Although finding a job in the game industry is not a game of chance, it is important that you understand the viable entry points (or we'll just call them "doors") so that you properly prepare for that position. As it turns out, there are three common doors to choose from.
Door Number 1 - Game Tester
Becoming a game tester is often touted as one of the easiest ways to at least get your foot in the door (boy, how far will I be able to stretch this analogy!). Behind door number one you can expect many hours of playing games, finding bugs, and documenting those bugs with great alacrity. The movie Grandma's Boy might be your reference for this position, or perhaps you have watched The Tester, a reality TV show where participants compete for the rare prize of a job as game tester for Sony. Consider these two references as "dramatizations" only.
One thing is true about game testers...they actually do sit around all day long and play games. As fun as this might sound, get ready for some really grueling work as you play the same game over and over and over. A student once asked me if game testers got to choose the games they tested (indicating that Pokemon might not be his thing). No such luck. As a game tester you will play games you love, games you hate, and everything in between. The important part of being a game tester is the ability to spot, reproduce, and then accurately report bugs. This is mostly done by comparing the game you are playing to the game design document (often over 100 pages long).
Game testing is tedious, and the pay probably won't allow you to buy your dream car (or even your dream game system), but it is a valid door into the game industry. For example, in the company I work for, one game tester was recently promoted to producer while another tester was promoted to designer. The key to climbing the ladder is to do your job well, take initiative, and communicate your desired career goals with others in the studio.
Door Number 2 - Game Programmer
It is quite possible to get an entry level position as a game programmer. These titles often go by the name "Junior Programmer". As a junior programmer, it will be your job to be part of a team of more experienced programmers. You will be expected to make a real contribution to the project, and you will also be expected to listen, watch, and learn from the other programmers around you.
Keep in mind that even a junior programmer is expected to have mastered the core concepts of game programming. For most game jobs this will mean having a Bachelor degree in computer science, being fluent in C++, and having a working knowledge of both 2D and 3D game programming concepts. You will almost certainly have to complete a programming test before you will even be considered.
Being a junior programmer means lots of hard work, and probably some overtime (especially during crunch). Since this will be your first game programming gig, you will probably find yourself putting in some extra hours as you learn more and more about what it is to be a game programmer. In this position, it is important to get your assignments done, research skills that you don't have, and ask for help when you need it. Most of your companion programmers will be more than willing to take time to help you better yourself.
Door Number 3 - Artist
Entry level positions are also available to artists. As an entry level artist, you will be expected to work as part of a team of artists on a particular project creating assets that will be used in the game. Depending on your skill level and the type of game, this might be anything from creating marketing materials to creating 3D models. Another common area for entry level artists is creating art for the UI (UI = User Interface).
Just as with a junior programmer, even a junior artist (I'm not totally sure they use that title!) will be expected to have mastered the core tools which may include Adobe Photoshop and one or more 3D modeling programs such as Maya or 3ds Max. Most employers will want to see a portfolio of your existing work before they interview you.
As with any game development position, being an artist will mean hard work and some overtime. One of the most essential skills you will have to learn is the ability to get large amounts of work done by a certain deadline. This often means knowing when a piece of art is "good enough" and moving on to the next item. Artists rarely have the luxury of poring over a certain piece of art until it is "perfect". However, you often have a chance toward the end of the project to add additional polish to your work.
Door Number ?
To keep this article short, I have intentionally limited my discussion to the three most common doors for entering the game industry. There are certainly other ways to break in, but these are the most common entry level positions. In my next post I'll discuss more of the positions that make up a working game studio.
One important thing to keep in mind is that you should have an idea of your target entry level position long before you are looking for a job. For example, if you are getting ready to choose a college, make sure the college offers a program that will prepare you for the entry level job you are targeting. Even if your entry point is as a game tester, you will most likely have a career goal that comes after that, and this is what you should focus on during your education.