Breaking into the Business – Pt. 2

Breaking into the Business – Pt. 2

We covered some basic game industry career information in part one of our feature on how to break into the video game business. Let’s assume you’re now ready to apply for jobs, but aren’t sure where to start. The following sections should point you in the right direction. This article assumes that you have no previous game industry experience and that you’re looking for work in the United States.

Show Us What You’ve Got

It’s crucial to have both a clean résumé and a solid portfolio in your job application arsenal, even if the former is light on related experience and the latter is limited in scope. Your résumé (a.k.a. curriculum vitae) tells the employer what you’ve accomplished at previous jobs, what level of relevant education you’ve received, and how your goals and ambitions intersect with the listed position. Do yourself a favor: reflect your work experience truthfully, since a simple reference check or interview question can expose any exaggeration (or outright lie). A lack of on-the-job experience can sometimes be offset with a portfolio that demonstrates your abilities—especially for entry-level jobs.

Many hiring managers prefer short, focused résumés over long-winded, multi-page documents that detail every single thing you’ve accomplished in your life. Remember that they’re looking at dozens of applicants for a single open position, and they don’t have the time to wade through every detail. Fit the information into a one- or two-page layout and show how your previous employment has prepared you for the job in question. You can always put a more detailed résumé and samples in your portfolio, or link to them at LinkedIn or on your website if you need to.

Cover letters can help your submission stand out from others. They function as a professional introduction and allow you to mention things you otherwise wouldn’t put in your résumé, like who referred you, or your familiarity with the company and its games. Keep your cover letter short and to the point, and be sure to proofread it and your résumé before sending them to a recruiter.

Your portfolio’s contents will vary by discipline. Job ads often note requirements for portfolio submissions, so be sure to consult the listing when you’re putting yours together. If possible, host your images, code samples, game mods, or published writing on a personal website or blog for easy access. You can also attach lightweight files to an email, though that’s less of an option for artists who use high resolution images that frequently exceed email file size attachment limits (and many companies have a policy of not opening unsolicited attachments for security reasons).

Be Willing to Travel

If you’re lucky enough to live in or near an area with lots of game development or publishing opportunities, then you’ve got it easy because depending on the discipline, most jobs will require you to work on-site even though we live in a connected digital age. That means your chances of breaking in diminish the farther you live from a potential employer. Unless you’ve got a killer portfolio or an inside connection at the company of your choice, it’s unlikely that you’ll find a studio willing to pay relocation costs for an entry-level position.

Unless you’ve got a specific studio in mind, you might want to relocate to an area with a high density of game companies. Industry websites like Gamasutra, GameCareerGuide, and GameJobs are constantly being updated with available positions. It helps to remember that these postings are paid for by the hiring companies themselves, so it’s entirely possible that you’ll find additional job listings on a studio’s home page, as not every open position is advertised on third-party Web sites. If you’re curious about what companies operate in a particular geographical location, gamedevmap hosts a visual tool that shows you where they are located, complete with links to corresponding corporate or studio URLs.

Once you’ve identified a locale, do some research. You’ll want to know how a destination city’s cost of living compares to your current location, what transportation options are available, and differences in healthcare access and costs. You should also identify the availability or access to places personally important to you such as parks, libraries, houses of worship, restaurants, or night life. You should find most of this information freely available online, so brush up on your Internet search skills.

Of course, moving without a job lined up is frightening for most and nearly impossible for some. If your situation allows it, you might want to consider temporarily relocating in case things don’t work out as fast as you hope (if at all). Can you crash on a friend’s couch for interviews? Are there any short-term apartment leases available? Every situation is different, so do what’s ultimately best for yours.

Look at the Big Picture: Jobs and Careers

Let’s assume things worked out and you’ve been offered a job. Should you take it or look for something potentially better? That’s entirely your call, but before you make a decision you should analyze the employment terms. Is the job a temporary contract or permanent one? Are there benefits? If so, what do they include? How do they compare to the ones offered by competitors?

