Should you still pursue a career in the games industry?

The games industry is currently facing an uncertain future, but there is hope beyond the storm.
should you still pursue a career in the games industry

There is an air of malaise currently haunting the global games industry. After two full years of cost-cutting by major studios, encompassing thousands of job losses and cancelled games, it feels like the promise of a bright future is fading. Video games are more popular than ever in the public eye, but a capitalist-minded pursuit of endless growth has seen companies shedding staff to keep profits ever-climbing. Thirsting after similar goals, publisher wallets have tightened.

On a weekly basis, small studios are reporting closures or downsizing based on a lack of opportunities. Where previously, publishers offered deals for smaller, quirkier games, it appears support is drying up. Surefire hits are the name of the game, and there’s a real sense of caution in spending.

“As more game studios emerge, access to funding is becoming more competitive,” Ron Curry, CEO of advocacy body IGEA told GamesHub. “There are more developers applying for government funding and we are told publishers are more discerning about their investments and taking fewer risks.”

Amidst this backdrop, the future is uncertain. For those currently thinking of pursuing a career in the games industry – whether in production, artistry, engineering, writing, or otherwise – there are plenty of questions about stability and job opportunities. So, should you continue to pursue a career in the games industry, given recent circumstances?

What young graduates need to know

“Emerging game developers have a harder time finding work now than in the past years I have seen,” Mickey Krekelberg, Melbourne-based developer and technical artist told GamesHub. “We are in the middle of a massive shift in the industry. Small studios are dropping like flies around us, while larger studios are reducing staff to cut costs or maximise profit. In many unfortunate cases, medium-sized teams are having to lay off staff just to keep the lights on.”

In Krekelberg’s experience of the Australian games industry, there is not only a lack of job opportunities for recent graduates, but any jobs available tend to be shorter term contracts. It means emerging developers must now be more creative with their choices, working several jobs, and balancing a range of skillsets.

“Developers typically need to wear multiple hats at once, and studios look for workers who can pivot to different roles when needed,” Krekelberg explained.

Per Az Valastro, lecturer in Games, Animation and Design at JMC Academy, these circumstances have inspired a shared fear amongst emerging developers, who are now facing a less certain future.

“A lot of them are panicked, very worried,” Valastro said. “What I’ve been telling them is this is a really good time to figure out the sorts of things you want to be making, through making games with your friends, and really solidifying your passion for what you do … then, when the industry does pick itself back up again, you’ll be more than ready to jump in.”

With these challenges arises an opportunity for those willing and able to pivot. What is most important, according to Lucy Mutimer, talent agent at SupaGlu and freelance 2D artist, is for emerging developers to recognise a diversity in their strengths, and accept a need to branch out, as with any creative pursuit.

“[The most important thing] is to zoom out, look at your portfolio and go, ‘Okay, this is what I want to make. This is what I want to do. What can I do to achieve that, that’s reasonable, and will still allow me to live my life?'”

In pursuing a career in games, it’s also essential to recognise that opportunities present in many forms. Speaking to multiple developers, working in full-time, part-time and freelance capacities, a common theme in discussion was a need to remain flexible, and consider multiple avenues.

“It’s fine to not work in games!” Mads Mackenzie, developer at Fine Feathered Fiends (Drăculești) told GamesHub. “If possible, finding something that pays the bills, that doesn’t burn you out, and lets you create on the side is a good move, too …  If your heart is set on games, patience and a healthy relationship to your craft are the most important things to cultivate.”

Mutimer was similarly enthusiastic about working in alternative fields as a pathway into game creation. Working in the games industry requires a multitude of skills, many of which are learned by working in roles like retail – team work, communication, efficiency, dependency.

“I like seeing things like retail on a resume, because it shows to me that you can work with others that you might not necessarily hang out with, in a high pressure environment,” Mutimer said. “It also assures me that this person knows how to work, which some people don’t.”

The skills needed to find a job in game development can also be well-development in adjacent industries.

