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The video game industry is booming and more information about how games are made is available than ever before. Game development jobs are attractive for a number of reasons: they are intellectually and creatively stimulating and challenging, they often boast fun and casual work environments, and they offer the opportunity to break new ground in entertainment, technology, and pop culture.
If you are passionate about games, you may have wondered if game development is the right career choice for you. More and more colleges are offering game development courses, but the path to a career in games is still not always clear. Do I need to go to school or can I teach myself? How do I stand out amongst the masses? What ARE the jobs that are available in game development, anyways? At Respawn Entertainment, we receive so many emails asking questions like these. I will make my best attempt to answer some of them here! Although this article is mainly geared towards people who have yet to land their first job in games, a few points may serve as reminders for those who are still seeking their dream job in the industry.
Let’s start at the very beginning!
WHAT TYPES OF JOBS ARE AVAILABLE IN GAMES?
I’m going to focus more on the developer side of things, since publishers tend to have a much wider range of roles available (everything from marketing and finance to production and QA).
The basic roles at most development studios are listed below. There are also other departments, such as audio, lighting, and VFX, but I tried to focus more on larger departments here. If you want more specific info on any jobs that are not listed here, feel free to let us know! Click on the tab below to see information on the corresponding role. We will end with General Tips When Looking For a Job in Games.
HOW DO I BECOME AN ARTIST?
I could write an entire article on the topic of art portfolios alone, but I’ll try to stick to the basics here.
Training. Many art schools offer courses in 3D and concept design for video games and film. Art schools often have relationships with video game developers, which would help you get exposure to employers for internship opportunities. At school, you will meet and network with students who will also eventually be working at development studios. These relationships may help you get referred for positions later on.
Although good art schools may provide a strong foundation, you will improve more quickly and be more competitive for jobs if you work hard and self-educate in your own time. This is without question. There are plenty of on-line tutorials, as well as on-line message boards where you can share your work for critiques or ask technical questions. By the time you graduate, your portfolio should have personal projects in addition to school work. Many great artists are self-taught, so if financial concerns or other issues mean that art school isn’t in the cards for you, don’t let that stop you from learning the ropes through tutorials, books, experimentation, etc.
What do employers want to see? Of course, what employers are looking for varies depending on the company (and they will generally tell you in their job ads). But here are some general tips about what we at Respawn Entertainment like to see in junior talent.
- Texture your models. We want to see strong modeling but also beautiful, detailed textures (whether photo or hand painted textures are preferred will depend on the company). I see many portfolios where the models remain untextured. At Respawn, our artists do both so we want to see strengths in both areas. Extra points for great lighting.
- Show great design sense and taste. This applies to both 2D and 3D artists. As for 3D artists, choose strong designs to base your models off of (and give original design credit where it is due). Your baboon/crustacean/frog creature with the golden armor and giant horns may look like nothing I’ve ever seen in a game before, but maybe that is for a good reason. I might be way more impressed if you can nail the look of a real baboon, and it would give me just as much info about whether you can model/texture a creature. Concept artists may be able to impress with masterful painting skills and beautiful imagery, but those paintings aren’t what we will see in the final game. Successful concept artists will also be strong designers who are full of great, unique ideas that work well in 3D.
- Challenge and detail. As your skills improve, choose art projects for your portfolio that are increasingly more challenging and detailed. The more detailed the work is, the more it will impress. Lovingly adding those bits of wear, rust, decay, etc. to your models, without going overboard, will really help to sell your work. It is always easier for an artist who can nail challenging designs to create simpler assets than the other way around.
Start with props and environment work. There tend to be more jobs available for 3D prop and environment artists because there is just more environment work to do than there is character work. 3D character art takes a lot of finesse and is generally reserved for more senior level artists, so make sure that you include detailed props and environment work in your portfolio. Concept artists who do environment work may find more job opportunities at their doorsteps as well.
Remove your weakest work. Your portfolio should only show your strongest work. Don’t put poor work in your portfolio just for the sake of having more pieces or “rounding it out.” If you want to be a 3D environment artist, your potential employer doesn’t need to see your bad character models or amateurish figure drawings. Of course, we recruiters we love seeing your weaker work because it lets us know what your weaknesses are. But if you are showing your work for the purpose of getting a job (as opposed to a critique on how to improve), only include your best work. Your portfolio should highlight your strengths, not showcase the things you can’t do well. It should also be constantly evolving over time as you update it with newer, better work and remove weaker pieces.
