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BREAKING IN? MAKE GAMES!

15 Jun 2009

[Due to recent, heavy demands on my time, this week's Monday Musing is a repost of an article I published in January on breaking into the games industry.]

“How do I break in to the games industry?”

This is the single most common game development-related question I’ve encountered in every community and on every forum and website I’ve ever interacted with. I’ve heard lots of answers, too:

  • Get a degree. You’ll never get into game development without one.
  • Know the right people. You’ll never get into game development without contacts.
  • Be in the right place at the right time. You’ll never get into game development without luck.
  • Be persistent. You’ll never get into game game development if they don’t know you’re there.
  • Start in QA. You’ll never get into game development if you don’t pay your dues.

In my opinion, all of those answers are wrong. You want to know how you really get into the industry?

Two words: “MAKE GAMES”.

It’s really that simple. Once you’ve made a game, there’s no question whether you know what you’re doing: you’ve already done it. After that, getting a game design job is no different from getting a job at your local Wendy’s.

I’m speaking from experience: shortly after high school I built Gem Feeder, a mod for Unreal Tournament 2004, as well as a handful of levels for the same game. Those projects got me my first game design job. (Interestingly enough, they also got me my second, despite now having professional experience on my resume.)

But let’s step back for a moment, and discuss in more detail why I’m throwing so much conventional wisdom under the bus.

“Get a degree”

I firmly believe that getting a degree — any degree — has nothing whatsoever to do with getting a job. College is about education, not employment. Don’t think that piece of paper is going to automatically open all the doors for you; it’s not a magic key to the games industry. If you’re going to get a degree, do it because you genuinely want to know stuff. Do it for its own sake.

I’ve been a game designer for almost five years, and I never got a degree. But I did make a game.

“Know the right people”

Knowing the right people is certainly helpful in any endeavor, not just job-hunting, but connections are by no means critical to the process. You don’t need to be friends with the boss’s nephew to get a job; if you lean on that crutch, you’re selling yourself short.

Studios post their job openings publically; check their websites, or online resources like Gamasutra’s Job Seekers page.

You don’t need someone to vouch for you. If you’ve made a game, your work will speak for itself.

“Be in the right place at the right time

This is just plain old-fashioned stupid. Life isn’t about luck, or waiting for opportunities to land in your lap. You can learn the right place and the right time, then put yourself there.

Watch job listings for this information, then make your presence known with a resume and a link to your game.

“Be persistent”

This is only good advice if you are already qualified. Unfortunately, some people misinterpret this as, “I’ll annoy the hell out of someone until they take pity on me and make me a game designer; only *then *can I start learning how to design games.”

There is nothing stopping you from making a game right now. Apply your persistence to making a game, not making some studio’s HR person’s life a living hell.

“Start in QA”

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve read the assertion, “Nobody gets hired straight into game design!” I’d be a rich man. Of course, you can start in QA if you like, and in most cases it’s true that once you’re employed by a studio in any capacity, getting into the position you want becomes easier. But why does QA have to be the stepping stone?

If you want to be a game designer, then “pay your dues” by making a game, not testing someone else’s. I’ve never worked a day of QA in my life… but I did make a game.

The conventional wisdom does have its advantages, of course. But treating any — or even all — of the above maxims as the de facto keys to your first game design job is just misguided.

Instead, MAKE GAMES.

If you lack skills, learn them. (You probably don’t need college for this; we live in the Internet Age, after all.)

If you lack time, re-arrange your priorities. You *do *want to be a game designer more than anything else in the world… right?

If you lack resources, conform your game’s scope to work with what you have. Small, focused mods — like Gem Feeder — are good projects in this regard.

If you think this all sounds like too much work, then do yourself a favor and switch career paths now. It doesn’t get any easier after you “break in”. In fact, it gets a hell of a lot harder. If that’s off-putting, then you’re in the wrong line of work. But if it’s exciting, then you’ll have no problems at all. ;)

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