Why Game Development Experience is Largely Overrated

Why the "experienced" old dog game developer probably hasn't learned the tricks you really need.

Have you ever had the experience of listening to an exalted Deity of Game Design - and you suddenly realize what they are preaching is hopelessly out of date? Let's face it, experience in game development is highly over-rated. As hiring managers, we chase experienced candidates because it gives us a warm, reassuring feeling to have a CV with a long list of years behind it. Hiring is scary - a bad hire can be disastrous in so many different ways so hiring "experience" is a balm against our fear of lost development time, burned budgets, morale problems, lawsuits, etc.

The problem is that "experience" is an illusion.

Research tells us it takes 10,000 hours to be good at something. We're talking world-class brilliant here. So, hey do the math - every game developer with 5 years of full time work experience should the game designer equivalent of Tiger Woods, right?


The reason that most people aren't quite that brilliant  isn't the number of hours they put in - it's the kind of hours. It's the concept of deliberate practice.

When you first enter a new domain, there's an enormous, exhausting struggle to gain a footing. You work hard every day to gain some toehold of understanding in your new domain. But then, after about the first year and a half or so, things get easier. You get more comfortable and the going isn't so rough. It doesn't become the constant, deliberate struggle to understand and improve.

But that's exactly the kind of difficult, exhausting practice you need to be engaged in to truly get better. In reality, most people's professional skills top out withing a very short period of time. The difference between the developer with 3 and 10 years of experience is likely negligible - because it is very unlikely that the old hand has continued to significantly truly develop past those first few years.

I say this as a genuine certified old dog of game development - meaning, I am over 29 year old. Oh, sure, there are plenty of video game designers who have been in industry longer than me and who are older - I am assuming here that Methuselah works at a game company.

So I personally have a vested interest in "experience" being a valuable commodity. But we have to recognize that experience actually says very little in and of itself.

The thing we need to be looking for isn't experience but tackling increasing levels of difficulty on a project. Engaging in new technologies and ideas. Struggling with seismic shifts in the game landscape. An attitude of deliberately going after the challenges in game development and figuring out how to tackle them. This isn't to say that you don't play to your strengths - a systems designers doesn't necessarily need to suddently developer the ability to tell compelling interactive narratives - but it does mean that you need to constantly be seeking out new challenges which push the envelope of your skill set.

If you feel like you're able to coast through your work day - then pretty much guaranteed, you're not getting any better at your job.

And I'm going to go even further and say that half of the skills so many developers have acquired are probably rubbish. Far too many games that ship manage that feat in spite of how it was developed. Much of what passes for "experience" in our business is simply not having been killed by a project. It's a badge of honor to have simply survived a hellish product development cycle. It's really management by attrition - the people who can't stand the BS flee first, leaving behind those with the thickest skins. Too many game developers think the fact they somehow survived the horrors and shipped a game means they are actually skilled in game development. By that logic, John McCain would make the most bad-ass game developer ever.

This isn't to say you go the other direction and hire only green newbies. What it really means is that you have to consider the quality of the experience more than the quantity. It turns out then, the thing that separates Tiger Woods from the rest of us isn't that he has super-human aptitude for his domain. It's that he has super-human tenacity in pursuing difficult practice in his domain.

So when it comes to developing professional game development skills, Coach's advice turns out to be the best advice - no pain, no gain.

- Sean Dugan recommends you drop and give me twenty.

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  1. Did you mean John McCain or John McClane? Either analogy works.

  2. I couldn't agree more, this is something we see all the time with programmers too. And for programmers, I would say there's actually an even stronger case than you've made, which is connected to a small inaccuracy in your piece: that figure of 10,000 hours comes from a specific piece of research (on pianists I think), and the hours had to come *before the age of 20* in order to be significant!!

    This actually ties in with what many programmers know to be true: the very best programmers have often been obsessed with programming since they were, you know, 7, or 10, or something like that. Which means if you hire them at a supposedly fresh-faced 21, they actually have well over 10 years of programming experience already!

    That totally explains why a mere 10 years of development experience doesn't necessarily make you a good programmer. You're going to learn so much more from the years 10-20 than 20-30. And, you're probably doing very obsessive/intensive solo programming practice at that time, not dealing with all the crap that making games in a team involves.

  3. Great article. At my company...all the "seasoned" designers and producers are trying old tricks and can't figure out why the old model of doing things just doesn't work. It kills me as a newbie in the company to see all these horrible ideas get approved while the the great ideas of my fellow fresh meat employee's ideas get shot down because they sound too "risky", when in reality, their ideas are some of the best ones.