Tailor your portfolio. If it is your dream to work on a certain type of game (say, a fantasy game) but you are currently working on a much different game (ie; sports game), create work in your own time that is tailored to the company you want to work for. I’ve worked at companies that have very distinct styles and received loads of portfolios that had nothing but work that is irrelevant to that company’s body of work. It is unlikely that a company will infer that you can nail their style off of work that is in a totally different style. There are artists competing with you who already have relevant work in their portfolios. Your professional work will show that you have experience, but you can always keep working on your portfolio and progress towards your dream job.
Keep it tasteful. Believe it or not, I’ve seen some gnarly stuff in art and animation portfolios. It just leaves me wondering if that person actually wants a job or if they are trying to sabotage their own chances. I’m not talking about nude figure drawing, which can be tastefully used in a portfolio to showcase drawing skills. If your artwork is grotesquely gory, overtly sexual or misogynistic, depicts torture or bodily functions generally reserved for private moments, or could in any way be perceived as offensive by the average person, leave it out. If you have doubts, leave it out. You don’t know what may be considered offensive by the person who is looking at your work. Not only will we question your taste (good taste being a desirable trait in an artist), we will question whether or not you are someone we actually want to work with.
Animators love to bring characters to life. And that’s exactly what we want to see in your animation reel: life! Good animation is very difficult to achieve and takes a lot of hard work and passion. The best animators absolutely love what they do and are willing to put in the extra time and effort to create beautiful, polished work that sells the character. As one of our Lead Animators says, “An animator can and should always bring their best work to any animation, from an exciting and complicated full cinematic scene to a simple leaf blowing in the wind.” Remember that once on the job, you’ll be working on more than just the animations that excite you the most. Even if you’re working on something simple, you’ll be expected to bring your A game every time.
Similarly to art, there are many great schools out there that teach animation, but you’ll get the best results if you combine your studies with research and hard work on your own time. Employers will want to see work beyond your basic school assignments.
What do employers want to see? Employers may want to see animation that is stylized, realistic, or both. At Respawn Entertainment we like to see realistic animation as opposed to cartoony, since realistic animation showcases weight, physics, and subtle movements that are very challenging and can really display an animator’s skills. Common mistakes in animation reels include choppiness, “pose to pose” rather than fluid animation, floatiness, and a lack of acting.
Employers also generally want to see good walk and run cycles, scenes that contain lots of action (as opposed to just dialogue or slow movements), great acting, and a strong display of good physics, weight, and polish.
Remove your weakest work. My comments here in the art section on this topic apply to animation reels as well.
Tailor your reel. See my comments here in art section on this topic.
Keep it tasteful. See my comments here in the art section on this topic.
At Respawn Entertainment, our designers are either geo builders, scripters, or both. The geo builders design their levels for fun gameplay, work with 3D artists to polish their levels, and are often talented artists themselves. The scripters create the gameplay and make the game fun. Scripters use a scripting language similar to code that makes events happen in the game. This type of scripting is not to be confused with dialogue scripts, such a movie scripts. Respawn also has designers who do both geo building and scripting. All designers work on coming up with ideas for story, character, dialogue, gameplay functions, etc. We want to see skills from candidates that showcase geo, scripting, or both.
Portfolio and Interview Preparation. A good game design portfolio has actual game design to show, as opposed to just paper design and written ideas. At Respawn we like to see screenshots or videos that show the levels you worked on, along with detailed descriptions of what you contributed. Take whatever route you need to in order to get some game design under your belt for your portfolio, and make sure that design is relevant to the company you are applying to (a portfolio with only mobile game design probably won’t help get you a job working on AAA console games). Play lots of games and be able to talk about them analytically, including how you would improve things that you felt were weak. Understand why you love the games you love and why you were disappointed by games that didn’t rise to your expectations.
Where to get my start? There are a number of ways to get experience designing games before your land your first design job.
Modding is a great way to get your start designing games. Some developers have their level design tools, called mod tools, available to the community. You can work with others in mod communities or alone to build and script levels. Your mods will make for great portfolio pieces and no tuition is required! There is plenty of information online about mods and how to get involved in mod communities. Tailor your work to fit with the company that you are interested in working for.
Many schools now offer game design programs. Game design schools often have relationships with video game developers, which would help you get exposure to employers for internship opportunities. At school, you will meet and network with students who will also eventually be working at development studios. These relationships may help you get referred for positions later on. Although you may be doing group projects in school, be sure to build personal levels on your own. The more learning and experience you seek on your own time, the stronger a designer you will be.
You may also have opportunities to move into game design if you work in QA at a development studio. Some studios may allow you to work directly with designers, learn your developer’s tools, and practice making levels. If you don’t have access to your studios development tools, you can always work on mods using other tools in your own time. If you have skills and share your work with the team, your employer may take notice and give you an opportunity to move into design. But please be sensitive to the fact that the developers you work with are busy making games (ie; don’t drive them crazy by bugging them constantly about your career development).
