Breaking In: Part 1

Posted by in Game Design

Getting into the game industry.

Part 1. Love it or leave it.

Every so often I’m asked by someone how I got into the game industry, and how they can do the same. There are dozens of fantastic articles out there already on this topic, but I figured I’d write up my own experiences anyway. The more info out there, the better. Also, please keep in mind that this article is just my own personal experience and path into the games industry. Your results will vary.

This article is Part One, where I’m going to talk about how I personally got my start in the game industry as a non-American citizen, as well as some common misconceptions about being a professional game designer. Part Two is the actionable advice on getting into the industry. You don’t have to read them both, but it will hopefully help.

I’m going to be honest with you: how I got into the game industry had a good deal to do with luck and timing. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that,but part of it was just pure serendipity. That probably isn’t what you came here to read, but it’s important to understand that it is a part of the process.

An accurate representation of both trying to break in and also working in the game industry.

How I got started

One of my earliest memories of messing with the design of a game was breaking into the .ini files of Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun. I got bored of playing, so I used an editing program to make units that shot grenades or flamethrowers or had a hundred million hit points or whatever. All it was really doing was editing some numbers behind the scenes, but I remember feeling like I had created something totally new and fun.

In 2001 I played Riven: The Sequel to Myst, an adventure game set on a collection of islands. Having grown up in Bermuda (also a collection of islands), the game and its world resonated with me on a very personal level. It became a part of me and the way I looked at the world. It reinvigorated my love of my home, but even more so it made me realise that what I wanted to do for the rest of my life was to create worlds.

Yep, looks just like Bermuda.

I survived several years of boarding school in Canada, and at the end I was accepted into the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). I decided to Major in 3D Animation with hopes of one day working at Cyan, the company that had made Myst and Riven. I also double Minored in Film & Television as well as Interactive Design. Partway through my time at college, I swapped Majors and decided to go into game design. I’ll touch on that a bit more later.

As it turns out, double Minoring is kind of insane. It was about 5 years before I graduated. I don’t know if I’d recommend doing what I did, but making short films and animations has absolutely helped shaped my perception of game making and communicating with an audience. Learning skills such as how important it is for visuals to properly explain to the viewer what is happening, or that having visuals in close proximity to one another change how the viewer perceives them gave me a huge leg up as a designer.

Every climbable object in the Uncharted series being yellow is strong visual messaging.

Your game has a message that you want to get to the player, so understanding the different ways to do that is really important. These additional skills give you the vocabulary and understanding to solve problems communicating to your player in ways you might otherwise not have thought of.

After graduating I moved from Savannah to Atlanta, Georgia to live with a college friend while I started the career hunt. This was a pretty difficult period, as I basically had nothing to keep me going. I had to force myself to stay motivated and continue to work on a level design portfolio, but without the external pressures of college pushing me to complete assignments, I started to slip. I spent less and less time in Maya and UnrealED and more time slacking off. I’m only grateful that daytime television is so tedious, or I would have never resurfaced. I kept applying to game companies all over the world. I spent hours on GameDevMap.com searching for companies I recognised. I applied anywhere and everywhere. I heard nothing. My malaise continued.

This cycle of applying to companies and trying to force myself to work on my portfolio (but really just getting super good at Super Smash Bros.) continued for a few months. Eventually, my roommate was able to get me a job at the media company he was working at, doing really basic graphic design work. I mean basic. We’re talking re-sizing advertising banners 8 hours a day basic. It was enough to pay the bills though, and it was creative enough, so I was grateful, but this wasn’t what I had gone to SCAD to do. I kept applying to anywhere that I thought I might be able to stand working.

Keep in mind that this was 2008, when the economy was completely in the toilet and nowhere was hiring. I didn’t really know what the alternative was going to be for me if I couldn’t find anything. Remember that I’m not a US citizen, and I was in the country on a student visa. I wasn’t even allowed to work somewhere that I didn’t receive training for (luckily graphic design sort of counted). Looking back on it, I’m convinced that this pressure is what helped me get through this time. There was no failing option that kept me in the US. Either I found a game industry job by the time my visa expired or I had to leave.

I couldn’t take a job at Home Depot or Applebee’s or something while I kept trying. The idea of saying to myself, “Well, I only want to work at My Favourite Game Company, and I refuse to take a job elsewhere.” was completely impossible given my visa situation. If a company, any company was willing to give me a job even mopping the floors, I would have taken it if it got my foot in the door.

Look how stoked this dude is to get his foot in the door at a game studio.

Okay, the picture above is mostly a joke, but you can’t let your pride shoot you in the foot before you’ve even gotten started, and the whole “dream job” thing is a dangerous delusion to fall into coming right out of school. One only has to visit the Blizzard Entertainment booth at the GDC career expo to see how many students are fighting for that one job even with their lack of experience.

