A lot of people would like to work in the gaming industry so I thought I’d share my story of how I got into it the ‘biz’. Hopefully, it might help someone to achieve the same thing.
A little more than a year ago one of my close friends, Magnus Alm, broached the subject of working on a game with him. I was surprised but, of course, interested in talking more about his idea for a game.
It was in the early morning, the sun was coming up and we were in an old rowboat in the middle of a lake. The weak morning sunshine made the mists drifting slowly over the waters look like playful sprites as we talked about creating a game with a rich fantasy setting. It all sounded very exciting but I didn’t really think it would come to anything. But dreams are free and talking about something never hurts.
I’ve worked in the entertainment industry since 2002 and if I’ve learned anything it is that you should leap at every opportunity that excites you. The idea of working with games really felt exciting to me! So even though I had no real training or experience in the gaming industry, I knew that the skills that I possess both through my other work and through my own passion for games would be enough to do the job that Magnus described.
More than half a year later we were hanging out, having a good ol’ Swedish fika. Out of the blue, he asked me if I was still interested in the job. Without a moment's hesitation, I said that of course I was. About a month after that, we were on our way to creating an amazing game.
So by now I bet you’re thinking that I had some crazy luck, and I have to agree with you about that. This is not the way you’re supposed to get into an industry. Pretty darn lucky! But then again what is luck? Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. And this is my first point about how to get into any job you want: if you don’t prime yourself for the opportunity then when it arrives you can’t seize it.
I had had a hunch that Magnus might ask me again, so I did a few key things to prime myself if the opportunity came knocking. I turned down full time work and instead worked as a freelancer, making less money than I otherwise would. After talking to Magnus the first time I made sure to go over my relevant skills and tried to learn more about what I didn’t know so I could accept the job with confidence. And lastly: if I hadn’t been so enthusiastic about being involved in the game in the first place, Magnus might not have asked me again when the time came around.
This is something that I’ve learned from the years I worked as an actor. Actors always need to be ready to show their skills at an audition or cold read, sometimes with as little as ten minutes prep time. They must have those skills polished and ready to deliver. If you’re prepared for opportunity, you’ll find that you’ll be more lucky. In other words, you make your own luck.
Stepping into a new biz
I used to work as an actor and musical performer and also as a director, teacher and scriptwriter. Before that I spent over two years in the army, dealing mainly with troop tactics to a maximum of company level. These skills, along with with my passion for and knowledge of games, is what I brought to the table as I began my work. I still felt a gnawing feeling of doubt though. Would that be enough?
With great support from the rest of the team, I soon warmed up to my assignments. I found that working on a game is very similar to working on a feature script or a play, and that I could apply the same thinking and discipline to it. The creativity and work process that I have developed from working with improvisation theatre are also very helpful (I’ll probably write some posts about creativity later on.) Without a good team giving me relevant feedback so that I knew what worked and what didn’t, I might’ve struggled to trust that those skills were applicable to this job.
So what’s my second point? Trust that you’re good enough for the job that you have and trust work processes that you’ve used before. Change when you really need to change but remember to bring the strengths from your former career and life with you into your new job. After all, that is why you decided to go into the industry, start your own studio, or were offered that job to start out with.
Making the passion work
I want to work with games because I love games. I loved spending hours grinding for my first Onyxia raid back in vanilla WoW, I loved taking over the world as the Sioux in Europa Universalis 4, and there’s a certain satisfaction when I get outsmarted in a long game of Twilight Imperium 3 when a friend wins with a sneaky victory push.
When I play a new game I immediately try to ‘break’ it. I find the most cheesy and overpowered strategy to beat it on the hardest difficulty. If it’s in a board game I sometimes point it out to everyone so we can implement a house rule, but other times I just use that design flaw to win. Yeah, I’m that guy.
I read and write on forums and debate with other people like me about what would happen if a half point of something would be altered, or about why giving flying to a specific unit would make the whole game imbalanced. It’s these very things about me that Magnus picked up on and why he knew that I would fit in the team for the strategy game we’re working on.
Whatever passion fuels your love of games is the passion that you need to bring into the creation of games. That’s where you already have skills you might not have thought about and usually other skills that support it. Sometimes you stare so much at a title or a career goal that you forget to figure out what that job entails.
As an example, I know a lot of people that want to work as a screen actor. But most of them don’t enjoy reading hundreds of pages of script every month and constantly getting rejected for work they’ve put their heart and soul into. And if they do land a part, they might not enjoy working really long hours. But that’s the job, so it might not be ideal for them even if the title sounds appealing.
So you want to work in gaming, but with what exactly? Where will your passion help you? Let go of the titles and actually think about where your skills and your passion will help you. My third point is to look at what you can and want to do for hours on end, and not what fancy title you want to introduce yourself with at a party. Let your passion fuel you and your work.
When I started writing this blog post it wasn’t really about what others could learn from me stepping into the biz. But as I was writing I noticed that that’s where it was going, so I went with it. I was just going to write about what it felt like coming into the gaming industry. I can sum that up real quick: I feel very fortunate to have the job I do,and I’m slowly learning to say “Game Designer” when someone asks me what I work with.
I don’t miss the questions that always popped up when I used to answer “Actor”: “No, I’m not famous. Yes, you might have seen me in something. No, I won’t win an Oscar one day.” But one day someone named Oscar might play a game I made. Even better.