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Breaking into the Video Game Industry: A AAA Perspective

by Bob Edwards on 08/08/13 03:51:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Here at Boximals Studios  we’ve been through all the ups and downs of creating, and maintaining a Startup, and would like to help others through those tenuous first few months of life. We are a mobile games startup based out of Vancouver that has just received its first round of seed capital to complete our first children’s game, Boximals ABC’s.

Breaking into the Video Game Industry: A AAA Perspective

To many, working for a AAA Video Game company is the pinnacle of their dreams in the Industry. While big names and large corporations may not be everyone’s cup of tea, there are certainly benefits for working for the big boys. Here at Boximals and Victory Square Games we may be an indie company, but we’ve also had a chance to connect with a few who work in the corporate side of things.

I was fortunate enough to be able to sit down and speak with a Network Programmer at Capcom (Who wished to remain anonymous) and Tyler Smith, a Writer working at Remedy.

Design and Programming

Q. What do you think needs to be in a portfolio to get a programming job for AAA?

A: I think a general passion for programming is a huge asset. If you don't have industry experience, get into some open source work. Your git logs can say a lot. Hobby projects also help.

Q. What sort of experience do you need to successfully apply to a big company?

A: Experience can really vary. I work with guys that managed to get in on a school internship, and have been offered jobs afterwards. More experience is always better though. Working with teams is a big asset as well.

Q. What was your career progressions to get there?

A: My path was a bit...odd. Started out as a mission scripter/designer based on the hobby work I did with Neverwinter Nights. From that I moved to programming in the same company, and have been programming since.

Q: What's the best part about working for a company like Capcom?

A: The thing I like most about working here? I work with some incredibly smart and talented people, and it's amazing to see what we can create from just an idea into something amazing and fun.

--

One of the big things to take away from this is the importance of having demonstrated work when applying to these companies. In addition to a solid portfolio, one of the big things you’ll see when applying to a AAA company is requirement of work experience in the industry. Sometimes these numbers can be pretty high, which can be quite daunting. It’s important to remember that such experience can be offset by a promising or professional looking portfolio, and by work on hobby projects. It doesn’t always need to be paid experience, unless you’re applying for a senior position.

I touched on it in my Vancouver Sun articles, but it’s also incredibly important to be able to take feedback and criticism, and understand where it’s coming from. The ultimate goal of any project is to make the best game possible, and sometimes a first pass just won’t be that. Demonstrating work with a team, even a small one, is going to go a long way when applying to a company that may utilize 20-30-50 members on a project.  Part of working on teams like that is having multiple managers or supervisors scrutinizing your work, and the industry is a small community. Having a reputation for being easy to work with and accessible to criticism is much better than the opposite. It’s not always about landing that first job, but walking away from it with good references and a positive attitude. The Game Industry can be very transitory, and it isn’t uncommon for entire teams to be laid off, and projects abandoned. A thick skin, and being able to move is also a necessary skill.

Writing - Answers by Tyler Smith

Q. Did you do any Indie writing, or straight to AAA?

A. My first actual game writing job was for a AAA title, but I think Indie writing can certainly help. The more experience you have to prove your value and your talent the better. It's also incredibly important to understand how games work, and the major differences between writing for games, a strictly interactive medium, and all other forms of writing. A lot of that comes from experience. All studios look for different qualities, and Indie writing in itself may not always be enough to attract a major studio to your work, but the knowledge that comes from it would certainly help you in an interview.

Q. What helped you get your first game writing job? Did you start doing something else, or right into writing?

A. I would say there were two things that helped me in a major way - persistence and a decent portfolio.

I was fortunate in that when the studio was hiring I had recently been a finalist in a couple of the major screenwriting competitions in North America. I had spent a lot of time writing my own projects, honing my craft, and I had various movie and TV screenplay samples that were in the sci-fi, adventure, and action genres. When a studio is looking for a writer they're looking for proof that the writer can write the kind of stories they want to tell, so the more polished samples you have, the more you have in your arsenal when the opportunity emerges.

However, having good samples or contest placings or writing credits doesn't get you a job if nobody knows who the hell you are. Several writers I've talked to in the industry got their job because they knew somebody in the industry. I didn't have that luxury, so I tried a different networking approach and approached various studios and let them know that I was a writer who was looking for advice on how to get a job in the industry. That didn't get me a job, but it got me a few contacts within the industry, and helped me find out when companies were looking for writers. Those contacts helped me find out about the opening for my first interview, and my writing samples and knowledge and passion for games got me the job.

