AAA developers offer job advice

GDC 2011: Cliff Bleszinski, Clint Hocking, Brian Reynolds, Robin Hunicke tell aspiring top-tier game makers the best way to get in is to make stuff.

Who was there: One of the last panels held during the 2011 Game Developers Conference featured a handful of the biggest names in the industry, representing some of the biggest studios in the industry. Epic Games' Cliff Bleszinski was joined by LucasArts' Clint Hocking, Zynga's Brian Reynolds, thatgamecompany's Robin Hunicke, and Microsoft Game Studios' Chris Charla to talk "Breaking Into AAA Game Development."

Narbacular Drop personifies the panel's advice: make something.

What they talked about: Charla, who served as moderator for the panel, started the session off by saying that rather than serving as the session's inquisitor, it would be the audience's questions that the team onstage would field.

The first question came from an art student, who wanted to know what else he should be doing to prepare for getting a job in the industry while finishing up his degree. According to Bleszinski, the most important thing he should be doing is honing his artistic skill. Bleszinski also said that participating in online artist communities is also beneficial because Epic regularly trolls these forums looking for potential candidates.

Hunicke added to this response, saying that while it's important for people to always put forward their best work, it's also good to show that they have a distinct voice. That is to say, while applicants should show a studio that they can mimic that studio's style, it also helps to throw in their own flare.

The next question concerned how a developer can transition from the indie scene to a AAA developer. Hocking said that first and foremost, people should be doing what they feel is right for them--AAA development shouldn't always be the goal. However, for those that want to make that switch, it's important to realize that specialization is how it's done at the top-tier houses, and indie developers can expect to wear so many hats.

Bleszinski noted that developing in the indie sphere isn't particularly helpful in getting a high-level AAA position. Instead, big companies are looking for people who have paid their dues at the bottom and then worked their way up. Hocking agreed with this, saying that he didn't set out to be a creative director. He started out being the best level designer he could be and then progressed to being the best lead designer he could be before becoming the best creative director he could be.

The next question to the panel was whether it is best to acquire a bunch of skills or specialize on one thing. Bleszinski said that it's best for people to pick one area of specialization initially, and then once established, it's good to begin expanding their skill sets.

Bleszinski also fielded the next question, saying that the best way to get an entry-level level design gig is to simply make something, a point Hunicke echoed. According to Hunicke, the best way to start is to simply use other people's tools and to make mods. Reynolds noted that pure game design or systems design jobs are probably the hardest entry-level jobs to get. Other ways to get into design are quality assurance or programming, if the individual has those skills.

The next two questions dealt with the same topic: What's the best way to wow an interviewer as a physics designer or a programmer? For both questions, the panel had a consensus: make something.

Schooling was the topic of the next question, specifically, how important is a degree? The panel agreed that while most companies list a degree as a requirement, if the applicant is good, then the degree isn't necessary. "If you're awesome, we'll hire you," Hunicke said.

For the last question, the audience member asked whether he could be damaged if he made a full game to completion by himself, but areas of it weren't perfect. The answer to that question, Bleszinski said, can be found in Narbacular Drop, the student project that eventually became Portal. Bleszinski said that Narbacular Drop looked horrible, but Valve was able to see its promise, and that's how it got made.

Quote: "Make s***."--Cliff Bleszinski, repeating the general advice of the panel.

Takeaway: Not to belabor the point, but AAA developers are looking for individuals who are able to take projects--be they student, indie, or otherwise--to completion. When in doubt, just make something.

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Discussion

32 comments
uberjannie
uberjannie

@Gelugon_baat : Making money is a big part of all businesses :) But the industry is starting to focus way too much on the money making part. I'm especially looking at you DLC's! But, lack of innovation is also showing in the gaming industry.

jamesAboy19
jamesAboy19

programming is a great place to start to get into the industry, not only that but the skills you learn in it can be carried over to many other jobs such as software enginering or development, or even web developmen. I emailed the developers behind meat boy and orion:prelude, the two guys behind meat boy where collage drops outs, and many of spiral gaming developers where also collage drop outs. So that just goes to show passion can drive you a long way in the industry. The meat boy devs said if you just want to make games for fun pick up flash or game maker and just start learning and designing. Orions devs said mods where a great place to start. Dont forget splash damage, a very sucessful development studio was made of mainly the mod community. So chin up guys!

