[Author's note: This is an edited repost of a thing I wrote for my personal blog a few years back. It's all written from my personal experience as a middle class white guy, and there's probably some extra nuance required if you are not one of those. For a different perspective, try reading Kaye Elling's 100 Things Every Games Student Should Know, based on her experience as a tutor and feedback from industry figures]
The summer holidays are drawing to a close and high school students up and down the country are looking at their exam results and wondering how to trade them up for the sweet, sweet life of a game developer. For the benefit of any weans out there who are interested in making games for a living, I thought I'd share my thoughts on what to do about university. Some of these tips will be applicable to student life in general, but I’m going to try and keep it bent towards game-related subjects/careers.
For what it's worth, here are my credentials for giving advice on the subject: I have a BA in Economics and an MA in Digital Games Theory And Design. I’ve spent a few years making games outside of the games industry, and a few years making games on the inside. I was unemployed for over a year, immediately after graduating - I'll never forget how that felt. I’ve studied and worked abroad. I was once president of my university’s film society. I still remember living off Smartprice beans and pasta for under a tenner a week.
~ Before You Apply ~
1. Don’t Go To University
To clarify, I absolutely recommend taking at least one year out after high school to get a job of some kind before you start your degree. You’ll need the money, it'll give your CV a huge boost later, and you might find your plans for the future change somewhat once you’ve spent some time outside of school and gained a little perspective on grown-up life - you might not believe this now, but it turns out there's actually a lot more to life besides videogames. If you’re worried about being a year or two older than everyone else on your course, I can guarantee you that no-one will give a toss.
FURTHERMORE: In all seriousness, you might even be better off not bothering with university at all. It’s not something I would recommend, but I’ve read a lot of advice from industry elders who say that three years of working in the field and learning on the job can be much more attractive to employers than a degree with no practical experience, and from a financial perspective you’d certainly be better off cashing pay cheques than paying course fees. If you can get a job doing something art or code related and just work at it for a few years, you might find you can build a perfectly adequate portfolio while getting paid, and you'll have a ton more experience than most students by the time they graduate. For more on this, check out Breaking Into the Games Industry by Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber. In fact, you may as well read that book anyway – it’s a lot more in-depth than anything I could tell you.
2. Study Any Subject You Are Interested In
In my opinion, you shouldn't pick your degree based on what career you want in later life. You should study a subject – any subject – that you are genuinely interested and reasonable capable in. The idea of an 18-year-old peering sagely into the future and realising what they want to be doing for the rest of their life sounds ridiculous to me. Also, it reflects a pretty outdated view of the job market! My dad worked for the same company, at the same factory, doing more or less the same job, for pretty much his entire working life. I’m 30, and I’ve already worked in at least three completely different careers, relocating myself every two years on average. This trend towards nomadism and temporary work will most likely continue for the next decade at least, making the lives of future graduates even more chaotic.
This isn’t to say that thinking about jobs is a complete waste of time. If you are really interested in tending to injured animals, then certainly it makes sense to study vetinary science, and a career as a vet seems likely to follow. Similarly, if you love programming, then by all means go and study computer science and get a job as a programmer. The point I’m trying to make is that you should choose your degree based on what you enjoy doing, not what you want to be. My philosophy is that if you enjoy the fundamental day-to-day activities of your work, you'll find life much more rewarding and enjoyable (and you'll probably be a nicer person to talk to).
In my experience, unless you’re going into a highly specialised career like medicine or engineering, few employers really care what subject your degree is in. Mostly they are interested in either your raw grades (in the case of things like graduate programs) or the kind of work you've produced in your portfolio (for more artistic endeavours). In the games industry good grades are always an advantage, but your portfolio is paramount - as I've said, it's quite possible to get a job without a degree at all, so long as your work is good enough. And in case you’re eyeing up a course in game design purely because of the title, bear in mind that a specialist course like computer science, architecture or fine art would give you a more rounded classical education in your chosen field, and also provide more transferrable skills in case you change your mind about the whole videogames thing.
If you feel your passion lies specifically in game design (rather than art or programming)… take it from me, you can study anything. I have a degree in economics, and the time I spent studying game theory and strategic logic gave me a better understanding of multiplayer game balancing than a generic game design course would give you. You could study biology and learn about evolutionary logic and complex ecosystems. You could study music and explore interactive sound design stuff like David Kanega talks about. You could take history and study the links between classical politics and the familial relationships between different monarchies, or whatever – it might sound niche and useless, until you apply for a job at The Creative Assembly.
