Getting into the game industry can take a lot of work, and there's nothing quite like your first job in games. So, for a touch of nostagia, and a look at the whole process of breaking into the industry, the latest Question of the Week asked of our audience of game professionals: "How did you get your start in the video game industry?"
Illustration by Erin Mehlos
How I Got Started in the Video Game Industry
There was a lot of different paths our respondents took in getting into the industry. Some started in QA, some made the rare transition from a related industry, while others just fell into their career. But all of those surveyed exhibited a great deal of passion and love for the industry, as well as a fair bit of perserverance and determination.
While I was an MIT undergrad, a couple of my closest friends were co-founders of Infocom in 1979. Zork, which they had hacked together in 1977 on mainframes at the MIT Lab for Computer Science, was going to be launched on the TRS-80 and Apple II, and they needed someone to playtest it. Because I had avoided playing Zork up to that point (I feared getting sucked into a time sink), I was the only friend they had who was able to play as a "newbie." So, starting in December 1979, I was paid to play Zork. I quickly fell in love with it, and would happily have continued playing for nothing (though I was careful not to tell anyone that!). I ended up at Infocom throughout the 1980s, co-founded Boffo Games with Steve Meretzky in the early '90s, and I've been at Harmonix since 1997.
-Michael Dornbrook, Harmonix Music Systems
A friend of a friend was setting up a new games studio, and was looking for people who could program in 68000 assembler. So I read a 68000 assembler book on the way to the interview, and got the job. Before that I'd only worked in a business environment, using things like SQL queries, PowerHouse, Lotus 1-2-3 macros, and done a bit of 6502 assembler at home, so it was a massive change for me, but I'm glad I stuck with it, even after 12 years.
At age 13, I wrote board games for a few major companies and played with the school's new computer system in BASIC. Soon I was writing simulations and games and the principal asked me to teach a computer course while in high school. In 1982, I bought my first computer, an Apple 2 with 48K and 4 colors in 6502 assembler and Pascal. From there I wrote several games and in 1983 I was writing games for book publishers in C ("Buy 30 books and get a free Apple game related to the book's topic"). In 1984, I freelanced for Gametek and for 3 years my team developed 2 games a month for 3 systems; the IBM PC, the Apple and the Commodore 64/128. Now, I teach students at night at NYU and Bloomfield College (NJ), as well as on the Internet and tell them that proving yourself is the key to getting into the gaming industry.
-Roger E Pedersen, PSI Software
I made my own game and tried to sell it but it ended up getting me a job instead.
-Paul Im, The Collective
I started programming because I wanted to make my own computer games. In college, I majored in Computer Science and started looking for game companies. In the spring semester of 2000, one of my mother's co-workers mentioned that a company called Stardock was looking for summer interns; she was a friend of one of Stardock's lawyers, and she knew that I wanted to program computer games. Unbelievably, Stardock was (at the time) only a little more than a mile from my parents' house. I got the internship, and when I graduated in December, I was hired full time. I've been here at Stardock ever since.
-Cari Begle, Stardock
I started out as a tester for LucasArts. My brother, who worked there as a programmer, helped get me an interview. I interviewed and tested well but it was two months from the time of the first email I received from them until I was offered a job. I received the call two days before Christmas and I'll never forget it. Almost 7 years later and 14 credited games under my belt, I can't help but thank LucaArts for the opportunities they gave me. I've really benefited from working there.
-Bryan Erck, Shiny
I applied to Looking Glass Studios for a texture artist position. In order to show of my texture work, I made a small level in the Unreal Engine featuring all my textures. The people at Looking Glass liked my level so much they offered me a job as level designer on System Shock 2. I've been a game designer ever since!
-Scott Blinn, High Moon Studios
Well I obviously took the best way... I started my own company! My company is a fully legal entity (LLC in California) and comes with all the potential headaches as opposed to a group of people just getting together and saying "we are a company". However I would not suggest that as the preferred way to get in. My suggestion is to network as much as possible. In addition, to that you can either try to get a QA job and work your way up, or you can try the mod route where a group of friends makes a great mod and gets a lot of hype for it, which in turn really does generate opportunities.
-Mark Warner, Nexus Entertainment
On Christmas morning, 1978, I received an Atari 2600. After years and countless hours playing the games for the 2600, and obsessively recording my marathon Asteroids, Pac-Man, and Missile Command sessions (on cassette tape, then replaying it fast forward for maximum aural overload), I vowed in a speech delivered in 4th grade that I would someday work at Atari Games as a game developer (one of those “what will you be doing in 10 years” assignments). In 1993, I kept that vow, landing at Atari Games Corp. working on the Primal Rage arcade project. Today I'm still as bright-eyed as I was on my first day on the job, and am as excited to be developing video games for a living as I was opening that fateful present on Christmas morning, 1978.
