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.

Getting A Job In Game or Narrative Design: Pt. 4 – Interviewing and Completing Design Tests

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.

Getting A Design Test/Interview Is Like…

Fishing. Except the fish is a hiring manager. And the bait is your resume. And… actually, this metaphor is getting weird. Let’s back up a moment.

I’m going to assume you followed the steps we described before about networking, and that you’ve been able to hand off your resume to someone “on the inside.” That might be a recruiter, it might be a hiring manager (a person on the dev team who’s handling the resume selection for a particular role) or it might just be someone you happened to know on the team who isn’t involved in the hiring process.

Either way, from this point, a few things need to happen:

  • Resume hand-off: Your resume needs to actually get to the hiring manager. If you were able to get your resume to the hiring manager directly, you know this step’s been taken care of.
  • Resume reviewed: The hiring manager needs to look at your resume. If they’ve already got a few candidates lined up for interviews, they may no longer be looking at resumes. This is why you want to be in the stack before the role is open!
  • You’re contacted: The hiring manager needs to reach out and set up an interview with you. At this point, it’s safe to say that whatever was on your resume was sufficient to get you to the interview stage. Great! Proceed to the next section.

But I Haven’t Heard Anything Back!

If this is happening to you, one of the following might be a culprit:

  • Your resume is being reviewed and you aren’t a fit, but you haven’t learned why. Reach out to the person you gave your resume to and inquire: “Hey, is there anything you’d recommend I do to be a better candidate for future roles like this? I’m still trying to break in, so any advice you can give me would be really helpful!”
  • Your resume never made it to the hiring manager. If you usually pass your resume to people who happen to work “at” the studio but aren’t involved in hiring for that role, you may have mixed results. Especially with larger studios (200+ people), the company can be so spread out that a resume coming from a fellow employee is no different from a resume being sent in by a total stranger. Instead of sending your resume to an employee uninvolved in the hiring process, ask, “Hey! Is there any way you could intro me to the hiring manager over email?”
  • Your skills just aren’t there yet. If you’re not getting feedback on what wasn’t a fit about the role and you know you had your resume in early, odds are good that you simply need to deepen the skills required for that particular role. Maybe that systems design role required UE4 expertise and nothing on your portfolio demonstrates that you understand how to use the engine to build something. Maybe that narrative design role required an understanding of branching dialog, but your Twine samples were weak. Maybe that level design role wanted some examples of stuff you’d built to polish, but everything on your portfolio was whitebox. There can be lots of reasons your skillset isn’t a fit for a given role — rather than try to improve your portfolio to fit any one particular job, just continue trying to learn as many commonly-used tools as you can and ensuring your portfolio demonstrates your latest, best, highest-quality mastery of those tools.
  • Your overall experience level just isn’t there yet. I sometimes hear from new grads or students who are trying to get hired at large, highly-competitive companies (like Riot, Naughty Dog, or Blizzard) right out of school. The fact of the matter is, these companies rarely hire people without a shipped commercial title, and it’s almost always in an engineering capacity. If you’re only sending resumes to these companies, take a step back and look around at what other, smaller, less well-known companies exist in your area. You’ll likely find you have a better shot at getting your foot in the door.

I Got A Design/Writing Test!

Not all companies send out design or writing tests. Some companies may have them, but only for junior roles. Others might send out a blanket design test to anyone who applies.

Every design or writing test will usually come with an NDA which prevents you from discussing the test with anyone else (and also prevents me from sharing past tests I’ve taken here). However, here’s a general idea of the kinds of things you can expect:

    • Take [Level from of our studio’s last game] and choose three things you’d change about it. Explain why you made those changes.
    • Create a level for [Big, well-known franchise]. Here are a couple of beats you need to hit. Design a whitebox area which communicates your level and outline how enemies spawn, where resources drop, and what the player’s path through the level will be.
    • Design a new weapon for [Game mode].
    • Design a new enemy for [Game mode].
    • Tell me about [Playable hero from a popular PvP game]. Why is this character non-viable in competitive play right now? What changes would you make to improve this character’s viability?
    • Pretend you’re revamping [Hero from a PvP game]. Change only one ability in this hero’s ability set. How would you change it? Why did you pick this ability?
    • Imagine a new character for [Already-released game in major franchise]. Write a quick bio for this character, a pitch for the way they feel to play and/or the types of abilities they have, and an explanation on how this character fits into our game world.
    • Create a new mechanic to deliver character VO in [Popular game]. What is the mechanic? How does it function?
    • Here’s an example of some English-localized text translated from Japanese in [Major game franchise]. Rewrite this text so that it matches the characters better. Here are two character bios to help you out. Each line needs to fit the character count requirements specified.
    • Here’s the setup for a scenario where [Popular main character] meets [New villain]. Here’s a bio for the villain. Write one minute of dialog for a confrontation between the main character and this villain.
    • How would you design a UI to support a crafting feature with the following requirements? [Word doc attached]

