I was a computer science undergrad for two years, a game design undergrad for three years, I’ve just wrapped up my first full year of my masters in game production and management, and I’ve been a course developer and a quality assurance technician at the University of Advancing Technology for the last five years. I’ve met and worked with a lot of different students through the university, and I’ve noticed patterns. Within the first semester, I can tell which students are going to graduate, which students are going to struggle with their degree, and which students are going to successfully join the game industry after they graduate. I’m going to share that hard-earned knowledge with you in hopes that if you’re a student that wants to make video games, you’ll live by this advice.
Everyone wants to be a designer, but there are relatively few design jobs compared to art and programming. You should pick one of the other disciplines within game development and either double-major or at least minor in it. If you’re unsure which you would like to choose, you can audit the classes of the major to access the content without affecting your GPA. As a designer, if you don’t know the art pipeline and you can’t program, you won’t be able to compete with other designers that do. You need broad knowledge and deep specialization if you want to get into the industry.
You should participate in every game jam you can. Don’t let your first game jam intimidate you. Every semester, the students at UAT run at least two game jams per semester at the university. We have a few local indie studios putting on a game jam early in January next year, and we’re also running the local site for the global game jam. If your university doesn’t organize game jams, then you should. Get in touch with your student council, student government, or student activities committee and ask them about starting up a game jam event. They might be able to budget food and prizes for the event.
The most common excuse I hear for not participating in a game jam is “I’ve never made a game before.” There is a first time for everything, and the sooner you start making games the more experience you will have when you graduate. Even if your first ten game jam games are terrible and broken, you will have infinitely more experience than someone who has never developed a game. The only way to fail at a game jam is to not learn anything from it. You can’t master this craft just by reading about it and doing your homework – you must live it every moment of every day.
In addition to clubs, you need to get involved in your local game development community. If there isn’t a game development club at your university, you should start one. I guarantee you that there is someone else you go to school with that would love to work on games even if it isn’t their major. At UAT, we have an academic chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) that meets weekly for workshops on topics that aren’t typically covered in classes, a design club that meets weekly to critically analyze the design decisions of games, and the game jam club that puts on at least two large game jam events every semester. The most successful students are involved with all clubs directly related to their major and tend to volunteer to help lead them or found them.
Outside of your university, there are usergroups and professional associations to keep an eye out for. The IGDA has chapters all over the world that usually hold monthly meetings. You should also register as a member of the IGDA. The student membership is only $30 a year and it comes with some amazing benefits. You might also be able to find other industry advocacy groups that hold local meetings such as Women in Games International (WIGI) or Blacks in Gaming (BIG). You should attend every industry event you can fit into your budget and your schedule, and you should volunteer at these events whenever possible.
The most successful students aren’t afraid of their ideas being stolen. They will pitch their ideas to any developer that will listen – especially if that developer will give them feedback or possibly work on the project with them. You can’t be afraid of someone hurting your ego or pride. You have to be willing to expose your ideas to criticism and even ridicule. Our ideas are terrible – we have convinced ourselves that we are uniquely qualified to come up with the best and the brightest ideas for games, but most ideas suck when you actually build them.
Work on team projects. It doesn’t matter if it’s your idea or you’re jumping on someone else’s game because they pitched an amazing concept to you – you need to always be working on a game with a goal to ship that title. Since you’re using educational software and your university most likely acquires all rights to your work, you probably won’t be able to release these games commercially. On the bright side, your first few games probably won’t meet your quality standards to release commercially – you should release these games anyway. Release them for free and post them on social media to ask for feedback. As your games get better, start entering them in student competitions.
I don’t care if you think social media is dumb, you should get on it. You should be on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter because most of the rest of the industry is already on there. A lot of industry jobs get posted to Twitter before they even get posted to company websites. A caveat to getting on social media – don’t be controversial or offensive. Even if you just have really strong opinions about ethics in game journalism, it’s not in your best interest to engage with people in a negative way on the internet. There is enough negativity out there, and you don’t need to be associating any of that negativity with yourself.
Start working on your online portfolio today. There are a lot of great presentations and articles about what you should put in your portfolio. Instead of re-hashing that content here, I’m going to refer you to a book titled Breaking into the game industry. It’s got some great discipline-specific advice.
Go to the Game Developers Conference every year. It’s the game industry’s largest job fair and it’s likely the biggest networking opportunity you’ll have outside of your university. You should attend on an expo pass as a student. If you can’t afford it, ask for one as your birthday present. You should also look into the conference associate volunteer program, and there are also scholarships such as the IGDA scholars program and other volunteer programs you can apply for if you need assistance acquiring a pass to attend.
This should go without saying, but show up for all classes on time, be attentive, do excellently on all homework, and hit all deadlines. You’re building your reputation through your actions at school, and you don’t want to be remembered as that student that consistently showed up half an hour late for class and spent the rest of class browsing reddit.
Play games. Play a lot of games, but play them in moderation. Play terrible games. Play games from genres that you aren’t interested in. Play old games. Play new games. Play them all and play them to learn, not to be entertained. You need a variety of game experiences under your belt if you’re going to be able to create something new or better than what already exists.
If you follow these suggestions, you’ll greatly increase your chances of breaking into the game industry. Good luck, and leave a comment below if you have any questions.