Getting a job in the games industry (Part 1)

During the Swedish Game Awards conference a couple of weekends ago we spoke to many aspiring game developers. There was one topic in particular that everyone was interested in: how do you get a job in the gaming industry? One of the panel talks on Saturday – with employees from Rovio, Fatshark, Toadman Interactive and Resolution Games – on this very subject got us inspired to share our own point of view.

We found that we had many aspects to cover and will do this blog as a two part series continuing next week. (EDIT: Part 2 can be found here, Q&A can be found here). Some of the points apply across other studios as well, and some are more unique to Arrowhead and what we look for in an employee. Hopefully you will find them all interesting and helpful in your process.

Let’s move on to part 1:

Your Work and its Presentation

While there are a number of qualities we look for in an applicant (which we will talk more about in part 2 of the blog), your work is naturally the foremost thing we judge your application on.
Do not send an email in without including something which shows off your work so we can see what you can do! Unless of course you merely want to ask some questions first.
Spend some time with your portfolio page or other presentation of your work. Make sure it shows only your best work, recent things, and isn’t crowded with everything you’ve produced. Keep it short and sweet. Also bear in mind how your portfolio page itself looks (especially if you’re applying for an artistic job!). If it appears very ugly or is hard to navigate it is quite off-putting and runs the risk of influencing our perception.

Programmers

You will need to work on a multitude of different problems over varying areas of the game, depending on what the project needs at any given time. If you’re specialized in one area, that’s just fine, but you will most likely be required to do other things here as well so a good general foundation is required.
As with every other role on our studio we’re looking for individuals that work great within a team and have a keen eye for spotting a problem within the game, no matter if it’s not exactly within your area. We expect you to value other people’s feedback and evaluate anyone’s solution as the possible best one for the situation.

About your work we will mainly want to know what type of programming you’ve been doing and for how long you have been doing it. For example, web (php, js), scripting (lua, python, bash), managed-code (C#), native-code (C/C++) etc.

  • Showreels and portfolios are not all that useful for programmers like they are for other disciplines, but if you have a project or two which you’ve contributed to, you could add a link with some footage.
  • A few well selected snippets of easily digested code is enough. We can’t spend the time going through your 10.000 lines of source code. Make sure to mention what problem you were solving.
  • Don’t forget to explain what you’ve contributed to each project (or if you did it all yourself!) and add some details of how you did it. Did you use any 3rd party libraries (fmod, physx, etc) or engine/tools (Unity, UE4)? etc. If there was some especially technically difficult part of the project you’d like to tell us about, please do! For example, how did you handle rendering 10.000 characters on screen? How is your game’s load/save system done?
  • Hobby projects are always great to see, even if they are not completely polished – it doesn’t matter – we would just like to see anything that you can do and are genuinely interest in. One tip for a hobby project is to really try and show us that you know how to finish your project and want to wrap it up.

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Artists

Arrowhead is a flexible studio and as a rule of thumb we’re looking for diverse artists who are able to adapt their style and move across different areas of the game where they are needed most. We require ability and interest in learning new tools, middleware applications, scripting and to work independantly to bring an asset from start to finish.
While technical thinking is great, artistic fundamentals is really the core of the artist. When viewing people’s work we know that many quickly improve technically, but they can’t as easily be taught the fundamentals of form, composition, colour and lighting.

Let’s get to some pointers about your portfolio. But do bear in mind that we also ask that all artists do our art test which is a big part of our review and is designed to show us your skills in a number of areas relevant to us.

