Can I become a game developer at this late age?
March 28, 2009 7:02 AM   Subscribe

I really want to be a game developer. Have I waited too long?

I'm a passionate gamer with lots of ideas who really wants to work in game development. Only trouble is, I'm 37 years old with two careers and a family and no real spare time to speak of. Is it a pipe dream to think that I might be able to work in game development some day?

Things like World of Goo and the iphone app store make me think there is no better time than now to be an indie game developer. But I just don't know where to start. The last serious from-scratch coding I did was in the Commodore 64 era. Is there a platform for game development that truly emphasizes storytelling and design, with the coding handled behind the scenes? Is there a drag-and-drop development platform? Is it possible to break into the world of game development, or is it a buyer's market when it comes to talent? Any suggestions on where/whether to start are appreciated.
posted by jbickers to Computers & Internet (33 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Is it a pipe dream to think that I might be able to work in game development some day?

Let me be blunt: Yes.

App development is hard. There are, effectively, no shortcuts. Apps that are lazily thrown together will just get lost in the sea of thousands of other iPhone apps that are out there. If you're not willing to put in the time and effort, it's just not going to happen.

I wonder if you realize how insulting it is to those of us who actually do program for a living when people like you come along with these questions which are basically:

1) Have neat idea for iPhone/web app
2) ???
3) Profit!
posted by mkultra at 7:18 AM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Disclaimer: I work in video games, but am not a designer or indie dev.

If you're looking for a solution that doesn't involve programming, you might want something like Game Maker or RPG Maker. From what I understand, though, this type of software is customizable to a point but won't be able to handle more innovative ideas.

If you're willing to code -- and you should be, if you want to make something good! -- there are a bunch of free engines/libraries/etc. available to help you along; I've heard good things about LÖVE and pygame. I don't know about iPhone development specifically, but this might be worth keeping an eye on.
posted by danb at 7:21 AM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would say hell no, don't give up, but expect it to require long, sustained, and careful effort. (So make sure you really, really want it if you're going to devote half a decade or a decade to getting there.)

My friends in the game development industry tell me that artists are actually in higher demand than programmers (though being both an artist and a software engineer, which is what my friends do, seems to be pretty advantageous.)

I'm not connected to the industry myself (though I'm a software engineer) but it appears to me that lots of people are at least getting good experience, and in some cases getting a start and generating contract work for themselves, designing Flash browser games. (Many of which are released for free.) I know that many of the tools and resources for doing Flash are targeted at graphic-artist-type people who aren't expected to be really hardcore programmers.

(Also, regarding the mushroom-forest-like proliferation of iPhone apps: remember that the whole iPhone app realm is mostly a marketing device engendered by Apple to sell iPhones.)
posted by XMLicious at 7:27 AM on March 28, 2009

I'm a designer who's been making video games professionally for over 13 years.

To get your head around what is involved, try to make something. Anything. Big, small, ANYTHING to completion on an electronic platform.

As far as engines, Love is a good one, as is Pygame. My current favorite is Unity 3d. Awesome tools, and a good set of languages.

It's very slick, good tutorials, reasonably easy to use. 200 dollars to.

I'd say get that, take a basic programming course and go to town.

For an easier entry, try a mod. Neverwinter Nights 2 is a very straightforward start because it has a great toolset. Source/Unreal/Gears is a bit steeper because it's not the most obvious entry areas.

There's a lot of good sources for information. School groups, universities, websites. Start at gamedev and go from there.
posted by Lord_Pall at 7:31 AM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is a website or program for essentially drag and drop building of games. I'd need to contact an previous work colleague (tried calling, he's not at his desk) who mentioned it since he found it for his son. I don't remember the name. This is assuming you don't want to get into C++ or Delphi with OpenGL and/or DirectX.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 7:31 AM on March 28, 2009

The only game devs who code things "from scratch" these days are those working on games that push the hardware to its limit. For everyone else, there are fantastic libraries out there that can handle graphics and sound and even sophisticated 3D environments. You still need to code, but it's totally possible for one person to get started with game development. Focus on games that are creative but simple from a coding perspective; World of Goo is a good example. Another is Crayon Physics.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:47 AM on March 28, 2009

