Getting A Job In Game or Narrative Design: Pt. 1 – Preparing Yourself

This Series

Pt. 1 – Preparing Yourself

Pt. 2 – Your Resume, Website, and Application

Pt. 3 – Networking

Pt. 4 – Interviewing and Completing Design Tests

Pt. 5 – Turn That First Gig Into a Career!

Pt. 6 – Having Hard Conversations (Upcoming)

Note: These guides are provided for free because I don’t believe things like this should be behind a paywall. However, if you’d like to support me continuing to create content which helps people get hired, you can buy me a $3 coffee here.

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Intro

When I entered college nearly a decade ago, I had no clue what I was doing with my life. I knew I might want to be a game designer or a game writer, and I had written a bit of fanfiction and messed around with some basic Java — but beyond that, I wasn’t sure where to begin. How do you get hired in the game industry when you don’t know anyone who can get you a job, have never made a game before, and don’t have a clue how to get started?

For a couple years of college, I stumbled my way through applying to every game company I could find, for every design role I saw — even when I wasn’t remotely qualified. Eventually, I joined my college’s game dev club and made a couple of small games (after being too scared to join for over a year). That gave me the portfolio to apply for my first internship at Electronic Arts. That internship led to another, which led to multiple job offers, which led to a career…

But I never forgot that feeling: This process feels so scary and arbitrary. Many of my school friends who had their sights set on a game dev career — folks I thought were quite talented — never succeeded in breaking into the industry at all. Since then, I’ve spent years tracking and observing the way I and other game designers got hired. I’ve helped others improve their portfolios, resumes, and cover letters. I’ve both interviewed candidates for junior roles and occupied a number of them myself. And after years of seeing genuinely terrible advice shilled to younger people in vulnerable positions, I’ve decided to write a big guide in the hope of spreading this knowledge further. This process can seem inscrutable — like you’re throwing your resume into a dark void — but it doesn’t have to be.

To developers, I’m always open to modifying and expanding this guide. Please feel free to reach out with anything you’d like to see corrected or added.

Some Caveats

This Guide Is Aimed At A Specific Type Of Role And Studio

This guide will help you learn how to land a role as a designer or writer for a studio that’s bigger than about 20 or 30 people. In other words, if you’re looking how to apply to a company like Blizzard, Bethesda, Bioware (wow, lots of B’s..) or something of that scale, this guide can help. If you’re looking to work with a small, independent team, or land jobs in an industry where most studios are on the smaller side (e.g. Australia, most places in the US outside of a major tech hub), lots of things in this guide may not apply as much.

This guide is also heavily tailored to people looking for jobs within the US, because that’s my domain of expertise. If you’re outside the US, you might find this guide useful too, but I can’t make claims about the accuracy of this info applied anywhere else!

The Average Game Developer Career Lasts Less Than 5 Years

Citation.  That’s not a typo. This is not an easy or glorious career. Most people enter and leave disillusioned. For game designers and writers especially, pivoting to another career with better pay, stability and prospects is very difficult — but so is finding consistent work in the field. You will have to deal with companies ruthless about making a profit, with bosses or superiors who will exploit you, and often with coworkers who have big egos. Projects will change suddenly and dramatically, or be cancelled without notice altogether. You’ll have a stable job you love one day and be unemployed and sans health insurance the next. (It’s happened to me.) Today, this is what working in the field looks like. Is this really the life you want to pursue? It is a perfectly reasonable and respectable answer to say “no.” But even if you decide you do, always consider what you might do for a living as a fallback if you one day determine you no longer want to work in game development. There is no shame in having a backup career in mind; in fact, it’s a form of self-preservation in a crappy, ruthlessly-capitalist world.

There’s A Hard Mode For Some People

If you’re a woman, a person of color, LGBTQIA, non-gender-conforming, entering the industry later in life, a parent (especially a single parent), or disabled, this entire process is going to be more difficult for you. It’s not fair and it’s not right, but you should be prepared for the additional emotional tax you will need to pay. It is a very real burden, and while the climate is better at some companies and worse at others, discrimination is often inherent no matter what the employee handbook might say about your “rights.” Despite what you’re going to face in the coming years, the industry needs your voice. Please join us if you’re still excited to work in games, but keep careful tabs on your own health and well-being, and don’t be afraid to consider the backup plan mentioned above in case you end up needing a release valve.

The last entry in this series, “Having Hard Conversations,” will deal with the subject of raising conversations at work around bias, when/how to go to HR, and how to suss out the toxicity level of a studio before you accept an offer there.

Breaking In Is A Weighted (But Ultimately Random) Die Roll

There are no guarantees in the entertainment business, ever. You can do everything in this guide perfectly and still not find work. This guide will give you the best possible chance at breaking in. They say entertainment is about who you know, not what you know — and with games, to a large extent, that’s sadly still very true. However, building a good, strong portfolio will make you a candidate who stands out above the rest when your lucky moment comes — and it will help you to perform well in your first few gigs, get a stronger foothold, and improve more quickly.

