My Prescription for (More) Successful Students

i keep a keen eye on the post-secondary education system here in Ontario. i’d LOVE to get to a place where we have a number of really fantastic schools teaching video game design and development, and Ontario’s where you gotta go when you’re considering a career in this stuff. But we’ve got a long way to go.

When i spoke at the Toronto FanExpo, one of the audience members asked me about value-for-money in these programs. i responded the same way i always do: if you are in a college video game development program, and you do not graduate with at least one finished game, demand your money back. (Bolded AND italicized … this guy means BIDNESS.)

this guy means bidness

(this guy also means bidness)

Of course, a number of preventative factors could be involved in you not having a finished game. (YOU, for example.) But if it’s not the goal of your game development school to launch you with a final, playable game, i question your school’s priorities (and their motives in taking your parents’ and/or taxpayers’ heard-earned money to put you through the program).

Press Rx to Start

i have a prescription for graduating students: three simple things that many, many grads don’t have. By checking these three things off the list, you’ll be miles ahead of most of the other Ontario game dev grads against whom you’ll be competing for a very limited number of internships, entry-level positions and other opportunities. These three things are:

  1. Your own website.
  2. A finished game on that website, playable in the browser.
  3. Business cards, to drive people to that website when you’re out at networking events.

1. Your Own Website

Here are a few DO’s and DONT’s for your own website:

DO

  • buy a domain (many web hosts give you one for free with a hosting package)
  • create an email address using that domain (example: pete@petesWebsite.com)
  • make your CV/resume readily accessible on the site, BUT … despite what your college tells you in their “career preparedness” filler course, your resume isn’t really worth a damn in this industry. The proof is in the (playable) pudding – your finished work samples.
  • have a prominent link that says “Contact” which, when clicked, displays your phone number and email address. (Afraid you’ll be harassed by stalkers? Get over yourself. You won’t.)

DON’T

  • go with a free hosting solution (example: http://pete.awesomeSitesForFree.com)
  • bury your best work behind more than one click (preferably, your reel or finished game should be front and center on the main page, playable in one click)
  • hide your contact info
  • prominently post your resume (Your resume doesn’t matter. Your work does.)
  • post all of your school projects, down to your Illustrator colour wheel and your Photoshop person-removal exercise. Just pick two or three of your very best pieces, and leave the rest out. If you don’t have anything you can confidently show, go back to the drawing board and build something. Doesn’t matter if you’ve just graduated – your portfolio is never finished, and if it sucks right now, stop looking so hard for a job in the industry. Get a joe job to keep yourself occupied, and spend every remaining waking hour making your portfolio not suck.

2. A Finished Game, Playable in the Browser

By “playable in the browser”, we’re talkin’:

  • Flash
  • Unity
  • HTML5
  • … Java? (Is it playable in the browser? i *think* so. i don’t know enough about it to say for sure.)
  • Shockwave (if you’ve decided to go back in time to 1998)

i may draw a lot of fire by stipulating that the game must be playable in the browser, but i’m standing behind it as stone cold fact: if your game is a downloadable executable file, it will not get played.

The last thing i want to do as an employer is spend time futzing around with a student’s (potentially) badly-built file that may do God-knows-what kind of damage to my system. Add to that the time involved in screening applicants. i just don’t have the hours or the patience, and i know i’m not alone in that. At the Indie Showcase event in Toronto, TOJam founder Jim McTellin’ItLikeItIs McGinley confirmed that the TOJam games that are not playable in the browser receive dramatically fewer (read: ZERO) plays than their playable-in-browser counterparts.

But if i hit a student’s site, and right there on the main page is a finished game with a big, inviting PLAY button, i will click and try it out for at least a few seconds.

No Game? Fake it.

If you can’t swing a browser-playable game, create a trailer for the game featuring gameplay. Watch different pieces on GameTrailers.com to get a sense of good pacing and high production values, and steal whatever techniques you can identify. And whether you have a browser-playable game or not, be sure to add a few clickable, biggify-able screenshots to your site in case the visitor can’t be arsed to hit that PLAY button on your video or game.

