Level 3 Is a Lie: 5 REAL Ways to Get a Job in Gaming


We previously spoke with game developer Cort Stratton in an interview that you can read here. A follow-up question about the best way to break into the video game industry revealed that it’s much tougher than the commercials would have you believe. Here’s what Cort has to say:

How do you get into gaming? The stock answer is “start as a tester”, but I don’t buy it. Yes, some people do successfully work their way up from Quality Assurance (including my wife), and I’m sure they’ll disagree with me. To this, I say: some people win the lottery, too, but if somebody asked you how to be financially successful, would you really recommend that they pin their hopes on the weekly PowerBall? Statistically, it’s a long shot.

Unfortunately, there’s no sure-fire guaranteed recipe for a career in games. Combine a highly desirable field with relatively few job openings, and you end up with a fiercely competitive job market. The key is to make sure you stand out from the crowd:

Be Passionate (For The Right Reasons).
Quick: why do you want to work in the games industry? If you answered “because I love video games”, try again! That’s like deciding to work in a slaughterhouse because you love steak. Granted, an interest in playing games is a crucial (and, sadly, often overlooked) prerequisite. But you should decide to work on games because you love making games, and the unique creative and intellectual challenges that come up along the way. And you’d better really love it, because in general you’ll be working longer hours for lower pay than you would earn doing the same job in other sectors.

Get Focused.
Pick the discipline you’d like to end up in (programming, art, design, audio, etc.). Study hard in that field. As much as possible, focus on mastering the fundamental skills of the discipline rather than mastering flashy games-specific techniques. I’d rather hire a programmer with four years of boring non-games-related C++ experience than one with two years of UnrealScript.

Make a Game.
This is easier now than it’s ever been before; game creation frameworks like Unity, Flash, Processing, WebGL, and LittleBigPlanet let you focus on higher-level concepts without getting lost in the nitty-gritty. It’s once again possible for a sufficiently-motivated individual to single-handedly make a game whose production values rival those of a big-budget commercial product. So, do it! You may not be able to sell your game, and it may not even be terribly original/fun, but the experience of sticking with the project from start to finish will be invaluable (and a great conversation-starter in your job interviews).

Make Friends on the Inside.
Join your local IGDA chapter. Attend the annual Game Developers Conference. Participate in an Indie Game Jam, or Ludum Dare. Wherever you go, network with other developers. For one thing, this will help clear up any lingering misconceptions you may have about life in the industry (e.g., QA testers don’t just play games all day, designers don’t decide what games to make, programmers are much cooler than you think they are, and nobody tightens up the graphics on level 3). Eventually you’ll meet somebody who knows somebody who’s looking for somebody just like you.

Move to Where the Action Is.
If you don’t already live in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, or Austin, consider relocating. Of course there are indie developers everywhere, but in terms of big-name studios and publishers in the US, these are the industry hubs where you’ll find the bulk of the jobs.

Finally, play Game Dev Story. It’s an eerily accurate depiction of life as a game developer (especially the part about working alongside bears, ninjas, and chimpanzees).

Thanks again to Cort Stratton for sharing his time with us. Say hello if you see him at the next Game Developers Conference, and finish testing that game — the boss has got another one that she needs designed! [Image Credit]

About B. Indifferent

Bitterly Indifferent is a belligerent hillbilly with a substandard internet connection. He is also a fan of retro gaming who has previously written about the state of games journalism and the intersection of games and family.