Some people have asked me lately for career advice as of late. This document is a summation of all the advice I can possibly think of on ‘landing a game industry art job.’
Before I start, I should say that I am not an expert and have made a LOT of mistakes along the way. Heck, I'm only 9 months out of school so I really don’t have a lot of experience on this. The things I say are going to be based purely on personal experience and from what I've observed from other people’s experiences.
I can't promise this advice will get you a job, but I hope at least it'll be useful for surviving the first year or so out of school.
Feel free to share this info, correct me on anyhing you see as a inaccurate, or add anything you feel should be in here.
Getting a job – starting your career
You – meaning your portfolio and experience - will get you the job. Networking will only get you an interview.
You think this one would be obvious, but I have had folks ask me if I could put in a word for them at my company, assume I got hired at a company because I knew someone there, and so forth. Really being hired is a matter of three things:
1. The right opportunity within the company/project arises.
2 .You demonstrate through your experience (resume) and artistic portfolio (or art test) you are a good fit for the job.
3. You interview well, your references check out and it's clear you work well on a team.
Networking and referrals can and will help you get an interview after the opportunity arises. New projects are scattered as to when they'll start up and where, so it's really great if you have a broad network of people at various companies to let you know when an opportunity arises.
Ultimately however YOU get you hired. You can't and shouldn't rely on anyone or anything else to do that for you.
You will get rejected. A lot.
While in school, I started applying for internships and jobs early on. I got rejected a lot. My senior year I got more interviews and more rejections. Eventually, I sent my resume off to Fuelcell after seeing a junior artist posting there and landed an interview. I continued on with that team through two contracts after graduation through their sister company, Fxville. After my second contract ended unexpectedly I was unemployed for about a month and a half, which is pretty good for only having 8 months of experience.
During the first week of unemployment I sent off more than 40 letters/applications/postings to companies. These included temp jobs, companies on gamedevmap that I was interested in, friends at companies asking if they were hiring, jobs postings on websites, postings on cragslist, monster and more. I interviewed with a few temp agencies/recruiters to get myself in their system.
I got very few responses. Of the responses, many were automated rejections.
I also got a lot of rejections after interviewing. I think I interviewed at least 4 times before landing a job offer. The reasons for being rejected included:
1.We don't have the money to hire you;
2.You don't have enough lead experience;
3.Your art isn't a good match for our project.
When you get rejected, it doesn't at all mean you are a bad artist. You just aren't the right fit right now. If you landed an interview it's clear that your art is not 'bad' or 'sub-par', it's just not a good match for them right now. Keep trying.
Be flexible. Be willing to take a job you are less interested in if the company is willing to give you an art test and train you. More experience can only make you a better artist.
I was VERY lucky that Fxville was willing to give me a world building art test for a 6-month contract porting MW3 to the Wii after I graduated. In school I had focused on character animation, but I was willing to give world building a try. I did an art test for them and they hired me.
Doing the contract was a great experience for me. It got me a AAA game on my resume, showed me how AAA games are made, and helped me build a relationship with people at Treyarch and Fxville. Fxville gave me an unreal test for another contract after this one ended, and from there I got a second contract doing FX work. I again learned a new skill and found that I REALLY enjoy doing FX animation. Though I didn't do any character animation I made a lot of great friends, gained mentors, and grew exponentially as an artist. Nothing but a positive experience.
Right now, I am doing work at Disney Interactive as an art/animation 'generalist' which includes character animation along with a bunch of other things – modeling, rigs, the whole enchilada. This job, like the last two contracts I worked, are making me a much stronger artist than I had been before.
Many art graduates see themselves as craftsman that specialize at one thing. While I think both craftsmanship and specialization are really important, it’s a bad idea to pigeonhole yourself into one role. Some may disagree with me on this, but being open to new artistic paths has worked great for me so far. In 10 years I might not even be an ‘animator’ – I might be an ‘FX animator’ or even a ‘technical artist’ or 'art generalist'. I’m not sure. But I do know that taking non-character animation specific jobs has really been a great experience for me.
Look at contract jobs right away and jobs that aren't your dream job.
I see a lot of people say things like they'll only take contract if they spend a good chunk of time searching for a FTE job and can't get one, or that they will only accept jobs they are really interested in - like being an animator at, say, blizzard.
Most full time jobs in the area aren't for junior level people, especially at big companies. It's also foolish to think that someone is going just hand you a FTE job without at least doing contract-to-hire. The artists I know who are working FTE from my year at least started out as an intern and later got an FTE offer. If you have zero experience as an artist, the chances of you getting an FTE offer are pretty slim even if you are really skilled.