19Gam3NErD91
19Gam3NErD91

@smoke_dog_4ever thanks for the advice man! i think i just need some confidence and as you said i should start getting my feet wet(although that sort of has happened by now! :) ) , game development is really hard but everything can be achieved with hard work.

WeaponXws
WeaponXws

I'd argue that one of the most important things is knowing people in the industry. I may not have gotten my job if I did not know someone who worked where I do. I met or exceeded the requirements for the job; however, there was fierce competition. He made a recommendation that got me an interview. The rest was up to me. If you are good, you may just need help getting your foot in the door. I'm not recommending that you stalk people.

luna_chanfui
luna_chanfui

For those who are beginners and would like to turn their ideas into reality, you can check this out. Unity 3D Game Engine http://unity3d.com/ 3rd party movement script - iTween http://itween.pixelplacement.com/index.php You can make game at once and build it into Android/PC/iOS/Xbox/PS3/Wii platforms. It's free for 30 days, and it's quite cheap for the license. The language is Unity Javascript, C#, and Boo, which may let you feel easy to understand the game structures and coding. Cheers. :)

athenian29
athenian29

@smoke_dog_4ever You're a wonderful leader for us all.

organbank
organbank

Great advise. So just pump out generic shooters then....

SicklySunStorm
SicklySunStorm

props must be given for smoke_dog_4ever's words of wisdom and assistance. I'm in the middle of learning some basics of programming and a friend of mine who is much farther ahead than me is showing me the ropes with the UDK too.... it will probably be years rather than months before I have an end product, but I'll get there :)

MamaLuigiBarrel
MamaLuigiBarrel

Ah, Narbacular Drop. The great granddaddy of the game we know as Portal.

smoke_dog_4ever
smoke_dog_4ever

@19Gam3NErD91 There are plenty of free tools available for you to use for making games (even game engines) and most are either outright free to download or require you to register on a website/forum, which is no big deal since you'll be using that website/forum for help. You can also find free tutorials online if you just search for them. Microsoft's Express Studios (C# or C++ for programming) http://www.microsoft.com/express/Windows/ Unreal Engine http://www.unrealengine.com/news/category/udk_releases Havok engine http://www.havok.com/index.php?page=noncommercial You can use GIMP for free, which is like Photoshop, and blender, for 3D modeling. There are plenty of other free options out there which will help you get your foot in the door to making your own game a reality. Use Google!!!

smoke_dog_4ever
smoke_dog_4ever

@19Gam3NErD91 When someone is learning to write, teachers say the best way to become a better writer is TO WRITE. Amazing ideas that sit in your head are nothing if they're not concrete and something you can physically share with others, they're just ideas. I'm currently taking entry level programming at a university and just starting out, it's difficult learning to program and understanding how you think a process looks logical and should work, but the computer can't understand what you're trying to do and gives back an error. It's important to get your feet wet and start MAKING SOMETHING, like these guys said. There's nothing romantic about making your first game, it's hard work and challenging and it will test you in so many ways. The best thing you can do is just keep trying and push on to your end goal. You can't learn from mistakes you aren't making, and as long as you don't start making something, you won't ever have anything. I'd encourage you to start working on your game and if you don't meet next year's deadline, try for the next year, and all your learning in that extra year will better you so much more.

smoke_dog_4ever
smoke_dog_4ever

I think the best way to get into gaming journalism is half luck and half skill. You hone your craft, do some blogs, offer to write some free pieces for your college newspaper to establish a reader base, then take a more permanent job down the line doing journalism that probably isn't in the gaming industry. Why? Well is a company more inclined to offer somebody a job who's working from home blogging about video games in their underwear or someone who currently has a job at a successful writing establishment? Keep checking job positions at your favorite gaming magazines or websites and hope you've got the right stuff at the right time to get hired. Make sure you've got plenty of pieces in a portfolio you can share that shows your abilities.

