Posted on Apr 12, 2011 | 8 comments

There’s one question other students ask me more often than anything else: “How’d you get your foot in the door?”

The economy sucks. Companies say they aren’t hiring. There are a ton of job search tools out there, but none of them seem to help. Sometimes we don’t even get automated responses to our applications, much less any feedback from an actual person. Yet somehow, some people are still getting jobs straight out of school.

I’m one of the lucky few, and now that I know where I’m going, I’ve had time to reflect on how I got here. There’s no clear-cut path to getting in, but there are plenty of things you can do to improve your chances – hopefully my experience will help somebody else.

Create an Online Portfolio

Way too many people wait until just before they graduate to make a portfolio and toss it online. You should do this as soon as you start college and add to it every semester. Add class projects. Blog about your experiences. It’ll make networking easier down the road.

Shell out the ten bucks a year for a real domain name. It looks a lot more professional and it’s easier for people to find. If you can get your domain to match your name, it’ll also raise your Google karma. If you’re a programmer, producer, or designer, it’s completely fine to use a prebuilt theme for a content management system like WordPress. If you’re an artist, you can still use something like WordPress, but you should think about customizing it to show off your skills.

Use your website as your opportunity to craft an experience that displays exactly what you want people to know about you.

Network Early

A lot of students seem to think that networking is the hardest part of the job search process. You don’t start off by knowing the the CEO of a major game company or someone who has the ability to directly land you a job. It’d be nice, sure, but it isn’t realistic.

Start off by getting to know your fellow students. They’re a fantastic foundation for networking. I made a game with someone on my dorm hall during my sophomore year, and he landed an internship. When I applied to the same company, I had the reputation of being “the guy who worked with the other guy,” and that went a long way in helping me get my first interview. It made me memorable to the recruiter because I associated me with someone who the company already knew to be qualified.

If you get to know a lot of your fellow students in your first and second years of college, you’ll end up “knowing people who know people” by your junior and senior years.

Make Something

Be the person who instills everyone with a drive to do something. Find a group that you really liked working on a project with in a class? See if they want to continue the project after the class is over. Find other people who want to make games. Start small, set a goal, and try to reach it. Maybe you just make a Flash game with a couple friends over a weekend. Don’t know how to make a Flash game? Find someone who does or find other people who want to learn how. Not interested in making a full game? Try making a mod.

A lack of programming skill isn’t an excuse to not make something. I’m a terrible programmer, but I still “made” an XNA game and released it on Xbox Live Indie Games in my second year of college. I worked with two student programmers and compensated for my lack of programming skill by being a designer, music composer, and artist. I wasn’t great at any of those tasks because I didn’t have any prior experience, but I was great at getting the programmers excited about making the game. That’s really all that matters for your first project.

If you wait to make a game until you have to make one for a class, you’re probably starting too late. I’ve heard a lot of students say they don’t have time to develop a game outside of class. I can assure you: you have time, you just have to be disciplined. If one guy can develop one game a day for 219 days straight, you can find the time to make one game over the course of a semester. Set deadlines and milestones if you have to. Use the IGF or Indiecade deadlines as a goal for getting something accomplished. If you really enjoy developing games, it shouldn’t a problem. If you’re worried your grades will suffer…well, you’re probably right. I wasn’t smart enough to do well in classes without studying for hours on end, so I chose to let my grades drop so I could make games. It worked out well for me and everyone else I know who did the same. Obviously you don’t want to flunk out of school, but you’ll learn to prioritize.

There are a few ways to do this wrong: don’t be the programmer who thinks they can do everything on their own. Occasionally you can, but you’ll be a much more attractive candidate for that first internship if you can show that you’ve worked on a team. Don’t be the designer who just has this great idea that will totally work and be successful if people would just make it. The reality is that programmers and artists, the people who make your ideas come to life, have ideas of their own – and often they’ll be better than yours. Real designers spend more time listening to feedback and refining ideas from their peers than they do designing things on their own.

Finish Something

Recruiter: “I see on your resume that you worked on a game called Project X.”
Student: “Yeah…I was making that for a while but I felt like I could do something better so I moved on and now I’m working on Project Y.”
Recruiter: “Oh, ok. That’s cool.”
Student: “Yeah. It will be.”
Recruiter: “OK.”
Student: “Yeah.”