     

  • Usually, tests will also come with a recommended time limit (say, no more than 10 hours) and a deadline for turning the test in. Otherwise, they’re usually pretty open-ended.To what extent you are willing to complete design tests, especially very involved design tests, is totally up to you. Some candidates choose to decline taking a test and opt out of applying for companies which require them — and when hiring, I don’t like using them to filter candidates, personally. However, right now in design hiring they tend to be an unavoidable thing to some degree.Should you choose to take a test, I recommend keeping in mind the following things:
      • Be visual. Anywhere you can create or add a diagram to clarify something, do so. Try to keep your visuals relatively neat and well-labeled. If you can explain a concept easily by just throwing some cubes and free assets into a Unity level and taking a screenshot, do that.
      • Don’t write more than you must. Brevity is the soul of wit. I’ve seen some design tests where the question was relatively simple, but the test-taker sent in 9 pages of wall-of-text explanation. Remember: this is a test to see how you’ll perform as an actual designer in this role. If you’re sending out 9-page specs to people for relatively simple features, few of your teammates will be inclined to read them. I like Stone Librande’s One-Page Design Docs as a lens through which to consider everything I write or create as a designer.
      • Make sure all game-specific terms are correct. Nothing is more embarrassing than seeing a design test where the candidate has misspelled the company name, game name, or name of the main character. It’s Nathan Drake, not Nathan Durke!
      • If you need more time, ask for it. It’s standard convention that if the recruiter asks if you’re ready to take the test and your honest answer is ‘no’ (maybe it’s the holidays, maybe you’re going through final exams, maybe the baby’s not been sleeping well…) it’s OK to ask to push the test back a few days. Any game company worth working for will be cool with a delay. If they aren’t, you don’t wanna work there anyway, trust me.

    OK, Interview Booked. What Now?

    First of all: Yay! Good job, you!

    Game industry interviewing is a little different from interviews in other industries. If you’ve ever interviewed in general tech, you’ll find many similarities in common.

    Know before you go:

    • Attire is casual, always. I showed up to my very first game industry interview in a suit, nylons, and high heels. I got (gently) laughed at. This might run counter to every piece of advice any Baby Boomer ever gave you about “dressing for the job you want,” but in game dev interviews, you should wear whatever makes you comfortable. This is standard behavior across every game studio in the world. As long as your attire isn’t something truly risque, like a bikini top and short shorts, you’re fine.
    • It might be a long day. If you’ve interviewed in other industries, you’re probably used to having a single interview with one or two interviewers — and then, if you move on to the next round, being called back in on a later date. Many game companies now follow the format of what a “big tech” interview “loop” looks like: You come in and are expected to interview as many as 3 – 7 times in the same day with different folks. You might be asked lots of the same sorts of questions. You might be asked how you work with different kinds of disciplines if you’re being interviewed by representatives from non-design areas of the team, which is common. Or you might find you start the day with a recruiter interview, move to dev team members, and end the day with an executive team member or your would-be manager. All of these patterns are reasonably common.
    • Not everyone will have seen your resume. Be ready to discuss all of your past experience and to talk about it in an upbeat, interesting, and succinct way!
    • As a designer, expect to be asked whether you’ve played this company’s games. The answer had better be “yes, and here’s what I thought.” Even if you’ve never heard of that company’s games in your life until the moment you received your interview confirmation, go download/purchase them and get playing! If they’re a new company but you can guess at the types of games they’re making (e.g. mobile free-to-play), brush up on some popular games in that genre and make sure you’re ready to chat about those.
    • Be prepared to be asked what you’ve played lately and to discuss the details of those games. Hopefully, as a designer, you’ll have a wide variety of recent things you’ve played to discuss. You’ll very likely get in-depth questions about them which are aimed at testing your understanding of them. Think about the list of games you’ll talk about before your interview. What’s interesting about them? What works well? What could be better?

