How do I break into Game Development?
June 16, 2011 7:29 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to break into game dev/design- What's the way forward?

After a lot of soul searching and bumming around, I finally came to the idea that I wanted to be a game designer. Recently I had the chance to go interview at a studio and spend a few days there and while I didn't get the job, it made it pretty clear that this was what I wanted to be doing.

But now I'm kind of confused about what the way forward is. All 3 of my friends went straight from Graduate or Bachelor programs in Game Design to working in a studio. I'm not against going for another degree, but I'm not sure that's the smartest idea.

So, game dev dudes: How'd you get where you are? Starting in September I'll have a whole year off and a bundle in savings. Is it best spent trying to pump out a few games? Should I be resume bombing studios looking for internships? Is it worth it to put in time in QA or is that a dead end?

I'm just looking to make sure I make the most of my year. Because my buddies went straight from school to work, they didn't have a lot of tips.

For what's it worth, I'm far more interested in Design/Production than something like Programming. I'm an able enough programmer, but it's not my passion.
posted by GilloD to Work & Money (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Having friends who work in the industry, and who know you're looking for a job, is pretty much the most useful resource you could ask for when you're starting out.

My husband, who's currently a producer/designer at a NYC studio, got his start doing QA. It isn't glamorous, and doesn't pay very well, but it'll help you get your foot it the door and start making connections.

Internships are a mixed bag -- a lot of people get their start that way, but it depends on the studio. Some of them really are just looking for free/cheap labor. Others want to be able to screen prospective hires in a low-risk, hands-on manner. Pay attention to industry gossip from your friends as to which internships are likely to be worth the trouble.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:05 PM on June 16, 2011

Well, my first question would be about your credentials. What's your actual degree in? What can you program? Do you have any real-world creative or production experience? What have your previous jobs been? Etc.

You don't really answer most of these, but judging from what you do say, I'm willing to bet that most studios may not like the answers, and here's why: There aren't that many "Design/Production" jobs in your average studio. There are plenty of artists, programmers, sound guys, and so on, but the number of people going "Hmm, I think our game should be about X" or "I want there to be mechanic Y at this point" is quite small, and usually pretty high up the food chain. I'm not going to lie, this is not an easy industry to break into, and you're aiming for the smallest target. *Lots* of people want to design games, and not that many people actually get to do it. So you usually need serious talent and/or previous experience to get such a job at an established studio, even for something like "Associate Producer".

So what do you do? A game design degree from Digipen or another game focused school certainly wouldn't hurt if you *really* want to spend that kind of time and money, but I wouldn't. Instead, if you are able to design and program your own game with your current skills, you should. Just don't overcommit yourself. Shoot for Flash, say, or maybe the iPhone if you think you can handle that. If this is just for portfolio work, you don't necessarily need other artists, but it might not hurt if you can find someone to handle graphics or audio for you to add professional polish.

You may also want to apply at smaller or newer studios, if you haven't. Go for people who make casual or indie games rather than AAA console titles. You can also try to apply at the ground floor of QA tester and attempt to work your way up, though this is hardly a guaranteed method. Good luck.
posted by tau_ceti at 8:08 PM on June 16, 2011

Oh, and Narrative Priorities is completely right. Networking is huge, so having friends already in the industry will help considerably. It's how I got started, honestly. I would still get some real design work in a portfolio before leaning on them to get you interviews, but just knowing them will be a big leg up.
posted by tau_ceti at 8:10 PM on June 16, 2011

Thanks- This jives with a lot of the other advice I've gotten.

My college degree was in English and Philosophy. I worked in Marketing for awhile, then taught English at a Korean elementary school. Now I'm trying to break into this.

My current plan was to work on 3 concepts I'd done design docs for. My old roommate is a somewhat established illustrator and so we talked over some ideas and he's agreed to work with me. The idea was to do all 3 in Flash (One is large-ish and more ambitious, one is much shorter and sort of designed to be executable in a GameJam) and then port one to the iPhone so I could get my bearings in Objective C/Unity. I know that's ambitious and I'm not expecting to be entirely successful, but I'd like to have at least one finished, polished project.

