One thing I have noticed is that when I tell people I work in video games, is that they assume that I am a programmer. The truth is that programmers generally comprise only a part of a game company. A large part, mind you, but still only a part of a larger machine. If you want a job in game development, but aren't a programmer, the two most common roles to pursue are game designer and producer.
Note that there are a ton of other positions available in a game company in marketing, finance, HR, etc. But we're focusing on development here.
"Game Designer" is a pretty generic descriptor for the range of skills that may be brought to the table. Some designers are writers, many with Hollywood or publishing credits, creating quests and other content. Some are traditional pen and paper and board game designers focused on mechanics. Some are world-builders, working tools like Maya and 3D Studio-Max in addition to proprietary tools. Others are almost programmers in their own right, creating complex scripts and algorithms to make combat, AI and encounters work.
The most general description of a game designer's job (keeping mind the wide variety of game designer skillsets shown above) revolves around documentation and implementation. In the beginning of the design process, game designers dream up the systems and content that will make their game the steaming wad of fun its intended to be. They create documents, going into detail about how encounters will work, how effects will trigger and the variety of conditions that may affect their ideas. They pass this documentation off to programming and art where, as they say, some magic happens.
Programmers and artists don't just make the game that designers imagine. They provide designers with tools and assets that will allow them to construct the game they have envisioned. This will include mobs and props that they can place throughout the world, weapon templates on which they can adjust various parameters, spawn generators that control encounters and scripted sequences in the game, and the like.
What You can Bring to the Table
Game designers are responsible for the construction of fun through mechanics and content. If you can talk about the evolution of D&D from the red box to 4th edition, including the virtues of THAC0 vs. d20, you might make a good designer. Understanding game mechanics, content progression, are vital to be a successful designer. Lum's article has a ton of advice for proving these chops if you ever get the chance to interview for the position.
More technical designers need to have some knowledge of common scripting languages, such as LUA or Python. Another attractive skill for aspiring designers is expertise in some common worldbuilding tool, like the Unreal engine or Neverwinter Nights. Luckily, you can develop all of these skills with a small cash investment (Unreal Tournament and NWN are both available for $20 or so) and the investment of time (there are tons of LUA and Python tutorials online and at the bookstore).
Barrier to entry: High
It's hard to get hired off the street as an entry-level game designer. Developers want somebody that they are confident can deliver results, and a designer can't prove that without some game credits. So, the entry here is either to scratch your way up from the bottom (see my last column) or do something outside of the industry that grabs attention and makes people want to work with you. A lot of designers started small gaming publishing operations or created flash games, which garnered them some of the right kind of attention.
The world of art, design and code need to meet somewhere, and they usually meet right in the Producer's lap. The Producer is responsible for identifying and coordinating the different resources necessary to make a game a reality. They take design's documentation and meet with the programming and art leads to schedule development of the assets (code and graphics) that will be needed to implement them.
Producers are the bridge to the business side of the gaming world as well. They coordinate interface with marketing, finance, human resources, business development, etc. to coordinate their plans with the development schedule. This alone is a monumental task, as business requirements and development realities often don't match very well. The Producer truly earns their paycheck when Marketing wants three new levels in time for E3, or business development wants a Red Bull logo on all the mounts in the game.
Producers also need to have the technical savvy to talk backend server operations with the network administrators and manage the release process, from the buildmaster (the guy who is responsible for taking code out and generating installers and patches) through QA testing to server deployment. Producers don't write code, but they need to be able to keep up with technical jargon and communicate effectively between differing levels of technical expertise.
What You Can Bring to the Table
At their core, Producers are project managers, with a mix of business and technical skills. PMI and SCRUM certifications are attractive to employers hiring for these positions. Leadership in some other development field (not only software development discipline, but also media, publishing, etc.) can help you get hired here too. Any experience you have in coordinating a lot of moving parts is valuable.
Barrier to entry: Medium
It's not uncommon for associate producers to be hired off the street (my first job out of college was as an associate producer), though it's also not an everyday occurrence either. Producer positions are also common in other technology sectors, so there is some possibility for cross-pollination.
What About Art?
You may have noticed that I haven't talked about art very much. This is for two reasons:
First, I honestly know the least about that discipline. I could talk about it, but I'd be full of crap. Second, in its own way, art is as much a technical discipline as programming. Artists have very specific skills, including mastery of 3D modeling software and animation rigs. Their credentials usually include some vocational training, portfolios and demo reels. They're almost always in demand and aren't usually wondering if they could ever work in games with their skills, because their career path is fairly well-defined.
On The Inside - What do You Want to Know?
This has been my fourth article at MMORPG.com and my second on working in the game industry. I'd like to think they're getting better, but I'd also like them to address the types of things you've always wondered about. Drop a note in the forums about some topics you'd like to see and I'll see what I can answer. I'll talk about anything in the development or publishing process, including which companies have free donuts and the most tattoos.