Summer is rolling hot and heavy over the city and I wanted to take some time to cool down and reflect over the Will Work for XP series. Running for nearly a year and a half now, it’s been very personally rewarding to chronicle my experiences as a newly-minted game designer. I owe tremendous thanks to the NYU Game Center for hosting me!
As I cross the threshold from completely green to someone with a handful of solid titles under my belt, I find that I’ve slowly grown out of the original focus of the series. Or, as some friends have put it, “Will work for XP? Aren’t you working for money now?” While there’s plenty of room for discussing the not-mutually-exclusive relationship between working to learn and working for a living, they have a point. I’ve progressed out of the role I set up for myself when the series launched, and it’s time for me to say adieu.
For my last update in WW4XP, I want to talk about how to land a game design internship. Internships are one of the surest paths to fulltime employment, and there are a good number of companies here in NYC that supplement their teams with interns. I began as an intern at FreshPlanet almost two years ago and have since hired and managed interns of my own, so this should be an appropriate bookend to the series.
5 Steps to Landing a Game Design Internship
1. Work on your writing skills.
Game design is a field that relies on communication that is both precise and thorough, and the first impression you make on a potential employer is most likely through your writing.
You need to better than average writing skills, which should include a solid grasp on grammar and a serviceable vocabulary for describing technical processes. This is especially true in the NYC area, as game designers here tend to fall into more “generalist” roles and switch hats often; it’s fairly likely that you’ll be doing content design along with some community support on the side.
When I’ve seen applications that lack this level of polish I immediately begin wondering if the candidate is capable of writing the detailed documents that are necessary to spec out new features, or if they’ll be able to engage professionally with the player community. Writing skills alone won’t secure you an internship, but lacking them can definitely harm your chances.
2. Have a positive web presence.
Though the process for bringing on an intern is generally less involved than hiring a staff employee, it’s still common to Google candidates in the screening stage. If you have a portfolio site or a career blog that ranks high when searching your name that’s a plus, though only having a LinkedIn is also acceptable when you’re looking for intern-level positions. Be careful with Facebook and Twitter, which are well-crawled and will vault what may be your personal accounts to front and center. Anything you have sitting publicly on social media sites is more or less fair game when you’re being considered for an internship.
3. Make sure you’re actively searching for opportunities.
When you’re first starting out it’s unlikely that anything is going to just fall into your lap, so you need to be proactive. Search local mailing lists, contact companies about whether they’re hiring interns, scan LinkedIn and even Craigslist – that’s actually where I first saw an internship listing for FreshPlanet!
Occasionally opportunities WILL come to you – so keep an eye out for them! For example, someone may contact you on LinkedIn about a small gig or you might come across some students looking for another team member to help with a class assignment. Never pass up the chance to learn more! These seemingly small projects are perfect for building your portfolio, and more importantly, your reputation. Once you’ve established yourself as a hardworking young game designer you’ll be surprised how many more leads land on your doorstep.
4. Apply to ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING!
I’m not exaggerating: apply to absolutely anything and everything that is relevant to your interests and even remotely within your range of qualifications.
I addressed this way back in the first post, but it really can’t be overstated. Not to go all motivational poster here, but you’ll miss out on 100% of the opportunities you don’t pursue. In a best case scenario you land the position and it turns into an unbeatable learning experience that springboards the rest of your career. In the worst case scenario you never hear back.
From what I’ve seen, there are two main mental blocks that keep people from applying to opportunities that otherwise interest them.
Version A: “It looks cool but I’m not sure it’s exactly what I want to be doing” or “I don’t know if I’ll accept if they offer me the job, so I shouldn’t apply.”
Apply anyway! The best way to find out if the position is right for you is to apply. If you make it to the next stage and are asked to do an interview, you’ll be able to learn so much more about the position than just looking at the job listing. Interviews are the perfect time to ask all the questions you want.
If you find out the position doesn’t sound like a good fit, it’s perfectly fine to let the other party know that. Busy, talented people are likely to be looking around at more than one place and companies are very aware of this. Even if you’re offered a job, you don’t have to accept it. The only real requirement here is that you remain upfront and courteous with the other party.
Look at applications as a chance to learn more, not as binding agreement that you’ll take any job offered to you!
Version B: “I don’t fit the exact qualifications for this” or “I don’t think I’m what they’re looking for.”
Again: apply anyway! If you make a strong case in your cover letter, you’ll be surprised how well employers respond. This may be less true for more experienced roles, but the requirements for internships are typically much more flexible. Sell yourself by talking about your relevant experiences, which can include coursework, personal hobbies, competitions you’ve entered, blogs you maintain on the subject, etc.
If you’re completely positive you don’t cut the mustard but you’re still interested in the role, try contacting someone with that position and offer to take them out for coffee. You’ll be able to get an insider’s perspective and add them to your network! Which leads to…
5. Find a community.
Okay, yes, this is the “networking” section. With that out of the way, it’s important to note just how small the game industry is. Narrow that to game design, then further to game design in the NYC area: you’re left with an exceptionally tiny group. There are rarely more than 2 degrees of separation between working game designers around the city, which makes the community invaluable.
Go to events like the IGDA + NYCGI Barcade meetup, or the NY Gaming Demo Night – both of which are held monthly. Sign up for the free lectures hosted by the NYU Game Center. Check out the mailing list I run. Drink lots of coffee/tea/beer with lots of different people!
The NYC games community is far more cooperative than it is competitive, especially on the individual level. Get to know and love your fellow game designers, because they’ll be the first to give you a heads up about open positions or potential freelance work. And if you are contacted about an opportunity that you’re not interested in, please, spread the goodwill!
A Not-So-Small Caveat
This is all assuming that you have experience making games. Let’s not beat around the bush here: unless you have some special outstanding circumstance, you WILL need experience making games to get an game design internship. On an infrequent but recurring basis I’ve seen internship applications from people who have no experience making games of any kind, which is about as odd as someone applying to a programming position but admitting that they’ve never actually coded anything before. Eagerness and hard work can bridge pretty significant gaps, but they only go so far!
The good news is that as far as internships as concerned, this experience can be broad. All types of game design experience are valid, from making card games, to teaching game-making to kids, to creating mods of your favorite PC titles. This experience can come from classes you’ve taken, projects with friends, or solo experiments. To really show off, make a simple online portfolio describing the games you’ve made and what you learned from designing them.
If you want Super Bonus Points, regularly submit to different competitions and festivals – having one or two games accepted into a festival will set you apart, especially if you make an award-winner. It’s easier than you might think! The Escort Quest later ended up taking home “Best Game of DCGames Festival 2011” and a Grand Prize of $1000.
It’s been a blast writing this series, and if anyone reading it has learned even a fraction of what I’ve learned from writing it, I will count that as a success. I’m always available for a chat via email or Twitter, which you’ll find below. I wish you all the best as you navigate your own path through the games industry!