Videogames based on other videogames are really boring. The most interesting and original games come from people who have ventured out into other areas of life and come back with interesting discoveries. Of course, the disadvantage of doing this is that you’ll have to work on your game making skills/portfolio in your own time, but if you see it through you'll definitely stand out among a field of graduates from cookie cutter game design courses.
Oh, and once you decide on a subject, I would suggest that you do some research into which universities have the best facilities/reputation for that field, and pay attention to that. If you apply to a university way below your own academic standard just so you can stay close to your best friend, or because you like the area… well, it's your choice, but this could have an impact on your life long after you graduate. That said:
3. Study Abroad
A quick one, this: If you're an EU citizen, you can study anywhere in the EU without having to worry about visas and extortionate foreign student fees and all that garbage. Also, many universities in mainland Europe are cheaper than the UK - last time I checked, Denmark and Finland still offer fully subsided courses for undergraduates, which would cut about £9,000 a year off your bills. Also, many of them offer courses that are entirely in English.
Living abroad is a FANTASTIC experience, and the fact it could save you around £30,000 over the course of your degree is not to be sniffed at. Explore your options! Like, seriously, if my child was trying to decide which university to apply to right now? They'd be on a one-way flight to Copenhagen before they could say "Borgen".
~ While At University ~
4. Learn To Program
If you want to make a videogame, it’s no use just having a load of good gameplay ideas or interesting character art. Sooner or later, someone has to sit down and make it. You might not want to be a programmer; you might even hate programming; but it would be HUGELY advantageous for you to learn some kind of practical game-making skill. It doesn’t have to be a 'serious' programming language like C++ (although that would help); it could just be an easy-to-use suite like Game Maker or Stencyl, a simple text-based system like Twine, or even a game-specific system like Knytt Stories, or learning to mod a particular game. The point is, if you can produce some kind of game single-handedly then you will never be unable to make games. That is a big deal.
If you want to become an independent game developer – and right now that career path is looking brighter than ever – then you should consider how much easier it would be to just sit down and do things for yourself, instead of having to recruit a team who will work to produce your game for (probably) no money. You might get lucky and meet just the right kind of people you want to collaborate with, but it is always sensible to have a broad range of rudimentary skills of your own to fall back on, if neccessary.
If you’re completely clueless as to where to begin finding tools to make games with, don’t panic! Everybody was a beginner once, and (as if often the case) the indie community is eager to help. My advice is to learn Unity - it has a relatively low bar of entry, but scales up to industry standard if you put time into it.
4a. Learn To Do Literally Everything Else
I singled out programming because it’s the biggest hurdle when it comes to making videogames, but for all of the same reasons it’s worth picking up at least a basic understanding in character design, writing, UI design, audio design, all kinds of art and environment design, and everything else required to make a game (the precise list depends on what kind of games you want to make, of course). The more of this stuff you can do on your own, the cooler you are. The only warning here is that you should still be mastering one particular skill if you want to get a job – companies aren't looking for people who are merely 'alright' at everything.
You want more? Marketing, production, competitor analysis, people management. Web design. Foreign languages! If you’re lucky, you might even need a crash-course in accountancy. Just read some goddam books - take an interest in art, culture, politics, philosophy, etc. There is absolutely no down side to this, and it'll make your work more informed and you a better person (probably!)
5. Don’t Be Afraid To Change Your Course
It can be expensive, especially if you can’t transfer credits over from your old course, but if you get six months into your course and decide it’s not for you, it’s probably better to cut your losses. Having the experience of being at university and seeing what your friends’ courses are like will probably allow you to make a more informed response anyway - in most cases there'll be ample opportunity to sneak into other people's lectures and get a taste of what their course is like. I used to blag my way into law lectures a lot when I was in my first year, just so I could understand what my lawyer friends were on about.
That said: If you want to change your course more than two or three times, or if you get the sudden urge to change degree halfway through writing your dissertation, you should consider whether you have deeper underlying issues that need to be addressed!
