Does the video game industry seem like a black box, with no way to break inside? All you need is a foot in the door, but how do you get it to open in the first place?
You can get into game development. All you need is a solid strategy.
But it’s time to stop searching for “the right way,” because there’s no one “right way.” Instead, there are many ways to get your first job at a game studio. To discover the best strategies, it takes an understanding of how the current batch of professional game developers started out.
Here are 10 strategies you can use to break into your first job at a video game studio, along with examples of pro developers that have done it. It worked for them, and it can work for you.
1. Post your work on discussion boards
If you’re an aspiring game developer, you might spend a lot of time lurking around discussion boards and soaking up as much knowledge as you can. But you know who else reads those discussion boards? Professional game developers do.
That’s why it’s a perfect way to get your work seen by game studios, which can help you build industry connections and could even lead to a job offer.
Caleb Parrish is a Game Art Director, but he didn’t start out that way – he was an unemployed artist trying to land his first game job, and spent his time posting his work on discussion forums. Caleb explained, “Early on, I would post a lot of the work I was doing on forums like CGchat.com (now GameArtisans.org) or Polycount.org. Eventually I got good enough that someone noticed and offered me a job.”
Stop lurking, and start posting. Engage with the other participants on the boards, many of which are professional game developers looking to hire somebody new. You might just end up with your first job in games.
2. Start a gaming blog
If you’re gunning for a job writing about games or running a gaming community, the best way to get started might be to just… start.
Jason Van Beveren was working a typical corporate job when he realized that what he really wanted was a job in games. “I started writing an online gaming blog. I had hopes that I’d catch someone’s eye. I also wanted to know if I was any good at it. It only took a month before I was noticed by Parris Lilly, who asked me to run a gaming website he was co-managing.”
Just a few years later, Jason is now Head of Player Experience at a game studio. Where could you be in a few years, if you get started now?
3. Build your own indie games
I’m constantly asked the question, “How can I get experience making games, when game studios won’t even hire me unless I have experience?” Well the answer is simple: Make a game, and then – voila! – now you have some experience.
Dan Posluns programmed little games for his Apple IIc and his TI-85 calculator, and kept making indie games until he was noticed by an established game studio. He told us, “I actually spent some time working on websites before being pursued and ultimately recruited by a game company. They had noticed my homebrew Gameboy Advance work online, and got in touch to offer me a job interview.”
There are more, better, free game dev tools available now than ever before. Dan created his first indie games on a calculator! With everything that’s available for you to download and start creating video games today, you’re officially out of excuses.
4. Get an entry-level job as a Game Tester
Of all the jobs in the game industry, the job of Game Tester is the easiest to get. Why? Partly because most testing jobs don’t require a college degree or other specialized training, so anybody can apply. But also because many game testers eventually move into other jobs on the game team, so there’s always room for new testers to fill in the vacancies.
Merric Shank started out as a game tester: “A few years and a few companies later, I was still in QA. But I made sure that my boss knew I was interested in learning more about production and that I was eager for more responsibility. After a while, I was given the opportunity to help out on a game – and after a successful trial run I was promoted to Associate Producer.”
Kelly Toyama, now a Senior Game Designer, also started out as a game tester – but he didn’t let that job title stop him from contributing to design on his game team, and that caught the eye of his bosses. He says, “I started in QA but design has always been my passion. Game design is a funny thing: Just because you have the title doesn’t mean you can do it, and not having the title shouldn’t stop you.”
The game industry is full of programmers, artists, designers and others that started out as entry-level video game testers. The thing is, once you have your foot in the door, it’s easy to learn more about game development and how a game studio works from the inside out. You make connections, you learn, and you grow. From there, the opportunities are yours to take ’em or leave ’em.
5. Get an internship at a video game studio
If you have a skill that can be used in game development such as programming, art, or sound design, you might be able to get a job at a game studio even if you’ve never built an actual game. Not every studio has an “official” game developer internship program, but most are open to the idea of a part-time, temporary, inexpensive (or free) worker that could help them finish their game.
Jaclyn Shumate got her start as a game audio intern. She says, “I was curious about audio engineering so I signed up for some classes… and I fell in love with it. I looked around for internships at game company startups, which seemed like the most interesting avenue to explore for me, and was fortunate enough to find one. That was eight years ago. I’ve been happily employed in many different roles in game audio ever since.”
You want a job in games, and game studios want inexpensive workers. Get in touch with a game studio near your home and find out if they have an internship – it might just be a perfect match.