On a Role

Another tip: it’s preferable to have a game that you either built on your own, or where your role was very clearly defined (example: you created all of the background art, and programmed and designed the entire user interface). It’s fine if the game was a collaborative effort, but it becomes more difficult for a visitor to get a sense of your abilities. YOUR abilities – those are the things you need to be trumpeting on your site. If the game was a team project, clearly and prominently state your role in the project – the more specific the better.

GOOD:

I created the sprite sheets for the main character, and the warg and vampire villains. I also did all the sound design except the background music tracks.

NOT SO TERRIBLY GOOD:

I worked on this project with seven others. I designed some of it, and drew some of the art. I also did about half of the coding, and some of the animation. (wtf does “half the coding” mean?)

3. Business Cards

They say “it’s all who you know”, so a very crucial part of being a graduate is getting out there and networking. i guarantee you that if you impress someone with your personality at an event and ask him to remember to visit petesWebsite.com, it ain’t gonna happen. People at networking events have memories like sieves – you’re one of maybe thirty people they’re going to talk to, and you’re a recent grad, so it’s likely more of a challenge for you to make an impression. You’re gonna need business cards.

American Psycho

Make sure it has off-white colouring, tasteful thickness, and – oh my God – a watermark!

Here are a few things i recommend listing on your business card:

  1. your name
  2. your email address @ your own domain
  3. your phone number
  4. some kind of tag line that reminds the reader of your goals as a recent grad, and be specific (example: Peter Peterson – Seeking Employment as a 3D Texture Artist in the Mobile Game Industry)
  5. your website address … make sure it doesn’t take too long to type, like untoldentertainment.com (what a bloody terrible idea THAT url was)
  6. Some kind of call to action can’t hurt (example: Come see my dragon models! or Come play Super Jumpy Man!). If you put something like that on there, you may pique my interest.

And a few don’ts:

  1. don’t bog the card down with a million phone numbers. One will do. If you really can’t be reached at that number all the time, you can put two phone numbers on there, but try to keep it simple.
  2. i don’t recommend putting your mailing address on there. No one’s going to send you a letter by Pony Express. Not only that, but you risk looking like a hick if you’re applying for work in the big city, and your business card places you in some distant suburb or outlying area (it ain’t pretty, but i wouldn’t recommend passing around an Oshawa or Barrie business card at a Toronto networking event. You want to appear as if you’re local and available, and as if you have all your teeth.)
  3. don’t don’t don’t don’t don’t list a hotmail address. You’ll look bush-league. i’d even say the same for gmail addresses … you own a domain, so you should use that in your address. If you like the gMail service, you can manage your @petesWebsite mail using gMail. Your public-facing address should be customized.
  4. don’t cook up some bogus company name. If you’re looking for a full-time salaried position at a company, i think it’s better to present yourself as an individual. It’s more important that people know Pete Peterson, than “Layzor Virtutronic Game Design Systems Inc.”

i’d love to get your suggestions for web hosts and business card tips in the comments section! And feel free to complain about my browser-only stipulation for the games. i’ll just let you know ahead of time: you’re wrong.

23 thoughts on “My Prescription for (More) Successful Students

  1. Snottlebocket

    If you’re in doubt about java’s viability for browser games you need to read up on minecraft old man. Over half a million sales before it’s even in beta. It’s worth the 10 bucks just for a lesson in brilliant game design.

    Reply
  2. MichaelJW

    Great article!

    I noticed you said, “i will click and try it out for at least a few seconds.” Would that affect the type of game you recommend students to build?

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Good catch, MJW. That’s a whole other article, but yeah – the game should definitely be in the “pick up and play” vein. No long opening cut-scene, no complicated options screens … one to two clicks maximum should get you playing, because people (and especially prospective employers) just don’t have the time.

      All the rules that you learn at a good game jam about what attracts people to your game over the fifty other games in the room apply here.

      Reply
      1. Vinnie

        Well to this I say: if your game does include an opening cutscene, tutorials, and all the other (important) fluff, then create a huge option for “DEMO” right before the play button. Heck, you can make the demo available first and say “Press (x) to go to the game”.

