Getting A Job In Game Or Narrative Design: Pt. 5 – Turn That First Gig Into a Career!

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.

Help, I’m New!

Hey, you made it to the “inside!” You’ve got your first studio job! Nice work, you.

Remember how much the no-game-industry-work-experience hustle sucked? Cool. Now it’s time to do your best to ensure you never have to go through the trouble of breaking in again.

Your First Week

Your first day at a game studio will almost always involve setting up your machine, possibly “getting latest” (pulling the game build to your machine), creating accounts for all the software the team uses, activating your office badge, and that kind of thing. Ordinary overhead. Note that if you’re working on an online or distributed team, many of the recommendations from this post still apply just as much!

Depending on the company, your manager may introduce you to the team either in person or via email. If not, take it upon yourself to do so. “Hey, I’m new! I’m X, nice to meet you. What’s your role on the team?” Don’t feel bad about asking people to reintroduce themselves during your first couple weeks if you need to.

If your studio has an office, your manager may have a Day 1 lunch set up for you. If not, try and figure out what the team’s lunch culture is like and hop on board as soon as you can. At some companies, people eat in the work lounge or form a carpool group to go out and find food. At others, everyone walks to a nearby food truck or hits up the “local watering hole.” And at some rare companies, lunch is provided to you free of charge or an on-site cafeteria exists. Sometimes these lunch groups are open-invite and people will freely invite you. Other times they’re not as friendly, but as the new kid, it’s on you to ask if you can tag along. Whatever the case may be, going to lunch with your team as often as you can during your first couple months should be a priority for you. It’s the quickest way to get to know the folks you work with!

If you can, make it a priority to have one-on-one meetings with everyone you’ll be working with on the team — especially designers and producers. This is a great way to not only get some early face time with people, but also to hear their perspective on the project, company, and your role on the team. Try asking questions like:

  • Tell me about you. What brought you to this company in the first place?
  • How has your role evolved over time as you’ve worked here?
  • What are your feelings about the project right now?
  • What have been some pain points for your discipline here in the past?
  • Is there anything you think I should be aware of to do the best job I can here?

It’s possible, but unlikely, that your manager will have set up a one-on-one meeting with you automatically to talk to you about the project and your role. If not, set one up yourself. Use this time to ask clarifying questions about your role and work responsibilities as much as you can. Ask things like:

  • What should my focus be for this first week? This first month?
  • What internal tools do I need to learn to be able to effectively do my job here? Who can show me the ropes or point me to a good set of tutorials online?
  • What are some things you expect I’ll have accomplished after my first month?
  • How often do you think the two of us should check in? Is it OK if we book a recurring 30-minute one-on-one?

Your First Month

Assuming you came away from your 1:1 with your manager having a list of things to get started on, begin knocking them out as soon as you can. If you ever feel like your work is ambiguous or you aren’t sure you’re working on the right thing, immediately stop and ask either your manager or someone knowledgeable about the task. In the first few weeks, it’s almost a guarantee you’ll run into these ‘ambiguous-feeling’ tasks a few times until you get the hang of things.

Your first priority should be to start getting stuff into the game. Whatever the duties of your role are, start trying to nail them. Your goal should be to demonstrate to the team that you’re reliable, understand what quality work looks like, and that you’re willing to learn new things. Focus on knocking out the list you were given in that first 1:1 with your manager.

In your first month, you’ll get stuck on tasks a lot. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you’re confused about how to do something for more than 15 minutes, ask someone for help immediately. Sitting there banging your head against the wall to try and figure something out is not a productive use of your time, and by learning from someone else, you’ll immediately increase the speed at which you can do that thing in the future.

During your first couple weeks, try and lay low a little bit. Observe what people say and do in meetings. Try and identify who the “major players” are on your team. How do they communicate with the people around them? Are they aggressive? Wordy? Warm and jokey? Love to debate?

As a junior designer, your instinct may be to come into the project and start communicating what you think could be better. Although you should hang on to that instinct, you should also wait a few weeks until you fully understand how this team’s decision-making processes work. Take notes of anything which seems strange or unusual to you about the game or team’s processes. If you simply begin asserting your opinion in meetings, you’re likely to quietly make an ass out of yourself. (I’ve done this myself a few times.)

