Review of Careers in Gamedev presentations
[aka Memoirs of a Career Motivational Speaker (retired)]

In my previous post, I wrote about my outline and intent for talking about getting into a career in game development (or elsewhere). In the end, I delivered the presentation ten times at five different high schools. Here are my recollections and reflection on the experience.

High School 1

The first high school was a lot of fun. As I mentioned in the previous post, I was somewhat uncertain about what would constitute an appropriate pitch and this was my first such talk to a group of unknown teenagers — which makes it exciting/scary/fun :)

I talked to two groups of around 40 students back to back. There was a mix of grades (7-10) and a pretty good balance of male/female. The room was smallish for the group, which I like as it makes it all feel nice and cosy, and helps focus attention. Unfortunately, there was limited ventilation, so it did get a bit stuffy through the talks. I got lots of good questions throughout the presentation. There were dead patches (combination of stuffiness and me talking for too long), but overall I was very happy with these sessions. The majority of questions came from younger students, with fewer from those in grade 9 and 10, though those seemed to be (at least) weighing up what I had to say.

I don’t recall giving the same presentation back-to-back before, and due to my talk-about-things-as-I-get-to-them style, at various stages in the second talk I lost track of whether I was repeating myself to the group. Fortunately, I had the Pathway Planning Officer present in the room (sitting among the group) who asked some useful leading questions from time to time, which seemed to work well.

Also, I had some pacman-shaped keychains from the UTas School of Computing. They were popular ;)

Feedback: see the comment here.

High School 2

After being advertised to other high schools around the state, I was contacted about visiting another one nearby. The original suggestion was that I would talk to the ICT class(es) — I pushed back against this, suggesting that it would be far better to talk to students with some interest in the industry, and this was agreed to.

The presentation was — I believe — advertised to students, and they could opt in. The group was 40+ students, mostly year 9 and 10, some 7 and 8, and included one female.

The setting was a larger area in an open-plan building, which meant attention was less focussed inwards. I would describe this talk as being “more work”. I got far fewer questions and less interaction, which resulted in me talking more. I don’t like that — it tends to be a cycle that is hard to break. That said, I still got a number of good questions. Particularly, some of the younger guys were very keen and were making games. At this school I was asked for suggestions about how to get into gamedev when you don’t have a computer or internet access outside of school.

At one stage in the presentation, I was certain that I saw a look of horror on the face of one of the staff due to something I’d said. Not sure what it was (or — in hindsight — if I’d read it correctly), but it stood out and amused me just a bit.

High School 3

Another room full of guys, opted-in, nicely structured seating, great attention, lots of questions and engagement. Grades 7–10 (iirc). Turned out that this school uses GameMaker as part of the ICT curriculum, and these were a particular eager and interested bunch.

After the presentation, one asked to show me a game he had been working on, which was absolutely fantastic to see — I got to see it in action, hear his plans for what he wanted to do with it, offer some ideas. Also, some days afterwards, one of the students sent me a thank-you card! :D

High School 4

This place was hard work. Three sessions, each to a different grade computing class (against my stated preference). Included students who were vocally opposed to being there, and consequently an environment where it was difficult to get engagement (answers to questions or questions from the audience). Sessions were held in computing classrooms, with PCs around the outside of the room, and chairs clustered (somewhat awkwardly) in the middle.

It wasn’t a total loss — there were certainly students interested in gamedev careers, and there were others that (I’m pretty sure) heard enough about what I had to say about career preparation in general that it might be of benefit.

The second session was with the grade 10 class, who were very short on questions. There were a number in this group who were clearly a lot more thoughtful and calculating — there were looks of concentration on and consideration of what I had to say. Also, the couple of teachers in the room threw in some questions to help focus the content on what was relevant to this age group — questions of subject selection for college and later came up from teachers a few times through the talk. My answer to that is do what is useful for the sort of career you want — there are potential benefits to both broader and narrower paths.

The three talks at this school were spread out over a whole school day, and the last group, at the end of the day were grade 7 and 8s. There was not a lot of focussed attention in the room. There were a number that were distracted and distracting for most of the session. In the end, it kind of devolved into me asking for games people had played recently and me providing a quick fact/anecdote/news headline about the game/mechanic/developer/development process/whatever. In hindsight, I’m not sure what it was the best way to round out the session — it kept their attention, but probably wasn’t all that useful.

There was a cool conclusion to the day — after the last session, one of the students demoed some gameplay extensions he’d made to a game he’d downloaded from @notch’s website (I think it was this). Getting to meet students with this kind of interest and enthusiasm (and this wasn’t the only time it happened) was the high point for me of the whole series of presentations.

High School 5

Final school, another three presentations. This time, I spoke to all of the grade 10 students (and one grade 9 guy who was super keen). I was a bit worried that this one would be another one stifled by objectors, but overall things went very well. The students were interested and engaged, and mostly the dynamic within the room was comfortable/amiable. It was a great place to finish.

The school has a large kitchen operated by students, and I was provided lunch from there which was also pretty cool — students eager, active and making stuff (eats!) was consistent with what I was trying to encourage and a delight to see :D

Summing up

Themes of questions did tend to vary from school to school — I do recall answering different styles of questions at different schools, though it’s hard to generalise what the differences were. I did get quite a few questions about what my favourite game is that I was not well prepared for — “I like lots of different types of games” is not a satisfying answer, even to me.

I had very little with me in terms of props — a whiteboard, upon which I wrote my name and wrote the 5 points as I went through them, and my Touchpad (containing notes, in case of catastrophic memory failure). My name — deliberately written out in full — tended to lead to some banter between myself and those gathered before the presentation regarding its pronunciation, which worked as a starting ice breaker. I did try chatting with the students beforehand in most cases to try to help lower the barrier to interaction during the talk.

Another stand-out was arriving early at one of the schools and getting to hear a couple of pieces performed by the small male choir, which was very impressive :)

Was it worth it? What was the benefit? Would I do it again? I enjoyed delivering the presentations, and the experience overall — but that wasn’t the point of the exercise. The feedback I have received is that there were students who were impacted by what I had to say — there were consequences. Students (and teachers) gained a slightly better understanding of the industry. I didn’t sugar-coat it — I presented what I think was a fair summary of risk and reward. I told no one to go into gamedev — rather, encouraged them to work for what they’re passionate about, to choose to do things that will help, and maybe to aspire a little higher than they otherwise might do. Given the chance, I would be very happy to do this sort of thing again.

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, 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)