At the Office


Home
On the Couch
At the Office
In the Library
Through the Mirror
Mailbox
Neighborhood
Getting a Job in the Gaming Industry

As someone who works in the industry, this is something I get asked about a lot, so I decided to go ahead and document what I know about the process in one place for easy reference.  This is a rather lengthy piece, so I've added an index.

The Basics
The Roles

Producer

Designer

Programmer

Artist

Level Designer

Tester

Administration
The Training
The Search
The Application
Is It Worth It?
Resources

The Basics
Getting a job in the gaming industry is a lot like getting a job in any industry: you need relevant skills, related experience helps, and knowing the right people never hurts.  You're going to be submitting resumes and cover letters, hunting for job announcements, submitting work samples, and if all goes well, interviewing.  So, start with the basics on job hunting; there are plenty of resources on the web for how to do each of these things, as well as many books.

There are, however, some things specific to the game industry:
Index


The Roles
Before you apply for a job, you need to know what sort of a job you're going to apply for.  This is a basic breakdown of the personnel every game studio needs. My experience is on the game development side, so that's what I'm going to focus on here.  If you're interested in the publishing side, you may need to look elsewhere.

Producer/Assistant Producer

Producers manage the business side of game development teams.  They work the budgets and the schedules, oversee production processes, handle personnel issues, put together milestones (glossary), and basically take care of all the details that go into making a game.  To get a producer job, you generally need to have some management experience and have been through at least one full production cycle on a shipped game.  Assistant producers, on the other hand, range from task-specific specialists (localization (glossary) and testing, for example) to general go-fers, so there are some entry-level positions.

General skills that you need to be an effective producer include:
If you're not a people-person, don't even think about going into the producer side of things.  You have to be able to not only be on good terms with everyone on the team but to help them be on good terms with each other.  Schmoozing is definitely part of the job.

Index

Designer/Assistant Designer

Designers are responsible for coming up with and documenting every element of how a game will work, from UI (glossary) to AI (glossary) to character design to story to cinematic (glossary) scripts to dialogue to combat models to technology trees, if it's in the game, the designer has to define what it is and how it's supposed to work.  Notice that "lead designer" and "senior designer" are not included in this heading; to get those kinds of jobs, you need industry experience, and if you have that, you're probably not looking here for insight.  Even "designer" is usually a job where you need development experience; "assistant designer", on the other hand, can be an entry-level position.  Assistant designer duties vary from scripting (glossary) and gameplay balancing to system design and documentation.  What exactly a designer is expected to do varies broadly from studio to studio, and that's doubly true for assistant designers.

General skills that you need to be an effective designer include:
The most common misconception about designers is that they sit around all day thinking up cool game ideas (I'll probably write an article on this one of these days).  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Cool game ideas are a dime a dozen; everyone has them by the bushel.  What designers spend most of their time doing is writing documentation, meeting with team members to resolve issues, problem-solving around limitations, and mapping out game specifics.  If your philosophy is "my way or the highway", you won't make it past your first milestone.  Designers have to be flexible pragmatists, making the best out of the available options.  No one gets the luxury of building their dream game exactly the way they envision it.

Index

Programmer/Engineer
These come in a variety of different flavors.  Programmers generally specialize in one sub-field but have to be able to work with everyone in all the other sub-fields.  So, you may specialize in AI (glossary) programming or rendering (glossary) engines, but you have to make sure that you can mesh that work with what the data management guys, the networking guys, the physics guys, and the sound guys are doing (yes, I said "guys" a lot; there are more and more women programmers in the game industry, but it's still mostly guys).  Specialization is important to selling yourself as an expert, but being broadly rounded is also important.

General skills that you need to be an effective programmer include:
One thing to keep in mind is that programmers have to work on a common code base.  Teamwork skills are important in this regard, but so is the ability to read and decipher other people's code, and writing clean and well-remarked code is a good habit to get into now.

Index

Artist
Like programmers, artists come in a variety of types.  An average studio is going to need artists who can: model in 3D, texture (glossary) (2D and 3D), animate (people, creatures, and vehicles), create UI (glossary) elements, make cinematics (glossary), and do concept art.  Being able to do two or more of these things helps a lot, but like programmers, it's best to truly excel in one thing and be reasonably proficient in some of the others.  While most game art is created with software tools (3D Studio Max and Maya are the most common), don't neglect traditional art skills like sketching, drafting, and painting.  Learning good basic techniques will make you a better artist in the long run.

General skills that you need to be an effective artist include:
For game development, the greatest artist isn't the one who can eventually come up with the most stunning work, it's the one who can squeeze great-looking work out of minimal resources consistently, efficiently, and without breaking the game engine.  Art in game development is a lot more about technical prowess than you might expect.

Index

Level Designer
This is a common job title, but what it means varies a lot from studio to studio.  Some places expect the level designer to build levels with either commercially available or in-house software; other places expect the level designer to map out and document all aspects of gameplay for a specific level.  In most cases, it's a hybrid of art and design, and the one constant is that the level designers are generally expected to do whatever scripting (glossary) is involved in the levels they're working with.

