Managing Your Entry Level Game Career
The question I get asked the most when I meet gamers is, "how do I get a job in games?" I usually talk a little bit about different ways I have seen people break in, but I can go into the most detail about my own experiences, starting out as an entry level Customer Service Representative.
I entered games early in 2002, going to work for Sony Online Entertainment in Tech Support the week that the Shadows of Luclin expansion launched. And anyone who lived through that expansion can imagine that doing tech support for it was a baptism by fire. It was the expansion that retired Windows 95 support and the graphics update required a lot of players to upgrade their memory and graphics cards, and it still didn't run smoothly for a good chunk of them. I learned a ton about the industry during this time and have had the chance to grow my own career and watch others grow theirs. So, what follows are some of my observations and experiences about people growing up in a game company from the entry level.
First, it comes to location. As much as we talk about how communication technology is enabling a global workplace, it's not for the entry level employee. So, this means that if you are stuck in a small town in Iowa, like I was, then you have to kiss your mom goodbye and move to one of the game hubs. Prime locations are: San Diego, Austin, Seattle, San Francisco Bay Area and Boston. It may be a sacrifice at first, but working onsite will prove to be better for your career in the long run, as you gain more exposure across the company.
You don't necessarily have to move to look for work at a game company, but if you're not willing to move without a job lined up, you'll need to be patient. Watch for games that are launching in the next three months. This is about the time that Customer Service and QA staffs are ramping up for submission and release. Their job pages will start filling up with full-time and contract positions that usually pay between $9 and $15 per hour.
Even still, the likelihood of a recruiter in San Diego calling someone in Wyoming to interview for an entry level position is small. Somehow, you will have to "get yourself" to the area so that they will call you. I've met people who used local friends' contact information in the hopes that they could land a job with their dream company. Companies won't pay relocation for these positions, so be prepared to pack light.
Moving up and out of CS and QA requires one to be humble. It sounds harsh, but the fact is that the entry level employee is as expendable as a register jockey at 7-11. You're at the bottom and you have to accept that for what it is. You'll deal with developer arrogance and dismissiveness. You'll deal with cracks about your low status within the company. You'll be stereotyped according to the traits that the worst of your co-workers exhibit. To quote Jerry Maguire, "It's a never ending pride swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about."
It's not right and it's a tough situation. But the ones who will move up and out of the entry level are the ones who power through it, earning their individuality. It's not only about doing your job effectively, it's also about earning the respect of your co-workers and supervisors. Keep all of your external contacts positive and stand out from the crowd. No matter how much the job sucks (and there are times when it truly does), you have to remain a positive person. The entry level is full of people who spend their breaks in the smoking circle complaining about their idiot customers or about how the company doesn't respect them. At best, these guys will stay at the entry level for years. More likely, they'll end up on a new career path (see 7-11 above).
From the pits of QA and Customer Service, the world is your oyster. You can have a view from the bottom of the rest of the company and all of the directions in which you can move. Although your day is filled dealing with customer calls or reproducing bugs, you also have potential for interaction across the company. Use these interactions as networking opportunities. If you have an issue that needs to be escalated beyond your department, grab the opportunity to make a new contact.
From my own experience and observation, Quality Assurance has a slight advantage if their goal is to move up and into development. For the most part, Customer Service spends their days dealing with known issues, fixing accounts, troubleshooting tech problems, getting players unstuck from walls and the like. A QA tester has the opportunity to become an expert on new issues and has more opportunities to interact with developers and become known as an individual.
Making the move out of your entry level position is a combination of luck, timing and general awesomeness. Generally, you have to keep your eyes peeled for any role that might come up that you think you can fill (that's the luck part). But there may be a hundred or more other CS reps eyeballing the same position, so that's where your history and reputation have to be strong (the general awesomeness part).
Timing is partly a function of luck. One of the best times to make a move is usually in the last six months of development. Often, a team will find that they have the tools and technology in place, but are sorely lacking in content. Managers begin to realize that there is no way that they can hire a dozen new designers to fill the gap without breaking both the schedule and the budget. So where's the most readily available pool of cheap talent? It's right in house in the CS and QA departments.
So, a number of entry level employees get picked to help fill the gaps. Usually, they aren't doing very interesting work, but they're getting in the door. They're placing rocks and flora in the game world. They're placing spawn points and building camps out of the art assets. If they're lucky, they get to write quest text for a hundred "kill 10 rats" quests or name all of the NPCs in an area. They aren't yet having the deep design discussions that will define the game, but they're learning the tools and getting to know the team.
As you're making your way up, make note of one thing: not all opportunities are in development. In fact, development may not even be the most interesting place to work in games. Sure, there is appeal to being creative and creating systems and content, but there are a ton of places where you can contribute to the game outside of Dev. I've built a career as a community manager mainly because I get the opportunity to interact with people across the company and learn more about the overall business, from development to customer service to marketing and beyond, better than most people.
Finally, if you do find yourself working in an entry level position at a game company, enjoy it while you are there. Be ambitious and look to move up, but don't make it your sole reason to be there. If you do, every additional day you spend in your current job will be that much more frustrating. I've seen that the best friendships in a company are in CS and QA. The best YouTube links come from these departments and the best extracurricular activities (D&D campaigns, road trips, tattoo adventures, etc.) are happening here. Sort of like college or boot camp, your co-workers are the people who were there with you at the start of your journey and you'll form friendships that last through your career.