Breaking Into the Industry: Full Story of One Game Developer
April 14th, 2015
As I am writing these words, I am seven months into my first full-time video game industry contract. Hello, my name is Sergey, and I am a game designer working on Rime for Playstation 4 at the Madrid-based studio Tequila Works.
Unlike many other articles of this sort, the goal of this one is not to convince you that the road that lead me to where I am is the one that everyone should take. I don’t believe that there’s any rule of thumb for reaching your life goals, and I highly discourage you, dear reader, from making the same life choices that I did.
This post is above all something that a 15-year-old me would want to read. It is a complete and true account of someone’s journey toward a goal that seemed to be so distant, dubious, but matching his own. Perhaps this story will give some of you a little bit of confidence that all of us lack from time to time. Maybe it will help you understand the difficulties that you might face in the increasingly near (trust me on this) future. Or, at the very least, it could mentally prepare you for these difficulties.
If you are an aspiring game developer, rest assured, there are many of us who know exactly how frustrating your path can be at times. I understand how easy it is to lose your resolve. I’ve been there, and I want you to know that you are not alone and that there are people out there who understand how difficult it is. I also know that hearing this from someone who is already in the industry is not the same as hearing it from your peers, your friends or your mom. At least it would be different for the 15-year-old Sergey who wanted to become a game designer.
This account is completely personal and in a way, selfish: it is a continuous, solid line under the first chapter of my life, which ended on September 30, 2014. Hopefully, it will help me remember where I started and why I got myself into this horrible, yet wonderful mess that is the video game industry. Besides, it’s raining in Madrid, so I have nothing better to do tonight.
This story, not unlike many others, begins with a 10-year-old kid who decides to make a video game without having any idea of how to do it. Before that kid started his journey toward one of the most closed and surprisingly conservative, entrenched even industries in the world, he had a very particular kind of childhood. I think you might relate, so let me set the scene for you:
We are in Kiev, Ukraine, the city where I was born and spent most of my life (which explains my appalling English, by the way). It is May 28, 1997, and I’ve just gotten my first computer as a birthday present. I am six years old, and this is one of the happiest moments of my life. My father installs Doom from a pirated “500 best games” (or was it 1000?) CD, and we play it together (he walks and aims, I shoot monsters by pressing Control). We also finish Wolfenstein 3D, Hexen, Heretic, Quake and Quake 2, Duke Nukem and many other FPS games in the same way. A year or so later, his computer engineer friend (uncle Zhenya) comes over to do some upgrades to our PC and installs C&C. I am amazed. I spend the next few years playing Warcraft and Warcraft 2, Tiberian Sun, Red Alert and Red Alert 2, Dune 2 and Dune 2000, Commandos, Heroes of Might and Magic II and III. I also play racing games, RPG games, flying sims and many, many other classical and modern PC games.
Later, my whole class at school plays first baseball cards, then pogs, then Pokemon trading cards and eventually Magic: The Gathering. All the while we play Half-Life, Diablo 2 and Prince of Persia at home and skip classes playing Counter-Strike and Warcraft 3. You get the idea.
Since my childhood was all about games, it was only natural for me, in the autumn of 2001, to start plotting the creation of one. I sketched a couple of characters with various abilities in an old notebook that I found somewhere in a forgotten drawer; then I enlisted a couple of my classmates, including a pretty good artist, to help me. Unfortunately, apart from her, no one on our little team had any useful game development skills (us being a bunch of 10-year-olds). I was the only one with enough motivation to start asking around about the tools used for game creation.
I kept asking and asking, and eventually I started to get answers. At some point, I asked a guy who was selling pirated software. Side note: Dear reader, please don’t be shocked, I am not a horrible person; all the games and software sold in Ukraine were illegal at the time. The guy was knowledgeable enough to point me to 3D Studio Max and Maya 6, and I was curious enough to demand how to make things move. For that, the guy said, one needed programming. This little conversation marks the moment when my quest for tangible game development skills began.
I got my parents to buy me a book on Maya and another one on Borland Delphi (suggested by the salesman who said that it was a good language and tool for beginner programmers). I was excited to start learning something that would finally allow me to make my first video game, just like Etherlords or Cossacks (I was increasingly aware of an emerging domestic game industry). Unfortunately, this didn’t quite work out as I lacked some basic knowledge about things like coordinates and coefficients. For some reason, the books’ authors assumed that their readers were technical enough to understand the basic principles of physics and mathematics. I did manage to create a program that calculated distances based on speed and time, which made me proud of myself, even though most of it was a direct copy-paste from a tutorial. I ended up making a pen-and-paper RPG that was suspiciously similar to Diablo and Dungeons & Dragons.
