Getting a job in the game business is not easy; however, with preparation in the right areas, being a top candidate is something you can achieve.
Here's the challenge. The CMP Game Group's Game Developer Research division has revealed in its recent census that the number of people working within video game development and publishing in North America is nearly 40,000. With many new education programs throughout the United States, there are thousands of graduates looking for entry-level opportunities while relatively few new openings exist. As a result, game studios and publishers are now facing a daily avalanche of resumes, demos, reels, and others types of submissions seeking these coveted spots.
Getting an initial job in Quality Assurance (QA) is what many people recommend with respect to getting a foot in the door in this field. Forget starting out in QA if you don't really have any special skills or interest in that area. If you want to start a career in the industry as a designer, story builder, artist, composer, producer, production technician, production assistant, or programmer, you are going to have to do things at a much higher level than those competing for those same entry level spots throughout the industry. In my research and discussion with employers in my role as a professor at a new digital arts school in Chicago called Flashpoint Academy, I found a distinct and consistent thread that is guiding what we're doing in making a new breed of digital artists in the fields of game development, visual effects and animation, film, and the recording arts.
Here's our school's general breakdown of what it takes to be a top entry-level candidate for the game industry.
If you can demonstrate by concrete example that you are dependable, trustworthy, a team player, and an excellent communicator, and that you are willing and eager to learn and do the hard work and drudgery that is required to complete assignments accurately and on time, this will really increase your value to a potential employer. You can actually learn these skills by working with professionals who mentor you along the way; the traits and behaviors I mentioned sound obvious and easy, but it is what you learn after you know everything that really counts. In school you can learn all of the tools of the trade, but, in most schools, you can't learn in the classroom what most people traditionally learn through accident and trial and error when they are lucky enough to survive their first big breaks. And your potential employer will value this - they don't want to suffer through your terrible twos. At Flashpoint we integrate professional productions and projects into the classroom and we take students out of the classroom to bring them real world opportunities to work side-by-side with and for professionals in their field of choice.
Do you really love games? Do you really have a passion for this business? Having passion means that you have an internal pilot light that is ready to ignite your soul at a moment's notice when it comes to this area of your life. It is a powerful energizer that will give you the ability to innovate, create, and commit yourself personally to the long hours and sacrifices required in this line of very challenging work. It is amazing how many people show up but fail to be excited or proud or happy about what they are doing. Not everyone can be a Steve Irwin in this world, but we can in fact ignite our passions and share them with others in a positive way.
An Online Portfolio
Use the tools of the information age to tell your story; all you need to start is a weblink. Every potential employer can more effectively promote your "credentials" and what you have to offer decision makers by forwarding simple links to various staff members, HR departments, managers, business owners and so on. Create this website yourself, and make sure it is simple to navigate. Test it out! Present only your very best work. Leave your learning exercises off of the site. Favor quality over quantity. Buy your own URL too, since that is easy enough to do and cheap enough these days. You are worth it! And keep your site up to date when you are working with material that you can share even from work. This is your digital life story. At a moment's notice you never know when a new opportunity can come to you through the web.
Just because you haven't had an internship doesn't mean you can't get real experience out there. If you are a student and you are in a program with no curriculum to support team or group projects which result in valuable demonstrated results that you can share in your portfolio, get together with some other passionate people and make your own work experience. Create your own game dev team with like-minded people; join the modding community; do some highly creative indie work that demonstrates your passion and makes a great addition to a compelling portfolio; work in teams; and work with other people in diverse settings. Today's games are made sometimes in teams comprising of over a hundred people! At Flashpoint we have an in-school publishing and development studio, and this provides great experience for students before graduation since the work completed is really not just another student project - it is made in conjunction with professionals and the industry.
Know your tools. Know the technology. Know the industry and its history and the business. Know the players. Understand not only the facts, but the concepts, patterns and trends. Be a smart contributor -- not just a button pusher. Hey, and don't forget to know your hardware! Even if you think that you have no business knowing anything about programming because you are in marketing, guess again: your exposure to the technical details will empower you in incredible ways and allow you to effectively communicate with and understand the hardcore geek talk in a much more reasonable manner. At Flashoint we give all of our incoming game developers lots of general training in this highly complex field before they focus on their specific area of interest.
Make creative problem solving a central tool at your disposal. This is a serious skill that requires a lot of work to develop and demonstrate to employers. It's such a valuable skill because the game business and technology behind it is constantly changing. There are very few cookie cutter projects or even game studios out there. The business pushes the limits of everything and everyone in every aspect of how it operates. This requires that the people who are the producers and creators must constantly adapt to changing goals and technologies like no other business or industry in existence. To succeed in this environment, you must be able to solve new problems every single day.
You need a certain level of talent and skill in your area of interest and focus and you need to demonstrate this in your online portfolio. This "talent" can be learned. And really what this means is that you are outstanding at what you do if not a bit original. And here's a helpful hint: Be wary of people who tell you that everything you do is great. Go to a wide range of people who give you some negative feedback. Learn from it. Don't take it personally, and try again. Look to find mentors out there who will give you this honest feedback when you are preparing work to share with the rest of the world. This will only serve to help train and improve your own sensibility.
So to sum up what I have laid out in terms of how to really get a job in the game industry, this is the formula: you need to have talent, problem-solving skills, domain expertise, experience, an online portfolio, passion, and professionalism. With this set of qualities and abilities, you will be a very valuable member to any team in any capacity. Flashpoint prepares students looking to start a career in this industry by building a framework for these things, which you can see may or may not directly relate to how to write a line of code or construct a model in some specific software or program.
My final comment and word of advice is that a key thing to do for your career is to revisit this list once you are in the door. Constant revision, improvement and hard work in all of these areas will elevate your position and open more opportunities once you are in the thick of things in this very demanding and competitive field. It won't take forever. There's room at the top. It may be lonesome but at least it's not crowded.
Simeon Peebler is Department Chair of Game Development at Flashpoint Academy in Chicago at https://www.flashpointacademy.com. He has over a dozen years in the game industry working as a programmer and designer for such companies as Imagination Pilots Entertainment, FASA Interactive, totalPlay, Jellyvision, Brain Block Interactive, and itoons. He has also worked as a senior software engineer in the trading technology business.