Some of you already know that my career started out in the gaming industry, and I get questions about how I got in and advice on getting started there pretty often.
So, first, some background.
Around late 2002, I was in college, and I was a high-end raid leader in a MMORPG called Dark Age of Camelot. After the release of a new dungeon (Darkness Falls), we heard rumors that there was a secret boss that was tougher than the final boss, and I led a raid to try to figure out how to force it to spawn and beat it. It was a giant worm named Beliathan. It was, in fact, tougher than the final boss of the dungeon – but we beat it anyway. Unfortunately (or, fortunately for my career), it didn’t drop any items – which was both unusual and disappointing for a raid boss.
I sent in a GM ticket, thinking it was a simple bug, and that the loot got lost in the terrain or something. A GM responded telling me that killing that boss was “impossible”, because it was supposed to be unkillable. I sent in screenshots.
I still feel pretty good about that.
Long story short, that resulted in getting me a volunteer position as part of Dark Age of Camelot’s “Team Lead” program, which was a sort of hybrid between Quality Assurance* (which I’d never even heard of at the time) and a precursor to modern day “Community Manager” positions for MMOs. I helped Mythic test content – specifically raid encounters – before they were released, and also served a spokesperson to the player community. I ended up getting a lot of “world first” accomplishments with my raids, although admittedly by modern standards many of those would probably be invalidated because of the fact that I was in communication with the company.
Working as a “Team Lead” wasn’t a real job, but it did have the benefit of sending me to E3 to meet with the game developer team for next few years. At E3 in 2003 or 2004, I met with a few people from another game company that I was a fan of. They were working on a new game you’ve probably heard of – World of Warcraft.
After meeting them and seeing how great the game looked, I applied for a few positions there.
I didn’t get in right away. I applied for things like Game Design positions, which I didn’t have any prior resume credits for. I don’t think I ever even got any replies on those.
Around the same time, though, I did get some work writing for tabletop role-playing games for White Wolf. I responded to an open call for writers, and got a couple entries into a book for the Scarred Lands. Serendipitously, this led to getting asked to do some work on the tabletop RPG for World of Warcraft. I wrote for several books for that line. (Don’t look up my writing for that stuff – it’s truly – my contributions for that were embarrassingly bad. I was a teenager for most of it, and let’s just say it shows.)
Eventually, in 2005, I applied for Blizzard’s Quality Assurance department and got in. Some of the main factors that helped me were my prior experience as a raid leader and my experience writing for the World of Warcraft line of tabletop RPGs.
I really still wanted to be a Game Designer or a writer…and I tried, unsuccessfully, to move up into a position like that at Blizzard for almost four years. I did get to do some writing work — you can still find snippets of my writing in-game, like some of the books lying around in Dalaran — and on the game website. But none of it got me an actual writing positon.
In 2009, I left to try to be a professional writer. I finished a few books and submitted them to agents. No one picked any of them up.
After that, I went back to the gaming industry. I worked my way from being a Quality Assurance Lead at Cryptic into finally getting a Game Designer position there, then eventually moved to Obsidian, and finally Amazon Game Studios.
Some important takeaways:
- I didn’t get in on my first try.
- I didn’t get the position I wanted immediately.
- I failed to move up into the position I wanted while I was at Blizzard, and had to leave the company and go elsewhere in order to advance in my career.
- I also failed when I initially tried to leave the industry to be a professional writer. I kept writing for years after that, until I finally just ended up self-publishing. The first book I actually published was the sixth book that I wrote.
I mention all this because it’s very easy with both gaming applications and writing to get discouraged if you don’t have any success right away. If I’d given up at any of those early failures, I’d never have the career that I do today.
These days, it’s probably even harder, in truth.
Starting out at larger companies like Blizzard these days can be extremely challenging. There are far more interested applicants than there are positions available, especially for things like design positions. As a result, they can be tremendously picky, and for things like design spots, you’re often going to be competing with people who are already working for that company in lower level positions.
As a general rule, it’s easiest to get into smaller companies. For example, NIS America hires for contract Quality Assurance and Game Master roles fairly regularly. Other small companies are often similar. GameDevMap is a great resource for looking up game companies near you.
If you are currently taking college classes, I strongly recommend applying for an internship in the field you’re interested in. Blizzard has a ton of summer internships, for example. In my experience, this is much better resume credit toward getting the type of position you are looking for than working in a lower level department, but it’s also only available if you’re currently a student or planning to go back to school. Riot Games also offers some internships.
A good way to practice and understand some of the basics of game design is to try to build a small self-contained project yourself. RPGMaker is a great tool for building a standalone game, as well as just learning about basic game design concepts. You can also use tools sets that come with games — for example, Starcraft 2, Neverwinter Nights, etc. come with tools for building new content.
If you’re looking for a tool to build something specifically to show off your writing abilities, I recommend Twine. It’s a tool for building things that are basically “Choose Your Own Adventure” style games. Story heavy companies like Bioware sometimes ask for projects in Twine as a part of their writer application process.
In summary, my advice is that an internship is probably your best bet if you can swing one. If you’re not eligible, I would recommend going for some basic experience in Quality Assurance or another entry-level job (e.g. Customer Service or Tech Support) at a small company to start learning about the industry and building your resume. You should be aware that it may be necessary to move to a different company in order to get a higher level job once you have some experience on your resume.
If you have experience with code or art, you might be able to swing starting out in a position relevant to that, but it really depends on if you can demonstrate your abilities. For artists, a good portfolio is key, and I recommend including a variety of things – character concepts, environments, UI mockups, etc.
It would also be worthwhile to research the game design industry itself a bit. I would recommend watching some of the Extra Credits videos, for example. I don’t agree with them on everything, but they have some pretty good insights on some parts of the development process.
Finally, when you write your resume and cover letter for a gaming company, try to tailor them toward the specific position you are applying for. Game companies often respond well to familiarity with their own products, especially big name companies like Blizzard and Riot. If you’re applying at one of those, being familiar with their current games is almost a requirement, and being competitive may be necessary if you’re going for any kind of design position.
I hope that people find this helpful!
*If you don’t know what Quality Assurance is, I’m going to probably go into a whole post about that another time. This is something that I’d like more LitRPG authors to know about, because it’s an integral part of the game design process, but I rarely see it mentioned in books about gaming.