A WILD YAGAHA APPEARS!
I already know what you’re all thinking. Who needs another YAGAHA? Related, what’s a YAGAHA? Well, my friend, if you haven’t already made that connection based on the title of this article, then I’ll tell you now: YAGAHA stands for Yet Another Game Audio Hiring Article, and I chose that acronym due to it being just familiar enough to audio people by its similarity to the ubiquitous audio brand, Yamaha.
Way back in the vine-ripened and tender year of 2012, I wrote an article for a website called AltDevBlogADay titled “A Big Jumbled Blog About Joining Team Audio.” I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it became one of the most popular articles I’d written. To this day, five years later, I still get an occasional email from someone about that article. Which is awesome! But the world, and my perception of it, has changed quite a bit in the last five years, so I wanted to take another crack at it.
There are articles aplenty about what it takes to get a job in game audio, but each different perspective can help someone persevere through the turbulent quest of attempting to join the ranks of game audio.
This article is primarily aimed at people who want to get an in-house game audio gig. The job listing might go by a few different names, but the most common seem to be Sound Designer, Audio Designer, and Audio Artist. Sometimes it’s preceded with “Technical,” as in Technical Sound Designer, which usually implies something a bit different, but the principles here will still apply. The principles might apply to any job, really.
PREPARE TO QUALIFY
First of all, you should understand what you’re getting into. Setting your expectations going into this marathon is important. Otherwise, you’ll start panicking and crying hysterically while flailing your arms haphazardly and you’ll knock over my coffee and scald my thighs and a hiring manager with burnt red thighs is less likely to hire you FACT.
Game Audio is an absurdly competitive field. Even though there seem to be more game audio jobs than ever, there are still fewer available gigs than capable and talented people to fill them. There are literally quadrillions of people applying for every single game audio job that’s posted. That might be a slight rounding error, but I can’t overstate how many people are going for these jobs, and many of the candidates have equal or better qualifications than you do.
It’s probably going to feel like you’re sending your resume into black holes, often hearing nothing for weeks. Sometimes you’ll receive a form rejection letter six weeks after submitting your application. Meanwhile, you’ll just be sitting there waiting, scratching your head, making your scalp all bloody and scarred, wondering if you’re real, if you even exist.
It won’t just be your emotional and mental fortitude that is tested. You will likely receive actual tests that take enormous amounts of time and effort if you want to compete with the other candidates. You’re going to do this while you continue to work whatever job or attend whatever classes, which will leave you feeling like a rubbery, deflated balloon by the time you’re done. And make no mistake that rubbery, deflated balloons still get rejected with impunity.
You’ll interview with people that will ask you questions that you have no idea how to answer, and after you stumble your way through your response, you will be rewarded with dubious silence and/or increasingly difficult questions. You’ll have to solve complicated problems on the spot, problems that you’ve never considered before, and you’ll have to pull clever solutions from thin air and draw analogies that will make you feel like you’re connecting strings between conspiracy theories.
You’ll show up for an on-site interview and feel like you’re getting a glimpse into Shangri-La, only to be hurriedly stuffed into a conference room and interrogated by people with titles that you’ve never heard of before. Why are these people even interested in talking with me? Why did they leave me in this room alone for six minutes? Why did someone draw a glowing banana wrapped in bacon on the whiteboard?
You’ll enter into compensation negotiations that will make you question your own worth. People will be telling you to negotiate, but you’ll want to just take the offer, but then you'll second guess yourself. You’ll be worried that you’ll say the wrong number and the offer will be rescinded and you'll be blacklisted forever and mightily thwapped on the back of the head
But then, if you persevere, if you keep learning and growing from each experience, you may find yourself being greeted by the endless sodas and pop tarts that you've always known to be your destiny, and it will be worth it. It’s worth it!
LLLET’S GET READY TO GET READYYY!
You’ve decided that you want to join Team Audio. You position your mouse cursor above the “Apply Now” button, and just as you're about to click, a ghostly hand reaches out from your peripheral vision and yanks the mouse away and thwaps you mightily on the back of your head. That's me. That's my ghostly hand. Wait!
Before you press that button, peruse this handy list of things-to-consider. Don't worry, I'm gonna give you sweet deets about each.
- What do you actually want to do?
- Have you researched the company?
- How are your application materials?
- What does your online identity say about you?
- Who have you asked about the job?
You might think that the job process starts with the application. It doesn't. It starts long before that point. Recall that I used the word marathon earlier to describe this process. Not sprint or dash or even frolic, and believe you me, I love a good frolic. But no. It’s a marathon.
WHAT DO YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO DO?
Hey, most of us are merely human, and sometimes we don’t know what we want, and that’s okay. But if you don’t have an idea of what you want out of your life, then the universe might decide for you. Whose plan for your life, yours or the universe’s, do you think will take your best interests into account? (Hint: Yours.)