First: What Kinds Of Games Do You Want to Make?

This will determine the kind of work you do, at least initially. What’s your style? What are your tastes? What do you love? What do you hate? Let that drive you.

Maybe small, personal games are your niche. Or maybe you want to make shooters. Or open-world games like Assassin’s Creed. Or fast-paced Metroidvanias with tight controls. Or… maybe you want to make short exploration games like Gone Home or story-heavy games like The Walking Dead.  Maybe you want to make altgames or games which use alternative input methods and hardware. Or maybe you want to make a kind of game which doesn’t exist yet and which I haven’t mentioned.

All of these are equally valid choices.

If you’re able to develop a strong creative taste and a talent for making interactive pieces in commonly-used industry tools, you’ll find someone who wants to hire you for what you do. In other words: even if what you want to work on isn’t the type of game which headlines E3, you’ll still be okay. The fundamental process of making a video game carries many universal similarities no matter what kind of game you’re making. That’s what we’ll cover here.

If you don’t already know what your “creative taste” looks like, then here’s an exercise to try:

  • Make a list of your top 10 favorite games of all time. What kinds of themes and interactions do they have in common? What is missing from all of them? How big are the teams which made these games? What decade were they made in? Were they console, PC, or handheld? What were some of the artistic inspirations for those games? (If you don’t know, Google it and see if you can find the developers talking about it — they often do!) What is some of the most common criticism levied at these games? (Again, if you don’t know, look it up!)
  • Make a list of your top 15-20 favorite pieces of art, ever. This can include movies, books, short stories, poems, sculptures, songs, paintings, YouTube videos, toys from your childhood, plays, tweets, records, items of clothing…  are there any themes which run throughout them? Who made your favorite things, and what kind of person/people were they? How were they made? That is, what was the process of making them like? (If you don’t know, look it up!) Why do you like them? What memories do you have about them? What are some of the most common criticisms levied at these works?
  • Make a list of qualities or things you think are important in the art you admire and in human beings you admire, including yourself. This can be things like “gentleness” or “clear force of will” or “anti-capitalist” or even “pink.” Take a minute to reflect. Why are they important to you? Why do you think they’re worth fighting for when it comes to making things which reflect those qualities?

What Kind of Designer Do You Want to Become?

At the entry level, odds are good you’re going to have the common junior title Design Intern/Associate Game Designer/Associate Narrative Designer. However, that won’t always necessarily be the case, and you should start to think now about what kinds of roles you enjoy. Are you the person who…

  • Enjoys figuring out where enemies will spawn, how they’ll attack the player, and what items the player has at their disposal to take enemies down? (Encounter Designer)
  • Enjoys motivating the player with gameplay-based reasons to do what they’re doing at every turn? (Quest Designer)
  • Enjoys both of the above things, but intermingled? (Content Designer)
  • Enjoys breaking down the way combat works at a deep level — what abilities the player has, how powerful they are, and how their weapons or abilities function? (Combat Designer)
  • Enjoys thinking about how players work together and oppose each other in online multiplayer games? (Multiplayer Designer)
  • Enjoys building a wider story context and communicating that via characters, VO, and dialogue, while making sure the player is always aware of the game’s larger plotline? (Narrative Designer)
  • Enjoys understanding and building the exact way mechanics function in code — making them feel “good”, tuning the feedback to the player, and understanding how they’re integrated with the rest of the codebase? (Technical Designer)
  • Enjoys understanding the decision-making process a player goes through when spending in-game currency over a long period of time, including the possible option to use real-world money to purchase goods in a game — and enjoys mapping out how that economy scales and changes over time with the player’s advancement? (Economy/Progression Designer)
  • Enjoys working on a smaller team at a smaller studio, and occupying a little of each of these roles — or some totally different skillsets not mentioned here? (Generalist Game Designer)

Caveat: Every single studio is slightly different. These roles might be slightly — or even dramatically — different in their scope or responsibility levels across multiple studios. At some studios, you might have a title for one of these roles but really be doing two of the above roles in a kind of hybrid fashion. This is common and totally normal. The above is just a general guideline meant to give you an idea of the kinds of roles which are possible!

Should You Major in Game Design?

In general, a college degree of some kind is now considered a “nice to have” for many or most entry-level game development roles at large studios (although there are exceptions). However, whether or not it’s worthwhile to attend a focused game design educational program depends on a lot of factors. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Are you considering a university with a reputation for being highly rigorous and well accredited? Many top-tier national, international, and state universities offer game development programs. All of the most popular “game dev” universities, such as USC, UCSC, Carnegie Mellon, SMU Guildhall, Drexel, RIT, Georgia Tech, the University of Utah, and a select few others offer a fantastic education regardless of the degree you select. (Note that this list is US focused – I don’t feel confident listing good institutions in other countries simply because I’m not aware of the educational landscape there.) If you attend one of these schools, even if you’re unable to find work in game development, you’ll have a solid education from a respected institution.

