How to Start a Career in Games

SO many articles I’ve encountered about how to get a job making video games are misleading. They spend too much time over-emphasizing, and sometimes exaggerating, how competitive the game industry is, and yet simultaneously propose a perfect formula for “breaking in”.

Even the phrase “breaking in” is a misnomer- although it can be difficult to get a paid job making games, if you’re making games at all, then you’re contributing to the game industry, and you are a game developer already. You’ve already taken the most important step to making games as a career: making a game. Let’s not gatekeep the terminology.

I can’t tell you exactly how to run your game development journey. Maybe you want to secure a AAA job, maybe you want to do your own indie thing, or maybe you need help taking the first step to make a game. I’m not going to be condescending and tell you what you want out of your game journey or career, or try to look cool by exaggerating how competitive this field is to get a job in.

Instead, I’m going to do my best to present a list of adaptable ideas for improving and finding paid work as a game developer. Because hey- once you’ve made your first game, you already are one. ❤️


How to Use These Ideas

  • Each idea is divided into two sections: the basic idea and specific ideas on how to follow through.
  • You don’t have to do every idea.
  • You don’t have to follow it all to the letter.
  • Pursue these ideas as much you are happy and able to. Don’t overwork and burn yourself out.
  • If it doesn’t speak to your truth, you can question and reject it.
  • If you have questions or feedback, feel free to contact me.
  • What path works for you is up for you to determine.

Part 1: Hard Skills

Learn how to code, create art, write, manage a community, do marketing, run a business, or some other hard skill that contributes to creating and releasing games.

  • Get a traditional degree.
    • It does NOT have to be name-brand. I went to Louisiana State University, not Stanford. Focus on finding a degree program with lots of project classes and active student organizations.
    • If you’re still in grade school, do yourself a huge favor and get started learning early, make good grades, and have hobbies and extracurriculars.
  • Take community college classes.
  • Follow online tutorials.
    • Start with a basic one like Unity’s intro series, or a basic tutorial to learn a single language like Python, and branch out from there as you get more experience.
  • Take classes online.
    • Websites like edX host college classes online for free.
  • Be wary of for-profit universities.
    • Get personal recommendations from people you know and trust before spending your money.
  • Attend a coding boot camp.
    • Get a personal recommendation, as they can vary in quality from scammy to super helpful.
  • If you want to be a designer or writer, or have a similar job that has a less straightforward than getting a degree in engineering or art, you still need to learn a hard skill, even if it’s just how to use a game engine, how businesses work, how to put together a marketing campaign, or how to manage a community.
    • You may need to A) make your own game and/or B) go ham on networking to make friends who are making games that you could support with your QA/ community management/ marketing/ etc skills.
    • Designers and writers, consider using an engine that requires minimal coding/ technical skills like Twine so that you can make things independent of collaborating with engineers/ artists.

Learn a game engine.

  • As with all of this advice, this step is not required. And if you don’t have any code knowledge, but still want to learn an engine, don’t lose hope- not all engines require coding!
  • Don’t waste your time with engine wars. Every engine has strengths and weaknesses. Consider engines as being on a large spectrum of different kinds of features, instead of a rigid ranked list. As every game dev team does, pick the one that fits your project needs the best.
  • Most importantly, just pick something and GO.
  • Unity
    • Popular with a huge number of studios, indie to AAA.
    • Probably the easiest “big” engine to get started with.
    • Start from the beginning with the Unity official project tutorials and work your way through projects you find interesting.
  • Unreal
  • GameMaker
    • Great for people with no experience with coding, or desire to do any complicated coding, like artists, designers, and writers.
    • GameMaker link.
  • Twine
    • Great for people who want to focus on writing/ narrative design.
    • Twine link.
  • Scratch
    • Great for kids. You can make animations and games with it!
    • Teaches some fundamentals of coding in a puzzle-block format.
    • Scratch link
  • RenPy
  • Pygame

Learn a version control service.

  • This becomes more important when you start collaborating with others.
  • It’s a little bit more relevant to programmers than others, but it’s helpful for everybody on the team to know the basics.
  • GitHub is my strongest recommendation for people who are working on a team but aren’t programmers because of GitHub desktop, their super easy-to-use desktop tool for handling your interactions with the repo.
  • Other options include TortoiseSVN, Perforce

Learn other tools of your trade.

Make games.

