Advice on Getting Advice & Mentorship (in the Game Industry)

TL;DR: If you’re about to DM or email a game development professional for advice, you can skip to the “what to ask” section. But I suggest reading the whole article too 😉

I was writing a shorter block of tips for seeking mentorship in a large post about breaking into the game industry when I realized I couldn’t condense this advice into bullet points while addressing all of the important nuances.

As a professional game developer who’s mentored through programs like the Glitch Power Leveling program at GDC in 2019 and the online bootcamp Code Coven; mentored and spoken at classes and events at universities including UCI and UCLA; and who’s been a mentee myself, I’d love to share some detailed advice about mentorship in the game industry. I can’t possibly cover every potential mentorship situation in one article, so this one is focused on guiding people new to the industry on how to approach industry professionals (online and in person) for 1-1 conversations for advice about the game industry and turning those relationships into longer-term, more formal mentorship relationships. I always recommend that you think critically about the advice I present, consider what does and doesn’t work for you, and don’t believe everything you read on the internet. 😉

I hope this article both sets you up with realistic expectations for what you can get out of mentorship and gives you practical advice to follow to seek it and benefit from it.


What is and isn’t mentorship

Networking and mentorship is not about finding a magical contact who immediately gives or finds you a job offer. Mentorship, and more generally speaking to people who are employed in an industry you’re trying to break into, is going well and functioning correctly when you are provided with guidance or actionable advice on how to approach your career and when you leave a good impression on people who might employ you or work beside you in the future.

In most cases, professional game developers will reach out to each other on the occasion they have a job role open that they (or somebody they know) needs filled. It’s important to meet people and leave a positive impression so that they might contact you in the future about work; it’s less likely that any particular developer you meet will have a job available for you the second you meet them. The only notable exception to this is meeting or being contacted by a recruiter.

In addition, remember that industry professionals all have their own personal resources of time and energy they can dedicate to mentorship, and some people will have stricter boundaries than others. It’s important to ask people what they have time for and to respect their boundaries. Don’t try to push for or negotiate for people’s time. People who actively desire to mentor newcomers will make time for you and stick to their commitments. I advise that you seek and foster relationships with quality mentors by asking specifically for what you need help with and respecting how people respond.

Mentorship is also not the same as apprenticeship or teaching. Mentors will have the time to answer questions occasionally via email or DM; meet at an infrequent or semi-frequent pace such as once every few months or monthly; or do occasional portfolio reviews. I also personally expect this type of mentorship to be free volunteer work on the mentor’s part. Industry professionals don’t have time to teach you a hard skill for free (like coding or 3D modelling) or meet multiple times a week (or even weekly) in addition to their full-time jobs, lives, hobbies, and/or families. Frequent or in-depth instruction is usually considered teaching or apprenticeship, in which case either the student is paying the teacher or a program that employs the teacher, or the student is themselves employed as an intern. I am aware, however, that some programs, especially in art fields, use the word “mentorship” to describe the paid teaching situations I have described above. That’s fine; I’m drawing strict lines around the term so that you know what I mean by “mentorship” in this article.

Of course, you also have the right to expectations as to how a mentor should treat you and the quality of their advice. Here’s what I consider necessary qualities of good game industry mentors and advice-givers:

  • People who are employed in the game industry
  • People who think critically about how they got into the industry and are aware of their own privileges
  • People who set clear boundaries and follow up on their commitments, by following through with promises to respond and by showing up generally on-time to meetings
  • People who respect your identity and personal boundaries
  • People who ask questions to understand your unique situation and needs and tailor their advice to you
  • People who are in the same or similar discipline as you, or who double-check their advice with peers who are in that discipline

How to find game industry mentors

Generally, you can break down meeting potential mentors into four categories: networking events, formal mentorship programs, friends and peers, and online.

Meeting people through networking events and game developer meetups has a pretty nice balance of being a formal situation without, usually, being exclusive. Although it’s good to focus on meeting a variety of people, especially people at the same experience level as you (since they’ll be your potential collaborators!), you can also let people know that you’re looking for mentorship at these events. Hopefully, some of the people organizing or attending the event will offer help!

Networking events in your area can be found on Meetup, through the IGDA, or through online communities, especially in Facebook groups. As of writing, many of these meetups are primarily online right now due to the pandemic.

