Special: How to make the dream a reality.
For the past couple of years, the Game Developers Conference has hosted a ?Game Career Seminar" on the final day of the event. Standing-room-only crowds always pack the talks as experienced developers hand out advice on everything from business cards and networking to what makes a viable job candidate. But career day is a tough day to be on the expo floor. The exhibitors are exhausted and hoarse from talking to hundreds of people for the past few days (not to mention the parties that go on all night). Plus, there's a special one-day student pass available that day for students, meaning that the floor is inundated by a throng of enthusiastic but inexperienced folks looking for the chance to get that first game-building job. To put yourself ahead of the pack, you need to arm yourself with skills and information. Here are a few things to think about to help your search.
Get an education -
The cool thing about making games is that your degree matters a whole lot less than your skills. But the right school program, of course, can be your chance to develop those skills and build a great portfolio. The question is, do you go to a traditional four-year school or a specialized game design school? The traditional school might not focus on games, but you end up with a well-rounded degree. The danger of the specialized school is that you end up with one, narrow qualification. Many, many educators exhibit at GDC, selling everything from specialized training in software packages like Maya to full-fledged, four-year degrees. For instance, Devry University was advertising their program in Game & Simulation Programming
, which offers the focus on C++ and AI that you'd expect, along with a well-rounded bachelor's degree that you can complete in three years. One thing that sets Devry apart is its lifetime
career placement service. Full Sail offers a game-focused program
at its Orlando campus. It'll also give you a bachelor's degree, but in only 21 months by having you go year-round and practically around the clock. In the area of specialized schools is Qantm College, where you can earn a degree in just one year and leave with a portfolio full of projects to show prospective employers. Students from the programming, design, and art tracks collaborate to produce professional-quality work. Qantm gets students in and out quickly by eliminating all the general education requirements most schools insist on.
Many schools also give you a huge jump on networking and job placement. Look for schools who come from the industry so that you know they have the contacts you'll need?it's one of the most compelling reasons to choose a specialized school over a traditional institution.
Get some experience -
This is the usual job-hunting Catch-22: you can't get a job without experience, and you can't build experience without a job. Well, there are a few ways you can start building that resume. School and modding projects are one way people get things going, of course, but entry-level jobs can be tough to come by, so lots of people start out in Quality Assurance, testing games for bugs and playability. If you're lucky enough to live near a studio, you can scour your local newspapers and job boards for temp and part-time QA jobs. Otherwise, you can try PowerUp Games
, a start-up that exhibited at GDC this year. PowerUp offers the chance to play not-yet-released games and critique them in a structured setting that allows you to learn QA while helping publishers improve their products. The company is new, but they plan to include training to help hone design and critical skills.
Finally, internships offer one of the best routes for current students to gain industry experience over the summers. Most larger game companies have standing internship programs that you can apply to on-line. Smaller companies often hire interns on an as-needed basis, so it's essential that you get out and meet people at these studios. If there's an IGDA chapter in your area, you can often drop in on the meetings, get to know some people, and learn something about game building to boot.
Go indie -
Nothing is stopping you from making games right now, without special training or education. Get your hands on a tool like RPG Maker VX (which Gaming Target previewed
recently), the Darkbasic 3D Games Creator, or Enteractive's FPS creator and follow the instructions to build your first game without knowing any programming. Put your best ideas into your levels and you'll have a product you can show off to potential employers. If you want to put in a bit more work, you can learn the tools that the pros use and ship with most of their games. If you own Half-Life 2, Neverwinter Nights, or Unreal Tournament III, you already have access to some of the most popular game development tools out there. To oversimplify things greatly, choose a game, learn the tools, build a level, do some scripting, and build a mod. Voil?, you're making games, having fun, and building a portfolio all at the same time.
