So you’re interested in enrolling, or have already enrolled in a game development program – maybe at one of the big schools like Digipen or Fullsail, maybe a local option in your hometown, or maybe you are moving to attend school in one of the big game development hubs, such as San Francisco, LA, Seattle, Austin, Vancouver or Montreal.
There are hundreds of game development programs in North America alone, each graduating up to 150 students per year. That is a lot of competition. I aim to help you stand out from the crowd.
After attending several years of ‘Industry Nights’ at schools, I can tell you a harsh truth: Most veterans and recruiters will go straight to the top 2 or 3 students. On more than one occasion and at more than one school, I’ve had the dean of the program just tell me straight up which students were worth my time.
Don’t let this dissuade you from signing up – many of the best graduates were not the strongest at the start, and, in fact, some of the strongest starters falter or drop out before the program is over. Learning to make games takes a lot of hard work, so use this goal to push yourself further. Be honest with yourself; if others in your class are better than you are, put in the extra effort, ask for additional feedback or advice, and aim for the top. Let me be clear – your standing within your social hierarchy means nothing – there is no need for petty politics and being overly competitive. In the end, it’s all about your work.
It is shocking how often students will disqualify themselves by displaying a general lack of interest in game development. This is a very passionate industry, and there are few things in a candidate that will turn a potential employer off faster than apathy.
‘But I love games! I would never do that!’.
It isn’t enough to commit to games – you have to commit to game development. I’ve known students that flubbed a $30,000 game development program because they spent the whole year playing WOW instead of working on their assignments.
Commit that this is what you want to do, commit to the work required, and commit to both the medium and the craft.
Many students falsely equate ‘game design’ with ‘game development’, and think that it covers art, programming or even project management. These are all significantly different jobs, and need different skills to succeed!
Given how short and focused most game courses are, narrowing down your targeted field before school will help immensely. If you have a hard time deciding, don’t fret – enroll in a course that is at least 2 years long. These programs often have an introductory semester or two where you can try different fields, and then narrow down from there.
Here are some options for starting points you might want to consider:
Most students that enter Game School are very passionate gamers and fans, and have particular ideas about which games or consoles are better than others. There is real danger in being too narrow-minded – if you aren’t open to new ideas, you aren’t going to learn very much.
Seek out teachers or other students who have different points of view to you, and engage them in conversation. Don’t start an argument, but instead ask them to explain their point of view. Have healthy discussions and debate ideas, but make sure you aren’t doing it to ‘win points’. We all like to be right, so this is far more difficult than it sounds – it takes a lot of patience and maturity, but it will enhance your capacity to learn like almost nothing else.
While it is important to follow your passion, it is also important to have all of the facts when making decisions. The distribution of skills coming out of game schools is nowhere near a good alignment with the distribution of skills that the game industry actually needs.
Grads tend to choose the fields they think are the sexiest – flashy jobs like concept art, character artist or narrative designer. The reality is, these are some of the most competitive fields in the industry!
Do some research! Look up your favorite studios and look at what roles they are hiring for. Big studios like EA or Ubisoft are great for this – the point of this exercise is not to actually apply, just to determine demand. Look at the list of fields from point 3 above, and narrow it down to 3 or 4 that sound the most interesting to you, then open up a few of these links in new tabs (CTRL-click in most browsers):
Search for each job field that you’re interested in, and look for positions that will take junior applicants (1-3 years of experience). This will give you some indication of what the competition is going to be like for the field you are considering once you are out of school.
If you’re really passionate about concept art or narrative design you should pursue your dream – my intent is not to dissuade you from your passion, but to help you make informed choices. It is possible to break in to these fields; you just need to be aware that the competition is going to be stiff.
Many game schools feature a ‘final project’, which usually involves the students forming groups and working together to make a small game or animation together. Don’t get trapped doing something on the project that will not help you get hired!
