Dream of working in the video game industry? Three things you should be doing
Without a doubt, the most common question I get about working in the game industry is: “How can I get a job in games?”
Truthfully, I’ve never found it an easy question to answer because it’s not an industry that has a defined, linear path to follow, and most of the people I’ve worked with have found their way into the industry in vastly different ways.
I have a degree in a completely unrelated field — graphic design — and I’ve worked with others that have had degrees in history, political science, illustration, and architecture, among others. Many of us got our training by doing, landing our first jobs in the industry with little except our intense determination and lifetime love of games to guide us.
However, with the rise of game development college programs in the last ten years, and the recent accessibility of game engines like Unity and Unreal, it’s become much easier to get started on the game dev path while you’re in college, or even before! While both of these things have definitely helped kids feel more confident about their goal of becoming a game designer, programmer, or artist, it also means that once you get out in the real world and start looking for a job, there is a much larger pool of qualified candidates out there. And — they are applying for the same entry-level jobs you are.
So what can you do to give yourself an advantage? Here are three things you can do, right now.
Tip 1: Get some experience
By that, I mean that you should get some real experience doing the thing that you eventually want to get a job doing. Because, obvious. When I want to hire someone, that’s the first thing I want to know — what experience do you have?
If you’re a game dev student, you’re probably thinking, “Ok, I’m in school. I’m learning things here about how to make games. Is that experience enough?” And the answer is that it might be. But what if you’re not a game dev student, and you’re getting a degree in a different field, like art or computer science… What should you do then?
Learn a game toolset
You can learn a level editor for any game that has one. Super Mario Maker, Starcraft II, Dragon Age: Origins. There are lots out there to choose from. So pick one and learn it. And I mean, really learn it. Build some levels, then release them to the community and get feedback. Polish your levels based on the feedback and make improvements. Keep engaging in that loop of feedback and iteration.
In other words — don’t just make one level and call it a day. Create one level. And then another. And then another. And have people play your levels — figure out what works and what doesn’t. Learn from your mistakes. Become an expert at making levels in that editor.
Learn a game engine
Or you can go even bigger and pick up a full game engine, like Game Maker, Unreal or Unity. This is a bigger time investment, but it’s also a much bigger return — you stand to learn an incredible amount and will be able to use what you learn to build a game on your own time.
When deciding what to build the first time around, give yourself small goals. I often tell the students I work with to pick one small event or action in your everyday life and make that your entire game. Make a game about brushing your teeth, using an umbrella to stay out of the rain, teaching a giraffe to roller skate (hey, I don’t know what your everyday life is like), or your morning commute.
Just pick something simple, and make a game. Have people play your game and give you feedback. Listen to what they say, and what they don’t say. Watch them play and see where they struggle. Use what you learn to make your game better.
Learn industry software
If you’re an artist, learn a software package, like Adobe suite, Maya, Max, or Zbrush. If you are learning one or more of these in school, pick something you’re not learning in school so that you are forced to figure things out yourself.
Let me specify that learning a new program doesn’t mean opening it, messing around with some of the settings, making something random, and then closing it. Give yourself a real assignment, and try to complete it. Create a 3D model of your pet hamster, redesign the UI for a game you enjoy playing, or create a logo for your future indie game company. If you’re feeling uninspired, find a tutorial on youtube, complete it, and then elaborate on it. Whatever you decide to do, you should post your projects online — creating a portfolio for yourself as you go.
Having a specific goal in mind will force to learn how to use the app, and posting your projects in an online portfolio will force you to take it to a level of completion where you feel comfortable sharing them with others. You won’t give up at “good enough.”
No matter the app you choose to learn, the goal is to get familiar enough with the program so that you can list it on your resume later as something you’re comfortable using.
How to choose
If you’re not sure what to invest time in, the best way to decide is to go to the job site of a company you want to work at one day. Find a job opening for the job you want, and see what the requirements are. Usually, they will include any experience the ideal candidate should have — including specific software you need to know.
One last thing — unconventional experience is useful too! If you love board games or card games, and want to spend your time designing them, then do that! That’s a great, unique type of game design experience that not everyone has, and if you really invest time in it, you will learn things that are applicable to video games as well.
Overall, your goal is to make a thing, get feedback on it, and make it better. And then make more.
There are the two big reasons you should do this. The first is that you’ll learn things about the tools, the process, and you will be on the road to mastery of those things. Mastery is about practice. It’s simple; the more you do something, better you become at that thing. If you work on your own projects consistently over time, you cannot help but become an expert using those tools.
