From time to time I get an email out of the blue from someone who wants to break into the games industry, usually as a writer or designer. I had another one this morning, and I thought it might be worth sharing my reply in case it can be useful to anyone else out there.
I haven’t worked as a game designer for some years, through choice. The discipline is becoming increasingly technical, requiring facility with scripting languages and 3D art packages that I don’t have. I’ve had more success as a writer, and I’d recommend these titles, written by members of the IGDA Writing Special Interest Group, as a starting point. They are a few years old, but most of the information they present is still useful:
The Writing SIG (http://www.igda.org/writing) is a good thing to join. You’ll be able to ask questions of other game writers and listen in on their discussions, which can be enlightening. They also have a presence on LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=89330&trk=myg_ugrp_ovr). Most of the members also have blogs, which are worth checking out for more information and insights. Find your local IGDA chapter, go to meetings, and get to know people: contacts are everything in this business.
I got into the industry a long time ago. I started in the 80s writing for tabletop roleplaying games, and along with a number of other writers from that industry I made the move into video games in the 90s. Back then there were very few writers and designers in the video games industry, so it was easy. Today, things are different.
These days, I would recommend focusing on one or two game genres that appeal to you strongly. Find the websites for their developers and get to know the companies. Take any beta testing opportunity you can, and try to train yourself to see a game with the skin off. Look through the graphics and the UI to see the underlying mechanics in action. If there are opportunities to create fan content – levels or whatever – make the most of them.
Keep track of advertised vacancies in design and writing: many can be found on the respective companies’ web sites, and the Gamasutra jobs page (http://gamasutra.com/jobs/) is also a valuable resource. Pay particular attention to the requirements for the kinds of vacancy that interest you: figure out how to acquire the required skills and experience, and also how to build a portfolio that shows them off. For design, create great maps, levels, etc, using the most popular tools. For writing, create storylines and dialogue samples. Start your own blog and use it as a showcase for your talents and experience. Create a LinkedIn profile, if you haven’t already, and link to your resume and samples.
Go to conferences if you can afford to (especially GDC) and follow the design and/or writing tracks. Learn as much as you can, present your skills and experience in the best possible light, and get to know as many people in the industry as you can. Contacts with other designers and writers are always useful, but also pay attention to producers: they tend to be the ones who hand out contracts and interview job applicants, and they have good information on the kind of skills and experience they are looking for.
That’s what I’ve got so far. If anyone has any follow-up questions, just ask and I’ll answer them as best I can whenever I get the chance. And if anyone from the industry wants to weigh in with a comment or more/better advice, feel free!