If you want a job or career making video games, you’ve got to understand how “deep” to go with your studies vs. how “broad.” Specialist or Generalist? It’s not that simple. The real answer might surprise you.
Specialist vs. Generalist
For starters, let’s admit that this is a contrived question. But there’s so much debate and mixed advice from schools and game studios that it’s worth talking about. Especially if you’re already starting to develop into a specialist or a generalist yourself.
So, which do I recommend?
If you look at my personal career, you might guess that I’m a generalist. I’ve done a lot of jobs: artist, tester, designer, programmer, technical director, product manager – I’ve clearly embraced a generalist lifestyle.
The truth is that being a generalist has some critical drawbacks. But being a specialist can also cause major career headaches. Let’s try to understand why.
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Being A Generalist: Pros and Cons
The nice thing about a generalist is that they’re versatile. Generalists can play many different roles on a team, because they’re good at quickly learning new skills. That’s how they became generalists.
Unfortunately, generalists can also be distractible. They chase the hottest new tech, techniques and paradigms. Like that dog in Pixar’s movie Up, it can be hard to keep them from yelling “Squirrel!”
And when your biggest strength is not having any particular strength, it can be hard to explain to people in an interview. Unless you’re very good at interviewing, good luck convincing a studio to hire you just because you’re “kinda good at lots of stuff.”
Being A Specialist: Pros and Cons
The best thing about specialists is that they can reach high achievement in their skill area. Specialists are the kinds of people who write white papers later in their career, and can really push their field forward. And they often get paid more – sometimes a lot more.
They may also enjoy a high degree of job security, because it’s easy to understand the value they add to their team. It’s also easier to explain in a job interview. If you’re a specialist in network programming and there’s a company that needs a network programmer, it’s an easy sell.
However, that same laser-focus on a skill area can also be the specialist’s Achilles heel. What happens if the studio you want to work at doesn’t need people with your specialty? You might be out of luck.
Another specialist problem is that the video game industry is a fast-moving target. If you’re not careful, the skill you’ve put so much work into mastering can become obsolete. Just ask the guys who specialized in 3D modeling with metaballs back in the 1990’s – they either learned a new specialty, or they were out of a job.
What’s the Right Approach?
What’s the best thing you can do to build a strong career in the game industry? Don’t become a specialist. Don’t become a generalist.
Instead, develop a T-shaped skill set.
The letter “T” is a two-axis shape. Think of it as representing a skill set that is both broad (the top part of the T) and deep (the stem of the T). You can’t be just broad or just deep, or you’ll fall into those specialist/generalist traps.
This is important! If you’re not actively building your skills in both directions, it’s way too easy to end up as a specialist or a generalist. Before you even know what happened.
Breadth and Depth
What do I mean by “depth?” I mean a deep skill in a specific, core discipline. Something you can become extremely good at. It will become the foundation of your career. You should choose something you’re passionate about, because you’ll be doing it for a lot of years. You’ll spend thousands of hours training and honing your skill until you’re an expert.
“Breadth” is a wider understanding of the game industry as a whole. A wide insight into how the industry works. Its history. Where it’s coming from and where it’s going. When you get a job in a game studio, you’ll work to understand the entire studio and how it works, how your whole team works, and how everybody’s jobs fit together.
This breadth gives you the insight and flexibility to support your team in different ways. And it teaches you how to communicate effectively with people in different departments and skill areas.
How to Build T-Shaped Skills for Game Development
It’s a simple concept: Start with a depth foundation, and then build a breadth of understanding around it.
But you’ve got to be so good at your specialty that you can confidently proclaim: “I’m a specialist, this is my thing!” Sound hard? It is. It takes a lot of work. Especially if you’re in school, it’s tempting to try everything instead of developing one thing very deeply. But you have to focus on building a specialty. Think of it like this: Your primary goal is to be better at that one thing than anybody else that might apply to the same jobs as you.
At the same time, learn about related functional areas. Develop cross-over skills. If you’re an animator, learn about programming. It will help you communicate with coders, and help you write Maya or 3DS Max scripts to automate your grunt work and free up time. If you’re a programmer? Learn about game production. Read a book on running a team, learn how to schedule and plan. You’ll work better with your producer, and it might help you land a job as a lead programmer later on.
T-Shaped Skills FTW
I hope I’ve convinced you that building a T-shaped skill set will make you more valuable, adaptable, and hire-able.
Because when you walk into an interview and show them that you have depth in a specialized skill set but also have a breadth of understanding about the dev process and the industry as a whole? That’s when they reach across the table and shake your hand. Because you fit their needs exactly.
In fact, they might say you fit their needs to a T.
Watch the Specialist vs. Generalist Video
This video is excerpted from a talk I gave to a group of video game art, design and programming students at a US design school.
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