It’s been a little over a year since I was hired at Gameloft, and since then I’ve gone from being an intern to being a full time employee and even getting an extra job title (I’m now a Technical Game Designer and a Game Economy Designer on my project). I’ve been meaning to write this article for almost as long (if not longer, truth be told), though I keep either forgetting or being otherwise too preoccupied. But, seeing as I’m just coming down from all the rambling I’ve been doing at MIGS to young folks about these very topics, this seems like a good time to finally crank this piece out.
Over the several years I’ve spent hunting for a job, I’ve had plenty of ups and downs, but most importantly I learned a lot. Aside from luck and a bit of skill, most of my success can probably be attributed to learning through iteration. With this article, I’m hoping to condense a bit of that into what I think are the most valuable and practical tricks I’ve acquired over the years. I’d like to think they’re universal enough that they can be applied not just to getting a job in game design, but pretty much any job. Hopefully, some of you reading this might learn a thing or two from my mistakes (I saved the best ones for near the end, but they aren’t the last ones so you can’t cheat).
Study Your Field
To be clear, I don’t mean go to school. Of course, school can be immensely helpful. If your field of interest does have specialised studies designed to help give you the necessary skills to get into the industry, absolutely look into that. A lot of companies will use your base level of education not just as a metric of your skill, but also as an indication that you’re actually able to put in the effort and finish something (being able to finish things is a good mark for a lot of employers, so keep that one in mind). But no, that’s not what I’m talking about when I’m referring to studying your field.
What I actually mean is you need to study the actual industry surrounding your field. Do everything in your power to learn how your field works. What are some typical business structures? Who are the big names? What does each position do? What are some common problems facing the industry and what are people trying to do to address them? These are all questions you need to ask. But more importantly, you need to ask them not from a consumer or layman’s point of view. You need to think of it the way an insider does. After all, you’re planning on becoming one.
Games are a great example of an industry where a lot of the consumers seem to think they know how the industry works. Allow me to disabuse you of that notion: most gamers have no idea how games are actually made. Certainly not from a professional business perspective. It’s not just a question of dumping a few assets into Unity and bam there you go.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying gamers are completely ignorant, nor that game developers and publishers are blameless or not deserving of scrutiny. Game devs make mistakes and poor choices quite often, and when they do something that hurts consumers they should absolutely be called out for it. What I’m saying is, the choices they make aren’t arbitrary, and they’re often far less simplistic than you might think. Like any other industry games are fraught with politics, business statistics, technical limitations, human limitations, and the unfortunate realities of, well, the real world. Working on games is a career, and not an easy one. There are many people in this industry who work very hard, even on things that might turn out to be viewed as complete trash. Often times, there are deeper reasons for that trash turning out as it did.
Figure out those reasons. Start understanding why your industry of choice works the way it does. Many industries have plenty of resources that you can dive into and research. Just doing that will immediately put you a step ahead the common schmuck who thinks they knows better than the professional despite having no experience because they’re just that smart. I can guarantee you 9 times out of 10, they’re not, and everyone in the industry can spot those people from a mile away.
Allow me to give a quick example. Do you remember Assassin’s Creed Unity? That game that was buggy to the point of being ridiculed online? A big part of why that is is because the game needed to be rebuilt from the ground up using a new engine, because the old one wasn’t able to support the co-op tech they tried adding with that installment. The engine, being new, didn’t work the same way the old one did for a lot of stuff, so a lot of things that people were used to doing had to be re-learned differently. When an entire massive crew of devs are simultaneously trying to recreate something in a new tool... Well, have you ever tried writing your name with your non-dominant hand? Yeah, it’s kinda like that, but with several thousand people trying to do it on the same piece of paper. Anyway, that’s a grossly simplified representation of what happened and there were certainly many other deeper factors at play, but it might help you understand why this would be a sore spot for a lot of the people who worked on that game. It’s not an excuse by any means, but saying that the game was bad because the team was lazy would just be insulting. I don’t recommend insulting people you want to work with.
Go Where The Pros Go And Do As The Pros Do
Ideally by this point, you know the basics of what you’d need to get into your industry, and you’re just about ready to join it yourself. Well, this is when networking becomes important. There are two big tips I can offer when it comes to networking. The first one has to do with how to find the right people to network with.
