Thankfully this is a question I don’t get asked as much as I used to, however it’s still a very common question to get asked when meeting new people and discussing jobs, students and even young children (or parents on behalf of their children). I do wonder if the air of mystery when it comes to the games industry is something that has truly broken over the last decade, or its just from working as a part of if I’m not in touch with an outsider’s perspective any more, but to answer the question I wanted to talk about how I got started and how today (and even back then) it wasn’t the only way but with the advent of so many gaming based courses in universities it’s important that as many people as possible know the options.
I did flip flop a fair bit about calling this article ”how I got into the games industry” but aside from that seemingly a little self serving I want this article to be a little self serving and generally as informative as possible while referring to my history, or rather the beginning of it. At the time of writing I’m 32, so as I approach working in the games industry for a decade keep in mind that when I say things like ‘when I first got into the industry’ it really wasted that long ago and while most of the interesting stuff had happened when it comes to the evolution of gaming (the jump to 3D, texture maps, analog controls, internal hard drives and online systems) when it comes to education for preparation or training to go into the games industry as a profession there wasn’t really anything like there it now.. or even by the time I left university.
I suppose the most obvious question to jump into is what do I need to do to get into games? Well… it may be obvious (and I’ve heard it alot!) it’s not simple to answer. Any question like that begs the counter question ‘What do you want to do in games?’ Do you want to code, animate, draw, design, direct, produce (I’m not sure how many people actually go into this wanting to produce, but it’s a natural outcome for many as they evolve their skills) There are many areas to work in that make up a production team for a game and that’s the big difference between the generally 2 types of people who have asked me the big question. The students who know what they want to do and need a direction to walk in to start and the other who have asked because they play games and want to make them with a much lesser understanding on what they would actually do. I don’t want to invalidate the latter because even an avid game with tenacity and a good eye for detail could be a strong QA Tester and learn and/or plan their next step from there. QA in general is a perfectly normal springboard into other parts of game development, a foot in the door in the same way as a ‘runner’ (person who literally runs around the office seeing to others needs) might be in the movie/TV industry.
So let’s break down some of the options here; should you go to University? You can and I did however my degree was in Animation and it taught me the bare minimum of skills I needed to get a job in animation. What got me my first job where skills I learned on the side, from other students with different knowledge bases. There are now many more video game based courses, and while I can’t speak for how effective they are I usually say generalised courses are going to teach you a much wider range of skills which you can improve upon yourself in your own time. I believe that for the younger persona University is a life experience and not just an educational journey, also in the UK now there’s a much bigger expense that goes along with the costs of attending University and the loans you’ll be paying off for the a large portion of your life.
It’s perfectly possible however to get into the games industry without having any formal education in any particular area. While I believe that should be fairly common knowledge it never seems to feel like it, just do more of what you love.. if your an artist do more art, develop your portfolios. If you want to program then it’s perfectly possible to teach yourself and do what you need to apply for jobs. Try and find hobby projects to work up, or gamer mods, it’s a smart way to work on things you love and learn at the same time. The indie games scene has expanded so much over the last decade and with a near level of oversaturation it does make it easier if your looking to find projects for yourself.
I still consider myself lucky in getting my first full time position Frontier Developments after leaving University (The studio that brought you Kinectimals, Elite Dangerous, Planet Coaster) To which I applied as an animator after leaving university and i had a reply from them around 2 months later on. My Animation skills weren’t overly impressive but I had rigged many of the characters in my showreel I’d provided which prompted them to invite me for an interview on-site for a rigging position (Which in games would be placing virtual bones inside 3D models for animation, generally known under the Technical Animation field). I got the job and that’s how I started but even if I hadn’t I’d been working on my own projects at home to keep my skills sharp and learn new things to update my portfolio with. I wanted a job in games and took every opportunity to apply for one, each time with a new set of skills and update showreels and portfolios of work.
Even then I imagine there was a big element of ‘right place, right time’ luck on my part, as well as a willingness to settle for a job I wasn’t sure I wanted to do, but there was talk in my interview of eventually moving onto other things. But in my case I eventually started to really enjoy the technical animation field and I’ve been mostly kept within that ever since doing other areas like general animation outside of my main job for fun.
Summing up if you know what you want to do then practice and apply for jobs, ask for feedback on your work and in interviews when you get them. Join facebook, reddit and discord groups to discuss your work and help critique others as it’s all helpful. These are all resources that are still fairly recent and even I didn’t have a mere decade ago so use them. If your not computer programing orart minded but still want to work in games there’s nothing stopping you either. People have made transitions into the industry from a variety of backgrounds, personally I know people who were previously Police Officers, Librarians and Zoo keepers.. there’s still a lot of transferable skills and even then consider the many, many positions that a professional company needs to function; Managers, Human Resources, Producers, Finance Officers, QA, Server engineers etc
I know this hasn’t be a 100% guide to what you need to do, but I hope it’s helped in some way, I’m always happy to review work, give feedback or answer questions on this as I know so many people I studied with who never got their dream jobs. In this era there’s so many people for so few jobs so the competition is high, but I’d hope if you’re reading this your looking to beat it.