I’m not sure you’d be qualified for our content developer position, but you may be qualified for our web developer position.
That’s not the most promising response to a job inquiry I’ve ever had. Let me set the scene: It’s winter in Atlanta, which means cold and rainy. Emi has just read an entry on Penny Arcade that has us searching Marietta and other suburbs for a copy of Neverwinter Nights so that she can assemble an application to Bioware. And I’m suffering from job malaise — I have a nice, comfortable career arc working towards the leadership side of IT, but I’m not quite fulfilled there. And I’ve been talking it up about breaking for the games industry while there’s still time to do something crazy. So when Metaplace posted an opening for a Content Developer, I soul-searched a little — and then applied.
The rest, as they say, is history. I abandoned tropical Hotlanta for sunny Sandy Eggo, and a job as a Content Developer for Metaplace. I still have trouble believing it, but I now spend my days (and even some nights) getting paid to design and develop a virtual world platform.
So, what does it take to break into the games industry?
Let me start by saying — no small amount of support! Emi agreed to pack up the cat and move thousands of miles with me (again, I might add — she’s racked up over 3500 miles in Frequent Mover Miles so far). My friends (including that Tuebit guy who’s been known to blog in these parts) put up with endless “Is this a good idea?” debates. Once we were on the road from Atlanta to San Diego, several of our guildmates let us crash for the evening. So the “network” was awesome to us.
There I was, faced with an uphill battle. I LIKE uphill battles and lost causes. So, I did the only thing I could think of… I worked my gonads off to demonstrate that I was the right candidate. The advice most commonly given to aspiring game developers is to write some games. If only I’d done that BEFORE applying! But I tried to make up for lost time, and went on a crazy Metaplace Alpha Test bender. In the words of an article I read about EVE corporate wars: “Sleep is cancelled.” I worked diligently by day — it would never be acceptable to fail to deliver for my employer — and then toiled away with Metaplace by night. I took a calculated risk and went breadth-first; rather than focusing on a single deep project that might hit an impassable obstacle, I generated over a half-dozen lighter-weight demos. But at the end, I’d produced at least one genuine game, and a variety of tech demos that poked at some edges of Metaplace’s unique capabilities. I’ll revisit this in greater detail when the curtain lifts on MP’s virtual world goodness, but the end message was clear: There’s just no substitute for actually doing.
Next, networking is key. I lucked out with Metaplace, as I hadn’t networked very deeply yet. We’d exchanged some emails as we interviewed Cuppycake, Metaplace’s Community Manager, and that was the only personal connection I had. Then again, I’ve at least known someone at every job of note I’ve ever gotten. Is that fair? I can’t really say… but it never hurts. So get out there and meet some folks! Tuebit and I volunteered at IMGDC 2008 in the hopes of meeting-and-greeting a few folks. (Alas, we poor volunteers got fairly few breaks due to some last-minute illnesses and the like amongst the volunteer corps.) I can’t recommend this kind of event enough — get out there, say hi to someone at lunch, have fun. Tuebit and I got to chat with all sorts of folks, ranging from a passing hello to extended conversations with everyone from industry giants like Gordon Walton and Dr. Richard Bartle to basement hobbyists on a mission. Saying hi at an event is easier than you might think; at the core, almost everyone in the gaming industry has some passion about games — look, you’ve already got something in common!
But the most important thing I’ve found is to have a passion for what you do. It’s easy to say, and less easy to execute. Working on games for a living is often less fun than doing so for a hobby. After all, now you have to do what your bosses tell you to! The demands can be high. The Metaplace team is incredibly talented; the worst developers I work with are people I’d have recommended for hire in a heartbeat at anyother job I’ve held. “Great” work (as opposed to even “good” work) is the norm. If you shoot for an environment like that without loving what you do, it’s easy to go for burnout “just like a real job.” And jobs in the game industry are coveted — you can expect less pay than an easier position in a more traditional business software role. I’d say “Love it or fake it,” but I’d be lying. You can’t fake it.
Now that I’ve said all that, I’ve always found software development to be heady stuff. You start with nothing, then you spin a vague idea out of that, and “finish” the process by pulling code out of the ether, stuffing it onto magnetic media, and bending RAM and images and sound and little network bits to your will. I put “finish” in quotes because, of course, there’s always something else you want to do — and that’s part of what makes development a craft and not the mechanical assembly of patterns and processes. So I’ve braved 2,300 miles of a crying cat and a leap of faith into the unknown… and I’m right where I want to be.