I don't think you're going to get anywhere without 5-10 hours of hard work every week on average. One of the biggest hurdles to making games isn't so much the difficulty of the work especially these days where you can much more easily produce SOMEthing. So if you have that much time you can probably pull it off. Just alot your free time to spend on this hobby and stick with it. Sticking with it is much harder than the programming, which you'll need to pick up again at some point if you want to do anything remotely original. But languages like Python (which Pygame, referenced above, requires) are very easy to pick up. I essentially agree just about all of the above posters, but I really can't emphasize enough how likely failure will be if you don't use your free time wisely and consistently for the long-term.
posted by Green With You at 7:48 AM on March 28, 2009

I don't think it's too late for you at all, but it does depend on what kind of games you want to develop. I suspect it would be difficult to get a job with a game development studio at this point without the necessary experience to even be considered for an interview.

But you don't have to get someone to hire you to develop games. Look at some of the flash games that get posted here on Fridays, for example. These are typically one-person efforts and not all that complicated.

So start by trying to make something extremely simple just to get your head around various development platforms. I mean simple on the "paper-scissors-rock" level. There is usually a learning curve that has to be overcome to get *anything* running, and a trivial project like that is a good way to learn the minimum necessary stuff. Over time you can then try more and more complicated projects until you get something worth showing to the public.

You're going to need a couple of things though: ideas, and time. You mentioned time is specifically something you don't have, and I think that's going to be a problem. I've been in the computer industry for a good 20+ years at this point, and the promise of development environments that require no coding and minimal time to create something good has never come true. Anything good is going to take time to develop, in my opinion.
posted by FishBike at 7:54 AM on March 28, 2009

I think Lord_Pall meant
posted by Nelson at 7:57 AM on March 28, 2009

So, at 37 you probably have at least another 37 years in you. In that amount of time, you can absolutely learn to develop games. Maybe you won't get your first paid gig until you're 50, but the longer you wait the longer it will take.

I am a software developer who dabbles in game development (my first game just went live on the App Store yesterday afternoon in fact) and unlike mkultra, I'm completely not insulted. I do agree that it is a pipe dream, but I think pipe dreams are worth investigating with the foreknowledge that you're probably not going to win.

The thing you need to understand, as has been said, it is not easy. But then, neither is playing the guitar and raising a family is pretty hard not to mention having two careers. So you're not out of the game yet.

There's a couple of avenues available to you. You could learn to program, you could learn to model. Maybe you have management experience and can apply that, though with software development and game development moreso I think management tends to come from inside.

There isn't any software out there that is going to write your game for you, not well. There's a few options in things like modding a Valve game or making a Little Big Planet level, that can be a gentle introduction. Another thing to consider is paying someone to develop the game for you.

The thing you want to do doesn't sound like software development and it doesn't sound like modelling. It sounds like game design, and getting a game design job is even harder than getting some random game development related job. But if you start with the money and can pay good people then you don't need to know quite as much detail, though you need to learn enough to not get ripped off.

I'd start looking around game development forums and start writing some design documents. The Unity forums are fantastic, and any game engine related discussion areas are going to have people who are interested in doing the work but don't themselves have any great ideas.

Start reading some books, there's lots out there about game development. Most of it is fluff, but when you know nothing fluff is a good place to start. Distill the fluff into information that's genuinely useful for other people on a blog and become a popular voice for other wannabe game designers and someone might come along to do the work for you.

Just don't expect to get any money for this for several years. If you can articulate your vision for a game clearly and strongly, there will be people out there who will help you, especially if you can pay them.
posted by cCranium at 8:22 AM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nelson and Lord Pall: Looks like this is the money. Perfect ...thanks!

mkultra: how utterly unhelpful. I've been a professional writer for 20 years, and I'm constantly being asked "where do you get your ideas?" as if that's all it takes. But I make it a point to never be an asshole to those people, because creative efforts should never be discouraged, even if that person is never going to write anything worth reading.
posted by jbickers at 8:35 AM on March 28, 2009 [7 favorites]

jbickers: I'm 37 years old with two careers and a family and no real spare time to speak of.
The last serious from-scratch coding I did was in the Commodore 64 era.