Read every game design book and article regarding game design that you can get your hands on, and play lots of games. Work diligently on building levels on your own time and improving your design skills. Building levels is time consuming but worth the effort. Having strong individual work to show is the best way to get a design job.
Do you love math? Did you find yourself tinkering with writing code during high school or earlier? Are you passionate about games and technology? Software engineering may be a great fit for you!
Education. This is one field where education may count more than others. Although there are always success stories of those who taught themselves, having a degree in Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Math, or related field can help build your foundation and boost your ability to compete for internships and jobs. There are colleges and universities that offer programs specifically for programming in games, but if you plan to get training you should consider shooting for the best education you can afford and are qualified for, whether it be at a school for game design or somewhere more traditionally academic. Many universities these days have elective classes or even extracurricular clubs where students can get together and create video games. Video game companies are most likely to recruit interns and full time staff from top schools, local schools, and schools specific to game development.
Portfolio and skill demonstration. You don’t necessarily need a degree in order to land a job, but you will absolutely need to have demonstrable coding skills. If you don’t have industry experience, your potential employer will surely want to see a portfolio of code samples and school or personal projects that are game related. This goes for students, grads, and those who are self-taught. If you don’t have school projects to use in your portfolio, create a project with others or make a game by yourself in your own time. Mods and indie games can be a fantastic way to gain experience and acquire showable work. Keep in mind that any individual projects you do won’t need to focus as much on art and sound, but you will want your game to exhibit smart design and be fun to play. Make sure that your game can be easily downloaded and played by your average recruiter or hiring manager, and that it is accessible and not so overly complicated that the concept can’t be immediately grasped and enjoyed. Keep in mind that employers will want to know what you specifically contributed to group projects, so describe your contributions in your portfolio and be prepared to talk about what the development challenges were and what your role was. If your team projects don’t serve as great examples of your best work, consider leading a group project and/or creating your own games.
Other keys to success. Good software engineers work well with other programmers and have the ability to work with code that others have written. They love what they do and strive to constantly develop their skills and expand their knowledge. Play lots of games and be able to talk about them analytically. When developers release the source code for their games, check it out. Source code can be a great resource for learning how a game engine works. Don’t hesitate to seek internships or co-ops to give yourself an edge up and build industry relationships. The most valuable learning experiences will be on the job. Overall, keep in mind that programming is not easy, but there is more pleasure to be had from accomplishing something difficult than something without challenge.
Most video game producers get their start in QA, and from there go on to QA leadership, production coordination or associate producer roles, and so on. A few characteristics of a good producer candidate include great leadership skills, impressive organization, strong communication and people skills, a deep understanding of the development process, and a genuine passion for games.
If you are interested in a production role in games, the best start would probably be QA, and to stand out as a very strong QA tester with leadership skills. Be patient and work hard; there are much fewer production roles available than there will be QA testers working next to you. But talk to the producers that work with you about how they got their start. Let management know about your interest and ask them how you might start working towards a production role.
Production candidates may also have backgrounds in project management in film or other industries. Other ways you could bolster your resume may include taking game development and/or project management courses.
The Quality Assurance (or Test) department is a great place to get your start in the game industry. QA is a very important part of the game development cycle. If you play games you know how frustrating it can be when you encounter a bug. The QA department has the important role of finding and reporting bugs so that they can be fixed. If you are not yet qualified for or just haven’t found your first job in games, QA can be a great start for many reasons.
1- QA jobs are generally entry-level and don’t require a lot of previous work experience or education
2- You can learn more about how games are made while on the job
3- You will build industry connections
4- If you shine in QA and show potential in other areas, you may have the opportunity to move up the ladder in QA or into a production or development role.
How do I get a job in QA?
First of all, play lots of games. Be able to speak analytically about the games you love (or don’t love). Write a great cover letter that explains why you want to work for that particular company as a tester, and what you love about games (especially their games). Please note that video game companies are unlikely to relocate candidates for non-leadership QA roles, so focus on companies that are in your area, or consider moving to a new location.
Other ways of standing out from a mass of applicants may be to: beta test games in your own time, write some sample bugs from games you’ve played and include those as part of your application, post videos of yourself finding tricky bugs and/or exploiting errors in the game, etc.
Note: QA testing does not mean “playing games all day.” A tester’s job is to break the game. While the job can be loads of fun, it’s also hard work and requires creativity and lots of patience. The hours can be long and the work can be repetitive. But if you are in QA and are looking to further your career in the game industry, your goal should be to be the best QA tester you can possibly be.