General skills that you need to be an effective level designer include:
Depending on the type of work you're expected to do, background in architecture and landscape layout is a definite plus.

Index

Tester
Testing is one of the most common paths of entry into the gaming field.  Sometimes testing is handled exclusively on the publishing side, but most studios have some sort of internal QA (glossary) process.  In addition to lead testers (who manage the testers, devise test plans, and implement bug reporting and tracking systems), a QA department typically has a staff of full-time testers and a group of temporary testers who are hired to work on a specific project once it hits alpha (glossary) or beta (glossary).  If you can get hired as a temp tester and do a kick-ass job, they might hire you on as a full-time tester; from there, you may be able to cross over into art, programming, design, or production (depending on your skill set, see above).

General skills that you need to be an effective tester include:
Testing is a thankless job.  Some people think "Oh, man, I get to play games all day, what could be better than that?".  When you play the same area of the same game for four weeks, eight hours a day, almost anything is better than that.  Testers are responsible for making sure that every single part of the game works, every single time a new build (glossary) is put together.  It takes a tremendous amount of patience and focus to do the job right and not get burned out on it.  Testers are also the lowest heads on the totem pole; don't go into testing thinking you're going to be giving feedback on how to shape the game.  By the time it hits test, it's too late to do anything except the smallest changes.

Index

Administration
All game studios need all the administrative folks that any business needs: receptionist, HR (glossary), IT (glossary), accounting, and possibly PR (glossary).  It's a little trickier to move from these kinds of positions into the development track, but it can be done.


The Training
Okay, you've looked through the job descriptions and you're not ready to start applying for jobs yet, but you know you want to get there, what can you do?

College is a good option.  I'm a firm believer in the liberal arts path, but beyond that, graduating from college shows that you've got the ability to work with a variety of concepts and see a long process through from start to finish.  While you're there, you can work on your skills, figure out what you're best suited for, and play some games in your free time.

If you don't want to go that route but you do want some training, DigiPen and Full Sail are fairly recently developed programs that have a growing profile in the industry.  Slightly down the prestige ladder are the Guildhall and similar curricula that are connected to established universities but haven't been around long enough to really develop a reputation.  On a more established footing, the Art Institutes offer various skill-specific courses, but the quality is going to vary a lot from campus to campus and course to course
.

If you're ready to get hands-on, modding
 (glossary) is a good way to get development experience.  You can make your own, or you can volunteer to contribute to an established crew.  Find a game you like with an editor you can use, then look around the community sites for people who are involved in modding; they can mentor you, offer tips, and/or test your mods.  Mods can be a part of your submission and can show that you can do good work within the technical restrictions of an established engine.  Just make sure it really is good work or you'll be shooting yourself in the foot.

Finally, beta-testing is good experience to have.  Lots of studios run external betas
 (glossary), so keep your eye out and volunteer for every one that comes along; sooner or later, they'll let you into one.  Use the opportunity not just to play the game but to develop effective communication techniques, learn about the realities of production and marketing, and analyse how different types of changes impact on the performance and appeal of the game.

In the meantime, play lots and lots of games.  The more you know about games--different styles, genres, platforms, developers, and publishers--the better.  Don't just play the games, though.  Take a long, hard look at them.  Try to figure out what they're doing, why some things work and others don't, what the common problems and limitations are, and, most importantly, how they can be made better.  Every game developer is a gamer at heart, but not every gamer has the understanding of games necessary to be a developer.


Index


The Search

Okay, so you know what you want to do and you've got the skills, now, how do you find the job?  


The internet is your friend; know it, love it, work it.  While game industry jobs are sometimes posted on the major job search sites like Monster.com, it's usually difficult to sift through everything else to find them.  You're better off going to game-industry sites like Gamasutra or Mary-Margaret.com.  Look around a little, and you can find some other sites that offer similar types of listings.

Even better, though, is going to the game studio sites.  First, if you know what studio you're applying to, you know what kinds of games you'll be working on, or at least you should.  If you don't, going to the studio's site is a good way to do research on them: how long have they been around, what games have they made, how large are they, what are they talking about doing in the future, etc., etc.  Second, studios will often post jobs on their own site before they publish them to third-party sites for the simple reason that it's free and easy.  Third, the listings on studio sites often have more detailed descriptions of what they are looking for, which allows you to tailor your resume, cover letter, and portfolio to their specific needs.


Also, don't forget to network.  Let people know that you're looking for an opportunity in the game development field.  They may not work there, but they may know somebody who does.  The caveat here is that networking is best done on a personal level: in person, over the phone, or through e-mail.  Going onto some company's forums and saying "Hey, are you guys hiring?" isn't going to score you any points.

If you really want to go that route, become a part of the forum community, establish a reputation as an intelligent, reasonable, friendly, and informed person.  Get to know some of the developers who go into the forums, then hit them up for tips on getting into the industry in general; if they're interested in you and they're hiring, they'll let you know that, but if they're not interested in you and you immediately go for "I want a job at your studio", they're likely to slam the door on you.  Remember: the purpose of networking is not to get a job; the purpose of networking is to find out where the jobs are and what you need to do to get one.


