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.

12 Replies to “Getting a job in the games industry: its all about skill”

  1. It’s surprising to me how many graduates have nothing other than their courseworks to show — the same courseworks that every other graduate on the course create.

    They often have no other work to show; no silly little games, no mods, etc. They literally have nothing to distinguish themselves from their peers. I don’t really care whether someone has made a shiny looking coursework with some cut and paste shaders because there’s a queue of those guys; I want to see what folk have created and _finished_ off their own backs when nobody asked them to.

    When modding, it was nearly always the case that anyone with a website full of half-finished examples (e.g. half textured guns, level beauty shots with no release or screenshots of programs they were working on — but no program download) would invariably half-finish stuff and then disappear.

    Finishing sucks. I’ve yet to hear anyone get excited and scream, “wow, nice job on improving the clipping around handrail 23b and removing those hidden polygons!” It’s a boring task to optimise, polish and cull features, but there’s no point in doing anything unless you can finish. You can’t play or sell a screenshot.

    I’ve seen some really inspiring stuff from dedicated folk who (pragmatically) follow a dream. One such case involved a guy who decided that he hated being unemployed. So, he picked up level design and, each day, decided to try and learn as much as possible.

    The guy learned everything about UnrealEd and pumped out multiple level releases, each better than the last. He went from zero to employed in a very short space of time. It just shows you what you can do if you put your mind to it.

  2. “all you need is Basic, PHP, Javascript, or something similar”

    And spending months, full time, to learn the basics of those languages, to produce something which falls flat on it’s face most of the time. If you’re hiring an artist, you look at their their art skills. If you’re hiring a designer, you’re arguing that you want to test their code skills, not their design skills?

    Oh sure, it’ll show *some* design elements, but unless they’ve spent absolutely forever on it, or are technical designers, then what they can do with coding will trump what they can design. Scripting is not coding, and for good reason.

    Your attitude is sadly overly common, including in hiring experienced designers, let alone new entrants. The most skilled designer I know struggles with text scripting, let alone coding – but where he works uses a visual scripting engine, and he’s frankly amazing with it.

  3. Andrew: I’ve seen a lot of games done in Flash by people who were self-admitted non-programmers. Sure, Adam didn’t mention Flash, but PHP, BASIC, and JavaScript are not that much more difficult; but the language doesn’t matter. Whether you’re writing it from scratch, doing it in Torque, making a NWN module, or a Quake mod, it doesn’t matter.

    Just do it, and do it a few times. Pick something of small enough scope that you can do it quickly, show it to your friends, get feedback, work on it some more, put it out there for all and sundry to see, and then move on.

    And keep doing that. :-)

  4. Matthew – It’s still selecting for coders.

    If you want to impress me as a designer, then bluntly it won’t generally be on a solo project. (NWN in particular, you need to be able to code C, rather than script)

    My “show” project which got me into the industry was TA: Dark Suns. I freely admit that I didn’t come up with the concept or map or unit artwork – they were mostly pre-existing from an earlier attempt, the rest I had made to my specs by an artist or borrowed from another mod. But I did the scripting (with some help from a coder, and I used Visual Nanoforge to do much of it), the story, the missions, the balance… there were iterations, there were testers.

    Working with *others* to take a design live is far more valuable to me in a designer than coding skills. One project of moderate complexity is afaik more valuable for showing design skills than a bunch of smaller ones where much of the work you did wasn’t actually design per-se.

  5. True – For me, it’s based at least in part to seeing talented designers passed up for people who can code. (And general annoyance at the state of design tools, I consider Kismet barely adequate and am a big advocate of visual scripting)

  6. Well, hold on, I think we’re getting a little far afield.

    Let’s go back to what Adam said that I agreed with; “make games.” Personally, I’m not worried about whether you did it as part of a team (that actually came up earlier this year), in PHP, or whatever. I want to know that you’ve at least experienced the process, and can finish. Working with a team has its own pitfalls (how many volunteer game projects have I seen crash and burn before getting anywhere?), and there are methods (I’ll reiterate NWN; I’ve seen plenty of modules submitted by non-programming designers) that don’t rely on having a team OR having programming skills. Whichever path is taken, do SOMETHING – show that you have some idea of how to make a game beyond “I have an idea for a game.”

    Art is a bit different, perhaps you really do need a team there, but I’ve heard enough stories of artists who don’t know how to restrict their vision to fit the performance and engine constraints that I’d say it’s still pretty valuable to participate in the making of games on your own.

    And then there’s programmers (who, as you might not have noticed, were included in Adam’s original post) – for which the advice really applies pretty well IMO.

  7. Yea, to be clear I’m simply against Designers being lumped into the same boat as Coders for getting an industry job. Because in practice, the skills you exercise when you’ve been hired are not at all the same.

    I’ve seen extremely good designers being left high and dry because of selection bias towards people able to code, when coding wasn’t actually done day to day in the job itself!

    And yes, you can do a moderate amount in NWN using pre-packed scripts, but sooner or later if you’re doing *anything* non-stock you need a coder. Heck, the cutscene system is arcane in itself…

  8. Hmm , just read the article and it has many interesting points in it. As someone looking for game designer work, it’s always a challenge to figure out what makes HR take an interest. One of the (unfortunate) trends I noticed while looking for work lately is that there seems to be much more demand for senior designers then junior ones. Not sure how that can work out in the long run, but maybe I was just unlucky. Another issue I noticed is that people don’t seem to look at my portfolio. I was looking for designer work this summer as well and had a go applying at quite few companies. I monitored my portfolio website’s unique visit counts and it was only a fraction of the number of applications (around a fifth) in the end. Kind of makes me question how much of a role it actually plays in the decision making process :( . I have to admit though, all my work is university coursework which is something I should be work on. Would love feedback from you guys if you have the time, as I don’t seem to be getting any when applying. Portfolio = http://www.designogre.com

  9. @Yasser

    The front page is flash only. At that point, I quit. The few years of temporary madness when people made flash-only websites finished several years back.

    NB: I have Flash ad-blocked by default; apart from videos and games, barely 1 in 100 websites are affected. Very few sites use it for anything except embedded content these days.

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