You might find that information pertaining to job compensation is scarce. Companies typically don’t advertise the specifics of their compensation packages online, other than to mention that salaries are “competitive” and benefits “include 401(k) matching, medical, and dental.” They purposely leave out the details for good reasons, though. For starters, they don’t want to broadcast everything they offer in case a competitor with larger cash reserves might offer more. Benefit packages can also evolve (or devolve, especially in tough financial times), so what is true of your compensation and health coverage this year may change with the next.

You can, however, find some basic statistics online. Game Developer Magazine publishes an annual report on game industry salaries. Sister Web publication Gamasutra often posts a summary on its site, such as this one covering salary trends from 2009. Remember, though, that compensation will adjust depending on the local market, so don’t take what you read at face value. Compare numbers with a city’s cost of living to gauge average compensation. While every company will offer different compensation packages, you can use the following lists as a guideline.

Full-time positions, which typically require a 40-hour work week without overtime pay can include (but are not limited to) the following benefits:

  • Optional 401(k) participation with matching
  • Any combination of medical, dental, and vision health coverage, either at no cost or at a discount
  • Bonuses or profit sharing
  • Paid time off
  • Access to discounted or free services like transportation or health clubs

Total benefit value may cost your employer an additional 10-50% on top of your take-home pay, so be sure to account for this when comparing offers.

Contract or temporary positions, which vary by discipline, may require 40-hours per week (or more), and often pay for hours in excess of a normal work week and may include the following:

  • Optional 401(k) participation with no matching
  • Access to discounted health coverage, either through a staffing agency or directly through the employer

It’s easy to spot the difference—full-time jobs usually have benefits, and contract jobs typically don’t. You might wonder if you should even consider a temporary or contract position. Here are a few reasons why you should:

If you’re new to the industry, you might not have much of a choice; contracting might be your best “foot-in-the-door” opportunity. Many companies staff up temporary headcount toward the end of production, so you might be able to clock some hours as a contractor and learn some new skills that you can apply toward your next job.

Be aware that contract jobs are temporary, and while your term might get extended there’s little guarantee that you’ll continue employment past a projected end date. The life of a contractor—especially one new to the industry—is frequently about updating the résumé, networking with staffing agencies, and looking for the next job.

That’s not to say that a full-time job means you’ll never have to look for work again. Projects get canceled, studios go out of business, and budgets can get slashed. Many states also have at-will employment, which means that you or your employer can terminate a work agreement at any time provided it doesn’t violate existing labor laws. The good news is that the more experience you have under your belt, you’ll have better odds at landing on your feet should the unthinkable happen.

Culture, Career Opportunities and Upward Mobility

The final things to consider when pondering a job offer are somewhat intangible, but very important to your overall happiness and job satisfaction. A company’s culture can shape employee perception and ultimately affect motivation over time. Studios that crunch for extended periods tend to burn out staff and have higher turnover. Organizations that don’t pay competitive wages or offer good benefits to full-time workers eventually lose good people. Take note of your impressions while you’re interviewing for a job. Do the people interviewing you seem happy? Is the office décor pleasant or bleak? Don’t be afraid to ask people at the company—in private—what they think, if you get the opportunity. It could make your decision that much easier.

You should also consider how this job might evolve over time, especially if the current offer on the table isn’t what you were expecting. Could this position lead to something better? Is there room to grow within the team or outside the department? Ask your interviewees how they got into the company. Did they start at their current position or did they get promoted or transferred? How are annual raises calculated? It’s hard to predict the future, but with some thoughtful questioning you should be able to form a reasonable opinion about your opportunities.

If you’re lucky enough to score that elusive first job, congratulations are in order. You earned it! Just remember that your journey’s only started. You might have years of hard work, late nights, and looming deadlines ahead of you. Just remember that you’re doing what many people consider the stuff of dreams, and to not take it for granted. Who knows? You one day might be a part of something special that brings enjoyment to millions of people around the world.

About Bobby Stein
Bobby Stein is helping put the RPG back in MMOs as the Lead Writer of ArenaNet’s Guild Wars 2. He hopes to one day neglect his own personal blog, but in the meantime you can read some of his thoughts on game development at the official ArenaNet one.

2 Comments

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