smoke_dog_4ever
smoke_dog_4ever

@Danagan, though I'm not in the video game business yet, I can tell you that while the editor for Play was right, he was also wrong. It does take passion to work in the gaming industry because it's a different beast than any other industry, but if you can't write a lick or form complete sentences with correct punctuation, your passion won't matter. An education is important for gaining the knowledge of how to better your writing, but it's also important for another reason. Many professors, advisors, deans, etc, at the college level have worked, or do work, in the industries they're teaching about (I'd say the vast majority do). Sometimes excelling in your area of study in college AND making a positive impression with your professors is a great way establish credibility and get a handout. If professor A sees how hard you work and how great your style is, he's more likely to share words with his industry buddies for you when you go looking for a job after graduating (or heck, sometimes as an intern while you finish your degree!). You wouldn't have these kinds of business relationships if you didn't have a formal education.

Danagan
Danagan

I see a lot of these articles every now and then, but what I really want is an article that gives you advice about becoming a video game journalist. That is the job I really want, and aside from emailing a few magazines I have no real info on how to get into that business. The best advice Ive gotten was from the editor of Play magazine, who told me that its more about your passion from games than your education. He also told me that most video game journalists started out with Blogs, so I did start a review Blog about a month back, but Haven a clue where to go from here. My basic plan is to continue doing reviews and finish college and by then I will hopefully have enough skill to be able to apply for a job. Id love to see some articles that give a detailed path for me to follow to get into this business but there just isn't many out there.

HollowNinja
HollowNinja

For those of you who don't know, "trolling" is a method of fishing that refers to dragging a net through the water to catch anything that swims in. It's the basis of the term "trolling" as used to refer to internet trolls (that term has nothing to do with fairytale trolls), but in this context, it means they go around looking for promising work. In any case, this was an interesting lead. I have an idea for a game I want to get made myself, but I really have no idea about how to go about making it happen.

19Gam3NErD91
19Gam3NErD91

i am really desperate to make a game based on a clever idea( i think) i have (and if possible make other ones around some other neat ideas) with my goal being to enlist it for next year's IGF( GDC ) ,so somehow if by some luck i manage to win it , use it as a leverage for my future in game development like being able to get to U.S from the retarded third world country i live in as soon as possible (if like a studio notices my work and sends me an invitation or gives me some support or if i can get an scholarship or something like that) but the problem is it all sounds like too much of a wishful thinking , because even if i manage to finish the game by the deadline (which is a really huge task considering the complexity of the game) there is no guarantee it even gets nominated let alone win with all this huge competition between indie devs these days and all the amazing games they make. i mean come on , super meat boy didn't even get nominated for the main awards this year, yet it was GOTY material in my mind and many others and even this site's. and then if i do win , how can i continue my work without any funding or a studio support? sorry for this long rant but i feel like I'm really lost, i don't see how by just ' making something ' i can become a game developer and actually make money by it. i think luck and some other out-of-my-hand factors play a big role in this matter. if I'm wrong i wold really appreciate if someone corrects me and shows me the way.

drago9876
drago9876

@smoke_dog_4ever Yeah i understand the Epic Games, in fact i was talking more about the other companies.... sure lucas arts has been in the gaming industry for years, but in my opinion they haven't made one solid game recently... Force Unleashed 2 i heard suck, and i was not fascinated about the original.... Microsoft Game Studios are publishers, they are talking about AAA developers. a normal person can be a publisher it takes no skill or talent, being a developer is what counts... Zynga make facebook(I hate facebook) social games, and you would have to have no life to actually play their games frequently. Epic Games is a legit company, but the others are not, and to have better companies(like Blizzard, Bioware and etc.) saying this would be better.....

