Many people, especially on Twitter, have asked for advice on how to become a professional game developer if you are completely self-taught. Since I am not a parrot and repeating myself gets boring I figured I’ll answer that question here once and for all.
Let me first tell you my story: My name is Kristin and I am 27 years old by now. I initially studied psychology but I have been working in the games industry as a game programmer for about four months now. I never went to university, nor have I had any kind of professional training that taught me programming – I did it myself over many hours, with a bunch of books and a lot of trial and error. When I decided to kiss psychology goodbye I did what probably everybody else does and what may lead you to this post – I googled.
Now, that’s when I became really, really frustrated. What you read the most is people telling you that you need to have a fancy college degree in Computer Science of any kind. And if you don’t have that you’ll have to sacrifice for unpaid internships. You know, the kind where you probably won’t do much programming and you are eventually ending up playtesting or – which is worse – bringing someone coffee. It should go without saying that an unpaid internship might be great for someone who is 16, but if you have reached a certain age it is obviously not an option – there are bills to pay.
Obviously, after reading all the relatively negative articles I was devasted, it felt like my dream crumbled away, which is one of the main reasons why I am writing this post – I don’t think any of it is true.
Do I think everybody could be a game developer? God, no! You do need to have a few qualities to actually stand a chance and here they are :
Being self-taught means that while you might know how to do something, you probably don’t know the best way to do it. There will be times where you are set on a project and anybody with proper training and/or experience will know what to do right away, whilst you have to figure it out. Your colleagues will most certainly be faster than you and you might have to throw in some night shifts to do stuff in a timely fashion. It’s the price you pay. Obviously, it won’t be like that forever – but it probably will be for the first few months.
You have to make sure to tell your potential boss where you are at, there is no point in saying you can do something you can’t. You’ll waste their time and yours. Someone who hires you or even just gave you the chance to have an interview does know that you are self-taught. He won’t expect you to know everything. There is no shame in saying that you can’t do something if you are willing to learn it.
Willing to learn:
Being self-taught only goes so far, there are limited resources and even if it would be possible to read every book on programming that exists, it would still be highly unlikely that you do know every common practice, which makes sense – but you do have to be willing to learn. Working with professionals will teach you more than all the books you’ve read – I can vouch for that. I’ve learned incredibly much already.
If you match all these criteria – great – you do stand a chance! Now, how and where to apply?
I highly suggest and I can’t stress that enough – work on a portfolio before you try to apply. Portfolios are a common practice in the games industry and they do give a possible employer an insight into your abilities. I wrote a post about portfolios which I still stand by here: Some advice on portfolios. If you want an example of a portfolio that actually got someone a job, look around here – because this is mine :-).
Once your portfolio is done it’s time to send out a few E-Mails. What I ended up doing was looking online who is hiring. One thing, that is very important is that all these jobs you see posted might sound scary and they list a bunch of things you might not be good at, keep in mind that this is just what they picture their ideal candidate like, it’s not set in stone most of the time. What I am trying to say is – Be brave, just try and apply – the worst thing that can happen is that they won’t answer or they say no right away. The only thing that is really important is that you are honest about who you are and what you’ve done – I’ve heard a lot about people “pimping” their CV’s – don’t do that. The job I now have had a bunch of things listed that I had never worked with but they still hired me because they saw potential.
There is one last thing I want to point out. I know that switching careers is stressful and being rejected can hurt but you do have to be considerate. If you are starting out like me then you don’t have experience and no degree – asking someone to hire you is basically asking for a lot. They are taking a risk because there are no references, there is no one that can vouch for your abilities, it is understandable if they don’t want to take that risk – but if you keep your cool and you still make a good impression – it is most likely that they will keep you in mind. And while you might not be a good candidate right now, you may be later in time.
I hope this post helped you out a bit. Feel free to comment or tweet questions if there are any.