"Must have shipped at least one AAA title" 😭
Imagine finding the PERFECT job listing. It describes your dream job. It asks for all the skills you know you have. The studio has made some of your favorite games. This is it!! The one you've been looking for. Finally!
And then you see the dreaded words…
"Must have shipped at least one AAA title"
WHY? How is anybody supposed to start a career in games if you have to ship a game before you start? How does that even make sense? What kind of chicken-and-the-egg garbage IS this?!
So here we are. You can't get into AAA without releasing a AAA title, can't release the AAA title without getting into AAA. If you think this is very confusing (and demoralizing), you’re right. It upsets everybody! This can lead to people not applying for jobs, even though they’re perfect for the role.
In the worst cases, it leads to people giving up on their dreams altogether. 💔
But don’t give up. Other people are breaking into the industry. If they can do it, you can, too.
Let’s take a closer look at the problem and see if we can come up with a solution.
I just want a job writing for video games
First, a caveat: some studios DO have a strict “must have shipped one game” policy. This is particularly true for mid-level or lead positions. That makes sense, right? When someone is in a lead position, they are responsible for other people on the team. They need to be able to lead, and that means they need to know what they’re doing.
But why do studios list this as a “requirement”for an entry-level position? Well, let’s look at it from their point of view, so that we can understand their perspective.
Studios may ask for this for a couple of reasons.
One, it would be nice to have, so why not ask for it? (If you have to stop reading for a second to scream into a pillow, please do.)
Two - and this is a more legitimate reason - it separates the wheat from the chaff. Game-dev positions are HIGHLY coveted, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. People who have shipped a game are simply in a different category. If you’ve shipped a game, it shows a studio that you are serious about this career, and know what it takes.
And that’s the third and probably most important reason a studio would make this a requirement. Making a game is not the same as playing a game. It is HARD to get a game out the door. A lot of painful lessons get learned, the first time you see a game through all the way to the end. That experience is hard-won – and invaluable. Game studios have the perception that if you’ve shipped a game, you know what you’re signing up for when you START a game. They know you can do the work.
The job search is a game - learn how to play
So now, when you look at the position from the game studio’s point of view, you can see why “must have shipped” shows up on so many job listings.
But CLEARLY people still get hired, even without that line item on their resume!
And as we said, if they can do it, you can do it, too.
The best thing you can do, in this situation, is to think of this whole situation as a game. You KNOW how to play games. You can play this one. The same skills that help you level up will help you get that job.
It’s time to start thinking strategically.
Pick your strategy
In this article, I’m going to offer a few strategies. They're listed in order from easiest/weakest to hardest/most effective.
Strategy #1: Ignore the requirement, and apply anyway
Why not? All they can do is say No, and then you’re in the same place when you started. So you have nothing to lose.
This strategy is easy, but it’s also weak. It might work; it might not. If the HR department sees that you don’t tick the AAA box, they may set your resume aside without a second thought.
You want to get past the HR people and reach the people who make the final decisions. And that may mean using a different strategy.
Strategy #2: Participate in game jams
What is a game jam? Wikipedia says:
A game jam is an event where participants try to make a video game from scratch. Depending on the format, participants might work independently, or in teams. The event duration usually ranges from 24 to 72 hours. Participants are generally programmers, game designers, artists, writers, and others in game development-related fields.
Whee! Doesn’t that sound like fun? You’ll make a game in no time!
This strategy is good - not for your job hunt, necessarily, but for learning more about who you are as a game developer. It will help you get a feel for what it takes to make a game from start to finish. If you hate the process, you’ll know that games are not for you - what a great thing to know! And if you DO like it, and your team finishes their game, it is *something* you can add to your portfolio. It ain’t nothing, y’all.
AND you may meet working game developers at these game jams. That would be ideal. You want people to get to know you (and like you). This makes the hiring process easier for them - and you.
Game jams are great - but it’s not quite the same as shipping a game. For that, we go to:
Strategy #3: Work on a mobile or indie title
You don’t have to start your game career in AAA. You can start in indie, instead. There are LOTS of mobile or indie studios - more than AAA studios - which means it may be easier to find a job there. And turnaround times on these types of games can be surprisingly fast, compared to AAA.
Game development depends on the type of game being produced and the development teams included.
In most cases, big budget games will take anywhere from three to five years to develop. Mobile games take a few months to develop whereas indie games can take from a few months to years. [...] Indie games could take anywhere from a few months to years and years to be fully developed. It all depends on the scope of the game.
The more you know!
I like this strategy, for a lot of reasons. You DO get to experience the entire game-dev process, from heavenly start to hellish finish. You earn your stripes, in other words. And you get a lot of experience working with game devs from other disciplines, like design or programming - that is experience that AAA studios want to see. And it gives studios something to look at - your work! They can play the game that you helped to make. Yaaaay
It’s not quite the same as shipping a AAA title, but it’s close. If you’ve worked in indie, I would say don’t hesitate to apply to AAA studios, if that’s something you want to do. You’re the real deal.
(And you may decide you'd rather work exclusively as an indie! It's an awesome career choice. AAA is not better than indie, or vice versa. They are two equally valid and awesome ways of being a game developer.)
Now we’ve come to the hardest, but most effective, strategy of all.
Strategy #4: Focus on building relationships with AAA devs
Humans are social animals. Relationships matter. If the people at a game studio know and like you, they will not care NEARLY as much about whether you meet the "must have shipped a game" requirement.
(This is only true if you tick most of the other boxes, of course - you can’t walk in with zero knowledge and say “Hey, give me a job!” - but if you’ve been building your skills, the best thing you can do is build relationships, too.)
Studio leads will tell you: they'd rather hire an inexperienced, but collaborative, person over an experienced jerk, every time. #trust
So if you want to work on getting to know the game-dev community, what options do you have?
Well, as you know, game devs are extremely online. You could get involved in conversations on studio forums. You could join Discord servers like Game Maker’s Toolkit. (Yes there are a lot of fans on these servers - but lots of working game devs, too.)
One of the best places to go is Twitter. Don’t knock it! Twitter works. Most game devs I know are on there. Even game devs who are working hard on a project have time to click over to Twitter once in a while. It’s a great place to find job listings, industry gossip, and of course cat videos. (Update: Twitter might be dying, but other things will pop up to take its place. I've already opened a new account on Hive, which seems very game-dev friendly.)
No matter where you show up, treat it as a semi-professional cocktail party. Start by listening, and then look for ways to be helpful where and when you can. Help people get to know you. You would be surprised, especially in this work-from-home age, how many people break in through their online connections with other people.
"Everyone is allotted the same twenty-four hours—but with the right strategies, you can leverage those hours in more efficient and powerful ways than you ever imagined. It's never an overnight process, but the long-term payoff is immense: to finally break out of the frenetic day-to-day routine and transform your life and your career."
Hope this helped. See you next week.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider . Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.