Getting A Job In Game or Narrative Design: Pt. 3 – Networking

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

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.

Networking Can Be Stressful

Like, really stressful.

I remember my first time attending GDC. It was 2010, and I was a college freshman who didn’t know a single professional game developer. I’d never made a game before. I didn’t have a website. I threw together a business card last minute. All I knew was that I wanted to be a game designer or writer. My badge read STUDENT.

I had bought the cheapest pass, the Student pass, and I went and sat in one of the Friday morning talks. Next to me was a guy probably in his 30s, 40s. I looked at his badge and saw that he was from Bioware. Oh, my God, Bioware!! I love Bioware games!! He works on Bioware games!! Alistair is my boyfriend!!

A million thoughts ran through my head. You should just introduce yourself. Just say hi. Ask him what he works on. Wait, no, don’t do that, maybe he can’t say what it is yet and he’ll get mad at you. Maybe he can get you a job. No, don’t ask about that! You don’t even know him! Just make small talk with him. Ask him if he has a family. Wait, will he think you’re hitting on him? I mean, he’s twice your age, so hopefully not, but… ugh.

So I said… nothing. I just sat there. The talk started — then ended — and he left, all as I was too terrified to even say “hello.”

Later that day, I waited in a bunch of lines at all of the big hiring booths on the Expo floor, but they all started shutting down because it was the afternoon on Friday (and GDC unofficially ends at, like, noon on Friday.) Even worse, none of them were hiring for design, just for engineering or art. I went up to the Valve booth where they were showing a 5-minute video about Valve’s company culture, on loop. The bored booth attendant was ushering college kids like me in and out as fast as possible. At the last second I turned to him and nervously asked, “Are you hiring any game designers?”

He looked at me like I was a piece of gum stuck to the floor and said, “Uh, we don’t really hire junior designers, no.”

That was my first day spent networking in the game industry. Luckily, it wasn’t my last.

Do I Have To Network?

Networking is how you’ll land almost every job you have in games. (I say “almost” because every now and then, someone gets a job through a web portal. My husband landed his recent job at Naughty Dog by sending a website application. I once got a writing gig through Craigslist. It happens. But it’s rare.)

In the last section, I talked about how hiring at the entry level usually works for studios. Let’s review this process.

  • The team realizes they need someone. “Aha!” says our Producer, Jane. “We have lots of little organizational design work items to catch up on, and our designers are swamped. I think we need a junior designer.”
  • Jane tells the team. The team agrees. Jane needs to get budget for the role approved, so she has to spend a couple weeks talking to the higher-ups about the role in more detail.
  • In the meantime, everyone on the design team is privately posting on Facebook, messaging their friends, sending emails or LinkedIn messages to ex-coworkers… “Hey, anyone know a good junior designer? We’re looking to hire one.” <– THIS COULD BE YOU!
  • Slowly, the team gathers a list of recommendations. By the time Jane comes back with the approved job description, there are already five or six candidates in the pipeline. In fact, they’re candidates which folks on the team (or their previous coworkers) have interacted with in the past, meaning in some small way they’ve been “vouched” for already. At this point, the company may decide to not even post the role publicly. They may just bring those candidates in to interview and pick one.
  • If for some reason the team isn’t able to source any good candidates or the role is hard to hire for (e.g. Senior Graphics Programmer), then and only then does the role get posted publicly and resumes are sourced.

If you’ve ever submitted an application through a web portal and either not heard back or been rejected inhumanly quickly, now you know why.

Your goal is to be an inside referral. Not a submission.

Ideally, you’re in the pool of candidates at step #3 — not one of the people sending your resume in to a web portal.

So… how does that happen?

How To Get Started

When you’re breaking in at the entry level, you probably know a couple kinds of people:

  • Classmates or friends of yours who would like to work in video games, but currently don’t. They might be working on indie games, or they might not.
  • People you admire in the game industry, but don’t actually know. (Think celebrity designers, household names, that kind of thing.)

The latter folks are unimportant. Don’t even think about them. Odds are good you won’t meet them for a very long time, and when you do, you’ll find that they’re very different people than you thought they were. But more on that another day.

