Advice for Game Design Students
Following a suggestion from my former tutor, I thought it might be worth writing down some advice for any students who are interested in making games for a living. Some of these will be applicable to university life in general, but I’m going to try and keep it bent towards game-related subjects/careers.
For what they are worth, here are my credentials for giving advice on the subject: I have spent five years of my life at university. I have a BA in Economics and an MA in Digital Games Theory And Design. I’ve spent a few years making games outside of the games industry, and a few months making games on the inside. I was unemployed for over a year, immediately after graduating. I’ve studied and worked abroad. I was once president of my university’s film society. I still remember how to feed myself on £5/week.
~ Before You Apply To University ~
1. Don’t Go To University
Okay, to be a bit clearer, I would absolutely recommend taking at least one year out after high school, to get a job of some kind before you start your degree. You’ll need the money, you’ll benefit from the experience when you go looking for work later, and you might find your future plans change somewhat once you’ve spent some time outside of school and gained a little perspective on grown-up life. And if you’re worried about being a year or two older than everyone else on your course, I assure you that the first week of classes will dispel these fears.
As a side note: In all seriousness, you might even be better off not bothering with university at all. It’s not something I would recommend, but I’ve read a lot of advice from industry elders who say that three years of working in the field and learning on the job can be much more attractive to employers than a degree with no practical experience, and from a financial perspective you’d certainly be better off collecting paycheques than paying course fees. For more on this, check out Breaking Into the Games Industry by Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber. In fact, you may as well read that book anyway – it’s a lot more in-depth than anything I could tell you.
2. Study Any Subject You Are Interested In
Your parents might hate me for saying this, but you should not pick your degree based on what career you want in later life. You should study a subject – any subject – that you are genuinely interested (and at least reasonably capable) in. The idea of an 18-year-old looking into the future and deciding what they want to be doing aged 30, let alone anything beyond that, sounds ridiculous to me. Also, that’s just not how the job market works these days! My dad worked for the same company, at the same factory, doing more or less the same job, for pretty much his entire working life. I’m 27, and I’ve already worked in two or three completely different careers, in four different locations. This trend will most likely continue, making the lives of future graduates even more chaotic.
This isn’t to say that thinking about jobs is a complete waste of time. If you are really interested in tending to injured animals, then certainly it makes sense to study vetinary science, and a career as a vet seems likely to follow. Similarly, if you love programming, then by all means go and study computer science and get a job as a programmer. The point I’m trying to make is that you should choose your degree based on your interests, and let your career develop out from there; don’t just think of your degree as a barrier you have to pass in order to live the cool future life you imagine for yourself.
In my experience, unless you’re going into a highly specialised career like medicine or engineering, few employers really care what subject your degree is in. Mostly they are interested in either your raw grades (in the case of things like graduate programs) or the specific work you produced (ie. your portfolio). Since we’re here to talk about the games industry, you will probably find it is the latter! Good grades are a bonus, but most games industry recruiters really want to see for themselves what you can do; more specifically what you have done. Your portfolio is everything. And in case you’re eyeing up a course in game design purely because of the title, bear in mind that a specialist course like computer science, architecture or fine art would give you a more rigourous training in your chosen discipline.
Also, if you really feel your passion lies in game design, but not in programming or art or things like that… take it from me, you can study anything. I have a degree in economics, and the stuff I learned about game theory and strategic logic was the most pure and fundamental form of strategy game design imaginable; I would venture that it gave me a better understanding of multiplayer game balancing than a graduate from a game design course would have. You could study biology and learn about evolutionary logic and complex ecosystems – useful subjects for a sandbox game. You could study music and create any number of interesting music-based games. You could study history and learn about the links between classical politics and the familial relationships between different monarchies – it might sound really niche and useless, until you apply for a job at The Creative Assembly.
