Work: Interactive Entertainment - Career Tips from Industry Professionals

By Consuelo Solar

This year, Ubisoft, one of the world’s largest video game developers, will open a studio in Toronto, creating 800 jobs. The government of Ontario pledged $260 million to help the French-based company create their third studio in Canada, and the reason is that interactive entertainment is a growing industry, with the potential of creating thousands of jobs.

According to Sandra Pupatello, Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development and Trade, their goal is to become an internationally recognized centre for the industry. “We’ve been working closely with industry and academia to look at new opportunities, address any challenges to growth, as well as ensuring our graduates continue to be top-notch. Ontario produces a lot of talent for the North American industry and we’re now creating opportunities for them to work here,” she said.

This promising prospect makes us wonder what it takes to get a job in interactive entertainment. We asked three industry professionals what it’s like to work in this field, and to give us advice on how to break in.

Q: What do you do as creative director and why do you enjoy it?

A: The interactive world excites me because it’s so immediate, as opposed to film, where projects can take too long to complete. I was looking for a new way of thinking, and found it in the Internet and videos games.

TV shows need a transmedia strategy, so we develop an idea for television, and simultaneously come up with an interactive strategy. I do conceptual creative development, working throughout the whole process of completing both sides of a project, always keeping an eye on how they’ll complement each other and how we’ll present them to the audience so that they make sense to them.

Q: What’s most challenging about it?

A: Constantly reframing your perspective so that stakeholders (e.g. broadcasters) understand. There are so many levels of understanding entertainment; there is a very standardized way of doing television, while the Internet is much less predictable.

We can have a seemingly ‘boring’ website with just 12 games, but it works, because that audience just wants to play games. That’s another challenge, being able to guess what people want. You’re gambling a lot, you have to trust your instincts, look at some patterns, and figure it out.

Q: As an employer, what kind of requirements do you demand of potential members of your programming team?

A: I'm less interested in people's experience than I am in portfolios. I don't disrespect a long résumé at all – in some cases you need the experience – but it's very important that people start building portfolios early on, when they are still in school or at the beginning of their careers.

If you want to work as a transmedia producer, you need to present yourself as that, through samples of your work. Learn how to do things that people pay for, like design, programming, and coding, and build a portfolio that shows it.

Personally I like people that I work with to be thinking. Sometimes programmers will ask what exactly do you want, and that's fine, but I really like it when they offer me new ideas or new solutions.

Q: In an industry that focuses on creativity, is it easier for newcomers to break in without Canadian experience?

A: It’s definitely not a disadvantage, because there is amazing work being done all over the world. Great animation, games and websites are created everywhere, because the technology is accessible. You don’t need to live in Hollywood to do it, and you don’t need a big distributor to have your work out there. If I see a work sample and I’m impressed with it, I won’t care if they haven’t worked for a Canadian company.

Q: How long and how many people did it take to develop this game?

A: We came up with the initial concept around December of 2008, and we started building a prototype two months later. Since then we have had a team of 3 to 6 people on the project at all times. Between now and when the game ships, we expect to have 7 or 8 people full time.

Q: What are the requirements to get into this line of work and how do you break in?

A: Programmers typically have a background in Computer Science or Engineering. Artists are often graduates of fairly specialized college art programs, though it is important for artists to demonstrate a strong general foundation. Sample work – either completed projects or a portfolio – is a big plus.

Game design requires creativity as well as strong communication and organizational skills. Some designers start in quality assurance, level design, or other more specialized areas before they shift into general game design. Many game designers have university degrees, and sample work is key for candidates. Quality assurance (testing) tends to be one of the easier target positions for candidates looking to break into the industry.

Candidates need to demonstrate a passion for games, attention to detail, and strong communication skills. No particular educational background is typically required.

Q: How do you find suitable candidates?

A: As a studio, when we're looking for junior or intermediate candidates we use a variety of approaches, including asking contacts for recommendations, posting the position at university and college career centres, on local industry message boards, and on our website.

When looking for senior personnel, we would typically ask contacts for recommendations or referrals, post the position on international game industry message boards (e.g. Gamasutra.com), or use a recruitment agency that specializes in game industry recruitment.

Q: Are new job titles being created as the industry grows?

A: Definitely. In the 70s and 80s, a person could build a complete game on their own, taking care of programming, art and design. These days some games are made with teams of hundreds of people, many of whom have very specialized responsibilities. An example is dedicated writers, often included in big-budget console game development teams.

Q: What skills does a video game writer need?

A: It’s important to be a visual storyteller, so the best skill is knowing how to write for animation, TV or film, or whatever form of writing that teaches you how to tell a story visually. Creativity is vital. I don’t see how anyone can be a writer or storyteller without an abundance of creativity.

Fortunately, creativity is something everyone is born with. The trick is to hold onto yours and not let others convince you that you don’t have it or that there’s something wrong with the creativity you have.

Q: Are there entry level positions for video game writers?

A: I’m afraid that to be considered as a writer you will need to produce professional level work in some other field of writing and build up a portfolio to use as your calling card.

Once in a rare while, you might see a special contest where a company opens up to competitive entries, but I can only think of one, perhaps two times I’ve ever seen that, and the competition is fierce.

Q: Is TV or film an effective stepping stone?

A: Breaking into film or TV is an entire life's work unto itself. No matter what field of writing someone wants to break into, it takes years of hard work, research, learning the field, networking, persistence, and luck. So the would-be writer needs to decide where to concentrate her efforts and then go after it.

If someone is only interested in writing for games and has no outside credits, the best options might include becoming a journalist or blogger within the games field, plus writing scripts that show visual storytelling skill and creating samples that show storytelling ability.

Q: In your book Writing for Animation, Comics and Games you say that given the rapid evolution of the video game industry, your advice is subject to change. Is there something you'd like add now?

A: At the time I wrote the book, Facebook game phenomenon didn’t exist. That’s new, and the explosion of games for mobile, iPad, iPhone and other such devices had barely begun. These might be other areas for a would-be game writer to investigate. While they don’t generally require a lot of writing, they do use some and may provide an easier way to break in.