So You Want to Break Into the Games Industry? Here's How...

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John Breslin's picture
John Breslin is a senior lecturer and researcher at NUI Galway, and co-founder of boards.ie, Ireland's largest online community. @johnbreslin

You have a passion for computer games, and you think you want to work in the computer games industry. How should you go about it? You could listen to the advice of Ian Schreiber for a start. Ian has worked as both a programmer and game designer, as well as teaching game design and development at Ohio University. He recently shared some tips with students and young researchers involved in the games area about how to get that ideal games job.

If you've ever been a student in college, you probably know that there are always a variety of motivations for how colleges work and what they should ideally do. Student success is the primary one, but that success may not entail you getting your dream job in the career area of your choice. However, what you do in the lead up to that job hunt can help you maximise your chances of reaching your goal. There are two main parts to this: (1) knowing what your goal is; and (2) figuring out how to get there.

For (1), knowing your goal, those already in a games degree programme probably already have a good idea of what the job entails, but for others it may be more tricky. A typical conversation would be: "I love playing games, so the thought of making them sounds really cool." "Are you a going to be a programmer or an artist or a game designer?" "Oh, what's the difference?" You need to understand that first before you go any further.

For (2), getting there, the games industry is fairly straightforward in terms of what they are looking for. In the main, they just want to make awesome games. "Awesome" differs from company to company, whether it be a well-reviewed game, one that's got great gameplay, or one that makes lots of money. They basically want to know if you can be part of the team that can help them make that awesome game.

So, the challenge is showing them that this is something you can do. You need to provide credible evidence that you can do it. How? The most obvious way is simply by making games. If you're not already making computer games on your own because you love doing it so much (and you're already in a games course at college), then you might want to consider changing degrees because what do you think you are going to be doing full time after graduation?

If it's not an activity that you will love doing, Ian said you should re-consider going into it as a career as the pay is lower and the working hours are worse than some other similar careers. (Check out Glassdoor to read about validated anonymous people working at various companies, either praising their companies and the benefits, or spilling dirt on their employer and why it sucks to work there. For example, Valve gets good reviews.)

You need to decide if this really is a career you want as it's better to find out as an undergraduate before going to industry and burning out. Five-and-a-half years is the average length for a career in the games industry before burning out (that's a full career, not a single job), so you may want to go do something else. But, if you listen to Ian's advice, do your research first, and still eventually go into the games industry, you will probably enjoy it and it may well be the best job ever.

Ian is co-author of the book Breaking Into the Game Industry: Advice for a Successful Career from Those Who Have Done It. He wrote the book with another industry veteran, having himself worked in the games area for 12 years. As part of his research, the authors asked a series of games industry leaders to provide paragraph-long answers to questions being asked all the time, and the resulting combination of answers has worked a useful guide for job seekers in the industry.

Ian cited personal experience in his quest to become a games designer as opposed to just a programmer. Having programming skills is useful because if you don't know what's easy and what's hard to code, your game designs will be brilliant but impossible to execute. Games companies are also very cautious in hiring designers since a mistake on the part of the designer can have serious repercussions that can bleed across departments. It's a position of trust, and if the company already has a designer, they tend not to want to give that trust to anyone new.

To get into game design, you have to "play nice" with others: start to work with game designers, approach the work very carefully, show some design prototypes you did on your own or some ideas you had that got into the final version of a game: basically, build up some evidence to show that you can be a good game designer too.

There are other ways to demonstrate that you have a range of non-technical or soft skills that a company is looking for, whether it be relevant non-technical subjects studied (that history minor may be relevant for historical games) or your ability to work in a team. Show that you have a track record of working on a team with other students, and if the opportunity arises, try and take leadership positions in games being developed in or out of class. It's good to show that initiative: that you are capable of doing things without being asked or required to, for example, by showing that you made games outside college on your own because you wanted to.

There are some in the games industry who claim that they would rather not have done an undergraduate course, but instead would have spent every moment teaching themselves how to make games and doing nothing else. Ian disagrees: college makes you more rounded and helps with breaking into the industry. The most useful thing about college and spending four years in a safety net from the outside world is that you have this time to experiment on games projects and ideas that you couldn't get away with anywhere else - and you can do it without costing a publisher $3 million dollars on a failed project. You also have a bunch of like-minded people in college with similar interests and career goals, and that's a huge resource you can make use of.

Ian also talked about the difference between entertainment games and serious games. Jobs creating serious games are a lot less competitive than the entertainment games industry, and with fewer applicants it can be easier to get your foot in the door. But attracting less people means that serious games tend not to be as well polished as entertainment games. The area is really challenging and interesting, and serious games are certainly harder to make than entertainment games. They not only have to be fun or profitable, but there is also that additional purpose that weighs down on you like a giant weight. It can be very rewarding to be able to say "my game helped end a war" or "my game helped save 500 lives". Ian advised those interested in serious games to attend events like "Games for Change" or the Serious Games Summit.

He stressed the importance of going to games conferences and networking, as this is very important in the games industry. The saying "it's what you know" is better put as "it's what you know AND who you know" for the games industry, as you have to know the right people if you want to get that ideal job.

If you haven't built any complete games, mods (modifications to existing games) can still work well in a portfolio, especially if you can point to it and say that you thought a particular game was good, but this was a weakness you found after your analysis of the game design, and this is what you did to capitalise on that and make it better (it needs to be more than a funny-shaped level).

One valuable piece of advice from Ian was not to throw in everything you've ever done into your portfolio. Your portfolio should be your strongest stuff, because the entire set is only as strong as the weakest link and should show the best you are capable of. Don't pad it out with early work like that badly-drawn polygon animation with lens flare. You need to put in your work that shows what you can do - whether it be mods, design documents or full working games. Of course, this depends on the company. Showing a Half Life mod when applying to Valve will carry a bit of weight!

If you're a budding programmer, you may also wonder about the demand for those with artificial intelligence experience at undergraduate or postgraduate level. If you can show working games with some AI, this can be pretty compelling, but the downside is that not everyone needs an AI programmer (certainly not FarmVille?), and the academic notion of AI often differs from real gaming requirements. The perfect academic AI will win in the best and most efficient way possible; the gaming AI will put up a good fight and maybe lose, but it will be fun to engage with and demonstrate intelligent play to make the game feel more awesome.

There's also the commonly-asked question of how those in the games industry can balance their time playing for fun and making games. Making games is very demanding and time consuming. You could spend up to 16 hours a day to get that next milestone out the door, and may not get much time to play. But as a professional game designer you need to play games because you are doing "research". As seen on the show Extra Credits, there's a difference between playing as a designer versus playing as a player. As a designer, while playing you are analysing your own play. "Oh, I'm feeling joy with this level. Why is that?" It's a bit like a professional comedian dissecting another's jokes: something is lost along the way. For a designer, shutting off that analytical part of brain is very hard, but you can still play games that are different in nature to those you are making and enjoy them.

And that's what it's all about in the end of the day. Someone somewhere has made a computer game for your fun and entertainment. Hopefully you can do the same for somebody else someday soon.

Ian was speaking at the International Games Innovation Conference, run by IEEE's Consumer Electronics Society.

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