Friday, February 21, 2014

On Breaking Into Games

I'm giving a talk to some students this week on how to break into the industry, so I decided to write down some notes rather than just show up to the talk and tell jokes. I think I'd be better at telling jokes, actually. But, as I was writing I realized that I've gotten a lot of emails on this sort of thing lately and maybe making a blog post on them might helpful. I'm not sure that I'm the most qualified to talk about what is valuable in the video games industry, but all of these tips have really benefitted me in my Sisyphean journey to be a concept artist. Maybe they'll help you! Or maybe you'll read them and think I'm full of it. I am full of it, really.


1. Examine what professionals are doing and be as good as them.
Until you are executing at a level on par with the pros you probably won’t get hired. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that some day you’ll be good like them if only someone would give you the chance. While pros learn a lot on the job, starting at a professional level is what gets most people through the door. There is no real shortcut to being at a professional level, you need to work your butt off and put in a lot of hours in whatever your field of choice is.

On a related note, I often get asked the question of what sort of things it's good to have in your portfolio. If you want to know what to put in your portfolio, take a look at some pros working at your dream company and pull up their sites. What's in their portfolios? Look at a handful of portfolios for pros that have the job you want and try to fill any gaps they're covering that you aren't. Also, if you look at a portfolio and it looks far and away better than your stuff, then you better keep working. You can be at that level too, it just takes effort.

2. Be able to identify your weaknesses.
Most people lie to themselves, it’s how we live our lives. We all want to believe we’re better than we really are! I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you have problems. We all have problems. You need to do some soul searching and figure out what you suck at. This could be holes in your technical proficiency, a bias toward certain techniques, hating a particular step of your work pipeline, or even a personal character flaw. We all have faults, but really understanding what your buttons are will help keep you out of situations where people can push them. Focus fire your weaknesses once you see them and fix them - if you hate something that you suspect is a part of the job you’ll have to do, do it UNTIL YOU LOVE IT. I used to hate drawing environments, now I’m an environment concept artist. If you get defensive, learn to identify a defensive reaction and tamp it down. This is really hard, but really really important. Also, never ever stop looking for your weaknesses because they’re like weeds - as you grow new ones will sprout. This is a lifelong thing and critically important if you want to continue to grow through your career. It also helps you grow as a person, bonus!

3. No one is going to teach you how to be a professional
No class will teach you how to work at a professional level. This brings us back to #1: look at what the professionals in your field are doing and be as good as they are. On your own time you should check the quality of what you are doing against the quality of professionals in your field. This is brutal, but it will make you very good very quickly. The problem is life doesn’t judge you on a relative scale, life won’t say “Oh he’s just a student, cut him some slack.” It’s the awful truth, but either you’re good at what you’re doing or you aren’t. Observe how the professionals do their jobs and try to reverse engineer their techniques. Learn the programs they use even if your school doesn’t teach them. Follow their blogs if they have them, read interviews with professionals you admire. You can even reach out to pros who inspire you and see if they have tips! They are real people and you might be surprised at how friendly they can be. Figure out what tools your dream company is using and learn how they work, or even try to improve on them. Realize that if you want to work there you need to try to be the equal of the professionals you admire. You really can do this, it just takes hard work and passion.

4. Be organized
It’s simple, but don’t let things fall through the cracks. Only make commitments you can do. Budget your time, establishing a personal pattern of being reliable will allow you to be a reliable professional. Never promise something you can’t do, and if you’ve made a commitment to do something always do it. The classmates you’re collaborating with may be your co-workers tomorrow and they won’t forget if you slacked off and left them holding the bag.

5. Be disciplined
Create a schedule and actually do it. For some reason this is one of the hardest things for most people to do and it’s totally under your control. If you want to get good you need to put in an incredible amount of time and effort. You’ll make sacrifices. Having a degree in your field often won’t be enough - it helps to live and breathe what you want to do. Having a life is for later when you’ve got a job and some money, if you’re trying to get hired you owe it to yourself to make an aggressive schedule and stick to it. (That said even when I worked my hardest I always tried to set aside at least two hours a day for myself. You need to recharge or you’ll just implode. This comes back to #2 - know your weaknesses and by extension know who you are. If you truly NEED 5 hours a day to work out then take them. You need to be as productive as possible and this is a different cocktail for everyone.)

6. Take every opportunity to make connections, even when you hate it
Whenever an event is going on, if you don’t have a job you need to be there. For a person like me who despises networking this is particularly lousy. I am not what you’d call a party person. Trust me - you might hate it the whole time but slap on a smile, find something to say, and be charming. 9 times out of 10 you won’t make any headway, but on the off chance that it’s that one time things work out you need to be there. I’ve actually made some really good friends at parties I didn’t want to be at. I firmly believe that people aren’t lucky, people make their own luck. You probably aren’t going to make many connections from your living room.

As a follow up, going to a variety of events allows you to establish patterns. Lots of the same people will be at multiple events. You should find reasons to have follow up conversations with people you’ve met and see again. It’s also helpful to not change your appearance, it helps people remember you. Sometimes it’s better to not even show your work (gasp!) the first time you meet someone if you sense you are genuinely hitting it off - making new industry friends is even better and there is always time to show your work later.