The former folks are your tribe. Don’t lose them. Build games with them. Keep them close and keep in touch. Respect them. Don’t be a jackass to them thinking “I’ll never interact with him/her ever again once I graduate, so who cares?” Some day, you’re all going to be big-shot developers together and you’ll learn that the game industry is an incredibly small place, and you see the same people over and over again. This lesson will come back in future posts, too. That can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse. Either way, start your tribe with the friends and colleagues you already have and make sure you nurture and help each other as much as you can.

But where do I meet working game developers?

That’s your next target.  There are two ways to meet these people:

  • In-Person Connections: Developers who live and work in your town or city. These are people you can meet at events in the real world.
  • Internet Connections: These are developers you can meet via online groups, social media platforms, forums, and other non-real-world methods. If you don’t live in a major metropolitan area or are looking to find a gig somewhere other than where you live now, you’ll have to lean on these connections more.

We’ll dive into both in this guide.

When you do interact with a developer, here are some good guidelines to follow:

They’re just people. Talk to them like you’d talk to anyone else you were meeting out and about. Your mom’s book club friends. The nice chatty lady at the bagel shop. Those guys in your board game club at school. The fact that they make video games for a living (maybe even video games you’re a huge fan of) is just one of many facts about who they are as human beings. Say hi. Introduce yourself. If you’re uncomfortable more generally with the idea of making conversation with strangers, I encourage you to join some non-game-dev clubs or organizations and try meeting new people there. Or attend events in your city like concerts or festivals which are one-off, then practice introducing yourself to folks there. If it doesn’t go well, it’s just one day, and odds are good you’ll never see them again!

Ask what they do. They might not be able to tell you the exact game they’re working on, but a lot of developers are happy to chat about their role and what they do on their team. Especially for designers, asking “What does design look like at [Your Company]?” is a great way to learn more about the myriad ways design roles can manifest, while also giving your conversation partner a chance to chat about themselves.

Ask what they’ve played. Most developers LOVE to chat about whatever games they’ve enjoyed recently. Maybe you’ll find some common ground!

Ask if they have any advice for someone breaking in. Working developers are often all too happy to share their stories of life in the trenches with you, usually with a bit of dry humor. You might learn a thing or two.

Don’t overwhelm them. If you’re talking and you find you take 3 or more breaths while continuing to talk, you’re probably talking too much. A good conversation is like a game of tennis: back and forth. If you’re clutching the ball, you’re likely going to just make your conversation partner uncomfortable enough to bail for the bathroom / drink station at the next chance they get.

It’s OK to give them a card at the end — sometimes. If you’ve been chatting for over five minutes, feel free at the end to say, “By the way, do you happen to have a card? I’d like to give you mine, if that’s OK.” Sometimes you’ll get a card back. Sometimes working devs (myself included) don’t carry cards outside of GDC, but will happily pocket yours. It’s also cool to ask if they’re on Twitter — some are, and are happy to give you their handle. If you’ve just had a very brief exchange, though, asking for a card can come across as a little overeager.

Don’t immediately ask if they’re hiring. Unless you’re speaking to a recruiter or someone really high up, odds are good the person you’re talking to doesn’t have direct hiring power — and this comes across as a little desperate, too. We’ll talk about LinkedIn and/or Twitter followups later. That’s the way to go.

Forming In-Person Connections

You can find events where developers congregate in a number of ways:

  • Your local IGDA chapter (LINK). If you’re in a big town or city, you probably have one – check this list. Follow their Facebook group or calendar to stay in-the-know about social events.
  • Search Google and Facebook for “Game Developer Meetup [City Name]”. There are probably a few monthly events that take place wherever you are. If you’re in an especially small town, these might be local to a nearby university or something — it’s usually OK to show up if you’re not a student there, but try to contact someone and double check!
  • Attend local game-focused events. (LINK) Even if they’re not strictly game development focused, odds are good there are at least a few game-focused events in your area. Attend those and say hi to the people who are demoing games, making art, et cetera!
  • Attend the after parties of those events. Often at game-focused events (e.g. PAX), there are many “after parties” in the evening where developers like to go and hang out. Sometimes these are big parties, and other times they’re just quiet meetups with folks playing board games or chatting. You can usually find these parties by looking up the event in question and seeing if there’s an ‘official event calendar/schedule’, a Facebook page where people are posting party invites, et cetera.
  • Attend your local game studio’s open house events. These don’t happen often, but some studios in some cities will occasionally host “open house” nights where folks from all over town are allowed to come hang out. If you follow your local game studios on Facebook or Twitter, you’re likely to hear about these through those channels.
  • GameDevDrinkUp: This is a large, international event which happens once a month in several US cities, Manila, and Tokyo.
  • GDC (the Game Developer’s Conference): More on this below.