Fast forward four years: I’m about to graduate from middle school, I like writing, I hate mathematics and I like physics even though I don’t get terribly good grades. I manage to win prizes at writing and physics competitions for middle-schoolers somehow. I have also started my first informatics class where I think I am the king. I have discovered the Internet way before my classmates and spend most of my time posting song quotes on my personal blog. Another thing I do on the Internet is hanging out on a forum of my favorite local weekly magazine about computer games called My Gaming Computer. It is through this forum that I discover that writing reviews of video games is very similar to writing book reports, so I try writing one and, of course, fail miserably.
It takes me two more attempts and a co-author to finally publish my first article. It is a two-page preview of a dinosaur RTS game called Paraworld. I will never forget seeing my name and obnoxious teenager nickname next to an article in a printed magazine for the first time. For the 14-year-old Sergey, this is a big deal. I write and publish more articles, some with co-authors, others on my own. I don’t know how many there were exactly, but I know that the magazine didn’t pay the majority of its freelancers and owes me money to this day. Naturally, I jump at the first new job opportunity I see, and that job opportunity is PC Gamer Ukraine. My Battlefield 2142 review helps me land the job. Now I’m a staff writer and translator (almost half of the articles in the Ukrainian PC Gamer were translations of pieces from PC Gamer UK). With my first paycheck, I buy an iPod Classic. I am 16 years old.
While working at PC Gamer, I get to witness the 2008 indie revolution first hand. World of Goo makes a lasting impression on me; Braid becomes a massive hit, Castle Crushers comes along, and I decide that this is exactly the kind of games that I want to make myself. At this time, I’m also forced to make choices about the rest of my life. The end of high school is approaching at lightning speed, and it is then that I remember my childhood fantasy of making video games instead of describing them to other people.
I start listening to game design round tables from regional game development conferences, I read articles on local game dev websites. Someone recommends Gamasutra to me. I pick game design as my discipline, because I figure that I’m not technical enough to be a programmer, but not artistic enough to be an artist. It is from the round tables that I understand what being a game designer means, and how you are supposed to be both technical and artistic. I read more articles and books.
As my high school graduation approaches and exams are just a year away, I announce to everyone that I’m going to apply to KPI (Kiev Polytechnic Institute), the post-soviet MIT. My parents are shocked, but also relieved. They’d just seen me go through a phase of asking for an electric guitar for birthday. By comparison, going from a literary and humanities high school to a technical university seems like a great idea. I take intensive math classes and get into KPI. My major is Computer Science and Industrial Automation for chemical engineering.
At some point, I attend the Casual Connect conference in Kiev as a journalist and try to find a summer internship at one of the companies that are present there. It is terrifying. I talk to a bitter 50-something game producer who does everything he can to discourage me from trying to get into the game industry. He tells me that my writing is good and that I should just stick with what I know, that production is messy and is a bad idea for most people, that he regrets ever setting foot in the industry. After three days of hearing people talk about player acquisition, retention, ARPPU, DAU, etc., this almost makes me cry. Nevertheless, I keep insisting that I want a job in the industry and that an internship at his company would be a great opportunity for me to learn the ways of production. In the end, he gives me a test task and a business card. I have to write an initial treatment document for an original game concept by the end of the week.
I do write the document within the deadline, send it over with a cover letter, and then get a phone call from the producer. He says that my concept is great, that it is clear and well-written, that he wished his designers would produce documents like this. Then he says that he has to admit that he never had any intention of hiring me in the first place and didn’t think that I would take the task seriously. I say thank you and hang up the phone. A couple of months later I go to college.
Luckily, I already know how to code, and I’m inexplicably good at physics, so I manage to get through most of the bachelor’s program without having to invest too much time. I prefer to spend it studying game development things, including C# and C++. The only problems I encounter are with the chemical engineering side of things. I fail Chemistry 101 twice before finally passing it, and the same goes for Materials Science 101.
I pass both in the end, and I graduate. Now that I look at my thesis about automation of petrol production, I can’t help but wonder how much money I would be making if I had any intention at all to follow a career in engineering. But that’s beside the point because I spent all four years of the engineering school studying first game design and then…Unity 3D.
This next part is a little messy because of all the things that were happening at once, but bear with me please, because it eventually leads us to where I am now.
Unity came along when I was halfway through my bachelor’s program. I started doing tutorials and enlisted a friend to help me with my first game, Missy & Mandelbrot, spiritually inspired by World of Goo. It never got finished, but it helped both of us learn a lot about Unity and game development in general. The current version of Unity at the time was 2.5, and the community was small but also very friendly. This is where I made my first contacts in the game industry. Some of them became my friends.
In the winter of 2011 I was getting slightly desperate with M&M and needed a break. It seemed like the game had a lot of design flaws, and I had no idea how to solve them. Besides, my friend, who was helping me with it, could not invest as much time into it anymore.