One-on-ones with your manager are a great time to initially try floating any observations you’ve made in these first few weeks. “I’ve noticed that several leads are often stuck waiting on our studio head to make critical decisions. However, her time is split across three projects. Have I assessed this situation correctly? If so, is this a temporary thing or will this be our process for the entirety of the project?”

See what your manager says. Gut check whether your observations are accurate or seem to be off base. Then proceed from there.

Your First Three Months

At three months, you should be settled into the day-to-day of your actual hands-on role. You should have generated some tangible assets which are being used — design documents, dialog, prototypes, etc. And you should have a clear idea of what your work will look like on the team over the next three months.

By three months, you should also have enough ground under your feet to start doing some long-term goal planning. This is helpful to not only establish where the project’s going, but also where your personal trajectory with this company is headed. Have this conversation with your manager or with someone of equivalent seniority.

First, identify what you’d like to be doing on this team in the future. Maybe you want to do a stellar job completing the game mode you were assigned to build. Maybe you’d like to own the design for a system. Maybe you’re a mechanics-focused designer, but you’re curious about taking on some more narrative-focused tasks. Whatever that might be, you should first enumerate and be specific about those goals.

Next, identify what the company needs in the future. Does the company need what you’d like to be doing? If you’re working on a shooter and you’d eventually like to own the design for a weapon, that’s a great trajectory. If, on the other hand, you’d like to be doing more narrative-heavy work but you work for a mobile F2P studio that makes match-3 games, it might not be possible to do the kinds of things you’re ultimately excited about at this company. If so, identify what the closest counterpart might be on your team. Does one of the designers handle writing tutorial text and flavor UI text for those match-3 mobile games? It might not be ‘narrative,’ but it’s as close as you can get. If so, maybe you can learn how to take on some of those duties. That way, the skills you’re growing overlap not just your own personal desires, but also the needs of the company as a whole.

Once you’ve figured out the list of things you believe will help both you and your team grow, it’s time to lay down some SMART goals [LINK]. This sounds cheesy as hell, but I promise, it’s actually a useful framework for these kinds of conversations.

In your long-term goals conversation, bring a print-out of what you’d like to be doing (or send them in an email in advance). Use that as a jumping-off point for the discussion. How does your manager feel? Do they agree? How they respond to your goals will tell you a lot about the level of organization at this company, the ability for you to grow your career there, and how effective your manager is going to be. Once you know all these things, you’ll have the data you need to make decisions about where your career will take you.

At 3-6 Months

Once you hit this mark, you’ll begin noticing the way things really operate on your team. This will allow you to begin developing some of those deeper communication skills you need to learn to grow as a designer in the long term.

At many studios, you’ll learn that different kinds of problems often involve different decision-makers, and those decision-makers operate in very diverse ways. You’ll also likely observe that nearly every lead or senior person has other people on the team they’re close with. Those people have the ability to influence the way that lead thinks and what they do. That’s important to observe, too.

As a designer, your primary job is to design and build content which meets the needs of the project and of your players. However, your secondary job is to learn how people on your team think, what they can do, and how they prefer to be communicated with. Design is a nebulous job. But almost always, being an effective designer involves some amount of advocating for your beliefs on the best way to create content for future players of your game. In order to accomplish that, you’ll need to understand how decisions get made on your team and who those key decision-makers are. Some folks may prefer a really direct, blunt approach. Others might be a little more defensive and need a bit more gentle, empathetic coaxing. It’s up to you to put in the work to learn each person’s preferences.

In other words, at this point, you should be able to do the following:

  • Know where your voice will be heard. Rather than proposing ideas for the first time out loud at group meetings or simply shooting emails to people, an effective designer knows exactly who the first point of contact is to make something happen. You’ll begin to learn how to ‘float’ ideas or plans in smaller groups to gain support for them before they are proposed to the people who ultimately make final calls on things.
  • Know how everyone likes to be spoken to. At this point, you should be a little more familiar with your team’s culture and processes. You should be able to articulate what each member of your immediate team likes and doesn’t like when working with others, and should know a few things about them as a person.
  •  Know where to get feedback on your work. Not everyone on a development team feels comfortable giving direct feedback, especially uncomfortable or negative feedback. An effective designer knows that soliciting constant honest feedback is a mandatory part of their role, and understands who on the team is most likely to give useful feedback. Ideally, I try to find someone who has a more optimistic/warm style of giving feedback and someone who’s more blunt or cynical. The balance can help keep your work in check.
  • Be able to trace how high-level design decisions get made. When you first start at a studio, odds are good you’re going to hear about seemingly-sudden, dramatic shifts in the design plan. It’s possible that these decisions may seem to come from nowhere. Over time, as you become better integrated into your team’s communication channels, you’ll hopefully learn how and when those decisions filter through the team and become one of the people involved in making them. If that’s not the case, or you still frequently feel like these decisions come from “nowhere,” you might need to refocus on building close relationships with other designers on your team.