Finally, there's the industry events.  These come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and related expenses.  If you're in an area where there are some studios, consider becoming a part of the IGDA.  The IGDA chapters have events on a semi-regular basis, and it's a good opportunity to network and learn more about the industry.  For the cost of a game and some beers, you can get a lot of good contacts and information.  Then there are the regional events; these are generally genre or field-specific, and you're going to probably pay more money for travel and access, then have to work harder to meet the right people.  However, if you're a student artist and you're looking to get an art job, going to a convention about the latest 3D modeling and texturing (glossary) techniques and going to the talks demonstrates that you're serious about the field as well as giving you access to the latest trends and techniques.

Of course, there's also the grand-daddy of them all: the national events, E3 (or ECTS) and GDC.  Not much hiring gets done at E3 (everyone's too busy hawking their own products and scoping out the competition), but it's a good place to take the temperature of the industry.  All the latest is on display in glaring technicolor glory and top volume; it's easy to see who the big studios are and who the struggling ones are.  You can also figure that if a studio is showing a bunch of near-complete titles, they're going to be gearing up for the next hiring cycle soon.  E3 has also recently added a "conference" type group of sessions on game development and the state of the industry.

GDC is much more useful, though, if you're looking to crack into the industry.  If you can afford it, get the giga-pass and go to the tutorials for in-depth instruction, but if you can't afford that, try to get the conference pass and check out the talks.  If you're really strapped for cash, you can get the expo-only pass to hit the studio booths and hand out resumes, but then you're missing 90% of the event.  Student discounts are available, and the IGDA also offers some scholarships.  If you live in the area (San Jose), volunteering to work the event not only gets you a free t-shirt, but you'll also be able to watch a lot of the events.

GDC is a great event, and if you can afford it, by all means go.  If you can't, don't sweat it.  Industry events aren't necessary for getting into the industry, and there are cheaper alternatives.

Index


The Application
Okay, so you know what kind of job you're suited for, and you've found a job opening, what now?  Well, like I said at the top, applying for a game industry job is a lot like applying for any job.  Go check out stuff on writing resumes and cover letters and interviewing.  I don't have any greater insight than those people, with a couple of exceptions.

First, here's the general process you're going to go through:
Sounds tough, right?  Well, it is.  It takes a fair amount of luck along with good credentials and skills just to get in the door.  If it didn't, everyone would be doing it, right?

Second, here are some general tips that you need to pay attention to:
Keep in mind that the process may break down at any point, and you may never hear from that studio again.  Sure, they say they'll keep your file on record, but the fact is that no one goes delving through the files of people who've already been sifted out.  It's bad form, but most studios are so busy that you may never even get a confirmation letter that they received your materials or that they've decided not to bring you out for an interview or that they've hired someone else.  If they're interested in you, they'll get in touch.  If they don't, keep moving and submit your materials somewhere else.

Index


Is It Worth It?
Okay, so I've painted a pretty grim picture so far.  To get a job in the game industry, you're going to have to work long hours for less pay than you might get elsewhere, and even getting a job takes a tremendous amount of work against a pretty stiff field of competition.  So, is it worth all the effort?

That's a question you'll have to answer for yourself.

If you're not driven to do it, if making games isn't just a job but a passion for you, it may well not be.

On the other hand, if you love games, it's hard to be unhappy about getting up to go to work knowing that you're going to spend your day working on a game, talking to people about games, and, yes, occasionally playing some games.  The industry is fairly small, but it's growing, and there's a lot of people out there who don't want to be doing anything else, myself included.

The reality isn't nearly as rosy as the dreams often are, but there's no substitute for doing what you love, warts and all.


Resources
IGDA
The Independent Game Developer's Association is one of the industry's main professional groups.  They put on the GDC every year; they run an industry web-site (Gamasutra.com) complete with job listings; they put out a game development magazine (Game Developer); they publish white papers and articles on game development; and they have chapters all over the world that put on semi-regular meetings and other events.  There are special student rates for membership, and it's open to anyone who wants to be a part of the game development industry.

Gaming University
This is a series of articles and Q&A's with game developers on GameSpy devoted to issues related to getting into the games industry.  Quality varies, but there is some good information in there.

What Color Is Your Parachute?
This is one of the classics on looking for a job.  In addition to tips on networking, writing a resume, and doing interviews, it includes a lot of useful exercises to help you figure out what exactly it is you want to be doing.

Game Design: The Art and Business of Creating Games
A good overview of the industry.  It's very broad, but not very deep.  It won't teach you how to be a developer, but it does give a good description of the standard roles and processes in the game development industry.

Getting a Job in the Games Industry
A similar article to this one by Kenn Hoekstra of Ravensoft.  It offers a little more insight into the programming side of things as well as a lot of links to web resources.

Article Index

Home
On the Couch
At the Office
In the Library
Through the Mirror
Mailbox
Neighborhood