Here is the important lesson: Videogames based on other videogames are really boring. The most interesting and original games come from people who have ventured out into other areas of life and come back with interesting discoveries. Of course, the disadvantage of doing this is that you’ll have to work on your game making skills/portfolio in your own time, but it can be very rewarding if you see it through. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can try to weave game design back into your chosen subject – I wrote my BA dissertation on player behaviour in WoW’s virtual economy, and it scored one of my best grades out of the whole degree.
Oh, and once you decide on a subject, I would suggest that you do some research into which universities have the best facilities/reputation for that field, and pay attention to that. If you apply to a university way below your own academic standard just so you can stay close to your best friend, or because there’s a good surfing spot nearby… well, I’m not going to tell you how to live your life, but I think it would be worth reconsidering that decision.
~ While At University ~
3. Learn To Program
If you want to make a videogame, it’s no use just having a load of good gameplay ideas or interesting character art. Sooner or later, someone has to sit down and make it. You might not want to be a programmer; you might even hate programming; but it would be HUGELY advantageous for you to learn some kind of practical game-making skill. It doesn’t have to be serious programming languages like C++ or Actionscript (although these would be massively advantageous); it could just be an easy-to-use suite like Game Maker or Multimedia Fusion, or even something like Knytt Stories, or learning to mod a certain game. The point is, if you can produce some kind of game single-handedly then you will never be unable to make games. That is a big deal.
If you want to become an independent game developer – and right now that career path is looking brighter than ever – then you should consider how much easier it would be to just sit down and do things for yourself, instead of having to recruit a team who will work to produce your game for (probably) no money. You might get lucky and meet just the right kind of people you want to collaborate with, but it is always sensible to have a broad range of rudimentary skills of your own to fall back on, if neccessary.
If you’re completely clueless as to where to begin finding tools to make games with, don’t panic! Everybody was a beginner once, and (as if often the case) the indie community is eager to help.
3a. Learn To Do Everything Else
I singled out programming because it’s the biggest hurdle when it comes to making videogames, but for all of the same reasons it’s worth picking up at least a basic understanding in character design, writing, UI design, audio design, all kinds of art and environment design, and everything else required to make a game (the precise list depends on what kind of games you want to make, of course). The more of this stuff you can do on your own, the cooler you are. The only warning here is that you should still be trying to master one particular skill if you plan to get a job – nobody needs a Jack-of-all-trades.
You want more? Marketing, production, competitor analysis, people management. Web design. Foreign languages. If you’re lucky, you might even need a crash-course in accountancy!
4. Don’t Be Afraid To Change Your Course
It can be expensive, especially if you can’t transfer credits over from your old course, but if you get six months into your course and decide it’s not for you, it’s probably better to cut your losses. Having the experience of being at university and seeing what your friends’ courses are like will probably allow you to make a more informed response anyway.
Although also, if you want to change your course more than two or three times, or if you get the sudden urge to change during the last six months of your degree, you should consider whether you have deeper underlying issues that need to be addressed!
5. Appreciate That You Don’t Have To Work Hard; Work Hard Anyway
This one goes two ways. Firstly, be aware that – regardless of what you are studying – your career in this field will probably be even more difficult and time-consuming. The games industry in particular is famous for its crunch time, and if you want to work there then you need to be prepared for things like doing 30 hours a week of unpaid overtime (and then being laid off because the project is complete and they don’t need you anymore). I don’t want to trivialise what you’re doing, but you should be glad that your biggest challenge is to read a few books and write an essay every few weeks. Try to make use of your free time. Have fun! Join some societies and sports clubs, dabble in student politics a bit, all that stuff. Appreciate the fact that you (probably) have multiple groups of friends living within a few minutes’ walk of your dorm, and an inordinate amount of free time to spend with them. You will probably never have this opportunity again.
But also… get into the habit of doing your own research and getting stuff done in your own time. Try scheduling some time each week to reading books that aren’t on your reading list – perhaps even things that aren’t related to your course at all, just to broaden your horizons - and working on your portfolio and stuff. Even just spending an hour a week browsing through other people’s portfolios online could be beneficial, and it doesn’t sound like a bad way to spend your first few waking hours on a Sunday. This is pretty dull advice, but you are (probably) paying a small fortune for your degree, and your degree of self-motivation will determine how much you’ll actually benefit from it.