You're vastly underestimating the time and effort required to even get up and running in the industry. If you're going to put such unrealistic up-front constraints on this plan, which essentially amount to, "I have no real skills in the area, nor the time to learn them," then you are, in fact, pursing a total pipe dream. Getting to the point where you can make anything that's of interest to more than a couple of your friends, let alone earn you any money, will require sacrificing (a) your job, or (b) your family, if not both. Are you ready to do that?
posted by mkultra at 9:03 AM on March 28, 2009

Strongly seconding Lord_Pall on Unity 3d as a starting engine. It is simple and complete enough that you'll be able to put together something that actually moves and does stuff in a weekend. That said, you aren't going to get rich quitting your day job and writing the great American videogame. Your age certainly isn't a problem but having "no real spare time" - that's probably insurmountable.
posted by ecurtz at 9:20 AM on March 28, 2009

There's a lot of kinds of games out there, and which ones are accessible to you depends a lot on what talents you have.

My personal recommendation would be to start at the hobbyist level - read some tutorials and figure out how to do some basic programming or scripting yourself. Then I would suggest to avoid 3d and make your own 2d games in flash or using some library or something. 3D opens up a lot of possibilities but also has much higher development cost - it's a lot easier to draw something from one point of view than to make a model that looks good from any direction.

You say this looks like a great time to break into the indie games business, which may be true, but recognize that World of Goo is pretty anomalous - it's rare to find just two people with all the various design, implementation, and organizational skills necessary to make a game of that caliber and level of polish; most people would need a lot more help, and once you start adding people then it gets expensive and some whole new business-type challenges start cropping up.

What I personally think this is a fantastic time for is creative-endeavors-as-a-hobby. Never before could you make your work (be it music, games, art, writing) available to so many people so easily and cheaply.
posted by aubilenon at 9:46 AM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Like what cCranium said, starting to dabble in programming or modeling is pretty straightforward. Dabbling in computer game design is hard: there's no easy place to start experimenting. If you have a particular genre in mind, I would look for toolkits that support that genre. As aubilenon, 2D is generally easier than 3D.

I'm probably biased as a programmer, but learning simple graphics programming in flash could be a good place to start. If you're interested in interactive fiction, Inform 7 might be a good place to start as well.
posted by demiurge at 10:06 AM on March 28, 2009

I don't think it's a pipe dream that you'll work in game development one day. Here's a crazy idea to start with: why don't you develop a simple game with commodore 64 code and then have someone port it to Flash or something else and make it available on the iphone app network?

Some people still love the commodore 64 and the limitations on its sprites and colours made the developers work extra hard on the quality of game play.

This way, you get to see if you still remember how to code, you actually make a game within 6 months without having to dump everything else in your life, and you'll probably get a pretty good perspective of whether or not people like your gaming mind.

There are other ways to go about things, but as someone who sees kids playing these games on a daily basis I can assure you that unless you're trying to make Halo 4, graphics are the last thing you need to worry about competing against. It's the playability, playability and playability.
posted by fantasticninety at 10:15 AM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Getting to the point where you can make anything that's of interest to more than a couple of your friends, let alone earn you any money, will require sacrificing (a) your job, or (b) your family, if not both. Are you ready to do that?

You sound bitter and unhelpful.

jbickers, I'm an indie developer with a full-time job, a serious (10 hours/week) martial arts practice, and a significant other. It can be done, if you're willing to hump it a bit on the weekends. Put the money idea aside for the time being; grab an engine like Unity or XNA, and start learning. Come up with a project, create a project plan and set some milestones, and work on it to completion.

Repeat a few times. Congrats -- you're an established game developer, after a few years of work. You might not be a commercial success, or you might be, but either way you're doing something you love; if the business aspects are important to you, you'll be in a position to evaluate your skills and the market from the inside.
posted by ellF at 11:58 AM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's not about "is it too late". It's about "How much time do I have to put into it?"

If you wanted to be a non-indie game developer you'd at least have to go to school and get a related degree. Then you could get a regular 9-5 job (9-12 during crunch time). But you'd be a very minor cog in a very large machine and it would feel a lot less like making a game and more like making sausage. But you'd have reliable income and you and your family would be secure.

As an indie developer you still need to get the education. Actually you need more skills because you're a much smaller business and have more bases to cover. A successful indie developer has a very broad skillset. Income for indie developers is usually much lower and jobs are less secure.

This is why most indie developers are either young and single or older veterans who can trade on their name and retirement accounts.

