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How to break in the games industry - an insiders' guide


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Mapcore was originally a modding community, and from this pool of talent came many industry professionals that are now working on some of the biggest games in the industry.

In this thread, professionals from Mapcore share their experience of how to break in, what to do and what not to do when applying for a job, going in for an interview and securing your position once you are offered your first job.

Hopefully this will shine a light on an often asked subject for many forum viewers eager to join this industry, and if you have any other question or suggestion please feel free to ask.

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What's the best way to build a portfolio? I don't mean in content, but rather the actual web site/page/whatever showing off your work. I see a lot of the time, when someone posts a portfolio link and asks for critique, at least half of the comments tend to be about the site design instead of content. What's a good hosting solution, is a blogspot or ISP web space page acceptable, do the actual people making hiring decisions care as much as the internet seems to, etc.

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Portfolios act as CVs too, and they therefore need to meet a few criterias:

- Original presentation that makes you stand out from the rest

- Clean, simple design that's easy and fast to navigate

- hosting name that makes sense

- reliable host, that doesn't stand a chance to go offline at any moment, nor has pop ups all over or any sort of advertisement /registration

As you can see, blogs can also work. I know of a few industry people that actually have their blog set up as their portfolio, to good results. They most of the time don't update their blog as much though, so as not to mess with it too much.

One needs to remember that most recruiters will be screening through your pages in all of 10 seconds unless something catches their eye. And that's only if their company network allowed them to access your website. Technically speaking that means the host needs to be at least somewhat established, and not a random free host somewhere in a distant country. Loading times matter a lot too, so keep the tech as low bandwith as possible. Flash sites are cool but they're also (for now) not compatible on all platforms. iPhones can't access them yet. Keep that in mind.

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I find social networking extremely important. Not the silly myspace kind. Just getting in contact with people in the industry or who want to join the industry. Always try to connect with people you worked with on a mod or a company. LinkedIn is perfect for that. Each contact could be of high value to you in the future.

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After graduating, I spent about 6 months grinding away trying to get a job. Curiously enough, a little over 18 months later, I've been fortunate enough to be helping out on the other side of the interview table (albiet probably only because I do a fairly uncommon programming job, so I only have one person in my department who is senior to me). It's interesting to see both sides. Unsurprisingly, my advice mirrors Carmack's (even though I am but a peon in comparison). What follows is more programmer related than art, but someone may find some use from it.

Use your time wisely

Remember that when in full time education, you have a shitload of time to burn. I reckon I spent only 10-15% of my waking hours engaged in university work; the rest of my time was free time. I could do whatever I wanted with it. Now, you can spend it playing games, getting drunk, watching daytime TV etc... or you could spend it improving your skills. Remember that, at the end of your college/university period, there will be scores of graduates just like you with the same coursework deliverables and accreditations, so what do you have to offer that distinguishes you?

Learn through doing

Make lots of stuff. It doesn't matter what it is, who it's for or why you're making it; just make it. You learn so much more when actually making stuff compared to theorising about it. Theory is definitely important and it's worth doing a degree etc., but you only cement and further your understanding through doing. In my first year of commercial programming (9 'til 5 every day) versus 6 years of sometime coding (maybe a couple of hours every other day), it felt like I learned just as much again. Code that I had considered to be good a year ago suddenly appeared, in hindsight, to be a pile of steaming shit. And long may it continue.

To further underline why 'doing' is important:

One of the really interesting things I found when looking through the research on expert attainment was the brief information on apparently less significant results. Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Römer (1993), using biographical interviews and diaries, compared the practice history of professional musicians with that of current tertiary students as well as amateurs. By the age of 18, the best students were similar to the professional violinists and pianists in having logged approximately 7,500 hours of practice. Those students pursuing teaching and the less ‘good’ violin students had accumulated in the vicinity of 3,500 to 7,500 hours of practice. A sample of amateur pianists had an average of just over 1,500 hours.

