Through my work on this blog and my interactions with industry peeps at Microsoft-sponsored events, I’ve gained a lot of insight (as well as plenty of questions) as to how one might pursue a career in the game industry. Now, as a disclaimer, I’ve never personally been involved in “the biz,” but I’ve met plenty of people who are, and have had the opportunity to ask them about their experiences.

Why Games?

The game industry, in the 1970’s, was composed mostly of tinkerers, programmers, hobbyists and individuals. Games were 2-dimensional and primitive. The industry itself has exploded from its humble niche beginnings into a huge player in the entertainment market. The industry brought in $5.5 billion (USD) in 2007. Console title teams are now composed of hundreds of people; teams for any given game operate like small companies, with HR, marketing, development, and testing personnel among many other roles.

What is the appeal of the game industry? Clearly, for many people, it’s about making a living doing what you love. There is a misconception that you get to play games all day. Sure, if you are a beta tester for games, you get to play games and comment on them, it’s an easy job, but you are never really fully integrated into the industry.

A lot of the questions I get are along the lines of “how do I work at Microsoft Game Studios, or Blizzard, or Epic for example?” Let’s dive in.

High Competition

There are lots of industries where you can graduate from college with no experience, get an internship and move up the ladder. Business application development and IT are examples of such industries; workers here are in very high demand. One thing that you must understand before approaching a career in games is that the industry is extremely competitive, more so than you’d expect. The justification for this is that, well, everybody wants to work in games! There is a huge pool of potential candidates for any given role on a game team, and only the most elite will be chosen. If you want to learn what kind of skills a company like Blizzard looks for in an entry-level programmer, check out my friend Clint’s post on Channel8 where he interviewed John Cash, Technical Director for World of Warcraft. From my own conversations with John I learned that he’s been in the industry for, like, forever. He worked previously for id Software on titles like Quake before moving to Blizzard.

Know from the beginning that you are going to have to be a stand-out if you want to start out working for a game giant.

Experience Trumps Other Stuff

Unlike some industries where you can BS your way through an interview and learn on the job, the game industry generally gives obvious preference to those candidates who have worked on and successfully “shipped” a title. (Of course, “shipped” is a word that has a different definition now than it did in 1995.) The reason for this is that the game industry is extremely time-sensitive. If a big title isn’t shipped before Christmas, for example, they miss out on potentially millions of dollars in sales, and a slipping deadline can make a big difference in your career.

The dilemma most new folks face is much like obtaining a credit card for the first time. How do I get credit without credit? How do I get game development experience without any game development experience? Chicken or egg? The answer to the question is not some existential paradox, but rather a big “oh duh” moment.

Getting Experience and Priming Yourself

Many of the questions I get are from individuals in the age range of 12-18 who have decided that the divine path of gaming is their chosen career trajectory. To these folks I offer the following advice. While you are still living at home and having an easy life going to high school, start proving yourself. That means, start educating yourself about the game industry and more importantly, start working on games. Start small, of course, but do your best to put something real together. You may find that you can achieve the coveted “Shipped Titles” credential before you leave college!

Before you begin, it is absolutely critical to understand that this is not an easy process. You have to start with it, make stupid mistakes, learn from them, and stay with it until you have a finished product in your hands. Make it your life, your passion, make it a part of you. This isn’t a career that you can passively enjoy while watching the sunset; most folks working on games work longer hours (and in some cases, make far less money) than people with comparable jobs outside the game industry.

If you are truly ready to embark on one of the most difficult and fulfilling careers out there, here are some ways you can get started before trying to apply for a job out of the blue. Make sure to work across disciplines wherever possible; team up with awesome artists, modelers and designers (basically anyone who fills a role other than what you do) so you can count the interdisciplinary activity on your resume. Make sure these people share the common dream of making it in the game industry and you have a recipe for success.

Stuff You Can Do Now!!

  • Use XNA Game Studio to develop your own game using the wealth of tutorials available, get people to love it, then sell it on Xbox Live Marketplace for money. This counts as a shipped title!
  • If you are a college student, create a game with XNA and submit it to the Imagine Cup Game Design Invitational competition. Make it a school project. And do it this year. And tell me about it so I can help you win and get funded.
  • Take your favorite PC game and make a wildly successful mod for it (Half Life, Unreal Tournament, Halo, etc).
  • Get together your group of motivated friends and make your own game. Then make your own company and ship titles. Then get acquired or move to a bigger company!
  • Become an expert level designer for your favorite game engine, make tons of highly rated community maps and await a job offer. This has worked for lots of people I know.
  • Always keep copies of your game handy and keep a journal if you can. This will help you answer interview questions later.

Conclusion

There is no short or easy way to get a job in the game industry, short of being someone’s prodigal son or something, and even that can be a long shot. You need to position yourself early on as an elite in some particular game community and get noticed. Make forum posts, attend conferences if you can, be there and be seen and have the chops to back it up.

But that’s future stuff. For right now, make sure you have your goals straight, and do more research to ensure your assessment of the industry is accurate. Then get busy with XNA and make something truly awesome, learn as much as you can, and don’t let the dream go. If you do, you’ll wish you hadn’t.

Imagine where you are right now, and imagine where you’d be in five years if you worked on games every week until then. Would you be ready to talk about having experience in the game industry? If you’re that kind of person, you might be right for the job.

Please feel free to start a discussion here using the comments below. If you have experience in the game industry or are interested in getting involved, I’d love to hear your story.