Formal mentorship programs are events or organizations that match up mentors with mentees. Many will cater to a specific region and/or minority and require some kind of application, since they have a limited number of mentors and other resources. As of writing, here are a few that I know of:

Reaching out through friends and professional contacts is how many of my mentees have met me. Try asking your teachers and professors, friends, family, and coworkers and bosses from internships for help meeting potential mentors. Of course, this becomes more effective the more professional contacts you have, which is why I also advise attending meetups, applying for programs, and carefully navigating online communities.

Social media and online communities can be useful, but must be navigated cautiously. The biggest downside of the accessibility of the internet is the lack of vetting which many in-person or formal communities have. It can be a great way to follow developers you admire and get access to chatting with industry professionals you might not run into IRL; however, not all devs have the mental bandwidth to give advice, and unfortunately, not all of them are kind. Getting a personal recommendation for a closed group like a Discord server or for a developer to contact is the safest way to go. For game industry newbies, I can’t recommend any communities more highly than Glitch’s Discord group (linked towards the bottom of this page), as they’re actively inclusive and focused on providing resources for a diversity of developers.

Before you contact somebody you’ve met on social media for career advice, do your best to ensure that people are who they claim to be. I can’t meaningfully address online safety in the scope of this article, but here are some ideas for verification that a person you encounter on social media is actually a game industry professional (that don’t compromise the person’s privacy):

  • If they claim to currently work at a certain studio, they should have an email address from that studio
    • For example, if they work at Cool Studio Inc, they should have a theirname@coolstudio.com email address that you can contact them with
  • Check if other people who work in the industry follow and frequently interact with them
    • Professionals who are active on social media will likely have likes and replies from other people who also claim to work at the same studio as them (or other similar studios), who all tag that studio in their profile
  • Most game professionals have a LinkedIn profile with a work history; many also have online portfolios
  • MobyGames compiles game credits, so you can check if somebody actually worked on a game they claimed to
    • one disclaimer: I’m a trans person and my old name is in MobyGames for a project I interned on, so it’s hard for me to prove to strangers I worked on it, LOL.

With ALL of this advice comes with a warning that some people suck and my permission to simply ignore people who are rude to you. If you get a gut feeling that somebody is pushing your boundaries, making you uncomfortable, or asking you for things you don’t feel comfortable giving (like personal information), you don’t have to interact with them. If you’re uncomfortable navigating a situation, bring it up with a trusted friend or colleague or a hotline like the Games and Online Harassment Hotline.


What to ask game industry mentors

Cool, so you’ve met an industry professional through a program, friend, or community who seems down to chat! Here’s some advice on what to actually talk about to get the most out of the conversation or relationship.

Firstly, 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 a portfolio review, the reviewer will look through your portfolio and give recommendations for editing/ formatting, critique the work inside it, and/or give advice on new work to create for your portfolio based on your career goals
  • Have a 30-minute or 1-hour long coffee chat, in-person or virtually
  • Answer questions via email occasionally
  • Meet regularly / on some schedule

Once you’ve confirmed that they have time to help you out, focus on asking specific questions that can help you move forward or help you learn about the industry.

To come up with meaningful questions, think critically about where you are in your career and where you’re trying to go next. Provide some context to your mentor about where you are and what you’ve tried so far, including whether or not you’re in/ went to school, if you’ve had any relevant jobs/internships, and what kind of jobs you want to apply for or have already applied for. It might help to send your mentor your resume and/or portfolio site (if you have these ready). Then, think about what next steps you need to take and where you’re lost or could use guidance, or what you’d like to learn about the game industry or your mentors specific field to determine if it’s something that interests you.

For example:

  • “What skill set should I practice to best be prepared for & get X kind of job?”
  • “What should I create and 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 these skills, 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 do I find studios that have welcoming cultures?”
  • “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?”
  • “Do you have any recommended resources for learning about X career/ skill topic?”

Example 1: College Student

Let’s say you read my shader tutorials and you’re a software engineering major who’s interested in advice about how to get a job in games once you graduate. You could DM me on Twitter and say:

“Heya! I love your shader tutorials. I’m curious if you could answer a few questions I have about how to get a job in games.”