Excel in your QA role and you will be more likely to get noticed for promotions or transferred to new roles. Even if your 3D/animation/game design/etc skills are impressive, if you are not performing well at your QA job you may not be considered a good candidate for transfer/promotion since the company will probably have doubts about your work ethic. If your future goals include a development related role, you will have more opportunity to move into such a role if you get a QA job at a development studio as opposed to a publisher (since you will be working directly with developers). Just note that QA jobs at a developer may require previous QA experience. QA experience at a publisher is valuable and publishers may have more production roles available than smaller development studios might.
So you don’t feel you fit the bill for any of the jobs above, but you still want to work in the game industry. There are plenty of other jobs at game studios and publishers that may be the right fit for you… IT, marketing, finance, HR, operations, etc ,etc. Here are some tips on how to stand out amongst all the other resumes.
Write a great cover letter.
- Don’t have any experience in games? Your cover letter is your golden opportunity to talk about your passion for games and why you want to work in the industry. Discuss your interest and experience with the games that particular company has made. If your resume is lacking relevant experience, this is the best way to get noticed other than by direct referral.
Get experience in similar industries, such as entertainment or tech.
- Game industry culture can be similar to entertainment (film, music, media, etc.) and technology industry cultures, so if you haven’t already held a job in games, it could be a plus if you have worked in similar environments. You will appear to be more of a potential fit than if your experience is solely in, say, insurance or banking. Again, this is just about making your resume stand out amongst the masses; I am definitely not saying that any particular industry is “better” than another.
Get the best experience and/or education you can.
- Game studios want the best of the best, just like any company does. Game industry jobs are attractive and the competition is fierce, so the obvious ingredients for an impressive resume apply here as well: great experience, and for many jobs, great education as well.
Tailor your resume/cover letter/portfolio to the job you are applying for. You may be applying to a lot of places, but you should know what you are applying for. Read the job ad carefully and make sure that the aspects of your background that match requirements of the job ad are on your resume. You may have a slightly different resume for each job you apply for, and that’s okay. Research the companies you are applying to (better yet, play their games) and make you are able to talk about their accomplishments. Explain why you want to work for that company in your cover letter. Companies want to know that you have genuine interest in them. Generic cover letters (or cover letters addressed to the wrong company) and emails that are clearly sent to multiple companies are a turn off. That said, if you find yourself talking to a company that you don’t know much about, don’t pretend to know anything you don’t.
Be yourself during interviews. Interviews can be nerve wracking, but they are a necessity when it comes to getting a job. Keep in mind that an interview is not just a chance for an employer to see if they are interested in you, it is also a chance for you to see if you are interested in the employer! Come prepared and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Also (and I am most likely quoting your mother when I say this…) JUST BE YOURSELF! I mean this in regards to both your behavior and the work you are showing. Plagiarism is an obvious no-no (and the quickest way to ensure you DON’T get a job, now or ever. Use your own work). But whether or not you are a cultural fit will also make a huge difference in determining your future happiness at the job. If you are trying to act like something you’re not, you could be hired or not hired for the wrong reasons. Your “true” self and actual abilities will show themselves eventually, anyways. Be honest, be yourself, and the job that fits you like a glove will come in time.
Leave the ego at home. You may have been the best in your class at school, but respect the fact that you are now interviewing with (or working with) people who have way more experience than you. And guess what, there will always be people who you can learn from, no matter how good you are at your job. So please don’t act like you know it all. You don’t. Do yourself (and everyone around you) a favor by being a team player and recognizing that you have a lot to learn. You will grow more and the game you are working on will be better for it. Your knowledge and skills will grow over time, and the more eager you are to learn, the more likely you are to be hired and/or get ahead. The people who are strongest in their field will be the first to admit that they still have room to grow. (And thank goodness for that! What would drive us in our careers if there was nothing left to learn?)
So you got a job offer, but it’s not at your dream studio or on your dream project. Fret not!
First of all, congratulations on landing a job! Getting a job ANYWHERE right now is not easy. Most people don’t get their start working on their dream project and it is completely unrealistic to have that expectation. As the saying goes, everyone has to start somewhere. No matter what type of game you’re working on, that development experience you’re getting right now is invaluable. Do your best and learn as much as you can. If you really feel like you are not where you want to be, expand your portfolio in your own free time. Making art for a cartoony game but want to work on realistic looking games? Make those photo-real props at home and keep working to hit that look. Avoid using your current employers’ property (intellectual or physical) as well as their tools or software for personal work unless you have their explicit permission to do so.