    I’m Interviewing, But No Offer…

    This can be another common roadblock. The good news is, if you’re landing interviews and you do not believe it’s possible that your resume is misconstruing your experience in any way, you can safely declare your resume ‘solid enough’ and set it aside as the culprit for now.

    Instead, it’s likely one of the following issues:

        • You seemed withdrawn. Interviews can make anyone nervous. However, it’s often a reality of a designer’s role that you need to be a feedback focal point for the team at times and a rally point at others. You need to be able to win peoples’ trust and keep a project moving in the right direction. If you seem cold, distant, inscrutable, unfriendly, or unapproachable during an interview, you’re going to have a harder time resonating with the interviewers. The interview is a time to put on your best confident smile, keep your shoulders back and your head held high, shake hands firmly, and maintain good eye contact.
        • You didn’t seem prepared. If I’m interviewing you for a VR game design job, one of the first questions I’m going to ask is, “What do you think are some of the most successful solutions to movement in VR right now?” Movement in VR is an incredibly fundamental problem right now, so if you can’t name specific implementations of movement in specific VR games, that’s really worrying to me. Make sure you’ve spent an hour or two beforehand thinking about the kinds of questions you might be asked. If you need more time during the interview itself, you can always say, “Hmm, that’s a great question, let me think.” Take your time.
        • Your social skills weren’t great. If you constantly talked over your interviewers, interrupted them, didn’t make eye contact, were very open about your political leanings or some other non-interview-appropriate topic, left many long, silent pauses, or bashed on the company’s games in any way (Dragon Age 2 was a mess, am I right?) expect that they won’t feel particularly amenable towards you.

 

    • There can be lots of other smaller issues at play — such as bad timing/coincidences, another candidate simply being better qualified, and that kind of thing — but if you’ve interviewed a few times and received no offers, it’s highly likely that one of these above issues is the culprit.

      What About Pay Negotiations?

      OK, hot tips time.

      If the recruiter asks you about your salary requirements or history up front: This is a dick move and it’s actually illegal in many states now, but some recruiters still do it. The recruiter usually is asking out of a concern that you might be looking for more money than they’re willing to pay. The standard approach I use is to be polite, but firmly nonspecific. “I’m more focused on finding out whether I’m a fit for the team and role. Rest assured that if those are a match, I’m flexible on salary.” Don’t give them any numbers to work with.

      If the recruiter demands to hear a number to move forward and/or you’re being forced to fill out an online form with your salary requirements, this is an extra level of dick move but I’ve seen it before. Good recruiters don’t do this, and instead properly educate applicants about the expected range for the role up front. Personally, I look at this kind of scenario through a lens of “what is going to get me past this recruiter as fast as possible so I don’t have to deal with them again until the team wants to bring me on.” Fill out whatever lowball number you’re comfortable putting in.

      If you get an offer, you should not feel beholden to the number you were forced to enter. I usually say, “I gave you that number to get the conversation started, but that number marks the lowest possible end of my range. I’d like to think we’re both invested in reaching an amount which will allow me to be happy, comfortable, and valued at [company] and to do my best work here for years to come.” The implication is that if the recruiter offers you that amount, you’d be willing to job hop at the first sign of better pay — and no one wants that, least of all you and the recruiter!

      If the recruiter gives you a number, then you proceed to the negotiation step. If this is your first gig, it’s totally normal to feel nervous about negotiating, but let me assure you that it is a totally normal part of the recruitment process. 

      Here’s a great set of steps which basically anyone can use to negotiate, even if you’re not a woman. All of this is excellent advice. Use it. Get the best number you can.

      If the recruiter says “Sorry, we don’t negotiate,” let me assure you with all the love in my heart that this is absolute bullshit. I’ve worked at several lovely companies which made this claim — among them, Facebook and Microsoft. Once I was on the inside, I realized just how untrue those claims were. Everyone negotiates. Check out the linked article above for some specific tips and phrasing to use in this scenario, but the gist of it is: you say, “Okay, if we can’t negotiate my base salary, let’s discuss a signing bonus/my PTO package/my merit bonus structure/my stock.” There is always a negotiation to be made. Even if it’s just an extra $500 a year. Always negotiate.

      I Have The Offer! Now What?

      Sign it, you lucky duck!

