I am woman, hear me game
June 14, 2007 6:49 PM   Subscribe

I'm a well-educated woman dead-set on creating a career in the game industry. Advice please!

I graduated with a BA in Studio Art/Art History from Colgate in '02, and have spent most of the subsequent years working in T.V. Production/Post Production. I recently had an epiphany that my passion for games was not a hobby, but rather the career path that I wish to spend my life on. I'm trained and experienced in editing and production, and have spent the last few months researching the industry and taking classes in Maya. I'm making contacts in the industry, but I'm wondering what I should have to show them, etc. If I'm applying for a production job, should I have a portfolio? For a design job? What kinds of things will best display my abilities? I want to make a life pursuit out of this, and I don't want to mess it up by not knowing the lay of the land. Please advise.
posted by Hyzenthlay to Work & Money (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Congrats on making this decision! The game industry needs more women! You sound like you're really focused and are heading in the right direction.

The first thing that I would recommend is signing up for IGDA's Women In Game Development email discussion list. There are a lot of really talented and experienced game development professionals on that list, both male and female.

Secondly, do you know what kind of games you'd like to make, or are you just looking to break into the industry any way you can? Are you more interested in game design or production? Do you have a good understanding of the different disciplines? Both game design and production job descriptions can vary wildly from company to company.

For example, if you're interested in FPS games, and you'd like to be a level designer, it would be very worth your while to spend some time designing a game level for an existing game, using the tools that have been released to the community. I won't go into specifics on this here, in case it's old news to you, but if you'd like a little help on this front, my email's in my profile.

If you're interested in designing games from the ground up (i.e. coming up with a concept, then designing it through to the nitty gritty details, then working with a team to implement it), you would be well served coming up with some ideas, thinking through the specifics, and then writing a design doc for it -- even something high level that shows that you grasp what it takes to think through a game design, and can write up its requirements well enough that someone can grasp the concept and envision how it would work.

If you're interested in game production (which I would say it sounds like you're the most suited to, given your experience to date), a portfolio in and of itself is probably not going to be very useful. But it would be useful to prepare some sample documentation. In your current job, do you write production schedules? Status reports? Can you put something together that's generic that shows how you manage the day to day life of a creative project? Those sorts of things are really incredibly useful.

Good luck to you! Feel free to email me if you'd like some more specific advice.
posted by pazazygeek at 7:16 PM on June 14, 2007

The first step is determining exactly where you fit into the classic "disciplines" of game development:

Public Relations
Community Relations

Each of these disciplines will have sub-disciplines, too (for example, environmental artists vs. character artists; technical animators that specialize in rigging; modellers vs. effects artists).

You need to educate yourself on how the game industry is stratified. For example, "production" for television is often similar to the games industry, but it is not the same thing (your question about a producer needing a portfolio betrays your misunderstanding). For example, you say you have production experience, but are taking Maya classes. Those are two completely different disciplines.

You need to figure out what you want to do in games, now that you have decided to be in games.

The good news is, it's easier than you think, and there are lots of resources to help you. Here's an excellent recent article with several resources and good advice.
posted by frogan at 9:16 PM on June 14, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all your advice, Pazazy. Yep, I am already a member of the IGDA and am signed up for the Women in Game Dev email list (as well as the NYC one). I sent an introductory email out about a month ago and received some great advice. I also just signed onto WIGI's mentoring group, although I haven't quite figured out how that works yet!

As far as the type of game I'd like to work on, well, I'm pretty flexible on that score. My favorite genres are action, adventure, rpg and fps but I am also intrigued by serious/educational games. Of course right now I'm mainly concerned with getting IN to the industry.

As you suggest, I'm also learning how to mod games, starting with Oblivion and hopefully moving on to Half Life or something similar. I'm also playing around with creating simple games using a great little program called Game Maker. I'm eventually hoping to get some basic scripting experience as well.

Like most, I'd love to be a designer but I recognize that I've got a lot of work to do before I get to that level. My previous experience in production would suggest that as a good place to start. However, I'm wary of being pigeon-holed into a purely administrative role. I ran into that problem in my TV career and had to fight my way into a more creative role so I can probably do that again if necessary (would rather not have to, of course).