        If there is no demo, try using an earlier (polished) build – or just one level. Don’t sacrifice your story or your narrative techniques, just impress the audience first and then give them the meat.

        Reply
  3. Chris Harshman

    I think every tip and suggestion there is great. I would argue that the resume and cover letter are still important if you are not looking to get a job by having someone viist your website.

    The only thing I can add is the you need to do alot of ground work, never stop learning, visit game companies job posting pages on their website and tailor your resume and portfolio to exactly what they want to see.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Chris – disagree! If you are a young artist or programmer (especially an artist) trying to get a job in video games, what employer is going to look at your resume first? Maybe i’m weird, but i always always always look at a website first, and if i don’t vomit in my mouth, i’ll check out the applicant’s resume.

      If all i receive is a resume, i look for a website link at the top. If one exists, i follow it and check out the work, completely ignoring the rest of the resume. No linky? Me deletey.

      Reply
      1. Chris Harshman

        I don’t think websites are not important, but I think there are 100’s of job types in the industry were a website is going to tell you very little of your skills, sure if you are an artist and you don’t have a website I won’t consider you. But take a look at what I do, Game Design, how can you put forward your skill in Game Design through a website, post GDD’s concepts? no one wants to read through your idea’s they want to see your experience listed in a resume.

        Sure most people comming out of school want to either be an artist, programmer, level designer or game designer, and of the 4 game designer is the only one where a website doesn’t add to your application.

        Reply
        1. Ryan Henson Creighton

          i couldn’t disagree more! i wouldn’t consider hiring a game designer without going to his site and seeing his wireframes, game flow diagrams, design one-pagers, and – yes – GDDs. Wouldn’t CONSIDER it.

          An even better way to prove ability is to show game design documents, and have the finished game playable on the site. That would speak volumes! A resume doesn’t. A resume will only tell me where someone’s worked, not what he can do. i have no idea if he’s quit various jobs in frustration, if he was fired, if he was useless … seeing actual work on a website gives me a far clearer picture of capability. Personality vetting through resumes/reference checks comes later in the process.

          Reply
  4. Iain

    You are so right my friend. However: a gmail address is fine, and you’ll still be using it years after you’ve abandoned acidzombiegamer.net as your domain name. Speaking of which – buy your name as your domain name! If you can’t get firstnamelastname.com go for firstnamemiddlenamelastname.com or firstname-lastname.com or even firstnamelastname.tv/org/net/ca ANYTHING IS BETTER THAN acidzombiegamer.net!

    Also, I’d say there are some decent dev platforms that don’t work in the browser (or maybe you built your own engine from scratch!), so a well produced 4 minute video of your game is almost as good as a playable-in-browser game. Nobody saw the early footage of Limbo and said “that’s crap because I can’t play it my browser”. They went: “Holy crap that looks amazing!”

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Yep – good point. A *well-produced* video is a close second to a playable game. What you want to avoid is “GAME TITLE! Tiny thumbnail! Link to .exe”

      i worry that gmail has a certain respectability now, but that it will be the hotmail of tomorrow.

      Reply
  5. Chris Harshman

    On Gmail, having had a Gmail account since nearly the first day it was in public private invites.

    I believe because anything touched by google seems to turn to gold, it will be a viable option, if I had mine own website I would create a dummy account there, but I find gmail to be quite respected espically in the Game Industry, outside that I might use something else, but right now it isn’t worth the money to have domain name and hosting set up just for a dummy address.

    What really gets me, is the email names and the way they talk in there email.

    for me mine is harshman.chris@gmail.com, no one focuses on the gmail, rather they focus that I use lastname.firstname@{host}.com.

    In my emails, I write all my profession emails I follow a standard letter format, rather than just start typing away at what I want to ask, I fine this makes a bigger difference than the host.

    Reply
  6. Bwakathaboom

    Dammit – I hate when people beat me to a good Seth Godin reference!

    The additional benefit of your own game is that you have the chance to rise above the pack of other applicants if your game becomes popular. I doubt the developer of Bloons would need to justify his application for studio job. You can also demand a higher starting salary even without previous studio experience.

