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

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In my experience, what engine you have experience with only gives you a small boost when it comes to being hired: it's always a plus if your future colleagues don't have to train you and you can jump right in. But it is more important to see relevant experience and quality level design in someone's portfolio, no matter what they built it with.

When I mean quality LD, it's a lot of different things combined together, like showing you understand what you're doing and why, showing you can stick to the end and finish something, balance it, that you have an eye for detail, that you know how to lead a player, that the spaces you build are well sized, that you have good scripting experience, that you can create something original that stands out, that you are able to present all those facets of your levels in a straightforward manner through your portfolio and interviews... (a lot of people I interviewed through the years may have been good but were bad at showing that.) And of course there's the actual professional experience which reassures potential employers that you've gone through development and all of its intricaties and can work as a team, deliver on time, etc. 

Without the professional experience, you have to do a better job at showing you're a good LD through the content of your portfolio and through LD tests that companies give you to assess your skills (and usually start as intern/junior because it's still a bit of a bet for employers, and in some cases because they know you're desperate and they can offer you a shit pay while knowing you'll give all you've got). With relevant pro experience, you're already half-way there and usually the interviews are where the selection happens. When I say valid experience, it's stuff the studio you apply at can use, for instance if you worked on racing games for a while and applied at a FPS-centric company, they may have some reservations about you and have to dig through your personal projects or really drill you at interviews to determine if you'd be worth their investment. That doesn't mean your racing game experience is bad, it will have taught you valuable skills and you'll have gotten through a game's dev process at least once; just that you may have a tougher time convincing employers that you're a good fit if you have no experience in the kind of games they do (rather than with the exact engine they use). Also, completed personal projects are always a plus in any case, whether you have pro experience or not.

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It would probably be a good idea to get at least one thing done with a modern engine, because there are some staples of modern engines that potential employers will wonder if you can quickly jump to. For instance visual scripting would be one of those things: if you only ever used old school scripting engines, people may be concerned they have to 'teach you' visual scripting and favor someone who does have that experience. It's probably worth grabbing Unreal Engine at one point or another in your journey to get up to date with that. But like I said, shit content in a portfolio isn't saved by modern engines, whereas old school but great content + selling yourself at interviews can work.

However, the opposite phenomenon can happen, where focusing on what you really like and not what the current demand at employers is ends up paying off. For instance building cool content with Bethesda or Valve's toolkits can lead to employment at such companies. It's a choice you have to make, whether to follow what you love and hope it will lead to great things, or mix it up with experience that meets the popular demand to get some doors open and vary your options in the future.

Personally, I started doing what I loved, not thinking too much about future employment, then over the years moved on to doing stuff that could get me hired more easily (more known engines, smaller/more frequent projects, higher profile games...) but that's not necessarily the best course for everyone.

Edited by Corwin

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Man, I have been applying twice a week for the last couple months and  it can be really demotivating.
I have had responses from a couple companies, but none positive so far.
It basically all comes back as " Thank you for your interest, but we have other candidates who better fit our needs. We'll keep your resume on file, ect ..."

On a couple occasions I have tried to ask for feedback from the recruiters, so I could improve myself, but I haven't heard back from any of them.

I think my portfolio is pretty solid, but I would appreciate it if you guys could take a look and give me your brutally honest opinions on what to improve.
http://marnamai.interlopers.net/

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I'd say get rid of the "3D Artist" section, it's not very interesting + having a focused portfolio is always better(imo)

and I assume you wanna do level design anyway.

A lot of companies looking for leveldesigner state that they want someone with 3d experience, I find it hard to justify saying I have 3d experience without showing examples of it.

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Yes, focusing portfolio is not a good idea at all. If you can make a 3D art, show it. If you can make nice pictures, make sure to put that somewhere in your folio. When I'm checking someone's website I want to learn as much as I can to know if you'll fit into the team. Often it's not experience and your levels but your "kind of being" - if you're easy going, finishing projects, willing to learn and accepting feedback then you're on a good way.

I mean, it depends actually on the employer. Some companies, or I would say, serious leaders will take your different experiences and skills as an advantage (photography will prove your art and composition skills/understanding; adding your steam account link will allow us to take a look on your gamers you play and if we want an active player then this is how it can be judged on the first time - before the call or studio interview), lazy or uninformed bosses can be like "Get rid of it, you're LD and it stays like that". As you can see, it comes to the responsibilities. If someone want to make you a cog in the huge machine, they'll check your most important and main skill. If someone wants to build a team of experts that will work smooth and independent then probably they'll be looking for people with leadership skills and positive attitude, knowing many different aspects of working in the industry etc. It's hard to find that kind of people and I think that only huge companies can effort to hire such guy when they already understood their value (the candidates of course, not employers ;)). So when making a portfolio, create an image of a great employee, not a cog in the machine. It's not like you should be a one-man-army kind of designer but the openness for new experiences and skills should be somehow presented. It shows how you're wired, it's a part of your attitude.

