Applying for a Job in Game Design
By Tom Sloper
Tom Sloper is a Senior Lecturer in the Information Technology Program of the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California. He began his game career at Western Technologies where he designed LCD watch and calculator games, Atari 2600 games and the Vectrex games Spike and Bedlam. Subsequently, he worked as a designer, producer and director at Sega Enterprises, Rudell Design, Atari and Activision. He has participated in the creation of over 130 game products and currently consults as Sloperama Productions.
For an aspiring game designer, it's important to understand up front that everybody wants the title of “Game Designer.” It's the “sexy” job title in the game industry, akin to “Director” in the movie/TV world. So even with a four-year degree and a great design portfolio, it's tough to break into the industry in game design. The way to prepare for the design job is to study what interests you, and apply for any game industry job you can get. Once you are inside the industry, you have to work hard, volunteer to help out in any way you can, learn, and prove yourself, before you can gain that sexy title. It will take time; there is no easy sure path. Know that going in, steel yourself, be willing, and you’ll be fine.
If you're still reading, here’s how to apply for that game industry job, step by step. Note: much of the following applies to non-design applicants as well as those interested in the job of game designer.
First, you must be prepared for the job.
You should complete the exercises in this book, have a college degree, and of course be an avid game player. You should be an active participant in online game forums and you should subscribe to, and voraciously read, Gamasutra and GamesIndustry International.
Next, you need to have a well-written résumé.
If you have game industry work experience (including internships), list your work experience at the top. If you're a graduate or student with no game industry or related work experience, list your education and student projects at the top. List any and all work experience and volunteer activities. A good entry-level résumé fills one page without too much blank space, and, conversely, does not look too crowded.
Your résumé must include your physical address, your email address, and your phone number. Sometimes an applicant omits the physical address in order to hide from the hirer the fact that the applicant is not local. That does not work; omission of the address tells the hirer, “I'm not local, and I don't want you to know.”
Next, prepare your portfolio.
Today, it's standard to have an online portfolio, a website showing off one's work. It can still be handy to have a hard copy portfolio, but today an online portfolio is a must.
If you’re an aspiring game designer, you can fill a portfolio with samples of your writings and drawings, photographs of your paper prototypes, and descriptions of how to make and play them. You can also include flyers, newspaper clippings, or photos from game jams you were in, or game events you organized—anything that shows off your creativity and desirability as a job candidate. Just the best stuff, though. At least 10 items, and no more than 20. You want to wow the hirer, not smother him or her under an avalanche.
An online portfolio should have a simple, easy-to-remember URL. It should be well organized and easy to navigate. If you're a game designer, a poorly organized portfolio site that's hard to navigate shows poor UI design. Your résumé must be easy to find on your portfolio site. You should put the address of your portfolio site in your cover letters, in your email signature, and on your personal business card.
Paper (hard copy) portfolios
A paper portfolio should fit into a thin flexible presentation binder, with your name and contact info showing through the clear front cover. Organize your portfolio with your most striking stuff in the front. In an interview, the interviewer may open the binder, look at the first few things, then close it. So you need to make the best possible impression with the first things, right up front. Do not include any game concepts in a paper game design portfolio (more on this below). Make copies of your portfolio, so you have the option of leaving them permanently with numerous hirers.
If, instead of game design or art, your specialty is audio, animation, level design, or programming, then an online portfolio is the way to go, and you could bring a laptop to the interview.
If you can’t make a spectacular portfolio, don’t make a portfolio at all. It’s okay to show up for an interview without a portfolio, but having one is important if you want to set yourself apart from the competition.
Next, you need to have a target list of local game companies.
If you are seeking an entry-level job, your target list must consist solely of local companies. Employers don’t need to spend time considering non-local entry-level applicants (they have way more local entry-level applicants than they can possibly handle). If you don’t live near game companies and you don’t have industry experience, plan to move.
