It used to be as little as 10 years ago, you could get a job at a large game studio and feel pretty secure.
Plenty of junior-level positions were open, and almost every skillset was in demand.
My, how things have changed.
Now, if you want to work at a large company, they ask for 5 years of experience and 2 shipped console games for most every decent position.
And who knows? If you get the job, maybe you'll be fortunate enough to get laid off right after your game ships.
If you do really well, your game will get canceled, and you won't even be able to talk about it in future job interviews.
And maybe, just maybe, if the stars align, you won't even get paid for your work.
For some reason, a lot of you want to work for large companies that will use you up and throw you aside.
By the way, this isn't because these companies are malicious.
They're just poorly structured.
Maybe you want security - even though you're likely to do better financially when you're only accountable to… you.
Or maybe you want experience with working on a team - though that can be earned by putting yourself out in the industry, going to game jams, being social, and being a part of the massive community.
And perhaps you want to work on one certain game franchise - this drastically limits your opportunities, but that's fine.
Most likely, however, you're scared to put yourself in the line of fire, get bruised, fail, and have only yourself to blame for your setbacks.
DON'T GO THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR
Thankfully, the industry is getting better and better, but the more people that enter it, the more the onus is on you to get the best work possible.
If all you're doing is submitting resume after resume wondering "Why are less-qualified people getting the job?" then you're totally screwed.
These studios get thousands of resumes all the time.
And the top-performers? They're the ones who didn't even apply for the job, but were asked directly to work with them.
If you're trying to get the best opportunities by going through the front door, you'll be waiting in line for eternity.
The ones who get the best gigs are the ones who built their own experience first.
They freelanced, got really freaking good, built their networks, and as a result, get all the best gigs.
They don't just "show up" and hope for the best.
They don't dabble.
They don't jump from shiny thing to shiny thing, wondering what their "passion" is.
They don't try to be a game developer on top of being an internet celebrity, a renowned ballet dancer, and a top-rated chef.
They focus on just three things:
- Building their network (by focusing on making real friends)
- Working on projects that will move them and those around them forward
- Saying "no" to anything that doesn't fit in the top two
And as a result, all the best opportunities come to them.
THIS IS HOW IT WORKS
The process that AAA studios go through when they're hiring for a coveted position goes something like this:
- They put the job posting online (this isn't always the case - the best jobs get filled before they're even posted.)
- An internal, employee-only email is sent out asking "Hey, does anyone know someone who could fill this job?"
- Someone responds with "Yes. I have a friend who would be great."
- Then that friend gets the job.
- Any resumes that were received weren't even looked at, providing the recommendation worked out.
Does this apply to all positions? No. Of course not.
But for the most competitive ones like audio designer, or concept artist? This is extremely common.
"But Akash, you lascivious fountain of milk chocolate, if I get hired as a [position I don't actually want] within the studio, one day they'll eventually hire me as a [position I actually do want]."
No. They won't.
Many studios prefer to keep their employees on the "track" that they're currently on.
They're investing thousands of dollars to train you at your current job. They don't want that to go to waste.
And honestly, if you're spending 8-10 hours of your day as a QA specialist, then what are the odds that they'll notice your audio abilities?
They'd much rather hire the person who's been spending their days as an audio designer, working on games constantly.
Again, this isn't universally true, but it is a trap that many fall for.
HERE'S THE CATCH
Working for yourself is infinitely harder than working at a large company.
You have to manage yourself incredibly well, put yourself out there in a thousand different ways, be good with money, and struggle for years before anyone notices you.
You also won't make much money at first.
Though freelancing can (eventually) earn you exponentially more than the same position at a AAA company.
You get to work at your best in whatever environment you see fit.
Then, when you get really good, studios will be knocking your door down, begging you to work with them.
And they'll even pay you more than their full-time employees - often for working less.
Hidetaka "SWERY" Suehiro - creator of games like Deadly Premonition and D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die, put his transition from working in a studio to owning his own company very well.
Note that he left his original studio job due to health concerns (surprise surprise) which have completely cleared up now that he's out on his own (surprise surprise surprise)
Boom. Drop the mic, SWERY. You've earned it.
I'd like to leave you with one more quote from one of my favorite authors:
This doesn't mean you'll get paid well for your work right away.
And it doesn't mean you'll get the best jobs immediately - you're going to have to work on a ton of garbage to get to the good stuff, no matter how skilled you are.
But it does mean that you can sidestep most of the typical advice given to us:
"Work somewhere for 10 years, then do your own thing."
"Just get good at what you do and people will notice."
"If you want to work in this industry, expect not to make any money."
IT'S NOT FOR EVERYONE
Is freelancing for everyone?
No. Of course not.
Some people prefer to work on a large team and want an office to go to every day.
That's totally fine.
We need large studios to provide tons of jobs and create huge games like Mass Effect and Assassin's Creed.
We couldn't have those games without these behemoths.
And some developers live and die by daily, in-person communication.
But that regimented life isn't for me, and I know it isn't for a lot of you either.
We live in an incredible age of abundance.
Every single one of us has the capability to make a great living working in this industry, all the while dodging some of its worst flaws.
And it comes down to how much you're willing to fight for it.
By the way, I am a huge proponent of having a day-job if the game dev money isn't coming in just yet.
This advice is to keep you from falling into the common traps associated with this industry and wasting years flailing around.