most important thing that an emerging game designer can do to prepare for this evolution is to make sure they are familiar with the types of game experiences in this space, and especially familiar with the types of content and features that appeal to this new generation of game player.”

And when you get right down to it, many of the fundamentals that go into a great big-budget console title and an addictive social or mobile game are the same.

As Skerl says, “Keep yourself up to date on what constitutes a fun and rewarding experience, and develop the skills to churn out playable content on your own. Maintain your value and keep your options as open as possible.”

It’s easy to look at a studio like Radical — a Vancouver mainstay for two decades that was shut down by parent company Activision — and fret a little. But is the sky actually falling? Neither Skerl nor Warfield think so.

“Things move in cycles, so don’t panic,” says Skerl. “We see regular contractions in the game industry, so while it’s devastating to see companies like Radical shut down, it can also be instructive, in a way.”

Warfield, who’s been a big part of the Vancouver industry since Radical’s earliest days, knows this better than many. When Electronic Arts bought a company called Distinctive Software, many of the devs caught in the middle splintered off to form Radical — a move that ultimately led to time-tested titles like The Simpsons: Hit & Run and Prototype.

“The history in Vancouver has shown that, although it is tough, it almost always leads to better things,” says Warfield. “When a large group of creative people are looking at what is next, you can expect to see a new venture, or several new ventures.”

It’s a tight industry. The moment the first rumblings about Radical started filtering through the social networks, the Vancouver game community began to mobilize. Dozens of companies made it known that they were hiring — that there would be a place for the talent caught in the Activision-Radical crossfire. Companies like: HotheadJetpack InteractiveA Thinking ApeCapcom Vancouver, …and, yes, East Side Games. Behind the scenes, ex-Radical devs are planning their next moves — and you can bet that means some of them will be opening their own studios.

“One of the most positive things that I see in this industry is how the community supports each other at these times,” says Warfield. “Within hours of Activision’s announcement, local companies were reaching out to those affected to let them know there are positions available for the next stage of their careers.”

Skerl agrees: “The local industry folks are super supportive of each other. We need to keep moving forward. We need to stay on top of our game so that Vancouver’s dev scene remains vital.”