So, even though you may not know today, or even if you think you know, I’d like to give you a couple experiments to try that might help you focus your aim.
DESCRIBE WHAT YOU WANT TO DO
Take your favorite notebook and pen and find a place that you can think. Maybe go somewhere slightly outside your element. Maybe a shady picnic table at a park, a quiet room at a nearby library, or a quiet coffee shop. I’d recommend somewhere generally free of distractions.
Once you’re settled in, close your eyes and imagine yourself doing what you want to be doing at work. Don’t think about companies you want to work at, the projects you’d like to work on, or the title you want to have. Those thoughts may creep in, and you can acknowledge them, but keep trying to refocus to what it is you’re actually doing, actions that will make you really happy and excited. No need to rush it. Let your imagination go for a little bit.
What are you physically doing? What do your surroundings look like? There’s no right or wrong, no rules about what it should or shouldn’t look like, and it doesn’t need to be one single thing. Maybe you picture a few different things. As these things come into focus and you catch yourself thinking something like, “Yep, that would be awesome and I want to be doing that,” then jot it down in your notebook.
It might feel weird and corny writing this stuff down. Maybe what you’re imagining is really grand, or maybe it’s very simple. Maybe it doesn’t conform to what you expect, or what you’ve been told to expect, of your future career. Doesn’t matter. Just write it down the best you can.
After you’ve finished writing the things that you imagined, try to sum it up into one concise sentence. My goal is to x, y, and z.
Now it’s time to search the internet for those things and figure out how people are doing it. Google x, y, and z, and see what sorts of content comes up. For example, if one of your results is “I’m designing sound effects for a badass cinematic for a game I love,” then google things like “cinematic sound design interview” and “game audio cinematics article” and “game audio sound design tutorial” and see what comes up. Toss it into YouTube as well. Look at publicly available GDC talks. Scour Twitter and Facebook. Let yourself go down the rabbit hole and challenge yourself to find and consume as much information as you can stomach on each of your goals.
Start a document to keep track of these articles and videos. Document your search terms. Pretend like you’re in school and jot down notes as you’re reading or watching the content. Copy/paste links to all of the relevant materials that you find on the internet, and make bullet lists below them with your notes. Make notes about techniques that you’d like to try on your own sometime, or interesting tools that are being discussed, or people in the industry that are doing great work that you admire. Google those techniques, tools, and people. Keep going.
WRITE DOWN A STRATEGY
Hopefully by this point, you have some ideas about how you get from who you are today to become who you want to be. You’ve watched a bunch of videos, read a bunch of articles, and by now you’re probably inspired to get going! That’s great! But if you just start doing stuff, you may not do the right stuff. There are only so many hours in the day and you want to spend them wisely.
Your next task is to write down some steps that can take you where you want to go. Imagine a timeline with “who I am today” as the starting point and “who I want to be” as the ending point. What are all the steps in between that would move your starting dot towards your ending dot?
You may or may not know what those dots should be. Maybe by the end of this article, you’ll have a better idea. Regardless, just do your best and write it all down. This is all an exercise and none of it is chiseled in stone. Wait, you’ve been chiseling this into stone tablets? Bold move! Pen and paper next time.
Once you’ve got some steps in there, do a cut session. For each step, ask yourself if you truly believe that this step is critical to getting to where you want to be. If it’s not, write it again somewhere else under a different heading (e.g. wishlist, stretch, cut, save for later, etc.) and then cross it out. You should cut at least one thing, if not more, so that you’re left with what you believe are the essential steps that you need to take.
Again, you may not know what the steps are. That’s okay. Think about the content you've been consuming and give it your best guess. Keep track of everything so you can evaluate it again later.
GET FEEDBACK FROM SOMEONE
This one will be tough for some people, but it can be immensely helpful and save you time.
Now that you have some plans and ideas on how you get from where you are today to where you want to be, it’s time to bounce it off someone you trust.
You want to share your strategy with someone that has already achieved something close to what you ultimately want to do. I know people struggle with this. If you’re an aspiring developer and you haven’t worked in the industry yet, you may not know how to engage with someone that’s already doing it. If you’ve been in the industry for a little while, you may feel vulnerable sharing this sort of personal stuff. But it’s important to get some outside perspective from someone that’s been doing it already.
Here are the questions you want to ask your special friend:
- Do these steps seem like valid steps to get where I want to go?
- Are any of the steps frivolous or skippable?
- Am I missing any key steps?
If you’re in school and you don’t know anyone employed in your field of choice, start with a teacher that you trust and respect. Show them your summary statement and your timeline of steps and ask the questions above. Then ask them if they know anyone that is already doing the thing you want to do. If they do, ask if they’d be willing to pass your plan along for review.