This is where most students fall off track – they have a resume with tons of projects they’ve worked on, but nothing they’ve truly “finished.” Finishing one project and releasing it to the public is much more impressive to a recruiter than working ten times as long on four or five unfinished projects. It means you’ve successfully gone through an entire development cycle. You’ve started with an idea, executed it, and seen how consumers reacted to it. Starting a project is the easy part – it’s fun and exciting. Making all the content, fixing the bugs, and polishing the experience is the part that sucks the life out of you. It’s repetitive and often frustrating. But you’ll also feel much more accomplished when it’s actually finished.

Releasing a game can be as simple as uploading something to your personal website or Kongregate. Platforms like Facebook, iOS, Android, and XNA make independent distribution easier than ever, and as a result, it’s becoming more and more of a requirement for getting a job out of school. You know all those “entry level” job postings that say “minimum 1-2 shipped titles?” These count!

Feedback on your first game will probably be brutal. That’s OK. It doesn’t need to be good. In fact, it’s almost better for it to be bad. You’ll learn a lot more by having people tell you why your game sucks. Some people have the opposite problem – they’re afraid to finish a game because they know it isn’t perfect. The truth is that your game will never be perfect, and it’s OK. Games can be fun even if they aren’t perfect. If it isn’t fun, wrap it up and release it anyways – get feedback from players and figure out why it wasn’t fun, then fix it or move on. There’s a lot to be said for playtesting and polishing the user experience, but for your first project, being good isn’t as important as being shipped. You’ll learn from your mistakes and do things better the next time around.

Know What’s Happening

Do you want to make the next Guitar Hero? That’s great, but unfortunately no one wants to buy the next Guitar Hero. Be aware of industry trends – you need to know what games are popular and what games are failing, not just which ones are good and bad. Read a little bit of gaming news daily, if only for 15 or 20 minutes. Don’t just read one site, either: use something like GameTab so you can see which stories are popping up on multiple sites. That’ll tell you what the industry as a whole is buzzing about. Check out VGChartz every couple weeks to see what the best-selling games are. Read news sites like Gamasutra that are more business-oriented. As you start looking for a job, it’ll be really valuable to know that the company you want to work for just had a ton of layoffs or a company you hadn’t previously considered is opening up a new studio down the road.

Play Lots of Games

This is really important for designers and producers. There’s a big difference between playing games a lot and playing lots of games. Don’t play the same game for 100 hours. You might really like Call of Duty, but playing it past the five or six hour mark isn’t going to do a lot to make you a better game developer. If you only play games you enjoy, you won’t know “what not to do” when you’re making something new. This doesn’t mean you need to spend more time playing games – you can play ten different games for five hours a week instead of playing Team Fortress 2 or Minecraft for an hour a day. If you find a game you like and you want to play it longer, go ahead! Have fun, but learn to recognize when you reach the point where you’re no longer getting anything out of a game.

Playing a lot of games isn’t that expensive if you do it right. If you want to buy games used, go ahead, but even better than that for your budget is buying “new” games a few months after they come out. You can get just about any game for half of its retail price if you’re willing to wait. CheapAssGamer is an awesome community for finding deals as they happen. Goozex is a huge step up from GameStop if you want to go the used game route. GameFly is also a great alternative if keeping a physical library isn’t important to you.

Do you only buy games for PlayStation and think the Wii and Xbox are the embodiment of all evil? Tough. Get over it. Play games on every console. There is no single platform that gets all of the best games, and few employers are interested in hiring someone who only wants to make one kind of game for one platform. It’s OK to enjoy obscure JRPGs or play a lot of FPSes, but make sure you play the occasional platformer or random indie game too. I’ve been asked what kind of games I play in every interview. Being able to say “just about all kinds” and list three or four very different games is a good thing if you can do it honestly. It shows that you have a comprehensive knowledge of game conventions and that you’ll be able to pull from your mental library for just about any design or implementation problem.

You should also begin linking games and franchises to different developers and publishers so you can recall who does what in the industry. It’ll make networking with people a lot easier if you’ve heard of or played the games they’ve worked on, and it’ll help you recognize studios when they have job openings. It’s not as hard as it sounds, particularly if you keep up with industry news.

Go to GDC

Attending the Game Developers Conference is the best networking experience a student can get. Yes, it’s expensive. You’re already paying to go to school, though, and this will help you a lot more than any of your classes.

Start off by applying for the GDC volunteer program and the IGDA scholarship. If you don’t get in, it’s OK – you can still find a way to make it work.

