How to Break into the Video Game Business

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Have you ever thought while playing a game 'Gee, I could do that?' This article will show you the ways you might be able to get your foot in the door and help make videogames for a living.

How many times have you been playing one of the latest games either solo or with your buddies and thought to yourself ‘Man! I would love to work in this industry!’ Is it even possible to get in with the big boys such as EA and Activision? I have worked in the gaming industry at a small company called Westwood Studios out of Las Vegas and have my name on three titles. So I am a testament that if I can break into the business anyone can – but how did I do this? Here are some tips and truths that will get you started or even might make you reconsider.

1) Location, Location , Location

 Research various companies that are in your area as there might be a major studio right in your backyard. The biggest states that seem to attract gaming are California (and not just in Silicon Valley either. There is a Bioware office not far from where I work in downtown Sacramento). If there’s not an ideal company in your backyard, you might have to relocate. But do yourself a favor: make sure you have a few backup plans. The reason for this is that I have seen friends of mine move cross country to get a job with a game company, fail miserably and then move back home with their parents. I am not saying don’t follow your dreams, but what I am saying is have a plan just in case things fall apart (I didn’t and I can say getting hit with the cold dose of reality of moving back home was heartbreaking to say the least).

2) It’s not WHAT you know it’s WHO you know

One of the reasons that I got the job at Westwood Studios is because I had a friend of mine that worked for them. Now I am not saying to try and stalk the people that work at the company, but you can try to introduce yourself to people there, network, and even show off your skills. And by meeting people, you can find out what it’s like to work for this company. Who knows? Just because the company makes the game you like doesn’t mean it is the best company on earth to work for. Once you get in, you will be given an interview and they will ask you questions like “What games have you played and what games do you like?” You can answer these questions, but then they’ll ask you questions such as “What would you do differently in this game?” If you don’t have answers for questions like these, you’ll be passed over for someone that does.

3) Skills but no degree could still get you a job

Some people will go into a job with various degrees in computer programming and even the specialized training some colleges offer and expect a job. Here is a cold hard case of a reality for you… you’re not special just because you sat in a classroom and did the work and got a degree. There are hundreds of THOUSANDS of people who go through these courses and expect to become a game developer right out of college. Without an impressive portfolio to back up your degree you will not even get your foot in the door. I have seen high school kids get jobs because they have written either full on games or mods for games such as Half Life or Crysis. Recruiters are often more impressed by that than an expensive piece of paper.

4) You can get paid to play video games

This is the core of any game company – it’s called beta testing. This is what I did over at Westwood studios and it sounds pretty awesome. All you do is play games that no one has access to yet all day. While that sounds great there are two problems with this. The first is you’re doing repetitive tasks all day long and if you get a bug that breaks the game, you better be able to repeat it. I can’t even begin to tell you the frustration of discovering a Class A Non-Repeatable bug that I spent DAYS trying to recreate and couldn’t. Also, the hours especially around crunch time are VERY long. Fifty to Sixty hour work weeks and even more are not uncommon. It can burn you out, but it’s often well worth it. By the way, there are scams online that say “Pay us X amount of money and we’ll get you a job where you can play from home and make money playing video games.” While there are a few companies that do use outsourced beta testers, that’s a real hard gig to land. Trust me when I say this: most companies don’t do this as ALL game companies have a Quality Assurance department.

5) I’ve gotten in – now what?

Let’s say you have programming skills and you’ve landed a job as a beta tester. How do you move up within the company to do the work you want to do and actually help make the next masterpiece? Most of it comes down to patience, due diligence, and lots of hard work. You’re not going to start off at the top and put in 10 hour work weeks and produce the next hit for Sega or EA. That’s just unrealistic. Start off with the basics: show up to work on time, do the job to the best of your ability, don’t start trouble, and work your fingers to the bone. When you’ve been there a few months, mention to your boss about your interests or training (for example: “Hey, I wanted to show you this drawing I did or I have taken lots of classes in programming”). If they’re impressed with your work, you might be given access to another department and that’s how you move up.

So if you think you have what it takes do an online search for your favorite company, check out the job board, polish your resume and get your portfolio ready. Who knows? In a few years I might be playing a game that you’ve worked on!

Image: Rick R 1

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