If you're a programmer in a traditional Computer Science department, you may never have a class that asks you to make a game. Build one on your own time. If you talk to employers, you'll hear over and over that you should have game building experience, no matter how small the game. Build a clone of your favorite classic arcade shooter, and make sure you do everything from the opening splash screen to the ?game over" kiss off. Having something simple like that will raise you head and shoulders above everyone who wants to make games, but hasn't actually tried it yet. Once you've got a game built, go to the Indie Game Developers Showcase
and submit it either to the Game Showcase or the Indie Game Contest. They also offer a Developer's Center with a forum where designers can share ideas and ask questions about technologies and so on.
Know somebody -
It sucks, but the old adage is especially true in the game job search: it's not what you know, but who you know. For every story you hear of a whiz-bang real-time physics programmer getting a great job out of college, there's also a story of a guy with a friend at a company starting in QA, learning a bit of scripting and tools along the way, and ending up with a dream job as a level designer. It's impossible to underestimate the importance of personal connections in this world. Remember that when you submit your resume and demo reel, it goes into a box with hundreds of others, some better, some worse. It's up to you to figure out how to make yours rise to the top of the pile. Using the GDC to make contacts is certainly one way to do that: so much networking goes on during that week in San Francisco that the business card itself has become a sort of currency there.
Still, it seems like so many people are going to the convention now that it's gotten tougher than ever to get a resume into the hands of the right person. Companies still send their HR representatives to the GDC Career Pavilion where they set up booths and talk to job seekers, but the line you'll hear more often than not is, ?I'll take your resume, but make sure you apply online, too." If I'm going to apply online, why did I come here and talk to you at all? It seems like GDC San Francisco has just about reached critical mass?with GDC Executive Director Jamil Moledina telling reporters the conference will likely go invite-only next year. So what do you do instead? Look for smaller, regional events. GDC Austin is still manageable and affordable. In my area, we're lucky enough to have the Carolina Games Summit
and the Digital Game Xpo
. At events like these, you'll see the local game companies looking for people. If you're not sure what companies are in your area, check out gamedevmap
or Dave Perry's Game Industry Map
and search your location. And don't forget to look for an International Game Developers Association chapter in your area
Know how to do something useful -
This last point may seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how many folks assume they can make games just because they've played lots of them. That's a start, but you've got to take that a step further, whether it's with a serious mod team or one of the schools that offer degrees in game-relevant skills. At last year's GDC, I heard a rep for a recruiting company complain that ?everyone wants to be a game designer, nobody wants to put in the work to learn programming." This guy sees dozens of resumes every day from wannabes with no skills beyond a maxed-out WoW character or a 100% rating in Portal achievements. Game making is often broken down into several categories, including design, programming, art, and production. Each of these gets further broken down into things like graphics vs. audio programming, 2D vs. 3D art, and so on. Figure out what you want to do and then figure out how to start doing that right now. If you're into 3D art, get the free version of Maya or XSI, find some web tutorials, and start building stuff. And don't forget other, less technical possibilities like marketing, HR, and journalism. There's something out there for just about anyone.
And if design turns out to be your particular passion, you need to get serious about it. You have to start thinking critically about games?what makes them fun? what makes them suck? And, more importantly, how would you fix those problems in your own game? Consider the designer's challenge issued by David Perry
a few years back. He challenged fledgling designers to play the top 100 rated games and comment on them in ten different categories. That's a lot of games and a lot of work, but doing this exercise even for a few games will get you thinking about games in a new light. Then, get out there and start making games?on whatever platform you choose?and build some skills you can sell and a portfolio you can show off.
Choose your area, learn your tools, and get started. Many job postings emphasize the need for candidates able to train themselves in needed technologies, so get used to reading tutorials and looking at existing games in order to learn your craft. It's all out there for the taking on the web and in the games you've already bought. There are plenty of great books out there, too, including Game Design: Theory and Practice
by Richard Rouse III and Mastering Unreal: The Art of Level Design
by Jason Busby and Zak Parrish. Make a level, make a game, make a model, and then make it again. Make it better. Make it better than you you thought you could.
Why are you still reading this article? Why aren't you making games right now?