Getting a job in the games industry: its all about skill

Tim Schafer recently posted scans of his rejection letters over the years from various tech and games companies he applied to. There’s one from Atari, one from Hewlett Packard – and, eventually, his acceptance letter from Lucasfilm / Lucasarts.

But far, far more important to this post is the cover-letter that Tim sent to Lucasfilm (it’s a truly special cover letter (go have a look now, before you read on)).

There’s also a rich array of comments at the end of Tim’s post. The HR manager (now head of HR at Pixar) who handled his job application all those years ago even chimes in to say hi. But, again, that’s not what I found interesting; what I liked was the large number of comments from wannabe game developers trying to get into the industry right now.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Reading those comments, here’s a couple of things I noticed:

  • They feel “inspired” and full of “renewed hope” / “confidence” that they have a chance of getting into the industry at all
  • Lots of wishful comments fishing for a confirmation that this technique would “still work today”, while declaring that they’re sure it doesn’t (supposedly demonstrating their realism)
  • The realization that lack of experience is no barrier to becoming an industry legend; coincidentally, most of the people saying this have no experience of their own

…and here’s the conclusions that leapt to my mind:

  • New entrants to the industry are convinced it’s very hard to “break in”; they sound by turns cynical and hopeless. This is merely to get a *job*, not to actually achieve anything. Ouch
  • No-one seems to have told them how easy it can be (how straight-forward it often is)
  • They’re guessing at the reasons this was successful, and are picking the wrong ones (hint: what worked for Tim still works today, if anything *even more* than it did 20 years ago)
  • Their understanding of what it takes to become a major industry figure is back-to-front

Why was Tim successful? How can you re-create that today?

OK, so Tim was: funny, dedicated, and inventive.

But we’ve all heard (I hope) of many occasions when any or all three of those have not only failed to win people jobs but have got them ridiculed (sometimes even had their desperate exploits broadcast at the company or industry level). I’m not thinking simply of the games industry here – although I noticed one the other week where a hopeful Quest Designer tried it on with Blizzard (they spent a thousand dollars on fancy-printed design docs for their proposed Raid Dungeon, drove to Blizzard’s offices, and spent a couple of days sitting on the sidewalk handing copies to staff as they arrived / left the office each day).

Rather, I was thinking of all the stories of people doing everything from sending in their Resume/CV wrapped in shiny metallic paper, to sending gifts (including alcohol) to the hiring managers, to stuff that comes dangerously close to stalking.

Reading the comments on Tim’s post, in at least a couple of cases, I’m not convinced that the posters see the difference between those disasters and what Tim did. I don’t know any of the people involved, but I do know there are positions we’ve recruited for in the past 5 years where a cover letter akin to Tim’s would have gone a very long way (possibly even “all the way”) towards single-handedly getting us to hire someone.

IMHO, it’s all about skill and enthusiasm (although few companies hire on enthusiasm, so we’ll just stick to the “skill” part)

What Tim shows is skill for the *underlying* things that his (potential) employers would love to see him employ in his day job. That requires showing ALL of the following:

  • Personal interest (he plays games. He plays them enough for the next part to be possible)
  • Understanding of a genre (he understands a genre well enough to pastiche it effectively; you can’t do that if all you’ve done is dabble in it (unless you’re particularly skilled at literary/experience analysis – which is great, we want that too! ))
  • Ability to polish (look at the images; notice how he sends up each of LA and Silicon Valley in panels 2a and 2b, and makes out San Rafael to be the land of Nature and Sunshine and happiness)
  • Knowing when to stop (again, look at the images. The “volume” of detail is actually very small; apart from the final image, they are very simple, and quick to execute)

One thing we don’t know, that I’d love to know, is the timing: how long after the phone call did he send this in? I’ve known candidates to take *more than a month* to complete something that was offered (by them!) in a job interview. WTF? If you say you have something, we assume you either have it, or will complete it imminently. i.e. days – a week at the most.

TO GET A JOB IN THE GAMES INDUSTRY, ALL YOU NEED TO DO IS …

Let’s see how simple I can make this…

Make a game.

3 words. Not bad. I think that’s pretty clear.

Sadly, most people misunderstand it *completely*.

Look back at the rest of this blog post; it all lead up to this. When college students ask senior people, and hiring managers, what to do to get their first job, and we say “make a game; make several games”, our reasons for saying that are all encapsulated in what I’ve already said.

Even if you’re in a discipline that has read-made degrees (Programming: Computer Science; Art: Fine Art, etc), what you’re usually showing with your degree is a small amount of education and a large amount of skill / aptitude. University/College rarely teaches the things you’ll need every day to do your job, but it prepares you in a more general way to be/become skilled more quickly.

Imagining a game is easy; if you like games, you should be able to imagine games you’d like to play, or make.

Making a game is easy, if you only ever make a game that fits within your abilities and resources. I’ve made games in under a day. Some of them were even fun! ;). I have a friend who *frequently* writes entire games in a single evening. He’s a programmer, with no art or game-design skills – but some of what he makes looks gorgeous and is great fun; he cheats; so should you. So … never tell me that making a game is “beyond” you; just shrink your ambition to fit.

(incidentally, “I can’t program” is not a valid excuse; pre-teen children regularly learn to program – (IIRC it’s still in the national curriculum in most western countries, although it’s not labelled “computer programming”) – and if they can handle it, what’s wrong with you that you’re too stupid/lazy to do it too? No-one’s asking you to learn highly optimized C++, that would be insane. But … all you need is Basic, PHP, Javascript, or something similar)

Finishing making a game – removing all the “doesn’t actually work” parts – is hard. But everyone who’s been there should understand: it’s *hard* to include all the bits that weren’t fun for you to make. It’s hard to force yourself to check all the buttons still work every time you change something. It’s hard to force yourself to write in-game instructions *and keep them up-to-date* each time you change the game-design, or add/remove a feature.

And that’s a big part of why we judge you on it. Because if you can do that – more than anything else – all the other problems are smaller, more tractable.

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