6. Make Stuff
Make a portfolio, make a portfolio, make a portfolio – when it comes to landing your first job, this is probably more important than your grades. And be prepared: You will probably come into contact with potential employers before you graduate (hint: you should be actively seeking them out), and you should have something ready to show them. Bear in mind that the games you make (or the art you create, or the code you write) in your first year will probably look weird and embarrassing by the time you graduate, so remember that the whole thing is a balancing act. (Life tip: Everything is a balancing act, get used to it.)
I would say you should have a portfolio already put together before your final semester, and then you have all of Spring and Summer to shop your portfolio around employers and recruitment fairs before you graduate and the real pressure starts. The more specialised your portfolio is regarding the position/company you are applying for, the better! But remember that different people could be looking for very different things. It helps to have a large pool of work in your files, from which you can pull together a focused portfolio that relates to the kind of games the company has made in the past. It never hurts to have more work behind you.
Take part in the Global Game Jam and Ludum Dare. You could even together with some of your coursemates and enter Dare To Be Digital. Events like these offer short, scheduled periods in which to produce stuff for your portfolio, and provide a community of peers who can offer feedback and advice on your work. Which brings us neatly to my next point…
~ Once You Graduate ~
If you’re not on Twitter already, sign up now. Seriously. Go do it now.
Done? Okay. At the risk of sounding like an awful new-media weirdo, Twitter is one of the most useful things in my world right now. It’s a public forum where you can advertise yourself and your games to an audience of millions, it’s a window into the conversations taking place between your peers, and it’s a direct line of communication with people who can teach you things and/or give you a job. Considering how difficult it can be to contact games industry professionals through ‘conventional’ means, Twitter makes for an incredible alternative. Learn how to use it, and don’t be a dick. You can start by finding the Twitter IDs of whatever hip designers you personally like (I can be found here) then following them and just keeping an eye on your feed for interesting retweets from people they follow. Follow those people too. Keep doing this forever. Your feed will eventually become a endless spring of interesting ideas and current news, including job opportunities. Until some new social network comes along and Twitter goes out of business, of course.
With Twitter out of the way, I’d still like to stress that networking is hugely important. Knowing the right people in the right places gives you all sorts of advantages when you’re looking for work (or if you’re looking to put together an indie dev team, or market a game!) There’s a LOT more to be said about the subject, but Darius Kazemi has already written everything I would think to say and more on his own website. So go read that.
(nb. I first became aware of Darius and his work through Twitter; months later we were both at GDC and arranged to meet up via Twitter; he is a cool dude and he tweeted about our encounter and a load of industry people started following me on Twitter. The moral of this story: Twitter!)
8. Expect Rejection; Keep Trying
One of the fun stats I learned from the Livingstone-Hope review was that the UK produces something like 1,500 games development graduates each year, and the UK games industry hires about 150 of them. Also, that first figure doesn’t include all the sly foxes who studied ‘other’ subjects, like computer science. The precise numbers vary from year to year – I think I remember a peak of 300 graduate hires in a year - but you should bear these numbers in mind: The annual hiring rate of games graduates can be less than 10%. Competition is fierce.
Personally, my advice would be that you should expect to be rejected from every job you apply for. You should apply to all sorts of things, and you should take some care to tailor your application to each post – do a little research, write a personalised cover letter, maybe even adjust your CV a little to emphasise the things they would be interested in – but you should always expect to receive… well, nothing, usually. Many games companies won’t even bother to tell you that you’ve been rejected, and the ones that do will send you an awful, generic thing about how there were lots of applicants and unfortunately you were unsuccessful this time and they wish you all the best in the future. It is worth getting back to them and asking for more personal feedback if you’re interested in knowing what you did wrong exactly, but again you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for an answer.