Before you go to the conference, do the following:

  • Make business cards with your name, field, phone number, and website. Print them yourself if you’d like – you shouldn’t need very many.
  • Print a dozen or so copies of your resume. Most companies at the expo won’t accept paper resumes anymore, but it’s good to have them just in case.
  • Research the companies you’re interested in working for that will be at the conference, and figure out why you want to work for them. Companies are not impressed with people who go around to every booth to see who is hiring. If they have to tell you about what their company does or what games they make, that’s not a good start. The GDC website offers a list of all the companies in attendance a few weeks before the conference every year.

If it’s your first time going, get an Expo Pass. Enjoy the sights and sounds, schmooze around the career pavilion, and have fun. Most importantly, do your research and find out where the parties are. The worst-kept secret of GDC is that the best networking happens outside of the conference halls. You’ll never find a better atmosphere for meeting people. Most people really like to talk about themselves, and a party with an open bar is a great environment for starting a conversation. Exchange cards with everyone you talk to – you probably won’t remember names the next day.

Your chances of landing an internship or job while at GDC are actually quite slim. Most companies at the career pavilion will tell you to submit your resume online and wait for a response. That hardly means the career pavilion is useless – use it as an opportunity to make yourself memorable to the recruiters and follow their instructions. Ask if there’s anyone in your discipline around from their company that you can talk to and learn more about their studio culture. Get their business cards so you can email them directly to stay in touch and reiterate your interest.

When you get home the week after GDC, pull out that stack of business cards and find out who you just met – use Google, MobyGames, or anything else you want. It’s OK to tell someone that you looked them up and found out they worked on your favorite Genesis game back in the day – in fact, it’s a great icebreaker. As a student in particular, you’re in a great position to ask for feedback on your personal projects. How cool is it to be able to say that you had a designer from a big studio playtest your game and offer ideas? You aren’t wasting their time by asking, and you’ll be surprised at how willing most people in the industry will be to help you out.

Never Stop Networking

Networking is more than meeting people – it’s about learning how to stay in touch. Facebook and Twitter are particularly helpful with this because they do a lot of the work for you, but don’t be afraid to send the occasional email. Again, this is a young, casual industry, and it’s completely acceptable to email someone who has the job you want with a question or favor to ask. You’ll probably find them asking you questions from time to time too.

Too many students wait for internship or job opportunities to hit them in the face – a flyer on campus advertising a company visit, a professor sharing a job opportunity with a class over email, etc. Take those opportunities when they come, but also reach out to companies on your own. Do you have a classmate or a friend who did an internship with a company you’d want to work for? Ask for an introduction. Don’t be afraid to email people. Worst case scenario is that you won’t get a response. Start this process early on – preferably as soon as you have a portfolio that you feel comfortable showing. Your school might have some sort of online system for finding jobs, and it might help, but be aware that you can bypass it and talk to directly to employers if it makes you more comfortable.

Closing

If you’ve done most of these things, you should be well ahead of the pack for getting that elusive internship or job offer. There’s no 100% guaranteed way to get your foot in the door, but I can say with confidence that the methods above can only do you good. Never stop networking or making things. Keep trying and you’ll land on your feet.

If you have anything to add to this article, please let me know! If you disagree with something, let me know that too!

Update: Fellow Tech student Dan Spaventa offers some complementary advice on things that many people take for granted:

“Be Passionate.” A big mistake I made early on and I see a lot of people make is talking/writing to people too mechanically. It’s important to get across just how serious and passionate you are about making games and your general love of game development …and you can’t necessarily do that if you are writing a generic John Deer letter to whoever it is you are trying to express interest to. Keep some level of professionalism in the letter or conversation, but never try to talk as someone you think they would hire rather than yourself who you are going to convince them to hire.

“Be confident.” Not everything you make is going to be the greatest game ever, or will come out exactly how you expect it. Be proud of your failures and be able to learn from them rather than feel sorry for yourself or push them under the rug never to talk about them again. If you don’t think you are good at what you do, how do you expect people in the industry to think so? I know when I went into my second interview I had the crazy eye. I wanted that job more than anything and I made it clear that I wanted it and was best suited for it by being passionate and confident about everything I had said.

“Be realistic.” Shoot for that dream job at game company X, but don’t be afraid to start out small and build experience at another company so that you may actually be an ideal candidate later down the road. Don’t just apply to blockbuster AAA companies and expect to nail a job as content designer or something ridiculously out of reach for an entry level designer. Still shoot for those positions, but also look to smaller companies and projects like Mom and Pop’s iPhone game development company.