I am curious as to what your role is in the industry? Also, what drew you to games as a career?
posted by Hyzenthlay at 9:20 PM on June 14, 2007

Response by poster: Oh and theRussian, good to see another Colgate grad round these parts! I envy you for the Film & Media minor. They didn't have that when I was there! Instead, I studied video art with the wonderful Professor Knecht.
posted by Hyzenthlay at 9:26 PM on June 14, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for that link Frogan. Very helpful. And don't worry, I am well informed on the various disciplines. I just haven't made up my mind yet as to which I want to pursue. My interests/skills are varied and so I'm trying a bit of everything right now.
posted by Hyzenthlay at 9:29 PM on June 14, 2007

Yeah, it sounds like you're off to a really excellent start!

You're not wrong to be concerned with being perceived as purely a "bean counter" and a non-creative, if you go into production. I've had that problem myself. I'm a producer, but I've also been the lead game designer and game designer on a few titles, and it took me quite a bit of wrangling to be able to get that role after starting in production.

Of course, at the end of the day, I realized that I really am much more of a tactical/planning sorta gal, I don't really work well creatively under pressure, and I am a much better producer (with a focus on game design, since I have that experience).

A lot of it comes down to what you're willing to sacrifice in order to get where you want to be. It took me a lot longer to get into game design, because I wasn't really willing to scrap my previous production experience (and the salary that comes with having previous experience) and start out with an entry level position as a level designer -- in retrospect, that was a good move for me, because I prefer production to game design, but if you really feel like that is where you want to be, you might consider going that route.

Getting some scripting experience would be really good. I do believe that the game industry is only most like the movie/television industry in the sense that when a company is putting a team for a game together, they will pick from a pool of people who seem to have the very most relevant experience, from a creative standpoint. While it is very good to diversify, you would be best served by really picking one or two genres that you're most interested in, and really formulating as much of a competency as you can with them, and then applying to companies where that experience and knowledge is the most applicable. If I am working on a fantasy RPG, I'm probably not going to look at resumes of folks who have zero experience with the genre unless I'm really desperate for resources, and someone with a lot of fantasy RPG experience is going to go to the top of the pile. I'm sure it stands to reason!

Also, don't neglect the power of the artfully worded cover letter. Almost all of the jobs that I've gotten have come from my ability to spin my experience in a cover letter that explains why I am uniquely suited to the project that the company is working on.

Keep making contacts, as well, getting interviews and jobs in this industry is very based on word of mouth and recommendations from people who already work for the company.

I have been in the industry since about '98, it was easier to get in then, I suspect, because it was smaller. Although I have always been a pretty passionate gamer, I was drawn to it as a career because I love the cerebral nature of making games. It's creative but it's also very scientific and requires a lot of logical thinking and creative problem solving.

Finally, some people may suggest starting from the ground up in QA, and while there are still some companies where that is almost a requirement (I've found that a lot of game companies are very married to the whole "pay your dues" sort of mindset, much like the film industry); however, that's not completely necessary anymore. I think you're much more likely to get hired into production from QA than into just about any other role.

Also, I don't know where you're located, but if you're not living in an area where there are a decent amount of development studios, that could be difficult. Relocation is very common in this industry, but almost never happens for entry level positions.

Keep on keepin' on! It sounds to me like you're completely on the right path. Just keep your focus and don't give up!
posted by pazazygeek at 9:45 PM on June 14, 2007

GameDevMap is a good way to find companies in your area. It's good at including smaller companies as well as the large ones.

I'm a programmer myself, so don't know the specifics of what should be in your portfolio. It is definitely a big plus to show that you work on things in your spare time and have something to show for it. Pazazygeek is correct and having a good cover letter helps. A proper resume and basic knowledge of the company is as important as it would be applying for any other job.

For artists, I know it's important to show that you can work under a budget. Showing your best work is great, but you should also show that you can create models with low poly counts and texture sizes. Even if you end up making PS3 or 360 games, memory is always at a premium. The same thing more or less applies to anything you might make in Maya.

If you're aiming for game designer or level designer, learning a scripting language is a great idea. A lot of games are using Lua these days, but they're all pretty similar. Just showing you understand variables, functions and simple loops are enough for most designer roles. As far as Maya goes, people that know MEL script are always appreciated.