  • Make games as a hobby.
    • Makes games before anybody’s paying you to.
    • Make the kind of games that you want to play.
  • Make games in school.
    • Take classes that focus on creating projects, and make those projects games.
    • Take classes that are game-development adjacent (like graphics programming, AI, creative coding) and make games in them.
    • Take classes that focus specifically on game development.
    • Make your fucking thesis a game. Hell yeah.
  • Go to game jams.
    • Find a Global Game Jam site and go, even if you don’t know anybody.
    • Take part in an online game jam, like the Weekly Game Jam or other jams hosted on Itch.io or Ludum Dare.
    • Look for other game jams local to your area. Check local universities, IGDA chapters, and game dev meetups.
    • After you’ve been to one, try hosting one yourself!
  • Fill in assets that you can’t create, like art, code, or music, with open-source online resources.
  • Learn what scope is realistic for a small hobby or student team to build.
    • Focus all of the features you’re building on the core of what your game idea is.
    • Play other small games to get an idea of what your scope might look like.
    • Cut unnecessary features.
    • Give yourself a deadline.

Ask for feedback, and earnestly consider it.

  • Required traits of good feedback givers:
    • Honest
    • Willing
    • Bonus points if they genuinely care about your success
  • NOT required traits of good feedback givers:
    • Gamer
    • Famous game developer
  • Ask for feedback from anybody you feel comfortable with.
    • Ask your mom.
    • Ask your friends and family.
    • Ask your classmates and co-workers.
    • Ask your professors, mentors, and teachers.
    • Ask your favorite online communities.
  • Ask them to play your game or look at your artwork/ writing/ etc or evaluate your QA/ community management/ marketing plan/ etc.
    • If you’re showing them a game, tell them as little as possible about how to play your game. Don’t tell them if they’re using it right or wrong. Just watch!
    • Ask for feedback, and ask them to explain their opinions. They won’t always be able to articulate them, but you should still take note that your art left whatever impression it did.
    • Thank them!
  • Earnestly consider the feedback you get, and use relevant feedback to improve.

Have a life outside of games.

  • Draw inspiration from your life experiences. Get out there and have life experiences.
  • Have hobbies outside of making games.
  • Build and maintain friendships with people outside the game industry.
  • Go to meetups, join student organizations, take classes, and volunteer with groups outside of game-related stuff.
  • Take care of yourself. Foster your support networks of friends and family. Eat your vegetables. Get good sleep. Call your mom every now and then.

Part 2: Networking

Participate in online communities.

  • Don’t just post your own stuff; actually contribute to the community by upvoting, liking, commenting, discussing, etc, other people’s content.
  • Reddit
  • Twitter is my favorite way to keep up with other industry contacts. It’s not a necessity, but it is helpful.
    • Post your own work
    • Comment nice things on other people’s work!
    • Take the discourse-of-the-day with a huge grain of salt (I am bad at this… do as I say, not as I do)
  • Discord, Slack, IRC, and other chat channels are also a common spot for groups to form around. You’ll usually need an invitation to these.
  • Join online networks specific to your discipline. You’ll also meet people outside the game industry!
  • Facebook groups like Game Writers.

Go to local meetups.

  • Attend your local IGDA meetings.
  • Check Meetup for local meetings from other kinds of organizations.
  • Pay attention to any social networks you’re on for other potential in-person meetups.
  • Help foster these groups by volunteering for them or running for an officer position.

Participate in student organizations.

  • Join any kind of game development related student organization, or start one if your school doesn’t have one!
  • Start or join an academic IGDA chapter.
  • Start or join an ACM chapter (for CS majors).
  • Start or join a student organization for minorities, like one for women in computer science.
  • Again, consider going the extra mile by volunteering for them or running for an officer position.

Stay up-to-date with the industry.

  • Follow a mix of sources that are big and small, for developers and for players, and whatnot.
  • Take people’s personal opinions- everything from reputable news sources, to YouTubers, to industry professionals, to hot takes on Twitter- with a grain of salt.
  • Check any opinion’s information sources, and play/use the primary source material yourself before forming a harsh judgement on something.
  • Beware of cults of personality. Follow a wide breadth of information sources; try not to hone in on a single celebrity/ developer/ YouTuber/ etc.
    • Listen to a diversity of ideas. Make sure you’re not just exclusively listening to the Current Most Famous Straight White Guy Who Had A Successful Indie Game Once and his followers. (Whoever it is you think I’m lowkey throwing shade at: yes, especially him.)
  • Read game news websites.
  • Watch YouTube channels dedicated to analyzing games and the game industry.
  • Keep up with games outside of the top-selling AAA sphere. Play weird free games on Itch.io, see what’s new on Steam, etc.

Go to conferences and conventions.

  • These tend to be expensive, but there are ways to mitigate the costs, like volunteering, getting scholarships, or getting your college or local tech incubator to sponsor passes.
  • Volunteer!! You can get free passes and meet people.
  • Developer-focused conferences like GDC will be helpful for networking with other developers and learning hard skills.
  • Player-focused conferences like PAX are only likely to be helpful career-wise if you have a booth or you already have plans to meet people.

Network at your level, and not just with big players.