-Stephen Riesenberger, Electronic Arts - Redwood Shores
I got my start as a game tester at Virgin Interactive Entertainment.
-Tim Ramage, Vivendi Universal Games
I started as a temporary tester for Sony's third-party QA division. I was hired during a lull, so my first two weeks consisted of sitting around playing various PS2 games. I thought I had found the perfect job! Of course, once the honeymoon was over I learned the realities of game QA and being at the bottom of the totem pole, but it was a great start!
-Johnnemann Nordhagen, SCEA
Today I am a game designer/producer, but my career in the video game industry started very differently: one English summer day in 1991, at the tender age of 17, I was wandering the streets of London on my lunch break from Kingsway Graphic Design College ( Farringdon Lane , EC1). At the time, the Commodore Amiga was all the rage in the UK . My favorite Amiga games magazine was The One, and as always, I had the latest issue on me, in my inside coat pocket. Suddenly, I was hit with a vision of something quite magnificently shocking: the offices of EMAP Images; the creators of The One. I was in awe. To think that the flurry of the excitement and bustle that surrounded the latest and greatest games was happening at that very moment, behind the tall golden doors that stood before me. At that moment I had two choices:
1. Continue about my day with the warm thought that EMAP Images, one of the video game industry's magazine publishing heavy hitters is but yards from my college. Pretty sweet!
2. Go in and ask for a job. Hmm, that is a bit scary!
To be honest, it didn't take but a split second to decide. I don't think option 1 was really ever a valid option. I took my copy of The One out from my pocket and looked up the editor's name. Until that moment, I wasn't really concerned with who made the magazine; I was more interested in the games they reported on. The magazine had Ciaran Brennan listed as the editor. I put my magazine away, and went into the building. I was greeted by a friendly receptionist. I asked to speak to Ciaran Brennan, regarding a job. She called him on the phone, and to my surprise, she then said that he'd be right down. What? I didn't expect that! A few moments later a very tall Irish man came bounding down the stairs (striding at least two steps at a time). He asked what I wanted, and I asked if there were any vacancies for staff writer. He said I should write some reviews of my favorite games and send them in. I did just that, and to my amazement received an offer letter for a job a week later. The pay was low, but the opportunity was priceless. It pays to take risks, even if the pay is low. :)
-Jools Watsham, KingsIsle Entertainment, Inc.
After earning a CS degree in college, I wanted a game job, bad. I wrote to every developer I'd ever heard of, and many I hadn't. The job I ended up with (and the only offer I received) I found through Monster.com. The company? EA.
During my time in school, I made sure to establish good and professional relationships with my game industry instructors. I felt it was important to be sincere in this manner so I when I asked letters of recommendation, I would get equally sincere letters. For 9 months after graduating from an art school I visited Gamasutra jobs every day, read through requirements, updated my resume, networked at IGDA meetings, and applied to every job I reasonably qualified for. In the end I got lucky and was hired pretty much out of the blue. I'm still not sure how I got my job.
-Nat Loh, Toys For Bob
Back in 1997, a friend of mine at university got involved in Sony's Net Yaroze program and developed a simple 2D game for a magazine competition. I was blown away by the fact that someone I knew had actually written a videogame and bought myself a Yaroze to follow in his footsteps. Six months later I had my head around the basics of programming and had written a simple 2D game for the PlayStation. I entered a similar amateur competition the following year. I didn't win (or come close) but I was invited to the awards ceremony where I got to meet several of my gaming heroes. A trip to the ECTS trade show later that year cemented my gaming industry ambitions and I set about job-hunting in earnest during my final year at university. One of my many on-spec applications to a respected UK developer finally resulted in a job interview for a QA position. I guess my enthusiasm and practical experience impressed them - they sent me an offer letter the next day! Six years on I have travelled the well-trodden route of tester -> designer -> producer, and I'm currently working on titles for Sony PSP and Nintendo DS. I knew programming was never going to be my speciality, but the basic knowledge that the Net Yaroze gave me about the practicalities of game development has been invaluable in my career. I would advise anyone looking to get into a designer/producer role in the video game industry to gain some practical skills and put together a simple game. It will put you head and shoulders above the hordes of people applying for an entry-level QA or Design position!