You can also engage in social media. Ask on Twitter or Facebook or whatever forums you’re active on if there is anyone that would be willing to take a few minutes to give feedback on a high-level career plan. It should only take a few minutes and would help a lot. Even though you’re not asking for much, don’t expect a response right away.
If you don’t get any help after a week or so, try again, but this time just pick one step that you’d really like to start on, and ask the question to someone or on social media. If one of your steps is “try to reproduce a sound effect I really love from scratch,” then go to your social media outlet of choice (in the following example, Twitter) and ask something like, “I’m thinking of trying to reproduce a sound I love from scratch. Seem like a worthy effort to prepare for a #gameaudio job?” or what have you.
And if all else fails, reach out to me! The first thing I’m going to ask you is what you’ve already done to try to get someone to review your plan, and if it’s nothing/nobody, then expect me to tell you to go do something/anything first. But if all else fails, you can always ask me. I’m easy to find out there on the internet and I always want to help as best I can. Give me a week or so between follow up emails.
ALWAYS KEEP MOVING
These steps are designed to mirror good practices in game development, and just like you can't wait around forever when working on a game, you don't want your career to be frozen in time while waiting on something you can't necessarily control. So, even if you haven't received feedback on your plan, keep moving forward! Go start the first thing on your timeline.
RESEARCH EACH COMPANY
Before you apply for any jobs, you want to build as deep an understanding of the companies that you're interested in as possible. Trust me, you need to do your homework. If I had a nickel for every time I thought I was applying at a game dev but it turned out to be a slaughterhouse, I'd have fifteen cents.
If you don't have a top ten of companies you'd like to work for, make that list right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait for you here... Awesome! Nice list! Aiming high, I see! Good on ya.
There are three primary aspects of a company that I typically look into: The history, the team, and the products.
Depending on the company, finding the history might be as straightforward as reading a Wikipedia page, or it may take a little more detective work than that. Ultimately, you just want to gather as much about the company history as possible so that you are conversant if it comes up. Also, it can expose red flags. If the company has a history of layoffs or lawsuits, that may change the priority of applying there.
In the case of a start-up or a developer that doesn't have much of a history yet, your best bet is to focus on the team.
The team is the most important thing to research. The people are going to make or break your experience. Google, LinkedIn, and social media can usually help you get a sense of the people you might be working with. You will also want to find out as much information about the company’s leadership as possible. With any luck, this research will get you more excited, but if you having doubts when researching the team, that should be a serious red flag.
Finally, research the products that the company has worked on. If you haven't played any of the games, ideally you'd make some time to play them, but at a minimum you should take some time to read about them and watch some YouTube videos. If it turns out that the games don't appeal to you, that's another potential red flag, but if the company and team are great then you may be willing to make a concession here.
During this company research, I like to take notes and jot down questions that I would ask during a potential interview. It's not good to come up blank when an interviewer asks if you have questions, because if you're taking it seriously, you will. Repeat! You should prepare some questions if you’re serious about the job.
If you're researching the company and you don’t have questions, you might ask yourself if you're truly interested in working there. It doesn't mean you shouldn't apply, but it may be a sign that it's a lower priority than somewhere else that is more exciting to you.
YOUR APPLICATION MATERIALS
Okay, so, this one’s a doozy.
Application materials, and specifically demo reels, are probably the most written-about and discussed aspect of this process. And for good reason! It's one of the most important bits.
The good news is that you'll be in decent shape if you've done the prep work that we've been talking about. You should have some idea of what you want out of your career, you'll have a strategy to build up your skills, and you'll have researched the companies that you're aiming for. That's a great starting point to get going on your application materials.
I'm going to break this into three sections. First, the resume. Second, the cover letter. And third, the demo reel. All of them are important in that any of them could grab someone’s interest or screw you over, so I'll cover each.
But before that, a quick note about HR and hiring processes.
WHO SEES YOUR STUFF?
Another important reason to research a company is to try to get an understanding into who will be reviewing your application materials. There are a few ways to get a sense of who will be checking you out.
First, at a high level, you can make some guesses. If you're applying at an established AAA game developer, it's more likely that first contact with your application will be made by a Recruiter or someone from HR (i.e. not the hiring manager). They may filter out candidates that are missing non-negotiable requirements for the position. In these cases, it can be very important to align your resume with the job listing to make sure you end up in the right pile.
If you're applying at an independent company, it can be a little less clear. Sometimes there’s a Recruiter, other times your materials go straight to the hiring manager(s), other times it may go to a council of stakeholders. In the case of indies, sometimes the posting will say what happens with your stuff, and other times you can figure it out by poking around on LinkedIn or social media.
