This article appeared in Gamasutra's 2016 annual Game Career Guide, which is free to download.
Let’s say you’re looking for a job in game development. Maybe you don’t even want a fulltime position at a big studio, you just want someone to throw some work your way so you can get your proverbial foot in the proverbial door. But everyone seems to want experience first, don’t they? How the heck do you get that unless someone hires you?
There are lots of ways to do it, and all of them depend on diligence, intelligence, personality, and a bit of luck. One path that I’ve seen work multiple times is attending game conferences.
Simply getting to an event like the Game Developers Conference (or GDC– which, full disclosure, is run by this publication’s parent company, UBM), E3, or even PAX can open up doors you never even knew about. You’ve just got to be ready and willing to be a nice and earnest person to capitalize on these opportunities when they arise.
To illustrate how this can work in the real world, I tracked down a few people who got jobs, or at least connections and the inspiration to become a game developer, because of their time at a conference. And they all attended with the cheapest (or most free) pass available to them, so you don’t have to break the bank to do it either.
But getting in is the first step, isn’t it? Some conferences have scholarships for students in need, as part of diversity initiatives, or in exchange for some work. GDC has their conference associate program, E3 has student scholarships, and PAX has their enforcer program. All of these can get you free admission in exchange for a bit of work. But once you get in there, it’s all about what you do next.
Lara Lunardi is an aspiring game dev, still in school. She got an internship at an Adult Swim-affiliated studio because of her time at E3. And she gets in for free. “Every year since 2013, I volunteer at E3,” she says. “They run a program that allows students to get in if they are willing to work for four hours, which might be during the show or not. I worked in their international department, since I speak multiple languages. Every year they recruit me back for the same position. I work a bit and then enjoy the convention.”
So how did she turn this convention attendance into an internship? “As much as I love expos, the best way to meet people is definitely at after-parties,” she says. “At the expos, people are usually rushing around, trying to get to meetings or check out games. After-parties are more relaxed, and you can find people in their comfort zone so they are easier to approach.”
Her method works best for extroverts, who have no trouble jumping in and mingling. That’s not for everyone, but if that’s you, pay attention. “Usually I do go up and talk to people,” she says. “I also have the terrible habit of breaking into after-parties I wasn’t invited to. Not saying you should do that—in fact, you probably shouldn’t! But if you do, pretend you belong there and don’t go fangirling because you spotted the guy that writes for World of Warhammercraft or something. You’d be surprised at how uncomfortable most of them feel about that!”
How do you turn these fun hangouts into something useful, then? “Some conversations result in mentoring, which is extremely valuable if you want to be successful in this industry,” Lunardi says. “Learning from the people that are doing [what you aspire to do] gives you new perspectives on your work and career. But other conversations may result in something more substantial, like a job. Recently I met one of the creators of Robot Chicken and we just instantly became friends.”
But nobody’s going to just give you a job because you’re personable. “This gig was definitely not handed to me,” she says. “I was lucky that I had [that creator] as a referral when I applied for their summer internship. Stoopid Buddy Stoodios was the first to give me a chance–which is surprisingly difficult to get when you’re in college. But it still takes the right portfolio and résumé and being in the right place at the right time to get a gig.”
Lunardi’s advice for anyone trying to break in at a conference? Build up a good portfolio. “The industry is very competitive, but never let that scare you or keep you from accomplishing your goals,” she says. “Get your work out there, do game jams, make inspiring games, and make shitty ones too!”
But don’t let your extroverted ways get the better of you. “Keep in mind that this is still a small industry and a lot of people know each other, so make sure you treat people nicely and leave egos aside,” she says. “No one’s work is perfect and everyone has room for improvement.”
Jarryd Huntley is a game maker from Cleveland, Ohio. He works fulltime as a coding bootcamp instructor at We Can Code IT, but he also teaches game development part-time at a local community college, has a newly founded studio, and is an organizer with the local game dev meetup group. They’re currently working on a mobile game called Art Club Challenge. Phew!
For Huntley, GDC was the turning point. He got to GDC through an expo pass program targeted toward women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks, which is an initiative I myself run every year. He had to scramble to get travel together in time, but once he got there, things started to come together.
“Some of my best and most valuable connections were entirely happy accidents,” he says. “I ended up staying in a house with some friends and a few people I didn’t know. This immediately gave everyone some sort of connection. If you get a chance to go, you should try to stay in the ‘indie hostel’ at GDC, find other indies in your hotel lobby at breakfast time, or even in the airport or on the plane.”
