So this has to be one of the most common questions people ask, and for many outsiders, it can seem like a daunting task. However, it does not need to be that scary; the games industry and the technology sector as a whole is growing and desperate for talented individuals. If you can show(not tell) that you are a valuable individual, then you should have no significant issue getting into a company.
The CV/Resume is dead…ish
In the fantastic book Linchpin by Seth Godin, one of the ideas is that the portfolio is the new CV/resume. This idea has matched my own experience and seems to be the direction the world is moving. Companies are desperate for talented individuals, and almost all companies are hiring, but there is a vast amount of people trying to get into them. You have likely seen the statement on many job adverts that 2-5 years of industry experience is needed or several published AAA titles are required. These requirements can be enough to put many people off even trying to get into the industry, as logically if you need to be in the industry to get a job in the industry, then anyone not in the industry can not get into the industry. But the previous statement does not hold water when considered in the context of an industry with a deficit of people and where people do leave. Any company that stands by only recruiting people in the industry will have a hard time filling its positions, so it is my recommendation that you read the requirements for time in the industry as “Must have a provable track record for excellence”, and the best and only way to do that is with a portfolio of your work.
One objection raised with the above paragraph is that there are graduate positions and this is a reasonable objection, but these are packed with hundreds of applicants all with the same perfect track record as you and often identical portfolios as you. Many graduate positions become little better than lucky dips, and if you are like me not academic, it can completely close the door. While I can honestly say that I have never witnessed sexism or racism in the companies I have worked for; the numbers suggest that if you are a woman or a minority that you will have an even harder time getting in. Unfortunately, I doubt that the issues around discrimination are likely to go away any time soon as I believe they are tragically unintentional.
But don’t give up there is still hope for those of you who are willing to do the hard work that the others won’t! Most sensible people throw in the towel when faced with the lottery-like odd above, and this is where you find your space. If you start making games independently, updating your portfolio and applying for positions, eventually people will start taking notice.
How I got started
Before we get into what you should be striving for in your portfolio, I would like to share an overview of how I came to work in the games industry. At 17 I dropped out of school and began stacking shelves at ASDA, but even then I was making awful games. The first thing I made was a 2d side flying game called Jetpack Phil, it was buggy, and my Inkscape art was terrible! After several small projects that went nowhere, I started work on a game called Kingdom Fall. Kingdom Fall didn’t end up getting launched, but I did now have a selection of work and felt reasonably confident in my skill as a programmer. I began to send out my CV with a link to the work I had done, and to my surprise, I was invited to several interviews. The importance of what happens now cannot be overstated, I failed spectacularly in every interview, my self taught knowledge was not relevant to the exams that I received, and I flopped horribly in the interview section. I had four interviews over a week, and at the end of the last one, I called my girlfriend and embarrassingly sobbed, mumbling something about how much of a F*** up I was, this was not my finest moment, It was one of the lowest feelings I have had in this life. Then the most unexpected thing happened; I was called back by three of them with job offers. I was so stunned that I actually asked one of them why! There answer recalled as verbatim as possible was “While the interview and exam didn’t go so well, we liked you and your portfolio proves that you are capable of learning and driven”. It was that simple; if I had told them I could do something and then failed the test they would have assumed me a liar, but I didn’t tell them I showed them proof. That is what 2-5 years experience is, its the demand for proof, no one ever says I want someone with 2-5 years experience they say I want a great developer, artist, etc.
(Side note: I was offered two developer jobs and one as product support with training to become a developer, I took the product support one as professional training in a big company can be very valuable. From the development role there I moved with relative ease to a developer role at a game company)
So the question for your portfolio to answer is, “are you competent and driven?” its even better if it also shows that you are a team player and understand multiple disciplines. The best way to demonstrate this is to have a portfolio with depth and to have stories behind what is in there. You will need to put your best work in it to show what you can do, but don’t be afraid to have some not so good projects if you can clearly and confidently articulate how they have improved you. For me Kingdom Fall is still in my portfolio not as great piece of work but because it taught me the value of killing a project when it is needed and shows that I have more integrity than to peddle crap. Your portfolio also needs to be regularly updated, the older things are, the less you appear to care and the less relevant it is. If the last game you made was five years ago then you don’t care about making games, even the most talented person won’t be hired if they don’t seem to care.