Ultimately your audience is the hiring manager and team you're trying to join, but knowing who’s going to be passing things along may give you a slight edge in how you think about your application. Making a good impression on a recruiter can have long-lasting benefits for your entire career!
The Eye Tracking Study
The first thing I always tell people regarding resumes is to read this study from beginning to end:
There are a couple things I like to point out about this study.
First, recruiters and hiring managers are not spending a lot of time reading your resume. Generally, they are scanning resumes very quickly. And they tend to scan a resume in a specific way, looking for specific data.
Second, they are looking at these data points: Your name, current and previous companies and titles, education, and keywords related to the job posting.
This is why I always encourage people to go for simplicity and readability in their resumes. Yes, we are in a creative industry and sometimes a clever, creative resume might be the right choice, but I've never heard of a simple, readable resume being a problem. Not even once!
Besides, you can express your creativity with your deeper online identity, like your website, demo reel, online persona, etc.
Aligning to the Job Posting
Since we know that recruiters and hiring managers are scanning your resume quickly, try to align the content of your resume to the job posting.
One approach is to copy the job posting into a local document and start marking it up. Read the bullet points in the posting and see if there are any words that are repeated. Highlight those. Those might be good words to use in your resume. Under each responsibility and qualification, make a note about something relevant that you've done.
If you don't have directly applicable experience, take the experience you do have and try to frame it in the context of the job posting. Look at it as a minigame. How can you take something you've done and make it relevant to something you haven't done? That's pretty much what we do in our jobs on a daily basis. We take what we know and apply it to what we don't know.
It's okay if you're making an analogy that is a bit of a stretch, but never stretch the truth. You should always be honest with your experience! Otherwise you're setting landmines in your own career path and you never know when one will detonate in your face.
The Left Edge
Check out the left edge of your resume. If the eye travels down the left edge, what's the message? This is a trick that can help make sure you're properly representing who you are.
Use strong action verbs at the beginning of your bullet points. Instead of these bullets:
- Sound design and implementation using Unity
- Custom field recording and related editorial
- Bug fixing and playback optimization
- Designed and implemented sounds using Unity
- Recorded and edited custom field recordings
- Optimized playback and fixed bugs
In this way, as the eye travels down the left edge of the resume, you can end up with a list of what it is that you actually do. Instead of the left edge reading Sound, Custom, Bug, it now reads Designed, Recorded, Optimized. The latter sounds more like what you'd actually be doing.
A Few Things You Don't Need
Here are some things you really don't need on your resume that might be making it more noisy and cluttered, or even playing against you due to subconscious biases.
You don't need to include your picture. It doesn't seem like your appearance should ever be relevant to your job hunt. We'd all like to think that hiring managers are impervious to pointless data. However, it's no secret that physical characteristics can create biases in others. We're basically hardwired as humans to judge appearances. Skip it!
You don't need to include your full address. If you think that your physical location is relevant to the job you'll be doing for whatever reason, consider limiting this information to your city and state. For example, you may want to signal to an employer that relocation will be required. In that case, a city and state should be enough.
You don't need to include unrelated work experience. If you worked in an unrelated field (e.g. retail, customer service, call center, etc.), then consider first whether or not you can include experience from that job that is directly relevant to the work you would be doing. Only add it if there is a compelling reason to add it, otherwise it's just reducing readability.
If you find yourself staring at a blank page after you remove extraneous information, resist the urge to add fluff. Resist! Maybe you're not ready yet. That's okay! Know why? Because you have a strategy.
Go back to your strategy. What can you do from your strategy that will give you relevant stuff to add to your resume?
Either way, the fluff is really not necessary and it often makes a candidate feel like they're even less prepared than a resume that is mostly empty but contains only relevant content.
Show Someone and Experiment
Always have someone proofread your resume. Ask them to point out any clunky phrasing or spelling errors. Ask them if it flows well and is easyto read. After they're done, tell them to turn away from it and ask them what they remember.
Make a backup of your resume and try out their advice. You always have your last one to fall back on, but experiment with changes that people suggest. Move sections around and try rephrasing things. Look at it like an experiment and try to have some fun with it.
YOUR COVER LETTER
Cover letters are an odd thing. Ask hiring managers whether or not cover letters matter and the responses are all over the place. Some consider them crucial. They'll print them and put them in frames and hang them in their cover letter shrine. Others think they're pointless. They print them out and shred them and then throw the shredded scraps into a chemical fire, cackling maniacally, green flames dancing in the reflections of their eyes.
The key is that some people really care about cover letters and you can't be sure whether or not they will matter. So, your best bet is to assume they matter and to make them as good as your resume and other materials.
