GDC 2014: Getting in the Games Business

Contrary to popular belief, breaking into the video game industry doesn’t require fancy degrees, insider knowledge or a well-connected ex-roommate. Better still, as we’ll soon see reinforced at the upcoming Game Developers Conference in March anyone can do it right from home, and get started overnight.

But first, let’s dispel some of the myths surrounding the business. Rather than sit around playing games, the answer to breaking into it is simply to get involved with any number of projects from apps to books, modifications (mods) to retro remakes. Leading game companies receive thousands of submissions from eager job seekers weekly. Finding ways to catch their attention and demonstrate your talent, e.g. by creating highly downloaded songs for top music games or total conversions (graphic makeovers) for first-person shooters, is the secret to standing out. With millions competing for the chance to work on smash hits like “World of Warcraft” or “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” it’s what you do in the off-hours, not on the clock, that ultimately counts most.

No matter if you’re an artist or programmer, designer or marketing maven, the operating rule is show, not tell. Building a portfolio is easy though, thanks to the vast range of free and cost-effective tools offered online, and array of level- and map-making utilities built into many leading games.

Artists should establish a singular style that acts as their personal signature and look for ways to gain visibility. Contributing to fan-made game updates such as “King’s Quest” reboot “The Silver Lining” and extreme visual makeovers of hits like Half-Life make a great start. Crafting quirky concepts including paintings of popular ‘80s heroes in unlikely situations or free downloadable desktop wallpaper that pays tongue-in-cheek tribute to beloved series such as “Halo” and “The Legend of Zelda” can also work.

Designers and programmers need to create. Small-scale projects like new maps, missions and scenarios for popular titles make a great starting point. So too do iPhone apps, homebrew remakes of classic games from the Commodore 64 and IBM-PC, social network games and Flash titles (games designed to run in one’s Web browser). Software engines like Unity, the Unreal Development Kit, Torque, Adventure Game Studio, Playground SDK, and services such as App Hub can help you get started developing for computers, consoles like the Xbox One or Apple and Android handsets. To stand out, creations need to be unique and easily comprehensible at a glance. Focusing on building a handful of well-executed features vs. many poorly-implemented options helps, as does rapid prototyping and playtesting, since few great ideas are birthed fully-formed straight out of the womb.

Musicians likewise need a personal calling card, which could be a specific style of music, genre or audio flourish. (Think T-Pain’s signature Auto Tune sound which, while annoying, makes him impossible to miss.) In-game creations should also be designed to evoke specific storytelling moods and stand up to multiple, looping plays as adventures progress. Providing audio scores for notable amateur and indie game projects is a great way to get one’s creations heard. But offbeat alternatives including creating concept albums inspired by popular titles (e.g. “Halo: The Musical) or downloadable mixtapes for enjoyment alongside specific outings (“Assassin’s Creed: The Unofficial Soundtrack) can also garner attention.

Journalists and writers can use blogging tools such as WordPress, Blogger and TypePad to instantly start publishing magazines. Aspiring DJs have the option to simply hook up USB microphones and free podcast recording programs such as Audacity and create their own radio shows. Budget digital video camcorders such as those built into modern phones, coupled with YouTube and live streaming services including Twitch.tv, offer options to play online video star as well.

From fan sites to Internet gaming shows, all provide clips you can present to potential employers, and possibly even lead to jobs as a reporter, community manager or on-air TV correspondent. But to stand out, you’ll need to have a singular voice, speak loudly and have something to say that thousands of others aren’t already.

Marketers and executives lacking technical skills can always find development teams or freelancers who possess them at sites like Gamasutra, IGDA.org, GameDev.net and oDesk.com. Online vendors such as Lulu.com, CafePress, and CreateSpace can also put you in the publishing or fashion business overnight. Crowdsourced funding sites IndieGogo and Kickstarter.com even lets you present ideas to the public and request donations to get game projects off the ground.

Finally, though it’s crushingly difficult to make a viable career out of professional gaming, circuits like Major League Gaming and Virgin Gaming do reward skillful players with cash and prizes. Don’t quit your day job, however, unless you live in South Korea.

As a word to the wise, spending quality time with hundreds of games helps provide vital experience, frame of reference and an innate ability to analyze what makes successful titles so compelling. But ironically for prospective video game industry hires, with so many competing for so few coveted positions, ultimately it’s one’s willingness to work, not play that determines who gets the high score.

Expect more tips and insights soon as we report back from the floor of GDC 2014.

– Steven Alexander

About Scott Steinberg
Scott Steinberg is CEO of strategic consulting and product testing firm TechSavvy Global, and a noted keynote speaker and business expert. Hailed as a top tech expert and parenting guru by critics from USA Today to NPR, he’s also an on-air analyst for ABC, CBS and CNN.

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