If you're using a desktop or laptop, click here if you do not see a Nav Frame at left.

LESSON #4:
Applying for a job in game design

NOTE: this article was originally written for aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This article is subject to changes and improvements; reader comments are welcome.


Get this, and get it straight. The job of "Game Designer" is a much sought-after position that requires a lot of game industry experience. So even if you have just graduated from college, don't hold out for the vaunted title of "game designer". Just apply for any game industry job you can get * (preferably one that you will find reasonably enjoyable).

The key is getting in in the first place. Your first goal must be simply to get inside the industry. We're talking about a career -- a way of life -- not a sinecure.

Once you are inside, you have to work hard, volunteer to help out in any way you can, learn everything you can, and prove yourself, before you can gain the title of "Game Designer". I wrote more about this concept in my IGDA "The Games Game" column for April 2006, Playing the Upgrade-To-Designer Game.

After proving yourself as a game designer once, you will have to prove yourself time and time again. Know that ahead of time, steel yourself, and be willing. And you'll be fine.


Okay, the necessary basic info is out of the way now. Here's how to apply for that game industry job...

1. First, you must be prepared for the job. Presumably, you have already read Lessons 1, 2, and 3 here at this website. Presumably, you are a high school graduate and have a college degree. (Yes, you really need a college degree. Besides, they say a college degree adds a lot of money to your lifetime income. I even heard this on a TV show, so it must be true! Check out "Degree Dollars: Four Years of Higher Education Can Pay Off for a Lifetime" at http://web.archive.org/web/20091116093803/http://advancedu.org/CAREER_NEWS.htm.)
Presumably, you are an avid game player. Presumably, you have already been participating in the game forums, to wit:

o http://www.igda.org/Forums/
o http://www.gamedev.net/community/forums/

If you have to register to access the IGDA forums, then register! You need to belong to the IGDA anyway. Same goes for GameDev.net.

2. Next, you need to have a well-written résumé. I'm not going to tell you how to write a résumé; click here to find lots of websites and books on that topic, on our Game Biz Links page (look for the section entitled "About résumés and Cover Letters").

3. Next, you have to have a target list of game companies. I can't give you a target list; each aspirant has to make this for himself (hint: see our Game Biz Links page - look for the section entitled "Listings of Game Companies") (another hint: I put that section right at the top so it's REAL easy to find!). Any game company worth working for has a website. And there are lots of game industry job websites. Assuming you're active in the forums and know how to use Google you will find them. Ideally, your list contains companies in your local area, or in an area you are planning to move to very soon. Since you are starting out, you will not be telecommuting; you will be reporting to the office for work every day. Only the very experienced veterans manage to work out telecommuting arrangements (and even then it's rare). You are not there yet. If you are finished with your education, and you are looking for a job in the game biz, you need to live in a city with (hopefully more than one) game companies. If you don't live in such a city, you need to move. BEFORE you can hope to get a game job.

4. Next, you need to educate yourself about your target companies. Read their websites. Learn their product lines. Find out about their stock, if they're publicly owned. It looks bad if an applicant comes in and says, "Well, I don't know anything about your company, but I'd like to work here.".

5. Now you're ready to contact the target companies. Don't pin all your hopes on getting a job with one specific company. Have multiple companies to contact. You never know what's going to happen. Find out the name of a person to contact at each company. If you know someone who knows someone at a company, get in touch with that person and find out who you should send your résumé to. You need a name to put at the top of each cover letter. If you don't know anybody who knows somebody, call the company and ask for the name of the studio head (the VP in charge of the game production department) or for the name of the Human Resources head.

6. Cover letter. As with résumés, you can find information about how to craft cover letters on the internet (see our Game Biz Links page). However...

See FAQ 12 for some suggestions about things you can do at home to sweeten your cover letter, and for information about design portfolios and demo reels.