So my best bet is to get to conferences/GameJams/whatevers, make some friends and have a portfolio ready?
posted by GilloD at 8:22 PM on June 16, 2011

Designers tend to be all over the place for how they got in and what they did previously. What works for one person won't necessarily work for others. Pretty much all of them "designed" something game-related before entering, or already worked at a game company (artist, programming, QA, production, etc) and crossed disciplines.

Starting in September I'll have a whole year off and a bundle in savings. Is it best spent trying to pump out a few games?
Yes! You should! You really, really should! If you have a portfolio of games you made, you're, like, 80% of the way there (provided the games work and have a baseline of quality). You don't need to make games from scratch - spend your time designing, not programming. Lots of people come in from the modding/mapping community (options are stuff like Portal 2, Fallout 3, Unreal, Starcraft, etc). About half my portfolio of work is still mods and maps I made a few years ago.

Should I be resume bombing studios looking for internships?
Maybe... lots of internships that aren't given to students are exploitative, though. Be wary and check the company's reputation.

Is it worth it to put in time in QA or is that a dead end?
Coming in through QA is still common, but most QA spots are at publishers - who do not have a design department. If you look into QA, make sure it's a job at a developer.

But if you can already program (assuming that's your degree), then I'd recommend working on a portfolio, maybe looking for a non-scammy internship for part of the year, and then applying directly to design positions.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 8:25 PM on June 16, 2011

Coming in through QA is still common, but most QA spots are at publishers - who do not have a design department. If you look into QA, make sure it's a job at a developer.

This is only partly true. The #1 way to get a job in the game industry is to already have had a job in the game industry. Seriously, getting your foot in the door should be priority number one, particularly if you have enough savings to take a poorly-paid QA or CS position for a while. You'll get a chance to meet people, get an idea of how the industry works, meet people, get an absurdly valuable resume point, and did I mention the meeting of the people?

It's probably more a flaw of the industry than anything, but we'd rather hire the dude that we know and have worked with with than the unknown who has a DIY portfolio, for design positions in particular. Everyone wants to be a designer. The person who understands what kind of bugs get prioritized is worth two or three hopefuls who've taught themselves Flash.

If you can bang out some indy projects, fantastic. But don't turn down an actual industry job if you have the remotest chance at one.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:37 PM on June 16, 2011

(I should qualify that the above is based on my experience in the industry on the US side, although I did work at a Korean company. The culture may be different in Seoul. I kind of don't think it is, but I would definitely defer to people who have worked over there specifically.)
posted by restless_nomad at 8:47 PM on June 16, 2011

I got into it by launching games on facebook. That ship has sort of sailed but man was it easy to just bring in boatloads of cash.

I think your best bet if you aren't already a 1 stop shop for doing design, programming, graphics, etc is to try to get any position at a gaming company and work from within. Get your networking hat on.
posted by zephyr_words at 8:58 PM on June 16, 2011

The #1 way to get a job in the game industry is to already have had a job in the game industry.

That's very true. I'll admit I'm biased because the first company I worked for hired almost all their designers from scratch (modding/board game design/journalism/fresh graduates), and that had a large impression on me.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 9:28 PM on June 16, 2011

The #1 way to get a job in the game industry is to already have had a job in the game industry.

And the best way to get a job in the games industry is to make one for yourself. Pump out those games. Get at least 3 playable demos out there. Spend a little of your savings hiring a real artist (You can get better/cheaper contract artists on vs craigslist) and maybe even hire someone else to do the bulk of the programming.

Once you have your 3 playable demos, network like a crazy mofo. Go to GDC and don't sleep. Go to any other conference you can. Eat, breathe, sleep, blog and tweet game design. Call up/email designers and senior developers and offer to take them to lunch. (It's amazing how often that works.) Game companies cross-pollinate like crazy to talk to people at companies you don't want to work for because they know someone at the company you do want to work for.

Do not QA. It's the slowest, hardest way into the industry from the sphincter end. Game Designers don't come from that end, they come from much nearer the top. Besides there are a growing number of trained graduates flooding into the jobs just above QA that is making advancement off that floor difficult.
posted by Ookseer at 10:11 PM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

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posted by TrinsicWS at 1:51 AM on June 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yes make games. Make games that people go crazy over and can't get enough of, that get you talked about, that get people talking, that go legitimately viral.