  • Showcase your best work first – filter out any crap. Your aim is to represent your current skill level with your portfolio work. We would like to see a good amount of pieces to show off your skills, but not too much, since we don’t have the time to check everything in large portfolios and may very well miss the best.
    A good rule of thumb for the amount of work is 5 pieces, but we only want to see quality pieces – nothing from 2 years ago when you first started. There’s a good saying “only killers, no fillers” so if you think your 5th piece is weaker than the others, take it out. It’s better to remove it than to water down the quality of your portfolio.
  • We like to see a wide range of images and techniques used since we are a studio which prefers generalists. We usually make stylized or realistic games, so adapting to different looks is very important.  A good mix is important in terms of variety, especially with character or concept art. But the variety definitely depends on your focus and what you want to work with – as long as you make that clear to us it should be fine.
  • Look at your portfolio as a whole – don’t tunnel vision and spend all your time on one asset. We often see people showing us that they made a gun, made a helmet, made a tree… but there’s never a full scene! We want to see the complete scene because you can make a good gun but does it really fit in with the style of the game? Did you texture anything? Did you get the colours and shading right? Displaying a whole scene shows that you are a good artist, rather than just good at following a tutorial.
  • Anything that is especially unique with a scene or a prop is interesting to see how you did it, but mostly we need just need a few wireframe brief breakdowns and the number of assets which you’ve used.
  • For showreels, long turn-arounds of models are quite boring and seeing the same asset spin six times does nothing for us – once or twice is enough to see how awesome an asset is. If you do make a showreel, please, please do not add music. We usually have to mute any audio (unless it’s specifically an animation with lip syncing) because your taste in music probably isn’t something we want to listen to in a meeting room when going through applications.
  • If you have a strong art portfolio and have a little hobby project this is great to add, even if it’s rough. With this we can see you are flexible! However be sure to make it clear that it is a work in progress if it isn’t finished.
    When looking at a hobby project we will analyse it – what is its purpose? Is it strong in its purpose? If you’ve made an awesome fighting game but spent all the time on the background instead of the characters, then your focus is a little off and maybe you have trouble seeing the larger picture.
  • Felix was one of our interns, but now works full time at Arrowhead. This was his portfolio when we took him on, as an example of the standard of work which we look for in our interns: http://felixfritzell.com
    Marre was hired as a permanent artist with this portfolio showcasing his work: http://sephez.com

 

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Game Designers

Every Arrowhead game is centered around a universe that we have created. This universe will always have its own rules and boundaries. Believability, social interaction, creative gameplay and a touch of humour are the overarching principles of an Arrowhead game.
You need to show us that you have an understanding of the core design philosophies of what makes any game good. We will not care about an application/portfolio that starts talking numbers – game design is about creating a world, a story, an experience. Show us you grasp how to design the elements that make a player enjoy the game; the hard choices, the right return of investment, and especially how you’re designing within the game world you have, keeping things believable.

  • When presenting your work to us, consider what types of games you appreciate the design principles of. Do they seem to match our philosophy and what our studio values? How will you challenge a player’s creativity and give them ways to craft their experience?
  • Your portfolio should contain a one-pager describing your game and its core. Add to that one more page narrating a playing session and what happens to the player during it, and we will have useful material to be able to review your work.
  • If you’re a level designer consider making a level for an already released game that we could try out. Show us an overview of the level and a description of what you’ve tried to accomplish, so we can play and evaluate how well it came through.
  • If you’re a UI designer make sure your website where you are showing off your work isn’t looking bad or is horrible to navigate. Make sure we can see you’re able to design a great UI for the platform it’s intended for.

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Sound Designers

It’s rare to find a position as a Sound Designer in such a small studio as ours, as there just aren’t many open positions. So make sure your portfolio is well polished and stands out if you want to have a chance.
We expect applicants who can both mix well – with clear, distinct and realistic sounds across the whole scale from the finest environmental details to the most powerful vehicles or weapons – as well as do their own recording and creating sounds. We also need our sound designers to know how to implement their sound into the game.

Passion is a key term thrown around to the point of cliche, yet remains relevant. We want to see what you are most passionate about, and that sound design is your thing even if you’re just getting into the business and maybe haven’t even had your first job yet. Show us hobby projects, student work or anything that you have done by yourself in your free time – it shows dedication and perseverance to what is important to you.