Forming Internet Connections

Developers also congregate online!

  • Twitter: A lot of game developers are on Twitter. In fact, there are multiple communities of developers on Twitter. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they really, really don’t. Try following some developers who work at local studios or at studios you find interesting, and striking up a conversation / replying to their tweets! If you’re also working on indie games/student projects, sharing your work with the #gamedev or #screenshotsaturday tags can help it get quickly broadcasted to a wide network of developers.
  • Discord/Slack: There are a ton of game development Discord and Slack servers out there now. Try Googling “Game development Discord” or “Game development Slack” to see what I mean. Discords that I’ve found to be particularly active are gamedev & art and Game Dev League. A Slack channel I’ve heard good things about (but have not participated in myself since I’m not really a Slack-er) is Indie Game Developers.
  • Reddit: There are indie game dev communities on Reddit. Please let me be the first (but not the last) professional developer to tell you that they are pretty bad, full of awful advice, and not a great source of networking. Steer clear.
  • Facebook: The largest ‘game development’ group on Facebook is, again, pretty insipid and not worth engaging with, but there are smaller local groups where developers congregate for your country or city — try looking for “Game developers (Your City Name)” in Facebook’s search. Some good, active, larger groups I’m a part of include Game Writers, Women in Gaming/Tech, Card & Board Game Designers, the IGDA Game Design SIG, and the Game UX Group.

Following Up About Roles

Okay, so you’ve met some folks, had some good conversations, and you’d hopefully like to ensure they don’t totally forget about you. What should you do now?

At this point, you want to be sending what I’m calling a message of interest. This should be short — something like, “Hey! I’m glad I got to meet you at [Event], it was really fun! Good luck at [Company] – sounds like things are going well there. By the way, I’m hunting for entry level design/writing work at the moment. If you learn about any opportunities that might be a fit for me, I’d appreciate hearing about them. You can find my portfolio at [URL], and of course, I’m always open to any feedback you might have.”

You can send these messages of interest in a few ways (though please, only do one of them — no one likes to be spammed):

  • LinkedIn: Add them on LinkedIn if you have one! If you’re not 100% sure they’ll remember who you are, just make sure to add a note with your connect request. At this time, if the person accepts your request, it’s also OK to send them a short job interest message.
  • Twitter: You can follow them on Twitter. At this time, if they have DMs open and/or they’ve followed you back, feel free to send them a short job interest message.
  • Email: If they’re not on LinkedIn or Twitter but they gave you their card, go ahead and shoot them an email.

If you see any public job postings with that person’s company which look like a fit for you, you can reach out again via the same channel. It’s common etiquette not to just come out and ask, “can you recommend me for the job?” Instead, try some of the following:

  • “Do you know anything more about the role and/or part of the team it’s with?”
  • “Do you happen to know the hiring manager’s name so I can target my cover letter?”
  • “I’m trying to understand whether I’d be a fit for the role. Based on my portfolio link, do you think I might be what they’re looking for?”
  • “Would you be willing to intro me to the hiring manager via e-mail?”

Then, just keep in touch.

Shoot the person a message every 6-8 months or so and ask them how things are going at work. (“Hey Aisha, how’s life on the cinematics team? Are you planning to go to GDC this year? If so, want to grab coffee?”) If you’ve had a bit of a back-and-forth with them in the past, update them briefly on your own personal situation. (“I’m a senior at WPI now, and I’ve been working on a new indie game — it’s a 3rd person platformer. Here’s the website. I’m still on the hunt for entry-level design roles, too.”)