What companies and recruiters want
How you brand your portfolio is really important.
If you spend a lot of time animating/drawing more simplistic, 'cartoony', stuff and that fills up a good chunk of your portfolio, it's a good idea to apply to Disney and not to apply to say, Arenanet. Likewise, if your portfolio is full of realistically rendered fantasy paintings/3D models/Animations, apply to Arenanet but do not apply to popcap. If you want to make games like Halo, work on stuff that matches their art style.
If possible, talk to the recruiters from your dream companies and figure out what they want in a portfolio. Every company/recruiter is different. A recruiter friend of mine specifically says he does not prefer the ‘demo reel’ format for animators but rather prefers a bunch of individual videos. That way he can click through and look at each animation in detail. Some companies however only accept one video edited together. Ask and do your research… That is big!
How you brand yourself – and how you talk to recruiters - is really important.
What should you DO when you talk to a recruiter?
DO ask questions – recruiters are often loyal and passionate about their companies, the positions they’re hiring for, and are more than willing to talk with you about the important stuff.
DO treat recruiters with the professional respect they deserve.
DO make your website/resume clear and to the point. The faster a recruiter understands what you do and who you are, the better.
DO your research. Ask the recruiter what they want, especially if you see a booth for your dream company at GDC or PAX. Have a 15 minute conversation with them. If that’s not possible, try and find a contact email online.
DO ‘reach out’ to recruiters. Let them know you’re interested in their company. Even if they’re not hiring for someone like you right now, they might in the future so make that contact early on.
There’s a long list of DON’Ts when it comes to personal branding and dealing with recruiters.
DON’T try to manipulate recruiters. I once overheard an HR recruiter ranting about a particularly manipulative candidate trying to use a contact at another company as ‘leverage’. By this I mean the candidate was implying that if the recruiter’s company didn’t hire the candidate, the candidate would jump to the competing company. It was clear that the recruiter felt that if a candidate didn’t want to work for her company she would just 'show them where the door was.' Ouch!
DON’T try to use ANYTHING as leverage. You’re junior. You’re new to the workforce and don’t really have much to leverage. Especially don’t try to use things like your gender as leverage. It won’t work. If you put ‘woman game artist’ on your resume you will get laughed at. Likewise, using contacts at other companies or really anything as leverage will get you thrown out. Recruiters care about your team skills and portfolio and not much else.
DON’T waste a recruiter’s time. They don’t have a lot of it.
Most companies in the seattle area hire artists on contract, and/or do contract-to-hire. There is a good reason for this.
There are exceptions, but most companies in the area hire a good chunk of their employees as contractors and hire potential FTE's on contract at first to test the waters with them.
Contract-to-hire makes sense for companies and for the potential hire. It gives everyone a few months to 'test the waters'. The new hire can see if they like working at the company or if they hate it there and would be happier elsewhere. It also gives the company time to see if the person is productive, easy to work with, and able to do quality work. It's win-win all around.
Though, it is naïve to assume that all contractors are contract-to-hire. Big companies staff using contracting services to get their head counts up. They bloat with contractors during the big production phase of game-making and then let go most of their staff. This, in many ways, is less cruel than hiring a bunch of folks on as full-time and then just firing them at the end of the production cycle like some smaller or mid-sized companies do. I've meet industry vets who have experienced this exact thing and it sucks way more to go full time to laid off in a day than to expect your job ending in 6 months. At least then you have time to prepare.
Companies do not hire degrees, or the schools you got them from.
While having a degree is important and a prerequisite for getting a job at some companies, the most important thing recruiters look for is skills. It's important to remember that having any other school ‘name’ on your resume will not get you hired. You will get you hired. If your skills are lacking anywhere, you need to supplement your skills and push yourself to be a better artist.
I hear alumni from my college blame the college for their lack of employment. All colleges have their flaws, but if you don’t have a job, keep working and bettering yourself until you get one.
Get yourself into the talent agencies databases, befriend recruiters, and maintain an open dialogue with them - get SEEN!
When you get laid off it's good to know recruiters. They will help set you up with opportunity (but as I said before, YOU get YOU the job.)
Here's a list of agencies I know of in the Seattle area that staff up game companies with creative talent. Email them, ask them about jobs, ask them to notify you if a job comes up that matches your resume. Add the recruiters on LinkedIn. Add them on Facebook, too. Pester them. Remember they get PAID when they match up talent like you with the right job, so it's in their interest to talk to you and hire you.