This really isn’t that hard: figure out where the industry professionals meet up, and go there. Many industries have meetups and networking socials. These are meant to be places for industry professionals to get together, make connections, share their knowledge and experience with each other, and maybe even have some fun. Often times, it’s not that hard to join in on these. Look into societies, organisations, and events meant to represent these industries and go to them (for example, video games in Montreal have La Guilde, the IGDA, MIGS, MEGA, CGX, GANG de Devs, and Alliance Numérique, just to name a few). There are resources out there for pretty much every industry, and you should in no way be shy about looking into them. Also, if there are after-parties at events, go there then try to figure out where the after-after-party is (that’s the one all the professionals go to to escape the kids looking for jobs; it’s the MUCH more interesting party).
Now that said, there is a certain code of etiquette that should be respected when it comes to going to these semi-exclusive venues. Keep in mind that when you’re at these events, you’re not there to hunt for a job. That’s what recruitment drives are for, and that’s not why these professionals are there (in fact they’re trying to avoid that). No, you’re here to make business connections, and to absorb as much knowledge as you can. See what these people talk about. You can admit to not being employed in the industry (yet/at the moment), but that shouldn’t be why you’re there. Instead, use this time to get an insider finger on the pulse of the industry. You can even relay some of your own experiences if they’re relevant to impress some people.
If you can act like you’re a professional, soon enough everyone will take it for granted that you are one, and you’d be surprised how friendly and open people can get with their fellow industry-members. This is more of an aside, but I once saw the lead designer of a major studio demonstrate the proper technique for slapping to another industry pro, using the CEO of a decent-sized development studio as his demonstration dummy (all of them were consenting and pretty drunk at the time). On another occasion I heard another big name rant about all sorts of problems that he had with the internal structure of a very big studio (and learned a lot about their corporate structure in the process).
The point is, even if you’re just schmoozing, this is a great way to make connections early that will help you later on. And in some cases, you can end up with some interesting stories (just don’t share names when it comes to the compromising stuff; that will blacklist you fast).
Getting Into The Circle
Okay, so you’re in a place with a lot of potential people to network with, but you’re shy and awkward. Unfortunately to some degree, you’re just going to have to get over that. You won’t accomplish anything huddled up in a corner pretending to stare at your phone (trust me, I’ve done it enough to know). Fortunately for you, there’s a pretty good trick I’ve used time and again to help with this.
To start, you need to just insert yourself into conversation circles. You will find this phenomenon at all major social events: a bunch of people form a little circle where they talk to each other. All you need to do is slide right on into that circle. Find a gap and occupy it, until people gradually make a bit of space for you and you become a part of the circle. It can be awkward at first, but often times someone will take the initiative and introduce themselves. If you can manage to do it, even better. Ideally, try and contribute something relevant to whatever they were discussing. This can be as simple as asking a question or agreeing with someone’s point (though it’s best if you add something in yourself too). Just make sure that whatever you’re adding to the conversation is pertinent. If you do this a few times, you’re bound to end up getting into a conversation with some reasonably outgoing person. If you can, try to remember their names and what they do and/or what you talked about (this isn’t necessary, but helps a great deal). Generally, if they shook your hand and asked your name, you’re good to go.
Now, the next time you go to an event, find one of those people you spoke with last time. Wait until they’re in a new social circle with some other people you haven’t met, then gently slide yourself in and greet the person you know. This is now the perfect opportunity for you to introduce yourself to the people they’re with (or for them to introduce you, if you’re lucky). Congratulations, you now have more people you can find in other circles next time! Rinse and repeat, and soon enough you’ll have a whole bunch of people in your network scattered about. Even if not all of them know your name, they’ll still probably recognise you and say hello when you greet them (or they’ll pretend to remember you because otherwise it’s extra awkward for everyone including them).
One thing to be careful of though, is to not get stuck in the same circle every time. The first time my classmates went to one such event (I was already a 4-year networking vet at this point), they all talked to each other in one big circle. You must not get stuck only talking to people you know. This is acceptable in short bursts (especially if other people you don’t know join your circle), but is not a sustainable strategy for effective networking. Leave your comfort circle and go talk to some strangers!