I was on the retail side of the game industry for a while as a software buyer for a retail chain but my big break into the biz was where most people probably got their start; Quality Assurance. I participated in a few public beta tests with Homeworld and Everquest being the bigger ones. A few months after the Homeworld beta, one local publisher was looking to hire a few testers on a temporary basis with the possibility of being brought on full time. I found that my previous experience on these public beta tests really helped me land this job along with the obvious "passion" for games. I've since moved on but I'll never take that opportunity for granted (or testing for that matter). This was almost six years ago, time really flies when you work in the videogame industry.
-Carlo Delallana, Ubisoft
I was working at a video game arcade back in 1997 when my friend convinced me to apply with him at Nintendo as a “Game Play Counselor.” We both got the job. After several years of doing that, I got into their game testing pool of testers and that was my first taste of actual game development, first hand, with one of the biggest video game makers in the world. It's been a blast (with its shares of ups and downs) ever since.
-Bob Givnin, Humongous Entertainment
My first start in the video game industry came from... ironically enough... a posting on Gamasutra.com I found as a student at the College of New Jersey . It was a writing and design consultancy for which I grossly underbid in order to make up for my relative inexperience. I got the gig and officially had the coolest part-time job of anyone on campus. My first full-time game development position though was with my current company, Large Animal Games. Initially, I was brought on as a writing/level design/testing/web design/garbage removal intern. Right around the release of RocketBowl, which received a good deal of critical and commercial acclaim, I was promoted to a writing/level design/testing/web design/garbage removal contractor. Eventually, through hard work, dedication, and a near-encyclopedic knowledge of AD&D 2nd Edition rules, I was given a full-time job and business cards. Accordingly, they changed my title to the more succinct "Associate Producer", although I do still take out the trash from time to time.
-Coray Seifert, Large Animal Games
At Cal Arts at the end of the year, we have a student animation show called the Producers Show, where producers from all over the TV, movie and game industries are invited to look at student's work. Colette Michaud of Lucas Arts saw my 2D animation made with DPaint Animator and invited me up to take an animation test at Lucas Arts. What was weird was the test had nothing to do with animation - it was a rotoscoping test. I was a bit surprised, but apparently there was going to be some rotoscope animation in the game. I was given two days and finished the rotoscope test with half a day left. So for the rest of the day, I did a rough animation of a fat dragon trying to take flight. It was this last animation that got me the job because the other animators couldn't judge my ability to animate with a rotoscope test! So I got the job a few weeks later as an animator on Brian Moriarty's The Dig .
-William Tiller, Autumn Moon Entertainment
It all started when I got an Atari as a kid and I have been playing games ever since. To make a long story short, I got a degree in Economics, then worked at a bank for 5 years. Though I was making decent money, I had many visions of a painful and unhappy future, so one day I up and quit. Then applied to every game company in Southern California and got a job testing games for 8$/hour at Midway, 80 miles from my house. I remember the first day, I came in and sat down and looked around at all these crazy dudes playing games with toys all over their desks, talking smack and having fun. I was overcome with joy and remember thinking, "These are my people."
-Tony Dormanesh, Midway
I started my career in data processing as a computer operator in 1980 at the age of 18. I ended up working full time and still completed my college degree, obtaining a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science. After working in corporate IS departments for about 12 years, I left to start my own consulting business. Now I am an independent contractor and have just started applying my skills to the game industry.
-Robert Madsen, Sage Software
My start was pretty effortless, spurred by networking plus totally random chance elements. Eight years ago, I met a friend of a friend at a party. He knew another guy at a company that was looking for a game designer with experience in story development. I had experience in the second, but only marginally in the first. Nevertheless, I talked with the guy and we got along pretty well. A few days later, I took a position as lecturer at a private school specializing in game design for storytelling and producing. Four months later, the guy called me out of the blue and asked if I was still interested in the position. I said yes and got hired as lead designer for one project and that started it.
I was attending English classes at UCI and working in a bookstore for near minimum wage back in 1998. I lived with 3 other guys in a 2 bedroom apartment off campus. I didn't know what to do with my life. I knew I wanted to have some sort of career in writing but between paying for college, studying and spending all my spare time working in the bookstore I barely had enough money to pay for anything let alone spend a good amount of time writing.
On a particularly hopeless day I sort of gave up and watched one of my roommates play a game called Starcraft. I was instantly mesmerized by the huge Terran armada of battleships he had produced. Slowly they came to bear on the Protoss army base, only to reveal an even more massive fleet of Protoss Carriers.
"Damn, I'm screwed," said my roommate.
"No way man, use that particle beam thing you were using earlier. You'll own him."
My roommate looked at me with disgust. "I can't micromanage that, if you're so good, you do it." He left the room.
