Road from College Undergrad to Game Producer
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Posted 07 February 2011 - 06:02 PM
About 20 months ago, I was sitting in at work in a web-software summer internship wondering what I was going to do with my life. The internship was pretty good, and the work environment was pretty awesome, but I had absolutely no passion for what I was doing. I was very appreciative of the opportunity to do real work and start learning real skills, but it was obvious that the web-software industry wasn't for me.
After realizing that I really disliked my job, I started focusing on post-graduation. I'm a senior at Northwestern University graduating with a degree in Industrial Engineering this June (minors in Computer Science and Marketing). Going into my Junior year, I started asking "Well, what am I passionate about?" I came up with a list of skills - programming, computers, statistics - things I thought that were relevant to the "real business world." It was only until consulting my girlfriend (now fiance) that I was turned onto gaming.
After 20 months of hard work, I finally got into the games industry as a production intern at fairly well known studio in LA. I'll be starting as a Production Intern this coming June, and I wanted to write this so that college students who were in my spot (and I'm sure there are many) can learn from my mistakes and successes.
The first bit of advice I can give is be resilient. It took me 18 months from the time I started working to get into the gaming industry to get my first interview. In fact, it was 17 months until I got my first ounce of humanity out of the industry. I sent in resumes. I posted on forums. I marketed myself. I did everything I possibly could think of. I blindly followed huge stretches. I cold-called several studios. I applied to every position I could think of. It was painful. For 17 months, everything I did seemed to go into some meaningless black hole in which no human would ever see it. Sometimes I would get an email response from a "do not reply" email saying I was denied. All of this for simple internships. The industry seemed so insular - to get in the games industry, you already needed to be in the industry. If you weren't in the industry, no one paid any attention to you.
There were a few points where I thought it was hopeless or where I was getting desperate. During the winter of my Junior year, I felt that if I didn't get an internship, I was doomed to get into the industry for the positions I wanted. I started looking at gaming colleges and gaming graduate schools, thinking those would be the magical solution. I started lamenting my university, if that's even believable. Northwestern University - an elite college - seemed to leave me leaps and bounds behind other colleges for the only industry I wanted.
But each time I met failure, I kept going. I'd buy a new book to read on game development, or start some new programming project to add to my portfolio. Despite my failures at getting into the industry, I started having huge success for the projects I had taken on. I made 2 stand-alone PC games, which while not that impressive, could be sent out as finished projects. I made a World of Warcraft add-on that was featured on numerous fan sites and became #1 in its category with over 4,000 downloads in the first month.
And this leads me into my second bit of advice: you don't need a job to work in the industry. There was actually a definitive point in January last year where I suddenly realized that I was a producer without a job. I had finished the first major iteration of my add-on and was doing user testing, conducting interviews, and organizing feedback. I started coordinating a few of my gaming friends to help me with each task, such as creating a demo video, structuring the exact text I wanted on the add-on page, etc. I convinced one of them to start making some artwork for the add-on. And suddenly, I realized that I was doing the job of a producer. The programming was done, and now I was coordinating 3-4 people to wrap up everything else and get a solid initial release.
A lot of people come to these forums asking "how can I get into the industry" - and to be honest, it extremely easy. There's a reason that there are so many independent studios out there - there aren't any barriers to entry to the games industry. Start making your own projects. Start doing the job you want to do. If you want to be a game programmer, get C++ and OpenGL and get to work. If you want to be a QA tester, start compiling bug lists and reproduction methods in various games that you play. If you want to be an artist, start making art for a game (either new or current). If you want to be a level designer, pick up Starcraft 2 or Valve's Hammer and start making levels. If you want to be a producer, start finding people to coordinate a project with (you can find people at your University or gaming circles). Several people never even get hired into the industry at all - some people get a group of friends, make an iPhone or Droid game, throw it on the app store for 99 cents, and make thousands. Point is, you don't need someone to give you a job to start doing the work, and the work should come first.
In mid-February, I still hadn't received any response from the 30+ studios I'd applied for an internship with. I started wondering "what am I missing?" - I had an awesome add-on, a great personal website (http://www.MatthewEnthoven.com), a pretty good portfolio. But still, I wasn't having any luck. I started doing research on other candidates - my competitors - and what they had that I didn't. Through my research, I found what I was really good at: I had an awesome personal website. Aesthetically, it kicked ass, which would win me a few points here and there. I had a great University, which despite my failures, I still found as an advantage. I had finished projects that had several hundred downloads compared to broken, unfinished, and untested ones. But the one thing I was missing was a blog.