Also, it's worthwhile to regularly check job posts on these sites and to post your resumes on them, though there is no recruiter working with you;
craigslist (yes craigslist, I have found some great jobs through there)
Mostly, get yourself VISIBLE any way possible.
Working as a 'free intern' is illegal and a scam but is an option for the desperate.
I couldn't afford to work as an unpaid intern. It's scammy, it's bad, it's gross, but some companies will do this instead of doing 'contract-to-hire' to test out new employees. I know of at least 3 folks from my year that got hired this way. Take a job like this at your own risk.
Do not worry about 'offending' or 'annoying' a company.
Apply everywhere, at once. Interview at multiple places. If you get a job offer and are interviewing at other companies, stall on signing it. It's perfectly OK to sign one job offer and then tell a company you're interviewing with that you took another offer. They have other candidates lined up.
I've met more than one person who interviews at a company and who wait to hear back from that company before applying elsewhere. Companies can take several weeks to get back to you. Keep applying.
Also, if you don't hear back from a company for 1-2 weeks, there's no harm in emailing them. You won't 'annoy' them. An email once a week/every two weeks shows you are interested and that you want to work there. Also, if they find an email every two weeks 'annoying' then is that really the kind of place you want to work?
‘Networking’ does not mean collecting a stack of business cards.
People are under the impression that they can go to GDC, collect some business cards and that is 'networking.' That is NOT networking. Networking is meeting some folks at GDC, talking with them, partying with them, Facebook friending them and building and maintaining a friendship. A ‘network’ is an ongoing relationship with people you meet during your professional career.
You have been networking the entire time you've been in school. Your network is your graduating class, the upperclassmen you knew before they graduated, the underclassmen that will graduate in a year or two, and any coworkers or colleges you have after graduation.
You have been networking the entire time you have been in school. You could think of college as an $80,000 four year networking event. People WILL remember how you performed in a class. Whatever you do, don't do a bad job on a team or piss off a TA or turn in work that's less than you are capable of because you WILL leave a bad impression. Your graduating class will remember you for how you performed and they will not want to recommend someone at their companies if they remember you as a bad student.
The two most important kinds of people you meet are other game artists/designers/producers/developers and recruiters.
Meet people who make games, and people who hire people who make games. Make friends with them. Ask them questions. See if you can glean some of their experience. Talk to them about their projects; these people are PASSIONATE about what they do! They are often cool and approachable. Don’t be shy.
When you lose your job (which will happen) your network will help you get employment again. Be sure to branch out. Don’t just make friends with people who specialize in your field; befriend professionals of all stripes. If you’ve been hold up in your ‘art lab’ your whole career in school and there are programmers/designers/producers to meet at your college, you’ve been doing it wrong. Go make friends.
You have a job. Now what?
I’m not sure what it’s like to work full time at a company.
But, as a contractor, I CAN say to ASK QUESTIONS. Always ALWAYS ask questions. Questions like:
- Am I meeting your expectations?
- What am I doing right?
- What do I need to improve on?
- What is the duration of the project and my contract? Likewise; will there be need for my services longer than the duration of my contract? (The best time to ask this is after you get an offer or early on. Make sure you ask the right person this; ideally someone in an administrative role. Your ‘art lead’ might not be sure. Establishing this early is ideal.)
- My project is wrapping up soon. Are there other projects at your company you think I’d be qualified for? (Again, ask this to someone in an administrative role. If you’re working through an agency, ask them too.)
When performing your job:
- How do I do ______? (you are junior, better to ask how perforce works before you break something…!)
- What reference should I use? (If the client isn’t sure, look up your own concepts/reference and send them to him or draw your own.)
- When do you want this done by? (Get a deadline, or offer an estimate.)
- I’m halfway through animating this. How does it look? (Don’t be afraid to show unfinished work.)
- I’m close to finishing. How does this look? (Always always always get feedback!!!)
- I made the requested revisions. How does it look now? (Revise, get feedback, revise again!)
Make the best work you can, then revise it and make it better.
Self-explanatory. Revision -> feedback ->; revision will only help you. Ideally, get feedback from lots of people. Different artists might show you cool new workflows. A non-artist might pick up on something they don’t like, and point out something the others missed. Anyone can be an art critic, so value all input.
Be your ideal teammate.
Think about the best teammate you could possibly have. Now be that person. Show up on time, be friendly. Ask questions. Work hard. When you screw up, apologize and work hard to fix that mistake. Ask more questions. Get feedback. Make a finished piece you’re proud of, then get feedback on it and revise it. Put in your hours.