Ask for Advice, Not A Job
This is one I’ve heard several times in some form or another, but I overheard a recruiter today say it this way and it really struck a chord. You see, a lot of companies and industries use connections and referrals as one of the go-to ways to find talent. After all, if X person who’s already in the company vouches for someone, they’re probably worth hiring. This is part of why having good connections can be so valuable. In the games industry, it’s absolutely key.
However, there’s a catch to this. When you refer someone to a position, you’re putting your reputation on the line for them. This isn’t something you do with just anyone. I’ve referred several people, but they’re all people I’ve worked with and know to be capable individuals that I genuinely believe would be assets to the company. I’m definitely not going to recommend someone I barely know, let alone never worked with before. For most industry professionals, that’s the simple reality: we aren’t going to help you get the job because we don’t actually know you and whether or not you actually deserve it. This is why so many of them will deflect or ignore such requests.
Now that said, that doesn’t mean we aren’t willing to help you at all. It simply means you need to present your request differently. If you’re going to ask to meet with someone, don’t do it on the pretext of trying to get a job from them. Ask for advice or to “pick their brain” about a subject. Be mindful, listen well, and be respectful of their time. If you do that, many professionals are actually quite willing to offer advice and suggestions. They can help you improve your portfolio, give you good tracks on what to look into to improve your skills, and even just provide you with insight into what they do and how the industry works. If you ask these sorts of questions, they will often not only oblige you, but they’ll remember you later.
I’d like to think I’m a great example of this. I’m more than willing to talk your ear off about anything games industry related and offer whatever tips I can to help you get into the industry. If you’re willing to take the initiative to ask me that sort of thing, and you do so respectfully, I’ll absolutely try to take some time out of my schedule to give you whatever advice I can. Just don’t ask me for a job. If you do all that and I think you might just be the real deal, I might even let you know the next time I see an opportunity I think suits you! But I’m not going to do it just because you asked.
Clean Yourself Up
Honestly, I thought this point was obvious. In my mind it should be. I’ve heard recruiters say variations of it and I’ve kinda scoffed, since it seems so obvious. And yet...That has been proven time and again not to be the case.
If you’re going to get into an industry, you need to have a certain level of professionalism. Practice basic hygiene (I kid you not, the other day I shook hands with a man that scratched his armpits and crotch while we were talking. Needless to say I went and washed my hands thoroughly right after). Try not to dress like a homeless person that just fell out of the dumpster they were sleeping in. Don’t be rude or vulgar to people you haven’t gotten to know yet (even if that’s your normal sense of humour). Learn to form coherent sentences. Spellcheck your resume. Check your resume for errors and inconsistencies. SPELLCHECK YOUR RESUME. Don’t trash talk other companies (they talk to each other, I assure you). Don’t write your application and address it to the wrong company (that one is a common error among those that use the same letter template for every job, which is also a thing you shouldn’t do). Those are some of the big ones.
If you’ve got that covered, here are a few more. Showcase only the work you’re proud of (no one wants to see the bad stuff). Don’t focus on your negative experiences unless you’re following it up with how you learned to improve them. Keep things clear, short and concise (I know I’m not exactly doing the best job with that one, but hey, I’m not looking for a job right now). Get to the point, make it, and be done. Practice your organisational and communicative skills.
Really, there are an abundance of tips on how to present yourself when looking for a job out there. Take heed of them, because they will definitely help. A lot of potential applicants get tossed out because they didn’t take the time to do these fairly simple things. At the end of the day, it demonstrates a certain level of respect for the company you’re applying to or the people you’re communicating with. They’ll appreciate it, and be more willing to listen to you as a result.
Be The Solution
Alright, this is one of my two favourite pieces of advice, because I think it’s probably the most useful one when it comes to framing your mindset when communicating with a potential employer.
The premise for this is simple: when a company puts a job posting up, they are first and foremost looking to solve a problem. They might be lacking in skill or manpower, or just need some fresh blood… But the point is they didn’t put that job posting up out of pure whimsy. This is where you come in. Your goal, as a candidate, is to prove that you are the solution to their problem.