7. Learn how to be good at talking to people
This is a sucky skill to learn if you don’t get it naturally but in my opinion is one of the main things that’ll keep you out of the industry if you don’t have it. Learning how to gauge people, how to know when they want to talk, how to be a pleasure to talk to while giving and getting the information you need is critical. Some people are born with this skill, but if you weren’t I highly recommend studying up. Find a charismatic person you know and study them. Are they charismatic because they are well-rounded? Is it because they are funny? Is it because the know when to stop talking and let the other person speak? Read books on cheats for being charismatic if you have to, there’s nothing more important than creating an impression. This is important on the job too, since you’ll have to get along with a range of people and if you want to be good at what you do you’ll need their help. This is a saturated industry, being good with people is a great way to set yourself apart. I really like this TED talk  by Amy Cuddy on body posture and what a difference it can make on your interactions:

8. Take on as much extracurricular as you can
You don’t want your resume filled with exclusively student projects if you can help it. Showing that you do things outside of class shows employers that you’re motivated above the average. This can be as simple as creating personal projects, homework assignments for yourself. If you do even one personal project a semester you will have a lot to show in your resume/ portfolio/ reel that your fellow students won’t.

9. Only write things you can actually do/ have actually done on your resume
This seems silly but you really will get called on these things. It’s tempting to get caught up in padding your resume and saying you have experience with programs you barely know, or taking credit for more of a group project than you did (especially if you’ve been unemployed for a while). Unfortunately, you’ll likely get asked about these things in an interview, or worse you’ll be asked to use/ do them on the job. You’ll get exposed in the end, so make sure you can actually do what you say you can do. Or be prepared to learn, FAST.

10. Know the companies you’re applying to
This should go without saying but if you are applying somewhere be familiar with their products. Cater your portfolio (if relevant) and your cover letter to them specifically. You don’t need to be a fan of the games, but you need to understand them. I’ve finished 40 hour campaigns in under a week just to prep for an interview, If you can help it don’t rely on youtube to show you what you need to know. Nothing preps you to talk about a game or what you like about a company like actually playing their game.

11. Follow up
If you don’t hear back from a company don’t be afraid to follow up. Don’t just submit an application through a website - you want a real person. Do research and find contact info for the company’s recruiter or HR and email them directly with a copy of your materials as well. At the very least you look like you give a damn, and at the most you look serious about your application with the company. If a week has gone by and you haven’t heard anything, you can send a follow up email reiterating your interest and checking on the posting status - as long as you write your email professionally and succinctly this isn’t a rude thing to do. Oh, and don’t make any typos for the love of god. Read those emails like 8 times if you have to.

12. Always be working on your skills
If you have trouble finding a job after school, or if you get laid off and are between jobs, don’t take a break and assume something will just turn up. Like I said, I believe that people make their own luck. Jobs don’t fall into your lap, you should be working your ass off. Make a list of things that being good at would help your chances of being hired, create a schedule week by week on how to learn them and then go learn them. Update your resume and portfolio as you go. Keep in touch with recruiters and don’t be afraid to show them new things once you’ve made significant improvements to your repertoire. (read: significant. This takes us back to #2 - know when you’ve actually improved, and eliminate your weaknesses. If you removed all the old pictures of unicorns from your portfolio only to replace them with newer, similar pictures of unicorns you are wasting your time.)

13. Be good at something
Pick something you have a natural aptitude for and be amazing at it. When people look at you, you want one skill that you’re just really super at. Be GOOD at a range of things, but be incredible at something. It helps if this is a demonstrable skill, (maybe you can model amazing monsters in zbrush or you are epic at designing complicated adventure game puzzles) but it could even be something like being super fast and dependable. I really recommend having an attention grabbing thing that will attract a recruiter, then a solid ability to do a wider range that keeps you in the running once you’re interviewing.

14. Be generous
You’re not the only one looking for a job, your friends are too. I’ve been to a lot of career fairs and while I always have a plan and a checklist, I usually keep an eye out and let my friends know about areas with good opportunities or short lines. Not every job is right for you and you should remember that when your friends succeed, you succeed too. Helping eachother whether it’s sharing knowledge, tools, contacts, or job postings is a really good thing. I know it probably seems bittersweet watching friends get hired before you, but just remember: those friends are now industry contacts. Helping your friends find work is only a good thing for you professionally. Incidentally it’s just a nice thing to do, but this is a how to break into games list, not a how to be a nice person list.

My friend Jeff, an environment artist, has a nice list of tips up here as well. Check them out!

I’ll update this list later if I think of anything else.


  1. Yesssss these are all amazingly good points! The weaknesses one especially affected me: I used to *despise* environmental/landscape/cityscape work, and now it's essentially what I do at work. It's really interesting how that happens! Thanks for writing this up; it's really awesome!

  2. Great list! There are some hard truths in there but they really are necessary with moving forward professionally as an artist--not only just in games. It's such a competitive industry that you really need chase after that with a crazed passion. Thanks a lot for sharing; it's really helpful information.

  3. Hey! I like the part about taking time for yourself. Usually i just feel too guilty aboutu the time i already wasted not working but just walking around or getting snacks or looking out the window while i was supposed to be working haha. how do you balance those out? besides ofcoruse just pure discipline. Have you tried time tracking software, procrastatracker or rescue time or anything? i was really surprised, between looking at other art and picking what i wanted to do, on a saturday that i was "working" for 14 hours, id only be at the computer for 10, (meals etc i guess), and only ACTUALLY in photoshop for 6 or 7. crazy haha. 50% efficiency.

  4. Ivan- I don't use tracking software. I do make a lot of lists. I find using software to remember what I need to do makes me more forgetful, since I'm not actively thinking about all the current tasks. It is mostly self discipline, but the desire to do this job for me was enough to really instill that discipline. Still, everyone is different - you should do whatever works.

  5. Those are some awesome tips !!! still climbing the ropes now, on my 3rd semester in college. And first time trying digital art (god its so hard and long *please dont get out of context*). Any tips on improving your art digitally ? Because i cant seem to pass the hurdle on making my paintings detail enough ._.