6. Get a video-game related college degree
Mandi Grant got a Bachelor’s Degree in Game Art & Design, and was recruited directly out of school to work at a game studio. She went on to ship several major titles as a Designer and Lead Designer.
But she says simply having a degree isn’t enough: “Crafting an experience requires critically looking at your own work and improving it. You have to step into the role of a new player over and over again, even as you yourself become very familiar with the level you’re building.”
7. Get a traditional college degree
If you browse the job postings from various game studios, you’ll notice that many of them say “Bachelor’s Degree required” – but they don’t specify which Bachelor’s Degree. In most cases, it doesn’t have to be a game-related degree, as long as you’ve learned skills that can be applied to game development.
Brandon Fogerty got his Master’s Degree in Computer Science, and worked as a programmer at non-game software companies until he landed his first job making video games. The key is to always be growing: “Technology is always changing and improving. I believe engineers should always be learning, and willing to push themselves outside of their technical sphere.”
Nathaniel Hubbell is now a Video Game Special Effects Artist, but he started with a traditional art degree focusing on animation for film. He transitioned to a game job by leveraging his professional network: “I went to school for animation, making several of my own short films. Through some connections I found a job in the game industry. There I started off doing character animation, but because I also had a general background in 3D art I often helped out with the effects as well. After a while, my supervisors approached me about doing effects full-time.”
If you’re skeptical, take a look at all the different degrees that could get you a job in game design. Game Designer education requirements are as diverse as game designers themselves.
8. Get a job at a gaming studio in a non-gamedev position
It takes a variety of jobs to operate a successful game studio, and many of those jobs aren’t directly involved with making the game. Even if you’ve never made a video game, you could still apply for jobs at game studios in non-development roles such as information technology, tools development, or other support staff.
Brian Gish was working as a database engineer when he landed his first job at a game studio in a non-gamedev role. “I had just been laid off from my first job out of college at a database/computer backup reporting software company. A recruiter contacted me about a testing tools contract position at Microsoft Gaming Studio working on Fable 2. I had always wanted to work in the games industry so it was a dream come true! Since I had my foot in the door at that point, I was able to get a job at Sony Online Entertainment as a tools programmer after my contract ended.”
Frank Rogan was on a path to become a website designer, and one of his jobs took him to a game studio to design their website. Once his foot was in the door, he started helping out with game design – and the rest is history. “I realized I was the game designer that was really wrangling the work of the other game designers, and they call that person a Producer.”
Smaller game studios don’t have as much support staff, so focus on the larger studios and game publishers if you want to pursue this strategy. The bigger the studio, the more support jobs there will be for you to target.
9. Participate in game jams
I’ve heard anecdotes about people getting job offers after making something cool in a game jam but, personally, I’ve only met one person so far who successfully followed this path.
I’m including it here because I do think it’s possible – it does make sense. After you do a game jam you’ll have something for your portfolio, you’ll have developed some skill working with a team under pressure, and you will have expanded your professional network by meeting new people – many of whom might be professional game developers that could help you get a job someday. I think it’s worth checking out, if game jams are your jam.
10. Make in-game apps
If working for a game company isn’t for you, there’s another way to earn a living in games on your own: build gaming apps that enhance popular multiplayer games.
Amit Tsur is a developer who single-handedly created the app Dota Plus, a successful Dota 2 app. So far, Dota Plus has nearly half a million downloads, and has earned Amit enough money to quit his job and do game app development full time.
Another example is Matt Hawkins, who built in-game apps for games like Apex Legends and Fortnite. He started by building just a single app, HaloTracker. It became so popular that he turned it into a full-time job and hired additional developers to build even more apps.
11. Be persistent, and don’t give up
Is “persistence” a strategy? Like most anything worthwhile in life, developing your skills and getting a job in the video game industry isn’t going to be easy. You might feel like you’re banging your head against the wall – you might get discouraged. We’ve all been there.
But nobody has felt it more than Tony Ravo. Today, Tony is a Lead Animator at a major game studio. But his first game job didn’t come easily – it came after many months and many rejections. Tony’s advice is this: “Those who get the jobs in the industry are those that keep working on their reel and keep applying even after those first rounds of rejection. I still have my Disney rejection letter, but I learned I needed to improve my life drawing skills so I worked on that. Each rejection I received motivated me to work harder until I was eventually able to get my foot in the door.”
It doesn’t feel great to have your job application turned down. But just remember that you have to fail before you can succeed – each rejection brings you another step closer to landing your first game job.
Image: Rachael Towne, flickr