Your portfolio checklist
-The best/most shiny piece of work you have done. There is a good chance people won’t play the stuff in your portfolio, so it is preferable if this piece is eye-catching
-A bit that shows you can work as part of a team
-Finished projects. The importance of showing you can ship cannot be overstated.
-Provide a short explanation of why the project is relevant, what did you learn.
Foot in the door
Great, you can now prove why someone should care who you are and should want to hire you, but you still need to get seen. Getting noticed can be a painful process, and you will need to be patient. When you apply to a company or contact a recruiter, you will need a CV, this should contain the information they requested, but it also needs to drive people to look at your portfolio. My recommendation is to have a clear statement early that you have a portfolio and a link to it, then when you talk about your skills tie it back to your portfolio by using projects as proof. It may also be worth very politely reaching out to people at a company and providing them with a link to your work, don’t spam as that will get you locked out very quickly.
It is also incredibly useful to network. I know you thought that you could hide away from people and be antisocial, but the truth is it is vital to meet people at game jams and conventions. Just showing up is often not enough; you should aim to engage with people actively. While dealing with people could take up a book try following just this simple advice, don’t try and sell yourself, do remember their name, do see if you can help them; this advice applies to everyone you meet. Helping someone does not need to be a grand thing it can be as simple as recommending a great tool to them, imagen a conversation where you recommend a great tool to solve that persons’ problem they offer to send over the details in an email. Now maybe the altruism isn’t a good enough reason to help someone for you, so consider that you have now opened up a line of dialogue with someone that believes you to be useful and may recommend you to there peers.
No one can stop you from making games
I have had many great teachers in my life, but I have also had some truly terrible ones, one such teacher was my computing teacher in college. I enjoyed computing and programming, and I also thought I was quite good at it, so did my friends in the class. My teacher had a different viewpoint as he told me in no uncertain terms that it was impossible for me to make games due to my being dyslexic. My teacher had said my poor spelling would make it impossible for co-workers to understand what I have written. He did advise me that I wasn’t stupid, but I should give up and do something else. Sometimes when a co-work of mine mentions that there is a spelling mistake in a comment or method name, I think “That’s it I have been caught, I am going to get fired for this one for sure”. Then I remember that half of the methods are legacy ones wrote with a hieroglyphic naming conventions no one understands and that needing to correct things in a code review is normal and healthy.
Let us, however, imagine a world where being dyslexic was so taboo that no company would hire us. Do you know what I would still be doing in that grim, dark reality? I would still be making games! I would still be making games because I have seen the joy and good they can do and because I believe in games. I hope you believe in games in this way to and I hope you will understand that you don’t need anyone’s permission to make a game, and no matter how bad that game is you are a game developer. Even if you have to make it on cut out bits of paper, make the game because you owe it to the world to share your voice.
The good the bad and the ugly
So we have looked at how to get into the industry, and hopefully, this has been of some use to you, but we haven’t spoken about if going into a major studio is right for you. Now I am very fortunate that the big studio I am a part of is very friendly but there are horror stories and even here working conditions, pay, and job stress are worse than at your typical tech company. I won’t speak about the horror stories that you hear as it is not part of my experience.
It is not uncommon for projects to have unrealistic deadlines and for there to be a lack of planning in place for all of the features that are desired. Problems around deadlines and plans are not unique to the game industry but they are exacerbated by the fact that the games have deadlines set way in advance and features should always be playtested to make sure they work for the players. It is also common to feel the sword of Damocles hanging above you as studio changes and general instability is typical.
While I deeply believe in games and wholeheartedly encourage you all to make games, please be aware that it will be hard work and filled with a lot of heartaches, but if you have the persistence and dedication, it might just be all worth it in the end.
I hope you have enjoyed this first blog of mine and please do reach out to me on twitter or in the comments with any questions.