That might seem kind of obvious when you put it that way, but it’s something that should be built into how you interact with a company. As much as they might try to promote their “humanity” a company is first and foremost a business. They aren’t there for you. It sounds cruel, but it’s true. So when you present yourself with the mindset of being someone that deserves to be hired by them because you’re so great, that’s not really going to get you much traction. They don’t owe you anything, and they aren’t all that interested in making sacrifices for you unless they really see a value in doing so. Instead, frame yourself as “the person who will solve their problem”. Don’t even stop there. Be the person who will solve their problem better than anyone else, because you have an edge that they don’t have (see my next tip for more about that). Better yet, if you can also demonstrate your ability to solve their problems, that can go a long way towards making you stand out (of course, you need to be careful not to come off as being a cocky goober who thinks you can do their job better than them, either; there’s a balance there).
Naturally, in order to do this effectively, you need to figure out what their problem actually is. That’s where you need to read the job posting carefully and do plenty of research on the company. Figure out what exactly their problem is, then do everything you can to make yourself out to be the best solution to that problem. I firmly believe that doing that will always make you an appealing candidate.
Have an Edge
This is my other favourite piece of advice. But I’m going to contextualise it a bit before getting into the meat.
I started off in a generalist multimedia program. This meant that I knew how to design video games, code, do art, do 3D stuff, animate, do graphic design, and a whole bunch of other stuff. That’s great and all, but it didn’t actually land me a job. After a couple years with no success, I went back to school and got a specialised degree in game design. On top of that, I relabelled myself as a “technical designer”, or as I liked to say “a designer that can actually build the games he comes up with” (explaining what a technical designer actually is is an entire article unto itself). I did this because I noticed that among most of my peers, I had a much stronger code background than any of them (in part because of my prior studies, but also because I did a lot of game jams where I had to do the code because I was the only one who knew how).
Within a few months, Gameloft put up a posting for a Technical Design Intern. I looked it over and noticed that the two key things they were looking for was someone who knew the Unity engine, and knew how to program in C#. As it happened, I had both of those skills in abundance. In fact everything they listed, I had. I even had the title! So, I applied, and the rest is history.
I know for a fact that the key reason I was hired was the fact that by having a design background and technical skills, I was effectively solving two of their problems at once. And it’s not even like I didn’t have these skills before. I just needed to showcase them properly. In this case it was simply a matter of putting certain skills in the right order and making sure my title reflected the key difference I could bring to their company over other generalist designers. This was my edge (these days my edge is probably more the fact that I’m actually pretty good at numbers, and therefore can do game economy design too, but that’s a story for another day).
So, the moral of this story is that while having a broad knowledge base is excellent and extremely useful, especially if you’re not sure what it is you want to do exactly at first, once you have that you should absolutely find something that sets you apart from everyone else that has gone through the same training you have. Is there a skill you’re particularly good at, or a unique combination of skills that you have? Do you know a tool no one else does? These are all things that can be your edge.
This is why you can’t rely on school alone. School will give you access to many potential edges, but it’s up to you to pursue them, either through projects, extracurriculars, or in your spare time. It may seem like hard work, but I guarantee that the people who do it are at an extreme advantage. I mean, that is why I call it an edge.
Alright, those were my two biggest ones, so I’ll wind down with some simpler stuff.
Being persistent is difficult. By the time you’re looking for a job, you’re probably already paying bills and have expenses you either can’t afford or have to work some crappy retail job to keep afloat. I spent three years in this city before finally landing something. Believe me, I get it.
But it’s exactly because of that that I can say you mustn’t lose hope. Times can be tough, but if you’ve really got the conviction, you’ll get there eventually. Just keep iterating. Learn from others’ mistakes. Learn from your own mistakes. Take every opportunity you can to hone your skills and knowledge and network. It’s not a waste of time. I may not have gotten a job through my connections, but it’s through my connections that I steadily improved my portfolio and my ability to answer difficult questions. All of my past efforts, even the failures (especially the failures) have taught me how to get better, and that eventually paid off.
For that matter, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. There are resources out there for just about everything, and people with the knowledge and desire to help you find them. We’re all in this together, and one of us succeeds, we all do. So, don’t give up!
Okay, maybe that part got a bit sappy. Let’s end on a slightly more practical note, while also tying things back neatly to the first of these points I made.
You should always try to stay vigilant, especially for opportunities. When it comes to job hunting, these can come and go in a flash. Jobs can get swept up in a matter of days or hours sometimes. This is definitely true in the games industry, where the problems that need solving often need that solution yesterday. It’s very fast paced: blink and you’ll miss it.