The second reason is that it shows that you’re willing to work hard on a project, even when it’s not a requirement. When I’m looking to hire for an entry level position, aside from education, I want to know what you have accomplished outside of school. If I see that you created a mobile game about your grandma, or have an online portfolio of Harry Potter fan art, I’m immediately more intrigued, especially if I go there and that Harry Potter fan art kicks ass. (More Snape, pls.)
Spending time on your own projects shows that you are passionate, motivated, disciplined, organized, and serious about your goals. If I see that you’ve spent your free time to become a better at what you do, I know that you’re someone I want to work with.
Tip 2: Build your network
To be successful in the business world, you need to have a network of people that you know and keep contact with. We all have to start somewhere, so at first, your network might be friends you make in school. You might connect with mentors or teachers. You might meet people with the same interests somewhere along the way. Growing your network is something that you should be doing right now, before you’re working in the industry, because it’s a really easy thing to do!
You can join game dev meetups on meetup.com. Joining a local meetup can hook you up with game developers and aspiring game developers in your area. Going to these meetups on a regular basis means that you’ll get a chance to talk to other people that are working on their own projects, and that in itself can be really inspiring. Provided that you actually talk to the people at the meetup, that is — don’t be a lurker! Take the time to build relationships, make friends, and expand your network by linking up with others that have similar goals.
Make an indie game
There are no barriers when it comes to joining the indie game community. If you’re at home, building a game in your own time, why not join a community where other people are doing the same thing?
Two good places to start are itch.io and tigsource.com. Itch.io is a platform that will allow you to post your games and customize how you charge for them. TIG Source has an active community and forums where you can post builds and get feedback on what you’re doing.
Also — you can also use social networks like Twitter to make industry connections. If you play an indie game you like, tweet at the developer and tell them you liked their game. Often that’s a great way to start a conversation with another developer, and then you’ve gained a valuable resource — someone that can help you if you get stuck when you’re working on your own game.
You can participate in game jams, where you work with a small group to complete a game in (usually) a 2 day stretch. This is great experience that can teach you things like how to work effectively within a team, how to make decisions quickly, and how to scope an idea so that it’s something your team can accomplish in the time allowed. The best way to find a game jam in your area is by joining a meetup group, as mentioned earlier.
Going to industry conferences
E3, DICE, GDC, and PAX are all great places to meet people in the industry. Given, going to conventions is not cheap, however, most have student rates, so take advantage of that if you’re a student. While you’re there, you’ll be surrounded by game makers, and have a chance to make connections.
For example, if you attend GDC and go to a talk you particularly like, go up to the stage afterwards and speak with the person that gave the talk. Think of a question or two you’d like to ask that person. Ask if they’d mind giving you advice on a project you’re working on.
Last — and the easiest thing on this list to do — is to create a Linkedin profile for yourself (if you haven’t already). Create a profile, put a professional looking photo on it. If you don’t have a professional photo, have a friend take one for you. All you need is a clean shirt and a neutral background. If you’re a student, make sure you say that on your profile. Then post your school and personal projects.
Linkedin is also super useful for making connections. You can join groups for game developers, and meet people by simply commenting, asking questions, and posting relevant information. The point here is that you should build real relationships with others in the industry. The more people you know, the more people you can reach out to for help if/when you need it.
One note about Linkedin — it is not Facebook. This is what your future employer is going to check first before they decide to interview you — so keep it professional!
Why your network is important
Well, the most important reason you should build your network right now is because then you know cool people and can go out for beers.
But seriously. Why do people say “It’s all about who you know?” It is because the connections you make will bring you opportunities, once you’re out there in the job market.
For example, when I got a job at NetDevil, my connection was a designer friend at Blizzard knew a producer at NCSoft. (NCSoft was the publisher on Auto Assault, the game that NetDevil was currently working on.) My resume was personally sent from my friend at Blizzard, to his friend at NCSoft, to the design director at NetDevil. I got pushed to the top of the pile because I came with a personal recommendation. I was interviewed and was offered the job within a week after applying.
Before we go any further… I should clarify that whatever job you’re applying for, you still need to be qualified for that job. Having a connection can provide you with a boost, but it can’t override a lack of skills. However, if you are one of two equally qualified candidates, and you have a personal recommendation and the other person does not, it is much more likely that you’ll get the job, simply because people trust personal recommendations. It feels safer than hiring someone they don’t know.
