Not surprisingly, how to get your foot in the door at a video game studio was the most requested topic from the community upon announcement of Making Moves going live, so I figured it'd be a great place to start! To be clear, I'm going to focus on advice for landing a position at an established company. Breaking into the industry as an independent developer is an entirely different topic, and to be fair to y'all, I'm not even close to being qualified to speak about that at this stage.
To kick it off, I'll briefly review my story. This is not required reading, but since folks have asked, I'd like to touch upon it. Maybe you wanna skip this first section and go to where the real advice begins? It's your world!
How'd you get here, brah?
I'm on record at 4 years old saying that I want to make video games, so my journey started early. All through middle school and high school, I excelled at math and science and struggled with any attempts to get artistic, so I knew I should focus on the tech side. Unfortunately, my high school didn't offer any programming classes, but that didn't stop me from declaring a Computer Science major at Syracuse University (SU) day 1 of my freshman year without having written a single line of code. I knew that was gonna be my best path into the industry.
I managed to graduate from SU with next to no applicable programming experience. The classes were all high on theory, low on practicality. That said, I kept my grades way up and was determined to figure this out. At the time, SU had zero connections with the gaming industry. Most of their relationships were with government funded defense agencies and I interviewed with a few of them. No surprise nothing materialized there. I had no interest and they knew it. I was just going through the paces until I figured out my way into a video game studio.
That path surfaced at a totally unexpected moment and there were more than a few steps before it actually fully presented itself. First, I was standing in line my final semester to buy textbooks. There was a big magazine rack next to the register and I saw they carried Playstation Magazine (PSM), my favorite gaming magazine growing up. It had been ages since I read one, so I bought it along with the hundreds of dollars I spent on textbooks. Turns out that $5 magazine was the most valuable purchase I made that day.
Inside the magazine, there were two things that caught my attention. First, a two page spread of a map highlighting the names and locations of all (most?) of the gaming companies in the states. I visited every company's website listed there and applied for every internship and entry level position I thought I had a shot at landing. Though this map helped make me more aware of where opportunities might lie, it didn't ultimately land me my first job.
The other information included in the magazine was a link to a website called gamedevjobs.com. A quick Google search tells me it no longer exists. However, back in 2003 there were a decent amount of entry level jobs listed there. Again, I applied to every one I thought I had a chance at getting. By the end of that year (2003), I felt like I had exhausted all the resources that PSM had provided me...which at the time were pretty much the only resources I knew of. I graduated from SU, moved back home and got a job at a brick oven pizza joint on Long Island, kinda dejected and unsure about what to do next.
However, about 3 weeks after I submitted my final application on gamedevjobs.com, I got contacted by Terminal Reality (TRI) about an entry level position as a Level Designer. Without getting into too much detail, over the course of 3 months I went through a few phone interviews, wrote and submitted a review of TRI's two latest games (never was asked to, just did it) and took a scripting test. I think the interviews went pretty well and they probably had a laugh at my critiques of their games, but I nailed the scripting test. This ended up being what they were most interested in. TRI flew me out to Dallas, TX for an onsite interview where I showed up in a suit and tie (geezus...I know) and they made me an offer while I was waiting in line for my flight back to New York. Two weeks later, I moved to Texas and started my job as a Level Designer on Spy Hunter: Nowhere to Run.
Holy shit. I did it.
Great. Nice job, Ryan. So what about me? Fair enough! Let's chat about that. I pinged some folks in the industry and here are some of the things they suggested.
Make a game...a unique one...and release it!
"Make a game!" was the #1 piece of advice echoed by the people I spoke to. It's too easy these days with Unity and UE4 for it to be acceptable for you NOT to have been a part of making a game. Even if it's just a small demo. That said, what's really going to catch people's attention is releasing a game. Going through the entire process from start to finish will not only be incredibly valuable to you, but it'll be impressive to prospective employees and you'll stand out among the crowd. Don't worry about making money. Just get it out there.
It's worth noting that a 2D side scroller probably won't cut it these days. There are SO many of them. I'd suggest focusing on one interesting design problem that hasn't been solved and try to solve it! Don't go too big, but try not to make a carbon copy.
Learn a "hard" skill.
I'm not talking about a difficult skill. I mean, a skill that actually helps build the game. Learn to code. Learn to model and texture. Learn to animate. These are what I would call "The Big 3". You may end up branching to something more specialized down the line, but I think it's really important to have a foundation in one of these core areas. Choose the one that has the clearest path towards your end goal. It's not unlike the job system in Final Fantasy Tactics ;) For example:
This chart is certainly not definitive. There are always exceptions, but I've found most successful game developers have generally followed one of these paths in order to acquire the skills best suited for their role. I should also note, audio is missing cause it kinda stands on it's own and doesn't have much crossover to other roles, though it certainly happens.
Attend a university That has connections to the industry
Emphasis on a university with connections. This was only just starting to become a thing when I applied to universities, but now they're all over. Though it's an expensive option and not available for many, getting into a school that has a good game development program may be the "easiest" thing to do. You're going to have to work your ass off in order to stand out in your class, but at least you know that if you do then you'll have a good shot at landing an internship through the universities connections to the industry.
Start with bigger companies.
Bigger companies are more likely to have internship programs and entry level positions. Obviously not always the case, but generally this will be true. It's hard to make room for non-senior positions on a small indie team. Also, it's going to look GREAT on your resume. Even if AAA games aren't what you ultimately want to make, you'll learn a ton making them, you'll build a giant network and you'll probably ship a game. Remember, for better or worse, once you're in, you're in!
Here are some links that may help you land a job in the industry. I'm sure there are TONS more resources out there, so be vigilant and good luck!
- Sign up for the newsletter on Gamasutra, check their job listings and check their list of schools with game development programs.
- Use GameDevMap. It's amazing.
- Jon Jones has some good blog posts about breaking into the industry. Start here and learn something about portfolios.
- Check out Crunch Cast.
- I can't imagine you'd land here without already knowing about Unreal Engine and Unity...but just in case ;)
That's about it for now. There's so much more to talk about with regard to resumes, interviewing, design tests, etc....but that's for another day. Remember, this blog is driven by requests from the community. If there's something you want me to expand upon, please let me know by leaving a comment, hitting me up on Twitter @Ryan_Darcey or shooting me an email.