“I like to call the games industry a Frankenstein of film, IT, and tech,” Sorcha Millican-Nagle, Industrial Relations Manager at PlaySide Studios said. “We take a bit of everything.”

In providing advice, Mutimer was also keen to reassure emerging developers that if they’re struggling to find work currently, they’re not alone. Opportunities ebb and flow – and currently, the games industry is on a downturn, in line with the global economy.

“There’s some very talented people who are struggling to find work right now, and are losing work,” Mutimer explained. “It’s very, very competitive. There is thirst for more experienced developers right now, and they’re also having a terrible time.”

Some experienced developers are now having to job hunt for the first time in 10 years. Where studios are hiring, there is a consistent preference for more experienced developers, and fewer opportunities for emerging devs to be trained up. The reality is the games industry is changing, and that means adapting to suit. It also means pursuing a more creative pathway forward.

A winding road ahead

Speaking to developers for this piece, common threads emerged around pathways into game development. While interviewees agreed that established developers have an easier time finding work, what was most clear is that the art of finding a job remains fundamentally the same in all facets: it’s all about getting creative.

For Mickey Krekelberg, entering the games industry meant taking on an array of smaller part-time, contract jobs and full-time work – contributing art and design skills to a diverse array of projects, including Paper House’s Wood & Weather, Little Pink Clouds’ Letters to Arralla, and SMG’s Moving Out 2.

Lucy Mutimer is a talent agent, and also contributes art to games like Kinder World on a freelance basis. Prior to working in the games industry, Mutimer took a roundabout path through graphic design and visual arts, before deciding where her passions were, and how her skills transferred.

Read: Lumi Interactive is working to create a Kinder World

Az Valastro’s career interests began with a childhood love of tech, and led them towards a degree in game design at JMC Academy. After spending some time freelancing with programming and lending skills to a range of indie projects, they also began lecturing at JMC.

Sorcha Millican-Nagle found her way to PlaySide via YouTube content around Minecraft. She took on moderating gigs and community management on a smaller scale, some paid and some volunteer work, and then demonstrated those skills to land a job with Electronic Arts in Melbourne. Much of her work was on shorter, fixed-term contracts, but they allowed her to network with folks in the industry.

Mads Mackenzie worked in a call centre while doing a BA and MA in Media Studies. Later, they took on a range of customer service and admin jobs, while working as hobbyist game developer. Over several years, they took on various contract jobs and university tutoring, before they secured a role as Freeplay co-director, and also gained government funding for work on the Dracula-inspired romantic visual novel, Drăculești.

Each pathway is worth noting, as several developers mentioned feeling they had an “alternative” pathway into games. Based on research, the vast majority of pathways are alternative, and it’s for that reason that recent graduates should consider the winding roads of those currently working in the industry. It’s difficult to break into games, and it’s harder than ever now, thanks to tough competition and economic circumstances. But with a pinch of creativity and tenacity, more opportunities come to light.

So, what can emerging game developers do?

Beyond embracing a need to pivot, there’s plenty emerging game developers can do to prepare themselves for the future. Education of the challenges facing the games industry is important, of course. But in terms of tangible steps, there’s firmer advice to hand down.

The first piece? Get a LinkedIn. Mutimer, Millican-Nagle, and Valastro all agreed that LinkedIn is possibly the most valuable tool emerging developers have in their arsenal. Those looking for jobs need to keep their profile updated, share their insights, and track any career-adjacent developments. It shows a sense of diligence and a willingness to communication, as well as a maturity.

“A lot of things that have really helped me are about being prominent and present digitally and online in the industry,” Millican-Nagle said. “A lot of people talk about how networking is important, and that’s true. But really, at its core, it’s about talking about what you do. Being engaged with the industry, which might be attending an event, it might be volunteering.”

