I get questions about this from recent graduates all the time. Here’s what I tell them.
First: Treat your dream job like a quest log. Pick a dream job you want to have in 10 years, maybe a lead designer or creative director, and look at job postings for it. Check their requirements. Follow them back down the pre-requisites (does creative director require being a lead designer? okay, let’s look at lead designer postings…) This will let you build a constructive plan on what to get over the course of the next 10 years and help you make the right decisions when looking for a foot in the door, and a better idea of what you need to demonstrate in job applications or interviews.
This approach helped me a lot in realizing what I needed to care about in jobs, when not to waste time with certain opportunities, and what I absolutely needed and couldn’t compromise on. Also, remembering you’re preparing for a dream job 10 years from now helps ease off a lot of the pressure. If you plan to have a 30 year career, that’s 20 more years to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
You also learn a lot about the system of advancement in the process, and that’ll be very useful for you as you gain experience (literally XP!)
Second: No one wants to hire someone unless they’ve proven they can already do the job they’re being hired for. There’s enough risks in game dev already. All your energy should probably go to finding ways to prove you can already do the work that don’t require someone to give you permission first. This is what building a portfolio is for, and why people can turn their experience making mods into a job in the industry. Remember, the person hiring you is going to be betting their project on your ability to deliver quality content on their deadlines. They are terrified of hiring the wrong person, which could delay their project and cause them to miss their opportunity. Asking a company to take a chance on you because you’re passionate is not a good bet for them. You need to make hiring you a smart decision for them, not a charity case they take on.
The best way to do that is making games. It’s also the best way to improve your skills. Make lots of quick projects that you can show off. Make a microgame every month. Work on a modding project. Build your own small game and get it published. The most brilliant design document in the world isn’t as powerful as the most mediocre playable prototype. Schedule playtests now, before you have anything to show, and I guarantee you’ll be motivated to show up with something for people to play.
Make something, playtest it, change it. Show it to people long before you’re proud of it. In my job I show people what I’m working on multiple times a week and get rapid feedback. I don’t wait until it’s “perfect”, that’s a trap. Just keep making it 10% better and get used to playtests and showing broken games as part ofthe experience. It’ll serve you well in the industry.
Third: Try to figure out no-risk ways to get someone who can hire you looking at your work regularly. For example, for Faeria (my entry job) I’d met the creators at GDC and was sending them feedback and suggestions on their game after I asked for entrance to their alpha. They said they were too busy to work on the design right now, chasing funding, so I suggested I’d redesign the cards myself and playtest them in paper at my college. They said sure, and I stared sending them weekly reports and redesigning based on their feedback.
After about 6 weeks of this I told them I had to stop because my internship was starting and they offered me an internship. I said I needed to honor my original commitment and they offered me a job. I still honored my original commitment then took a job with them.
At the internship the same thing happened. FFG interns (I boosted my internship credentials when applying by joining their playtester program and writing good feedback for it) only playtested games and packed boxes most of the time. I ended up doing the PvE design on an expansion and a bunch of content design for a new game. This happened because I said “Hey, I know we’re waiting for a real designer to do this but do you mind if I – as an intern – took a swing at it and you can spend 5 minutes during lunch glancing at it and giving feedback? It’d be great for my education.”
That’s a MUCH lower risk proposal for them, and then at that point once they see my work isn’t bad there’s a huge incentive for them to think it’s worth using. Much cheaper/ Either way they’ve seen my work and when they’re looking for designers in a future job the devil you know beats the devil you don’t.
However, you can’t do free work forever. Companies rarely hire people because they want to, they hire them because they have to. A studio might love your work, and if they’re getting it for free already why hire you? You need to give them the free sample, the demo of what you’re like as a designer, and then once you’ve got them hooked you need to tell them that you can’t do free work forever. They need to start paying you, or you’ll go somewhere else. Abrakam liked my work a lot, but they didn’t offer to hire me for Faeria until I told them my free work was going to stop.
This can be a bit scary, it can feel like you’re throwing away what you’ve worked for when you walk away. You aren’t. Once you believe the team you’re working with has a clear understanding of your abilities and is used to working with you, that’s the time to tell them you need a paycheck. If they say there may be an opening in the future, thank them and ask them to keep you in mind when it happens. Don’t keep working in the hope of that materializing. Give them some urgency to hire you.
If they simply don’t have the resources to hire you anytime soon, that’s a very good reason to take your talents elsewhere. There’s no point digging at a dry well. Give more studios and teams the chance to work with you and see you’re valuable. A wider network will serve you well and lead to more chances to be hired in the future.
Fourth: Don’t obsess about working for a dream company in the short term. Trying to jump straight to a dream company whose games you adore is like trying to jump straight to a top raiding guild in an MMO. They’re not going to be very tolerant of amateur mistakes, and you have a huge amount to learn. You’ll learn a lot working with them, but you’ll also learn a lot of things working anywhere when you’re starting out. You need to learn how to manage your time in a chaotic environment, how to work productively with difficult co-workers, how to communicate with other disciplines, and a whole lot more. You should also be constantly getting better at your craft through practice, which will happen no matter the prestige of the studio you’re at.
It’s great to be a rising star at a modest studio, where you’ll get a chance to take on more responsibilities and have a chance to mess up without being judged too harshly. Then, once you’ve gotten some great experience under your belt, you can make a play for a dream studio. This works very well with the first piece of advice, pick a studio that gets you requirements to apply for your dream job in 10 years.
Fifth: Level up. Watch GDC talks, work on side-projects, practice your skills and iterate on them. If you’re interested in game design, read up on cognitive science (Celia Hodent’s “The Gamer’s Brain” is a great resource). Game designers should also practice modifying the rules to board games or modding videogames to improve them. 99.999% of Game Development is making an existing game better, not dreaming things up from an empty whiteboard. Whatever your discipline is, practice it consciously and in an environment with rapid feedback. When you do get your dream job you want to be able to knock it out of the park.
Those are my major pieces of advice for breaking into the industry. Hope they’re helpful. My final thought is on something a little different… Why you might not want to break into the industry in the first place. I love my job because I love solving design problems. I like making a game that fits the tight constraints of business plans and company portfolio. If you’re dreaming about creative control and making games you love, you might need to look into starting your own company as your dream job.
There’s also another way to enjoy game design: As a hobby. I have friends that are fantastic desginers and they do not want a job in the game industry. They take higher paying, lower stress jobs in other fields and work on the games they want to work on, on the schedules they feel like, for fun in their spare time. If you love making games and your goal is to enjoy life making them, this is another completely legitimate way to enjoy your life. I enjoy writing stories, but I wouldn’t want to take a job as a TV writer frantically writing scripts and shipping them out as fast as I could. That isn’t what I enjoy about writing, and it mirrors some of what you’ll deal with in the game industry.
Don’t box yourself into one way to be happy. Think about what you want and come up with multiple different paths to get it.
That’s all folks.