This theme of new friends spans throughout our narrative, but as with all human interactions, you should aim for quality over quantity. “If the conference spans multiple days, be sure to keep in touch with your new friends: They can help make connections and in turn introduce you to more friends,” says Huntley. “I followed my friends to a number of parties and networking events. As they ran into old friends, I was introduced to them.”
You don’t need to be an extrovert to draft along with some pals to an event. “Parties don’t necessarily need to be loud or crazy–oftentimes there are parties to play board games, playtest each other’s games, or are situated in a chill venue. These can be great if you’re a quiet person.”
“If you happen to by a shy or introverted person, try traveling with a friend or focusing on making one friend at a time,” he adds. “That can give you a person to shadow, which can be another way to approach networking. The important thing to remember is that industry friends, no matter where they are, were in your shoes at one point and can relate and help you when needed.”
For Huntley, attending GDC wasn’t about getting a game dev job; at first he just wanted to get involved. “At the time, I was working in IT managing servers and infrastructure for a large bank, but I wasn’t actively shopping for a job because I wasn’t sure I was qualified enough,” he says. “In talking with people at GDC, describing my job responsibilities led a few of them to ask if I was open to exploring job openings that they felt I was well-qualified for. I feel like sometimes focusing on making a friend or connection before focusing on getting a job prospect can lead to opportunities you may have missed otherwise.”
Now, GDC didn’t lead directly to a job, but these conversations did set him on the path toward fulltime game development. “I didn’t end up getting the two jobs I applied for at the time,” he says, “but those connections have been more than worth it. Also, not getting a job isn’t a statement about you or your skills at all; it just simply means the match wasn’t right at that time.”
As some parting advice, Huntley says you should focus more on hanging out with cool people than just hustling for work. “If the choice is between getting a résumé to a recruiter or making great friends who can call you when a position matching your skill set comes up, I’d choose the latter,” he says.
After GDC, he’s gotten a lot done, and seems to have caught the networking bug. “I travel a lot around the US and Canada to meet with other indies, learn about their local communities, and make connections where I can,” he says. “I’m currently head organizer and act as mentor in the local Cleveland Game Developers meetup group. I’ve consulted on design for a number of games and work closely with the Greater Cleveland Film Commission, a local nonprofit focused on job creation through entertainment, to help foster the game development community here in Cleveland.”
What more could you ask for?
Jesse Harlin has been in the industry for quite a while, and has worked on some big projects. He’s currently a freelance composer at Dunderpate Music and spent many years at LucasArts as their in-house sound designer. He’s been the composer on titles such as Star Wars: The Old Republic, Mafia III, Marvel’s Avengers Academy, and CounterSpy.
But even for him, it started with a GDC expo pass, which was the cheapest one he had access to (a student pass is cheaper). He headed straight for the job fair, a section of the conference with recruiters trying to woo bright-eyed and bushy-tailed prospective game devs.
“I hit every booth I could,” he says. “I didn’t know a damn thing back then. I remember walking up to the guys at the Blizzard booth and asking them ‘So…. are you guys, like, a developer? Or a publisher? Or what?’ They didn’t even try to hide it when they rolled their eyes at me. Sixteen years later and I’ve still never come close to working for those guys. Anyway, I went from booth to booth asking companies if they outsourced the music for their games.”
“Out of pure chance, LucasArts happened to be there and to be hiring for a staff composer,” he adds. “We chatted, they liked me, and they asked me to do a phone interview. Long story short, I didn’t get the gig. But they said they really liked me and that they wanted me to keep in touch and let them know how I’m doing. So, I went to grad school instead. The next year, GDC rolled around and I went up again on another super-cheap expo pass.”
This is where his persistence pays off. As you’ve no doubt noticed, staying in touch with the people you meet is a strong theme when it comes to getting jobs out of conferences. Harlin’s story is no different. “I made it a point to go find the LucasArts booth, stop by, and just say ‘Hey, guys. I’m still around. Here’s what I’ve been up to with grad school and composing. Would still love to talk if you’re looking to hire again.’ And that was it. Eight months later, they called and said, ‘We have another position and would love to chat.’ I started at LucasArts about 12 months to the day after my second GDC Expo pass adventure.”
Harlin’s advice will be unsurprising to you but is no less important for its familiarity. Especially keep in mind the ways in which people like to maintain contact, and whether they want to at all. This requires some social skills and is a learned trait, but a very important one.