If you have a decent rapport with someone, it’s also a good idea to ask them for feedback on your resume and portfolio at some point. Who knows? They might raise something totally valid which I didn’t cover in this guide, or catch a big mistake. And in the best case, if you’re humble about accepting and incorporating their feedback, they’ll also see you as a more viable candidate for any relevant roles they hear about in the future.

Don’t be discouraged if the person doesn’t respond. So long as you aren’t bombarding them every couple of months or something, it’s likely they’re reading your messages to them, but simply don’t have time to respond. Working on games ain’t a 9-to-5 job, after all.

Attending GDC

If you’re not familiar, GDC is a week-long conference which happens every year in San Francisco and is the biggest game development focused event in the world.

GDC is its own special weird vortex of game developer life. Most game devs I know have been at least a couple times, and many attend every year. Even so, there are a few different “layers” to the conference. There are suits wheeling and dealing over multi-million dollar deals, there are bro-y devs drinking $16 cocktails in the W Hotel lounge, there are indie devs clustering in Yerba Buena Gardens outside Moscone to host small chats about inspiring topics, there are all kinds of secret group / discipline-specific hangouts, and there are parties galore.

In fact, many people will tell you that it’s not even really worth it to pay the exorbitant fees required to buy a GDC badge because there are so many exciting things going on around GDC. I’m of the opinion that the GDC pass prices are a massive scam for folks looking to break in unless you’re able to comfortably afford a pass and/or you partake in one of the many scholarship programs which offer free passes. Additionally, here’s a guide on how to avoid spending a bunch of money during a week in SF – I myself usually split an AirBnB with friends or stay at one of the great hostels nearby (just make sure to book a few months in advance, they sell out!)

The GDC Conference Associates program is one such scholarship program. For a few hours of volunteering onsite, you’ll get a free full-access pass and will get to meet hundreds of other junior developers excited about breaking into the industry. My friends and I volunteered when we were younger and I’m still in touch with many of the folks I met to this day.

My advice is to go to GDC for the week if you possibly can, don’t buy a badge unless you get a free one, and attend every meetup or party you can. You can find many of them in this Facebook group or by Googling “GDC Parties [Year]” a few weeks before the event. Here’s a list from last year so you can see just how many there are – it’s insane.

Bring business cards, talk to everyone you can, don’t bother with the events where loud, bumping music is playing unless you’re going with friends to drink (nobody really likes networking at those anywayI promise you) and don’t go to any party where you have to pay to get in the door unless you get drink tickets/food for doing so. Make it clear you’re looking for work, and don’t be shy about pointing people to your online portfolio. If you meet someone you really enjoy chatting with who’s a narrative/game designer, ask them if they can make time for a quick coffee sometime during the week so you can ask them questions about their career — often they can, and will.

It’ll be a wild week and you’ll probably want to face plant into the floor by the end of it. Then you’ll understand why Friday at GDC is a ghost town.

You’ve Got This

When networking, you’re probably going to have “bad days” or “bad conversations.” It happens to everyone.

I remember being invited to a Valve dinner at GDC a couple years ago. It was a private dinner for developers whose work had been on Steam. Some friends and I have a small side project game which is on Steam, so we barely made the list. When I showed up, I didn’t know anyone there, and the room was full of big-name indie devs from famous teams who had no clue what my team had made or worked on. I tried to strike up conversations with people, but it was clear they were mostly interested in meeting the other “big names” and once they heard what I was working on, I could see their eyes physically glazing over.

I felt small and insignificant. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, and the few attempts I made at conversation didn’t seem to go very well. I pushed my salad around for a bit, sat through the obligatory speech about Steam’s metrics that year, tossed back a couple free glasses of wine, then quietly left. So much for a nice night.

Back at my hotel room, with my makeup off and my hair in a towel, I looked at myself in the mirror and realized something: This is just the start of my career. It’s OK to have awkward moments. It’s OK to not be interesting. If I’m the smallest, most insignificant, least accomplished, least interesting person in the room… well, I can only go up from there, right? If that’s the case, it probably means I’m in the right room. 

Put yourself in the right room. You’ll be OK. Good luck out there, kid.

Next Up

I’ll cover what happens when you land that interview you’ve been gunning for, how to land the job, and how to complete the design or writing test (if there is one.)

Go To Part 4 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.