When you’re ready to make your target list, check out GameDevMap.com and GameIndustryMap.com. List the companies within daily commuting distance, and start researching. Read the websites of your target companies. Study their games, past and present. Larger companies are publicly owned, so their annual statements are available to read, and you can check how their stock is doing. Larger companies may have multiple office locations. You want to know a lot about a company before you apply. It looks bad if an applicant comes in and says, “Well, I don’t know anything about your company, but I’d like to work here.”
Write a good cover letter.
Being a game designer means being a creative writer. Your cover letter should showcase your creativity and your communication skills, in text form. The cover letter (especially if there’s basically nothing on your résumé) can be even more important than the résumé.
Ideally, a cover letter should begin with some kind of personal connection between you and the recipient. Maybe you met someone from that company while networking, or at least you’ve played and enjoyed that company’s games.
It’s unrealistic to say, “I’m seeking a job as a game designer,” since that job is likely not open to inexperienced applicants, and it’s also not helpful to say “I’ll take any job you have open.” Find out what job openings are available. Figure out which opening is suited to your skills and interests; that’s the job you should be applying for. If you are suited for another opening besides the one you apply for, sometimes you might be offered that job instead. Regardless, it’s still best to apply for just one job. You don’t want to appear unfocused.
One way to sweeten your cover letter is to mention your personal design projects. You will stand out from the pack if you list prototypes you’ve made, treatments you’ve written, mods you’ve created, game jams you've been in, game groups you’ve organized, and/or game discussion forums you participate in. Your cover letter should not exceed one page.
Now you’re ready to contact the target companies and apply.
Don’t pin all your hopes on one specific company. You’ll apply to multiple companies, and it’s best to have your first few interviews at companies that are not at the top of your list. Practice makes perfect. There are three ways to apply: through ads on jobs websites, through a company’s own jobs page, and through email. Let’s look at all three.
Ads on job websites
Many companies advertise job openings on external job sites, like CreativeHeads.net and CoolGameJobs.com. But those listings are expensive, so game companies only post jobs there when they’re looking for experienced people for non-entry jobs. You should never apply for an opening for which you are not qualified.
Company’s online jobs page
Most game companies have a jobs page. For openings that require experience, a company will usually post the opening on their own jobs page before going to the expense of posting it on a paid jobs website. A company might not list entry-level jobs on their jobs page, due to the fact that most companies receive a lot of unsolicited applications on a daily basis. So even if there are no entry-level jobs listed, you should still send in an application.
A company might provide an online form that you have to fill out. They give you a blank space in which you can paste your cover letter, and another for your résumé, so be prepared beforehand with plain-text versions of both. When pasting in a plain-text resume, note that all your fancy formatting is out the window. It takes time to convert a formatted résumé into plain text, then proofread it and make sure it looks presentable, so you want to do this before attempting to fill out an online application form. Same thing for your cover letter.
Applying through email
Most companies accept applications by email, and you can find the email address on their website. If there is no address listed, “firstname.lastname@example.org” or “email@example.com” will usually work. When applying by email, pay attention to your subject line. It should include your name and the position for which you are applying. Why? So the hirer can easily find your email again when looking for it later. Also take a look at your email address from the point of view of an employer. An email address like “jailburd@gmail,” or “insanedude@hotmail” does not make you look like good employee material.
When you apply by email, your email is your cover letter. Paste your text-only cover letter into the body of your email (don’t attach a separate cover letter along with your résumé). And name your résumé file intelligently: put your name in the filename of your résumé.
When applying by email, send one email per employer, and customize your cover email for that employer. Don’t send one email to multiple employers. They see laziness in an applicant who applies to multiple companies in one generic email.
After you’ve sent in an application, you cannot put your life on hold while waiting for a reply from that company. It may take days or weeks, and you may not get any response at all. Game companies get so many applications that they simply do not have time to reply to each and every one. Think, “fire and forget.” Shoot your résumé at your target, then aim and shoot at another. With luck and all the stars in alignment, you may get a call. In the meantime, if you haven’t started networking, get to it!
