This page is in response to the fairly consistent stream of emails I get asking how one can get an industry job. I’ve thrown out the following advice so often that it’s ingrained in my head, like a really boring Greek epic.
There are now a wealth of game development programs throughout the country. The jury is still out on how good each of these schools are – heck, even the local community college here in Austin has one (disclaimer: I helped set up the design track half a decade ago). Full Sail and Guild Hall are the most established and venerable programs – Guild Hall is, in fact, where a huge number of SWTOR designers got their start (we recruited heavily from their graduate classes).
However, when choosing a potential college for it’s game design program, I cannot stress enough how important it is that the college actually be able to recruit teachers who formerly worked in the industry, and who can bring in advisors and/or guest speakers from the industry. As such, place more value on schools near established developer strongholds: SoCal, Seattle, Silicon Valley, Austin, Boston, Chapel Hill, Baltimore and Dallas, among other examples. This will help ensure your teachers are teaching practical skills rather than pure theory.
Above and beyond that, here’s some random advice…
Entry positions are rare. The frequency that game companies collapse like a house of cards means that there’s always a pool of experienced talent to draw from — we don’t really need to look for someone who is completely green very often. Someone who has actually been through the fire is always going to have an edge over someone fresh out of school.
Get in the door any way you know how. At corporations large enough to be described as The Man, there is a desire to hire from within (this is more true for production and design slots). This makes it harder for any fresh faced college punk to get past the line of QA, CS and community support people who believe that they’ve been paying their due in hopes that they get a big break. But it’s also an opportunity for you, provided you can swallow your pride and answer some phones for a while.
Build a portfolio. Go to college. Not to learn (although that definitely will help your career), but because it will give you an opportunity to devote serious amount of time to doing something that can prove demonstratably that you can do the job. Raph Koster and I both came from Text MUDs. I know other people who have gotten in the industry from NWN levels, Unreal mods, Quake Levels, grey UO shards, shareware games and fan websites, among other things. In this day and age of free editors and open-source programming languages, there is no excuse to coming to an interview without some sort of proof that you have what it takes to do the job you’re interviewing for. There is also no excuse to coming without a reference of someone who thinks you did good work on this little side project.
Prove you can finish. Ideas are cheap. Talk is cheap. What companies are interested in are people who can execute, who can finish what they started. People who understand the importance of polish. When building your portfolio, remember that a smaller NWN level with some good ideas, no perceptable flaws and a good understanding of what makes a level solid will always demo better than an unfinished behemoth.
Build networks. Knowing someone at the right time is, ultimately, how most people I know have gotten into the industry. Granted, most people in the industry don’t enjoy the company of endless hangers-on desperate to get their foot in the door. Still, build connections as best you can, and don’t forget the value of the connections of those people you build your portfolio project with. As mentioned in my profile, I owe a lot to having worked on text MUDs with Raph. Once he got in, he remembered who was good. And yet, he still called me. Go figure.
Do anything to get the first games industry resume line item. Programming students should investigate internships – competent interns fairly frequently turn low-paying internships into low-paying real jobs, and if not, they’ve got the resume line item that the other college punk lacks. I know of an artist who got his first ‘job’ by offering his services for free to a local startup – they couldn’t afford more art, but they desperately needed one for an E3 demo. That artist worked like a slave and didn’t earn a red cent – other than a resume line item and a glowing recommendation for his sacrifice.
Accept the notion of being low on the totem pole. You know that kick-ass game design you’ve been kicking around for the last 3 years and that could be a bonafide million seller? Yeah, I got about 12 of those in my back pocket. Everyone in the industry down to the guy cleaning the toilet’s got game design ideas, but the decisions about which ones to epursue are made at the upper levels of management, and it ain’t going to be the one the intern brought in. You know how you got a list of 100 ways that MMOs suck that you can fix right now? Turns out we got reasons for many of those decisions, based on things like funding, marketing, politics, and other factors you probably don’t get. While I don’t want to hire brown-nosing yes-men, I’m also quick to sniff out people who think they know it all before they’ve ever set foot in the trenches. Give me a guy whose willing to learn any day.
If you are REALLY in love with making your own game, then you need to consider making it yourself by going indie. Note: that’s a really tough road to walk, but with the availability of good tools like Unity and Unreal, and Steam as a publishing platform, its easier than ever to take this tactic.
Watch your social profile. Yes, game companies now routinely search your twitter handle, blog and other elements of your social footprint in order to suss out one thing: whether or not you’re an asshole who is difficult to work with. Quite simply, there are TOO MANY talented kids wanting to break their way into the industry. We totally can pick and choose based on intangibles, and crunching to ship games is a stressful enough enterprise without making things worse by hiring entry level jackasses.
Excel. Be really good at what you do. Be aware of your weaknesses, and address them. If you’re building Unreal Maps for your portfolio, ask the Unreal mod community for criticism. Ask them to pull no punches. Find the people who know what they’re talking about, and listen to them earnestly. If you can’t take the criticism it takes to get better, you probably don’t have the stomach to be in the industry anyway.
Brian Green (Psychochild) has also contributed his thoughts.
Note: this was updated in 2014, based on an original article from 2005.