Your final project can be a significant portfolio piece and tool to get employers to notice you, and I’ve seen many students suffer by spending most of their time on audio or art when they were going to school for game design. Recruiters will ask how you contributed to the project, and if your main contribution was not in the field that you trained in, they have no way to evaluate your skills in that field and will move on to someone else.
Sometimes you have little control over the specific role you are assigned on the team – aim for a ‘lead design’ (if in a design school) type role if possible, but even if you wind up in a support role, make sure you take on some meaty work that is specifically relevant to your field.
This is an important addendum to point 6 above: as Wil Wheaton says, ‘Don’t be a dick’. While it is important to get a good role on a strong team for the final project, this should be done by earning the respect of your peers, not clawing your way past others.
The points mentioned above about opening your mind and being committed will work wonders here, but be careful that you aren’t being manipulative or political.
This doesn’t only apply for the final project – in fact, if you wait until that moment it will be too late and you’ll be stuck with the slackers and stoners working on a game about Robot Ninjas from Mars. You need to be thinking about being a good team player even when you aren’t specifically on a team – offer help to others in your class, don’t put people down, ask your peers for feedback, and learn from those that are better than you.
One of the most important resources for getting jobs is your professional network, and, at this early point in your career, your classmates will form the core of your network. Nurture those relationships, and they will continue to pay off for years.
Keep in mind that each studio has specific requirements that you need to satisfy in order for them to hire you. Given a limited amount of time in school, you won’t be able to please everyone, so it is important that you set your target for the specific type of studio you want to work for.
Make a shortlist of the kind of games you like to play, and the kind of games you’d like to work on. Try to figure out the broader category that applies to most of them – realistic AAA games, online games like League of Legends, or maybe mobile games like Angry Birds.
Once you have a specific idea of the kind of game you’d like to work on, make a list of all of the studios that do that kind of work. Check out their websites, look at job listings, and make detailed notes of their requirements. Try to find presentations they’ve done describing their pipeline or workflow, and ask questions on forums like Polycount or Gamedev.net. Once you know what they are looking for, tailor the work you do fit the list of requirements.
Make it easy for studios in your target sector to hire you – show them high quality work in the format they expect, made with the tools they use, and which works within the technical guidelines they use internally.
I once heard Sims creator Will Wright tell a story about a pottery instructor. The instructor had two classes, and he told the first that their grade would be entirely based on the quality of one final pot. He told the second class that their grade would be based only on the number of pots they were able to make – he wouldn’t even inspect them, just count them up and give them the grade. Lo and behold, by the end of the class the second group, who were only focusing on quantity, had significantly better quality pots!
How could this be? You learn more from mistakes and failed attempts than you do from trying to create something perfect. There is incredible value in actually finishing something, and it might be easier than you’d expect.
Our mission here at Game School Prep is to provide you with as much advice and information as we can, but this is still no replacement from talking to people who have been through this already face to face.
Try to meet professional game developers face to face to get feedback on your work, and advice on what you should focus on next. This may sound intimidating, but it really isn’t as scary as it sounds, and your chance of getting through is higher than you think – I’ve been contacted by several students asking for advice, and I’ve met every one.
Here are 3 simple steps to make it happen.
1. First, find a contact. If possible, you will get much better feedback if you can find someone in the specific field you would like to work in. Lots of good ways to do this:
2. Meet your contact face to face. Email is okay, but you will get much better results in person. You need to make it as easy as possible for the developer. Look up a decent coffee shop around their studio, and send them a short email, reminding them of how you met and who you are, and asking if they would be available to meet there next Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday (pick one) at 3PM. Let them know that you’ll only take 15 minutes of their time.
3. Be professional. This is critical – screw this up and they will regret meeting you, but do a good job and you’ll make an important ally. Some of this may seem obvious, but the vast majority of students fail on most of these points. Take them seriously.
If you’ve read this far, congratulations! Following these steps will put you ahead of much of your competition, and start you off on what will be a rewarding journey towards being a professional game developer.
Now, get started right away! Leave a comment below and let me know what information would be most helpful in your personal journey to going to Game School and breaking into the industry.