7. Have everything ready in one handy place. If you are an aspiring designer, and if you have read FAQs 1, 2, and 3 here on this site, then you have probably written some game concepts. You should have:

Note: Inclusion of the third part, the sample, is a problematic suggestion on my part, for legal reasons (game companies do not want to see unsolicited submissions). So make it a short sample, one that describes a standard genre or type of game - do not divulge your dream game idea in your portfolio. Although portfolios are standard for graphic artists, a "game design portfolio" is not a standard concept. Therefore I can't tell you exactly what to put in a design portfolio (if you're so creative, you think of something creative to do), but don't send a phone-book-sized design document. A game design portfolio should be no larger than a regular artist's portfolio - when printed, it should be under 20 pages, in a flexible binder (which might never be returned to you), with your name and contact information emblazoned on the front. See FAQ 12 for general guidelines about portfolios.
The danger of including a short sample of your design writing style in a submission is that the company's "no submissions" policy may result in their not looking at it. It might be better not to include any sample in a submission (the short writing sample is better used for an in-person interview) - or you could contact the recipient in advance, and inquire as to whether a short sample of your work would be helpful and/or welcome along with the résumé. Maybe they'd want you to sign a disclosure agreement or submission agreement first, if you are going to include a complete concept in your portfolio.
If you make a game design portfolio, it's probably a good idea to also put your stuff on the internet somewhere. Go get a free page or blog. Then write on the material, "this portfolio also available online at http://www...." and put the exact address of your online portfolio. More on portfolios in item 10, below.

8. Send it in. I used to advise aspirants ("wannabes") to call on the phone or drive to the game company, but I've changed my advice to reflect the changing reality. H.R. departments (Human Resources) are increasingly favoring the emailed application. Your portfolio may be online - so your email should include a link to that. Make sure that your email attachments all contain your name as the first part of the filename. "résumé.doc" is the stupidest filename ever, and I can't tell you how many of those I've received - because there's just one in my applicants folder (all the old ones were overwritten by the newer ones).

It can take up to 2 weeks for a game company to reply. So don't sit around waitin' and hopin', just move on and apply to another, and another, and another.

Hopefully the game company will like your résumé, it fills an opening, and they call you in for an interview. It's unlikely that any game company will want to pay your airfare to fly out for an interview for an entry-level position. Have you read "Location, Location, Location" in FAQ 27 yet? [This section edited Nov. 26, 2007.]

When speaking with the person on the phone, don't be nervous. Be your normal warm and personable self. Don't say you want to come in for a job interview, just ask if you could come in to meet the person and introduce yourself. You're interested in learning about the game industry, you're a college graduate, you've done some stuff on your own, and you'd appreciate a short chat. Whatever's applicable and true.

9. The interview. Don't put on a 3-piece suit. Nobody in a game studio (aside from some top executives) wears a suit. Wear clean presentable clothes. Long pants. A shirt with no holes in it except those needed for your head and arms to poke out of. Shoes and socks. Bring your package (maybe 2 or 3 copies of the résumé and cover letter; you might or might not be leaving your sample behind, most likely, depending on what's in your sample).

The main goody, the best thing you bring to the interview, is you . Be eager, attentive, charming. Your goal is to get a job, any job, so that you can eventually be a game designer. As discussed above, don't hold out for the highly-sought-after "Game Designer" position. Find out what job openings are available. Figure out which opening is suited to your skills and interests. That's the job you should be angling for.

What the company is looking for is hard-working, smart, capable communicators first and foremost. That's the impression you want to convey, through your appearance, your eye contact, and what you say during the interview.

10. The sample of your work (mentioned in step 7 above). In an in-person interview, you could at a logical point in the conversation show samples of your work. Your portfolio, in other words. Perhaps you could ask the interviewer before the interview about bringing samples of your work to the interview. If you're a game designer, sample game concept designs might be construed as an unsolicited submission, making the game company liable to a lawsuit from you if they ever did anything similar. It might be wise to put your designs (especially the portions that are included in your portfolio) on your own website (like a free blog page for instance), which would make them public knowledge (taking your portfolio out of the realm of "submission" and into the realm of "portfolio"). Letting the interviewer know this in advance could prevent what might otherwise turn into an awkward moment if someone perceives your portfolio as an unsolicited submission. And it shows that you are both savvy and sensitive to the company's needs.

