Last week, I discussed the realities of the video games industry, suggesting that it’s actually a real job with real work, despite its coolness factor, and pointing out that breaking in is an uphill battle against a horde of seasoned professionals. For those still interested, what follows are some methods that might make it easier to break in. All of this is based on my experience, and other industry members might have other anecdotes of how one can get a job in the “biz.”

There are two major paths that I’m aware of to get into the video games industry: Connections and Qualifications.

Connections

Video games are perhaps one of the biggest bastions of nepotism on an industry-wide level. If you visit nearly any studio and get people talking about how they know everyone else, you’ll find intricate webs of family members and old friends tying huge swaths of the company together.

The CEO brings along the core members of his last company, they staff the rest of management with people that come highly recommended by their friends or people they’ve known for years and finally have a chance to work with, and then all of them fill in any positions they can with kids of an appropriate age. They hire creative directors that have produced past products that they enjoyed or whom they worked with previously, those guys snap up previous coworkers and gaming buddies, and those hires, in turn, recommend their own friends, family, and significant others.

Even if your inexperience doesn’t disqualify you from the application process, there’s likely to be multiple individuals that have the same inexperience but also know someone at the company, and will be more likely to get hired than you. From an outsider’s perspective, this sucks. It’s unfair. It makes it way harder to get in. But it happens for a pretty decent reason.

Every game studio is a huge collection of creative people that have to work together in various arrangements to get anything at all done. When you  have members of a team that can’t get along, can’t argue their agendas without it turning into a real fight, and can’t ultimately compromise on a solution that everyone can accept (even if it’s not anyone’s preference), it’s tremendously harder to get anything done.

Personal connections are, many times, the glue that makes a functional team. Who would you rather work with on a team: a competent but unexceptional designer who is easy to get along with or a very skilled powderkeg of emotions that is as likely start a fight as to produce something brilliant? There’s much less room for talented prima donnas in a team-based organization than there is for individuals that can get the job done without getting into arguments. So there’s a very real use for being able to look at an applicant and know that someone you trust thinks this person is also going to be cool to work with (or, even if he or she can be kind of a jerk, bonds of friendship will restrain those impulses from going too far).

So how do you make nepotism work for you instead of against you?

If you have a genuine friendship with someone that’s part of the industry, it doesn’t hurt to ask him or her to be on the lookout for opportunities or, failing that, to just try to get you invited to social events where coworkers will be present, and introduce you around.

If you don’t have a pre-existing connection, it’s a little more difficult to accomplish, but you can network. Large MMO guilds or other multiplayer clans seem to inevitably draw in a game designer or two that you can befriend (it’s an interesting quirk of the industry; there are probably, say, hardly any dentists that spend a lot of time hanging out in other dental offices in their free time). If you’re in a city with game studios, attending large roleplaying gatherings or video game nights is probably a good way to meet people who work at a game company or have genuine friends that do. If you can get into game developer conferences or even local IGDA meetings, those are sure places to meet professionals (though they may not be there to make friends).

In either situation, it’s important that you either be very clear that you’re trying to network or very interested in actually making friends. If you’re essentially just using people to get a job, be open about it or they’ll ultimately feel manipulated. It defeats the entire purpose of vouching for people.

Also, try not to be a prima donna. Even once you get into the industry, it never hurts to step back and realize that the people you’re talking to are likely just as smart and creative as you, but happen to have a different opinion. If you can prove that you’re cool to work with, you’ll have lots of people happy to vouch for you in the future when your current gig inevitably starts laying off designers to go to other companies.

Qualifications

Some people do manage to get their first job in the industry without knowing a single member of the company before submitting a resume. Nearly all of these people have an education in programming, art, or some other vital skill.

The reality is that game designers and writers are the least privileged class of industry professionals (though, in my—clearly biased—opinion as a game designer/writer, the most important to the success of a game). There’s a continuum between coming up with a bad plot/system/mission and a good one, and just about anyone can jump in on the low end without training. Conversely, being able to program/script, make 3D art assets, etc. are all skills that require some level of training to even attempt. Sit any random guy off the street in front of a word processor and ask him to write the story for a video game and he’ll likely attempt something. Sit him in front of a 3D art program and ask him to make a creature or level and you’ll get a far different response. Whether it’s fair or not, nepotism has a lot bigger sway when people are hiring writers and designers, because there’s an awful lot you can learn on the job and designers have to work on teams and compromise more than potentially any other specialty.

So, what that means is:

  • If you’re interested in entering the industry as a programmer/scripter, artist, or some other specialty that requires up-front training to even attempt, you should be set. Make sure to put forth as much effort as possible in school so you’ll be able to pass programming tests and/or have a respectable portfolio to show off and you should be able to eventually find a studio that’s hiring junior members of your specialty. Congratulations.
  • If you’re interested in entering the industry as a writer/game designer, it pays to crosstrain. Some degree of skill scripting in programming languages is very helpful, because, unless the company has a comprehensive toolset, at least some of the process of adding content to the game requires scripting. If you can do that yourself, rather than having to team up with a dedicated programmer, that makes you more valuable.

Other Strategies

If none of these options are available to you, there are three remaining strategies:

  • Go to a school that pushes internships in a city with a large number of gaming companies, and avail yourself of this opportunity. Even if you don’t get paid, an internship gives you an automatic way to make friends in the industry, to learn valuable skills, and maybe even count it as job experience. Figure out how to afford it, and make sure your school can place you.
  • Look for QA and other entry-level opportunities. It will probably mean low pay for a while, but is just as useful as an internship at making friends. You’ll probably get promoted internally if you stick it out for long enough and your talent and personality mesh with your desired destination team. However, while QA is generally an entry-level job, it’s also a valid career for which you might compete with better-suited individuals; it’s possible to be an excellent tester without having any potential for design, and vice versa.
  • Apply for every industry job that looks even a little interesting and for which you meet the requirements. You never know when you might find a company that’s just hasn’t gotten targeted by a lot of more experienced applicants and is willing to give you a shot. Do make sure to do your due diligence on the company and its owners if the job requires relocation or will otherwise hurt your future if you take it and then hate it or the company goes under soon after you join: any job is often better than no job when you’re just starting out, but you don’t want to get into a situation from which you can’t recover if it goes bad.

Just make sure, if you get hired in a role that is not your preference, that you don’t alienate people. Phoning it in with one department while obviously trying to get into another is a clear way to avoid making friends. Do the job you signed on for as well as you can, make friends in your anticipated destination who will speak up for you when a position opens, and learn everything you can from anyone who will teach you.

Ultimately, it’s important to take any foot in the door, because opportunities are limited and competition is intense. Once you have a couple years of experience and a network of industry insiders that know that you’re safe to work with, getting successive jobs should become progressively easier.

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