If I were you I'd play around with Flash. It's not as free as some of the above (there is a free trial), but it's very accessible and capable, and there's a huge active community of Flash game developers to learn from. I wouldn't shoot for iPhone development straight out of the box. It's not for amateurs.

You know that most jobs in game development are not programmers, right? Look at what other skills you have, especially writing, and see what you can apply to the business. Even indie games often spend most of their time and money on art, sound, music, writing, testing, etc.
posted by Ookseer at 12:02 PM on March 28, 2009

If you do manage to create an end product, you can post it to a site like Kongregate which shares its ad revenue with developers.
posted by mrmojoflying at 12:11 PM on March 28, 2009

20 years of writing experience can go a pretty long way in game development too, although one for games frequently one writer goes a very long way.

Writing has traditionally been a good way into the games industry. And even though gaming journalism is in a bad way right now (as is game development), there's always room for good editorial content.

mkultra, my only real disagreement with your interpretation is that you assume the OP doesn't realize that developing a career is hard work and will require sacrifice. I think the thing that I disagree with is that one can't begin developing new skills with only a small amount of time available. Yes, only putting an hour each week into skill development is going to take an extremely long time, but well, people generally live for a long time. What I'm doing for an hour a day now might be a dominant hobby or even career in 20 years (when I can pretty guarantee I'll still be looking for a way for people to give me money). Certainly not the way to be developing games professionally by 2010, but 2020? Maybe so.
posted by cCranium at 1:02 PM on March 28, 2009

"I've been a professional writer for 20 years"
Make full use of this. Either collaborate with coders and designers (most people are terrible at developing narratives and doing copywriting), or experiment with ideas that are incredibly simple to program and require writing (e.g. write an interesting multiple-choice choose-your-own-adventure game and present it using low-budget video or animation).

It's not too late to get into developing games if your brain is wired the right way for coding and your expectations are modest, but you'll need to find a decent amount of spare time to give it enough focus and practice to finish projects. There are countless frameworks that help you avoid low-level coding, but you still have to be able to tell the computer precisely what to do to produce the required behaviour (which is all any programming is; that's also why there are never any true short cuts).
posted by malevolent at 1:05 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Check out How Many Games I Sell and How Many Games I Sell Part 2 for a a success story.

Keep in mind that this is part 4 in an ongoing series of games, so he has an underlying engine he gets to work with, which keeps costs down.


Geneforge 4 cost about $120K to make. If I had to do all of the code and graphics from scratch, this figure would have been around fifty percent higher.

Total Copies Sold of Geneforge 4 as of March 13, 2009: 3979.
Total Gross Sales Geneforge 4 as of March 13, 2009: $111412.

Total Geneforge 4 Hint Books Sold as of March 13, 2009: 807.
Total Gross Sales Geneforge 4 Hint Books as of March 13, 2009: $5649.


Geneforge 4 cost about $120K and has made about $117K. Given current sales rates, it should be in the black in at most 2-3 months. After that, everything it earns is pure, tasty profit. And we will sell it in bundles (we sell a Geneforge 4-5 bundle already, and a Geneforge 1-5 CD is coming), making more money. So I don't regret the time spent writing it at all.


Can This Success Be Replicated By Others?

Yes. But it is difficult.

posted by Muffy at 1:36 PM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I would say hell no, don't give up, but expect it to require long, sustained, and careful effort. (So make sure you really, really want it if you're going to devote half a decade or a decade to getting there.)

Probably a decade.

Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years
Researchers. . .have shown it takes about ten years to develop expertise in any of a wide variety of areas, including chess playing, music composition, telegraph operation, painting, piano playing, swimming, tennis, and research in neuropsychology and topology.
posted by mlis at 1:46 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think it will be very difficult for you, but not insurmountable if you've at least a fundamental grasp of programming languages… if you're a logical person, if you're good at picking up on patterns, and if you're determined enough to stay up late at night until you can get something "working"—I'd say it's possible.

Application development—particularly game development—is powered by great ideas. Come up with a cool, new way of wasting somebody's time and you'll be successful. Try and put out a yet-another (i.e., yet-another-first-person-shooter, yet-another-head-to-head, yet-another-2d-scroller, etc.) and you'll die in obscurity.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:32 PM on March 28, 2009

In terms of programming games, I don't think you've got much of a chance to be honest. Games companies go for bright young mathematics graduates.

