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Disclaimer: Epic is not the typical company. Information presented here may or may not help you and may not hold true for many other studios out there.
I've decided to finally write this up to help everyone out. I would have killed for something like this when I was the young guy emailing the developer!
Shane Caudle (Art Director) and I see a lot of resumes. And I get, on average, 3 or more emails a day from game industry hopefuls. This document is going to focus on Artists and Level Designers. (I'll talk to Tim and Polge about what they're looking for when they pick out programmers and update this site accordingly.)
Foot In Door
There are several main ways “in” that I'm aware of.
The first way is through QA. (Quality Assurance, where the games are tested before shipping.) Get a job as a tester and kick ass and you may get promoted to the test lead. From there you may become a producer and continue climbing the ladder. Bear in mind that you probably have to live in a town where there are development studios nearby. FYI, this technique seems to work best at large companies. Small companies tend to outsource their QA.
The second way is to make cool shit and self-promote. Make a website, and email the various companies that are out there with links to your work. Developers get a lot of email, and nearly every one I know reads it. If someone sends me a link with their portfolio I always take a peek.
The third way in is via a friend. If you know someone who already works at a company or has a friend at a company then you might have an “in” for QA or having your portfolio looked at.
On a Degree
At Epic, having a degree is nice but not necessary. However, at many companies this is very important; it can sometimes be a deal breaker. Often you'll find that the larger the company the more important the degree. A degree shows that you know how to commit to something and finish it. (see “On Finishing.”) It also shows a desire and ability to learn and work hard towards a goal.
The standard “recommended courses” include Computer Science and English. Any collegiate activities that involve teamwork are always nice to see. (This shows that you have the ability to work well in a group.)
Bear in mind that this industry moves very fast. The years you spend in school are years you may fall behind…
I know many folks who are continuing with school while they attempt to get hired at gaming businesses. This would be the route I'd personally suggest for anyone.
Show the potential employer that you know how to finish something. Starting something is easy; it's the fun part. Finishing a project that you're completely sick of is the hard part. The last 10% of game development is the hardest. If you're going to remember anything from this document, take away this: The best developers in this business know how to finish and ship. If you don't have this ability then all of your skills are useless.
An artist could show a full, robust demo reel of great content. (seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised at how many people miss this…)
A level designer should show at least 6 complete levels. Variety is nice, so the more varied the locales the better.
Portfolio FIRST, Resume SECOND.
If you can't produce quality work, then I don't care if you worked at ILM. Working at a place like that does not necessarily mean you made a huge contribution to one of their projects; you may have painted a horn on a CG dinosaur. Show work that you have sole ownership over – “this is a texture map that I worked on with my friend” is a surefire warning symbol for a potential employer.
If you want to be an artist, you either get “it” or you don't. You know, the ability to draw, the knowledge of what looks right. You need traditional art skills to understand proportion, color, and composition before you move onto digital or 3d art.
Many artists attempt abstract or cartoony characters in their demo reels because they can't build a normal, realistic human being. We can spot these guys instantly.
3d artists should post their meshes and work for download in their portfolio, along with screenshots. (We always look for screens first, because they are the quickest way of assessing someone's ability.)
Sometimes your older work is not a true representative of your current abilities. Keep an eye out for this in your portfolio and get rid of the shitty work. Your portfolio is as strong as its weakest link.
Level Designers/World Architects
Make a website with screenshots of your work. If you're looking to work at a company that has licensed technology then you should use that tech to make your levels. Be active in the community. If you're making levels for Unreal Tournament and you want to get hired at an Unreal Engine licensee, post pictures of your levels on UT message boards and get to know folks in the community.
Write and post articles about your craft. This shows that you have good written communication skills (excellent for any position) and you have your thoughts cleared out.
Remember what I said above about artists leaving their older work in their portfolios. If your earlier levels suck compared to your latest work, take them off of your site! You're only hurting yourself with it if you leave it up.
Above all, practice, practice, practice. Don't be afraid to throw out old, crappy work. Maybe even find an existing amateur level designer that you respect and send him your work for suggestions. If you stick with it, you'll get better.
Few people are ever just hired as Game Designers. They usually work, bite and claw their way to that position.
A Game Designer must have excellent writing skills. He must be a good communicator as well, as he's working with the team to design the game. Charisma always helps, as he's frequently the one evangelizing the game to the press and gamers. An introverted designer is an ineffective designer. A game designer should also be well read. (I'm really bad at finding time to read; I'm terrible at this part…!)
Above all, the Designer must also play games. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised at the amount of folks in this biz that don't play games. You'd be surprised at the amount of ideas and inspiration you can draw from other titles. Sometimes you'll be struggling with a design problem and the answer could be in another previously released title. By playing this game you can see how the competitors solved the problem and use that as a starting point for your design.
If becoming a Game Designer is your ultimate goal, you can help speed up the path several ways. First, get to know a good Designer at the company you're working at. You'd be surprised at what you learn. Second, try your hand at writing game pitches and design documents. You'll eventually start putting game systems and worlds together in your head.
When You Finally Get Hired
Be easy-going. Game development is not a one-man-show, and you'll be working with many other folks over the course of a couple of years. Your work will be criticized and you'll need to get used to it.
Learn how the company works before opening your mouth. You'll be better off in the long run.
It is key to be a hardcore gamer, but you must also be well-rounded. A developer that knows what's going on in the real world and has his finger on the pulse of pop culture will ultimately know what feels right and looks good. This gives you a vital sense of perspective.
Once you get hired, stick with your first project and see to it that you finish it with the team. I've known many people who have jumped from company to company and never actually shipped a game, and their resumes look like a “who's who” of the gaming industry. I avoid these folks at all cost, as this is the primary indicator of a lack of finishing ability!
Half of game development is coming up with cool ideas. The other half is figuring out how you're going to accomplish this cool shit with the amount of time and money and people you have. Figuring out the proper tradeoffs is a huge part of the job. Often you hear folks in the community say things like “Why didn't they add this idea? I'm surprised they didn't do it!” Well, you'd be surprised to find out that often the idea was floating around, but time just didn't allow for it.