One of my favorite old teachers Monte Michaelis gave me a great piece of advice that I try to take to heart: “Every day of your life, be the very best version of yourself you can be.” When at work or school, put in 110% into everything even if you don't enjoy doing it. Never, EVER do a sub-par job on anything – or do anything sub-par to another person. Never be a person you would be ashamed of, or produce you work you wouldn’t be proud of. You will be remembered for how you performed.
“You're only as good as your last project.” My friend Jim Rivers, the recruiter for Obsidian told me this. It's completely true. Hiring managers will look very critically at your work and if you have anything 'weak' in there it will be called out. If you are a game company and you produce a game that doesn’t get a super high average score from reviewers, it could mean the end of your company. It’s really brutal out there so try to be on the top of your game.
NEVER tell someone you don't like them, even if you think they're a completely dysfunctional human being because they might get hired at a company you want to work for one day. I've made this mistake before (telling someone I thought they were a dysfunctional human being) and although it hasn't bit me in the ass yet, it still might one day during my professional career. These days when I think someone is a totally dysfunctional human being I try to keep it to myself.
Prepare for when you get laid off.
This just happens. The game industry is chaotic at best. One day you will walk into work and you will no longer have a job. EVERY senior person I meet has some kind of ‘yeah I got laid off’ story from some point in their career.
Also, when you do get laid off, it isn't likely because of something you did. Money dries up. Goals shift. Projects get cut. Some higherup thinks their assets should be utilized in a different way. Commonly, a game ships and there's just not enough work to go around anymore. It's not your fault.
Managing life after school
Manage your money carefully. Ideally, build yourself a safety net.
My total net worth, counting all student loans, credit cards, checking + savings and my IRA is around -64,000. Cool, right? My minimum student loan payments are around $700/month.
I would like to save enough so I can live comfortable for at least 6 months and pay my student loans without worry. In order to do that however I'd have to put away around $900 a month over the next year or so which I simply can't do while paying so much towards my loans. I can probably do about half that much. I am currently at DIMG for the next six months, but being that the game industry is turbulent at best I can't realistically count on being hired at the end of that six months.
I utilize mint.com to manage my finances and it's been a lifesaver. I know how much I owe and how much I have, and I can build budgets on it. It's great. I really recommend the service.
My back-up plan if I am unemployed for longer than 6 months? Ask Grandma if I can move in with her and go into deferments or forbearance on my loans as necessary.
Take care of yourself.
I've been bad about this one. I've gained about 15 pounds in the last year. I don't work out anymore. If possible, eat healthy and exercise. It will affect your energy levels and mood in the workplace.
Recently I’ve started taking vitamin D supplements + multivitamins and that has definitely helped me feel better overall. I think the lack of sunlight has had an effect on my health.
Take care of your personal relationships.
Call mom, call grandma, call dad. Better yet, visit them. Go out with friends. It's good for your mental health to get away from the computer for a while. If you have a significant other, try and spend time with them – even when you are crunching. Having a dinner with them when they haven’t gotten to see you all week will be worth more than all the email messages and texts you can send.
The professional world is way better than art school.
Your own measure of personal success is the most important ruler to hold yourself against. Satisfy your own goals and don’t worry about satisfying anyone else’s view of who you *should* be.
Art school is mentally torturous. This is a fact. By now you have almost all of your ego beaten out of you, and along with it a lot of your self-worth. When the dean of the art department comes in and says your artwork falls short of the 1 yard line, don’t take it personally. Your own personal measure of success is way more important than anyone else’s. And anyone who expects junior artists to make mass effect 3 in 4 months – who expects SEINOR artists to make mass effect 3 in 4 months – does not have a good grasp of modern game production processes. Unlike major game companies, students don’t have a huge overhead or months of time for pre-production.
In the professional world, nobody (so far) has told me I’m a total failure that will never get employed. Every professional I have met has been encouraging and helpful. The real world is nothing like art school, it is hundreds of times better.
You will stumble. You will trip. But it’s not nearly as scary as people make it out to be.
Remember that you are not your career.
In school there is a big push for you to get a job. If you don’t get one right away… Don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s OK. Relax. You have your WHOLE CAREER ahead of you.
It's easy to get depressed and to take it personally when you get rejected or are unemployed for a length of time. Your professional self is not the same as your 'real' self. Once you learn to separate your professional self from you as a human being it's easier to take rejections in stride and handle the mental stress of unemployment. YOU have not ‘failed’ if you are unemployed.
Keep growing. Never stop.
Paint, animate, draw, model. Grow. Go to the art museum. Draw people in the park. Go to life drawing. Whatever you do, don't stop growing weather you are employed artistically or not. You are poisoning yourself, your artistic abilities, and your professional life.