One day at work, I got a call from the President of local game company, Thrust Interactive, who had found me on LinkedIn. He needed someone who knew game design and also had experience using Adobe Flash. Now, the media company I was at was in a big cushy office with a fully-stocked snack room and top of the line equipment. Thrust Interactive amounted to 4 guys in a garage. It felt like an incredibly risky jump to make, from something that seemed steady to something that seemed very not steady. After some deliberation I said, “Screw it. If I don’t take this risk now, I might never get to make games.” I left the media company and joined Thrust Interactive.

My aside here is that you should always do your due diligence before diving into something that seems risky, but you have to be ready to take every opportunity that arises. Every little edge you can get to make it, even if it might feel like a step back career wise, it might set you up to succeed later on.

My final paycheck was the last one the media company ever cut. They folded a month or two later. (You might have heard of the media company’s parent corporation. Just look up the Wired article on something called the “Gizmondo”. Yep.)

Thrust Interactive sponsored me for a TN visa, which is a special NAFTA visa for citizens of certain countries doing specific jobs in the US. It’s solely temporary, a kind of “do your time then go home” situation, but you can renew it every 3 years.

I worked at Thrust Interactive for just over three years, creating mostly adver-games and kid-focused educational games. Stuff like this. After those 3 years, I decided I was ready move my career forward. I went to GDC 2011 with a handful of résumés, ready to take pretty much anything that was a step up from my current job.

I handed a résumé to every single company at the GDC exposition hall. I’m not even joking or using hyperbole here. I gave a resume to every single one. Even places I didn’t really want to work at but would be a good career move. Even places that said they weren’t hiring. I just asked them to hold onto it for me. While I was doing that, I noticed that Telltale Games had a booth. My love of adventure games came flooding back, and since they were the only ones (to my limited knowledge) still making adventure games, I knew I had to give them a try as well.

One thing to point out here on the immigration side is that even though I’m technically Canadian / Bermudian citizen, it wasn’t something I brought up at that early stage. Now, it’s absolutely something you’re going to have to deal with eventually if you’re not a US citizen, but at this stage, you should just be trying to make good connections and meet interested parties.

I handed my résumé to the booth attendant, and we started talking about games we loved. I mentioned how much I loved Myst, and told the guy I had a Riven tattoo. Yes, it’s mega-dorky, but talking to him about mutual interests that weren’t just “how can you get me a job” was really important. No one wants to feel like they’re being used. I dive into this a bit more in Part Two, but I cannot stress hard enough how important it is to avoid coming off like someone who is trying to use the person you’re talking to like a resource.

Of all those résumés I handed out, I got a single call. One, out of all the people I talked to who seemed really interested in furthering the conversation. That call was from Telltale Games, and in June of the same year, I was moving my life across the country, and I was a part of the larger game industry.

After three and a half fantastic years at Telltale, I changed jobs again. This time into the triple-A game space at Hangar 13; into another corner of the game industry I hadn’t been before. It’s incredibly important to remember that the term “designer” is a very vague and formless one. There are many facets to game design, and you should try to learn as many of them as opportunity allows. Of course, specialising in the handful that you’re really passionate about is important too, but unless you try to stretch your design sense, you might not know what you’re missing.

So now you’re all caught up on my story. There was a lot years of actually creating games that I sort of glossed over, but those are the highlights. There was a lot of trying over and over again and not getting anywhere sprinkled with brief shining moments of success. I hope this story helps give you context for the struggle you’re in the middle of right now. It’s tough, I get it. A lot of us get it. When you hit that wall, just breath, take the disappointments with resolve, and hand out another résumé. It can take years to build up a strong portfolio of work and even though I attribute a lot to luck, you have to work hard to position yourself to take advantage of that luck. There’s never one singular event that will get you into the industry so the more time you spend preparing, the better your chances will be.

For the rest of this article, I’m going to try to clear up some of the misinformation about working in games that has propagated over the years.

Misconceptions

Even with the advent of all the game design courses offered and the plethora of information out there about game design, a lot of folks still have a weird mental fantasy about what game design actually is. Things like:

1. A Game Designer isn’t just the “ideas person”
The uninitiated often think of a game designer as the person who comes into the meeting room, and says, “Guys, I have this rad idea for a game, what if you had a gun but it shot two-way portals instead of projectiles!” who then walks out of the room and lets everyone else implement their grand vision.

Here’s the truth: Your idea on its own is pretty much worthless.

My boss at Thrust Interactive explained it like this: Imagine someone came to you and said, “I have a revolutionary idea for space travel. We’re going to build a ship that can travel faster than light. No one has ever thought of it before. It’s going to change the course of the human race. Now, go into this room for 9 months, figure out how it works, create it, and we’ll split the profits.”

An idea alone didn’t get this baby launched on stardate 8442.5

All ideas are worthless if they just stay an idea. The truth is, 90% of your value as a game designer comes from proving your idea is good. Implementation is everything. If you don’t even have a basic idea of how to implement your idea, no one else will either. You need to be able to answer questions like, “Okay, you want a portal gun. How does it work? What are the restrictions? Is there ammunition? Are there different types of portals?” and on and on.