JONO51
JONO51

epic regularly trolls artist forums? yep, we can see that with their character design.

smoke_dog_4ever
smoke_dog_4ever

@drago9876, because Epic Games (whose publisher is EA), Lucasarts (who has a hand in many different aspects of all of the Star Wars games), and Microsoft Game Studios (who's published the Halo series as well as many other AAA Xbox titles) aren't legit? Um...... LOL!!! That's hilarious. These companies have been in the business for 10+ years. They're more than qualified to speak on what AAA companies look for because they ARE AAA companies. The only exception I'd say is Zynga, though they have had enormous success in developing games for Facebook and getting people addicted to their products.

wonderr
wonderr

I agree with their advice. Be the best you can be. I am a computer animator and working on a AAA game wasn't my goal. My goal a few years ago, while in Vancouver for an independent developer, was to do awesome work just so I wouldn't get fired. It was enough motivation for me to try to excel in my animation and aquire knowledge on gameplay and so forth; but alas with the slowing industry, I got laid off. You go through self-doubt as an artist, and you have your low points, But you pick yourself up and with the skills I learned, I applied to a AAA studio in L.A....and did an animation test for them. After a few weeks wait, doubt hits you again, 'I'll never get in' I thought, but then one morning I got the call. And well.....here I am, working for a AAA studio in L.A! Wasn't my goal, wasn't my plan to move away from Canada, but this is a nice change. Work hard! Be inspired.

drago9876
drago9876

I agree... but it would be better said from a more legit company maybe like Blizzard, or EA or even Bungie(if they are still up)

punkologist
punkologist

@Zloth2 story of my life as a programmer at work mate! Those testers can really make me look stupid sometimes!

CyberKlown28
CyberKlown28

Maybe they should have brought real AAA developers for this interview? Miyamoto for instance, not...farmville creators...

Contemplator
Contemplator

To the writer of this article, I have some grammar nazi irks... sorry I couldn't resist: :-) troll -- "because Epic regularly trolls these forums looking for potential candidates" -- I think you mean lurk. flare -- "it also helps to throw in their own flare" -- you mean flair?

Morf_uni
Morf_uni

@nohabs Not true, you can know a producer or lead in a high profile development company, but that wont automaticly get you a job. Frankly they ain't the ones hiring people, HR is and it's those you need to impress. I know a few guys both in blizzard and id software. Trust me you wont get into such companies just by knowing somebody awesome, you'll have to be awesome yourself. Also not really polite to ask such favours from ones friends. Sure you have the possibility to show off your work to people within the company you want into, but if there's no free positions or if HR have a better candidate. you can rest assured HR will hire the person they feel fit the position best, not the one who know a guy or 2 within the company. personally i find indie dev much more interesting, there's a lot more variety, you get to work on many different things, get to wear a lot of different hats and overall just have a lot more creative freedom and options to learn a lot of different skills rather than only modelling plants and houses or spend all your day putting up lighting in the game maps or spend all day animating characters. Lots of AAA developers work on indie projects in their free time. Best advice is definitely to just start working on games rather than sitting around waiting.

BigAlezay2004
BigAlezay2004

@ pokecharm - I don't think they are saying there is only one way to succeed, but that your highest chances of succeeding are had by 1. putting yourself out there by showing off your own creations and style, and 2. persistence in improving your skills so that your creations continue to get better. If you work hard, and keep working, eventually someone will notice you, is what I took from the article.

nohabs
nohabs

...they forgot to mention, it's not what you know but who you know

Zloth2
Zloth2

Well, they also mentioned getting in via testing or via programming. Interesting... nitpickyness is a prime skill for both those jobs. Programmers need to think of those weird situations like "what happens if they save the game at 1:30am, daylight savings time ends, then they load the game almost an hour later... at 1:15am?" Testers have to think of all those weird situations that the programmers don't think of.

pokecharm
pokecharm

That's fair advice, but I think practice makes perfect isn't enough - there must be more to this discussion. This is such a growing industry, I doubt there is only 'one' way to succeed.