Utilizing your network
Once you have your Linkedin profile and you’ve connected with people, you’ll be able to keep track of where they are working. You want to be able to say, “Oh, look, Sarah just started working at Blizzard as a 3D artist.” Or “Justin got that gameplay engineer role he wanted at Riot Games.” Now you’ve got a connection at that company, simply because you decided to keep in touch with people. When you see that, take a moment and tell your buddy, “Congrats!”
And then when you’re ready to apply for an opening at that particular company, you’re in a better position to talk with your connection and find out if there’s a way to be referred, or have your application fast-tracked.
Tip 3: Stand out from the crowd
The game industry is relatively small. That means there are fewer jobs than there are people applying for those jobs. So in order to get noticed, you need to stand out. Here are some ways to do that.
Make games, make art, make something
First off, you can do things I mentioned above, like creating an online portfolio or making games in Unity. If you just did one of the things on the list from Tip 1, and then posted what you made online, you’d be ahead already.
Get an internship
There are lots of game companies now that have formal internship programs. These are usually listed on the company job site, so they are easy to find and apply for. This will be a challenge for those that don’t live in an area of the country where there are game companies nearby, however. But if you can move temporarily and could swing it financially, it’s an excellent option that will help you stand out when you’re looking for a job later on.
Because game development is such a hot field right now, there is a lot of competition for these roles, even though most internships pay very little to nothing. The upside is that you’d get a chance to work for a real game company, and gain valuable experience — plus if you do a good job, you can even eventually get hired by that company after you complete your internship. I have a friend that did just that and now works on the Hearthstone team.
Create a blog
Creating a personal blog is something that you can do, in most cases for free. The subject matter is up to you; but it should be relevant in some way to the job you eventually want to get. As a designer, you could review games you’re playing. You could also create a development blog, where you post your progress, successes and failures with the game you’re working on. If you’re an artist, you could post about techniques you think are useful or discuss art styles in different games.
My overall suggestion on standing out is this: figure out how to put your own mark on the things you do. If I visit your blog, and you’ve posted 37 insanely well-written game reviews from the point of view of your dog? That’s hilarious. I already want to know more about you. So that thing you’re obsessed over, or that thing that makes you, you, figure out a way to show that to the world. How can you use that to create something unique?
Make your own opportunities
Here’s a big one. You need to be proactive and look for opportunities. No one is going to come knocking on your door because they heard a really great game artist lives there and needs a job.
If you want this, you need to put yourself out there. Because you could be the best artist in the world, but if you sit around waiting for someone else to discover that, it’s not going to happen for you.
ACTION is the key to almost everything. And I think where a lot of
students people get caught up is that they want to wait until they feel more confident in their abilities before they take action.
“I don’t feel ready. Maybe in a few months.”
If you always wait until you feel ready, you will miss out on a lot of great experiences where you stand to learn a lot and grow personally and professionally. I’ve seen people decide not to apply for jobs, pass up the chance to meet someone with experience in their industry, or even turn down a promotion simply because they didn’t think they were good enough yet. But if you want to succeed, you need to do things anyway, even if you don’t feel ready.
Let’s say you’re a beginner at pixel art, and get asked to join a group of friends for a game jam, and they want you to do the pixel art for the game. Even if you don’t exactly know what you’re doing, you should say, “You know what, I don’t know a lot about that yet, but it’s something I want to learn how to be better at and I’m willing to give it 100%. As long as you guys are ok with that, I am totally in.”
If you see an opportunity to try something, you need to be ready to say YES. And then after you say yes, you need to be ready to work really hard. And sometimes while you’re doing this, you will fail. But that’s totally ok, because failure is essential for success. When you’re learning something, you need to get it wrong a whole bunch of times before you know what it means to get it right, and you will learn something each time you get it wrong.
Change the way you see failure. It’s not the end of the process, it’s simply a step on the way to learning the skills you need to make it in the industry.
Go forth, and be awesome
Everything I’ve suggested here all comes down to making yourself the ideal candidate when you’re applying for jobs. There are going to be lots of graduates with game dev degrees. All of them will have school projects under their belts. And all of them want your dream job just as much as you do.
Get experience doing the thing you want to do.
Build your network and connect with people in the industry.
Stand out from the crowd and look for opportunities.
I heart feedback — Let me know in the comments if you found this list helpful, or if you think I left something out!