I just finished reading Tadhg Kelly's post entitled Make Your Own Games on his Gamasutra blog. I think it's an interesting article that rings true with me personally. Tadgh used a music analogy to illustrate his point: if you really want to be a creative director in the industry, your best bet is to start a band rather than work in an orchestra. In addition to correcting some musical errors (yes, we love the internet), the commentors raised some other points that compel me to write a response.
There are 3 issues I want to discuss: creativity in an indie studio vs. a large company, the value of large-company experience, and opportunity within the game industry at large.
In any game development project, there needs to be clear, centralized creative direction. In an orchestra, individual musicians have to keep within their well-defined boundaries. Individual varition of tempo or pitch will ruin the music. That's necessary in a development team as well. Game rules and behavior need to be consistent. Art needs to be consistent. Whether the creative direction comes from an individual (like Will Wright) or a committee (like Valve), all developers must conform to the vision laid out by the designer(s).
Because of the cost of developing AAA titles, game companies are understandably selective of which creative opinions they fund. These companies tend to stick with designers that are well-known and proven. Tadhg made the point that landing a position as the creative director for one of these companies is not likely to ever happen to you. Most people would probably agree with that.
While it is possible for exceptional talent to rise to the top, most people are not exceptional. But that said, you don't have to be exceptional to design an awesome game. You only have to be exceptional to design an awesome game funded by an existing large company.
You can be the creative director of a game development team NOW by starting your own.
It is a common belief among many in the industry that working a job as a developer with a large studio is a necessary prerequisite to starting your own studio. I agree that it's possible to learn skills as an employee working within the necessary “orchestral” constraints of a large company that will help you if you decide to go out on your own. However, I don't see that as necessary.
I have two reasons. First, you can learn those same skills on your own. Being an employee requires mostly technical skills to execute the vision of another person. Technical skills can be self-taught and are generally applicable to whatever game you might be working on. I would argue that the only thing you can only learn as an employee is how it feels to be an employee. There's nothing wrong with liking it. You just can't know what it feels like until you've done it. Perhaps getting a job to learn THAT is a push you need to get out on your own.
Second, independent game development requires skills that can't be learned as an employee. You can't swim by reading a book, and you can't experience the exhiliration of shipping a title that is your own creative brain child unless you do it. When you're working on something that you are truly passionate about, you can learn new things at an incredible rate and accomplish things you always thought were impossible.
Of course, you can be a passionate employee and be amazingly productive and thoroughly love your job. That's awesome if you do that. My post is targeted at those who want to do more than their current job allows. You don't have to get a job in the industry before setting out on your own. If you're short on cash, the economically wise strategy might involve a day job of some kind, but the really valuable learning that will help you make your dreams come true will be happening in your own project, not at work.
I think the most disturbing thing I read in the comments was a sentiment expressed by B N: “In my opinion your friend is just born at the worst possible time to be a game developer. Too late to easily get famous for creating just about anything, and too early to be able to easily be creative on their own.” Others agreed with him. Since they sounded sincere, I want to say a few words on the subject.
B N argued that in the beginning of game development, creativity was easy, because all ideas were new, but making games was technically hard, because tools and technology were so bad. It was from this era that our current big name, famous developers arose. Therefore, it was easy to “get famous for creating just about anything.” All you had to do was manage to create something.
In the mid-'80s, I was first introduced to computer gaming by my dad, who bought a Commodore 64. One day, he brought home a huge box of floppy disks from a friend at work. These disks contained games (turns out they were pirated games, but we had no idea what that meant back then). There were at least 100 games in that box. I tried pretty much all of them. I only liked a few.
It is true that we have relatively few famous game designers and that they did arise from these early years of video gaming. But they didn't do it without competition. Many developers were technically able to create games, but only a few were really good at game design. These designers have continued to make games, and their games keep pace with technology and continue to be better than most games available today. If their success was only due to lack of competition, then better designers would have arisen and replaced them already in the extremely cometitive industry we have today. Will Wright is still making games, and they're still good games, and they continue to get better.
B N observed that improvements in technology continue to lower the bar of entry. Since the bar continues to get lower and since it's not low enough yet to make game development “easy,” the rising generations will have an advantage over us, since they'll have better tools. Therefore, we, the current generation, are at a disadvantage.
Imagine a world where the cost of video game development is zero. Basically, there would be a tool which would turn your imagination into a video game you could play and distribute instantly, and it was free for everyone. That would be the ultimate game designer's dream, right?
Now imagine being a gamer looking for a new game to play. All games are technically perfect, differing only in game, visual, and sound design. Why would you choose one over another? It's more fun and engaging than another. You like the artistic expression better. Whatever it is you prefer in a game, someone had to do a better job of designing than the rest for you to prefer his or her game.
One fundamental truth has been proven in the game industry time and time again: game design matters more than technology. Game design will never be easy. Since tools are cheaper and more powerful than ever before, it's the best time to be a game developer there ever was. We have an advantage over the rising generations, because we're more experienced with game design. Those who take the torch from Will Wright and Miyamoto won't be those who were just lucky enough to be born later than us. They will be game designers that have honed their craft and sharpened their skills through years of experience gained by actually designing games, not by implementing the visions of other designers.
Technology has already reached the point where aspiring game designers can use existing tools to create, market, sell, and otherwise make a living off of your own video games. The only thing stopping you is fear. That fear is fueled by people who say you have to have a job first, or it's a bad time to be a game developer, or it's a bad time to start a business, or anything else. The best time to follow your dream and get to work on your own project is right now.