That is why you need to arm yourself with a good repertoire of tools to help you. LinkedIn Jobs is one that served me well. Almost all the big companies here use it, and it’s how I found my job. I set it up to give me regular notifications about postings based on the filters “video game design” and “video games montreal”. Simple enough, but it gives me no shortage of results on a regular basis. I apply for industry newsletters and keep an eye out for industry events. I keep a large number of LinkedIn connections to industry insiders who post news about the industry. I also check gaming news regularly to keep myself abreast of what’s going on in the broader industry. I might even occasionally check how some companies are doing on the stock market. These are all things you can do in your underwear at home.
And it’s not just about being aware either. Your resume and portfolio should always be up to date, so that you can send them at a moment’s notice. Keep a mental map of the broad points about every company you’re interested in, so that you can reference that knowledge if you need to write a cover letter. Keep in semi-regular touch with the people in your network. Make sure that if someone decides to look you up, you are prepared. Extra pro-tip: it’s actually much easier to regularly update stuff as it is changes rather than do large passes later. That’s something I’ve learned the hard way…
Alright, I think that about covers all my biggest pieces of advice when it comes to finding a job. I hope some of it might have been useful for you (or perhaps someone you know). And of course don’t forget: reading all of this is useless if you don’t act on it, so go out there and get yourselves hired already!
Bonus: Keep Busy and Your Skills Sharp
Someone pointed out that I should add this point, and they’re absolutely right (merci Jérôme). While you’re hunting for a job, don’t forget to actually practice your craft as well. Work on personal projects and go to game jams (these are fantastic for building your portfolio, developing your skills, and also for networking with other talented people who might even be able to help you later). If you’re not in games, there are often equivalent activities. Either way, participate actively in doing the thing you want to get hired for. This helps you get better and also demonstrates your dedication to the craft, which is something that reflects well on you as a professional.
Furthermore, try to find a job that is at least tangentially related to your field if you can. For example, I did a fair amount of part time work as a playtester for some noteworthy mobile titles prior to being hired (I actually still do some on the side, albeit not as often) and worked for some independent projects as well. This not only helped to pay my expenses while I searched for a full-time job, but also proved to be useful points on my resume as relevant experience. Just be wary not to depend on these too much: independent projects can often fall apart suddenly (especially if there’s no business plan or money backing it) and these sorts of jobs won’t necessarily be enough to keep a roof over your head. They are not an excuse to stop your search, but rather a mechanism to help you with your search.
Most industries have low barrier to entry jobs that they just need filled, no higher requirements necessary. This is a good chance for you to develop a rapport with the company and its employees as well in some cases (though don’t forget that the job you were hired for comes first). Through that, you can make connections, learn things from the inside, and maybe even make a good impression on someone who could help get you a job. If you’re lucky enough that the need is there and your talents have been noticed, it can definitely happen.
Bonus 2: Don’t Be Too Picky About Your First Job
This is a mistake that I’ve heard quite a few times. I was admittedly a little guilty of it too at first, though I don’t think quite as much. It’s pretty common that people say they want to go work at X big name company. In games, it’s usually a AAA studio, because they want to work on the big titles that everyone knows. While it’s not impossible to get hired by one of these studios, I’ll warn you right now that it’s not very common, certainly not when it comes to the really high value brands. The people guiding today’s big titles aren’t juniors fresh out of school; they’re usually seasoned experts with a lot of experience under their belt. Games in particular is an industry where experience and seniority will usually trump raw talent, because experience is reliable and stable, which is what you need in a big company structure to keep things running smoothly. So don’t be heartbroken if they don’t ask you to have a key role in the next big project. That will come eventually, after you’ve paid your dues.
And that doesn’t just go for specific titles or companies either. In Montreal at least, it’s very common for people to say they don’t want to go into mobile gaming. I was one of them at first. But truth be told, there can often be a lot of fluidity when it comes to industries with sub-categories, especially if the fundamental skills are shared across them. Game developers in mobile, indie, and AAA all bounce frequently from one category to the other, because the tools and skills involved are largely the same. So don’t think you’ll necessarily get pigeonholed into a category just because you took a job. That only becomes a problem if you present yourself that way. Take the opportunities you can find, and build from there. A perfect opportunity isn’t going to just show up, so don’t pass up on other chances waiting for one.