But like first novels and first screenplays, you may need to make a few/bunch that are only for your mom to before it all clicks. If your limit is 'a year', it may not be your true passion.
posted by sammyo at 4:08 AM on June 17, 2011

Chiming in to agree with everyone else.

The single best way to get into a game design job is to first design indie games so you have a portfolio proving you have the chops. If you're lucky, you might even make some cash at it.

And play lots of games to hone your craft: Not just the games you're personally interested in, but shooter games, strategy games, Facebook games, hidden object games, art games, games for kids, online slot machines, board games, sports. Take them apart in your head until you understand how they work and why. Think about how changing the rules, context, or atmospherics might have made for a better or worse game.

Warning: This is likely to permanently harm your enjoyment of games; you'll be less able to look past bad design. One of the hazards of the trade.

It can also help to get involved with the game design community to form personal connections. Go to GDC. Apply to Indiecade or Come Out and Play. Join in conversations on Twitter, at the IGDA, on the Escapist, maybe at Gameful. Think about it... If you were hiring a junior game designer, and you had the choice of two people with equal portfolios, would you hire the one you'd never heard of or the one you had a nice chat with in the coffee line at your last conference?
posted by Andrhia at 6:12 AM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Game dev dudette here. Ahem.

Don't go back for more school. I see a lot of applicants who went through special game dev programs or went to game dev schools and while it doesn't hurt them, it certainly doesn't help them as much as you might think.

As a person who does a lot of hiring for almost all roles in game development, I am looking for:

* If you're a game designer - a healthy and positive passion for games. Note the terms "healthy and positive." I want to hear about your enthusiasm for great games you've played recently and long in the past, and your ability to find the good stuff in a pile of samey same stuff. I want to hear about the non-digital games you play or have played. I want to hear about the little games you make up with yourself and with your friends.

* Someone who can speak well and with authority on their preferred aspect of the industry. This means that they have hands-on experience, either professionally or as a hobby, doing something very close to what they're interviewing for. I like to see that they've read some of the books out there, have been keeping up to date with the internet wisdom on the subject as well.

* Someone who brings a really positive and team-focused attitude. I am not looking for crusaders who think they alone can solve a problem and that their way of doing things is the best way. I want someone who is truly confident and laid back and has a can-do attitude. Not a pushover, mind you - but someone who knows when to voice their concern and when to just put their head down and get it done. This industry can attract a lot of misanthropes!

* Problem solving skills. Whatever role you're in, I'm going to ask you a lot of questions to suss out your problem solving skills. I want to know about times you hit a wall and how you prevailed. If you can speak to how you solved a problem with a team, all the better. If you can speak to how you devised a solution, communicated it, got buy-in for that solution and that solution was successful, A+.

*Ability to see beyond the challenges and communicate your vision. If I'm hiring a game designer, I want to know that they can consistently present a vision that people can understand. Can you stand something up quickly in a prototype way, or make a storyboard, or a flow chart that will make absolutely anybody, left brained, right brained understand what you're trying to do? Then I want you on my team.

I can't really tell you how you personally can work on these skills or how you can best demonstrate them. I do think that getting to know a lot of different types of developers, making friends with them, and working on real stuff with them is a good first step. Making a level using UE3 is a really good idea. Working with some artists and sound designers and engineers is a great idea. If you really want to work for a studio I'd suggest working on a mod with some friends before making a facebook game. But there's nothing stopping you from doing both of those things if you're planning on taking a year off!
posted by pazazygeek at 9:10 AM on June 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah, what pazazygeek said. I'm a girl too. We're definitely not all dudes.
posted by Andrhia at 10:47 AM on June 17, 2011

You can also read Brenda Brathwaite's book on the subject that contains interviews with people who've successfully done what you want to do.
posted by clicking the 'Post Comment' button at 12:28 PM on June 17, 2011

Ex-game coder here, so I'm probably a little out of the loop but just backing up what everyone else said.

Do some maps, mods or an indie title or two, so you gain experience, make mistakes, learn from them and you'll get a portfolio in the process but make sure you finish things, starting projects is easy, lots of people can do that, that last 20% of a project can be very tough, showing you can deal with that helps set you apart from everyone else.

Blog/tweet about game design, network, it'll take time, as you have friends in the business that'll help. QA mostly leads to producer jobs, so if you don't want to go down that route avoid
posted by Z303 at 4:18 PM on June 17, 2011

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