When I was studying games development at university, there was a prevailing belief that game developers were a strange, rare breed of human being. I’ve found that an odd metamorphosis appears to happen when we migrate from game consumers to wannabe game developers, resulting in students or amateurs wanting to become the people they idolise, but are seemingly unable to take the first steps to reach out and integrate.
Breaking into the industry can, therefore, seem like a daunting process – and it is. The community, especially in the United Kingdom, is an incredibly small, close-knit circle of developers who have more than likely worked with one another and, if not, know someone who knows someone who has. ‘Breaking in’ is also an odd way to put it, though it seems to be the term used most often. ‘Breaking’ implies some force, but you’ll likely find that most of us wound up in our current roles through a concoction of hard work and sheer luck.
Luck is something I can’t offer advice on, and sadly it all relies on being in the right place at the right time. But here are a few tips I’ve found useful to remember; mantras that have come about through trial, error and a lot of listening.
Remember to be human
This is surprisingly difficult. Even the best of us become awkward and nervous in uncomfortable or unfamiliar situations, but it’s about being aware of that and compensating a little for the inevitable. Going back to what I previously mentioned about game developers being strange human beings – they’re really not. They’re incredibly boring, average people. But meeting folks for the first time, especially when you admire their work and you sort-of-might-really want their job in the future, means that the stakes are a little bit raised. I remember meeting my literary hero in my late teens and crying. Just crying. I promise you it happens to all of us.
The best advice I have to give here is for you to be understanding. Have empathy. The latter is vital to your future in the game industry, and will hold you in great stead for your career. Understand that the people you are speaking to, whether that be at an event or via Twitter, are human too; they have lives, they may be tired after work because, after all, this is work for them, or they may just be busy. Perhaps the person you just sent a speculative application to has a newborn child you don’t know about, and perhaps they haven’t slept in a few nights. Or weeks. Or months. There’s a difference between showing passion and pestering.
So: empathy. It’s difficult to remain totally cool when you’re at an event and you want to brave slipping a business card into the right hand. Don’t take for granted the time people offer you free of charge, but don’t be afraid to make yourself known. Have a genuine interest in the work people are doing – don’t simply speak to someone seeking an opportunity. Be understanding, be cordial, and be patient.
Networking is working
Showing your face and being an active member of the industry community is almost as important as being good at what you do. I can’t speak for others across the world, but the UK developer scene is incredibly social, so keep that in mind when you’re planning ahead. There’s always an event on somewhere, and the UK plays host to some of the best game conferences going, so get in on that action and attend in person. One thing I want to drill home is that no one is going to come to you. You have to go to them. Simply be that friendly face who appears often and contributes. It does wonders!
Make sure your social media is up to scratch and that you’re active. Social media plays a huge part in game development (especially Twitter) and you can usually find what you’re looking for just by observing other developers online. Do give as much as you take; adding to positive discussion and sharing work makes for a good online presence.
Be the best you can be
This one will be short and sweet, as I’m sure it’s rather self-explanatory. It doesn’t matter if you want to animate the protagonist’s flowing locks or 3D model the most beautiful shrub the world of gaming has ever seen, you need to know what you’re doing inside and out. This takes time and practice, and that’s okay. You need to be open to learning new things, you need to be flexible, and you need to show willing. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but do your homework before asking them.
Indie to triple-A
I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible to land yourself a coveted and elusive triple-A position without prior experience. Before you let your dreams deflate, though, this doesn’t necessarily mean prior ‘industry’ experience; it means experience in game development, an understanding of development processes, or work in a similar field. There are parallels to be drawn between animation in film and animation in games, as well as writing ‘about’ games and writing ‘for’ games – and those are just two examples. Practical experience in your chosen field is the key.
You have worth
Ignoring the motivational poster undertones, remembering that both your work and time have worth is something you should cement before you start building your foundations. Where all of my other tips have come from trial, this particular one has come from personal error. The ever-present weight of an empty portfolio can lead you to people who may not have your career at heart. Please, when searching for opportunities, take your time to weigh up the pros and cons. What are the benefits you’d get for working for free versus what they will get from your free labour? If there is a gross imbalance and you come off worse in that equation – just don’t.
Note that I’m not warning you away from free work. One of my best projects came from working collaboratively with a group of like-minded people to make something amazing. If you’re looking to build a portfolio and your skills, those are the projects you should throw yourself at. Learn from those above you, take every opportunity you can, and soak up experience like a sponge and then use it to further yourself. Find a balance. Be brave. Take a chance.