Wednesday, June 20, 2012

So You Wanna Work in the Games Industry

One of my most valued co-workers has put in his notice. He’s moving on to bigger things, and I wish him the best in his new ventures. He’s good at what he does, and whoever steps up to take his place has some big shoes to fill.

That’s put some of my own focus on what it takes to work in the games industry. I’m pretty happy with my job as it is, and while I’m looking at moving on myself in a year or two, whatever I move on to will be involved in games and gaming. It’s an industry I know and I’m good at what I do. There are a lot of people who want to work in this industry, though, and to be perfectly honest, most of them aren’t going to and aren’t suited to it. For those of you reading who would like to work in the industry, whatever piece of the industry you’re looking at, I’ve compiled this post to aid you in that endeavour. Hopefully, it helps.


You Don’t Need a Degree, Go Work at McDonalds

The co-worker who is leaving us has a degree in English, and it serves him fairly well. I don’t have a degree in anything, and that’s served me fairly well. What we both have is experience working shitty jobs. And that’s really important, because what you’re applying for at the entry level in games is invariably a shitty job.

You’re going to be a lackey to begin with. You’re going to stock shelves or alphabetize games or dust or shrink wrap millions of books. Sometimes you’re going to have to lift heavy stuff. None of this is glamorous, none of it shows up in your school transcripts, and we can’t really tell what sort of a worker you’ll be from a blank resume.

If you want entry-level work in the games industry, you need to work shitty jobs first. Those are what we’re looking for: are you willing to do occasionally crappy work, and are you good enough at that sort of work that you can keep a job doing it for a while?


You Need to Know Your Stuff

This one should probably speak for itself, but you need to know what you’re talking about. Play games. Play a lot of games. Read gaming blogs. Keep up on news and rumours. Become involved in forums. Talk about game design. Talk about organized play. Get involved in organized play. Learn. Actively go out and learn more about what you’re aiming to do.

I’ve been working in the games industry for just over five years, but I have over twenty years of experience with hobby gaming. If you want to steal my job, you will need more than that (and you’ll need to convince my boss that you’re worth more to him than I am, and if that’s true, we can’t afford you). If you want to get a  job selling Dungeons & Dragons, you need to play some Dungeons & Dragons.

Likewise, if you’re going to write dialogue trees, you should probably be a solid writer. Designing systems? Might want to know something about design. And games. And games design. And math. Programming a computer game? Best know some programming. And even selling D&D requires that you know something about sales, and specifically the sale of intangibles (because while the book itself might be an object someone can buy, what you’re really trying to sell is fun). If you want to work in a specific job, you need to know how to do most of that job.

Note that I didn’t say you need to know how to do the whole job. I didn’t know everything there was to know about being a games manager when I started being a games manager. I had to learn some stuff on the job. Merchandising, event management, ordering, these were new things to me. But I knew games and I knew how to sell stuff, and that’s the biggest part of the job. If you don’t know how to do at least the basics of the job, no one is going to hire you on.

To learn those things, sometimes you need to do stuff that isn’t directly related to the job you want to be doing. I used to sell timeshare. That was where I learned to sell stuff and got some experience under my belt.


Know Your Abilities

Not everyone is a salesman. Not everyone knows how to program. Not everyone is a writer. Not everyone is an artist. But you, you are good at something, and that something can probably translate into the games industry somehow. Find out what you’re good at, and get as good at that as you can be. Then find ways to apply that thing to the world of games.

A lot of people start out in Quality Assurance when they’re trying to break into video games. And for a lucky few, that’s a good way to break into the games industry. For a whole lot of others, it’s a lot of backbreaking labour in an industry that doesn’t care about the guys doing the backbreaking labour. When’s the last time you heard of a famous game tester? How about a famous game designer?

But Quality Assurance isn’t the only entry-level position at a game company, and if you’re not classically “entry level,” you increase your chances of getting a better job exponentially. If you’re a pretty good programmer, you should apply for programming positions. If you’re a decent writer, apply for positions in design or writing. If you’re a kick-ass salesman, sales and marketing always need more feet on the ground. And all of these positions are going to come into contact with the parts of the company you’re actually trying to break into. And if you want to break into a career in games that has a few different options going forward, why not do something that doesn’t suck as a baseline?


Know Who You’re Working For

I knew about Warp One long before I’d ever walked through the door. Back in the nineties, a friend of mine used to run a comic shop called Front Page Comics in the thriving metropolis of Stettler, Alberta. The shop did pretty well for itself, and was my first real introduction to nerd culture as a whole. When I was looking to get into the industry myself, I foolishly thought the best way to do that would be to open my own store, and I went about thrashing around like an idiot for a few months trying to do just that. When I went to Jeff for advice, he told me “If you want to make money at this, be like Warp One.”

Fast forward a whole lot of years, and I live a few blocks away from Warp One, slinging pitas at the local Pita Pit. It’s not a terrible job, and it’s a pretty great place to live, and one day my girlfriend comes into the Pit and says “Warp One is hiring. You should drop off a resume.” I’d been in there a handful of times, picking up a copy of Secrets of Xen’Drik for Eberron and a horrible 3.5 Africa-inspired rulebook, but it hadn’t even occurred to me to drop off a resume. When I finally did, I was hired on the spot.

I included a list of all the games I’ve played and/or still play on the back of my resume. It was a long list.


Be Awesome

I can’t really teach you this one. Ironically, I think it’s the most important point. You are going to need to fit in with the rest of the crew where you work. A lot of employers don’t hire for talent or education, especially in the games industry. They hire for personality. You need to be personable. You need to be generally likeable, or convince whoever is doing the hiring that you can be, and if you force it, people can tell.

I’m not the hiring authority at our store, but I take in a few resumes a week. Some of them get put in the File. Others get put directly into the garbage. The difference is the first impression they gave me. The ones that get put into the File are the ones that I could possibly see myself working with in the future. The ones that go into the circular file have probably failed somewhere, and it’s usually at this point.

When we keep a resume on file, by the bye, it’s kept in an enormous stack of other resumes. Sometimes for a really long time. Sometimes forever. But if you made it that far, that means that either someone who doesn’t think like me got your resume in there, or someone at our store thought you were cool enough to vet.

And if someone at our store thinks you’re cool enough to vet, other nerd locations are going to think you’re pretty cool too.

Playing Games for a Living

The people who work in this industry don’t do it for the money or the glamour. You aren’t going to make more than a decent living wage in this industry. Working in timeshare, I made a lot more money for a lot less work (and those of you who know me personally know how little work I must be talking about here…), but I choose to do this because I love it. I love games. I love gamers. I love events that bring people together and create shared experiences. And I get to play games for a living, which is pretty great.

If you’ve got what it takes, maybe you can too.

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