A friend of my father’s has a son interested in getting into the industry, and she asked if he could contact me to get some advice. He hasn’t yet, possibly because having your mom come home from work and suggest asking one of her acquaintances for advice isn’t exactly what a 21-year-old wants to do, but, if he does, I can point him here. Besides, I already put the thought into it, so here it goes.

Note: All of the information in this post and the following one is clearly based on my own anecdotal experience and that of people I’ve talked to about the subject. Other professionals in the industry may have a different experience, and it’s worth getting advice from anyone that seems to have a decent basis for it.

Making video games is a very attractive career for the modern young man (and not a few young women as well). A recent commercial for a for-profit school shows a couple of young guys lounging on a couch in front of a big screen, discussing where to put enemies. Who wouldn’t want to get paid to be literally an armchair designer?

It’s very seldom like that.

While working in this industry is probably one of the most interesting, fulfilling, highest-paying careers for a young person that loves playing games and whose skills tend towards the white collar but don’t necessarily extend to the truly specialized, it is, actually, a job a lot like any other. You’ll spend long hours in front of a monitor doing data entry. You’ll have to meet deadlines, go to meetings, and report to managers that you don’t always see eye-to-eye with. You’ll need to produce quality work on someone else’s schedule and may get in trouble if you can’t.

But, at the end of it, if everyone did it right, fun comes rolling out. You get to point at a game and take rightful credit for it. As I said, it’s still a job, but never forget that it’s a really cool job.

So how do you get to work on games?

That’s the tricky part for most kids. The distressing thing about the video games industry is its turnover rate: there are very few old and established gaming companies the way there are old and established firms that host most other white collar jobs. Even games published by the industry giants generally come from small studios employing only a few dozen people. For these companies, if they don’t continue to produce profitable games, they might get cut off (or, in the case of certain recent debacles, might get cut off because the publisher wants to keep all the profits). Startups are in an even worse situation: they need to constantly convince their investors that a profit is still in the offing or risk having the venture capitalists cut their losses and cut off funding.

What this means is that there is constant churn in the industry. One company fails after a couple of years and all its employees, now a couple of years better qualified (with the resumes to match), start hunting for positions. It seems like there’s at least one company with dozens of layoffs every month or two, especially in the current economic climate, which means there’s always at least a handful of trained professionals that could potentially be competing with an inexperienced prospective designer for any job. A lot of companies offering “junior” positions still require a year or two of experience, because they get enough applications from industry veterans that they don’t need to take the risk of untested talent. It’s possible that the only reason new blood gets into the industry at all is the occasional periods where the industry is growing and the loss of experienced workers that are looking for a more secure career, like (insert humorous, dangerous career of your choosing here to complete the joke).

So, despite this competition, how can a young person optimize his or her educational experience (or make use of an existing one) with an eye towards entering the video games industry? Tune in next week for the answers.