I.e. the more time you spend doing something, the better your chances are of becoming good at it. Practice makes you better. If you want the job badly, then you can improve your chances by always creating new works. You could set yourself a goal of "implement small feature x in my program this week" or "create, unwrap and texture a new mesh this week". I personally got the most out of my learning when I was setting repeated, incremental goals each week.

Finish what you start

Don't worry about perfectionism. It's easy to start thinking that everything you do and show to prospective employees must be perfect. That's not the case. You should endeavour to finish what you started; even a rough, finished version is better than a polished fragment. Companies understand that you are young, raw and will require support, mentoring and encouragement. The code I submitted that helped secure an interview should have by all rights been set on fire, detonated and then buried in a lead-lined mine shaft. It was pretty horribly designed, but it demonstrated that I could finish a project. In my opinion, the most important thing is that you can demonstrate that you get things done. Junior members of staff are not hired as read-made geniuses who slot into the production machine firing on all cylinders. Yes, these people exist, but they are few and far between. As long as you demonstrate that you're a decent person, you have potential and that you will find a way to achieve your goals, you have a chance.

The reason I say this is that, in the modding scene in particular, I encountered way too many people who had portfolios full of half-finished levels, models, texture sets etc. The moment I see this I automatically think "flake". The hardest part is finishing something; pulling things apart and optimising them, then rebuilding them. Reducing the texture memory usage, fixing alignment and clipping issues etc. There is little creative fulfilment involved in this step, there is no artistic merit or craft in fiddling with it and there will be nobody to offer you a compliment on your collision and clip optimisations. It takes guts, pure and simple. Any time I saw scores of "cool looking room in never finished level" or "half an awesome gun model" images on websites, I just closed the page. Do not want. If you can't even finish your own personal work, work that involves a subject matter that is of your own choosing, then why would a company have any faith in you finishing something you may not have a particularly strong affinity for? Chances are you won't be working on Rage or Bioshock 2...

If you can't find a way to finish to a standard you're happy with then limit the scope. Remove functionality from the program, cut out areas of the level or reduce the complexity of a scene. Remember that once you finish the first version, you are now in a good position to iteratively improve it :) Finish version 1 and go from there. The sense of achievement from finishing something is also a great feeling! It's much better than leaving the work to languish in "C:\work\wip\", never to be viewed again.

Keep up with new technology and techniques

Read a new book. Learn a new language. Read blogs. Write a blog. Write articles. Discuss stuff with like minded folk. I've learned a lot of really interesting and cool ideas from blogs; my google reader has about 50 entries in it, including programming, art, modelling and technology blogs + podcasts. Most only get updated once every week and a lot of them are sporadic or inactive, but you get the odd gem now and then. If you spend a few hours a week reading, it will be a few hours well spent.


Yeah. I've already talked about this at length before, so I'll spare you the rant again. Mods are basically smaller versions of real companies. You have the same people issues, conflicts of opinion, fun times, hard stretches etc. You can make mistakes in mods and then learn from them. You also make a shitload of contacts if you're a decent guy. Contacts and string pulling can be instrumental in landing an interview, so don't pass on modding. My modding with FF was instrumental in getting an interview; it distinguished me from a lot of my peers by the way of proving that I have the passion to make something in my spare time. I guess different companies view modding in a different light, but it was great for me.

Create a non-generic CV

CVs should be grounded in what you've actually done. Don't smother it in buzzwords or over-egg the pudding. Don't oversell or overcomplicate something you've finished to try and make it look better than it is. Don't pad your CV with terminology and 'skill' bullet points that add nothing. My first attempts at CVs both suffered from these problems -- I was simply spamming phrases, technologies and buzzwords instead of talking about what I'd actually achieved with my most important skills. Bullet point-driven skill-heavy CVs tend to be impersonal and anonymous. There is nothing to distinguish one from another.

E.g. "Fluent grasp of C++, Direct3D, OpenGL, TDD, OpenAL, LINQ" = noise. Compare that to, "In my spare time, I developed a small C++ game featuring ; the rendering was implemented using D3D using features, including to drive a particle system".

