By Maryalene LaPonsie
Each holiday season, video game companies make sure there are plenty of new titles to place under the Christmas tree, and shoppers race to snap them up. Video games were the second most-searched item on e-commerce sites on Cyber Monday this year, according to a report in the New York Daily News. This season's hot games range from first-person shooters like Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 3 to the more family-friendly Skyward Sword title from The Legend of Zelda franchise.
With credits as long as any major motion picture, today's major video games are developed and produced by a small army of creative talent. In addition, gaming experts say independent developers and small companies are on the upswing as social media and mobile gaming continues its lightning-hot expansion. Careers in the gaming industry are available to those with a variety of skills and the right training and education.
A $50 billion industry
Paul Cotnoir, PhD, is the director of design programs at Becker College, a school ranked in the Princeton Review's top 10 for video game design. According to Cotnoir, video game development is a growth field that is open to artists, design specialists, programmers and writers.
"The game industry is a $50 billion industry worldwide," said Cotnoir. "It is just about the only industry that is doing really well right now."
Certainly, in a difficult economy, many consumers are choosing to spend their entertainment dollars close to home. The Entertainment Software Association says 72 percent of American households play computer or video games. And despite the hype surrounding first-person shooter games such as the Halo and Call of Duty series, most video game purchases are not the ones intended for mature audiences. ESA reports 66 percent of the video games sold in 2010 were rated as suitable for teens and younger players.
"Casual games sell the best," said Cotnoir. "They are designed for a wide audience."
Those casual games range from mobile apps like Angry Birds to Facebook favorites like Farmville. In addition, games geared toward families, such as the many incarnations of Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. series, can typically be counted on to be hot sellers.
Trends in the gaming industry
Major releases such as Call of Duty are considered AAA titles, the video game equivalent of the summer blockbuster at the movie theater. However, they are not the only option for those interested in working in the video game industry.
"Serious games are a hot trend," said Cotnoir. "Another trend is to produce smaller games that are produced for mobile applications and social media."
The shift to smaller games has opened the door for an expansion of independent video game producers.
"We are going back to the days of the '70s and '80s when two people could create games in their garage," said Cotnoir.
However, he cautions that smaller games still require a significant investment in time and energy. Cotnoir notes the popular Angry Birds mobile game required 69 attempts before the 70th turned into the game that millions have now played and loved.
Serious games, on the other hand, aren't really games at all. They are video game simulations that are used for training or educational purposes. Serious games may include classroom applications intended to spark interest in science and technology, emergency room training programs, or flight simulations for pilots.
Careers in video game development
For those interested in a career in video game development, there are several educational options available. At Becker College, students can earn a bachelor's degree in game design or game development. Meanwhile, those with a technical background may be able to take a vocational training program to bring them up to speed in the various scripting languages and software development kits used by publishers.
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not specifically track employment data for video game developers, several industry organizations offer a glimpse into the salary potential for these careers. According to the International Game Developers Association, game designers have an average salary of $57,500 while game programmers earn an average income of $62,500. Audio, production and visual arts professionals earn similar average salaries with top individuals earning well in excess of six figures per year.
At Becker College, the starting wage for its graduates was $34,000 in 2010. However, Cotnoir stresses that salaries in the profession can go quite high, and incomes of $80,000-$90,000 are not unusual. Of the college's graduates, 90 percent have found jobs within six months of graduation. Approximately 70 percent go on to work in the entertainment side of the industry while others become involved in serious gaming for military, medical or educational employers.
So this year, when you open the presents from Santa and find the latest video game just begging to be played, remember that a team of developers was responsible for creating your new adventure from the ground up. With a degree in game design or game development, you too could see your name rolling in the credits at the end of a future hit holiday game.
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