Finally, a lot of Producers / Game Designers end up coming from the QA departments of companies. Think long and hard before you decide to go this route. QA is a thankless job with low pay and tough hours and lots of them don't end up becoming producers. In my opinion you would be better off doing what you're doing now, learning skills at home, having a much better day job, and trying to join a company directly as a designer.
posted by Gary at 10:37 PM on June 14, 2007

To clarify, for some genres you don't need to know a scripting language at all to be a game designer. But for others it helps in mission design, AI design and other areas. Learning to put up with a lot of crappy tuning systems built by programmers is also a big plus, but I'm not sure how you could convey that in an interview. :)

In general, game designer is a hard role to define because it varies between companies and between genres. But if you can show you have a strong skill set and are willing to start out in level design or a more junior role, you should be fine.
posted by Gary at 11:02 PM on June 14, 2007

This may not be what you're looking for, but if you like your languages you may also want to consider a career in localization. It's not one of the 'classic' game dev disciplines, but we do exist, I swear.

Best of luck!
posted by doctorpiorno at 1:28 AM on June 15, 2007

Since nobody has mentioned it yet, start reading the job openings and other news items on Gamasutra if you don't already. And seconding the advice to be ready to relocate, particularly if you want to go into production or design. These jobs tend to be harder to get, though for different reasons. Production because there are comparatively fewer of those jobs and design because more people want to go into that (or think they do). Unless you already live in Southern California, the Bay Area, Seattle, or a few other places like Austin or Montreal, there usually aren't enough game studios in a given area to sustain a career in the industry without moving.

One point about production: not all producers are relegated to being strategic bean counters. To be sure, scheduling and planning are always a big part of the job, but the title "producer" in the game industry varies greatly in each company. Some places, producers are pretty straightforward project managers with little to no creative input. Other places, producers work closely with art, design, and programming to figure out the how as much as the when of development. when you interview, be sure to get a good sense of which kind of position you're applying for.

Re: being a designer. Again, be sure what you're signing on for. Depending on the size of the studio, design jobs generally fall into three camps: content, systems, and technical. Content designers do things like design missions or come up with story ideas, systems designers do things like implement gameplay systems or hone simulation, and technical designers work closely with programming on tools and other "beneath the hood" factors. Whichever position a designer falls under, it's not all blue sky "wouldn't it be cool" style design work. For every conversation cooking up a cool gameplay mechanic, there are many more about how to make that mechanic fit within the art and programming constraints and under the production schedule, and then there's the time spent building it.

Final word of advice: start applying now! If you want to go the production rout, with 4-5 years in TV production you might already have enough experience to land an entry level job as a producer. People tend to move around within the disciplines in game dev (though the advice about moving out of QA being tough sometimes is sound), so if production ends up not being your bag, you might be able to parlay it into a design job. You might also want to look at the Game Developer salary survey to get a sense of how the disciplines are paid comparatively. There are significant differences between what a programmer, artist, producer, designer, etc., can hope to make over the course of their career.
posted by ga$money at 7:50 AM on June 15, 2007

Response by poster: Wow everyone, thanks for the advice. You raise some very interesting points. The relocation issue is definitely a big one. I currently live in NYC and while there are several companies here (thanks for the GameDevMap link, Gary!), it's still a pretty tiny group compared with the West Coast. And while I wouldn't rule out moving west, most of my family lives in England, so I'm hoping to keep to the east coast or even work over in the UK. As far as the Production vs. Design issue, luckily I don't have any pressing need to choose one or the other at the moment. Of course, if an opportunity arises in production I'll probably take it to get some concrete industry experience. Otherwise I'll keep chugging along and develop a portfolio to showcase my design skills. Thanks again for the help. If any of you are going to the GDC in Austin this September, let me know! Perhaps we can have a little impromptu Mefi gathering. :)
posted by Hyzenthlay at 10:54 AM on June 15, 2007

My interests/skills are varied and so I'm trying a bit of everything right now.

All well and good, but realize that at the end of the day, if you're going for an animation position, we couldn't care less about your television editing experience -- the only question we want an answer to is your capability to animate.

Let's say skill is a 10 point scale. If you have Designer Level 5 skills and Animator Level 3 skills, that doesn't equal Level 8 talent (or 6, or 7) in anything.

I can't tell you the number of times I've interviewed guys that think a poorly rigged character model is evidence they're going to be a great level designer...

There's only very limited opportunity for the jack of all trades, master of none -- they're generally called "producers" and they don't get to animate or build levels, trust me. It behooves you to have a grasp on how the different disciplines interrelate and where you fit in.

Try lots of things. Figure out what you like. Then go do that. Don't burn too much time wondering, or you will be wasting time that could've been spent attaining a mastery level that will really propel you.
posted by frogan at 6:39 PM on June 16, 2007

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