Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

7 August, 2005

Breaking into games
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 7:59 PM
(This post has been viewed 61398 times.)

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.

Helpful links

Post questions here and I'll try to answer them as I can.

Have fun!



15 Comments »

  1. I /giggled and /scoffed while reading that:-P

    I wish someone had told Patrick that having someone in the industry take you out for drinks is not to be expected:-P

    Comment by Sanguinius — 12 October, 2005 @ 7:36 AM

  2. I'm always curious about the networking aspect. I see it mentioned in every article on breaking into the industry, but it seems a fairly nebulous recommendation. What are good ways of networking, and with who, and how much is 'enough'? Does wriggling your way into the blog circuit constitute networking, or are we talking almost solely about exchanging business-cards at the GDC?

    Comment by Dom — 21 January, 2006 @ 8:50 AM

  3. Dom, I posted a reply to your question as a blog entry: http://blog.psychochild.org/?p=113

    Feel free to follow up with questions there.

    Comment by Psychochild — 26 January, 2006 @ 2:27 AM

  4. I would Like to become a game designer in the next two years, what are my chances in making it in the video game industry. with a bachelor degree as a game designer.

    Comment by Lamar Farrell — 8 June, 2006 @ 7:53 AM

  5. Your chances of success really depends on many different factors.

    To be honest, the chance of you becoming a game designer directly is pretty low. There is too much supply and not enough demand for pure game designers. Unfortunately, even with a degree you will be competing with other people that are willing to do just about anything to make games.

    Your goal is to stand out from the crowd. Do something that few other people have done and show that you are head and shoulders above the rest. The main thing you can do is have a good demo to show off your skills. Unfortunately, for a designer, this can be pretty hard. Working with other amateur game developers can be hard, because they'll want to "do design" as well. So, you might not get the perfect chance to showcase your talents. But, still, this is a vital step, and I would recommend starting on this type of project now so that you can get something done in two years.

    I'd also recommend learning other skills rather than pure design. Learn a few of the following: quality writing, level layout/world design, scripting/programming, and art (fine art and theory). Learning these skills will help you to contribute to a project, and make you much more hirable when it comes time to apply at various companies. Especially for smaller companies, where a pure designer would sit idle much of the time. On the other hand, someone able to contribute to light programming and writing in addition to design would be a great asset. Also, make sure it's a good team project and not just a "senior project" you slapped together to make a grade. Working with others is an important skill in contemporary game development.

    I would also highly recommend making sure your game degree is flexible enough to get a "real" job in case you just can't get into the industry. Getting a degree that is too specific in "game design" will hurt you if you can't break into the industry. Honestly, a focused degree does not give you many advantages in hiring. Consider something related to game development and get that degree instead. The most popular ones tend to be degrees in computer science or literature. Think about what you like about game development (besides just "working on games") and try to focus on that as your primary degree. Your extracurricular actives (that is, the project I mentioned working on above) will show your commitment and ability more than a degree will.

    Keep in mind that the industry is going through a transition as well. The "next generation" of consoles is coming out, and depending on how things go will depend on what happens in the industry. You should keep a close watch on things, and notice how things go. Keep an eye on what happens to various companies and look at their job notices to see what skills are needed. The whole industry might be completely different in 2 years, so you have to keep an eye on things.

    I'd also recommend reading Raph Koster's article on Breaking In to game design where he answers some other people's questions about this topic.

    Hope that helps. If you have more specific questions, feel free to post.

    Have fun,

    Comment by Psychochild — 8 June, 2006 @ 6:25 PM

  6. Breaking into the games industry

    [...] Games industry veteran talks about how getting a job in the video games industry. Lots of great detailed information and some helpful links. He even answers questions. Click the title at the top to read his blog on game development.read more | digg story [...]

    Pingback by Gabby — 19 March, 2007 @ 11:03 AM

  7. An article I saw linked over at Slashdot:

    http://www.gamecareerguide.com/features/350/what_game_companies_want_from_.php

    Talks with a few people from larger companies about what they look for in applicants. Of interest is this quote:

    While THQ "look more closely at candidates who come from a more targeted game oriented curriculum over a non-game curriculum for development roles," Lese is quick to point out that it's important that each graduate applicant is looked at individually.

    This implies that gaming-specific schools are getting more attention and respect from the larger companies.

    Comment by Psychochild — 19 March, 2007 @ 10:26 PM

  8. Beer and Breaking Into the Gaming Industry

    [...] of experience in the gaming industry, I would read people like Brian Green’s advice on “breaking into games“. A lot of his advice, I have to admit, I am only now beginning to understand and [...]

    Pingback by Rusty Parks’ Blog — 2 August, 2007 @ 8:57 PM

  9. I added a new resource - http://gameindustrymap.com/

    Operated by Dave Perry, it's a way to find out the game companies in a certain area. Very handy to see where opportunities are in your area or where you could move to find other opportunities.

    Comment by Psychochild — 1 September, 2008 @ 7:47 PM

  10. Why do we do it?

    [...] into the industry, which in itself is something hard enough to do that many industry names have written guides to help potential devs. Once you’re in, you quickly realize that your work hours are not your [...]

    Pingback by Imaekgaemz.com — 6 November, 2009 @ 7:50 AM

  11. A bit grumpier guide to the industry: You don’t want to work in the video game industry.

    Comment by Psychochild — 13 November, 2009 @ 12:15 AM

  12. Yeah, I saw that when The Rampant Coyote linked to where Lum posted it over on Broken Toys. It's hard to argue with the bulk of it.

    Comment by Tesh — 13 November, 2009 @ 12:33 PM

  13. Here's a good list of game design resources: http://www.fantopro.com/blog/2010/02/list-of-resources-for-video-game-professionals.html

    Comment by Psychochild — 13 February, 2010 @ 5:16 PM

  14. I've read quite a lot on getting a job in the games industry recently and I think this one seems the most realistic in terms of your chances of success and what would be involved. I think it's actually made me change my focus for the next few months anyway, I was planning one of those "pie in the sky" projects and now I believe it might be worth trying to lend my services to other in order to gain experience (which I have very little of). Thanks for the reality check!

    Comment by Chris Green — 20 July, 2010 @ 3:24 AM

  15. Nice article, as someone who's taking the dive into the MMO/mobile space I'm very glad to have stumbled upon your site.

    I will be voraciously reading thru all your material... and weighing your advice.

    Regards,

    Thomas G. Hale Sr.
    Social Deviation - Founder

    Comment by Thomas G. Hale Sr. — 30 March, 2011 @ 2:05 PM

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