I've received many emails over the months from people who are fans of our games and would like to join up with our team. Most of these emails have been ill conceived. Even though we’re not hiring anyone at the moment, I would like to give some advice about applying to work with us or any other indie developer.
1 - You'll work for free is a terrible sales pitch. We make games and then we sell them. If you’re reliable, skilled, and do good work for us, then you should get paid for it. And if you aren’t, then we don’t want to babysit you. Besides, making video games is hard work. Someone who isn’t getting paid for their work is much more likely to flake out when the fun part of game development is done and the work part has begun.
Now that is not to say that I would be opposed to trying someone promising out on a probational period as an unpaid intern for a month or two with the expectation that we'll hire them full-time after the time is up if everything works out, but ideally, I would prefer to avoid even that and just hire someone qualified right off the bat.
2 - The smaller the company, the more important each hire is. This is even more important for companies where everyone works from home. My company, Zeboyd Games, is currently a two-man operation (plus a couple other individuals that have worked with us on a game by game basis as contractors). That means that if and when we do decide that we want to increase our company size, we’re going to be as strict as possible with the hiring process. A hastily typed email with half a dozen typos isn’t going to cut it. A well written cover letter, resume, references, and portfolio of previous projects are all absolutely required.
3 – Saying “I have a bunch of great game ideas” is the worst possible thing you could say if you want to get hired. Indie game companies are never looking for lead designers. Why? Because generally the reason an indie game company was formed in the first place was because a designer wanted to make their own games! Why on earth would I want to hire someone so that they could take away the most enjoyable part of my own job? Not to mention the fact that during the course of making just one game, we inevitably come up with dozens of great ideas for other games. The last thing we need is more ideas – we don’t have enough time to take advantage of the ideas we already have!
Incidentally, this is why I have no qualms with sharing some of the game ideas I have publicly on twitter and our website - if someone steals one of my ideas and makes a good game out of it, then I get to play it without having to go to the trouble of making it myself!
If you have great ideas and want to turn those ideas into actual games, you have two options – create your own indie company or rise up through the ranks of an existing company. Unless you’ve got insane luck, nobody is going to hire you as a designer right off the bat.
4 – Indie companies aren’t looking for writers. A lot of the big companies with hundreds of employees don’t even bother to hire a writer. Do you think an indie game company with only a handful of people can afford to devote an entire person just to writing? The simple truth of the matter is that unless you’re making a visual novel, writing dialogue and plot is a relatively small amount of the workload in making a game. That’s not to say writing isn’t important (it’s crucial to most RPGs), just to say that it doesn’t require a dedicated person in most cases (hopefully, one of your programmers or artists is also good at writing).
5 – Graphics and code are the core elements needed in just about every video game. As a result, skilled artists and programmers are generally what companies (both indie and otherwise) are most looking for. Other jobs like composer and level designer can be important depending on the project, but good programmers and artists are always in demand. Indie game companies need people who will actually get down to work and MAKE games - not people who just want to talk about them.
6 - Indie game developers tend to have small budgets. Bigger companies can afford to hire someone just because they're awesome even if they don't actually need them at the moment. Indie game companies rarely have that luxury. If an indie game company isn't actually saying that they're looking for someone at the moment, chances are applying for a job with them is an exercise in frustration.
So if I was hiring at the moment (we're not, though there's a good chance we will next year), what would I be looking for?
1 - A strong portfolio. Doesn't need to be filled with impressive credits from AAA productions, but we need to have some way of judging your talent and to see that you can finish projects.
2 - Reliable. We need to be able to count on you to keep us up-to-date on your progress and not drag everyone else down by disappearing when we need you most.
3 - Good communication. Most indie developers don't work together in person so strong communication skills are even more important than usual.
4 - A meaningful contribution to the team. For example, if we already had one programmer or artist on our team and we wanted to hire another, ideally, the new hire would be strong in an area that our existing member wasn't.