      Well, with one caveat: if you have a personal project, make sure you ask them for an inventions clause or written permission to continue on that project outside of work hours. List out every personal project you might work on, even things you haven’t started on yet or have only dreamed about making. I’ve known colleagues who went to work for a game company without doing this, and after being there for 5-6 years, suddenly realized they wanted to work on a hobby project and hadn’t protected their right to do so up front years ago. They’d simply seen an offer and signed it.

      It’s often much harder to get an exception to this once you work for the company, so if you care, do it now!

Next Up

We’ll discuss how to be successful on-the-job, and what to do in your first few weeks to make sure you’re everyone’s favorite new hire and/or intern.

Go to Part 5 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.

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 (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.

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.

Getting A Job In Game or Narrative Design: Pt. 2 – Your Resume, Website, and Application

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.

Table of Contents For This Section

The Short Version Of This (Long) Section:

At the end of the day, any employer looking to hire a junior designer cares only about the following things.

  • You have a body of design/narrative work presented in a public, easy-to-digest format. The work looks professional and speaks to your skills as a designer.
  • Your body of work also, ideally, consists of one or more pieces which represent the skills required in the specific role this employer is hiring for. (E.g. if that’s level design on a FPS. you’ve created some FPS maps. If that’s narrative design on a mobile game, you have some writing samples showcasing short conversations between two NPCs.)
  • You seem like a responsible, friendly person who would work well with a team. 
  • You’re easy to get in the front door. This speaks to the ‘should I move?’ question from part 1 — this is where local candidates will take precedence over someone the company must interview from afar.

That’s it.

Now let’s dive into the nitty gritty details.

First, Make Something

 Following up on what I just wrote: As a designer, all employers want to see is what you’ve made. If the answer is “nothing,” you’ll need to go make some small games before you’re ready to complete the following steps.

There is no entry level game job in the world where you can show up having never made a game before.

This is true for any creative industry. There is no writing job which will teach you how to write if you’ve never written before. There is no illustration job which will hire someone who’s never held a pen to paper. Game making is a creative skill just like any other!

Luckily, making games on your own in 2018 is easier than it’s ever been in the past. If you haven’t made any games, stop reading this guide and check out the below resources instead. Return when you’ve got a couple small things you’re proud of. 

Go forth, and create.

Okay. Back now? Ready to show your work to the world? Great. Let’s go.

Your Game/Narrative Design Resume

Since these kinds of things are often hard to parse without context, here’s what my resume looked like one year out of college after a couple internships. 

As you can see, it contains a few items:

  • My education (degree attained, majors, important honors distinctions)
  • My work experience (two internships and a full-time job for a year)
  • My relevant unpaid experience  (two little games I made during game jams with friends and released online)
  • My skills (arranged by category — some of these skills were, in hindsight, pretty silly to list on a resume)

This isn’t the end-all be-all of resumes, and an experienced resume-writer can probably spot at least a couple silly mistakes, but it was successful in getting me a decent response rate from companies at the time. This is more or less the structure I’ve used ever since.

We’ll cover each of these resume areas in a little more detail below so that you can create a comprehensive one-page resume.

Wait, does my resume have to be one page?

Yes. Preferably with 10 or 12 point font. Trust me on this. Remember: A hiring manager will spend, on average, 30 seconds glancing at your resume, probably while exhausted and fiddling with their coffee at 10 in the morning on a Monday. Present the best stuff you’ve got, and only the best. 

Arranging Your Resume Sections

I often receive questions like “which section should go at the top, how should I order things?” — The short answer is that in my experience, it doesn’t really matter as long as your resume is otherwise clear and easy to read. If you ask 10 different hiring managers, you’ll get 10 different answers about how to organize your resume sections. My advice is not to stress out about it and just order the sections of your resume based on what you think is most “important” to emphasize for a given role (whatever your subjective assessment of “important” happens to be.)

It’s also totally OK and normal to switch around the ordering of sections depending on the job you’re applying for. In fact, it’s even common to change the wording of your job descriptions to emphasize certain activities! Think of your resume less as a concrete thing you build once, and more as a living, breathing document. I have at least 15 or 20 versions of mine from the last time I was job hunting. This will get you the best response rate.

Styling Your Resume

Avoid doing weird stuff with your resume’s styling. I’ve seen all sorts of strange, gimmicky things: orange text, big curly fonts, giant custom “logos” for someone’s “personal brand,” et cetera. It’s OK to keep your resume plain or just use one or two colors to highlight information as you see fit.