How To Start Your Cover Letter
First of all, don't get specific with your salutation. If you met someone at a convention or get together, you should definitely try to chat with them before you apply, but don't direct your cover letter to them. Here's a reliable salutation you can use for every cover letter you write:
To the hiring managers at company:
It might feel a little impersonal, but it's professional and doesn't make any assumptions. It doesn't matter who reads this salutation, they're probably included in the “hiring managers” group.
For the first paragraph, you can just say who you are, why you're applying for this specific job at this specific company, and why your previous experiences qualify you for the position. It shouldn't be super long. Maybe three of four sentences.
Tell Some Stories
A common approach I've seen with cover letters is to basically restate the resume. People will talk about the responsibilities they had at each job. This, to me, is a great way to make a cover letter redundant and boring. We already get this information in the resume. We don't need it again in a different format.
Consider instead that the cover letter may be your chance to make a compelling case for not just what you've done, but for who you are. It's difficult, and maybe even ill-advised, to infuse a resume with personality or emotion, but cover letters are a great place to be authentic and let the real you shine through.
For the next few paragraphs, tell some stories about what you did at your previous jobs or in school. Talk about a time when you made a difference, and how it felt, and what you learned. Talk about specific moments where you shined brightest, how your actions positively impacted others, and how you plan to build on those successes at the new company. You're looking for stand-out moments that you're really proud of.
Don't be afraid to frame your experiences as miniature plots, each with a call to action, crisis, climax, and denouement. The idea is to paint a picture of who you are as a person in a way that your resume can't.
A Final Commitment
I've seen people end cover letters with statements ranging from overconfident bargains, almost like they don't even really want the job, to downright desperate pleas to be given a chance. But where is this letter is ultimately leading?
You've stated who you are and why you belong in this position. You've told some memorable stories that demonstrate the kind of person you are. By this point, hopefully the person reviewing your resume is impressed and is seriously considering you as a contender for this job. This is why I usually recommend punctuating the entire letter with a commitment.
The message is simple: I'm ready to commit all of my best qualities and all of my experience toward making your company, your team, and your products the absolute best that they can be. Don't just copy/paste that. Convey the sentiment in a way that is authentic to who you are.
Then, sign off simply like this:
YOUR DEMO REEL
Fortunately, we have Reel Talk, hosted by Kevin Regamey and Matthew Marteinsson. Here you can view hours and hours of game audio demo reel critiques, which is what you must do. Watching several episodes of this show will give you a much deeper understanding of what’s expected and what people are doing than I can cover in this section.
But since you’re here and since I love you, I’ll say a few things on the subject!
First thing’s first, if you’re going for a position with Designer or Artist in the title, you’re going to need a demo reel and it needs to be good. Not having one is a dealbreaker. You won’t get a job in game audio without being able to demonstrate what you can do.
If you’ve already worked on a game, then use footage from that game. Game jam games count, which is why it’s important that you do a good job on any project you contribute to. Game modding counts, too. Student projects also count, but just be advised that hiring managers see lots of the same student projects, so you’re going to need to stand out even more.
If you haven’t worked on a game yet, then start working on a game. It doesn’t really matter how big or how small. There are forums and other places on social media where you can find teams that are just now forming up or that are already in progress. Be aware that even for game jam games and game mods there will still be a desire to see a demonstration of your work. You just want some actual game development experience, and you may make some friends that can help you find more work later.
If you’re super ambitious, you could also try making your own game using an engine like GameMaker Studio 2, Unreal, or Unity. There are lots of engines. This is hard mode, but depending on who you are, it might also be fun mode, and you will learn a metric crapton of important and relevant skills. If you go this route, my advice would be to make something simple that highlights your audio.
While you’re figuring out how to get involved in a game, also figure out other ways to demonstrate your skills (see Reel Talk).
No matter what, keep practicing. Keep pushing yourself. Keep creating new things. This can be really hard. After a draining day at work or school, the question we face on a daily basis is whether we choose to rest or we choose the toil of creating art. It’s easy to choose to rest. We need rest! But if we want to improve, then we have to choose the toil of creating art. We have to practice as much as we can.
Go watch Reel Talk.
YOUR ONLINE IDENTITY
It’s not uncommon for employers to do a BrainLink Persona Scan on each employee. Sometimes they even do a DNA parse! Oh wait, I thought I was writing this in 2027. What is this, 2017? Sorry about that. It’s not uncommon for employers to do a search for you on… the Googles?!
Many hiring managers use the Internet to research promising candidates. Again, we would love for all hiring managers to be impervious to bias, but is that realistic? We’re talking about humans here. Imperfect, biased humans.
It’s up to each of us to cultivate an online identity that is curated to the careers that we want. Whether we think it’s right or wrong is irrelevant. Our online identities become our personal brands, as the general public’s window into who we are and what we represent, and it’s our own sole responsibility to make that image compatible with our goals.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t be yourself and have opinions. You can be a person. But it doesn’t hurt to consider what potential employers will think when they search for you online. This is part of your strategy just like having a plan and great application materials.
