Looking back on my time in my degree, when the only ‘industry contact’ I had was my 3D modelling teacher, I had no idea how little hope in hell I had landing a job even if I had the highest graded art piece in the class, or most innovative design mechanic.
The simple sad fact is: there are just too many graduates out there. How is a game professional or recruiter supposed to have an inkling of your existence when there are a) hundred thousands of others fighting tooth and nail to get their resume on said recruiters desk and b) experienced developers who are also constantly looking for a change of job or studio too?
While the industry itself is one of the smallest of the entertainment industries wherein it cannot be repeated enough that EVERYONE KNOWS EVERYONE, the number of hopefuls globally are larger than the number of people with actual jobs. Despite our understanding of blockbuster game releases which boast multi-studio developments and hundreds of devs working on one title towards a timely Christmas release, the single understanding graduates do not have is how difficult it will be for them to compete against their graduating peers let alone every game design course that exists globally. And what do they have as their weapon? The ability to smooth talk their way through a cold call or email that was attached to the default careers page on the studio’s website (only to receive an automatic reply that says the application has been received if you are lucky). It’s not until you go to a conference like GDC or PAX and you see the god-awful lines to the ‘students resumes’ booth, on top of the realisation that these are only people that bought tickets to this event, do you start to grasp the scope of it all. And only a handful (if that) of those in line will land a job.
What was both ironic and sad was that I barely saw any of these newbies attend any of the after-parties or mixers later on. Yes, most of them were invitation-only, but the exact reason why I was there was because I networked my way into an invite. And if I could do it, why couldn’t anyone else? Why was I the only hopeful at the Sony mixer on the Thursday night? Where were all the other kids? The lead developers of some of Sony’s largest titles were walking around, like answers to your questions served on a silver platter right in front of you, and yet one would think that there would be at least a few dozen that had also managed to get inside for this great opportunity, considering there were thousands of graduates in San Francisco that week. Truly, I shocked myself when I understood that my ability to have a friendly chat with a developer which turned into a swapping of cards or an invite to an after party was apparently not something that every graduate was able to pull off. I didn’t even think I had an ‘ability’ seeming as all I was doing was making friends, and yet there I was at these mixers, the only youngin in the room. At the same time I also understood that schools were in desperate need to add a networking and people’s skills class to their curriculums (will discuss in another post later).
My personal experience of doing a game design degree was remembering how excited I was at the prospect of working towards a career that I would love and be passionate about. It was that excitement and enthusiasm that drove me through all my classes and gave me the hope to believe the cliche that I was going to be working for some AAA studio one day. I genuinely believed that I was going to smash it. And I also genuinely believed that with school portfolio in one hand and degree in the other, I should be able to land a job within the year after graduating. The final semester classes were even equipped with portfolio-perfecting tutorials and teachers helping students build their resumes, business cards and websites. We all had a plan in those final weeks.
Fast forward to 2014 and I have had lengthy conversations with developers who confess that they don’t know even ten games degree courses out there, and who strongly advise not to submit one’s degree portfolio unless it is top notch level. Your charming sketch book and first Unity prototype aint gonna cut it. When asking for advice on how to move forward, to remove myself from the terrible cycle of ‘how do I gain experience when I need experience to get an entry-level job or internship which is supposed to give me my experience?’, 9/10 times the response has been ‘just keep doing what you’re doing’. Seriously, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that one. This is not to say that professionals do not care; quite to the contrary. I’ve seen many developers look sadly into the distance, trying hard for some advice to give to help the graduate in front of them, others shift awkwardly on the spot while praying that they don’t strangle the hopes and dreams of the graduate asking them a question in one fell swoop. In my case, those that weren’t able to offer me good advice went well out of their way to keep in contact via email and find me someone or somewhere who could, to which the effort itself was flattering enough. But this here brings me to my closing point.
You need to make a good impression when you finally get that chance to network and connect with someone, because he or she (if they don’t have the answer themselves) will lead you to connect with someone they know who may help, which will lead you on to your next connection, until viola! You have a series of legitimate connections who you can return to and rely on to pull in a favour and jump that gruesome hurdle that is the GDC students resumes line, straight to the lead-developer in charge of picking the new recruits for his or her team. I have already written in a previous post how I felt that my first-impression-connection-to-awesome-networking was when I met Chris Avellone, because now rather than going to the recruiter of his studio I can speak directly to the HR manager or one of the lead producers or hell, even one of the owners, all of whom are now friends as well as industry connections. (Insert quote on it’s not what you know but who you know, here).
Now that I have reached a point where I am mingling with successful developers over beers and sharing career stories and experiences at birthdays, I reflect on that girl sitting in the 3D modelling lab 3 years ago, searching through career listings on break to see if her short resume matched up to the ‘basic skills’ listed for an opening position, which is why I wrote this post. Truthfully, I had no idea about anything then, even if I thought I did. I had no comprehension of production processes to the extent I do now, or any real understanding of the trends and cycles of the game recruiting economy. I was going into the industry blind. But my argument is that we will never really know anything until we do it. This is not an industry where you will learn everything you will need to know in a textbook. You can practice modelling until you are a pro, or keeping drawing until you have about as big a portfolio as Leonardo Da Vinci, or write enough code to be able to recite functions in your sleep, but you will still never comprehend the goliath of this industry, or how demanding it is, until you dive into it and “fail spectacularly” (as Warren Spector told us at the Game Masters Forum).