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7 lessons I wish I learned before starting my first game internship

You learn more from your failures than from your successes. But they certainly hurt more. In this post, veteran designer Levy imparts some of the hard learned lessons that would have helped him avoid painful missteps in his early career.

Ethan Levy, Blogger

September 3, 2013

10 Min Read

It is rapidly approaching 11 years between my entry into the games business interning at Pandemic Studios and founding an indie studio to develop Enhanced Wars. Although it is still early days in my career, I think I have at least gained a modicum of insight worth sharing. When one of my mentors asked me to speak at the college course I credit for turning me into me into a game designer, I saw an opportunity to reflect on my time in the game industry and codify the lessons I wish I could go back in time to teach my youthfully arrogant college self. It is not like I am not still making missteps regularly;  I hope that 40 year old me is telepathically beaming back his list through time to send some wisdom my way. But it feels like a good time to share the top 7 lessons I wish I knew on my first day as an intern:

1) It's a small world after all

The game industry is small. Remarkably small. The sort of small that only becomes apparent when you have been developing games for a while. In the past year and change that I have worked as a consultant to help fund Enhanced Wars, I have been recommended for gigs by people I worked with 9 years ago I did not expect to work alongside again. I have been able to pay my rent thanks to jobs I was referred to by people at EA that I am certain I aggravated at one point or another. I have walked into meetings to instantly regret the actions a younger, more abrasive self thought were completely justified at the time. 

Every person that you meet in your early career, you are guaranteed to meet again. Every professional relationship you have is a long term investment. Every person you see as an obstacle to your success today will invariably be someone you are too embarrassed to ask for a favor 5, 10, 20 years down the line. It is nearly impossible to take the long view when you are young, but the sooner you realize just how tiny the game industry is the better off you will be.

2) Don't go for a big splash

When I reflect on my career, the clearest facepalm moments come from the first few weeks on a new job. The times when I really wanted to prove myself. The times when I was trying to convince the people around me that I was a rockstar. 

Every time I tried to make a big splash at a new job, I made a belly flop. I was young, I was excited, I was trying to instantly make my mark. The hard smack of soft belly against the surface of the pool was a clear reminder that I had no idea what I was doing.

When starting new jobs, my instinct was to be Impressive. What I wish I had done was try to be Invisible. Only by taking the time to learn how an office works can you truly see  the opportunities to make a meaningful difference. When you come into a job you are entering a mature organism with layers of depth. 

When I reflect on the past, I more or less wish I had stayed silent for the first month of every new job. If I had kept my head down and my eyes open, I would have spotted the real opportunities to make a difference.

3) Fixers not moaners

When you are low down the game development totem pole, it is easy to look at the actions of the people above you and scoff. If you were in charge, you would do things differently. How could they make such obvious mistakes?

But then 8 or 10 years go by, and you start to occupy the shoes of someone whose every decision is questioned. You think about the past and you understand why your team leads made the decisions they made. Things were not nearly as clear cut as they seemed.

When you're working on a game development team, it feels good to moan about the people in charge. After a tough week, it is satisfying to blow off some steam with your co-workers. During lunch breaks or late night team dinners, it is easy to complain about what is happening. You feel closer to your colleagues and better about yourself.

But if you really want to prove yourself, then moaning and groaning is a complete waste of your time. If you are an intern, you will see things big and small go wrong around you. The easy route to take is to tell your co-workers what an idiot person X, Y or Z is. The far harder thing is to identify the problems you are capable of solving completely on your own and fixing them.

If you go to your boss and you say "the build process is broken," all you have accomplished is accusing a person who is already overloaded with work that she's doing something wrong. But if you go to your boss and say "the build process was inefficient so I did X and now programmers have 10 extra minutes to code each day," you will shine.

The best way to distinguish yourself in your internship is to be someone who fixes problems without being told. Small problems. If you fix small problems and make a difference, you will be asked to fix bigger problems. 

4) Cultivate mentorship

The value of having a mentor cannot be overstated. When times are tough, when you are facing a problem you do not know how to solve, when you are so burnt out you cannot see straight, you need someone to talk to. Someone with a perspective that will help you see your problem different. Someone to buy you a burrito, listen to your problems and offer advice. And not just one person, but several.

It can be difficult to spot a mentor. If someone is going out of her way to help you avoid mistakes or is willing to go out to lunch with you and answer your questions, these are signs of a relationship you will want to keep up. Try and set up a regular lunch or coffee break every other week and prepare for that meeting so you can get as much value of it as possible. Arrive with a few questions you want to ask written down. Thank your mentor for her time and encouragement. Be appreciative. If your internship ends or your mentor moves on from the company, keep in contact with her over email and instant messenger.

5) Don't watch TV during working hours

This is the simplest mistake to avoid. The top mistake I have seen from interns and new grads is to have their work on one monitor and streaming TV on the other. And I cannot pretend that I've never put TV on while working on more tedious tuning tasks on Enhanced Wars. You may never be told to stop, but people will notice. 

Watching TV while you work is a bad habit. You may think you are capable of working at 100% efficiency but you are not. Even if you finish all the tasks you are assigned while enjoying The Daily Show, if you cut out the distractions you would finish your work quicker and have more time to show initiative by solving the small problems that will make you stand out.

Watching TV while you work is very visible. Your manager may never tell you to cut it out, but when the writing up your intern report or deciding which interns have the potential to go full time it will rear its head. These decisions are generally made by several layers of people, and decision makers who never really had a chance to interact with you at work may only know that you spent an awful lot of time streaming Marvel Vs Capcom 3 matches from EVO.

6) Open yourself to opportunity

Tied into my first point about the smallness of the industry is the idea that you have to open yourself up to the opportunities around you. If you are taking classes in game development, if you are going to mixers in your city or industry events, if guest lecturers come talk at your school, you are undoubtedly letting opportunities pass you by left and right. I am very happy with my career today but there are still plenty of moments where I wish had written down an email address or connected with someone on LinkedIn. You will never know what smash success someone will enjoy 5 years down the line, or what game you will wish you were working on as your personal tastes change or you are exposed to new things.

For instance, Ratchet & Clank is one of my top videogame series of all time. But I didn't learn that its mixture of appealing graphics and run & gun action put me in my happy place until at least a year after Insomniac boss Ted Price gave a guest lecture to my game production class. I did not get his card or write down his email address. I do not think I even introduced myself after the class was over. All things I wish I had done. I am also fairly certain that Infinity Ward co-founder Vince Zampella spoke to one of our classes shortly after Call of Duty II was released. But I cannot be certain who from the Infinity Ward team spoke because I did not introduce myself. I did not get his card or write down his email. I am pretty sure I wore my Pandemic Studios t-shirt to class that night and if I stood out, it was for asking a cocky question.

These are just two of the higher profile examples, but trust me, there are many more opportunities in my past that I was blind to.

7) There's more to life than videogames

If you made it this far into the post, it is safe to assume that working in videogames has been a lifelong passion for you. That when you land that internship or first job, it will be one of the great triumphs of your life. That you will gladly sacrifice nights, weekends and friendships for a chance to make videogames. I know I did.

There is more to life than making videogames. Being a young person is an incredible opportunity in itself, one you will never get a second shot at. So do not put your game developer dreams above everything else in your life. 

When I am up late at night balancing units or making maps for Enhanced Wars, I am not  thinking "it's a really good thing I skipped out on spring break my junior year so that I could pick up team dinners and burn discs." Recognize that you are an intern and that (unless your boss disagrees) the game team will go on without you. Live your life. Be young. Enjoy yourself. 

I may have devoted my life to the pursuit, but in the end even I realize that it is only videogames.

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