What happens when you search for yourself online? Is there anything that comes up that you wouldn’t want your future employer to see? What does your web page look like? Your LinkedIn profile? Your social media? Are your skills and interests properly represented? Is everything up-to-date? Everything spelled properly? Everything accurate?
You get the idea. This is your life, your identity, and your career. How you appear online should be under your control. Make the time to keep your brand strong and cohesive with your vision of yourself. The line of separation between personal and professional identities is growing thinner by the day and it would be shame if it came between you and your dream job.
ASK PEOPLE ABOUT THE JOB
Before you apply for the job, talk to a couple people about it. If you don’t have any friends that are already employed in game audio, then this might be a great way to make some connections. People are typically willing to give their opinion about a company and a team, especially if they have connections there, and if you play your cards right, it may even result in an introduction to someone that works there.
You can also run the job description by a few people that you trust, whether they’re teachers or friends that work in related industries. Ask them if they think you’re a good fit for the position. Ask them what areas they think you might be coming up short, and if they have any ideas about how you can compensate in your application materials. Ask them if they know anyone else that might be good to reach out to for some feedback about the position.
The goal of this step is to get that last spoonful of context before applying to the job. Think of all of this preparation as sharpening your sword before going into battle. You want to have an edge that shines when you go into this process. Just like all the other humans, you have blind spots, and the thing about blind spots is that it usually takes someone else to help you see them.
YOU’RE NOT ALONE
All of this prep work is an attempt to help you face one simple fact: The sheer number of people applying for game audio jobs is staggering, and if you want to have a shot at joining the ranks, you need to be prepared before you apply.
There’s a double-edge to the fact that you’re not alone. On the one hand, there are a lot of people out there who are sharing your struggle. On the other, each of these people are toiling day in and day out to apply for the same few jobs that you’re applying for.
Game developers often have their pick of dozens or even hundreds of applicants, and there are more people interested in game development than ever before, many of whom are getting formal educations in their fields. Experienced individuals that are already working in game development also like to move around, and I’ve seen people applying for positions that they’re overqualified for because they admire the company or the products. These all contribute toward allowing studios to have a very high standard for hiring.
My hope is that by giving you this advice on how to prepare, you’ll be able to compete for these positions.
I was about to title this section “Networking,” but I’m honestly kinda sick of that term. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term networking, I conjure up images of people in fancy clothes mingling in a beige convention space, repeating their “what they do” line over and over, handing out business cards, performing their best fake laugh, basically marketing themselves into a better job.
And you know what? That totally happens. People totally do that, and maybe it can work sometimes. But in my experience, there’s a better path, especially for people who feel like they’re covered in a thin veneer of slime after an event like that. It’s called making friends!
There’s always a sense of urgency when you’re trying to find a job, whether you’re fresh out of school and need to start paying off your debts or you’re feeling stuck in your current job. It’s why when I go to game dev events, I’m inevitably cornered by a poor, desperate soul that assails me with endless questions that all amount to “can you get me a job?” And I get it! I really do. Which is why I flex my patience and empathy muscles as hard as humanly possible in these situations.
That said, I can’t understate the value of patience and of playing the long game. Remember, this is a marathon, not a mad dash to the finish.
One of the absolute best pieces of advice that I have been given and that I can pass along to you right now is to make friends. Not business associates. Not acquaintances that can be leveraged later. But real, honest-to-goodness friends.
THE GARDEN METAPHOR
Imagine your career is a garden, and each person you meet is a seed. When you shake their hand and introduce yourself, you’re pressing the seed into the ground. When you spend an evening with them, just being yourself and having fun, you’re covering the seed with dirt. When you say bye to them at the end of the night, you’re sprinkling a little water on the dirt.
Just like in an actual garden, you’re not going to have fruit the next day. Not even close! It usually takes a season before you see fruit, and sometimes you don’t get fruit that season, so you need to wait until next year. I think these timelines are pretty accurate for making friends and having those friendships bear fruit, too.
Each time you have a positive interaction with someone, you’re sprinkling some water on the seed, but remember that there’s a balance. You don’t want the soil to go dry, but you also don’t want to overwater, and each plant-person is different. Some plant-people just need a little water, and others will take as much water as they can get. Sometimes you figure this ratio out on your own through careful experimentation, and other times you talk to other plant-people to figure out what the right amount is.
The important bit is that there are REAL PLANT-PEOPLE OUT THERE OH YE GADS RUN FOR YOUR LIVES. Just kidding. They’re not very fast.
