If you've seen my recent Twitter posts, you'll know that I recently started working at Sony Santa Monica Studio as a Narrative Implementer. I've been asked by a few people about what steps I took to get to where I am now, so I'm going to share my journey into the AAA game industry. Here's the thing though: there is no one correct way to make it into the industry. I've heard so many different success stories of how folks got their foot in the door. There are many different avenues you could possibly take to eventually work in AAA, and most of what I talk about will likely be more applicable to designers, but hopefully my particular story will inspire others to keep working towards their goals and maybe even help them make decisions on what to do to get there.
Changing Majors and Transferring to a new College
I started attending Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) right out of high school in 2011, without knowing at the time what I wanted to major in. I changed my major quite a few times. My first year was entirely general studies, and I was thinking I could get into the VCU arts program, but I was rejected. After that in my second year, I pivoted to Information Systems in the school of business, thinking that I would like it because it was similar to my dad’s line of work. I quickly realized it wasn’t for me during the second semester, so I dropped my class schedule down to what could actually count as credit to other majors. In my third year, I switched to Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology, thinking I would enjoy that because of my interest in history. It was going okay that year, but then came the summer field school where I actually gained some real field and lab archaeology experience. It was there that I learned I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would, the pay would have been not so great, and it would be really tough to land a full-time job in that field without a Master’s degree.
At this point, I knew I had to re-assess my situation. I was already done with my third year at VCU and I wanted to switch majors yet again. I started thinking about what things I really love and have been constant things throughout my entire life. Music was one, but I wasn’t sure how I’d make a career out of that. Games was the other, which I never seriously considered as a career before this because I thought it was a pipe dream that I could never really achieve. Nonetheless, I started doing some research to see how people get into the game industry and quickly realized it was actually feasible. I mainly looked at job descriptions for game developers to see what the requirements were, which turned out to be mostly Computer Science degrees. I initially attempted switching my major to CS at VCU, but they told me I would have had to do another four years due to the requirements that I had not met for that major. Long story short, I ultimately decided that I had to transfer to a different school so I could either get into a CS program that I could finish in a reasonable amount of time, or an actual game dev/design program, which was preferable. To prepare for sending out applications, I had to put together a portfolio, so I just started learning some tools and making stuff. I did a few things in Blender to get familiar with working in 3D, then I made a small player home mod for Skyrim, which is actually still up on my portfolio. I was accepted by a few schools and decided to go to Bloomfield College in New Jersey for their game design program.
Bloomfield Game Design
If I had stayed in one track while going to VCU, I would have graduated from there in May 2015. So, when I started at Bloomfield in August of 2015, I immediately hit the ground running in hopes to earn my degree within two years. My classes included game design lectures and discussions, paper prototyping, making tabletop games, and learning some basics in Unity and Unreal Engine. I spent as much time as I could not only learning about game design principles, but also learning how to play games from the perspective of a designer, rather than a gamer. I started to analyze game mechanics, dynamics, systems, levels, and narratives as I played them, so I could draw inspiration from them into my own work.
As my first semester was coming to a close, I knew my main goal for my first year was to land a summer internship. When I started applying, I didn't restrict myself to one area. I applied everywhere and had interviews with game studios in various locations, a few on the west coast and a few on the east coast. I knew I didn't have anywhere to stay at some of those places, but I knew I could figure something out if I got an offer. I ended up getting an offer from the small team at Deloitte that worked on serious games and was just getting started in VR. They happened to be based in Virginia, which worked out conveniently for me since my dad lived there. I spent my time there helping to create some of their first VR demos, which allowed me to gain experience in a real team/studio environment. At the conclusion of the internship, I received an offer to join the team as a full-time Serious Game Designer after graduating college. If you don’t know what “serious games” are, they are essentially games or game-like experiences that are created for some purpose other than entertainment, such as training simulations or educational games. Even though this probably isn’t the career path a lot of people want to go down when starting in game development, it is a great way to develop your skills and gain relevant experience while also earning a steady paycheck. Generally, it will not be as difficult to land one of these jobs as a entry-level designer/developer compared to AAA games.
I returned to Bloomfield for my senior year in August of 2016, where I began work on my senior capstone game project with a team of two other students. Our goal from the beginning was to publish the game on Steam, so mid-way through the year I formed an LLC called Team OctoPoodle to use as the publisher name. Throughout the year we did several playtests, showcased the game at NYC game expos, and finally published Secrets of Arcadia on Steam in October of 2017, about five months after graduation. If you could do one thing to help you get into the game industry, start making your own game and FINISH IT! Aim for something small and polish the crap out of it. It doesn’t have to be an insanely big project. Solo work is fine, but if you can do it with a team, that’s even better as that demonstrates your ability to work with others and be an effective communicator. Having a finished game on your resume/portfolio that you worked on from concept to ship is incredibly valuable, regardless of how well it does or doesn’t sell. To date, Secrets of Arcadia has sold about 1000 copies, and it has been on Steam for almost two years. It’s nice to know 1000 people have bought it and hopefully enjoyed it, but that’s really not that much. Those sales earned a total of $1,238 in revenue, so after Steam’s 30% share, we are left with $866 in revenue for a game that has been available for almost two years. My point is, don’t let the numbers scare or discourage you! The game has its flaws and didn’t sell well due to lack of marketing and resources, but I still landed a AAA game job!