My first job for a game company was writing. I know people who have tried to get a writing position by first getting a position in the studio doing something else and working their way up, and sometimes that works, but it's a very hard path to take. Working in games can be long hours, and it's very easy to get so involved in any position that you spend very little time actually writing in your spare time. As a writer, I think if you're trying to break in then you should try to have a job that allows you to continue writing.

Q. What advice do you have for someone trying to break into the game writing environment?

A. Writing for AAA games can be a tough path because there are only so many games being made with a large enough scope to require a full-time writer. But if you are passionate enough about games, then I think it's an incredibly rewarding career path in a medium that is becoming more and more focused on telling engaging and original stories.

My advice would be that it is important to have a knowledge of games, a love for games, and a love for writing, but many people feel like that in itself is enough. It's not. Writers need to write. Before you apply for jobs in the industry, you need to have the necessary skills to tell a compelling story, and the proof that you can do so. That comes with practice.

AAA games are becoming more and more cinematic in quality, and as such the studios are looking more and more for people with experience or talent in writing cinematic stories, and less and less in design knowledge. After all, it's much easier to teach a good writer how to use the necessary game tools than it is to teach somebody with design knowledge to write a movie-quality game script. The more time you devote to actually becoming a good writer, the better you will do. At the end of the day, it is your craft as a writer that will help you get jobs and keep getting jobs.

If you're trying to break in, and this goes for any writing job, then make sure you have a job and lifestyle that allows you to continue writing. Hone your craft. Write things that you enjoy writing, and write every day. And when you feel like you have writing samples that properly represent you as a writer then push your way through the front door. Go to game conferences to meet people, email people, be polite and ask simple questions, mention that you're trying to get into the industry and you'll be surprised how many people are willing to help. After that, it just comes down to finding a studio and a project that is a good fit for your talent.

--

There are a few big things to take out of this for the aspiring writer. The first is an understanding of the video game format, and how different it is than traditional script or novel writing. As an interactive element, game writing requires a completely different way of thinking and approaching the script. While it may seem like scope won’t be as big of a problem for a game writer compared to a TV or Film writer, in many ways the opposite is true. Big set pieces can be incredibly complex to design and execute, it’s better to show that you have an understanding of things like dialogue trees and player interaction. Don’t write a script like a film or TV show. That isn’t taking advantage of the medium, and won’t show that you understand it.

While Tyler didn’t work for an indie company, there is an option, but a difficult one to take. Many indie companies don’t really actively hire writers as they prefer having someone who can both design and writer at the same time. Finding truly independent projects (which probably won’t pay) is the best way to start creating a portfolio of experience to use. Writing is a very tough nuts, and one of the things mentioned above is entering screenwriting competitions as a form of portfolio work. Writing accolades certainly won’t hurt, but it also means finely developing a totally separate set of skills compared to typical game writing.

It’s thrown around a lot for film and television writing, and the same applies to game writing: Who you know really helps. Game Journalism is difficult to transition out of into creative writing, but working for a site does help creation incredibly useful contacts, as well as helping with the portfolio aspect. Working in the industry, even not in a creative role, can also help to demonstrate that knowledge of how games are designed.

The best advice that can be offered is keep writing. You learn from constantly writing, and will get better, like any skill.

Conclusion

While Writing and Programming/Design may seem like entirely different fields in game design, there are many similarities when aspiring to break into the game industry. While writers may work slightly more independently, the same need for knowing how to work in teams, and take criticism is tantamount. One of the major things screenwriting schools focus on is work-shopping projects, and learning how to take the good advice from the bad.

The biggest advantage you can have when attempting to break into the AAA Industry is that of a portfolio that really shines. This may seem like an obvious thing, but it’s important that every item demonstrates the best ability. You’re applying to a corporate entity that is going to want only the best and brightest to work for them. Don’t submit something that’s one of your first attempts to show how you can grow. Present professional looking work, on all levels, look at what they’re asking for in the job application and make sure you match that to the letter. Independent work, like what we’re doing here at Victory Square Games, or any number of other Indie companies, is a great ring on the ladder of climbing to a AAA company. If you think wasting your time making levels in Minecraft or Neverwinter Nights, you’re wrong.

The work is long, and hard, but also rewarding. Working for AAA, and on big projects, is an amazing achievement, and one to strive for.


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