As Long As You’re Here

You may be at your first game job for years. Or you may only be there for a few short months. Either way, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • NEVER STOP MEETING PEOPLE. Meet as many people as you can at your studio. Go out to lunch with them. Get to know them. Be friendly and kind. This includes the studio leadership. If you work for a big company, it might be really intimidating to think about asking the lead of your department, discipline, or company to meet with you! But… everyone’s gotta eat lunch, right? Ask if you can get 30 minutes over a sandwich and soda. Especially if you’re “the new person,” many people in leadership positions are eager to meet you, too. You’re the new blood that’s going to carry on their organization.
  • Keep your resume and LinkedIn updated. It’s video games. The industry is brittle and studios go under all the time. You never know when your employment might come to an end. Even if things seem to be going really well, never go more than 6 months without updating your resume and portfolio to reflect your latest work.
  • Don’t turn down recruiters. Once you’re working in games, you may occasionally get pings from recruiters who work for other companies and are interested in reaching out. Reply to their emails. Say hello. Be honest if you aren’t looking, but always declare your intent to keep in touch for the future — again, because this industry is fickle, you simply never know what might happen.
  • Help others in your local community as much as you can. As soon as you’re able to do so, turn around and try to help others like you break in. If your company has open roles and you meet someone who’s qualified, connect them. Do your part. Be kind to folks who are looking for work or are trying to break in. The games industry is a really small place, and odds are good that some day, you may need that person to do the same for you.

And lastly, don’t let bad blood linger and don’t burn bridges. If you have a poor working relationship with someone, do your best to improve it unless doing so is causing active damage to your emotional health. Avoid being rude, abrasive, or cruel wherever you possibly can. Following up on the point above, the industry is small, and people talk. If you’ve developed a reputation at one studio, it will be very, very difficult to shake that.

In writing this, I am reminded of an example from my own career. I worked for a company which had to begin laying people off one day, and as a new and junior employee, I was part of the first wave. The man who laid me off had regularly been cruel to me during my time at the studio, and when during the layoff I requested that I be allowed to grab my personal items from my desk, I was denied the opportunity to do so. I was also denied the ability to take any samples of work from the newly-canceled project for my portfolio, leaving me with nothing to show for the time I’d been at this studio. I struggled to find work for months afterwards.

Years later, a company I was at and loved working for had a fantastic role open which this man felt he was qualified for. That old company, as it turns out, had crumbled. He reached out to me with lots of flattery and made a plea for me to connect him with the new role. I left his email unanswered.

If You Leave

If you’re considering intentionally leaving your role, here are some things to consider.

  • What’s next? If it’s at all possible, don’t jump before you have somewhere to land. Remember all that networking you were doing while you were working at this job? Yeah! That’s where that comes in handy.
  • Be neutral on your way out. It’s likely people will schedule exit interviews with you or ask why you’re leaving. My personal advice is to never be honest. Companies rarely take the advice given to them in exit interviews to heart and act on it in any significant way, as they perceive the exiting employee to be a foregone loss anyway. It only serves to damage your reputation in the long run.
  • Connect with your coworkers. If you don’t have your coworkers on social media and you enjoy using social media platforms, ask if it’s OK to connect with them. It’s good to stay in touch!
  • Don’t take the counteroffer. If you’re a good employee, there is a decent (though never likely) chance that your company will try to make a play to keep you. In my own career, this has come in the form of offers to increase pay, scope of role, or title. Again, my personal advice is not to take this offer, because once a company knows you’re willing to bail, their attitude towards growing you and giving you a long leash of trust is likely to change significantly in the future. Other opinions may differ.

Next Up

We’ll discuss how to have difficult conversations as a designer, and how having those conversations early and tactfully can lead to a more productive, happier career overall.

 

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.