Getting into gamedev [aka Career Motivational Speaker]

Before departing Tasmania, I visited several high schools where I talked about getting into a career in gamedev. That was the premise, at least — I really talked more about what you can do to get a job doing what you like. Lots of high school students like games and I was getting ready to move for a gamedev job, so it was a good hook.

The opportunity came about from a conversation (with a high school student) about my upcoming move, what I was doing and how it had come about, and about what part of my experience was relevant to his own. The conversation was had while the Pathway Planning Officer for a local school was nearby, and she invited me to the school to talk to some of the students there.

The problem then became how to turn a spontaneous conversation into something sufficiently well-prepared and engaging that I could talk to a room of teenagers for up to an hour. I enjoy presenting to/speaking with groups, particularly on topics that I’m passionate about, but I have little experience talking to teenagers and was somewhat uncertain about what I’d need to do to get and keep their attention. I like to keep presentations interactive and flexible — I’d rather talk about what interests the listeners than about my own prepared material. For that reason, I don’t tend to use slides and try to be interesting, engaging and memorable all on my own. (there’s always a risk leaving out something “important” — but as there’s always far more material than I can cover in a single presentation, if the audience has been interested it’s probably a nett win :P)

For all my desire to keep it free-flowing and interactive, to give a talk without a clear idea of what I want to talk about and how it fits together in a coherent and plausible manner, I’m going to struggle to impart any useful information/knowledge to the students that have so generously taken time out from their Social Science class (or whatever). It’s hard to evoke passion without passion. I find it easier to convey my excitement and passion for something when I’m well prepared to talk about it.

I did some reading in preparation of the talk to make sure that I wouldn’t be talking nonsense. While I was about to start in the industry, I had not worked in the industry. While I didn’t think I had many incorrect preconceptions or invalid assumptions about the industry (who would?), my lack of experience was one thing that cropped up repeatedly through recent job applications. I thought it appropriate to do my best to make sure what I had to say would be generally useful.

I read what I could find, but a couple of sites stood out in particular: there’s a lot of the great advice on tinysubversions.com, particularly the material on effective networking in the games industry.  Linked from there, I found a link to a list of New Year’s Resolutions for Game Industry Newbies (or people who want to eventually be one),  which I basically ripped off to form the core of my presentation (many thanks to Chris Hecker and Jonathan Blow for the list).

Here’s an outline of what I talked about:

  • who I am
    • always good for the audience to know the name of the guy they’re listening to.
    • talk about my education and work history with emphasis on what are likely to be common points of reference — educated/live in local area, personal history back to the age of the audience
    • upcoming move — mention Insomniac and the games they’ve made, find out how many people in the room knew Insomniac IP (lots)
    • (made the point that my own education history is not being held up as any ideal for how to get into the industry — far from it)
  • why I like gamedev (or talk about the sort of gamedev role I aspire to…)
  • the diversity of careers available in gamedev
    • used this to kick of some interaction — ask the audience “What goes into making a game? What sort of jobs are there in gamedev?”
    • purpose was to emphasise diversity of opportunity. It’s not just programmers. (more on that later, though)
  • nature of the industry –
    • games are popular
      • high % of people play electronic games of one kind or another
      • lots of money spent on games
    • often unreliable working situation
      • recent history of  gamedev studios in .au (and elsewhere) is not good
    • not many Australian gamedevs
      • estimates of <3,000 gamedevs in .au
      • contrast: >300,000 teachers in .au (not sure if it was a useful stat, but I like it :)
    • opportunity in smaller scale
      • low entry options to making games
      • no guarantees of success…
      • the indie life is not for everyone
  • invite questions
  • on to five points (taken from the New Year’s Resolutions post — see more there)
    1. make things
      • build experience, build portfolio
      • good idea, regardless of specialisation or desired industry
    2. play games
      • play for purpose of critique, understanding
      • what makes this game good? why do I hate this one? how could it be better?
      • tie back to point 1 — make things based on what you’ve played, remake, modify, extend
    3. learn things
      • generally a good idea :)
      • learn things that will help get to your desired career — be selective
      • I spruiked the UTas Bachelor of Computing (Games Technology) degree as one option
      • more learning -> more understanding (hopefully). Helps with 1 and 2.
      • what you know matters
    4. people
      • who you know matters
      • work with people locally with similar interests — opportunity now! Useful with 1, 2, 3
      • be active in the wider gamedev community e.g. follow gamedevs on twitter. Caveat: don’t be an annoying fanboi. Read, watch, learn, interact in a civil fashion.
      • being visible to people can help when applying for jobs
    5. learn to program
      • presented as “optional”
      • useful skill no matter what — understand how computers work and how to bend them to your will
  • answer questions until time/questions run out

For all the game-related content in the presentation, it was presented to make clear that these things will work outside the gamedev industry, too — do things that will help get you a job doing what you want, here are some things that can help.

Prepare yourself — opportunities come along from time to time. While you typically can’t make them happen, you can encourage their arrival. Don’t expect you can get a job with no experience/training/portfolio/etc – rather, do what you can to be as ready as you can be for when opportunities arrive.

(Additional: I was interested to hear TJ Fixman talk about similar ideas when recounting his own gamedev career path in a recent Feedback episode)

4 thoughts on “Getting into gamedev [aka Career Motivational Speaker]”

  1. This is good to see and an enjoyable read. Your presentation seems pretty well structured and given that I’ve seen you present a few times, I can easily imagine you talking about these things. Structurally, it seems pretty similar to Ian Lewis’ presentation to colleges spruiking the Games Technology major which I saw a few times.

    The teacher in me has a couple of questions. This post is all about preparation and planning, I want to hear about the results. Were the kids engaged? Did you get good questions? Did you make any changes to your plan as you went, based on how the last one went?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Joe – I’m working on another post where I review the experience of giving the same presentation 10 times over. I’ll let you know when it’s done :)

  3. @Forum Joe – I was the Pathway Planner who instigated Jonathon’s Journey in the realm of public high school speaking. He ABSOLUTELY captivated the students at my school for 50 mins, group sizes were just larger than normal class room size, even the most historically behaviourally challenged students were EXCELLENT in behaviour, attention and engagement. It was one of the best presentations I had witnessed and subsequently advertised him to the rest of the state and received fabulous feedback about Jonathon. I had many students approach me later to tell me how “COOL” Jonathon was and some were inspired to follow this path knowing better what they needed to do to make it achievable. I would recommend Jonathon anytime :)

  4. Wish I’d thought to ask you to be a guest speaker at our ladies’ breakfast.I am sure you would have captivated them somehow.Anyhow well done.I am glad I read this article.

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