This whole process can be brutal and soul-crushing, but you need to try not to get too emotional about it. Keep trying. Apply to lots of different companies, and don’t worry about waiting for results – they’ll probably reject you anyway, and if the worst-case scenario is that you accept Job A only to be offered a preferable Job B, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you quit and moved after your first month. Keep trying. If you release your first indie game and nobody buys it, learn from the mistakes and make another one. Keep trying!
9. Interview Tips
CLOTHES: I feel weird about going to job interviews wearing anything other than a suit, but I have heard unofficial feedback on the grapevine (see point 7) that it has freaked my interviewers out on occasion. Most people working the games industry come to work wearing jeans and t-shirts, and this kind of casual culture permeates the whole operation. My advice would be to wear something smart, but not too formal – I find smart jeans and a nice jumper are ambiguous enough to cover this grey area.
PREPARATION: Read about the company, read about the history of the company, read any recent articles about them on Google News, play their last three games (or at least watch gameplay videos on YouTube), read about their competitors, see what you can find out about their current projects, think of some relevant questions to ask about the future, search for your interviewers’ names on LinkedIn and read their CVs, print off a map of directions to the office, write down some contact numbers in case you end up running late… basically, do your homework. Arrive half an hour early to make sure you find the office, hang around outside for a while if you want to check the place out, then go in and see what additional information you can pick up from snooping around their waiting lounge. If you are late, for whatever reason, it’s fine! Just be sure to call them (as soon as you can, within reason) and let them know.
WORDS: I’m not a great person to give advice on what to say in interviews. I think the typical advice is a combination of ‘be honest’ and ‘tell them what they want to hear’ – in my experience, it’s rare (and wonderful) for these two circles to completely overlap. Don’t claim to have skills that you clearly don’t have. Do try to find some nice things to say about their games. Do feel free to criticise their games a little, but try not to be too scathing and make SURE you back it up with a good arguments – people will appreciate that you’re capable of intelligently analysing their work, and that you’re not just some grovelling sycophant. Don’t tell them their questions are stupid, even if they are. Even if you decide during the interview that you no longer want the job, there’s a time and a place to act on that impulse and it is not then and there!
GENERAL: Interviewers are human beings, and rarely will ’conducting interviews’ be one of their primary skills. The quality and behaviour of your interviewers will vary greatly! Don’t be put off by bad experiences – I’ve been asked some incredibly stupid questions in job interviews, and when they come from your potential future boss, that should be a sign that perhaps this job isn’t for you. Also, be aware that recruitment agents and people in Human Resources probably won’t understand all the specialist technical patter that you’ve been rehearsing. They really just want a bulleted list of skills and experience that they can tick off against their requirements list, and to screen out people with obvious personality defects – save your nerd talk for when you’re speaking to the lead designer/programmer/artist.
10. Work Your Way Up?
One of the things you’re likely to hear people say is that you can always get a job in games testing and work your way up to a more glamourous position. I find this argument highly dubious. Considering the following: The are thousands of testers working in the games industry, and I would expect that most of them hope to move up the ladder and get more interesting jobs in the future. Obviously the industry is not large enough to accommodate all of their dreams. You could say that the natural counterbalance to that is the job’s high turnover rate, with hundreds of testers burning out or being laid off and replaced with eager new graduates every year, but… urarghghh! If your idea of a career plan is to take a (generally) horrible and underpaid job and simply outlast your coworkers until you are the only person left to promote, then I suspect you could do better for yourself. The shiny carrot of promised promotions is often used to lure people into these thankless, expendable positions.
The flipside to this is that a lot of people do get promoted out of testing; all I can say is that they represent a small percentage of testers. The traditional (and in my opinion outdated) wisdom within the industry seems to be that skills like game design can only be learned within the industry, and working in testing is a way of getting exposure to this knowledge without having to shoulder much responsibility. A form of medieval apprenticeship, if you like. If you want to work in game design, you may find it easier to break in via testing than to get an entry-level design job straight out of university. If you don’t believe me, try looking for an entry-level design job in the first place! What I’d say about this is that testing is only one of many careers that you could use to get your foot in the door. If you can get a job in scripting, level design, art or programming, the odds will be stacked much more in your favour.
