How to Get into the Game Industry

Working in the video game industry had always been a dream of mine. I grew up with video games. It was probably my favorite past time as a kid. I have some pretty fond memories of winter breaks from school playing video games with my younger brother. That was what we did all day. It kept us entertained for hours on end.
Christmas was always an exciting time because we would get new games. Then, we would then have winter break to play them to death. The weather would be cold outside. We had no money to go anywhere. Life was simple and the only thing we cared about was beating the next level. Eventually, I got older and had a social life. My brother also got much better than me at playing games so, time to retire!

Being a person who likes to make things, playing all these video games only made me want to make them. I also made comic books, websites, and cartoons–well, I tried to make them. If I find it interesting, I’m going to want to make my own.

When it came time think about college and–if you believe your high school adviser–your future, I was convinced that I wanted to make video games. I love the industry so, why not? To make a long story short, I did end up in the video game industry. I had written about that story before–feel free to read it.

Before I went to college, I spent a great deal of time looking into how I could break into the industry. I bought books on the subject and looked in every online crevice for information. Now that I’ve spent over a year and a half making games professionally, I think I can offer some advice.

What College?

The usual suspects looking for advice on breaking into the game industry are high school students. I was one of them. I think a college education is nice to have. However, I don’t think college teaches you much of what you need to perform any job in the real world.

I still think one should go to college for the experience. At the very least, you’ll meet useful people. I don’t believe one needs to go to a college that specializes in producing students with video game degrees. I went to the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Arizona for one year. I was pursuing a degree in Game Design.

UAT is a pretty small school. They have great contacts and all the students are after similar things. Like-minded people were there in abundance. I place more importance in being able to understand a wide range of subjects. While one would be able to develop a really focused skill set for making video games, they would be lacking in everything else.

I didn’t really want to become a monkey or a small cog in a big machine.

It is also important to remember that the college experience is a one-time deal. I wouldn’t look so far ahead into the future and forget about that. It doesn’t even matter what degree you are pursuing–although a degree in sociology is likely going to be difficult to apply to games.

I have a BA in Marketing from Pace University. If you want to make games, you are likely going to also be interested in graphic design, programming, or some technology field. A business degree will also work since all game companies are still a business. Communication degrees tend to have a lot of overlap with marketing–especially in the PR department.

Your best bet is to study what you really want to study. Chances are, you won’t know what it is and you’ll change your mind during your college career. Getting into the game industry has very little to do with what college you went to. It has a lot to do with how knowledgeable you are of the industry and how much you participate in the community.

How do I get Experience?

Getting experience is the problem for everyone trying to get a job. There is no way to get real experience without doing it for real. Finding internships at game companies would be the surest way to get a feel for how things work.

Internships

I’m not a big fan of interning but, it is a proven method. I interned for a game company once before I went to college. All I did was test a game.

In my experience, if there is work to be done, we are usually too busy to figure out what to give to an intern who might not know anything. That is why I don’t find much real value from interning. It is still a good experience and you get something to put on your resume. The most important benefit are the contacts you’ll make.

I found my internship by using Gamasutra’s list of game companies. You can sort the list by City or State so I looked for all the game companies in New York and sent them internship requests. Most companies didn’t respond to me but, one of them did. And one was all I needed.

Learning on Your Own

My preferred way of getting experience is to actually make a game. There is an abundance of resources online for making games. Learn how to use the tools and create your own game. That is a learning experience unlike any other. You’ll never know how it feels to make a game from beginning to end without doing it.

Doing is the best simulation for the real thing. It will be more complicated on the job because there are other people in charge of quality and creative. Where you might let some defect slide, the client will not. There is also money on the line–that always changes things.

If you are someone who is just incapable of understanding all this technology mumbo jumbo, you can still get experience by doing. You just need to do something different. I made websites about the video game industry. I tried to compete with GameSpot or IGN–it didn’t work. It was still a good experience. I got to understand the industry very well by reading and reporting the news on a daily basis.

I also got to understand some of the business workings of the industry as I made contacts with the PR departments of companies like Eidos, Ubi Soft, and Midway for review copies of games. It was a fun time and I figured out that being a game journalist was not for me.

All you need to figure out is what you want to do in the game industry and do something that relates. If you can’t do the technical, work on the non-technical.

