[In the latest Ask the Experts column from educational site Game Career Guide, Jill Duffy explains where the game industry exists as well as where it can take you as an adventurous traveler. We also share the story of one intrepid developer who went from Texas to Germany to Australia.
Gamasutra is also running this useful breaking-in column on -- for more, see GameCareerGuide.com's Getting Started page for more advice on entering and progressing your career in the game biz.]
This Ask the Experts column is a follow up to one that ran two weeks ago, which answered the question, "Where in the world does the game industry substantially exist?"
As mentioned, many people believe they must live in North America to work in the video game making business. However, there are other countries and cities around the world that have their share of the booming industry, from Singapore to Germany. Here in Part II, we'll consider how relocation fits into the picture.
If you already live in or near one of the major hotbeds of game development, chances are you won't have to move very far to find your first job in the industry. It may take you a few months or even a year or two from the time you start applying to the time you find a job that's right for you, but at least you'll see many job ads at companies within driving distance.
If you live in an area where there are a few game industry companies, but they are more than an hour's drive away, you may need to think about how far you would be willing to commute or move in order to take a job in the field because you'll have to be somewhat flexible in finding your first job.
Decide ahead of time which cities or regions are acceptable for you to live in. If you take a job somewhere, you're basically committing to being with the company until the end of the project on which you're working. Most likely, this means a minimum commitment of one year, but it's more likely closer to two or three years. For me, there are some places that I flat out know I could not live in for that long. So if you don't think you could take three years of Southern hospitality or two years in the City that Never Sleeps, don't start applying for jobs there out of desperation to break in at any cost. If your first industry job only lasts four months, that's going to hurt your resume (and your reputation) big time.
Jobs in the game industry are highly competitive, and you will have to make sacrifices to find your first job. But don't make sacrifices that you can't live with for three years.
If you don't live near a game industry hub and you don't want to leave, say, Bozeman Montana, and you are already experienced in some sister industry (like computer graphics or IT), can you telecommute?
The short answer is no. It might happen, you could get lucky, but it's unlikely. Teamwork is one of the pillars of the game industry, and it's much easier and more efficient to have all one's teammates in the same office, or preferably, in the same room. I visited Gamelab in New York not long ago where there are only about 20 or 30 people in the whole company. They all sit in the same room to work, and not only that, but everyone who's working on a project together literally sits next to their teammates.
So if people in the industry don't even find it efficient to walk to the other side of the room to discuss an issue with their teammate, imagine how they would feel about picking up a phone and dialing a remote worker two time zones away.
Outsourcing, on the other hand, is very much a part of the game industry, but it's also a vocal pain point. Ask game developers about their experiences outsourcing. The majority of the people I've talked who use outsourced work say that they rely on it for financial reasons, but dislike it in practice. Executives I've met who say their outsourcing is going pretty smoothly often say it was wrought with problems at first until the company sent one of their full-time people overseas to work as the liaison between the onshore and offshore sites.
My point is telecommuting is extremely difficult in the game industry, and developers don't enjoy working that way. For almost all positions, it's mandatory to have the person in the office. The only exception to that rule is audio engineering or sound design. Audio professionals in the game industry typically are not full-time employees at any one company. They are brought in during the last few months of a project and are usually paid as contractors. How often they show up in the main office varies from company to company and project to project. When audio professionals are hired on full-time, it's usually at a company that's big enough to have multiple titles in development at any one time, so the audio person still floats from project to project and only works on a game when it is in its last stages of development.
Bit by the Travel Bug
The good news is if you want to travel or live abroad for a while, game development can easily allow you to do so. Game companies like to hire based on talent (sometimes even in the face of inexperience), and are typically willing to help an extremely promising person, as well as his or her family, relocate to the desired place.
David March started his career in video game art in Texas, but realized he could take his skills to Europe and live there for a time as well. "I have always had a bit of an itch to see the world. It was quite a big move the first time I did it. I was living and working in Dallas Texas for 3D Realms and then Ritual Entertainment. I was searching the internet for a cool looking game abroad and found the CryEngine demo," he says.
"After being impressed with CryEngine," by Crytek in Frankfurt, Germany, "I looked at the company's web site for what kind of jobs were listed. The only listing was for a texture artist, so I applied for that. After a modeling and texture test of a character sheet, I ended up getting an offer. After negotiating my contract, I had to talk to my wife about selling the house and two cars. We were both excited to move and live in Germany."
But after a stint, March and his wife moved back to Texas. "We missed our friends, our family, and Tex-Mex food. It was an incredible experience to live in work in a completely different culture. Was it an easy thing to do? I would say not. It took a lot to make that kind of move and was work even to pack up and move home" back to Texas, he says.
March and his brother then began teaching and developing the curriculum at The SMU Guildhall.
"After working there for two years, I started to miss working on professional games. All this cool stuff was shipping, and I started to get the itch to travel again as well. I actually interviewed at quite a few places. My heart was set on Australia even though I interviewed with many studios in the States. My very first interview with an Australian company was a train wreck. I actually think I was overexcited on the phone with the guy. He probably thought I was on crack!"
March continued to look for jobs abroad and found another opportunity through a friend of his who worked at Irrational Games. "That interview went quite well," he says. The company then bought March a plane ticket to Australia for a face-to-face interview. "I even had another opportunity when they flew me out through another friend who wanted me to work at his studio in Melbourne, but I didn't pursue the opportunity because the project Irrational presented was just too cool not to work on after making me a verbal offer to work there."
Irrational supported March by not only flying him out for the interview, but also subsidizing his travel all around, paying to ship his household overseas by container and ponying up for airfare for the whole family. "I'm guessing that's pretty typical for studios overseas," he says.
"Moves are always difficult. But traveling and experiencing the world and working on cool projects are at the top of my lists in things I want to do in life." Luckily, jobs in the game industry are amenable to traveling.
"My word to people looking to break in is to ferret the internet for professional people's work to see what you're up against. If your work is not at that same level, keep working on your portfolios until it is."
In terms of specialization and gaining experience, March began his career at a smaller company where he practiced modeling and animating and creating textures -- but he later focused on just animation to hone that one skill really well and become a more desirable job candidate for his expertise. "Go after any job you can to break in," he says, "but specialize in doing one thing really well," which can help convince a potential employer that you have as much talent as promise. "As far as experienced people go and moving overseas, it's tough but fun. And maybe better to do sooner than later in life."
Jill Duffy is editor of GameCareerGuide.com, senior contributing editor of Game Developer magazine, and an avid traveler. She recently left San Francisco to move to London, and is currently in transit hanging out with the game community in New York. If you have a question about working in the video game industry, send it to [email protected]