I grabbed the keyboard and mouse and started furiously clicking on things, but I had never really played before. I picked things up quickly but not fast enough to stop the Protoss armada from wrecking my roommate's battlecruisers. I was dismayed, but also addicted. I walked out of the room.
"Hey, who made this game?" My roommate handed me a box. Blizzard Entertainment... I wondered if they were hiring... Knowing nothing about the company I dialed 411 and asked for the number for Blizzard Entertainment. I wrote down the number I was given and dialed away.
The receptionist answered, "Blizzard Entertainment."
"Umm, hi, do you need anyone who knows Macintosh computers?"
"Let me connect you with Chris Sigaty, the head of our quality assurance department."
I was transferred over to a kind and enthusiastic sounding man who let me know that they were indeed looking for people who knew Macintosh computers. They were trying to get Diablo and Starcraft ready for the Mac so they needed people fast. He asked me to come in for an interview.
"What should I wear? A suit and tie perhaps or..."
Chris merely laughed, "No, it's pretty casual around here. Just wear something comfortable."
It sounded like my kind of place. The interview went well and no less than a week later I received a call, at work unfortunately which disturbed my current boss quite a bit. Chris wanted me to start as soon as possible and I was more than happy to oblige.
"We can only afford to pay 8 dollars an hour though."
"Oh..." I tried to hold back my excitement at the near 2 dollar raise.
"So if you don't want to take a pay cut, you can stay at your current job, we'll understand."
"No no no, it's fine, it's always been my dream to work in the game industry."
"Okay, great, we'll see you on Monday."
It hadn't been my dream to work in the game industry, but it was now, and I was going to live it. I spent 2 years in Quality Assurance and eventually earned a job as a level designer. I've been in design ever since.
-Dave Fried, The Collective
I first got my start in the game industry as a contract tester at NOA, working on Pokemon Crystal for the GBC and Banjoe Tooie and Pokemon Stadium 2 for the N64. After getting a taste of working in the industry and having a job I actually liked, I was hooked. I am very happy with the game industry and hope I am lucky enough to stay in it the rest of my life.
-Douglas Boze, Kemco
I studied a game developer 2-year course and got together with 4 fellow students to start our own company. Next month, we will have our first year anniversary, it is tough as we are still financing it ourselves, doing some third party jobs for exhibitions and event producers, while we develop our 3D engine and game - OxEngine and “Humanwar,”
-Francisco Wyler, Clienting Group
I started programming for the Apple ][+ about 10 years old. I wrote tons of games for the Apple & C64 (and typed a lot in from the back of Compute's Gazette!). Half way to an Electrical Engineering degree, I decided that I had little interest in circuits, and what I REALLY wanted to do was program - specifically games. So I switched to Computer Engineering in order to get some software courses (although they didn't even teach C when I was in school - I actually bought Teach Yourself C in 21 Days and messed around on my own a lot, learning Windows programming, etc.). After graduating, I answered an ad in the local paper from a small manufacturer who made coin-op games. I did have a demo - a cheesy little Wizard of Wor type clone for Windows 3.0 called "Kill Bill." It featured a 16-color-programmer-art character sneaking around the MS headquarters trying to steal floppy discs, avoid security guards, and eventually take down Mr. Gates himself. The game pretty much sucked, but the project lead who interviewed me saw the humor in it, and appreciated that I did everything from scratch (no Direct X, etc. to rely on).
I got my start as a video game tester which I applied for to get to know people in the industry and learn more about the inner workings of the industry while I finished my college degree and demo reel.
During my studies in computer science I saw an ad for Adeline Software for coders... I didn't wanted to stop my studies yet (at least finish my year), so I gave the ad to my friend... who sent his mostly empty resume, along with all the magazines and public domains reviews of a demo we had worked together on. He got the job. One year later, Adeline needed to expand even more, and in the same way I helped my friend get his job, he helped me get my first job. Having a letter from Frédéric Raynal himself (the guy that is behind the original Alone in the Dark and Little Big Adventure) with a job offer starting on the 2nd of January 1995 was quite a shock for me. I asked him why he decided to hire both of us. He replied it was the demo we made on the Atari ST . Not that he cared about demos, but he assumed that people managing to finish and release a heavyweight mega demo (4 floppy discs in 1992.) were probably able to complete a game.