However, watch the credits for a big game. Note how many programmers - hardly any compared with the numbers involved - if you can design 3D graphics, write plots (this seems best for you), write music, etc., you've got a much better chance of breaking into the games industry.
posted by BigCalm at 4:02 PM on March 28, 2009

I'm a hobbyist coder and scripter and have done some very basic game coding (text based MUD). I dont consider myself at all good, but doing stuff like this as a hobby really scratches an itch for me. The same way doing repairs to my car or modding my PC scratches a different itch.

I think the best strategy for you is to dismiss any idea of making a profit or career for now. You first need to become a hobbyist and that usually means spending time and money. Get neck deep into this stuff on the hobbyist level. Try to be the best hobbyist you can be. Compete with other hobbyists. Make mods, levels, simple games, networked games, etc. Once you reach this stage then reconsider the commercial aspect of your wish. The guys competing with you for entry-levels jobs will definitely be master hobbyists, so its a stage you'll have to beat regardless.

It could be that this alone will scratch your itch or you'll find that the world of coding is not as nice as you fantasize it is. Personally, I find coding to be difficult and never really made it a religion. This makes me appreciate well made software and its incredible how much value we get for our money, especially with big productions like games.

Some guys become rocks stars, other guys start cover bands with their friends. There's no shame in being in the latter group.
posted by damn dirty ape at 5:27 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

You asked about tools, so check out the Flash tutorials on Kongregate (it'll teach you to make a two-player shooting game), and Gamesalad, a games-creation tool that I played with during SXSW this year.
posted by lhall at 6:02 PM on March 28, 2009

I know next to nothing about the insides of the electronic games industry. But, as an occasional consumer, I can say that good writing is what a lot more games need - what makes it a good *story* and a good *game*?

Have you given any thought to development similar to old Infocom adventures (I know there are several tools around to support this) or something a bit more complex but very story based (like the incredible King of Dragon Pass)? May be a way to leverage current skills into a new career space.
posted by meinvt at 6:16 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend grabbing pygame and playing around with that. Python is the easiest thing to get started on, and you'll be able to write some basic fun stuff pretty fast with pygame. If you like it and have a good idea for something that needs 3d or needs to be faster or needs shaders or such, well, then you can learn it - but if you start learning it now, it'll be a long time before you'll have anything to show for it, and it's very discouraging.
posted by devilsbrigade at 12:15 AM on March 29, 2009

Thanks everybody ... one thing this conversation has brought into focus for me is that I'm much more interested in story design than level design or 3-D coding or any of that stuff. When I think back on the games I feel the strongest about, it's always the story that I remember (don't care about plasmids so much, but want to know more about Andrew Ryan; not so enamored with Braid's puzzles, but want to delve deeper into the mythology of the princess, etc.).

So, I think step one for me is to write a piece of IF, or perhaps learn that adventure game builder platform. In the mean time, if any of you that are in this business have any tips/connections on how to reach out to the folks that need writers/editors, I'd appreciate any such tips via memail.
posted by jbickers at 7:53 AM on March 29, 2009

I'm surprised to see that except ddape has talked much about modding and mapmaking for existing games as a way to get into things and get a feel for stuff without having to start from scratch.

Source engine games (like HL2, TF2, L4D, CS:S) or any Quake engine games that have had their source code released (and many other game engines besides) support massive communities of modders and there is a ton of info out there. Seems like a decent and not-overwhelming place to start, maybe.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:46 PM on March 29, 2009

Stick with 2D, lo-fi games for now. Try pumping out some very basic experimental games that hinge on one interesting idea, get feedback from the TIGSource forums, where there are a ton of supportive people just like you. When you feel ready, enter one of their comps. After you've done a couple, work on something a bit more ambitious. See where it goes from there.

Ignore the haters. If you're excited to learn to program, this is the best possible time for you to get involved with indie gaming.
posted by waxpancake at 12:10 AM on March 31, 2009

Oh man, I just saw this question. If it's storyline you're after, you should have done this. It's actually not too late though, sorta. I'm still accepting submissions, just not for the contest.

If you love the story and don't care about graphics, using Inform is a really interesting (although, admittedly, sometimes challenging) way of creating a game. Text adventures are 100% story.
posted by Deathalicious at 1:54 PM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

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