Like many people, I suspect, my first attempts at getting a game design job were anything but flawless. The demo I sent to Free Radical as part of my application didn’t work, and when I sent them the source code it had several glaringly obvious bugs (missing breaks in a switch statement, perfect for inspiring programmer glee*). And then, when I arrived for my interview, I spent so much time waffling on about how working in the bakery at Sainsbury’s had perfectly prepared me for working in game development that I very nearly irritated them into not giving me a job at all.
So as a follow-up to my previous article, I thought it would be useful to share some tips on how to improve your chances of getting that game design job. These are based on my experiences both applying for work (which, as a freelancer, I still do a lot of) and from several years recruiting game designers at Free Radical Design.
1. Have a good, complete demo
Nothing demonstrates your design skills better than building something that’s interesting to play. It’s also a great way to demonstrate your grasp of code, art, animation and audio, and how they all fit together to produce a coherent experience.
But even the best demo will fall flat if it’s plagued with bugs, littered with unfinished content, or is obviously imbalanced. This is why it’s essential to ensure your demo feels complete. This isn’t to say anyone is expecting something of a AAA standard, but small things like providing a title screen and appropriate tutorial elements for new users can make a big difference.
Just as with retail games, it’s better to deliver something small and polished than something ambitious but incomplete. By doing so you demonstrate the ability to manage the scope of your work and the determination to actually finish things, both extremely handy skills in game development.
2. Contact developers direct
Agencies are incredibly useful – not only can they help you apply for lots of roles in a short time, but some companies recruit exclusively through agencies, meaning you’ll have to go through an agent to get those roles. However, the flip side to this is that agencies always aim to send their clients lots of CVs, meaning that every time you apply through an agency, you risk your application sinking in a sea of similarly-qualified candidates.
The alternative is to apply for game design jobs directly, where you can. A unique application clearly targeted at just that company (see below), sent straight to them, is essentially a message saying ‘HEY, DEVELOPER, I WANT TO WORK FOR YOU AND ONLY YOU’. All other things being equal, companies will always take the candidate who really wants to work for them, rather than the candidate who just wants a game design job anywhere. A direct application is a good way of convincing them you fall into the first category.
3. Customise your application
You may have read stories of aspiring developers who built entire demos, mods or websites to show off their CV or to apply to a single company. That’s a great way to mark yourself out if you have the time for it, but it’s okay if you don’t. That doesn’t mean you can’t take a little inspiration from their approach though, by customising every application you send out.
One easy way to do this is to tweak your covering letter to reference the company’s name and some of their recent games (a little flattery about how much you like their games rarely goes amiss, either). If the job has a specific description, something else you can do is tweak your CV to emphasise the skills and experience you have that the job specification mentions. And if you’re sending work samples, prioritise those that deal with games similar to those the company already makes.
When I applied for my first game design job, my covering letter to FRD began ‘Following the release of your critically-acclaimed debut title, TimeSplitters, I noticed that you are looking to expand your team…’. This sort of detail is a simple but effective way to get your application noticed.
4. You’re unlikely to be the perfect candidate, and that’s okay
All job specifications are an ideal, and the vast majority of people who get game design jobs don’t fulfil every single criteria of the job specification. So don’t be put off if you don’t have every single skill and bit of experience it lists – you’ll probably never be the perfect candidate. Instead, your aim should be to persuade the company that you’re the closest thing they will find to a perfect candidate.
5. Respect the developer’s time
Few qualities are more desirable in a game designer than the ability to be concise, so make sure your entire application is as brief and to the point as possible. Mainly, this involves being selective – your covering letter should highlight just a few key points, letting your CV and work samples do the rest. Similarly, any work samples should be brief and to the point.
Developers are, by and large, incredibly busy people, so by sending a short, punchy application, you’re already demonstrating respect for their time. Plus, the shorter the application, the better the chances are that they will look at the whole thing, meaning they have a much better chance of understanding everything you can offer.
It might seem like sending dozens of work samples, or a hefty design document, is a good way to demonstrate the breadth of your game design skills. In fact, it simply highlights an inability to self-edit. Instead, send on just a few, short and diverse samples of your work.
6. Do your research
If you’re fortunate enough to get an interview for a game design job, research and preparation can make a huge difference to your chances. This isn’t just because it will give you more confidence, but also because the very act of preparing indicates to the developer that you’re someone who takes a thorough approach to their work.
There are two obvious areas worth researching. Firstly, the format of the interview, such as whether there are any tests, and who will be interviewing you. If this information wasn’t provided when you were invited for the interview, and it’s not available anywhere on the developer’s website, then go back and ask the developer ahead of time.
Secondly, make sure you have played at least one of the developer’s games. Then read some reviews and critiques of their work, and if you can find them, interviews with or blogs written by company staff. The aim here is to know not only the games the developer has made but to also understand a little of their culture and approach to making games. During your interview, you can then highlight how you think you can fit in. (But don’t try and draw awkward parallels between baking bread and making games, for this never works out well).
* – Programmer Glee, the cheerful and exuberant emotional state experienced by a programmer when they discover a bug in somebody else’s code. The intensity of this emotion is usually completely out of all proportion to the severity of the actual bug discovered.