As a game developer, I'm often asked about how to get into the industry. After I'm done laughing or crying, depending on my mood, I have some standard advice I share.
The very first thing to realize is that making games is not the same as playing games. While it's true most game developers play a lot of games, that's not the only requirement for the job. At the end of the day, making games is still a job.
Related to that first point, not everything involved in making games is fun. Sure, it's a lot of fun to think of a super-cool original idea. But, then writing that idea down with enough details to share with other people can be a bit of a drag. Having your boss or marketing tell you the idea won't sell, so go work on a sequel sometimes sucks. Then finding logical flaws in the design isn't much fun, especially if you realize that one of your basic assumptions was obviously the result of being under the influence of something bad for you. The late nights going through code trying to find that one last bug that's been eluding you for hours will really test your mettle.
Third, realize that supply outstrips demand for games industry jobs. Worse, some people don't understand the basics I just talked about. You'll be competing against someone else fresh out of college that thinks game programming is a 24/7 party and agrees to work for peanuts. Many companies are more than happy to hire these people, squeeze all the usefulness out of them, then welcome the next batch of overeager college graduates with open arms. A colleague of mine called it "eating your young" and I think that's entirely appropriate. These are the people you are competing against.
Next, you should realize that there isn't really an "idea person" job description. Most game ideas will come from senior people with years of experience under their belt. They'll most likely want to go with something safe and secure. Plus, any game developer worthy to work in the games industry already has half a dozen good ideas floating around, and has a neat idea for a game every day or so. Hell, I personally have two or three fairly well documented ideas for games that I'd like to make if I get enough resources. I frankly don't care about your pie-in-the-sky game ideas. Work for a few years on implementing other ideas to completion, then we can talk about some of your ideas. Or, do like I did and start your own company. Be prepared to eat lots of Ramen, though. :P
Network, network, network, network. I can't emphasize this enough. Get to know people, because that's the best way to find out about the industry. On the other hand, don't just randomly harass developers. Don't go up to Will Wright and expect him to take you out to dinner and offer you a job. Introduce yourself, be persistent, but don't be pushy about it. Also, it helps if you can talk intelligently about games when talking to other developers. If you come up to me and say something intelligent about Meridian 59, I'm going to be a lot more willing to chat with you. Of course, knowing about M59 will require playing the game. Come up to me with outdated information and I'll know you're not taking me or my work seriously. And, notice I said "intelligent"; don't be gushing or rude about commenting on a game. Gushing "I love M59!" and then looking stunned or yelling "M59 sucks, and here's 5 reasons why...." will encourage me to brush you off if I have anything else to do.
Also, consider all your options. Working as a game designer at Sony, for example, is usually not within the reach of people getting into the industry. Most people start working at smaller companies with shoestring budgets. You could also work on a mod team to make something cool. Or, you could even use an existing product like Neverwinter Nights and make a module. There are a lot of possibilities; just make sure to actually finish your project so you have something to show. Your ability to follow through is worth more than any amount of crazy ideas you have (see previous paragraph about "ideas"). By the way, working on a team is a great idea because it can lead to some cool networking opportunities.
As in many other areas, it's good to be lucky. I got my first job in the industry because my resume was in the right place at the right time, and I happened to have had appropriate experience. I was applying for a job as an N64 programmer at 3DO when my resume passed by the desk of the producer of Meridian 59. They needed someone to do programming, and I had text MUD programming experience. It was a matter of luck, really, that I got the M59 job.
Finally, you may want to think about other possibilities. Perhaps you could make games as a hobby instead? Sometimes working as an entry-level grunt can be very dispiriting. You could also make games outside of a game developer career. Get a job doing something else you like, then work on a game you feel passionate about in your free time. Some people can make a decent living making games on the side, and some even eventually making taking steps toward full-time indie development.
Q. What about recruiters?
I got my first job because of a recruiter. She knew about the N64 position and sent my resume in for that. It turned out that I got a different job, but she got my resume into the right hands. A recruiter has the contacts to really get you in the door. I think it's important to note that I got a higher salary than the recruiter expected, so go into the interview prepared. The recruiter will usually do some negotiation for you, but doing your own negotiation is a good idea as well.
On the other hand, I worked with another recruiter that did nothing for me. To be fair, they weren't game-industry specific and I specified I wanted a games industry job.
I also had a very bad experience with a recruiter a number of years ago. After I had worked at 3DO, I used a recruiter to find another games industry job. The scuttlebutt was that Blizzard was making an online RPG, and I figured it might be a good opportunity. Unfortunately, that recruiter was focused on sending my resume to her list of contacts that she sent my resume to Sierra (who owned Blizzard at the time) and I got job inquiries from just about every other Sierra division besides Blizzard. I gave up in disgust, took another job, but obviously missed an opportunity because of that recruiter.
So, it really depends. I would say you should talk to a recruiter if you're new to the industry. It can't hurt. Keep in mind that you should never, ever pay a recruiter for their services. Reputable recruiters make their money from the game companies once you are hired.
Q. What about "game design" degrees?
This is a topic of a lot of discussion. Personally, I'm of the mind that you should focus on a more traditional degree. When you go to a regular college or university, your degree shows a lot of study went into it. You had core requirements and electives you had to take. Often a degree can be applicable to multiple jobs. Two of my friends have degrees in Psychology, but neither work in Psychology-related jobs; one does chemical testing relying on some chemistry electives he took.
The problem with a game design degree is that the industry is notoriously hard to break into and notorious for burning people out. If (when...) I burn out, I have degrees in Computer Science and Spanish Literature (not to mention a minor in Business) to fall back on. If I only had a game design degree I'd be out of luck in most cases. I think the optimal solution would be to find a college or university where you could define your own course of study. Blend in enough different fields of study and get a four year degree in game development. Even if you don't get into games or burn out, you can rely on a lot of the other classes (such as film, mathematics, etc.) to land in another field.
- http://web.archive.org/web/20040602211536/http://www2.ravensoft.com/getajob.htm - One of the first "break into the industry" pages I remember finding. A lot of great advice there that I highly recommend you read.
- http://www.zenofdesign.com/2005/05/30/breaking-in/ - Damion Schubert's page on breaking into the industry. He gives some practical advice there which you would be wise to read.
- http://www.sloperama.com/advice.html - An eclectic mix of games industry advice. Some of it relates to breaking in, some to game design.
- http://www.finegamedesign.com/education.html - Game Design Education guide, written by David Kennerly. David designed his own game design degree rather successfully after spending some time in the industry. He has compiled a list of places to get degrees in game design.
- http://tinysubversions.blogspot.com/2005/10/effective-networking-in-games-industry.html - Effective Networking in the Games Industry by Darius Kazemi. An excellent primer on how to network with other people in the games industry. Highly recommended reading.
- http://oedb.org/library/features/video-game-degrees-and-careers - A career guide that references this page and a lot of related links. Also goes into some detail about where you can get game development related degrees.
- http://gameindustrymap.com/ - Find game companies near where you live. Great resources to find out what companies are in your area.
Post questions here and I'll try to answer them as I can.