Mailbag: breaking in (again)

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Mar 082014

Hello Mr. Koster, my name is J___ A_____ and I am a recent college graduate with a computer science degree. I came across your name on the Wikipedia article about MUDs, and noticed the link to your website and in turn this contact form. I realize this is a complete shot in the dark but I’ve gotten so many friendly “no thank you” letters recently I figure the worst that happens is you never reply.

In 1993, I began playing a hack and slash Rom 2.3 mud called Creeping Death, and completely fell in love. In 1999 I taught myself C and with the help of a friend, we put up our first MUD. I have been actively coding them off and on ever since. A few years ago I went back to school and pursued a Bachelors in Comp Sci and am desperately trying to break into the video game industry. Outside of mud coding I have little expertise in game design. My question then is this:

Do you have any advice for somebody who is in the same position you once were? Can you possibly suggest anything that may increase my chances of obtaining a job in video game design? I have applied for positions with several of the “Big name” developers, such as Blizzard, Bethesda, Epic Games, etc as well as several smaller companies. Understandably so I have been turned down for each position. Do you know of any companies that are perhaps friendly towards hiring somebody in my position?

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I look forward to hearing back from you soon. Additionally, please feel free to post this to your blog, be it to offer advice to others in my situation, to laugh/shame me, or for any other reason you deem necessary. I would simply appreciate any sort of reply. Thank you.


First off, sorry for taking so long to reply!

I suspect that these days, there are two big truths that affect your chances:

  • People don’t really look at text-based games anymore. So your mud coding won’t show off skills relevant to the sorts of companies you have been applying at. It’s too hard to pull out what parts you did, it takes too long to dive into the games, and it just doesn’t look cool.
  • The big dinosaur companies might be your passion, but their dev teams have grown into giant machines built out of highly specialized people. Because of that, entry positions are rarer. You’d have much better luck pursuing smaller shops.

My advice would be to break out of MUD coding and teach yourself some coding for mobile devices, for web-based gaming (HTML5 or backend stuff like node.js), etc. And these days, if you’re a self-taught bootstrapped game dev, your odds are terrible if you don’t have a few indie portfolio projects to show. The barrier is low now, and not having made a couple of games you can play on an iOS/Android device or on a webpage is effectively a strike against you.

See, the filter here that many employers will use is “motivation.” Games are hot now, and everyone says they want to be in the industry. But given that there’s no huge barriers other than time, the way to get in the industry is to just get in it. Don’t be fooled by the idea that the big companies are the entirety of games. Nothing shows actual motivation and passion more than just going and doing it. When companies see a young person these days without a portfolio, they ask themselves whether he wants to be in games just because it sounds cool. For better or worse, an awful lot of candidates show up these days with a degree and a dose of entitlement — “I did my four years, hire me.” Having a finished game or two to plop down on the HR person’s desk is proof of actual commitment to the craft and the hard work. I suspect that is even more true given that you are a bit older than the typical college graduate.

You aren’t like that — but you’ve been doing all that MUD work — but the MUD stuff is unfortunately not easily demoable. So you need some portfolio stuff that is easily demoable. I bet your odds skyrocket. And who knows, you may find that the small team indie thing appeals to you.

If you don’t feel comfortable with the game design side, I suggest you partner up with someone who does. It’ll both be a learning experience, and it’ll be to your mutual benefit in terms of portfolio development. And trust me, there will be no shortage of aspiring designers knocking on your door if you tell the world “I’m a coder who wants to help a small indie project.” Locate one of the many indie game communities out there on the ‘Net — there are a lot, and not knowing more about you, I wouldn’t presume which sort would be right. Go to a few Game Jams.

Above all, don’t give up. The paths to entry are wider open than ever, but that also means that a far larger percentage of those who try don’t end up making money or finding a career. Persistence is key.

Good luck to you!

  15 Responses to “Mailbag: breaking in (again)”

  1. With regards to the last point, “don’t give up”, I say this too. However, in many cases, I’m not really being honest. For some people (I’m mainly talking about students here, not the person who wrote to you), giving up would be their smartest move. They don’t have the talent to pursue their dream job, and no amount of hard work is going to get them it. Nevertheless, I repeat what I’d say to someone in their position who did have a future in the games industry and hope that I’m wrong (while knowing I’m not).

    Head versus heart, I guess…

  2. Hello Raph, thank you for your reply. I’m the one who sent you the email, and I will take it dearly to heart. I HAVE been attempting to do some minor stuff with the XNA framework, but having just had a kid recently I had to back burner it to finish school. Seems like now I’ll have to dust it off.

  3. Josh,
    HTML 5 is a valid path if you want to be web based.

    I would suggest trying Unity, since you have C# experience.

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