Breaking into Games

This may have been one my most enjoyable years in the industry, largely in part having had the opportunity to speak at a dozen schools specializing in preparing graduates for various artistic jobs in games.  This is hugely important to me, I feel energized and inspired after spending time with the future of the industry and I wish I had the opportunity of some honest insight before starting on my own career.

This post summarizes my key pointers for pre-interview preparation, I hope it’s useful.

  • Keep your showreel concise and focused.  Choose only your best work, keep traditional portfolios to less than sixteen pieces and showreels to less than three minutes.  If you are completing a course which has provided you with a varied reel consider each job a completely separate application (- this will take longer, but you will be competing with other applicants who have come from specialized courses, often with deeper portfolios).  Your best opportunity is to customize your reel and resume to the specific discipline and role you’re applying for – and ensure your passion for this field is apparent.  On-top of this, you have the option to present your knowledge and skills in the related surrounding areas as a bonus, but keep this brief.
  • Traditional art skills are important for any art role.  Whatever you may have heard all studios use pencils and pens for visual communication many, many times a day.  If you want to model or rig characters, understanding anatomy either through drawing or sculpture is a huge positive for anyone reviewing your portfolio.  (If your school doesn’t offer life drawing find some local classes).  If you are interested in environment modeling, consider supporting your folio with your own inspirational photographic lighting studies (- these areas are interwoven very deeply in games development).  Traditional skills are the foundation of what we do; draw on as much reference as possible before starting to work in CG and be confident in presenting out background research and goals as part of your portfolio.
  • Don’t be afraid to be honest.  One of the most noticeable portfolios I’ve seen recently included a short dissection under each visual; on a number of pieces the author was critiquing their own work.  It’s a great approach but needs to be  balanced, be careful not to come across negatively – it’s important to make the reviewer feel good about what he’s seeing and not to come across like you’re making excuses.  Talk about what you’ve learned, and if need be – where specifically it could be improved and how you would approach this next time you work on something similar.  Presented correctly this can be very powerful, it shows you have a critical eye, can assess your own work and are striving to improve going forwards.
  • Presentation is everything.  There is a good chance your showreel represents years of effort and has a goal to set up your career for years to come.  Unfortunately visuals are often reduced to their lowest common denominator; if you hack together a low quality, badly edited reel with no explanation or thought for the work it will devalue the content.  Don’t worry about coding your own website in HTML when you could use a better looking template (- unless you’re looking for an HTML job), and don’t hesitate to ask an editor to help with your reel (- unless you’re applying to be an editor).  There’s a difference to being dishonest and being resourceful; presentation is important.
  • Tell us about you I recently had a student compare interviewing with dating, and it was a good simile.  Consider embedding your reel into a blog, it gives you a huge opportunity to sell yourself in addition to what’s on your reel.  Rather than looking at adverts surrounding a YouTube reel your interviewer could be eyeing your blog articles on recent conventions attended, technical papers read, galleries visited, photographs taken and games critiqued.  It’s an opportunity to share your life experiences and importantly, passion for what you want to do.  Getting a job is like dating, it’s all about connecting with someone; job-relevant interests that connect with a potential interviewer in support of a strong reel will give you a boost.
  • Resume space is invaluable.  I’ve noticed there is a secret rule in the US that resumes can only be a single page.  Whether you stick to this guideline or not, using your resume real-estate wisely is crucial.  Compare yours to others, does it stand-out?  Is there information irrelevant to the job you are applying for?  Is there information missing that would help show your passion for what you want to do?  All recruiters and portfolio reviewers see many resumes.  Generic is bad; be specific, include the company you are applying to in your career goals and say why; make them feel special and show you’ve done your homework.  Always ensure there is a clear URL to your blog / folio online as this is often one of the first things we look for.
  • Follow the industry.  Arm yourself with an understanding of where the industry is headed; for example, trends in development processes, console cycles, hardware capabilities and key game releases.  This gives you inside information for selecting companies to begin with, and then great ammunition for thought-provoking and informed conversation before and during an interview.
  • Know your company.  Before you interview do your homework – it will become apparent very quickly and have a positive impact; everything you need is online.  Know the key milestones in the company history and what their most successful titles have been.  Which products make them money, who their competition are and whether they are the leader or a follower within the genre.  Play their games and have an opinion, especially in your discipline.
  • Be flexible, buy a suitcase.  You’ve spent years honing your craft and you’re wanting to enter a specialist industry.  It’s unlikely there are a plethora of hiring games studios within a few blocks; additionally the games industry changes over time, globally.  The bottom line is, if you want to spend a career in a job you love you may need to be open to some geographic flexibility.  The good news is the games industry usually hires full-time (ongoing contracts) rather than per-project (which is the Film and VisualFX industry preference) – meaning you may not be required to pack your suitcase again for many years.  The other good news – you have an opportunity to see the world.
  • It’s a small industry; really small.  Don’t piss people off, and if you think you have, make amends.  You’ll see the exact same recruiters and developers year after year at GDC, Siggraph, MIGS, E3, etc.  It’s a recruiters job never to forget a face; burning bridges is a sure-fire way of crippling your career before you’ve even started.  Even once you’ve landed your first job stay in contact with recruiters and your development contacts in the other studios, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll cross paths again.  Make friends and keep them – next week they may be your boss.
  • LinkedIn is your friend.   I’m not alone in being much more open to unsolicited connections on LinkedIn than I am on Facebook.  Facebook is personal, LinkedIn is business.  Ensure your LinkedIn page is current and represents your professional side.  Use this site, track your visitors and follow-up when someone of interest has been looking at your profile; it’s an amazing tool for introductions, and by far the best way to build and manage an industry network.
  • GDC and Siggraph are where it’s at.  Both shows have volunteers programs and from my experience at Siggraph, many program chairs started as student volunteers.  These opportunities not only make it affordable to experience the show and it’s content, they are an incredible way of meeting influential people in the business and building your network.  If you get, or can make the opportunity – attending these conferences should be high on your to-do list.
  • Hassle, politely.  There’s a fine line between being persistent and being annoying; provided you stay on the side of persistence you’re in a good place.  Ask for a few comments on areas-of-improvement for your portfolio, preempting that your work may not yet be perfect makes you accessible and genuine.  Checking back when you’ve updated your work is good; stay relevant and ensure recruiters know you’re looking – it’s as much about timing as it is about skill set.