Update (2): Lots of great feedback coming in. Former Pandemic / EALA software engineer Neil Mehta adds:

I want to echo one of Dan’s points: be passionate. When I interviewed people at EA and Pandemic, I was looking for 3 things: fit, communication skills and technical skills (in that order). Considering that there will be some weeks where I’m spending more time with you than with my girlfriend (weekends included), you’d better be worth it.

Resources

Here are a few links I may have mentioned in the article above along with some others that are generally helpful to have. If you think I’m missing something, please add suggestions in the comments.

Game Creation Tools

  • Unity – http://unity3d.com/
    Unity is a widely-used 3D game engine that offers a free version for students and hobbyists. There are also a ton of great tutorials available for it, along with a busy forum community with a reputation for being kind to newbies.
  • App Hub / XNA Game Studio – http://create.msdn.com/en-US/
    XNA is Microsoft’s free development platform for Xbox Live Indie Games and Windows Phone 7. They have some great resources for helping you get started too. Microsoft also offers free XNA subscriptions (needed to test / publish games on the Xbox) through MSDNAA (if you school offers it) or DreamSpark. And even if you don’t qualify for the free subscription, the annual free is under $150.
  • Flixel – http://flixel.org/
    Popularized after the release of indie-darling Canabalt, Flixel is a great framework for Flash if you’re looking to create a 2D sidescroller. It has a very active community and offers compatibility with lots of existing tech. You also don’t need the expensive Flash suite to develop with it!

Indie Game Contests (Student-Friendly)

  • Global Game Jam – http://globalgamejam.org/
    If you do one thing on this list, do the Global Game Jam. It only takes 48 hours of your life and you’ll (likely) have a playable game to show for it.
  • Independent Games Festival – http://igf.com/
    The IGF is the most well-known of the indie festivals.  It’s free for students to enter, so why not? Deadline is usually in October or November, so it’s good for fall semester projects.
  • Indiecade – http://www.indiecade.com/
    Another good festival with a big showing at E3. Indiecade’s deadline is usually in May or June, so it’s better for spring semester projects.
  • Indie Game Challenge – http://www.indiegamechallenge.com/home/
    A relatively new contest, this one has less “prestige” than the others but has the biggest cash prizes thanks to its sponsorship by Gamestop. They have a non-professional / hobbyist category that works well for students.
  • Dream Build Play – http://www.dreambuildplay.com/
    If you’re making an XNA game for Xbox 360, you should absolutely enter this contest sponsored by Microsoft. Winners have a shot at getting their game on Xbox Live Arcade.
  • Experimental Gameplay Project – http://experimentalgameplay.com/
    For less-traditional games (or an exercise in prototyping), check out the Experimental Gameplay Project. They have monthly development contests for games made in seven days or less. Lots of good stuff has come out of here, like World of Goo and Henry Hatsworth. (Thanks, Lamine!)
  • Ludum Dare – http://ludumdare.com/
    Another “make a game in 48 hours” competition, but with a bit more structure. (Thanks, Lamine!)

Game Developer Blogs

  • HobbyGameDev – http://www.hobbygamedev.com/
    Maintained by indie superstar Chris DeLeon, HobbyGameDev is full of great articles offering inspiration for any type of game project. There are also some interesting game criticism articles – similar to my deconstructions, but on a much higher level. 
  • Wolfire Games – http://www.wolfire.com/
    Wolfire is perhaps better known for starting the Humble Indie Bundle than they are for their own games, but you won’t find them complaining about that. They’re one of the few developers to keep a devblog that highlights the day-to-day development of their upcoming title. It’s easy to read and the developers are often online to chat with.
  • Extra Credits – http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits
    Well-written critiques of gaming culture with occasional tidbits of job advice. Not a “real” developer blog, but an awesome series nonetheless.  

Gaming News Websites

  • Gamasutra – http://www.gamasutra.com/
    Generally regarded as the top resource for industry news, Gamasutra is operated by the same group that puts on the Game Developers Conference. It comes in a variety of flavors with network sites for mobile, indie, and digital games. There’s also a handy job search tool that may or may not be of use for you.
  • EvoTab – http://www.evotab.com/
    Great game news aggregator by Reed Lakefield, original creator of the still-great GameTab. You can customize which sites it shows with ease, and it does a great job of letting you compare headlines from sources across the net. I prefer EvoTab for its lack of intrusive ads and easy color scheme, but take your pick.