On the other hand, there are many game development programs offered by universities without good standing among their peers, without national accreditation (Google your prospective school to check) and/or for-profit businesses masquerading as universities. These kinds of institutions do not exist to help you get hired as a game developer. They are out to charge you a pile of money and then leave you without the proper skills to get hired. I have heard from many Art Institute graduates who regret that they spent money on an AI program which did nothing to meaningfully advance their shot at a job. Just because a school offers a ‘game design degree’ does not mean it’s worth your time or money. DigiPen is one prominent example of a for-profit program which has produced many successful graduates. Even so, students from this school have often reported their education to be overly narrow in hindsight, leaving them ill prepared for a career outside of the games industry. And students who weren’t able to complete their program at DigiPen for whatever reason suddenly discover that few other universities will accept the credits they completed there, leaving them with few backup options. Investigate any potential school thoroughly and talk to as many grads as you can from the program to get a full picture of the situation.

2. Can you major in something other than game development and take courses in game development as electives? In other words: What is your Plan B for your education? Most aspiring game designers do not find their first gig right at graduation. The majority will go on to spend the next 1-3 years of post-graduate life applying for game development roles until they’re able to find something. You may be one of the small percentage of graduates who get a job right away, but it’s extremely unwise to bet everything on this being the case. What will you do for a living if you can’t find work in game or narrative design? Major in that, if possible.

Additionally, game development is a highly volatile and layoff-prone industry. What will you do if you are unable to find work in design for a year or longer? How will you pay your rent? Pursuing a degree outside of game design will hopefully offer you some alternative skills to fall back on during dry times. Consider degrees which will give you relevant skills for making games, but are specialized in other ways — for example, computer science, graphic design, statistics, creative or professional writing, marketing, business, information sciences… there are many!

Many students have expressed a fear to me: “If I don’t get a degree in game design, will I be less competitive as an applicant?” The answer is absolutely not. Game companies regularly hire people with all kinds of degrees and backgrounds — in fact, I’ve heard from some companies that they even prefer not to hire game design graduates. As long as you can demonstrate a strong portfolio, which we’ll discuss later, you should be more than fine.

3. How many games would your prospective program have you make?

A good rule of thumb: a program worth paying for should require its students to work on multiple games throughout the program’s life cycle.This means an interactive, playable thing of some kind. Frequently, profit-driven programs are easy to spot because you may only make one game in four years as part of a senior capstone project, may never work on a single game at all, or the actual game-making courses are optional. Think about it: would you enter a writing program where you didn’t have to write? Or a fine arts program where you never had to complete a finished painting or sketch? Game programs are no different.

Ultimately, your hire-ability upon graduation will be judged by the number of playable things you have in your portfolio and the level of polish those things have attained. That’s it. No employer cares about seeing a paper game design document or a level design drawn out in graph paper. Those things are not often useful in a professional game development environment. If you’re going to spend the money on one of these specialized (and very, very expensive) programs, you should be emerging from said program with a body of work.

4. Who is teaching the courses?

Game design programs have become enormously profitable enterprises over the recent years, and many universities are opening such programs and staffing them very quickly to start charging students. In the process, many university programs employ professors who do not remain current in the industry and/or who do not have significant work experience under their belt, whether that’s games shipped, a body of critical/academic work, or something else. If a professor does not have many years of game-focused experience and/or does not have a list of recent contributions to the field (regardless of whether the titles are indie, academic projects/explorations, or AAA), be very wary.

Should You Move?

Here’s a semi-up-to-date list of game studios across the world. If you live outside a major metropolis and try to find nearby studios, you’ll probably notice there aren’t very many, and there tend to be many studios clustered up in big cities.

It is absolutely true that if you do not live in one of these big cities, you are going to find it very difficult to find work. Remote opportunities are extremely infrequent for designers and writers because supply (candidates) for these roles frequently outstrips demand, and because design is a role which is extremely integrated into every aspect of a project. If you are in a financial or life situation where you can move to one of these cities, it’s worth heavy consideration if you’re serious about finding work in games — not just because it will help you find your first role, but because when the studio you work for inevitably goes under or lays people off, you’ll hopefully be able to find new work much faster.

Most professional game developers spend the entirety of their career bouncing between these major hubs (in the US, it’s usually Seattle, San Francisco, and LA, sometimes Austin.) That’s not to say it’s impossible to find opportunities closer to wherever you live now, but be aware that if you’re applying to stuff and not hearing back (or not finding much to apply for), it may simply be because of where you are.

Some aspiring developers choose to move to their new city and find non-game work while they hunt for their first job. Others apply to jobs from afar and try to land a job which will provide relocation benefits. Both are possible, but be forewarned that the latter is more difficult, especially for designers and writers.

Next Up

In Part II, we’ll dive into what makes an effective portfolio/LinkedIn, how to draft an attention-grabbing resume, and how to build a game dev-specific online presence to help you connect with folks in the industry.

Go to Part II now!

Note: These guides are provided for free because I don’t believe things like this should be behind a paywall. However, if you’d like to support me continuing to create content which helps people get hired, you can buy me a $3 coffee here.

 

 

 

 

 

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