Early in my career, I did all sorts of things with my resume and business card which I thought looked cute and unique. It was only later that I realized these gimmicks were actually damaging my attempts to job hunt. In hindsight, they looked really dumb and/or overly cocky.

This is my first ‘business card’ from 2009. “Dreaming?” “Triforcing?” Yeah… It’s a real shock no one wanted to interview me at GDC. I made these mistakes so you don’t have to. 

Use a default or common template for your resume. It’s always better to err a little on the safer, cleaner, more standard side than to do something wacky and risk putting people off.

Your Education Section

This section is the simplest and most straightforward. Your education should follow something like the below format. If you don’t have one of the qualifications listed, that’s OK and normal, just skip adding that line.

  • [DEGREE] in [SUBJECT] at [COLLEGE], [YEAR SPAN]
  • University/College Honors/Summa Cum Laude
  • President of the Campus Newspaper / Film Crit Club / Phi Kappa Phi (Note: only include academic clubs or organizations if they put you in a positive, neutral, desirable light and are in some way relevant to game development. If you were the president of the Che Guevara Coalition, the Young Christian Conservatives Club, the Legalize Marijuana Now Society, et cetera, maaaaybe leave those out — these are the sorts of polarizing things which come with baggage/stigmas that might hinder your chances at a job.)
  • Capstone Project Game/Paper (If you have a capstone game project because you did a game design specific degree, list it here. Feel free to add a brief sentence or two describing the project’s genre, the team size, your role, and where the project can be played publicly, if at all. E.g. “Capstone Project: Wavering Waters. Served as a designer on a multiplayer jetski racing game within a team of 20. The project was highlighted in the Kotaku article ’10 Great Student Jetski Games’ and can be played on itch.io and Kongregate.” If you wrote a paper, describe that instead.)
  • Additional Coursework (If you took any courses which weren’t encapsulated in your degree but which you feel are very relevant to game development, list the course IDs and course titles. A great example is listing any computer science/programming courses taken if you completed your degree in graphic design.)

Put together, it should look something like this:

B.A. in Communications at Florida State University, 2009 – 2013

  • College Honors, Cum Laude, Officer of FSU’s Film Crit Club
  • Capstone Paper: “LFG: How Strangers In Online Games Communicate To Form Self-Made Groups”
  • Additional Coursework: 05-400 “Designing Virtual Worlds”, 88-300 “Advanced Mythology”, 10-999 “Data Structures and Algorithms”

What About My GPA?

One of the perks of game development jobs: no one will ever ask to see your GPA. Leave it out, and stress no more about that Intro to Astronomy class you bombed.

Your Experience Section

If you’re breaking in, this is likely to be the most dread-inducing section of your resume to create. What kinds of things should you put here?

If you have paid experience under your belt, even if it’s not game dev related, that’s awesome, and definitely highlight that at the top of your experience section. Here’s how you should prioritize it:

  • First priority: Anything game development related or adjacent. Writing about games for publications or review sites also counts.
  • Second priority: Any employment in creative industries/pursuits, or involving skills which could be useful in a game dev environment. For example — working as a database admin/IT for a non-game company, as a manager for a movie theater, as a camp counselor for a kids’ art camp, et cetera. The goal is to demonstrate “Even though I don’t have any game-specific experience, I’m still a creative person who’s done creative things.”
  • Third priority: Anything which demonstrates your ability to work in groups or teams. Here, the goal is to demonstrate, “I haven’t worked on any creative projects yet, but I’m good in groups and play well with others.”
  • Fourth priority: Any other work experience not described above.

If you have any unpaid experience which might deserve to go on your resume, use the following priority list as a guide and feature those on your resume. Use as many as you can from the first category, second category, etc and only resort to latter categories if you run out of material. 

  • First priority: Any game development related roles which weren’t compensated. This might be volunteer QA or beta testing for a local game studio, writing a few character conversations for your friend’s free game on Kongregate, a personal game project you’ve been working on for a while, writing free articles for a game review website, creating a piece of concept art for a student game dev team… that kind of thing. Your ideal scenario, if you have no paid game dev work, is to be able to flesh out a resume with these kinds of experiences.
  • Second priority: Any non-game creative teams and/or projects you’ve been a part of. Student films, public art pieces, fanfiction pieces you wrote (as long as they aren’t super NSFW), cosplay sites you run, forums you moderate… so on, so forth.
  • Third priority: Anything which demonstrates leadership or team-organized behavior. Coaching a little league team, being a Girl Scout, playing QB for your school’s football team, serving on the student council, et cetera.