So I started my gaming blog. Initially, I wrote about 10 articles and started releasing them ever week. After 10 articles, I completely stopped. No one was reading it, and I lost all motivation to continue writing. Between guild leadership, my various programming projects, and my schoolwork, I just didn't seem to have time to write. My blog went down as an unfinished project, going 3 months or more without a single entry.
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Posted 07 February 2011 - 06:03 PM
A "finished project" doesn't just consist of the submitted code, or submitted work. Most projects are never really "finished." A lot of projects/games are always evolving and always changing, and yours should be too. If you've never gotten serious feedback on your code, gameplay, or artwork, you're certainly not "finished." If you've never incorporated feedback, you're certainly not "finished." A project is "finished" when you've released it to the public, gone through iterations of feedback, patches, and bug fixes, and you have a generally complete "product." Think from your bosses' perspective: if you were assigned to this project, would he think it's "done" or would he find it lackluster? You can't cut corners here. While you might be able to trick an HR person to thinking a project is cool and complete, your future boss will see right through it.
Feedback is a critical element of not only projects, but also your career. When I was locked into returning to my web-software internship last summer, I started getting more aggressive with marketing myself and getting feedback. I posted a lot on these forums to get any bit of feedback possible. My resume underwent several iterations as I started distributing it out to anyone who would look and comment on it. I joined IGDA and started attending random game development meetings throughout Chicago, all the while asking questions about the industry and getting feedback on what I had done so far.
Feedback is a gift. Throughout my career search, I've been warned several times of "college arrogance." College students graduate feeling all high-and-mighty with their degree, and in turn, they come off as arrogant and unwilling to learn. Ironically, the students at the highest risk of falling into this trap are also the ones who are most likely to brush it off. If you read this and instantly think "psh, I'm nothing like that," you're already guilty. Careers are built on the basis of listening, learning, and communicating, all three of which can be significantly improved by listening to feedback.
One of my final interview questions in the entire process was "What's the most valuable thing you've learned in your life?" For me, it's been the ability to listen and make people feel listened too. In high school, I was constantly told by my parents, teachers, and friends that I wasn't listening even when I was. I learned about the concept of reflective listening when I got to Northwestern and started implementing it in my everyday life. Maybe it was just maturity, but maybe it was the idea too. Learning how to listen to feedback, however, has easily been the most valuable skill I've ever acquired. It's touched every part of my life.
When I first started poking around asking for advice, I instantly ran into brutal advisors that seemed like forum trolls (*cough* Tom Sloper *cough*). Before I actually listened to them, I would find myself looking into their credentials, usually finding that they were a 1st generation gamer and likely had no clue what it was work in "modern gaming." But everywhere I went, the same people were offering the same feedback, and I quickly started finding that my attempts to discredit were going in the complete wrong direction. Instead of listening to advice, I tried to prove it was ignorant and ignorable.
After meeting failure after failure, I started getting bent into submission while also starting to use more and more resources. Rather than just going onto the forums and posting resumes, I went to my university's career services. I started putting myself in situations in which hiring folks couldn't really refuse to answer my questions. On my projects, I started developing more, getting better at feedback cycles and also structuring my code to easily implement later feedback.
One of the most popular bits of feedback that I saw getting thrown around was "Do you even know what you want to do?" When I first started posting asking for advice, this was usually the response. It's the response a lot of college students get, because the reality is, they don't know what they want to do. If you're a college student reading this, know that it's pretty normal while in college to "not know what you want to do." Even if you know what industry you want to work in, it's completely fine to not know what you want to do in that industry.
Usually, not knowing what you want to do is a consequence of not knowing what work there is to do or laziness. Let's assume it's the first, in which case you probably need to do your research. If and when you get to an on-site interview, it's almost guaranteed that one of the questions, either directly or indirectly, will be "what do you see yourself doing here?" At that point, you need to know what you're doing, and to get that involves research. Research is a critical element of any job search. You need to know the industry, the position, and the company among several other things.
If it's laziness, let me tell you that making games is not a game - it's a serious business that involves countless hours of hard work. When I first started wanting to get into the games industry, I imagined some dream job in which I could sit around and talk to people about what I would want to change in a game and I could write or draw out changes and make other people do the work. That dream job does not exist. Video games are equivalent to almost any other electronic consumer good. You've got target markets, marketing campaigns, budgets, intense timelines, development goals, etc.
