The games industry seems like a fun place to work, worth $150 billion each year, creative, challenging, sociable… Who wouldn’t want a career here?
It’s not, however, without its challenges, and jobseekers and newcomers need all the encouragement they can get. Not every indie studio is a success, creative work does not always lead to commercial success, and traditional routes into the big companies (QA for instance) aren’t necessarily the best entry points. That’s before you consider systemic issues like toxic workplaces or over-work.
There isn’t one clear route through a life in games development. Everybody has their own story. During Pocket Gamer Connects Digital #2 last month we heard from insiders Melissa Phillips (Head of Studio, Silver Rain Games), Leanne Peppiatt (PR & Events Manager, Splash Damage), Sandro Manfredini (Partner Business Director, Aquiris Game Studio) and Des Gayle (Production Manager, Fellow Traveller). Their panel “Inspiring the Next Generation of Talents” delivered valuable insight into building a career in this business. This quartet took to the virtual stage to ask: where are the new game makers coming from, and what lessons can we share to help them?
It was a popular and important panel, and could have gone on for hours. There wasn’t enough time to answer all the questions from the audience! So the group kindly agreed to follow up after the conference and provide additional feedback to a few more submitted questions…
As most (should I say all?) job announcements ask for a lot of experience and skills, how can a person with no game development experience – but with other skills – or a freshly graduated student keep themselves motivated and inspired?
Des Gayle: Keep making stuff, having fun with it and putting yourself out there. Social media has made networking a lot easier these days, so if you are in the right places, a lot of companies will find you.
I am more impressed by a good portfolio that shows off skills than someone who’s shipped a game but sends no proof
Melissa Phillips: The important thing is to know your strengths – what are you genuinely good at and how can you show that in your application?
Most university courses now include modules that result in a finished game demo – where are you hosting that? Can you link to it? Show screenshots? Highlight which parts were your work? Have you completed a game jam? Where can I see that project? Have you made a game and not shipped it? Where can I see that?
If I’m looking to hire someone, I am more impressed by a good portfolio that shows off their skills than someone who has shipped a game but sends me no proof. I am constantly surprised by the lack of content people will send when applying – if you are an artist with no art then how can I possibly make a decision about whether you’ll be able to work in the studio?
Some of the best portfolios I’ve seen from graduates are those who build a web resource that lists and links to all of their projects to date. I also love ArtStation links for artists (but make sure you have a wide range of work to show, all the way up from the beginning ideas of a project to finished pieces). I’d rather see a number of sketches around your entire process than one to three pieces of finished work.
Sandro Manfredini: In general, I usually recommend getting involved with game jams to create networking and test or improve your skills. Also, if you have an IGDA chapter close to you, it’s a good way to get acquainted with some professionals that can help you get your first job opportunity.
Leanne Peppiatt: Having a portfolio is key, especially for game designers and artists. You are competing with a lot of graduates nowadays and even with those who already have established careers in other industries, so you need to make sure your portfolio stands out and is the best you can do.
If you don’t have any experience you can start building content with the tools around you. Consider creating coding or art projects from online resources. Also build your personal brand by participating in podcasts, YouTube videos, or even creating your channel, as this shows initiative and passion for the industry even if you have a small following.
If you don’t have experience you can start building content with the tools around you. Consider creating art projects from online resources
Having your own website is a great way to showcase a portfolio. There are tons of accessible online courses now that can support you with this and Udemy is a good place to start.
Going to local game jams or those potentially run at your university can be incredibly useful, as not only will you get to experience building a game from start to finish and show that you can see a project through, but you’ll also get to meet and be around other fresh designers too.
There are also lots of organisations like Girls Who Code and Access: VFX that support people by putting on networking events, offer mentoring opportunities and coding academies. So, go check these out.
Networking is invaluable and if you can get to them, take advantage of events like EGX Rezzed where you can meet developers and find out more about what it takes to be where they are. Do consider reaching out to those already in the industry on places like LinkedIn – so many people have found a way into a studio by building their own brand and creating a solid network.
As someone who just finished his first year of a Computer Science With Games Development course, do you have any tips for me on which skills I should be developing during the rest of my studies to be more in sync with and ready for the industry?