In short, imagine that you start with 100 points and you're getting negative points for anything that you don't need for this current dude you're applying to. One can leave you with 5 points left because you have crap that he's not interested in (which can be really wrong idea for hiring) or someone can give you 85 points because of some minor stuff and he actually liked it and he found what he was looking for.

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Very interesting post @Corwin, thanks for sharing. I just got a new hosting yesterday and I'm gonna put my own portfolio back up.

I've been wondering recently if it would be positive to make a portfolio page tailored to the employer one is applying at. Like say highlighting stuff made in CryEngine if applying at CryTek when one has multiple engines skills. Or just in general find a way to tailor the page to a company, like you do with cover letter.

And speaking of letters, can it be that one is dismissed straight from the letter of application, and the website is not even looked at? I dunno, just had a very quick look at marnamai's portfolio, but gave me the impression of someone who mainly designs maps, the comments about 3D surprised me a bit. 

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Very interesting post @Corwin, thanks for sharing. I just got a new hosting yesterday and I'm gonna put my own portfolio back up.

I've been wondering recently if it would be positive to make a portfolio page tailored to the employer one is applying at. Like say highlighting stuff made in CryEngine if applying at CryTek when one has multiple engines skills. Or just in general find a way to tailor the page to a company, like you do with cover letter.

And speaking of letters, can it be that one is dismissed straight from the letter of application, and the website is not even looked at? I dunno, just had a very quick look at marnamai's portfolio, but gave me the impression of someone who mainly designs maps, the comments about 3D surprised me a bit. 

I personally wouldn't adjust the portfolio for a single company, just for the fact that you may be applying a different ones at the same time. It's hard to know exactly what the company is going to be interested in based on their ongoing projects etc. so better mention everything in a way that's easy to browse through and get the gist of it (experience with what tools, strong points, extra skills...) and let them cherry-pick what suits them (IMO)

I wasn't really saying that marnamai's portfolio is necessarily bad in the way he shows his 3d art skills, my post was more of a general point about how to sell yourself, and then an example of how that could apply to his portfolio. For instance I would say it'd be more critical (IMO) to add more info about the projects he's worked on than to restructure the pages he has.

I don't know about cases where employers stop at the cover letter. In my experience, who cares about cover letters? They all sound almost exactly the same, and even when the candidate gets a little original with it, it doesn't stand on its own anyway and can just maybe give you an idea of the personality of the candidate. It could go no further than the resume I guess if the experience on it is way too little compared to the needs for that position, but personally I always click the portfolio link (or LinkedIIn if there's no portfolio) out of curiosity and for the sake of being thorough.

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@Corwin @seir But to get a junior position, do you have to know exactly which way to go ? Let me explain. I've worked on several small projects as game designer or level designer, probably something like 45/55. Just like I did at Eden Games where i've been 4 months level designer and 4 months game designer. Now on school projects, I've also often been the project manager 'cause I've obtained school mates' respect. 

So, I love game design, I love level design, I like managing a small team, I love the technical side of a project. I don't have any preferences right now, I love all of it. SInce I can get a technical job, it would be fine to me. What should I do? Should I apply to both game design and level design positions? I don't want to keep working in small teams, I want to be at Epic, Ubisoft, Avalanche, Arkane, Wild, Playground, Techland and others. What does the industry need right now? 

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I don't pretend to have the all the answers, but in my opinion you need to figure out what you want to apply for first. That's probably quite hard to do if you like all those things equally, but it's necessary. If I imagine someone working at Epic or another one of those companies you listed and receiving 2 applications from the same person, one for junior game designer, the other for junior level designer, I would expect them to be a little put off by the fact that you don't seem to know what you want. Those can be vastly different jobs and sets of responsibilities depending on the company.

Of course, even if you 'choose wrong' and realize working as a GD or manager or LD is not fulfilling, there is always room for growth/change at most companies: once you know the team and they think of you as a person/colleague, not a name on a resume. Even bringing up the fact that you don't know whether you should apply as a GD or a LD at an interview can be valid, because you've established that human contact and can explain your situation, and interviewers can sympathise with you. I think it's that first step where they don't know anything about you and you must make a good enough impression to move on to the next steps of the recruiting process that it's going to be hard to cross if you don't know what you want.

Could work if you have contacts already at a company though. This may even be a case of you visiting the office and spending some time with both GDs and LDs to get a gut check on what you think would suit you the most, but again that assumes you have this human contact with someone at that company.

Sorry that there's no formula to getting hired, it's a lot of luck, a lot based on who you know too. Beyond that, it's pretty much common sense, and trying to put yourself in the shoes of the recruiter and seeing how you come across as a candidate.

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