How should an 18 year old get started in games?

Written in response to this tweet from Sophie Freiermuth: I’m writing this as an individual, not as a representative of the studio for which I work.

NB: this is written as a rough reference guide, not a fun essay. Apologies in advance for the slog.

Internships. They exist. All you need to do in most cases is go to a studio’s website and find their information. If no information is there, find their contact email and ask. Or hit them up on Twitter.

These days they’re mostly paid (or should be). They’re an amazing way to get started, since most companies who offer them (in my experience), are expecting/hoping to hire when internship ends. It’s often a poor investment of resources for them unless they are hiring at the end.

Things to note: because of the above, internships are very competitive. If you’re straight out of high/senior school, you’ll be up against people currently studying games at university, or even against recent graduates or Masters students. These will be people who’ve made substantial mods, assembled a portfolio of interesting game jam games, or even released their own projects on Steam, or the App/Play store. Also bear in mind that studios (for those same reasons above) expect you to be able to come in and do useful work almost immediately. That’s not going to mean writing code or designing a loot system or whatever, but it is going to mean being able to handle basic tech literacy stuff: wrangle a spreadsheet, handle boolean searches, avoid replying-all.

College/University. I work with NYU Game Center, and I work with a commercial mobile game studio. That means I see both ends of the equation. The Game Center has an incredible curriculum and produces graduates of deep talent and experience. But I also know that we mostly hire people with no game-related qualification (and indeed sometimes no game-related experience) at all. We look for talent and temperament over experience and qualifications. What is this person’s skill-set? How well will they work on a team? How good are they at learning new things? Again, most companies I know of work along similar lines when considering applicants.

Of course, game courses can help build all of those elements. You’ll likely get a crash course in working in endless rotating teams. You’ll have a chance to pick up all kinds of skills. You’ll have a ready selection of potential collaborators for game jams or future commercial game projects. You’ll get the chance to learn from and network with visiting professional game-makers. You’ll build a rich knowledge base of how other games have solved problems or innovated interactions.

Here are the questions I would ask: will spending three years (and three years worth of fees) take me further than I could get on my own (be honest about your individual work ethic here. I have learned from experience that if you leave me alone for three years all I do is lose my mind)? Where are graduates from the programs I’m considering working now? Did they get good jobs/internships coming out of the program? What skills will I emerge with? If I look at a job listing now for a role I’d love to have, do I believe this course will give me what I need to fulfill those requirements?

Applying direct. This is the route I know the least about, mostly because I’ve never done it. It definitely works, and as a very young applicant you do have the advantage that employers will know they can pay you less than someone who’s coming in with a lot more experience. Also, there are many people who are skeptical of gaming qualifications, and indeed of the value of university qualifications overall, so for them coming in direct on the basis that you’d rather be paid to learn on the job, than spend thousands pretending to do it in school will be very persuasive. One the other side, almost everything else is against you. Here’s what I’d be considering if I was looking at your application.

  • Can I trust that this kid will even show up on time every day? With an older applicant I can see that she held down a job at somewhere else reputable for 3 years, so I know at the very least she’s reliable. How do I know that about you?
  • Do you have the emotional maturity? Work can be hard — pressure can mount, small mistakes can be very costly, things you’ve poured your heart and soul into can be junked with no warning. Even in a kindly, supportive environment, you can take a real hammering. I know in the time I’ve spent working I’ve become more resilient to this stuff. 18 year old me — despite multiple summer jobs and volunteer spots — less so.
  • How can I see your skills? Have you got enough of a portfolio for me to assess your capabilities? Playable prototypes, written rulesets, design documents, wireframes, animatics, spreadsheets. I love seeing work in all its weird, fragmented forms. Don’t send me anything sloppy. Always give me context.
  • Are you a travelator person? I not infrequently deal with people coming out of high school/university who see their first job as the next section of the travelator. So far for their whole life they’ve just kind of rolled forward from one thing to the next thing. They think that completing the previous section earns them automatic access to the next thing (I passed my A Levels! I have a good GPA! I was captain of a something or other team! I wrote my cv/resume on a single page like all the FAQs told me!). That stuff is all important. But it isn’t enough. It’s the opposite of enough — it’s the bare minimum, the basic norm. I’m looking for people who’ve raised their heads and opened their eyes. Who are interested in understand what it takes to make work that’s good enough to build a business on, not just get a decent grade for. Who have stopped to think about how the industry they are interested in works. Who are constantly curious about the how and the why. I don’t need you to have answers for any of this stuff. I do need you to have questions.

Making. Good news: it’s never been easier to self-start as a game-maker. Bad news: it is now basically essential to self-start as a game-maker. If you want to be an indie megastar, start making stuff right now. If you want to go the college route, guess what? They’ll be hoping to see good examples of self-made games in your application. Going to take the internship/direct application route? Ditto.

There are now so many easy avenues into game-making it is logically, functionally, morally impossible to take someone seriously who ‘wants to be a game designer’ but can’t show me playable games. This isn’t the same as me saying you have to learn to be a programmer. You have near infinite options without taking that step. Show me good Mario Maker levels. Teach me a new version of solitaire with basic 52-card deck. Hack a sample Unity game project into something weird and funny. Make an ARMA 3 mod. Go nuts with Puzzlescript. If you tell me you want to make games but can’t show me a game you’ve made, you’re telling me you’ll never make a game.

Meanwhile. So I’ve listed lots of things that won’t work, or sound intimidating. What can an 18 year old do until some of the above pans out?

  • Volunteer at game conferences/events. From GameCity to Indiecade, these events are a great chance to learn and forge connections.
  • Read/watch. If you’re not in a position to apply for a games course (or even if you are), check out their reading lists and buy/borrow/request at a library. Take advantage of the GDC Vault. Get literate, get articulate, get critical. When I interview the first(ish) question I’m going to ask you is: what’s interesting from a design perspective about the last thing you played. If your answer is “uh well it was fun but I guess a bit boring eventually?” then I will not hire you.
  • Play things you don’t like. We all have blindspots — some genre or genres that we just don’t engage with. But there’s smart design everywhere — in ice hockey games and dating games and war simulations and match-3 clones. Write your own curriculum: old game systems, weird genres, different cultures. 90% of what I know about game design I learned from games.
  • Get good at Twitter. Find people to follow. Contribute constructively. Make yourself useful (this is different from expressing your opinion): collate information, do the research that answers someone else’s question. The first thing I’m doing to do when you apply to me is look you up on the internet.
  • Improve your communication skills. It’s smart advice for game designers to learn to program, but there are many (like me!) who can’t. But what all game designers (except maybe the ones who work 100% alone) need to be able to do is communicate their designs. And that can be hard — games are full of complex systems and inter-dependent states. Design ‘documents’ don’t get it done, if by document you mean ‘a thing that looks like an essay’. Get decent at pulling together mock-ups (I rely heavily on SS Pika and Noun Project to disguise the fact I can’t draw). Learn a bit out how wire-frames and user flows work. Experiment with making basic animatics in Photoshop or Keynote or whatever you can get access to.
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