The foregoing assumes that your sample illustrates a game concept for your original game idea, with sketches and words that communicate the game idea clearly. If you have a portfolio of just sketches (without any game concepts expressed), even better (bring that, and be prepared to leave it there and never see it again). If you have an interactive demo of your work on a CD, that's fine (be prepared to leave it there and never see it again). But the interviewer may not have the time to look at it. Do not expect the interviewer to go to your website, navigate through whatever labyrinthine path you've designed, and wait to download and run a game during the interview. It don't work like that. If you have an interactive demo on a laptop, that's fine. But the interviewer may not have the time to look at it. Obviously, you're not going to leave them your laptop. See FAQ 12 for some suggestions about things you can do at home to sweeten your interview, and for information about design portfolios and demo reels.

An important point about game concepts you developed on your own (oft stated on the game design newsgroups): It's unlikely that anybody is going to steal your idea and make your game idea without you. (It's also unlikely that they'll take your idea and make the game with you. See FAQ #1 and FAQ #11 .) Game companies are teeming with more ideas than they can ever make. What game companies need is people, not game ideas. Your purpose in showing them your sample concept is purely to show them that you're a creative individual that they should hire. A future article will go more into how to protect your ideas.

If you are more worried that showing your idea in an interview will result in its theft than your are about getting a job, then do not take a sample to the interview. It's as simple as that.

11. After the interview. It's unlikely that the interview will end with you walking out the door with a job offer in hand. That's possible, and that's desirable, but it's more likely that the interviewer will discuss you and your résumé with others before any decision is made about offering you a job. When you leave the interview, you will probably have a sense of how well the interview went. If it didn't go very well, then just spend a few minutes thinking of what you could have done to make it go better. Then use that thinking on the next interview. When a stumbling block is in your way, use it as a stepping-stone.

Send thank-you notes to the people who interviewed you. I know it sounds old-fashioned, but we're not talking about robots, we're talking about human beings with whom you want to build human relationships. Some folks send thank-yous electronically, some will tell you a paper letter is best. Here are some tips on thank-you letters from the Sunday May 25, 2003 Los Angeles Times CareerBuilder (latimes.com/careerbuilder):

Don't pin all your hopes on one company. Go for other interviews. The worst thing that can happen is that you don't get any offers. The second-worst thing that can happen is that you get one offer. The third-worst thing (the same thing as the best thing that can happen): you get more than one job offer to choose from. While it's a good thing to get multiple job offers, it's usually a painful decision to make, and almost always an awkward situation to be in.

* Here's more about taking whatever job you can get, and then moving into a design position...



This discussion excerpt is from the IGDA's Breaking In forum, April 20, 2006:


For more about effective job-hunting, read FAQ 27 -- the "Barrier-Busting Checklist" will help make sure you're using the best techniques. The flip side of the coin is FAQ 24 -- you don't want to do any of the "Ten Stupid Wannabe Tricks"!

Make sure you read the "Breaking In FAQs" at the website of the IGDA (International Game Developers Association) http://www.igda.org .

And read "Getting A Job In The Game Development Industry" by Kenn Hoekstra, Project Administrator at Raven Software: http://www2.ravensoft.com/getajob.htm and "So You Want to Work in Games..." at http://www.gamedaily.com/articles/features/so-you-want-to-work-in-games/71362/?biz=1.

See this website's Game Biz Links page to find sites where game jobs are advertised.

I welcome reader feedback to improve this article. Feedback and questions will be posted on the Game Biz Q&A board.

Speaking of which, here's some reader feedback from the Game Biz Q&A board:


Use the Nav Frame at left, or your browser's Back button, or click here to return to the School-A-Rama page.

Click here to go to the previous article.
Click to go ahead to the next article.

Copyright 2001, 2003, 2010, 2013 Tom Sloper. May not be republished without written permission of the author.