I have done several panels in the past few years and this is by far the most asked question.
Just to clarify, I am inexperienced, but I am a developer working for a AAA company. I think this puts me an interesting position when talking about this topic because I was just recently on the same job search you are embarking on! I also made a lot of friends throughout my degree and various conferences, and watched them enter the gaming industry in multiple ways. My knowledge will not be complete, I am not a recruiter, nor do I work in HR. But take this article as a personal anecdote of paths myself and my friends have taken.
Before we get into the real logistics of getting into the industry, let us try to get some clarity of what is out there. Basically, you need to ask yourself a couple of important questions.
- What do I want to do?
- What kind of games would I like to make?
- Is this industry for me?
What do I want to do?
There are several different paths you can take into the industry. I only have experience with one, being software development. But there are infinite possibilities in this highly diverse industry! Consider where your passions lie, and what you are good at. One commonality across most professions (I have found) is you have to be somewhat tech savy. Usually you will be working with very robust pieces of software, whether you are an artist (photoshop), programmer (game engines), or producer (project management tools.) Even writers, and designers will often work in the game engine, so knowing your way around a computer as well as basic troubleshooting skills come in very handy.
Evaluate your skills and recognize that even within your discipline there can be multiple fields of interest that require different expertise. For example, within programming, working with the engine or gameplay mechanics are two very different things. As well, depending on the size of the company, your responsibilities may encompass many diverse things, like design and writing, or one focused task, such as honing a specific combat mechanic.
Some careers to consider:
- Quality Assurance
- Human Resources
- Information Technology
- Community Management
Keep in mind, some of these tracks are easier to break into than others. For example, quality assurance usually has a large turn over where many people are hired on temporary contracts. This can be a great opportunity to get inside a studio, but it’s often hard to secure a full time position this way. In contrast, disciplines like writing, art, and animation have a lower turnover and usually require a portfolio and prior experience.
What kind of games would I like to make?
There are huge discrepancies in the ‘types’ of games that are out there. If your dream is to make a small scale moving narrative adventure with radical feminist ideas and a cast of 100% trans characters, you probably will not be happy working for most AAA companies. I would instead recommend the indie game industry. There are pros and cons to both indie and AAA and you will need to weigh where your values lie.
The first thing to realize with applying to work with a AAA company as a new graduate is that you will be working on someone else’s intellectual property. You will probably not be included in major design decisions, you will most likely be working on an existing franchise that has already been in development for a couple of years. Most companies have their next few titles planned out in advance, and beyond that you will have very little power or flexibility as a junior. However if your dream is to work on an existing franchise and be part of something big that will launch internationally, then go AAA all the way. If you have the financial finesse/support, want to work on your own ideas, and take more creative risks, then go indie.
The next thing is asking yourself, what do I play, what do I like? The culture of a company is very important and I would recommend applying for companies whose games you enjoy and whose mandate you support. If you hate FPS games, you might not like working on the next Call of Duty. Apply for the companies whose games you play and whose culture you agree with.
Is this industry for me?
There are some downsides to working in the video game industry. The biggest downfall of the games industry is crunch. Developers notoriously work long, hard hours, and that sometimes doubles before launch. Depending on the company this can be better or worse, but I won’t hesitate to say that working in the games industry is stressful. High expectations yield high reward. Most people I have met who work in the industry don’t have families (implying kids), or have partners that are extremely supportive and act as the primary parent. But, I will say that the industry is changing, and many companies are making an effort to decrease the strain of crunch as well as accommodate their aging employees. As well, hours can be flexible so with some careful juggling I can see how many people manage a family and their jobs.
Despite the long hours, the job is extremely rewarding, and I hope this doesn’t discourage you! But if long hours and high stress are something you absolutely cannot do, please think it over carefully.
Alright let’s get to the fundamental question, how do I get a job?
I’m going to break it down into some simple steps.
Step 1: Education
Education doesn’t have to be a degree – but it definitely helps if it is. I personally have a Bachelor of Science in Computing Science, with a certificate in Game Development and Design. These things were very important to me getting a job.
Having the proper training increases your chances of an interview and thus an offer. If you don’t have a degree and do not have the time/patience/money to get one I recommend working on a portfolio. So you have to start making games and teach yourself. If you are a programmer, learn C# and C++. There’s lots of neat game engines you can mess around with to get started.
Some free ones I’ve tried out are:
- Unity (Used a lot for indie games)
For smaller 1-2 person projects
The second part of “education” is game education. Play games. Play AAA games, play indie games, play mobile games, play console games, play platformers, RPGs, FPS, MOBAs, all of it. Everyone around you will always be making references to various games to describe the mechanics, atmosphere, plot twists or whatever they want to emulate. You have to play a lot of games to be informed about your market.
Step 2: Produce a portfolio
You can get kickstarted on this by attending game jams and hackathons. Usually you wind up with something you can show off with 48 hrs of effort. It also is a good way to meet people who you might want to potentially team up with in the future.
This step will be the hardest, it’s doing unpaid work and it sucks. Of course, when you are passionate about something grinding a few hours in your spare time doesn’t seem like much. The most important advice I can give here is to think as small as possible. What is a cool thing you can make and throw up on the internet that displays how innovative you are? Perhaps an experiment in Microsoft XNA which creates a 2D world with cyclical levels? Maybe a Skyrim mod? Perhaps some art or a 10 minute visual novel using Ren’Py? Or a remix of the Super Mario Bros soundtrack? Think of small projects, very small projects that will show off your skills without eating a few years of your life. Know that projects inevitably get larger the more you work on them. As well, if you have work from school throw that in there, put it all together on a nice website and voila, you have a portfolio.
Step 3: Attend conferences
Recruiters use conferences to recruit. Need I say more? I attended GDC 2015 with a pass I won through Microsoft, they had us attend several different events where we were introduced to recruiters from XBOX, Riot Games, EA, Blizzard and Ubisoft. Sometimes companies even interview at conferences. So if you are ready to strut your stuff and just looking for a more personable approach than applying online, I recommend attending a GDC, PAX, E3, Blizzcon, or whatever other conference that suits your fancy. Keep an eye out for contests or draws where you can win passes for free.
More positive points of conference going are the educational sessions, networking with peers, and seeing the new amazing stuff out there. In the industry it’s important to stay cutting edge, or at least be aware of where things are heading. Conferences are a great way of staying on top of new ideas.
Step 4: Apply apply apply
So now you are going to want to email all those recruiters you met, or add them on LinkedIn. Don’t get hopes down of you don’t hear anything right away as the games industry is very competitive. As well consider polishing your resume, or getting some advice on it from friends or a mentor in the industry.
Most people I have met started in games through an internship, so if you are a recent grad (or in your 3rd or 4th year) look into internships.
To help you out, here’s a list of some major companies’ career sites:
- Square Enix
- EA, Bioware, Dice, others
- Riot Games
- Namco Bandai
- Zenimax, Bethesda
Not to mention the hundreds of other companies out there. Also if you have a favourite game, look up who made it and check out their site.
It’s important to keep trying! When applying for positions you might not get swamped with offers at first, the industry is very competitive. But keep improving your skills, attending events and networking, eventually it will pay off.