-Mickaël Pointier, Funcom
At the age of 15, most guys are thinking about girls, cars, and parties. These were all in my head, but the thought of getting a job in the game industry was what I contemplated most. Falling in love with programming about a year earlier and games as a young boy, I set out on my journey to enter the game industry by buying a website, devoting all of my free time to programming simple 2D games, and searching for an employer that would even listen to a 15-year old kid who had no experience but plenty of initiative. Gaining resume advice from my father I successfully created a professional resume that tried to somehow relate volunteering at the library with game development. Armed with Gamasutra's job search engine, stamps, envelopes, and plenty of CD-Rs, I started sending my resume and demo package to any game company within southern California . Most didn't reply, most that did told me my age immediately disqualified me, and then there was Liquid Entertainment; known for creating RTS titles such as Battle Realms and Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring . Mike Grayford, the co-President of the company, was nice enough to take time out of his busy day to write an email giving me pointers on how to gain skills that were industry appealing. Hours of late nights learning C++/DirectX, followed by hours of interviews, were able to finally let me break down the game industry door and become a game tester. After getting past the problem of the work permit issuer thinking that Liquid Entertainment was a porn company, I finally held an entry level job in the game industry. For me, it was long hours of self-teaching and the persistence that led to me getting my first job.
-Brad Jashinsky, Midway LA
I got into games because my sister complained that I never called her. She set up an account for me on GEnie so I would at least email her. Not long afterwards, she suggested I check out GemStone III . I started playing (but only after 6PM for the cheaper hourly rates!) as well and liked it so much I applied for a game master position with Simutronics. They took me on as one of their GEnie bulletin board monitors, then as a GM. Eventually, I ended up as product manager for their Alliance of Heroes title before taking my current position as a designer for EverQuest II . It's all my sister's fault.
-Tracy Seamster, Sony Online Entertainment
I was selling chainmail armor at our local farmers market when a lady hopped down in front of my booth and asked me if I knew any artists because her and her husband were starting a game development company in town.. So I told some friends about them, then got to thinking that they would need more than just artists, but also writers, designers, etc. Now I had always loved gaming and telling stories, so I applied for a design position which I now enjoy daily.
-Lyle Anderson, Hermit Works Entertainment Corporation
I started out in the "serious" part of the IT industry as a project manager. While doing that, I took some classes on the project management of games and ended as a producer in the games industry.
I left high school walked into one of the few local developers' offices. I showed them my C64 demos and luckily, they hired me!
-Jed Adams, Activision
I originally set out to be a writer for the industry, and after reading about the many ways of breaking in (such as internships, networking and just doing it yourself), I decided to combine all three for a full-out approach. My first industry job was an internship for a developer of text-based online games, writing manuals and content for an in-game text parsing system. Then I turned to the Internet, writing reviews, news pieces and editorials for MyGamer.com, a small-time gaming website. Through the website I also covered industry events like GDC and E3 and met key industry figures, but it was the IGDA members I encountered that turned progress into fruition. After signing up and frequenting local meetings, I was introduced to members of the IGDA's New Jersey chapter who were scouting talent for a start-up developer called Creo Ludus Entertainment. As of now, I am a Designer/Writer for CLE, working on the studio's first title. For those looking to break in, it's important to read tips from the professionals - but even more important to act on them!
-Ben Serviss, Creo Ludus Entertainment
I did the shot gun approach checking the job pages of local companies and applying for any entry level position they had and got rejected a lot (not all together unexpected). But I finally got a testing job at my first company. I'm still in test, looking to jump to design or other aspects of production. I'm not really sure how to make that leap.
I spent 10 years programming and managing business applications development at VB and C. I was able to start in the industry as an Associate Producer because of my previous experience with large development teams in milestone driven environments. But the most important aspect for breaking into the industry for me was conveying my willingness and excitement to be a team player. The video game industry is filled with extremely intelligent and motivated people. Unlike most industries, they love what they do and spend a lot of hours per week doing it. Therefore, any team must get along professionally and socially. Portraying that level of understanding and excitement was essential for me.
-Patrick Lister, Infinity Ward
Basically, my pathway into the industry was through community. I was in a guild with a strong sense of community and a charismatic leader. He had connections with a prominent gaming site and announced that we had a chance to go to E3 2004 with the submission of an article. Myself and a few others went and had an absolutely amazing time. We decided to start our own site, and after a few iterations and failed attempts later, we're finally getting on our feet.
-Aaron Sarazan, MI-80 Development
I was trying to get in touch with an ex-colleague, so I called him up at his work. My ex-boss picked up the phone and said that before I try and poach his staff, he was going to try and poach me. At the time I was working for a graphics card manufacturer in Dallas and he told me his company had just been purchased by a game middleware company who had lots of opportunities all over the world including Austin . And that is how I got my start in the video game industry
[Article illustration by Erin Mehlos. Please note that the opinions of individual employees responding to the Question Of The Week may not represent those of their company.]