“I’d recommend to anyone attending something like GDC that they keep in mind that networking is a long game,” he says. “It’s not about who you meet there so much, because you’ll meet a ton of people if you put yourself out there. It’s about how you maintain the connection with those you meet. Don’t pester. Don’t make yourself an annoyance. Learn to read when someone is interested in talking to you or not. But if they’re interested, don’t be shy about staying in touch with them. If you can genuinely laugh with someone every time you run into them, you’re going to find that you each want to find a way to work together.”
Del Northern is a concept illustrator and environmental artist living in New York. So far she’s done illustration work for a few titles and their soundtracks, such as Crypt of the Necrodancer, Robo Puzzle Smash, and Rain World.
Del Northern and her cover for Crypt of the NecroDancer OST
Her expo story is similar to Jarryd Huntley’s, in that she attended using a pass grant. And for her, as a shy person, it was all about being open, friendly, and distinctive. “I suppose my approach was just walking down the street with a Magfest hoodie on,” she says, “since that sparked a completely spontaneous conversation with a stranger. That stranger happened to be one of my favorite composers ever, Jimmy Hinson [Threes, Borderlands 2]! And I have to be grateful that Jimmy is such a sweetheart to just off-the-cuff introduce me to his friends right then and there, who were also some of my favorite composers ever.”
Her meeting was a bit more dramatic than some, as she admits. “Once we exchanged cards, out of GDC habit I guess, I recognized his name. Then there was a lot of crying and gushing, what with being so starstruck. But I suppose the ‘artist’ title on my card piqued his interest, and we started talking about that!”
For Northern, as with many others, this wound up turning into a hangout situation. “It was just that one night of hanging out in a hotel room with a bunch of game composers,” she says. “There was a lot of friendly chatting and having fun as friends would! I was starstruck, showed them how much of all their music I had on my phone, and gosh, they were super humble and loved the fact that I listened to their work on a daily basis, which blew my mind. Either way, my being a visual artist in a group of composers made for a lot of art questions coming at me, and wanting to see my work, so it got shown, and I tried my best not to be shy.”
“Long story short, a few days later, I was contacted to do some surprise birthday art for one of them, Danny Baronowsky, and that went so well that the next commission I got was for an album cover for Crypt of the Necrodancer. Once that got out, I had more people offering me work than I could handle.”
As a shy person, ignoring the kind of fangirling advice given by Lunardi, this was a pretty big deal. “Essentially it broke me in, way harder and faster than I could have ever imagined,” she says. “I’d made some incredible friends, and friends know friends who could use an artist!”
Her advice for those attending an expo for the first time mirrors Huntley’s as well. “Don’t network, make friends,” she says. “I mean, networking is fine and all, but especially in the indie game scene, a friend will get you farther than a person who has your name on a card, in a stack of a million other cards. Of course, if you’re super good at networking then I guess have at it, but it’s important to use your time at big conventions to meet people, and not just to toss a card at them. You should just try to have lots of fun, to the point where you can’t wait to see them all again at the next GDC or PAX or what have you. It’ll get you a lot farther and be worth a lot more to all parties involved.”
I’ve had these sorts of experiences as well, time and time again. One of the first groups of people I met at a conference went on to become Capy Games, maker of Sword & Sworcery and Below. I managed to convince a Thai company with cool ideas but no English language writer that I should do story work for them. A Japanese game developer I met at a conference wound up giving me a shot at narrative direction. Now, as the owner of a small game studio, I’ve gotten publishing deals by keeping in touch with people I met at conferences ten years ago.
There’s no formula to this stuff. But if you have a chance to attend a conference, and you know someone with any kind of network, go hang out with them there. Meet some other people, and make some friends. If you like each other, maybe you’ll work on something. Or if you’re looking for that one big job, make sure you keep in touch with your recruiters, ask them about new listings, but try to keep your connections personal. You don’t want to force the issue.
Above all, be friendly, be kind, and don’t spend too much time on anyone who gives you bad vibes, or feels creepy, or like they’ve got ulterior motives. Likewise, don’t be that way to anyone else. Get into conferences, follow these simple instructions, and who knows what could happen?
Brandon Sheffield is the director of Necrosoft Games and the editor of the 2016 Game Career Guide. He’s currently working on Gunsport, which you could describe as 2v2 cyberpunk volleyball with guns. He advises for conferences and festivals such as GDC, Reboot Develop, and the Sense of Wonder Night and likes making connections for and with other game developers. Find him on Twitter at @necrosofty, and give him a high five.