  • Within a video portfolio your best work must be at the beginning and not the end. It is a common mistake which is seen often where the best work is saved until last; anyone looking at your portfolio does not want to spend valuable time sifting through the multiple mediocre projects until they hit gold. A lot of the time they will give up halfway through if the content is not of a particularly consistent standard or appear sloppy.
  • It is a good idea to study up on the studio and find out what we do. If we receive work that isn’t even remotely related to our style or use of sound it’s difficult to assess if you can do amazing things for our needs.
  • And something we encounter from time to time; If you’re using a trailer from another game but showcasing your own sounds instead – make sure you’re not doing a worse job than the original. If you borrow a clip or trailer from another game, be very clear that you didn’t actually work on that game or trouble may be heading your way.
  • We want to see what knowledge you have and what skills you can demonstrate in terms of both hardware and software. This means that in a portfolio we look for a wide variety of unique and exciting sounds which really shows off your skills. However it is important to remember that old saying “jack of all trades, master of none” – it’s definitely better to have a good standard of material over the whole of your portfolio, even if that means slightly reducing it in size, rather than submitting sub-par work.
  • Contrary to what most people believe, we also want to know what your strong sides are and your weak sides. Companies do not expect you to be an expert in everything, that’s what on the job training is for if you are applying for an internship or junior position. What they do need is to weigh up how much (and to what extent) training will be needed. If you excel at a few areas then an apparent weakness in another is not a major problem most of the time – everyone has to start learning somewhere.
  • It goes without saying that portfolios with credible previous work are going to stand out more, though if you happen to have made awesomely amazing home projects they will of course be appreciated too. Beyond the actual work we look for what you have learnt from it and what lessons you’ve taken away. If something didn’t quite turn out as you expected but you came back with a solution or fix (no matter how unconventional) and demonstrated that it has worked, we are going to be impressed by your initiative and willingness to learn.

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Mark Kilborn also has a nice article for sound designers on Gamasutra, for further reading and a second point of view.

Stay tuned…

Across all disciplines of our studio, employees are required to work closely with all parts of development and therefore strong communication and team skills are essential, as well as a good eye for details.
Keep you eyes on this blog next week when we’ll dive deeper into the subject of what characteristics we look for in our candidates, and how to write a good application that we will appreciate.

Edit: Continue reading Part 2 here

  • Jesus Cyc

    Malin Hedström, I just have to thank you for this article. I’ve been looking for a well written and explained article like this, it’s clear, has a very real sense of a real world in the game industry. Thank you.

    • Thank you for the kind compliment! We really hope that the post helps as many people as possible with their applications (for all game studios, not just ours!) as we know how tough it can be to get a break in this industry :)

  • Henrik Samuelsson

    Great article, thanks for a good read!

    I’m a User Experience Designer, currently working, well not in the games industry, but I would very much like to! The thing is, I don’t know where to start. I would like to put my 25 years of gaming experience together with what I’ve learned in user experience, usability and human-computer interaction. I would love to study how players interact with the game, talk to them how they feel about what they just did in the game, suggest enhancements to increase immersiveness, streamlined gameplay, feeling rewarded for your efforts and what-not. Not sure if it typically falls under QA or game design, but it feels a bit like the UX perspective isn’t that highly thought of in the games industry? (I hope I’m severely wrong here). What would you suggest I push for when I go for an open application somewhere?

    • Hi Henrik,

      Sorry for the slow response!

      It definitely is sought after! Most larger game producing entities have some form of UX testing, complete with research for how players interact with games. We unfortunately do not since we are so small but I know companies like Dice are currently looking for UX people. We have also used Sony’s own UX testing so it looks like there are definitely positions for people with your skills, but most likely in the larger companies :)

  • vaibhav

    So, how does a soon to be a MBA break into the industry?

    • Networking is the good old gem that we keep parroting – mostly because it is true. It also depends on what your sights are and what role you aim to achieve. Go to any events, mingles and meet-ups. Getting your face out there and recognised is a huge advantage.

      In our studios (and probably a lot of other smaller or indie ones) there is not the great need for anyone who is not directly involved in the development in some way. Patrik, our producer here at Arrowhead, first started off as a community manager, moving up to Game Designer, and then the Producer role. I think Producer roles are hard to walk into without any experience in the industry beforehand as the majority of Producers have had to work their way up through the chain in order to fully understand all sides of the development process.

      However, when you look at the larger studios they definitely employ hundreds of personnel who are involved in the HR, business and admin side of things. The same applies to publishers – there is more likely to be a higher chance of finding a role there for skills outside of direct development, so don’t only look at developers!

      Internships (especially when you are still affiliated with a school) are extremely helpful as you will find many places tend to keep on their interns after the internship period has finished. Other than that and mingling, I think it is just down to luck, timing and persistence in the games industry.

      You can however go out and get experience working outside of the games industry and then return when your CV is bulked up as it is a lot easier for people to transition to games when their skills aren’t directly involved in development, than it is for a programmer for example :)

  • @@ArrowheadGS:disqus This is a great article thank you. How would one relate their vast User Experience/UI background to applying for positions at a AAA game company? Thank you.