I.e. give your skills with plenty of context, not as some detached list of headless bullet points. Luke Halliwell has some really good articles on CVs, so I'll redirect you to his post rather than ape it.

Don't talk a load of balls

This is more for programmers, but when it comes to interviews, less is often more.

Be prepared to have your CV grilled. If you talk a good game on your CV, be prepared to be called out on any and every detail (this is why you should never embellish your CV with skills you don't have...). You should think about your decisions and be able to justify them. E.g. if someone asks you why you used language x for assignment y, you should be able to say why. "Since the application wasn't required to be fast, I used Java as it freed me from having to track memory allocation, meaning I had more time to concentrate on feature development" is better than "because I always use Java". If you cannot justify yourself due to making a poor decision and you learned something from the process, this is the ideal time to talk about it. It's not the ideal time to defensively trot out excuses. Self-awareness and the ability to reflect on projects (successful or otherwise) are very important things.

If an answer should be explainable in 3 sentences, use 3 sentences. Don't keep on talking until your course is gently steered on to the next topic. There's nothing wrong with being nervous, but try not to ramble because it just gives the impression that you're vainly groping for the right phrase. If you don't know the answer or you're unsure as to whether your point was understood, just say so. It's much better to say "does that answer your question?" than to talk for 3 minutes solid, hoping you ticked some box.

Finally, have faith in your own opinions. Don't flip flop based on what you think the interviewer wants to hear. Bosses aren't interested in hearing their own opinion parroted back at them -- they want to hear what you think.

If at first you don't suceed

Try try try again. If you attended an interview but didn't make it, politely ask if the company can offer you any feedback on your application. Then, work like crazy for months and re-apply when you feel it is appropriate. It took me many months to get my foot in the door, but if you genuinely want it, you can most likely beat the door down through sheer persistence.

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yeah thanks Defrag. Your post helps me for my dreamposition as an technical artist.

But I guess the schoolpart depends on the school. I don't have a lot of freetime. I work like 60-70 houres

the week for my school. But luckely we are doing a lot of projects so it compensates my projects in freetime.

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Here's my take on what one should do to gain a design position. Some things may apply to many more fields, even outside the industry but some are more specific. Most of this should really be common sense, then again not everyone shares that. I tried to be as thorough as possible but I know there will be other things I'll add later on.

What one should do before even applying :

1) Work on yourself before presenting yourself or your work:

- Make sure your work is the best you can make it. Doesn't have to be world class unseen before material, but it has to be pushed as far as you can. Finished, polished work only.

- Do your homework. Search the company(ies) you want to work for. What they did before, what they're working on, what engine they use. Play their games, and if possible try and toy around with their tech, see if you can grasp its philosophy.

- Work on your presentation skills. Practice your phone answering skills, cover letter writing skills. If you are subject to stress, the more training you get done now the easier it'll be when the interviews begin. For overseas interviews, be prepared to talk pro-grade English. Your language skills don't have to be perfect, but there is no question you need to both be understood and understand. As you would in a face to face conversation

2) Work on the presentation you are going to give:

- The application you are going to send is the passport of your own personality and yourself. It represents you, and until there is a second contact, this may be the only link between you and the company.

- Make it clean, respectful of your work, yourself and the person you're sending it to. Realize that the number 1 reason for anyone to do anything is their will. Make the recipient want to contact you back.

- Present key items and information from the get go, don't make anyone go look for it in an obscure email or web page. Your contact info should be the easiest info to find in your application.

3) Work on your network

- The more contacts you have in a given field, the better. Learn even more about the companies you're applying to, and start building a network of recruiters BEFORE you actually are ready to send applications around. This takes time, time you won't have when hard pressed to find a job.

- Use social networking sites such as LinkedIn, this industry is extremely young of age and spirit and you will find tons of people willing to help you out.