6. Appreciate That You Don’t Have To Work Hard; Work Hard Anyway
This one goes two ways. Firstly, be aware that – regardless of what you are studying – a career in this field will probably be even more difficult and time-consuming. The games industry in particular is known for its poor working conditions, and if you want to work there then you need to be prepared for unpaid overtime, sudden layoffs, etc. I don’t want to trivialise what you’re doing, but you should be thankful that your biggest challenge right now is to read a few books and write an essay every few weeks. Try to make use of your free time. Have fun! Join some societies and sports clubs, dabble in student politics a bit, all that stuff. Book a cheap place on airbnb with your frends and go off on a weekend beach holiday. Appreciate the fact that you (probably) have multiple groups of friends living within a few minutes’ walk of your dorm, and an inordinate amount of free time to spend with them. You will probably never have this opportunity again!
But also… get into the habit of doing your own research, managing your own time, and getting shit done. Try scheduling some time each week to reading books that aren’t on your reading list – perhaps even things that aren’t related to your course at all, just to broaden your horizons - and working on your portfolio and stuff. Even just spending an hour a week browsing through other people’s portfolios online could be beneficial, and it doesn’t sound like a bad way to spend your first few waking hours on a Sunday. This is pretty dull advice, but you are (probably) paying a small fortune for your degree, and your degree of self-motivation will determine how much you’ll actually benefit from it.
7. Make Stuff
Make a portfolio, make a portfolio, make a portfolio – when it comes to landing your first job, this is probably more important than your grades. And be prepared: You will probably come into contact with potential employers before you graduate (hint: you should be actively seeking them out), and you should have something ready to show them. Bear in mind that the games you make (or the art you create, or the code you write) in your first year will probably look weird and embarrassing by the time you graduate, so remember that the whole thing is a balancing act. (Life tip: Everything is a balancing act, get used to it.)
I would say you should have a portfolio already put together by Christmas in your final year, and then you have all of Spring and Summer to shop your portfolio around employers and recruitment fairs before you graduate and the real pressure starts. The more specialised your portfolio is regarding the position/company you are applying for, the better! But remember that different people could be looking for very different things. Be prepared to slip things in and out of the mix between each application. It helps to have a large pool of work in your files, from which you can pull together a focused portfolio that relates to the kind of games the company has made in the past. It never hurts to have more work behind you.
Take part in the Global Game Jam and Ludum Dare. Try doing One Game A Month.You could even get together with some of your coursemates and enter Dare To Be Digital. Events like these offer short, scheduled periods in which to produce stuff for your portfolio, and provide a community of peers who can offer feedback and advice on your work. Which brings us neatly to my next point…
~ Once You Graduate ~
If you’re not on Twitter already, sign up now. Seriously. Go do it now.
Done? Okay. At the risk of sounding like an nu-media dickhead, Twitter is one of the most useful things in my world right now. It’s a public forum where you can advertise yourself and your games to an audience of millions, it’s a window into the conversations taking place between your peers, and it’s a direct line of communication with people who can teach you things and/or give you a job. Considering how difficult it can be to contact games industry professionals through ‘conventional’ means, Twitter makes for an incredible alternative. Learn how to use it, and don’t be a dick (if you're not sure how to not be a dick online, the first and usually last step is to shut up). You can start by finding the Twitter IDs of whatever hip designers you personally like (hint: I can be found here) then following them and just keeping an eye on your feed for interesting retweets from people they follow. Follow those people too. Keep doing this forever. Your feed will eventually become a endless spring of interesting ideas and current news, including job opportunities. Until some new social network comes along and Twitter goes out of business, of course.
With Twitter out of the way, I’d still like to stress that networking is hugely important. Knowing the right people in the right places gives you all sorts of advantages when you’re looking for work (or if you’re looking to put together an indie dev team, or market a game!) There’s a LOT more to be said about the subject, but Darius Kazemi has already written everything I would think to say and moreon his own website. So go read that.
9. Expect Rejection; Keep Trying
One of the fun stats I learned from the Livingstone-Hope review was that the UK produces something like 1,500 games development graduates each year, and the UK games industry hires about 150 of them. Also, that first figure doesn’t include all the sly foxes who studied convential subjects like computer science. The precise numbers vary from year to year – I think I remember a peak of 300 graduate hires in a year - but you should bear these numbers in mind: The annual hiring rate of games graduates can be less than 10%. Competition is fierce.
Personally, my advice would be that you should expect to be rejected from every job you apply for. You should apply to all sorts of things, and you should take some care to tailor your application to each post – do a little research, write a personalised cover letter, maybe even adjust your CV a little to emphasise the things they would be interested in – but you should always expect to receive… nothing, usually. Many games companies won’t even bother to tell you that you’ve been rejected, and the ones that do will send you an awful, generic thing about how there were lots of applicants and unfortunately you were unsuccessful this time and they wish you all the best in the future. It is worth getting back to them and asking for more personal feedback if you’re interested in knowing what you did wrong exactly, but again you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for an answer. They will always perfer to give you a generic copy-pasted response that's been approved by their HR and legal teams than communicate with you as a human being, which could raise the risk of legal action or some kind of public backlash if they say something out of line.