After I respond and say I’d love to help, you could then ask something specific (the more specific the question, the better I can help you!) such as:

“Thanks! So I’m studying computer science and I’m curious what I should make sure to include in my portfolio to get hired in games. Also, do entry-level jobs often hire graphics programmers?”

(To which the answer, by the way, is that any kind of interactive game that you programmed is a good bet, you should read my portfolio guide, and that while entry-level engineering jobs in games are often – but not always!- generalist positions, you can always focus your skillset while you’re on the job.)

After we have some conversation about entry-level engineering jobs, you could follow up with a polite request for a more formal mentorship relationship.

“I’ve really enjoyed talking with you about engineering jobs. Could I get your email so I could update you more in the future about my career and get more advice? I’ll also be at GDC if you want to get coffee then!”

To which I’d respond with a yes assuming I had space to take on more mentees at the time! 🙂 If not, you could ask if you could hit me up again in 6 months- 1 year to see if I had time in the future, or maybe ask if I knew somebody else or another resource that could connect you with a mentor or more advice.

Example 2: High school Student

IF YOU ARE A MINOR, DO NOT TALK TO STRANGE ADULTS ON THE INTERNET OR IN PERSON WITHOUT ADULT SUPERVISION!!!! Any adult worth talking to will agree with this statement and encourage your parents or teachers to be involved in any conversation! For example, if you email a professional game developer, your parents or a teacher should be included via CC on the conversation; if you meet in person or via Zoom, your parent or teacher absolutely must attend; or instead of meeting 1-1, you could invite the developer to give a talk to your whole class.

Say, for example, you’re a high school student who visited a game development studio on a school trip. One of the developers passed on their contact info, and you email them and have your teacher copied on the email. You could thank them for their time and ask them a specific career advice question such as:

“Dear [Developer’s Name],

Thank you for hosting us at Cool Studio today! I’m interested in asking some follow-up questions. You mentioned that many colleges have game development programs. I’m probably going to X school that doesn’t have a game development specific program. Since I want to major in X, what kinds of classes should I take to prepare me for a job in game development?

Thank you,

[Your Name]”

Example 3: Professional

Of course, students aren’t the only people who need mentorship or advice! All of the advice I’ve written still applies even if you’re a working professional, perhaps in another field, or perhaps also in games, and looking for advice on a career boost or change.

Let’s say you’re a writer who’s employed in a different industry (like film or journalism) who’s interested in writing for games, an actual scenario I’ve helped a friend with (but will keep names and pronouns anonymous). I contacted a peer of mine via Twitter DM and asked them if they could chat with my friend who was looking to switch fields. They responded and said they’d be down for a virtual coffee, and requested that my friend came with questions in mind. We set a date and time, and my friend came prepared to the meeting with a list of specific questions, including what the day-to-day job of a game writer looks like, how the team is structured, and what they could do to boost their portfolio. They got a lot of practical advice out of the interaction, which in part was due to having specific questions to ask! Seeing a pattern yet? 😉

Example 4: Technical Question

I get a lot of DMs asking how to code specific shader ideas. I’ll be honest; since I’m a freelancer who does a lot of short graphics-related projects for people, I usually charge money (to make a living, pay rent, etc) to write many of the things people DM me asking for help with or for a tutorial on.

Please respect my and other developers’ time by not pressing if we can’t answer a technical question for you or would need to charge you for our time. As you are not the expert, you might not realize how complicated what you’re asking for is. I definitely don’t have the time nowadays to download your project or look at your code and point out what’s wrong for free, and I believe most developers feel the same.

If you believe you have a reasonable question to ask, go ahead and ask, and be as specific as possible. If it’s a small enough question, I’ll do my best to answer it. If it’s a big question, I’ll point you in the right direction for how to solve it. All I ask is that you respect my boundaries and thank people for their time even if they don’t solve your problem. 🙂


Fin

I hope this helps gives you a better idea of how to approach finding a mentor or asking for advice!

Of course, you can always DM me on Twitter @so_good_lin or email me at linden {at} lindenreid {{dot}} com for advice. At the time you read this, I may or may not be actively taking new mentees myself, but I’ll do my best to help you get the advice or help you need. 🙂

Good luck,

Linden

Published by

Linden Reid

Game developer and tutorial writer :D

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