  • Any of the above advice can be enhanced by networking with people at your level- people with the same experience level, follower count, and network size as you.
    • Other people at your skill level are your best resource for collaboration.
    • Don’t just shoot for getting attention from the huge Twitter accounts and big AAA studios.
  • Follow, like, comment on, and share from accounts with similar follower count to you.
  • Foster your local indie dev scene, no matter how small.
  • Connect with other students.
  • Apply for internships locally and with small and medium-sized studios, not just big ones.

Seek mentorship from industry professionals.

  • I have an entire article about seeking mentorship in the game industry with more nuance that I encourage you to read, but here’s a few actionable bullet points.
  • Remember that industry professionals all have their own personal levels of time and energy they can dedicate to mentorship, and some people will have stricter boundaries than others.
  • Ask industry professionals what they have time for. For example, you could ask if they have time to:
    • Answer one question or a short list of questions via DM/ email
    • Do a portfolio review, in which you send them your portfolio and/or resume and describe your goals, and they give feedback on how to edit your resume or what to work on for to your portfolio to achieve those goals
    • Have a 30 min- 1 hour long coffee meeting, in-person or virtually
    • Email them with questions occasionally
    • Meet regularly / on some schedule
  • Focus on asking specific questions that can help you move forward or help you learn about the industry. For example:
    • “What skillset should I practice to get X kind of job?”
    • “What should I put in my portfolio to help me get X job?”
    • “Can you help me understand what this skill list in this job description means and whether or not I have them, and how to obtain them if I don’t?”
    • “Do you know if X school has a good reputation for providing a quality education/ portfolio building work? Do you know people who have gotten hired out of this program?”
    • “Do you know if X studio has a safe/ positive environment for me to work in?”
    • “How would you go about solving X problem I’m having with this project?” (We can’t fix it for you, but we can point you in the right direction! ;D)
    • “What does your day-to-day job look like?” / other questions about what their field is like to work in
    • “What meetups/ organizations would you recommend in the area/ for X minority group?”
  • Thank people for their time! 🙂

Put your work online.

  • This is a no-brainer for getting followers and fans, but it’s also important for getting feedback and building an online portfolio for job searching! (See section below for more info on portfolios.)
  • Host your games online somewhere.
    • The easiest solution is probably to host it for free on Itch.io.
    • You could also submit your game to Steam or GOG.
  • Put your work on a website dedicated to your medium.
  • Put your work on social media. Tweet it, Instagram it, post in on Tumblr- whatever best hits your audience.
  • Interact with other people’s work!
    • Say nice things; only give constructive criticism if it’s asked for.
  • Get your name registered on Moby Games whenever your name appears in the credits of a published game.

Part 3: The Job Search

Have a business card and resume prepared.

I have an article on resumes and portfolios, but here’s some quick advice.

  • Create a business card.
    • Always have it on hand.
    • If you can afford it, print with a nice service like Moo.
    • If you can’t invest in fancy business cards, design your own and print and cut them yourself at an Office Depot, FedEx, or similar store.
  • Keep your resume up-to-date.
    • Bring it to every networking event.
    • Give it to people who ask for it; don’t force it on people.
    • Keep it at one page.
    • Focus on projects.
    • Use a pre-made template (I like the Google docs resume templates).
    • Don’t put your address on it.
    • Get several people to give it feedback.

Create an online personal portfolio.

Also see full article on game dev portfolios.

  • Compile all of your best work, and possibly your resume and contact info, on a website that’s built specifically for potential employers to view.
    • Be careful about any personal information you post online, like your email address!! DO NOT put your physical address online.
  • Make sure any playable games are built and tested for a couple of different platforms, and are clearly linked and easy to get to.
  • Paid options:
  • Free options:
  • Get your own domain. They’re only around $10 a year and add a really nice professional touch.

Apply for jobs.

  • Apply to big studios, small studios, and everything in-between.
  • If you’re in school, apply for internships ASAP.
  • Websites for job listings:
  • For your first job, generally look for jobs with the titles “entry level”, “associate”, and “new graduate”, or no title at all and 3 or fewer years of experience required.
    • Mid-level jobs that ask for 2-3 years of experience might also be worth applying for, especially depending on whether or not that studio counts internships as work experience.
  • Have your resume and portfolio ready (see above!!).
  • Tailor cover letters to the job you’re applying for.
    • Use phrases from the job listing (especially specific skills they want to see) in your cover letter and resume.
    • Tell the studio what games of theirs you’ve played, if you have.

Prepare for interviews.


Fin

I hope you found some of these tips helpful!

Remember, you can approach these at your own pace, and you can take or leave any advice depending on your personal situation.

Good luck,

Linden Reid  @so_good_lin

Published by

Linden Reid

Game developer and tutorial writer :D

4 thoughts on “How to Start a Career in Games”

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