This whole process can be brutal and soul-crushing, but you need to try not to get too emotional about it. Keep trying. Apply to jobs in emerging markets - I can tell you from experience that India has a shortage of game designers, even if the UK does not. Apply to lots of different companies, and don’t worry about waiting for results – they’ll probably reject you anyway. The worst-case scenario is that you accept Job A only to be offered a preferable Job B, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you quit and moved after your first month - you might burn some bridges with Employer A, but nobody else will care. Keep trying. If you release your first indie game and nobody buys it, learn from the mistakes and make another one. Keep trying!
10. Interview Tips
CLOTHES: I feel weird about going to job interviews wearing anything other than a suit, but I have heard unofficial feedback on the grapevine (see point 8) that it has freaked my interviewers out on occasion. Most people working in the games industry come to work wearing jeans and t-shirts, and this kind of casual culture permeates the whole operation. My advice would be to wear something smart, but not too formal – I find smart jeans and a nice jumper are ambiguous enough to cover this grey area. Dress as if you are taking your grandma out for dinner on her birthday.
PREPARATION: Read about the company, read about the history of the company, read any recent articles about them on Google News, play their last three games (or at least watch gameplay videos on YouTube), read about their competitors, see what you can find out about their current projects, think of some relevant questions to ask about the future, search for your interviewers’ names on LinkedIn and read their CVs, print off a map of directions to the office, write down some contact numbers in case you end up running late… basically, do your homework. Arrive half an hour early to make sure you find the office, hang around outside for a while if you want to check the place out, then go in and see what additional information you can pick up from snooping around their waiting lounge. If you are late, for whatever reason, it’s fine! Just be sure to call them (as soon as you can, within reason) and let them know.
WORDS: I’m not a great person to give advice on what to say in interviews. I think the typical advice is a combination of ‘be honest’ and ‘tell them what they want to hear’ – in my experience, it’s rare (and wonderful) for these two circles to completely overlap. Don’t claim to have skills that you clearly don’t have. Do try to find some nice things to say about their games. Do feel free to criticise their games a little, but try not to be too scathing and make SURE you back it up with a good arguments – people will appreciate that you’re capable of intelligently analysing their work, and that you’re not just some grovelling sycophant. Don’t tell them their questions are stupid, even if they are. Even if you decide during the interview that you no longer want the job, there’s a time and a place to act on that impulse and it is not then and there! Prepare some questions in advance to ask your interviewer, to show that you are genuinely interested in the company; to get you started, I recommend "Why did YOU come to work here?"
GENERAL: Interviewers are human beings, and rarely will ’conducting interviews’ be one of their primary skills. The quality and behaviour of your interviewers will vary greatly! Don’t be put off by bad experiences – I’ve been asked some incredibly stupid questions in job interviews, and when they come from your potential future boss, that should be a sign that perhaps this job isn’t for you. Also, be aware that recruitment agents and people in Human Resources probably won’t understand all the specialist technical patter that you’ve been rehearsing. They really just want a bulleted list of skills and experience that they can tick off against their requirements list, and to screen out people with obvious personality defects – save your nerd talk for someone who cares.
11. Work Your Way Up?
One of the things you’re likely to hear people say is that you can always get a job in games testing and work your way up to a more glamourous position. I find this approach pretty dubious. Considering the following: The are thousands of testers working in the games industry, and I would expect that most of them hope to move up the ladder and get more interesting jobs in the future. Obviously the industry is not large enough to accommodate all of their dreams. You could say that the natural counterbalance to that is the job’s high turnover rate, with hundreds of testers burning out or being laid off and replaced with eager new graduates every year, but… urarghghh! If your idea of a career plan is to take a (generally) horrible and underpaid job and simply outlast your coworkers until you are the only person left to promote, then I suspect you could do better for yourself. The shiny carrot of promised promotions is often used to lure people into these thankless, expendable positions.