One blessed day, the phone may ring and you may be invited to an interview. A company might begin with a phone interview before inviting you to interview in person. For either type of interview, be prepared. You need to be prepared to answer questions about your qualifications for the job, your familiarity with the company and the job, even just simple questions like “what’s your favorite game, and why?” And you should expect the interviewer to ask you if you have any questions. Good questions to ask: “Of the projects you've worked on, which was your favorite?” “What exciting project are you working on now?” Bad questions to ask: “Do I get stock options?” “How many vacation days do I get?”
If you pass the telephone interview, you may get invited to an in-person interview. Arrive a few minutes early, turn your phone off, and don’t wear a suit. Nobody in a game studio (aside from some top executives) wears a suit. Wear clean presentable clothes. Long pants or a skirt. A nice shirt. Bring at least three copies of your résumé and cover letter, and (if applicable) your paper or disc portfolio. A laptop or tablet with your portfolio pieces already installed and ready to show would be an excellent idea.
The main goody—the best thing you bring to the interview—is you. Be eager, attentive, and charming (but not smarmy). What the company is looking for is hard working, smart, capable communicators first and foremost. That’s the impression you want to convey, through your appearance, your eye contact, and what you say during the interview.
You may interview with multiple individuals, separately or in a group. And you may be given a test. QA applicants get communication tests, programmer candidates get programming tests, and design applicants may be asked to write or extemporize a game analysis or design commentary. Be prepared with knowledge of the company's games, and be creative and eager for the test.
Show your portfolio, if possible.
In an in-person interview, you could, at a logical point in the conversation, show samples of your work. A paper portfolio can be quicker to present than an online portfolio.
I said above that it’s best not to have game concept docs in your paper design portfolio. Written game concepts handed to a company representative might be construed as an unsolicited concept submission, which could theoretically make the game company subject to a lawsuit from you if they ever did anything similar to your concept. So don’t have any game concept docs in your paper portfolio. It’s okay to put them in your online portfolio, though, because that’s a public place viewable by anyone.
Let the interviewer view the portfolio at his or her own pace; do not explain a work unless asked to. Never apologize for anything in your portfolio. If it contains anything that needs apology, leave it out.
Offer to leave the portfolio so the interviewer can go through it again later.
After the interview
It’s unlikely that the interview will end with a job offer. It has happened (and it has happened to me), but it’s not the normal way an interview ends. It’s more likely that the interviewer will discuss you and your résumé with other interviewers before any decision is made about offering you a job.
When you leave the interview, you will probably have a sense of how well the interview went. If you suspect it didn’t go very well, then just spend a few minutes thinking of what you could have done to make it go better. Then use that thinking on the next interview. When a stumbling block is in your way, use it as a stepping-stone.
Send thank-you notes to the people who interviewed you. I know it sounds old-fashioned, but the interviewers are human beings with whom you want to build human relationships. An email is fine; you can also send a paper thank-you. Here are some tips on thank-you letters from the Los Angeles Times CareerBuilder:
· Send it 24 hours after the interview, to show them that you have follow-up skills.
· Keep it short; no more than one page.
· Each one you send must be written specifically for the individual. If you met multiple individuals, get their business cards so you have proper spellings and job titles, and take notes immediately after the interview so you recall details for personalizing the letters.
· Restate why you are a good candidate, and also answer any objections you may have heard the individual mention during your interview.
It can take weeks or even months to hear back from a company after your first interview. Maybe send a follow-up email a month after the thank-you note. Beyond that, you should move on with your life. Never pin all your hopes on one company. Go for other interviews. The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t get any offers. The second-worst thing that can happen is that you get only one offer. The third-worst thing (which, if you think about it, is the best thing that can happen) is that you get more than one job offer to choose from. If that happens, you have to make a really tough decision. But that’s a good quandary to have!
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