Des Gayle: At this stage, I would say creativity and flexibility in your programming skills. After that, communication skills and being able to work as part of a team.
Melissa Phillips: I think we can often put too much pressure on ourselves to try and be everything in a studio. Whilst the industry can be very competitive there is a huge difference between the work of someone who is trying to learn everything and someone who has honed and trained in a skill because that is their interest. I’d follow what you enjoy most about game design and see how you can improve in that area.
Being resilient is one of the hardest things but ensuring you have the skills needed to move forwards is worth investing in
The thing we don’t talk about enough is the amount of rejection that we can go through when we start to put ourselves forwards for roles. You might have all the skills and training needed and still not get the job. This is frustrating but it’s how you deal with this that will dictate where you go next in the industry. I speak to a lot of graduates currently trying to land their first job and often they don’t realise just how well they are doing, because they are focused on rejection.
Did you submit an application? You’re doing great. Did you get any sort of a response or interview? You’re doing great. Did you make it through to any next round? You’re doing great. Are you still continuing to make games, participate in game events and meeting new people along the way? You’re doing great.
Being resilient is one of the hardest things to learn because the fear of rejection or not achieving can be painful but ensuring you have the skills needed to move forwards and onto your next application is well worth investing in. Ensuring you are looking after your personal life is just as important as your career. Making sure you have a good support network of people you trust is essential and taking some time out for self-care when you notice you are struggling.
What if you greatly struggle with socializing, don’t have the ‘correct personality’, or at best can only be polite? The panel talked about looking for people less for what they’re capable of and more what sort of person they are, so in an interview, if you weren’t the correct sort of person…
Leanne Peppiatt: The truth is you never stop learning how to be a better communicator. Presentation skills are always going to be crucial no matter your role. Even when you get to the most senior positions you will have to spend a certain amount of time learning, improving and thinking about how to communicate well.
The best way to get confident at it is to practice, so if you land an interview, get a friend to ask you questions and record yourself answering. Read up on soft skills like body language and assertive communication. Also remember that your unique perspective on perhaps being on the more introverted side is a bonus in the workplace, so don’t ever feel like you have to fit a certain mould.
Sandro Manfredini: If you’re too shy or get nervous in 1:1 conversations, my recommendation is to give a heads up about your feelings and make sure you’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate your skills. More than ever, remote work is becoming acceptable. So if you prefer not to get too much involved with the team, there may be a lot more opportunities nowadays.
Des Gayle: If you make it to an interview that means that the company has seen something in your CV. Whilst you will have to learn some interpersonal skills, it is also the responsibility of the interviewer to have the right skills to draw the information that they need out of you.
If you make it to an interview that means that the company has seen something in your CV
Melissa Phillips: I think it’s important to stress that we have a long way to go in changing our industry culture. Whilst social skills can be important in supporting teamwork, when we talk about “bad behaviour” we are referring to toxic cultures that have been allowed to continue in studios without any interruption from management. These are relationships that are abusive and result in bullying and harassment – and can often be the result of just one person or a number of people who are enabling this behaviour to continue.
Whilst there is a darker side in regards to the recent #MeToo allegations that we must address as an industry, my experience has often seen game design as a safe space for a diverse range of people. The recent lockdown from COVID-19 has also forced an interesting change in events and studio pipelines that has seen networking and daily teams having to work remotely online.
For me, I value spaces where people are able to speak freely and fairly, constructively to help support their team. Something I really admire in my colleagues has been a flexibility to learn new things and remain open to working around a problem in an open and supportive manner. I think how you treat people is important in any career and we should put more value on that than personality types.
As Brazil is quite new in game development, and I imagine the government support is limited, how can new companies bootstrap? Or can they survive the development of their first game?
Sandro Manfredini: We’ve seen most cases of new companies funded by family-and-friends investments, part-time jobs, or work-for-hire projects, to fund an authorial game. The family-and-friends here sometimes mean that the team of students lives in their parent houses and is supported by them, so they don’t have proper costs to keep developing a project.
Having a couple of games released and some accumulated experience, you can try some publishers to [get support for] your next project. Global Game Jams’ meaningful awards can also impact your pitch for investments.