The big question is: do you need to go to school to get a job in games? The short answer is: no, not necessarily. Most companies that I interviewed with didn’t really care or even acknowledge that I had a Bachelor of Arts in Game Design. That degree alone will not qualify you for a job in games, which I feel is what a lot of students expect when they want to get into those programs. Initially when applying, the employers want to see a strong portfolio. During interviews, they wanted to know about my work experience, what types of projects I worked on, possibly work through some design problems, and dive deeper into the projects I had on my portfolio. However, going to school provided a lot of opportunities for me, like the Deloitte internship and working on Secrets of Arcadia, and it helped me build my portfolio. Ultimately, it was the first stepping stone to getting where I am now. If you want to go to school, that’s great! Just do your research, especially if you’re looking into game development programs. There are some great programs out there, but there are also some pretty useless ones, so just make sure you know what you are getting into before getting into it. If you don’t want to go to school or simply can’t afford it, that doesn’t mean you are barred from entering the game industry. Unity is FREE. Unreal Engine is FREE. Blender is FREE. YouTube tutorials are FREE. Start making a game or multiple games, polish them, make them presentable, build a strong portfolio, and apply for jobs.
Applying for Jobs
I re-joined Deloitte full-time in July 2017. During my time there I worked on VR and AR experiences & training simulations, VR conference showcases, and a government contracted learning game. I also continued to work on personal projects outside of work, including prototypes, game jams, modding, etc. With my portfolio already in place and new work being added to it, I started applying for game industry jobs around December 2017 and got my first phone interview in January 2018. Shortly after, I was rejected. Then came more phone interviews, design tests, and even more rejections. Here’s the thing about rejections: it will happen. If you’re applying for jobs in any industry, you’ll get auto-emails saying you’re not qualified, or sometimes you won’t hear anything. If you get rejected after an interview, you might get an email saying something like “we’ve decided to move forward with other candidates.” If that happens, ask for feedback! Not everyone will provide it, but some will, and that feedback can be really useful. Ultimately, don’t let rejection discourage you from applying to other jobs, or even re-applying to that same company in the future after you’ve added some new work to your portfolio. Here is just a sample of some of the jobs I applied for and was not selected for an interview:
Additionally, don’t let a particular job description discourage you from applying for it either. Even if you don’t meet every “requirement”, apply anyway! Those requirements are more-so guidelines for an ideal candidate, but you don't have to meet every single one. Many job descriptions for game designers say that you need 3+ years of experience in a game design role. Well, I applied for positions that said that, didn’t have 3+ years of experience in a game design role, and I was contacted for interviews and design tests anyway. I even applied for a “Mid-Senior Game Designer” role and was almost hired... almost. It’s definitely possible, you just have to put yourself out there!
GDC & Landing the Job at SMS
One great way to learn and meet people in the industry is to attend conferences like GDC, PAX, E3, etc. I attended GDC 2018, which was my first time at that conference and was one of the best experiences I’ve had while working in game development. I met some great people and learned a lot about the industry in that week. Then came GDC 2019, where I was given the opportunity to be a Conference Associate, or CA. I know most people do not have the means to attend GDC. It’s basically unaffordable for anybody who isn’t attending on their employers dime. The CA program, however, is a great way to actually make attending GDC a reality. Anyone can apply to be a CA regardless of industry experience, and if selected, you are provided with a GDC All-Access Pass (normally ~ $2000) in exchange for about 25 hours of paid work (i.e. scanning badges, greeting attendees). During your off time, you are free to attend the conference sessions, walk the expo floor, and network with other attendees. You still have to cover your own travel and hotel expenses (most CAs try to split the cost of a room together in groups of 2 or more), but that is a much more achievable goal to save for!
For me, attending GDC 2019 is what led to my opportunity with Santa Monica Studio. During that week, I was lucky enough to meet with one of the managers at SMS to talk about my experience and possible opportunities within SMS, then followed up with them after GDC. I’m not going to go into detail about my entire process with them, but one thing led to another and next thing you know, I’m on a flight from DC to Los Angeles for a on-site interview.
I would offer these pieces of advice for designers and developers (could apply to other disciplines as well):