(Side note: Testing is a fine and noble career with its own skillsets and challenges. If you go into games testing because you absolutely love testing and want to work your way up the testing ladder, then I would consider you a hero. Especially in light of how much more money you could be earning outside the games industry.)
11. Go To GDC
This is probably the least essential piece of advice I’m going to give you, but also the most exciting and fun. Going to GDC can be quite expensive (rough prices for a basic package: £550 for return flights from Heathrow, £200 for a hostel for a week, £350 for an Indie Games Conference pass, plus whatever you eat and drink) but there are ways to bring the costs down. You can volunteer to be a CA and work your way to a free conference pass, and if you have any friends in the Bay Area (again, see point 7) then you could probably rustle up a couch to sleep on. If you want to bring the travel costs down you could even try going to GDC Europe, but since I’ve never been I can’t really comment.
Why should you go? Firstly: NETWORKING! Even if you’re already hanging around on forums like TIGSource, or taking an active role in the Ludum Dare community, it’s totally awesome to walk into a room and be surrounded by your peers. GDC is one of the few opportunities I get to have to sit in a bar and talk about nerdy game design stuff with people who both understand and care about the subject. Also, pretty much everyone who is anyone can be found there, somewhere. If you happen to have struck up a casual friendship with a game developer via Twitter, this is your chance to casually bump into them between sessions and say hello.
Also, the conference itself is both interesting and relevant to your work. Even outside of the sessions, there’s a good chance you’ll pick up crazy inspiration from the playable games in the expo hall, or from talking to their designers over lunch. Also there is a huge international career fair which is aimed quite squarely at hiring young graduates like yourself, in all disciplines, in all corners of the world. It’s basically everything a young graduate eager to break into games could want… the only downside is that it’s (probably) on the other side of the world.
One other thing I seem to keep having to tell people: GDC is not E3. This is a week of sitting in large halls and listening to 40-minute lectures (and partying), not queuing in dark booths to spend five minutes at a time demoing interesting games before they get cancelled (and partying).
12. Don’t Go Into The Games Industry
Look: The whole idea that getting into the games industry is the best way to secure a future in making games is an urban myth. You don’t have to be a professional game designer to make games. You don’t even have to be a professional game designer to be known for making games. And you don’t have to be a professional game designer to make money from making games. Before I got my current job I spent two years working as a nondescript hardware tester for a company that made electronic whiteboards; I got paid way more money than a games tester, and I never had to work a single hour of overtime. I used this free time to make games, and probably made a lot more games – and had a lot more fun – than I would have if I had been working in the industry. Even now, it’s lovely to be a professional designer, but I rarely have time to think about working on my own projects outside of the office, and even if I did they would probably become the intellectual property of my employers. I enjoy my job, but will I still be interested in this career five years from now? I really can’t say for sure.
Becoming an indie developer is rad. It’s also hard as nails to keep your bank balance afloat, certainly when you’re first starting out. If this is the path you wish to go down, it would seem prudent to get a nice day job to help pay the bills; ideally something that relates to your specialism, so you can refer to it as relevant experience later. I know an awful lot of indie devs who moonlight as web developers, as a simple way to turn code into cash. If you do good work as an indie developer, you stand to make a lot more money than you would as just another small cog in the industry! But until that day comes, you’ll be living on a minimal budget – you will probably find your most useful skill during this time lies in persuading people to help you for free.
You want to be really cool? Don’t even bother making money from your games at all. Just get a nice, normal job, make games as a means to express yourself, and give them away for free. If you’re really passionate about game design for its own sake, then I think the most rational approach is to completely divorce yourself from any kind of commercial influence. Your games will be beautiful and amazing, and you’ll never have to care about crunch time, monetisation, market positioning, or what people think about your work. People will still love and appreciate you, even if they’re not giving you money.