HOW TO NOT BE ANNOYING
Let’s call a spade a spade (really harvesting this garden metaphor -- or is that a card metaphor? I don’t know...). It’s pretty easy to be annoying when meeting new people that could be valuable for your career. I’m going to give you three rules of thumb.
- Don’t just talk about yourself.
It’s hard to do because you want to let people know how great and employable you are, but it turns people off and can make you seem desperate and insecure. Wait for someone to ask you to talk about yourself before talking about yourself. And when you do start opening up about yourself, keep it to a few sentences and then end on a question about the other person. Good segue into the next tip.
- Ask people questions and really listen to them.
People love to talk about themselves and their interests. Get them going and then listen to what they’re saying. Try not to think about what you want to say next, but instead, actively listen to them and absorb the information. Take some mental notes about stuff you have in common, and then ask follow-up questions about those things. In this way, you can steer the conversation to topics that you can contribute to.
- No one-upping.
Want to know a great way to completely tank a positive interaction? One-up someone’s story. Most sincere, healthy friendships are less about competition and more about collaboration. Get excited about someone’s success, and instead of telling a comparable story in response to theirs, ask more questions so that you can get a deeper understanding of their story. Don’t worry, your story matters, too! And you’ll get a chance to tell it someday. Just not right now. Even if it’s absurdly cool. You don’t want to be the one that’s stealing the thunder from someone else.
IT’S NOT WHO YOU KNOW
All of this is to recalibrate your understanding of the old adage, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” This is too simplified. I’d like to propose a couple alternatives to this saying.
- “It’s not who you know, but who trusts you.”
I know lots of people, but there are very few of them who I’d stake my reputation on vouching for them. Game development is becoming a pretty big industry, but our specialized fields tend to be very small, tightly-knit groups. You could very easily play six degrees of separation between almost any game audio developer. Most of us who are gainfully employed know that our reputations are our livelihoods, and we aren’t going to meaningfully vouch for an acquaintance. It’s about trust.
- “It’s not who you know, but who likes to be around you.”
One of the greatest predictors of success that I’ve seen comes down to likeability. There have been studies that suggest you’re more likely to be successful by being likeable than by being competent. This doesn’t give anyone license to not be great at what they do, that’s still very important, but being likeable goes a really long way in a demanding industry like game development. After all, we always want to have a good day, especially when the going gets tough.
- “It’s not who you know, but who knows you.”
Your reputation is extremely important in this industry, and when your reputation precedes you, the momentum will be there even before you apply. This is what it’s important to curate your online identity and to become an active contributor to the game dev community. Game developers live and die by their reputation. When someone asks about you, what do you want them to say? What can you do today that will cause people to say what you want them to say about you? Think about it and make it part of your strategy.
FINDING A MENTOR
On the topic of knowing people and relationships, possibly the most important relationships you will have in your career will be with mentors.
A mentor is someone that takes a personal interest in you and your career. They are someone that trusts you, and someone that you trust. Someone that you can confide in without judgment. Someone that will hold you accountable to make progress toward your goals. They may have more experience, but the relationship is different than teacher-to-student or supervisor-to-report. It should feel more like peers.
Finding a mentor can be a challenge. It takes humility and vulnerability to create an honest relationship with someone that can guide you. It can take months or even years to build the trust and willingness required for someone to invest their limited time into you. But it's worth it. Mentors accelerate your growth and help you navigate the trickiest times.
My best advice for finding a mentor is to be observant. Pay close attention to the people around you. Watch for people who seem to consistently perform at the top of their game, who are central hubs of communication, and who have great reputations. Find people that you want to be like, people who you want to associate with, and figure out ways to have some good interactions with them.
Examples of good interactions with potential mentors include asking for advice, seeking their feedback on works in progress, and bouncing ideas off them in a one-on-one setting. These interactions should all feel natural and authentic. You'll have to be observant and respectful of their time, and you'll have to show that you're taking their input to heart.
It may not always be easy to hear advice from a mentor since honesty doesn't always feel good. After all, a true friend tell you when you have a booger hanging out of your nose. It's an uncomfortable thing to hear, but it prevents an entire day of embarassment. You'll have to pay attention and judge over time whether someone is giving you solid advice. When someone gives you advice that consistently makes you better, you may have found a potential mentor.
If you work in game audio, you can apply for a mentorship at the Audio Mentoring Project, but if that doesn't suit your fancy, start thinking about the positive role models in your life. You may already have mentors and either don't realize it or just need to nudge things along.
By the way, you don't need to make things formal by asking someone, "Will you be my mentor?" It shouldn't feel forced and there's no reason to label the relationship. Doing this can change the nature of the relationship. Later, it's nice to acknowledge that someone has been a pivotal mentor in your career, but the mentorship can happen naturally.