Your Skills Section

Here’s how to prioritize your Skills section:

  • Programming Languages: As a designer or writer, any programming languages you know should be front and center. Designate your comfort level with that language with a descriptor: “Intermediate Java.” “Basic C#.” “Fluency in C++.” Be careful with claiming to “know” a language. If someone gave you a whiteboard and marker and told you to write a simple program in that language, could you do it? This is a common method of testing knowledge in technical interviews. If someone suspects you’re not being honest about your proficiency level, they might put you to the test.
  • Reference The Job Description: After programming languages, any specific skills referenced in the job description you’re looking at should be mentioned verbatim in your skills section if you have them. (Examples might be “solid knowledge of Excel” or “experience using Unity3D”. Make sure to list “Excel,” not just “Microsoft Office,” and to spell “Unity3D” the same way the job post does.) Often, very big companies will use software which scans resumes for “keywords” and marks them to be pulled out of the pile for review. Guess what happens if your resume contains a lot of skill keywords from the job description? Yep.
  • Strongest Skills First: After you’ve listed all of the above skills, dedicate the remainder of space in your Skills section to any software or hardware you’re particularly proficient with — Photoshop, Illustrator, Unity, Maya, Excel, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, 360 VR Film Creation… you get the idea.
  • Soft Skills: Don’t bother listing soft skills like “good communicator” or “polite” or “fast learner.” They mean very little and only take up valuable space on your resume. Your interviewers will not be shy about asking you tough questions to determine whether or not you have the soft skills they need for the role in question.

What About Contact Info?

Put your phone, email, and portfolio website link at the top. Nothing else is required. Listing your address is not necessary in 2018 and serves only to hurt you if you’re applying for a role which is non-local.

Your Portfolio Website

 

As a newbie game or narrative designer, your portfolio is the way you’ll communicate your work to the world. Portfolios don’t have to be big or complex, but they do have to do a few things:

  • Introduce you (hello!)
  • Showcase the best things you’ve made in an easy-to-parse way
  • Tell employers how to follow up with you

How Do I Build A Portfolio Site?

There are lots of great free options for this!

  • You can start a WordPress blog. (That’s what I’m using for this site, in fact.)
  • Squarespace also has some nice free templates and will host a site for you.
  • Heck, you can even make a Tumblr account, though it’s not the easiest to update and read.
  • If you’re really fancy, you can even make your own site. If you know how to do this already and you’re excited, go for it. Here’s what my very first portfolio looked like. Kind of silly, but hey, it worked, and employers seemed to like it.

Introduce Yourself

On the front page or top post of your blog/site, write a quick blurb describing yourself. Include a nice, professional photo if you feel comfortable doing so. Keep your tone lightweight and friendly. This is a first handshake. Say hello and tell the world who you are!

I’m going to use my friend Duncan’s website as an example. Here’s his intro.

Introduce Your Work

The very next thing after your intro should be a big ol’ page which lists your projects all-in-all. This allows employers to quickly hone in on a project which catches their eye or might look like a fit for the skillset they’re looking for. Don’t forget to include a screenshot from the game. 

If you have a portfolio piece which doesn’t have very interesting screenshots (e.g. an un-themed Twine creation or a board game), you can choose an open-source image online which represents your piece, commission someone off DeviantArt or Twitter to create a little ‘promo’ image for you to use, or get creative in some other way. Visuals are important!

Detail Your Work

Ideally, employers should be able to click “into” each project and see some artifacts from that project — for example, photos, video clips of the gameplay, a link to a place where someone can play the game online (like Kongregate) or download a game build in a .zip format, et cetera.

I’ll use my friend Connor’s website as a good reference here. As you can see, each game has a link to view a trailer for the game, go to an associated website, or pursue more information about the way it looks and plays. As with Duncan’s project page, you’ll see Connor also describes his role on the team and project and clearly communicates which portions of each game he was responsible for designing.