2. A degree is not required.
I graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a degree in Interactive Design. I know that I am exceedingly privileged to have gotten an education in games and game design. I had access to a lot of resources such as experienced professors and technology I wouldn’t have otherwise. I am absolutely not saying that all of that was worthless. What I am saying is that you should not consider that the price of entry to be a game designer. I hear all the time from friends or prospective designers, “Well, you went to school for it. I never did that. I could never do what you do.”

 It’s simply not true. Now, I admit that my access to these things gave me significant advantages, but everything I learned in school you can learn without it.

 If you don’t believe me, remember that degrees in game design are a relatively new phenomenon. This resource didn’t exist in the 1980s and 90s, when some of the most popular games were created.

3. It’s hard work.
The old adage about finding a job you love and never working a day in your life is a huge goddamned lie. Making games is hard work. Like, really hard work. The first advice I always give when asked how to get into the industry is the same: If you aren’t making games right now for fun, for free, just because you love it and you hate it but you love it more and you just can’t stop yourself from doing it, do not work in the game industry.

Still reading? Okay good. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also super rewarding, but you’re going to work on a game until you hate it; until you can’t stand to even look at it anymore because you’ve looked at it for hundreds of hours. This is probably the same for any industry (certainly creative ones although I wouldn’t know because this is all I’ve ever really done). More than once I’ve wept on my drive home because of how emotionally taxing it can be, and I know I’m not alone. If you don’t think you can handle that, don’t be bummed out; it just means your passions lie elsewhere. Life is too short to lose sleep over something you don’t absolutely love with every fibre of your being.

I’m not even talking about the well-documented big budget studio crunches either. I’m talking about you sitting in your room creating a card game or a platformer or goofy physics sandbox or whatever it is. If you don’t just do it because it’s a passion, it’s going to get really difficult for you. Don’t do it for money, or to become the next big indie darling. Do it because you love it.

Earlier I mentioned switching Majors partway through my college career. What happened was I was working on my first project for an optional Level Design class. The assignment was to create a simple room in the Unreal Editor. If you’ve read my story in Part One it should come as no surprise that I decided to make my room into a Myst-style colour puzzle. I sort of went way overboard, but not on purpose. I just got this idea in my head and really wanted to see if it was good. One night while working on my room, I looked at the clock and it was 4 a.m. In that moment, I realised that if I was willing to work until crazy o’clock in the morning on the very first project, then maybe I should just try to do that for the rest of my life. I switched my major later that day.

The first thing I built in UnrealED. Not much to look at now, but important nonetheless.

I’m not trying to illustrate what I hard worker I am; I’m actually a pretty lazy guy, but this project was so important to me to get right that I didn’t stop until it was perfect, even if I stayed up until 4 a.m.

4. You aren’t designing for yourself
Be prepared to take feedback gracefully. If you get hired at a larger studio, you’re going to be one of a handful of designers, all working on bits of a game. You’re going to have a Lead or report to a Design Director or someone above you who is going to have a lot of opinions on what the game should be. You need other people to gut check you and question why you made a specific choice. Embrace this because without it, chances are you’re not going to improve at your craft. Even if you’re making your indie game solo, you’re going to need people to test it for you. This means that you’re going to hear about stuff they don’t like. It’s super easy to get dismissive and think, “Well they just don’t get it, the idiots!” but you’re really screwing yourself in the end. Your job as a game designer is to make the best experience for the player as you can. Sometimes that means giving up a precious mechanic or idea or whatever to make the game more fun. Do it. Always do it. Put that cut idea in your pocket. You’ll find a home for it somewhere in your career, I promise you.

Similarly, you shouldn’t be threatened when someone makes a suggestion. A lot of students I’ve talked to feel like, “Hey, I’m the game designer so step off and let me do my job.” You’re missing out on making your game better, and remember that implementing that idea is still 90% of game design.

5. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes.
Get ready to screw up. You’re going to do it a lot. I do it constantly and it’s the only way to get your game where it needs to be. Look, design is a messy, cryptic, weird beast. Peter Molyneux is correct when he said in that god-awful interview that you never truly get it right. One of my favourite design quotes is from Mark Rosewater, Head Designer of Magic: the Gathering. He says, “A lot of design is just re-design.”

You need to be able to build something bad, and iterate on it until it either becomes good or you trash it and start with another bad thing. Iteration is just part of the job; it’s incredibly rare to just nail it on the first attempt. Experiment, and don’t feel bad about abandoning something that just refuses to turn into anything fun.

There are a lot of great reasons to be a game designer, but even once you’ve broken in, it’s a beast you’ll need to wrangle. That said, do it. Do it, do it, do it. Design a game. Be a game designer. How? I’ll cover that in Part Two: A Call to Action.