Emerging developers must also realise that while game development can be a hobby, it is wildly different as a career. Like all jobs, the games industry is run with capitalist intent. Games must make money, and be commercially viable. Working in games is a dream job, but it’s just like any other job – it requires dedication and hard work. Perhaps more so than any other type of job, it requires a dogged persistence to stay employed.

“[Game studios are] also a workplace, which I feel is something that gets lost,” Mutimer explained. “When I see juniors wanting to enter in, I’ll always get ‘oh, I’ve always wanted to work in games.’ That’s fantastic. What’s your experience? Are you aware that this thing you love is also a workplace? Reframing your passion … it’s a difficult discussion you have to have with yourself.”

In understanding games as a job, Mutimer also encouraged emerging developers to consider what other hobbies they have, and whether they’re able to separate their passions from their work – to ensure they don’t burn out and they’re able to relax away from a desk.

Soft skills are also incredibly valuable to gaining work – particularly the abilities to work in a team, to manage time, and to understand yourself as a human being. Not only will it help with day-to-day work, it’ll also aid networking and communication.

“Being able to manage yourself and your time is really, really important,” Valastro said. “Being able to understand yourself and know how you work, so you can work best with other people, is the most important thing outside of your folio.”

A brighter future ahead

The games industry, such as it is, can be incredibly fickle. There are tides at work, as business and the economy play havoc on the stability of careers. In Australia, we are much luckier than abroad. While our local games industry has been heavily impacted by economic change, it has always been fairly humble, with small studios and individuals punching far above their weight.

Developers in most states have access to government-based funds that add an extra layer of support. With an understanding that games are art and transmit culture globally, funds from Screen Australia, VicScreen, Screen Queensland, Screen NSW, Screen Tasmania, the South Australian Film Corporation, Screenwest, and other bodies are helping game developers weather the storm.

“We are in a good position in the Australian industry, in that although we’re not as globally recognised as places like America – that is changing – we are getting good government support and funding for initiatives that is really helpful,” Millican-Nagle said. “Federally, we have Screen Australia, and then each state has their own funding body, which is super helpful for starting an indie project, or just getting to a vertical slice.”

Beyond funding, Australia has a unique and supportive industry built on tight networks.

“As always, the Australian community is doing its best to support each other and share advice, and our role [at IGEA] is to help create connections and educate in order to weather the current conditions,” Ron Curry said.

“We are seeing established developers create their own studios, we are seeing developers gaining and winning work for hire projects and we are also seeing some game developers heading to other high-tech adjacent industries, particularly programmers and engineers. We are also seeing game developers attracting employees from those same high-tech companies and adjacent screen industries such as VFX successfully.”

As Curry told GamesHub, the games industry is “constantly evolving” and that means the future jobs market is difficult to predict. In the coming years, we could see new and different jobs emerge, all bringing opportunities for emerging developers to foster new skills, and find places in the games industry that don’t currently exist.

While developers speaking to GamesHub all expressed a variety of concerns about the games industry currently, there was a prevailing hope for the future, and how it may change in the coming years – as it travels beyond the eye of the storm that is the post-pandemic financial blowback on the economy.

“I’m cautiously hopeful,” Lucy Mutimer said. “I’m a bit of a lovesick fool for the games industry during times like these … but I think with these grants that we’re lucky enough to have, Australia will be poised to come out of this pretty okay. I hope that it has more studios starting, I hope that more weird or interesting games come out the other side of this period.”

Read: ‘Find your weird, and bring it to us’: Screen Australia on supporting Aussie-made games

“There’s too much talent here for there not to be [a brighter future],” Az Valastro said. “There are so many wonderful people here, making wonderful things, and if that doesn’t build a really strong foundation, I don’t know what will … It can only go up from here.”

The clouds, such as they are, will eventually break. While that may take time, a sense of optimism and a sturdy umbrella should serve emerging developers well in the meantime.

Leah J. Williams is a gaming and entertainment journalist who's spent years writing about the games industry, her love for The Sims 2 on Nintendo DS and every piece of weird history she knows. You can find her tweeting @legenette most days.