Narrative Design-Specific Addendum

If you’re specifically seeking narrative design roles, it’s good to have some writing-focused samples on your portfolio. I usually recommend the following, although it’s good to cross-reference with other game writing advice online to see what others say:

  • At least a couple pieces in Twine with interactive branching and decisionmaking involved. This will demonstrate your ability to write for an interactive format. Ideally, the more game writing you can showcase, the better.
  • At least one short screenplay-format piece. The vast majority of game writing is not fiction or poetry, it’s screenwriting. Stick to short pieces like a three-minute scene.
  • Ideally, at least one piece within an established world or fanbase. This might be fanfiction, a longer spec script for an existing TV show (mine is Mad Men), or a script you wrote for a mod on a game like Skyrim or Fallout. This will demonstrate your ability to write within the “voice” of someone else’s world, which is likely going to be the majority of your first few gigs.

Workshop the hell out of your pieces. Have critical, writing-savvy people take a look and offer you their blunt, honest feedback. Then incorporate that feedback. Make sure your samples are snappy and feel good. They’re your moneymakers and they’re going to land you a job, so they’d better be your strongest stuff!

Choose Your Work Wisely

If you have a lot of work you might be able to showcase, it’s better to leave out weaker or older portfolio pieces than to have a portfolio which feels sprawling and inconsistent. In other words, any time you add anything to your portfolio, look at what’s there and ask yourself, “Is this all really still my absolute best work? Am I deeply proud of every single thing here?” If the answer is ‘no,’ then cut whatever you feel least proud about to make room for the new addition.

Finding That First Job

Okay, the big day’s here. Your portfolio site is live and full of content you’re proud of, your resume’s good to go, and you’re starting to actually look for roles. Exciting! Congrats!

At this stage, you’ve probably gone to Indeed or Google or maybe even OrcaHQ and typed in “Entry Level Game Designer” and hit enter and seen…

Well, nothing.

Or — maybe there are one or two job openings, but they seem to ask for a lot of experience. Or there’s one opening that looks right, but it was posted four months ago. Uh oh.

You’ve just stumbled upon the truth of entry level game design positions: These positions do exist, but they (usually) aren’t posted publicly, and they (usually) aren’t labeled as entry level. Sitting on a job search engine hitting the Enter key every week is only going to end in disappointment. 

In fact, that’s kind of how the entire game industry works. Employers post jobs, of course — but ordinarily, they only pull candidates in from those job posts when they’re desperate. Here’s how recruiting usually works in games:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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 worked 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.
  5. 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.
  6. If the role is a design or writing role, the resumes pour in like a flood. The recruiter stops looking at any of the new resumes coming in after a few days, grabs some of the more promising candidates, and sends them to the team for review. At that point, the team only looks at more resumes if the first few candidates didn’t interview well.

In other words: in order to hear back after applying to an entry level game development job through a website portal, a small chain of miracles must have occurred in your favor. That’s not to say it’s impossible — it does happen! — but you’re going to have a far easier time finding a job if you learn how to hunt the way most established developers do.

We’ll cover this process specifically in Pt. 3 – Networking. Until then, let’s cover how to apply for jobs through a web portal or email submission “just in case” — because sometimes, it DOES work. 

Your Cover Letter

Ah, the dreaded cover letter. They don’t have to be bad! They really don’t! But I see a lot of silly cover letters. Most often, they make one of a few simple mistakes:

  • They’re too long. (Three short paragraphs. That’s it. We’ll get there in a sec.)
  • They’re too gushing. (“Nintendo games CHANGED MY LIFE.”)
  • They’re overly stiff. (“Dear Sir or Madam.” Keep in mind the person reading your cover letter probably has about fourteen zillion tattoos, six nose piercings, and some non-standard hair color like bright red or a rainbow undercut.)

Here are some simple rules of thumb to writing a cover letter:

  • Use the language of the job description. As much as possible, echo back the job description in your cover letter and speak to specific points.
  • Highlight what’s on your resume and go into slightly more detail. The cover letter is a chance to tell your story in your own words. Mention examples from the experiences you reference which aren’t mentioned on your resume, if possible.
  • Explain your connection to the studio’s work. Without being overly fan-ish, enumerate what excites you about working with the studio. Do you have some special connection that’s worth sharing?
  • Three paragraphs: Introduce, Connect, and Humanize. The first paragraph (2-4 sentences) is your opportunity to reflect the language of the job desc in order to grab the recruiter’s interest, as well as summarize your own skills. In the second paragraph (6-8 sentences), you’ll go into detail on each of those points. And in the third paragraph (2-4 sentences), you’ll briefly explain your personal interest and connection to the company. That’s it!