Useful Resources

Since I never got any formal schooling in making games, I had to find a lot of resources to learn on my own. Most of it had to do with passion. If you really want to do it, there are few things that can stop you. Since I spent time learning how to make games and being a part–a very small part–of the industry media, I can share resources on both.

The Technical

On the technical side, GameDev.net is a great site. I spent most of my time looking through their resources for programming. They also have information about art, sound, design, etc. It is a huge treasure trove of information.

Many tutorial sites that I used have since disappeared. However, Flash was not a big player for games back then. The explosion of Flash games have really changed the landscape. Making games and allowing other people to instantly play them is now easier than ever. All you need is a web browser.

I recommend Kongregate’s set of tutorials for making Flash games. I am working on a series of tutorials myself but, they aren’t ready yet. You can also put your game on Kongregate and have people play and rate it. If you don’t know about Kongregate, look at them as the YouTube of games.

There is also Microsoft’s XNA platform. They have a huge amount of information about making games for XNA that will play on both the XBOX 360 and Windows. I never had that opportunity to put games on an actual console. I think XNA is great way to learn.

Games built in XNA for the XBOX 360 can also be put on the XBOX Live Marketplace if the community deems it worthy.

The Not So Technical

I consider the not so technical side to be the business side. So that could be a journalist, a writer, an analyst, a PR person, etc. Everything that doesn’t need advanced technical know-how. There are very few to zero resources for telling you how to be a game journalist.

You would go through the same steps as any journalist, except you need to be knowledgeable in games. That is the same for all other non-technical positions. There aren’t any real resources for becoming a game analyst, journalist, or PR person. Those are all disciplines that are not unique to games.

I would keep abreast of the industry news and be active in the community. Reading Gamasutra and being a member of the IGDA would be a good start. The IGDA has chapters all over the country that meet regularly; join one of them and get to know the professionals in your area.

You will want to make a name for yourself as someone who understands your field as it relates to video games. A great way to do that is to blog. Blog about game journalism. Write editorial pieces and publish them yourself. Write about marketing in the game industry.

The prerequisite to writing is that you need to know about your topic. So a marketer is going to have to understand marketing and a journalist about journalism.

Resources for Everyone

The IGDA has a special Breaking In section. It looks about the same as when I was looking for information so I don’t know how updated it is. Their Web Links in the Resources section has information for everything you can imagine.

Ernest Adams is a well known industry veteran who speaks about breaking into the industry. He has a book titled Break Into The Game Industry–I bought and read that book. He would be the de facto expert on the subject as he has probably written the most about it.

Industry Expos

I always wanted to go to E3–Electronic Entertainment Exposition. It was my dream as self-proclaimed game journalist. I never did get to go and it is now a shell of its former self. E3 is no longer the extravagant spectacle that it used to be.

E3 isn’t open to the public and only people who are affiliated to the industry are allowed to get in. I don’t know exactly what qualifies and what doesn’t. Working in the industry would certainly qualify–I would hope.

The other big industry gathering is GDC–Game Developers Conference. GDC is really where business gets done. A lot of industry players attend. Where E3 is more of a show for big game companies to demonstrate their new titles to the press, GDC is where the attention is on the game developers.

It is always good to experience an industry event for yourself. Those who love games will always find it incredibly pleasant to be in such an environment. There are other small conventions and shows that take place as well.

One in New York annually–didn’t happen last year due to some economic issue–is Digital Life. I was there every year since I found about it. You almost always end up leaving the show with some free stuff–shirts and other promotional materials. Who doesn’t like free stuff?

On the west coast there is the E for All Expo. Like Digital Life, E for All is really for the fans. You mainly go there to try out the new things that companies are offering. Doesn’t hurt to stay up to date on the new happenings in the industry!

Last Words of Inspiration

There is no road map for getting into the industry. Unlike other professions like lawyers and doctors where you know you need to go to law school or medical school, no such sure-fire route exists in the games industry. I think that it is one of the great advantages to the industry.

At heart, we are still a bunch of kids playing with toys. We make things that are fun. We entertain. We are open. We don’t have massive barriers to entry. It is the diversity of the people that has led to our growth and innovations.

No one can come up with a set of steps that you need to take to end up at an EA or Activision. All you really need is a love of games and persistence.