NEPOTISM VS. SMART HIRING
One of the industry’s not-so-secret secrets is that lots of jobs never get posted. They exist, but you’d never know about them. Why? Because the hiring manager probably already has a short list of people they want to work with, and if those don’t pan out, they reach out to their most trusted colleagues to see if they know anyone.
Some people see this as nepotism, and I’m not gonna lie, nepotism exists in this industry. It’s not unheard of for hiring managers to give jobs to their friends and family, even when they’re not qualified. This is a heinous practice when the recruits are not qualified. It can tank a team and tank a product. I’m talking to you, hiring managers: Stop that shit!
That said, I’d like to explain why this happens and how it can be a good thing.
When you’ve been working for a while and have closely observed the hiring cycle, you tend to come to the conclusion that you don’t really know if a person is going to work out based on their application and interview. You really just don’t know who you’re getting until they’ve been there for a little while. This is part of why you’ll see lots of contract positions out there, and why even full time positions are often started with a trial period of a few months where the employer can eject them from the building without cause.
Because of this ambiguity, and because there are so many applicants that are qualified on paper, and because each position tends to be so vitally important, and because we need to keep costs down and rarely have wiggle room for hiring, we like to either directly solicit people we know and trust, or we reach out to those we trust for guidance. This can often lead to better hiring decisions, both for the employer and the employee.
This all comes back around to your identity and your interactions. Every single interaction you have with every single person you come across matters. When I have a position open up, and when I reach out to someone that I trust, you want your name to be on the list of people they suggest.
THE BLACK HOLE
I want to end this article by addressing one of the most painful aspects of the game dev job hunt, and that is what I refer to as The Black Hole.
The Black Hole is when you’ve applied to a position and you hear nothing back. This has been a problem in game development since I’ve been a part of it. It has caused enormous amounts of heartburn and emotional anguish for applicants for decades. And just like a real black hole, it SUCKS.
I’m not excusing this phenomenon, but I maybe by understanding it better, it will cause you less pain.
The number one cause of The Black Hole is due to priorities. It’s not always possible to prioritize hiring even when the position has been publicly posted. This seems crazy, but think about it!
Why would a team post a position? Probably because they’re short staffed and need help, right? What are the traits of a team that is short staffed and needs help? A few that come to mind: They’re overloaded, they’re falling behind in their work, and they aren’t able to prioritize all the important stuff they need to do (i.e. hiring).
The day-to-day work doesn’t stop when hiring for a position, and hiring managers are often in some of the most demanding jobs that exist in game development. They are managers, directors, leads, and senior contributors. These positions often come with the most accountability and responsibility, and the engine of game development churns ever-forward whether an applicant is sitting in the queue or not.
Imagine you’re headed toward a really important deadline, one where failure is not an option, and you’re guiding your team on a daily basis toward executing on a plan that has very little room for error, and you have a daily deluge of questions and tasks coming from executives above you as well as reports below you. Everyone is depending on you, and you can’t let anyone down. Then BAM, the Executive Producer just found a showstopping bug that your department is responsible for! It needs to be fixed right away! Also you just got your 34th application for that job you posted.
What do you do? Well, I can tell you what you don’t do, which is stop everything and reply to the applicant.
I know it sucks. That’s why I call it The Black Hole. And by the way, I believe that hiring is the absolute top priority of any organization. I mean I’m writing this article, aren’t I? But that doesn’t mean that it’s always the most urgent. And even when it is the most urgent, that doesn’t relieve the hiring manager of their other responsibilities.
To you, dear applicant, you need to be patient. There’s a lot to do in the meantime. Keep practicing your craft, keep making friends, keep polishing your application materials, keep building yourself up. Go back to your strategy from before. You can even start it all over from square one.
To you, dear hiring manager, you need to be communicative. Don’t leave these poor applicants hanging for weeks on end. Even a message saying that they’re still in the running but that there are lots of applicants to get through is better than dead air. Remember, when applying for a job, a minute feels like an hour, an hour feels like a day, a day feels like a week, and a week feels like 698574398674 years. We need to be compassionate. Reject people quickly, and try not to keep potential hires in the dark for more than a week.
ONE LAST THING
I just want to express some gratitude to all the people that I’ve gotten to know over the years that have given me so much to think about when it comes to hiring. Thank you to all the people that asked me for advice over the years and to the educators and working professionals that have given me opportunities to interact with people that are striving toward being part of this awesome industry. Most of all, thank you to the people that have helped me along the way and have given me sage wisdom over the years when it comes to my own career.
I know there’s a lot that I haven’t covered here, but I’m willing to talk more about this stuff. I’m pretty easy to get in touch with, so reach out. Just like other hiring managers, I’ve got a lot of competing priorities, but I’ll help if I can.
So, get in touch! Connections! Always connections.