Thursday, October 20, 2011

Advice on breaking into - and working in - the video game industry

This post is a compendium of emails and articles I've written for folks interested in breaking into the video game industry. I will continue to post as I have more information to share.

Q:  What do hiring managers look for?

A:  We see lots of young, fresh-out-of-school people who don't understand what it's like to hold a day job, and have unrealistic expectations of what it means to make games. Therefore, working on games as a hobby, before you get paid for it, is a real plus from the perspective of a person looking at your resume. 

Hiring managers want to know that you know what it takes to make a game, have a strong work ethic, and are dedicated to the idea of being a part of something cool like a video game. Honestly, there are 100 people applying for each job so we never lack candidates. What we DO lack are GOOD candidates. We need people who are dedicated and reliable. If you can find a way to convey that when applying for jobs, I encourage you to do so!

Q:  How do I learn how to network? What about self-promotion?

A:  I feel very lucky to know a lot of awesome folks in the industry, from indie developers to big studio/publisher executives. I met these people by learning who is who in the industry, then seeking out people I wanted to know more about at industry events. Because I live in an area where there are a lot of game development studios, it's fairly easy for me to locate them. 

If you aren't near many industry vets, you might try attending trade shows such as PAX, GDC, and so forth. In addition, you should cultivate a professional personality. For example, you can write a game-related blog (in your chosen domain, of course), and post professional, well-crafted entries on a regular basis. Also, I recommend establishing a profile on listing your experience (in all areas) and participating in indie game development contests.

Q:  What is included in an average day in the life of a producer?

A:  I work with product managers to secure review and approval for the features they design. I work with our engineers to get estimates for implementing the features. I work with artists and content creators to ensure they have the information and designs they need to execute on in-game items, animations, levels, and marketing assets. Basically, I understand all of the pieces that go into a new version of our game, and then help everyone execute on them by holding meetings, schedules for the team, writing documentation, and lots of other small tasks.

Q:  Where did you start in the industry, and how long did it take you to work your way up?

A:  I worked in software development for more than four years, starting in Technical Support, moving to Quality Assurance, and finally into project management. I decided that I wanted to move into video game development, and found the skills I'd gained applied very well to game development. I joined Linden Lab to work on Second Life in 2005 as a Project Coordinator. From there, I worked as Program and Project Manager for, BioWare Edmonton's Dragon Age:  Origins, online features for Mass Effect 2 and other games at EA, project manager at World Golf Tour, Agile Program Manager at Playdom SF, and Director of Studio Operations at Loot Drop, Inc.

Q:  What skills would someone need to get a job in the game industry?

A:  Loving video games is great, but that alone doesn't qualify you for a job. You need to have a skill or two that is in demand for the creation of games:  for artists, this should be both traditional and digital art skills; for programmers, modern programming language experience, and graphics or physics programming knowledge; for designers, scripting language such as Lua or Python; for animators, experience with 3D animation using a popular program such as Maya; for QA or other entry-level roles, experience doing the thing you want a position for, even as a hobby or non-professionally, is a boon. Producers tend to come from one of these other disciplines, having decided to follow a management path. Some of us, like me, are professional project managers who are applying our skills to this industry.

Q:  What software packages should students learn to improve their ability to work in games? 

A:  Maya, 3D Studio Max, After Effects, and QuickTime for animators; C++, C#, Unreal Engine, Unity 3D engine, ActionScript3, etc. for programmers; Lua, Python, Unreal Editor for designers; Photoshop, Maya, ZBrush, etc. for artists. I'm sure there are others, but these are the most popular and useful.

Q:  How much of the producer's work is collaborative?

A:  My work is all collaborative - everything I do is on behalf of the team or the product or the company!

Most work done in games is collaborative from the perspective that the person designing things isn't implementing them, and people have to work together to produce polished final content. That said, most people will work half a day alone, and maybe a quarter of the day in meetings or reviews where collaboration occurs.

Q:  What is the most common shortcoming of job seekers in the game industry? 

A:  There are a lot of people who want to make games. There is a lot of competition for positions. However, if you are motivated and have initiative to learn tools and techniques on your own, recruiters and hiring managers will take notice. They want people who know how to work hard and don't expect making games to be as fun as playing them (because it's not).

Q:  What is your educational background?  Do you feel it adequately prepared you for your career?

A:  I majored in Japanese in college. I wound up moving into tech in 2001 when there were lots of jobs in the sector and not enough "qualified" applicants. Five years later, in 2005, I moved into video games and have been here since. What prepared me for a career in video games was my love of video games more than anything else. I found that what I'm good at - project management - is needed in the production of games large and small. So, I can follow my passions in play and work at the same time. I'm currently working on my masters degree in project management to add a classical education to my self-taught project management skills.

Q:  What opportunities are there for promotion in the game industry?

A:  The opportunities to advance really depend on the area you are in. Most specialists - designers, artists, animators, engineers - can choose between a management role or a subject-matter expert role in which they mentor others but don't directly oversee them. Regardless of the role, your typical progression in most departments is:  junior or assistant, then associate, then ..., and eventually senior or lead, manager, and finally director. 

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