If you have experienced the indie life, what’s the best advice you can offer somebody launching their own project or studio?
Sandro Manfredini: Share as much as possible about your project and as early as possible. We created a community around our title, Horizon Chase, with a Tumblr (first post) sharing what were our inspirations, work in progress, and so on. Put energy on the marketing side in all the ways you can: press, events, influencers, festivals, awards, and so on.
Share as much as possible about your project and as early as possible
Des Gayle: If you have no funding, take your time and start building a proof of concept/prototype in your spare time whilst you have a job. This isn’t really something you want to go “all in” on.
Melissa Phillips: Experience is key – launching a studio is so much more than just making games. There’s financing, staffing, contractual agreements, and a bunch of legal requirements that all need to be organised before you even begin work on a project. If you don’t have these skills then make sure you hire someone who does.
If you are doing a smaller project for the first time by yourself then my advice is to complete it. Whatever form it’s in – just get it done, add it to your portfolio, and move forwards. It’s hard for new talent to get spotted, but it’s even harder if they have nothing in their portfolio to show.
There is a lot of talk about crunch culture in the games industry. Many companies are trying to address that these days. What advice do you have about maintaining a healthy work-life balance?
Leanne Peppiatt: The industry is changing massively and is recognising that this is something that isn’t sustainable. My advice would be that, if you go for an interview, be sure to ask about the studio culture.
Do they have a breakout space for you to relax in? How flexible are their working hours and do they carve in time for people to socialise and attend events or training during the working day? Getting answers to questions like this will quickly let you know if a studio is putting their people first and encouraging a healthy work-life balance.
Melissa Phillips: Right now, if you’re managing to turn up, work and get tasks done, then you’re doing amazing. The lockdown has been hugely difficult for a lot of people and played havoc on mental health in studios. For me, the weirdest part was that our everyday work life didn’t change much (as we were already remote) – so we’d go and do our tasks and then get hit by the reality of what was going on in the world.
Ask the people in charge why you are crunching, how long you are crunching for, and what success should look like at the end
I’m a huge fan of mindfulness and I always begin my day by sitting down and planning the day ahead. Previously I would just throw myself into the day and wildly put out fires until it was time to stop, missing lunch and often working overtime. Since I started at Silver Rain, I’ve been trying to introduce some healthier work habits for myself – planning daily, regular breaks (who knew online meetings would be so draining?) and exercising have all been the obvious things. The biggest change though has been to my sleep – getting a better evening routine is something I’m still working on as I’ve found I’m so much happier if I’m getting regular sleep.
I’d love to see more companies encourage healthier work practices. It’s especially important at the moment to be more flexible and encourage colleagues to focus on self-care.
Des Gayle: In general, try to get enough sleep and have some sort of a network outside of your work colleagues. If you ever have to crunch, don’t be afraid to “manage up” and ask the people in charge why you are crunching, how long you are crunching for, and what success should look like at the end of the crunch period. If they can’t answer any of these questions, then you are in for a rough ride.
What one piece of encouragement would you give to somebody just starting out in the games industry?
Sandro Manfredini: There never has been such lower barriers to get into the game industry. If you have the talent, passion, and hard work, you have a big chance of succeeding in five to 10 years.
Melissa Phillips: Take your time. Everyone’s journey is different, so don’t put so much pressure on yourself to do everything at once.
Never stop reading, going to events, developing your network or keeping up with the industry developments
Leanne Peppiatt: My advice is to stick with it even if your first role in the industry isn’t the one you want, because whatever you learn will be invaluable as you work your way through your own career pipeline in the industry.
Don’t take your eye off your personal wider goals once you find yourself in your first role, though; it takes discipline to keep your career moving in the way you want. Never stop reading, going to tech events, developing your network, or keeping up with the latest developments in the industry.
There is definitely a buzz and sense of opportunity in the games industry that you won’t find in many other places, and you will always be on a journey with your career, so keep learning and stay in tune with what motivates you.
Thanks to all our panelists for participating in the online chat and then taking the time to follow up with these answers.
The next online Pocket Gamer Connects conference will take place in September, 14-18, replacing our traditional Helsinki event. Register now for more insight like this. For those looking to advance their career in the games industry, look out for further dedicated Careers Week activities.