Superstar Gaming Talent: The Industry's Most Highly-Valued Skills

11 February 2017 By Alastair Cleland

1548 Original

​The $100bn gaming industry is fuelled by the talent of a tiny number of creatives, developers and engineers. They’re extraordinarily valuable individuals, but what makes them so special?

Every child’s dream job used to be ‘astronaut’. Now, with technology our new frontier, ‘game developer’ could be the new ultimate aspiration.

Who can blame them? The gaming industry is booming in every sub-sector – online, console, mobile – and offers huge potential for careers and creativity. Salaries can easily exceed $70,000 within a few years, but moreover the gaming industry presents an enormously exciting cultural challenge.

Games aren’t new to human culture. Video gaming might be written-off as a ‘sideshow’ by many cultural-protectionists, but the act of playing games is core to our existence and our entertainment. Creating games that people genuinely want to play requires artistic vision, dedication and skilful mastery of an ever-evolving craft. All things considered, it is almost impossibly difficult to devise, structure and produce games that people truly enjoy playing.

No wonder, then, that successful game creators are highly valuable in today’s job market. Prove that you’ve got what it takes to make a killer game and you can name your price tag...

...and Minecraft’s creator Markus Persson did just that. Comprising just 40-50 employees, Persson sold the game’s studio Mojang to Microsoft for an astonishing $2.5 billion. That’s a price tag of around $55 million per employee.

​Who are these multi-million dollar individuals, then? What types of talent does the gaming industry value so highly? We explore some enduring traits that are always in-demand in the gaming sector…

Who are gaming’s most highly-valued individuals?

Multi-Skilled, Visionary Artists

‘Concept artist’ is to gaming as ‘director’ is to movie - the ultimate creative visionary. Truly skilled game artists conceptualise an entire, immersive world, capturing their vision in emotive graphics. Communication is fundamental. As the key creative lead, this individual must ensure their broad ideas are actioned in every detail, working with artistic teams to deliver the complete play experience.

Development studios don’t need many concept artists. In fact, they usually need just one. So if this is your goal, you’ll need to be on the absolute top of your game, delivering new ideas and smashing every brief that comes your way.

Meanwhile, it’s all about skill. Large games need huge teams of artists, 3D modellers, motion animators, cinematic artists (for promotion and cut scenes), photographers and sound engineers.

The higher your skill level, and the wider your range, the better. Adaptability, particularly in entry-level roles, increases your value significantly as you move from project to project and climb the hierarchy.

Insatiably Curious Engineers

​Shigeru Miyamoto is arguably the world’s most famous developer. ‘Mr Nintendo’, he’s the man behind Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda. Miyamoto’s genius spans many fields, but his technological credentials are a hugely under-rated asset.

In the early 2000’s, whilst Microsoft and Sony were locked in a hardware ‘arms race’ for superior console power, Miyamoto and Nintendo were playing with old motion-sensing technology. By building their new console with lower-end, older components, Nintendo could manufacture each console far cheaper than their competitors. And yet, through creative implementation of this cheaper tech, the resulting product - Nintendo Wii, with its innovative interactive controller - achieved record sales and outstripped both Playstation and Xbox 360.

Technology is only as good as its implementation. Engineers and technologists uncover the potential of new (and old) hardware and software, tinkering with tech and pushing the boundaries in which games can exist.

An exceptional gaming engineer can, like Miyamoto, uncover brand new potential, all whilst saving production costs. Valuable or what!

Tireless Programmers

It’s a cliché that programmers work best at night time, but it’s true! In fact, top programmers often work all the time – daytime, night time, weekends, holidays… whatever’s required to get the job done.

On a recent BBC documentary, The Big Life Fix, programmers and game developers took part in a hackathon that fused a piece of cystic-fibrosis health apparatus with an engaging video game designed for young sufferers. Working through the night, they demonstrated the truly enormous value of tech’s energetic creatives – using code to improve lives for years to come.

​Tasked with building immersive gaming worlds, programmers understand how to craft seamless links and maintain operational harmony. Tirelessness is required because there’s always more to be done, and nobody’s going to do it but you.

Gaming companies need all kinds of programmers, including AI programmers (for characters and interactions), graphics programmers (environments and activity) and lead programmers (pulling everything together). Those who can demonstrate dedication and commitment to the cause will always land the top jobs.

‘Architect’ Game Designers

As in film and music, ‘indie’ games are increasingly favoured by players. Produced by small teams, often as a side-gig, independent games are packed with creativity and originality. Why? Because their creators can both dream-up and implement an entire game’s structure.

Above: “Underdog darling of the indie game scene” (Polygon) receive an award for their puzzle platformer, Fez.

Big studios love harnessing this kind of indie feel, and often acquire or attempt to replicate such setups. What they’re really after is the architectural talent – that small group of individuals who can imagine and create a whole concept whilst maintaining that creative spark that comes from small workgroups of artists, copywriters and developers.

Architecture (as in, buildings) is an apt metaphor for game conception. Just as architects talk of ‘telling stories’ with their buildings and ‘facilitating human life’, so too do great game designers.

In fact, as this breakneck-speed TED talk from game designer Seth Priebatsch explores, the dynamics of brilliant game design are so powerful, they can even be applied to the real world:

Insanely-Attentive Testers

“What do you do for a living?”

“I test computer games.”

“You’re kidding me? Someone pays you to do that?!”

Absolutely they do. Quite a few people do, in fact, and the pay for testers can be substantial. QA testing does, however, require an obscene amount of patience and almost fanatical attention to detail – it’s not for the faint hearted.

Testers have to play every single element of a game. It’s not all Grand Theft Auto, either, with some truly terrible games requiring days or weeks of their undivided attention. Platform adjustment and international localisation means there can be scores of variations on a single game, too, each requiring individual testing.

Plus, testers need to know enough about the technical build to advise on resolutions and spot every weakness. So yes, whilst they are technically getting paid ‘just to play games’, a good tester is a rare being, and worth their weight in gold.

Bold Business People

Think gaming is for hobbyists? Think again. Gaming is huge business, and it’s an industry that’s not for the faint-hearted or the risk-averse.

Business people have to be at the top of their game to succeed in gaming, navigating their baby – often a creative passion - from bootstrap phase, through rounds of funding, on to release and beyond. They’ll need to spot market opportunities, take risks, scale operations, tackle larger competitors and avoid every pitfall along the way. All this whilst ensuring their increasingly valuable team of artists and developers escape the lure of rival offers and remain focused on the task at hand. No mean feat!

That’s why producers, product managers and business leaders are a crucial component of any gaming enterprise. In fact, in the smallest operations, everyone in the team probably needs a bit of business person in them.