What one should do when applying:

1) First contact

- FIRST OF ALL, search the individuals you'll be sending your application to. Time to get personal. No need for over the top stalker like precision, but knowing how to pronounce and write the recipient's name goes a long way in earning their respect, and a simple allusion to one of their hobbies if you share the same never hurts either. Reason I say this is the first thing you should do is you may very well get a phone call minutes after sending your application. Prepare notes, know who you're talking to. In a business relationship, this would be common sense, so time to realize you're selling yourself out there.

- Send one email, to as many different recruiters within the same company as you know. No CC, no BCC, but maximize the effect of your email. Know that they will receive 200+ each day in some cases, and you want yours to stick in the crowd.

- Never copy and paste the same email to multiple companies or recipients. Make each email personable, and you won't ever forget to replace X for Y when sending the email to company or person Y.

- Always include your NAME and the job description you're applying for in the SUBJECT header. It's a lot easier to find again in a huge stack of applications

- Keep the email short and sweet. Make sure they know why you're sending this, so be clear too. You always want to copy all applicable contact info at the end of that email too. Don't hesitate to put your phone number and hours of the day you can be reached. Don't forget international area codes if you are applying overseas. Don't make the recipient go look for that info, again make it easy for him/her to contact you back. Don't overdo it with lots of details, you want to make sure the important info is there, and assure the recipient that you remain available for any question they might have.

- The email address you're using should be easy to access and professional sounding. Create a new one if you have to, but your MSN address is probably not the wisest choice. Again under the same principle as having your name in the subject header, your email address should be easily recognizable and remembered. Best would be to create one under the same domain as your own website/portfolio

2) Second contact

- In case no one has answered your application, even with a no, wait for about a week before sending a second one

- Second email should simply ask whether the first one was received. As much as you've been waiting for a reply, don't get emotional. Give the recipient an easy way out instead of making them feel bad they haven't replied yet. In most cases this will get you a reply right away.

- In case the answer is no, reply back with an invitation to remain in contact and to add you to their network, LinkedIn or otherwise. Make sure they know you remain available for future opportunities

- In case you get a phone call, know that this is where the process starts. Remain polite and don't interrupt the person on the end of the line, always ask a few questions at the end of the phone call if applicable, just to show you really are eager to go in more details about this. Nothing too specific the person wouldn't know. The most important thing you want to leave this convo with is a firm opportunity for a second phone interview, or even an on site one. At the very least both sides should understand what the next step is going to be. Don't hang up until this is clear on both sides. If you do, you may still never hear back from that person again.

3) Phone or on site interview

- Prepare yourself again, be ready to explain to great lengths your design process, how you work and why you took certain design choices.

- Learn who you'll be talking to. In most cases you'll get an invitation to take part in that phone interview, so you can prepare yourself. Know in advance who will be participating too, and as in the case of the first contact, learn more about them, their past work, and what they would be in relations to you in the company.

- Let the pros do the talking. Be clear you know your stuff, but don't overdo it trying to impress anyone, there will be time for that when you get the job.

- Be a teamplayer. In this industry more than in others, no position you may have would have no effect on any other's work. This is a prime quality to show, and make sure everyone knows you can work under a tight schedule and with this in mind. If you are reading this post and trying to break in, these two things are the ONLY things required of you as a newcomer.

- Make sure to ask early on when you present yourself whether you should ask questions at any time or only at the end. This helps tremendously as no one feels obligated to cut it short. Most seasoned recruiters and managers will actually make this point clear from the get go.

- As in the first phone call you have had, make sure to know what the next step is. You may have to do a test, in which case ask as much info as possible about this. Deadline, work required, etc. That way you won't have to wait for any recap email that may not even come with the details to that test, and you can start as soon as you hang up the phone

4) Interview aftermath...

- If the company isn't confident you're the best person for the role, never hesitate to ask feedback on your own application. What was missing, what can you work on to improve on your own skills.

- If the company wants to do even more interviews, remain at their disposal but don't put yourself in a tough situation either.