The flipside to this is that a lot of people do get promoted out of testing! I have a friend who worked as a tester for about six years before becoming a producer. All I can say is that they represent a small percentage of testers - the ones who held on long enough without burning out. The traditional (and in my opinion outdated) wisdom within the industry seems to be that there are some skills you can only learn within the industry, and working in testing is a way of getting exposure to this knowledge without having to shoulder much responsibility. A kind of apprenticeship. If you want to work in game design, you may find it easier to break in via testing than to get an entry-level design job straight out of university. If you don’t believe me, try looking for an entry-level design job in the first place! All I'm saying is that testing is only one of many careers that you could use to get your foot in the door. If you can get a job in scripting, level design, art or programming, then you will face a much clearer career path into the rarified air of seniority.
(Side note: I've been a tester. Testing is a fine and noble career with its own skillsets and challenges. If you go into games testing because you absolutely love testing and want to work your way up the testing ladder, then I would consider you a hero, especially in light of how much more money you could be earning outside the games industry. But as I said before, if you don't enjoy doing the day-to-day acitivies of testing - if you're just sticking it out because you want to be something else someday - you may be inflicting unecessary mental trauma on yourself.)
12. Go To GDC
This is the least essential and most privileged piece of advice I’m going to give you: Going to GDC is expensive (rough prices for a basic package: £550 for return flights from Heathrow, £200 for a hostel for a week, £350 for an Indie Games Conference pass, plus whatever you eat and drink) but it can be a great experience, and there are ways to bring the costs down. You can volunteer to be a Conference Associate and work your way to a free conference pass, and if you have any friends in the Bay Area (again, see point 8) then you could probably rustle up a couch to sleep on. If you want to bring the travel costs down you could try going to GDC Europe - I've never been, but I imagine it offers many of the same opportunities.
Why should you go? Firstly: NETWORKING! Even if you’re already hanging around on forums like TIGSource, or taking an active role in the Ludum Dare community, it’s really wonderful to walk into a room and be surrounded by your peers. GDC is one of the few opportunities I get to have to sit in a bar and talk about nerdy game design stuff with people who both understand and care about the subject. Also, a large number of developers from all over the world converge there. If you happen to have struck up a casual friendship with a game developer via Twitter, this is your chance to casually bump into them between sessions and say hello.
Also, the conference itself is both interesting and relevant to your work - here's my round-up of talks from this year's conference which you can watch online. Even outside of the sessions, there’s a good chance you’ll pick up inspiration from the playable games in the expo hall, or from talking to their designers over lunch. Also there is a huge international career fair which is aimed quite squarely at hiring young graduates like yourself, in all disciplines, in all corners of the world. It’s basically everything a young graduate eager to break into games could want… the only downside is that it’s about 6,000 miles away.
13. Don’t Go Into The Games Industry
Look: The whole idea that getting into the games industry is the best way to secure a future in making games is - thankfully - becoming less true every year. You don’t have to be a professional game designer to make games. You don’t even have to be a professional game designer to be known for making games. And you don’t have to be a professional game designer to make money from making games. Before I got my current job I spent two years working as a nondescript hardware tester for a company that made electronic whiteboards; I got paid way more money than a games tester, and I never had to work a single hour of overtime. I used this free time to make games, and probably made a lot more games – and probably had a lot more fun – than I would have if I had been working in the industry. Even now, it’s great to be a professional designer, but I rarely have time to think about working on my own projects outside of the office, and even if I did they would probably become the intellectual property of my employers. I enjoy my job, but will I still be interested in this career five years from now? I can’t say for sure.
Becoming an indie developer is rad. It’s also hard as nails to make a living, certainly when you’re first starting out. If this is the path you wish to go down, it would seem prudent to get a nice day job to help pay the bills; ideally something that relates to your specialism, so you can refer to it as relevant experience later. I know an awful lot of indie devs who moonlight as web developers, as a simple way to turn code into cash. If you do good work as an indie developer, you stand to make a lot more money than you would as just another small cog in the industry! But until that day comes, you’ll be living on a budget – you will probably find your most useful skill during this time lies in persuading people to do you favours.
You want to be really cool? Don’t even bother making money from your games at all. Just get a nice, normal job, make games as a means to express yourself, and give them away for free. Read Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. If you’re really passionate about game design for its own sake, then I think the most rational approach is to completely divorce yourself from any kind of commercial influence. Your games can be as weird as you like, and you’ll never have to care about crunch time, monetisation, market positioning, or what people think about your work. If you want to do this as a full-time job - asking people to sponsor your working process rather than buying your finished works - there's a growing community of developers using Patreon for this very purpose.