Over time, I’ve had several people ask me about how to get into the games industry. Is it hard? What does one do?

What follows isn’t a complete cookbook by any stretch. This is more meant to be a general guide, which hopefully will help some people get into a very fun (but very challenging!) industry.

Career Path
I’ve heard many people say that QA (quality assurance, AKA testing) is a good starting point for games. I’d disagree. QA can be a great career choice, and I’ve known some very talented QA testers, leads, and managers. They have their own specializations, just like any other department in a company. There are localization testers, submission/compliance testers (who make sure that Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, and so on will accept your product), managers who create test plans, people who are great at finding dialog issues, UI testers, and many, many more.

My point here is that if you want to work in QA, you can have a long and successful career at it. However, it’s hard work! Just like any other part of creating games, QA work can be stressful and difficult.

While people are transferred from QA to other departments, this can have a few issues you should be aware of. For example: if you are good at your QA job, your company might just want to keep you as a QA employee!

Now, instead of working to get a job in QA on the expectation that you could put in for a transfer later, a better approach may be to contact the company of your choice, and explain that you have little experience with the games industry. That way, you can say up front that you are aiming for a career in programming/design/production/art/sound/whatever, but that you would like to put in a session or two in QA to assist in current game testing (good for the company) and to help show you how games are made (good for your personal development).

What job to aim for
When looking at job postings, nearly all make mention of various requirements, such as 3 years in the industry, a shipped title, or so on, leading to the chicken and egg problem of “if I need experience to get a low level job, how do I get a low level job to get said experience?”

The first thing that you should understand as a job seeker is that when a job is posted, the posting is shooting for an ideal. Of course a company wants to hire someone who’s already got experience, a degree, and has shipped 5 AAA quality games. But ideals rarely happen. So going for a job you don’t quite qualify for is perfectly acceptable.

The next thing is that many workplaces accept and admire the desire for self improvement. If you are honest with the employer (“I don’t know 3D math very well yet, but I would like to develop into this role that needs it”, “I’ve been working on texturing, but I’m still slow at it. I hope to improve with time and want to learn from others at your company”), they may be perfectly happy to help build you into the role. In fact, some companies prefer to build employees into roles, because when they’re done, they have an employee who does things exactly as the company wants them done.

Finally, remember that a job posting is just ink on a page, or text on a screen. It sets out several standards that you will be measured against. In some areas, you will meet those standards, in others, you may fall short. And it still others, you may far exceed expectations. You are an individual, with skills and talents obviously not listed on a generic job posting. Show those skills, explain those talents, and be willing to admit where you need to improve yourself, and you will shine out among candidates aiming for the job posting you’re applying to.

Should I get a specialty games degree?
There is often a large debate about whether game degrees are better or worse than a standard computer science degree (this is mostly for programmers – insert appropriate degree program for your field here). Some schools are well known, some not so well known. Some people have bad experiences with current or former employees who went to specialty schools, while others have nothing but good things to say about such people.

In the end, I would say that a standard computer science degree will serve you well in many fields, not just games, whereas a games degree may not be as respected outside the games industry. The standard degree forms a sort of safety net that can sustain you if you ever decide to leave the games industry, or if you’re just having trouble finding a job in games. The standard degree will also teach you many things that are required for games development, though naturally it won’t focus your learning the way a games degree will.

If you have the option, getting a standard degree first, followed by a specialization in games, or getting a games Associate of Science/Art degree in addition to a Bachelor’s of Science/Art in your primary degree field, would be ideal. This would give you the security of the standard degree, as well as a wide range of knowledge, and it would inject the games-specific learning that will help you get a job in the industry.

I’ve personally known many people with standard degrees, and others with game-school degrees or game-specific degrees from normal universities. Each group has been successful in the games industry. And, to be honest, each has been somewhat envious of the other on occasion.

Developing a demo of your work
One thing I would emphasize for any aspiring employee is to create a demonstration of your work. For artists, this can be a CD or DVD of your work, or a website showing off some of your pieces. For programmers, a demo program – maybe something simple but complete, like a game of Asteroids with a main menu, high scores, and so on, or something small, but showing off a special skill, like Tic-Tac-Toe with network play. For designers, maps created in game engines such as for Portal, NeverWinter Nights, or Doom. For QA, create a test plan for a game you enjoy playing, showing how you would go about finding bugs, stress testing the environment, and so on.

A demo shows a few things to your employer. First off, it shows passion for and skill in your work. I won’t say that passion and skill make you an instant hire, but it definitely shows that you already like doing the job that they’re thinking about hiring you for – always a good thing! Secondly, the demo shows that you have the dedication to see a project through to the end. And, finally, a demo can be tailored to the job/company you are applying to, which is always impressive and makes you stand out.

In conclusion…
Working in the games industry can be a fun and rewarding career choice. There are many fields you can specialize in, from programming to QA, production to design, sound to art, and music to writing. Within those fields, there are a wide variety of sub-categories for you to further your personal development. There are also a number of crossover fields where people who can speak the “language” of two different groups can be key to a company’s success – art techs, design techs, designers with Max or Maya skills, and so on are all very valuable employees.

It’s not all fun and games, and you should be prepared for hard work, difficult choices, and even having your work lost at times because of higher-level decisions that move the development away from where you were working. However, it is rewarding, and a lot of fun. There are a lot of great people working in games, and more are joining in all the time.