What are your experiences, did I miss something important? Feedback very welcome, thanks for reading.

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3 thoughts on “Breaking into Games

  1. This was a wonderful article. Thank you so much for posting it! I have been a video game nut since I could hold a controller. Somehow, over time, I found myself edging closer and closer to Film and VFX. I spent 2.5 years of high school learning Java and C++ because I wanted to get into games, only to realize that I loved the art and animation end so much more than the technical side. I went to SIGGRAPH last year in Vancouver and it was an intense, eye-opening experience to see just how many talented, passionate artists there are out there. I came from a situation that sort of forced me to be a generalist, which I feel in many ways has hurt my ability to compete in certain markets. To get an artist’s job, do you have to have experience in editors like the Unreal Engine or Unity? I have a lot of experience in Maya but much less in the realm of real time development. However I do understand the principles behind it, and regularly dissect games to figure out how they solved a technical or visual problem. Is the transition for someone like me difficult to migrate into the games industry? It would be a dream come true. Thanks again for the great post!

  2. Nice article! Very informative. I am a Professor at Digital Media Arts College where I teach a few of the Game Art classes. I will be showing this to my students.

    –D. Baer

  3. Great article. I’m currently a junior in an animation/game design program and i hear this kind of stuff a lot but I always learn a new twist on things. I didn’t even have a career goals section in my resume. I feel like i missed out because I was accepted as a student volunteer for SIGGRAPH this year but I couldn’t go because I couldn’t afford the plane and hotel. I have a 6 month internship requirement for my school starting in the spring and now I feel like I missed such a huge networking experience. I know what I’d like to do and where but I don’t know how to go about starting. Do I just track down people in studios and email them asking what my reel should have? Are their people I shouldn’t even bother emailing?

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