    Same goes, I think, for creating useful tools. If you can write a good library that people use (like Flixel or Box2D) you can bet the Flash coder job is yours.

    Reply
  7. Chris Harshman

    Resumes don’t just provide you with a list of where you have worked and for how long, any resume that did just that wouldn’t get very far. A proper resume is the final result of a deep understand of your yourself in the best light so that you can get a job. A resume is never complete without a cover letter either, which is as important if not more important.

    To add I don’t have a website, but I definatly have a portfolio that contains my GDD’s and assorted things and I wouldn’t want to work at a company who didn’t ask for a portfolio, all I am saying is your are pushing people in the direction of all online content even with your comments are must be playable in the broswer, that shows increible bias towards a certain type of market and does a great disservice to people not looking in the market that you are putting forward as being all there is.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Chris! i worry the fumes from the printer ink on all these resumes you’ve been printing out is affecting your judgment here.

      When someone applies to Untold Entertainment, i could give a rat’s ass whether his resume shows he deeply understands himself. i’m a starving artist. i want to know what he can do for me and my business, and how quickly he can do it, and what it’s gonna cost me. It’s fine that he went to Puerto Rico for a year to find himself, and his resume reflects that, but it’s more likely a detail i’ll notice when i’m reviewing his resume, waiting for him to show up for his contract-signing interview.

      To which market do i show an incredible bias? Video game industry professionals who are on the Internet? Sorry … but video game professionals who AREN’T on the Internet don’t really rate with me – you’re right.

      Everything in your portfolio can be uploaded. i have only ever met one person face-to-face who didn’t have his work online, and that’s because he had an intriguing excuse (said he wanted to show me his originals, to prove it was his work, but it was an obvious ploy to get an interview. i wouldn’t fall for it again.) So put your work online already. My time is precious. You can investigate your spiritual self-discoveries in bullet points at the bottom of your resume on your own time.

      Reply
  8. Bane

    Okay, let’s talk domain name and hosting.

    Namecheap.com for domain names

    hostgator.com for hosting

    Nothing else compares to either – feel free to google coupon codes for both.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      And … this may sound ridiculously rudimentary, but i’ll mention it just in case some readers don’t know: your domain name is the address people type in their browser to see your website and files. UntoldEntertainment.com is the domain name for my site. Domains cost around $7-10 per year.

      “Hosting” means that you pay someone to keep your files on their computer. The domain name points to that computer. When someone types “UntoldEntertainment.com” into the browser, your computer sends a request to a company called 1and1 (my current host). 1and1 rents a computer to me that has my website’s files on it, and that computer serves those files back to your computer so that you can play my games and read my blog. Hosting can cost anywhere from $10/yr and up.

      Reply
  9. Mark Grossnickle

    I think you touched on half of the prescription of success by making sure you have a portfolio of some sort. I’d say the other half is leaving college with some sort of network… Someone to show said portfolio too.

    All Students should:
    – Have an active twitter account (talking about games, not what they had for lunch)
    – Be reading and posting comments on other blogs.
    – Asking/Answering questions in game forums
    – LinkedIn. I’m telling you its a gold mine for landing interviews and finding job openings.
    – Join clubs like IGDA or start your own gaming club for your university

    Dive into the community in general. Reach out to people. Make connections long before you need a job.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      LinkedIn? Really? i haven’t had much use for it … but then, i’m not an active job-seeker.

      i totally agree with networking … i’d even suggest that in-person networking is FAR more important than online networking. i see a lot of students and grads who attend our local IGDA chapter hoping to network with someone who will give them a job, but what i don’t see is people agreeing to collaborate with each other to create something. There are lots of low-status people trying to meet high-status people, but i think low-status people would be well-served to meet other low-status people to see what they can accomplish.

      i crafted a Twitter assignment for some of my students. They had to create an account, follow 10 different types of people, and tweet in 5 different ways. It was intended to help them get the most out of the service as job-seekers and networkers. i’m a big believer in Twitter.

      Reply

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