Sometimes a Stormtrooper costume and a great sample is all you need to get a job at Epic Games.
For many of us, working on the videogames that we've loved since a child is a dream job. The truth is that the people who go to an office to spend their days modeling characters or designing levels are not locked in an ivory tower, they were human beings just like you or I once who had to suffer through the ranks to make it where they are today. At a panel at the East Coast Game Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina this morning, six grizzled game designers and game company leaders parleyed over 60 years combined experience at companies like Epic Games, Red Storm Ubisoft, Insomniac and Electronic Arts to offer insight on how to stand out from the crowd of applicants. The number one thing that each person mentioned is to have a great example of your work to show off, even if that might be outside the normal purview of videogame design.
"Someone asked me last year what I would feel if someone turned in a pen and paper game design and I think that would be great," said Keith Friedly, designer at Insomniac currently working on Rachet & Clank: All for One. "We don't expect that if you're a student that you'll be able to show a finished AAA game, but if you have something that shows the way you think and how you design, and then when we talk to you, you're then able to explain that. I think that would go a long way."
Just getting that first interview can be tough, and it's important that all your submissions (incl. resume, cover letter) are as polished as possible. Use your spell-check kids. Tim Johnson, recruiting manager at Epic Games, said that sometimes gimmicks might work, too. "We got a guy who we hired who dropped his resume off wearing a Stormtrooper costume," he said. "Everybody wanted to know when they saw him 'Who is that guy?' That shows passion, it shows creativity and those weird kinds of things have worked."
One thing that's clear from hearing about how each of these guys got hired is that you're not always going to be working on the game that you might have dreamed about, or that you can even get a full time job with a game developer. "In today's environment with the amount of layoffs in the industry the last few years, if somebody is offering [temporary] contract positions they are probably just being honest with the flexibility they need," said David Hamm, formerly with Atomic Game (Breach).
Ryan Stradling, general manager of EA's North Carolina studio who just finished up work on Madden for the 3DS, was very direct in what he looks for in a candidate. "Are you smart? Can you get things done? And are you gonna work well with others? Those are the three things that I look for," he said before stating that you want to put your best foot forward by showing your best sample art or level first.
Both Jonathan Lauf, the art director at Atomic Games, and Sandy Dockter, a recruiter from Red Storm Ubisoft who led the panel, said that it's important to get out there and make something to show, even if it's an amateur student project or work on a mod team.
The sad reality though is that even with all of this advice, it's still going to be extremely difficult to get an entry-level position in games because of simple mathematics. "Last year, we hired .4 percent of people who applied," said Tim Johnson from Epic Games. "Just as a comparison, 8 percent get into Harvard who apply, and .6 percent get into the CIA. I'm not trying to say that it is harder to get a job at Epic than it is with the CIA, but it is just based on the numbers."
What that means is that you'll have to work extremely hard just to get noticed, but if you have the talent, drive and passion to set you above the average applicant, you might just end up making something that the world will love to play.