Then I heard about a competition for Unity games with Flash version and decided to participate, which is how Dédale happened. Although I didn’t win anything then, I got a lot of encouraging feedback from people on Unity forums, and everybody kept saying that I should make it into a mobile game. I did exactly that. I released Dédale in the summer of 2012 for iOS, Mac, and PC. My first finished commercial game. It seemed like my whole life up to that point was leading up to that release.
At some point in the summer of 2011, I decided to study French. My English, I figured, was bearable, and it was time to move on to a new language. I counted studios in different countries on Gamedevmap, and it turned out that French was the second most popular language in the game industry. I signed up for a class right away. The reason I mention this here will become clear a little further.
While everyone was making fun of Google+, we probably had the biggest community of independent game developers around on that social network. Discussions were lengthy and interesting. You could ask for help, and help would always come. At some point, I was bitching about game design education programs (to this day there’s no such thing in Ukraine), and someone showed me a French graduate school that was free for international students. I just needed to pass the entry test. I decided to apply the following year.
So yes, in 2012 I was working on my bachelor’s thesis while studying French, preparing for my entry exam at a French grad school and working on my first commercial game. Work-life balance, you say? Never heard of it. In fact, that same year my parents got divorced, and an old friend of mine died in an accident. I will probably never forget that year because it would also be the year when I moved to a foreign country.
Since I didn’t know whether I would get into the grad school, I was also browsing game design jobs in the local game industry. Google+ came to the rescue once again. Someone from a major international studio with a Kiev office commented on one of my posts, I contacted them and eventually landed an interview. I did three interviews and got the job.
More or less at the same time I also got my results from the French grad school: I got in.
I had a few days to decide: start my career as a game designer the following week or postpone it for two years and spend those years getting better at what I did while working on personal projects. In the spirit of the indie movement that I found myself involved in, I chose the latter. Three months later, I found myself in Angoulême, France, and one of the few people in that master’s program who’d already worked on and released a commercial video game.
During my French séjour, I made a couple of games that got some press attention (although nothing major) and helped me learn a thing or two about the inner workings of the industry. Paradis Perdus, Lune, Pineapple Dreams, 74:78:68, Event and Spotlight all got featured on multiple video game websites and even in some magazines. Dédale helped me realize something: it turned out that making a game wasn’t enough; you also had to let people know about it. Otherwise, you would have a game that nobody played, and there’s nothing more frustrating in the whole world.
More to the point though, the two year game design program at ENJMIN (that’s the name of the school) let me do just what I was hoping to do: whatever I wanted. I could dedicate as much time as I wanted to making anything I wanted, and I still believe that this is the only valid approach to learning game development. Just start making stuff, and skills will come. If you finish something, you can add it to your portfolio. I kept at it for two years.
Most French universities require you to do a professional internship every year, and ENJMIN is not an exception. A three-month internship after the first year, and a six-month internship after the second year of studies. If you don’t do the internship, you don’t graduate, it’s that simple. My first year internship was at Unit 9, a UK media production company that happened to have an app and game development department. Working on a mobile runner game was fun, but pretty far from my vision of my future career in the industry.
In winter 2013-2014, there was a conference at ENJMIN, and one industry professional came to our school as they often did. He told me that he knew people who work on Rime, and that caught my attention right away. I sent him an email; he forwarded my resume to Tequila Works. I got a reply; we had a couple of phone calls, and eventually they gave me the internship. Six months later, after my internship was over, I got a real contract, which is where I am now. Game Designer is officially my profession, as in I’m getting paid for contributing to a video game.
Can you take exactly the same path and land a job in the industry? Probably not. Chances are, you come from a different background and live in a different country. On top of that, the industry itself is very different today. Way back when people kept telling me that the only way to get a game design gig was through game testing, but that wasn’t true for me, and once I actually got refused a job as a tester because I was overqualified for it. Some people said that doing modes is the way to go, but that is clearly not the most obvious path now that Unity and Unreal Engine 4 are out in the wild.
To be honest, I have no idea how you, dear reader, will break into the industry. The industry is weird and small, and doesn’t like newcomers. It likes people with experience, and to get that experience you need to have experience. It has always been this way. It will probably still be true ten years from now.
The only piece of advice I can give you that I personally believe in is this: don’t give up. Keep trying. Keep doing stuff and keep showing it to people. Keep asking for feedback and keep improving your skills. Keep applying for jobs and internships and keep teaming up with other people (un)like you to boost your collective game dev-fu. You’ll get there eventually.
Oh and one more thing: don’t listen to bitter and cynical people who sound like they have it all figured out. Nobody does, so it’s okay if you don’t either.