Monday, July 18, 2011

Game Industry: How to break in

Speaking to Game Developers at a Baltimore IGDA in Firaxis's old office

For about 5 years now I've been giving talks to students from middle school to post-college about game design and programming. These talks have been at schools, industry events, and sometimes small gatherings at coffee shops. I'm reminded of the mysterious nature of how to break into the game industry every time I participate in these conversations. I hope by posting a few thoughts here, it will help budding game developers on their journey.

Where to find game developers:
The International Game Developer's Association (IGDA) is a global organization that helps connect local game developers to each other as well as to the broader community. If you cannot find a local chapter; the national IGDA can direct you to the closest one. Alternatively, if devoid of a local chapter, you can work with national to establish one in your own area.
Industry related conferences are another great place to find developers. The Game Developer's Conference (GDC) is the single best place to meet people in the industry as well as learn the latest techniques and tools for making games. Besides the main GDC in San Francisco, there are now also satellite conferences in China, Texas, and Europe.

When attending a social function, do NOT...
  1. Ask what the developer is working on; instead ask if their title is announced
  2. Ask if the studio is hiring; they'll likely redirect you to their web-site
  3. Hand a developer a resume; it will be thrown away shortly after
  4. Be afraid to talk about your game ideas; chances of them being "stolen" are slim

But do...
  1. Have a business card with your name, e-mail, phone, and aspiring title (e.g., "Character Artist").
  2. Take an interest in the developer as a fellow human being; a fellow geek, artist, etc... and not just your connection to the industry
Any one of these points could be expanded to a few paragraphs, with personal stories.  If you are local, and want the detailed skinny; hit me up for coffee and I'll give it.  The short is, that unless a developer has explicitly made it clear they are looking for talent to hire, they are at the event to meet friends and/or give back to the community with their knowledge. They are not there to recruit. It's for this reason that at Big Huge Game's annual art reviews they make it clear they are not hiring artists, just giving feedback to help students and indies.

Business cards are key because they offers some form of contact, are less bulky and less formal than a resume, and are frequently handed out amongst game developers.

If you plan to be a programmer in the industry, make sure you have at least one (if not a few) games coded.  This could be a maze game, dungeon crawler, or even just pong with lots of twists, but it needs to actually exist (and work) to show you have a passion for games and not just a desire with little follow through.

When I was working full-time outside of the industry, I took on Nehe's OpenGL Open Source Zelda project.  While incomplete, it did have enough features to be worthy of showing perspective game employers, and did help me land my first game job working at Breakaway Games on C&C3:Kanes Wrath.

For artists, having art in a game is helpful and should be done in tandem with creating a stellar portfolio. (If you want to be a concept artist, you better kick ass at drawing the human figure to proportion; no flat art!)

The Non-Technical
Designers, and artists who are not technically savvy have many options today in terms of programs to help them make games with minimal programming. Game Maker, Phrogram, and Scratch are just a few of the dozens of game making solutions out there for non-programmers.

The best situation is where you can gather a few people together and make a game that pulls on everyone's specialities. Whether it be for a Game Jam, a contest like the Independent Games Festival (IGF), or just for the sake of making a game, it does create a strong impression to a prospective employeer when you've made a game within a team environment.

Prototype! If you can code, that's a bonus, but paper-prototyping is available to all. Just grab paper, some dice, some checker pieces, some glass beads from the bowl in your bathroom holding a candle, and let your imagination go wild.

It is also good to jot down game ideas as they come to you. I keep a "black book" of game ideas; and some of my geekier coding thoughts. When I have the inspiration and time, I turn them into prototypes. For the prototypes that turn out well, I'll be able to create a full featured game.

Some selections from my black book...


Final words
If you want to be a game developer; make games!

Continuing to push ahead on a game when that initial drive wears off is what separates a game developer from a want-to-be game developer.  Each time you overcome a "boring hurdle" you're overcoming adversity that send many back to just playing games.

Don't get me wrong: keep playing games too.  But know you'll have to cut back your time in Team Fortress 2, Minecraft and other fun distractions if you are going to bring your imagination alive for others to enjoy.

It also doesn't hurt to read Gamasutra, Game Developer magazine, as well as blogs & twitter feeds of existing developers.  Keeping abreast of what's happening in the gamedev industry will give you more small talk during the lunch portion of an interview as well as allows you to make more intelligent remarks.

Good luck!

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