- If the company wants to hire you on the spot, the negotiations can start. Of course remember you are likely a newcomer so there isn't much room for bargaining, but don't undersell yourself.

- If multiple companies are interested, this is where you are left with negotiating power. Don't hesitate to place each company in charge of your own destiny and make them want to have you even more. However be very careful. This industry is relatively small and turnover is quite high. There aren't many studios without ties to other companies out there, and the last thing you want is to burn bridges with either one.

That's as far as getting a job is concerned. I'll try and post the second part of this post later, regarding how to behave and work once you're in, to keep your job.

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Thanks about that Furyo, useful read!

I read numerous times that you couldn't really get a job by mail and had to phone, and I'm not talking about interviews but about the follow-up to sending your application. I'm wary about harrassing the company with phone calls to enquire about the status of my application. I'm afraid it won't do much good, since I'll probably first reach a secretary who won't know, pass me somebody who might, only to get told that if I didn't get any news, it's because they didn't have the time to check it and so I have to be patient.

According to what you wrote, it seems you suggest mailing again instead of phoning, waiting for the company to phone you instead. It is closer to what I thought was the right way, but I'm an outsider, so if anybody could confirm or deny that, it'd help me take a decision.

Second question, you work at Ubisoft Montreal, and I was wondering, is it mandatory to use the Ubisoft career website to send an application. I just don't know if its the best tool since it seems to force your CV to be plainly text, to have you create a generic profile/cover letter/CV that aren't really aimed at any company, and I don't know if it'll let me send attachements (even though a job offer asks for game analysis documents). I didn't complete the profile creation because I was waiting for my portfolio to be ready, but it still looks like it won't let me do exactly what I want. Would it be alright to find the address of the company's email and send it directly, or does it increase the chances to get rejected or lost? For instance, in France it seems that there's a single ubisoft contact address for 3 companies (Paris, Montpellier, Annecy), so I'm afraid it won't ever reach the right one. Or am I just too harsh on the career portal and there's options to send specific CVs and cover letters to a company even though a generic set exists in your profile?


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The things I'm advocating really are the way I do things, even outside the industry back when I was working in marketing. So anyone can pick and choose too, as this is hardly a comprehensive list. I'm just tired of seeing guys sending absolutely disastrous applications when they should know better but no one ever told them.

So back to the topic at hand. A phone call can work too, but in my opinion and experience it should be the last resort. Like after the second email. Because you risk reaching the person at a bad time, and that would make your chances even slimmer. Let's face it you're going to have a lucky day if you can call someone who right at that moment has 5 minutes of completely spare time to give to you. And again, why would he/she do that?

As far as Ubisoft is concerned:

It is mandatory to use the corporate website for people that don't know any better. As for any company, there has to be a corporate page for recruitment and careers but that doesn't mean these applications are the main pool from which we hire people. If you're smart about your application you can find two dozens recruiters names in this industry in a matter of seconds. That'll get you somewhere a lot faster.

To me sending an application straight to the right person is the BEST chance you can have. Some may not like the idea, but no one would ever reject an application on that fact alone. As far as France is concerned, there is to my knowledge two different HR persons for our studios, then again I've been out of the loop for a while there. I know the ones I did know have moved on since then. You can also try AFJV, as my former lead in Montpellier had originally posted his LD position offer straight there himself. If you can bypass the original HR screening and be an interesting candidate to your future manager, that will go a very long way too. But Moroes would have more info on what goes on in France.

As for Ubisoft Montreal, my first intuition would be to contact Dan Tememe straight away. Dan is a senior recruiter here in Montreal and was quick to join our own LinkedIn group and post occasionally in our recruitment forum. He may be able to help you even more.

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I need to ask about portfolio building. I like to play around with web site building but when it comes to building something really solid.... I am playing with wordpress at the moment but there I would need a really good theme for the layout. Can anyone recommend a good way to go as far as site building is concerned? Want to start to think about this good and early.


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