For me, there was a point where I realized that you have to have a passion for actually making games - not just playing them. Looking back at some of my old posts, I trashed Valve's Hammer because I thought "it's a stupid level designer" - really, I was just unwilling to put in the work required to actually make a finished level. I don't have passion for level design (or anything related to artwork), and that's okay too. Personally, I found my main two passions to be systems design and production. For systems design, I focused a lot on UI elements and procedural flow, along with systems within my own guild leadership. For production, I've been a leader among gamers for quite a while and want to take my leadership skills to the gaming industry.
Some people get so wrapped up on the consumer side of the games industry that they mistakenly think that making games is just as fun and cool. Using that logic, making french fries at McDonalds must be the coolest job ever because the fries taste really good. If you don't have a passion for making games, this industry isn't for you. The company I'm starting at works from 10-6, but just walking around and talking to people quickly revealed that most work from 10am-midnight or later.
You need to want to put in the hard work. If you look at portfolio development and think "I'll just cut corners" or "I don't need to do that to get in," you're not approaching it right. When first working on a portfolio, think of realistic projects that would impress your future boss and make them. My blog now has over 100 entries, 500 subscribers, and over 100,000 words (the size of the average American novel).
After finishing all of these projects, I started looking at full time positions last August. Along the way, I found a lot of useful advice that helped me target specific career opportunities and career paths. One interesting bit of advice that I got along the way was "production isn't an entry-level position." I certainly agree still that production isn't an entry-level position, but I didn't seem myself as necessarily "entry-level" - I'd put in a lot of work to game development and targeted my degree to focus a lot on organizational behavior and project management.
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Posted 07 February 2011 - 06:03 PM
I highly doubt that anyone has much success breaking into the games industry without doing some networking. One recruiter told me that the industry is just too "sexy" for you to get in on paper alone. The fact is that the industry gets tons of applications from people trying to break in, and you need something special to actually stand out. While you might think your cool XYZ project is special, it's probably not. I like to say my blog is special, but there are thousands upon thousands of quality gaming blogs out there, many of which have 10-100x as many subscribers. What can be special about you, however, is your personality and professionalism, both of which can only be demonstrated in person.
While it's hard to measure the impacts, I also learned that it's important to be professional, but not too professional. When comparing myself to my "competition," I quickly found that something that set me apart was my professionalism. Some students showed up to career fairs in shorts and tee-shirts when the main attire was generally nice clothes. Some students wouldn't even shake the recruiters hand. Some would joke around and start talking about how awesome the game of XYZ company was. Remember to conduct yourself as a professional developer, not as a geeky-gamer.
At the same time, gaming is one of the rare industries in which you can go too professional. One of the questions I asked in several interviews was "What do you look for in perspective candidates?" Some candidates were actually denied because they came across as too professional - they lacked "cultural fit." I was glad that I was wearing dress-jeans, a casual polo-shirt, and nice shoes rather than the full suit that they mocked in the candidate. Each company varies drastically, and you should do your research and ask questions.
One final note of "professionalism" that got me a huge edge was emailing follow-ups and thank-yous. When you meet someone at a career fair, get their card and send them an email thanking them for the advice. When someone takes the time to interview you, thank them for their time in an email. If you want to be really impressive, write down something memorable to spark their memory. For me, I got very targeted resume advice from one recruiter and thanked him and sent a revised resume. He was very impressed. Another recruiter asked a very interesting question, and I sent a follow-up with a blog entry inspired by their question. Make sure you use proper grammar/spelling the whole way, of course.
The road for me ended with 4 full-time production job offers all arriving at about the same time, one of which was particularly good, and none of which I'm completely qualified for. I went from being desperate to get in to actually getting to say "I know you want to wait to interview me, but I'm already interviewing with other companies" (said to the company I'm signing with). In hindsight, it's interesting that things moved so quickly once I actually started triggering network connections. From the Summer to Fall, I went from people saying "mmhmm, that's okay" to "wow, that's cool." I started hearing things like "You're a rising star" and "You've clearly already put in the work" from two different companies, when before no one even bothered to send me a reply.
I certainly don't know everything about the industry, or what it's like to work in the industry. I haven't even started yet (starting this June/July), and I'm 100% sure that I have so much to learn it's unreal. I've started reading several books on production, agile project management, and general management skills, and I'm sure I'll learn a ton more from my training and coworkers, and even more in the years to come.
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Posted 07 February 2011 - 11:44 PM
Making games fun and getting them done.
Please do not PM me. My email address is easy to find, but note that I do not give private advice.
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Posted 16 July 2011 - 09:08 AM
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