A Fantasy Cover Letter For A Fantasy Job

GAME DESIGN INTERN: So-and-So Studios is looking for a Game Design Intern. Responsibilities include creating tutorials for free-to-play game titles, modifying them in response to live data, and maintaining the content creation aspect of those tutorials for several titles simultaneously. The ideal candidate is passionate about a variety of free-to-play games and has a data-driven approach to decision-making, with a strong familiarity in Excel and Photoshop. Nice-to-haves include a degree in economics or finance, previous experience building content for free-to-play games, and experience in one or more programming or scripting languages.

Let’s say you have a look at the above job description. Here’s how I would recommend writing a cover letter for the above:

Dear Hiring Manager,

My name is [X], and I’m a game designer with prior experience in mobile game creation and tutorial creation. I try to espouse a strongly data-driven approach in all my design work, am proficient in several scripting languages, and have taken several economics courses during my time at college. I’d love to contribute my past experience to the team at So-and-So as a Game Design Intern.

It’s brief, but see how the first few sentences use specific words and phrases which were called out in the job description? That says, right away, “I’m the person you want. I have all the things you asked for.” It’s not buried or communicated in flowery language. It’s straightforward and clear.

It’s also ideal to mention the job title somewhere in the first paragraph, as well as your name. (Sometimes hiring managers are trying to fill many similar roles at once and it’s nice if they have a reminder of which role you’re looking at.)

I’ve worked on several small game projects, including a PC match-3 game created as part of a student project (“Picky Pandas”) where I was a level designer. I was responsible for creating the introductory levels of the game, which served as the game’s tutorial, and gathering playtest data and feedback to make decisions about the game’s design over time. I’m also developing a personal mobile adventure game of my own in GameMaker for iOS, scripting the project in GML. I’m comfortable working with basic C#, having worked on one indie project in Unity where I was required to script dialog sequences. Lastly, during my time at FSU, I took two advanced economics courses: “Intro to Macroeconomics” and “Behavioral Theory.”

In paragraph 2, you have the chance to expand on each of the points you made in paragraph 1. Then, we’ll close it out with our final paragraph:

I’ve played over 100 levels of So-and-So’s latest game, “Match-3 Madness,” and have really enjoyed my time with the game so far. I also had the opportunity to hear one of your senior engineers, Macy Johnson, speak about her work on live F2P games at FSU last fall. I think the work So-and-So is doing in the F2P space is incredibly interesting and I’d love to be a part of it. 

Thanks/Sincerely/Cheers/Best Wishes,

[X]

This last paragraph is your opportunity to briefly close out with something short which explains why you, the human being, are interested in the work these other human beings are passionate about (and work on for 40+ hours a week). Be respectful, positive, and finish on a high note. That’s it!

Whew. We’re Done!

In the next section we’ll cover the basics of networking in game development, and you’ll learn how to charm the hat off a Toad. (Wait. Is that a hat or is that his skull? You know what, nevermind.)

Go to Part III 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

¿Hablas español? 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Hi there!

I’m a game, VR and narrative designer located in Los Angeles, CA. I currently work as a Senior Narrative Designer at Riot Games.

In the last few years, I’ve done some stuff like:

  • Was a designer on one of the first demos for Oculus’ Santa Cruz, the world’s first standalone VR headset with 6DOF tracking and rich hand presence. I also delivered the first design talk ever given for this device about our virtual pet demo, Boundless.
  • Was a designer for a couple of nifty VR experiences at Oculus, such as the storybook world of Prologue and alien life simulator Farlands
  • Created Elsinore, a time-looping Shakespearean adventure game, along with my best friends — then took it to IndieCade, PAX, GDC, and more. It’s been covered by outlets like Kotaku, Vice, PC Gamer, Destructoid, GameInformer, Tom’s Hardware, and others
  • Wrote a Nancy Drew game and got to assume the persona of my favorite childhood author, Carolyn Keene, as well as write a pretty rad sea shanty
  • Served as an editor and narrative designer on the weird and awesome Kinect mystery game D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die — and repped it on a European press tour
  • Wrote about the death of indie Kickstarter as a viable funding platform and made a lot of internet people very angry in the process
  • Delivered a GDC talk teaching students about the process to get from university to their first game design/writing job
  • Started a movement at my alma mater to overhaul mental health care by writing about my experience with Carnegie Mellon’s student therapy system