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So You Want a Job in Game Dev

So you want to be a narrative designer (or art, or design, or so on). Right on. Let’s get some.


Surely by now you know that the gaming industry is competitive, and narrative… well, narrative sometimes has to play second fiddle to every other department. Narrative positions are few and far between. But you’re dead set on this, right?


Right.

Below is a short but comprehensive guide to what worked for me. This advice is not set-in-stone. Take what is useful and leave the rest. I also leave a brief disclaimer: I am still in my first year as a narrative designer — while I may not have much experience as a lead designer, I have very recent experience in applying for jobs in the post-pandemic market.


Hopefully, this advice and process can also help UX/UI designers, artists, and others looking to get into the creative side of the games industry. I can’t speak to the engineers and coders, but maybe the resume and application advice can also apply to them.

Let’s begin. Getting your foot in the door is the hardest part of the industry - so many people want in, and frankly, many think they’re qualified just because they’ve played the games. The trick is proving you’re qualified (or becoming qualified), and not quitting.

To keep this fairly linear (or at least comprehensible), I’ll speak first about my own experience, then the industry, and finally, the steps you can take. If you wanna skip down there, be my guest. However, I use my experience as an example of someone who had no education in game dev still getting into the industry and thriving. I hope that in some part it can be inspirational.

PART ONE: My Experience


Game design started out as a far-fetched dream for me. I didn’t even consider it in undergrad— I was going to be a professor! My other plan was becoming a novelist, since I had been writing since I could hold a crayon. I love my craft, but also realized that being a novelist won’t pay the bills. At least, not for a while. I stuck with the professor idea and decided to go for a master’s in Medieval Studies.


While I was doing my master’s degree, I realized that game design may be a good middle ground to being a writer and an academic, and I started to take the idea seriously. When I said I wanted to take my medieval studies idea and turn it into video game design, most people laughed - professors, my computer science friends, you name it. It’s a bonkers idea. I emphasize this because people think you need a background in gaming, coding, or production to be in game dev. You don’t. I went from bing an academic to a full-time narrative designer.


Okay, cool. How, though?


First, I know my worth and skills. I firmly believe that most MFA programs for writing are largely redundant and expensive, and you can learn the same skills by writing and online resources. Additionally, fewer than half the narrative designers and directors at my studio have MFAs. (This is not to disparage MFA programs, but choose the right one for you!) Instead, I made myself a unique applicant by taking a different approach to storytelling.


I chose medieval studies because I wanted to know the origins behind the tropes and cliches most people know about. I knew my ideas were fresh — don’t write something new, write something old.


Meanwhile, I kept writing. Home-brew D&D games, novels, blogs, side projects, even a podcast! I explored ideas that would make me a stronger writer, and continued to pursue what I love. These skills and interests set me apart from traditional writers and paved a way for me to jump into the game industry. I knew that I was a good writer, and had the feedback and awards to prove it. Forget the naysayers, I thought, continue learning, and make it happen.


Second, I branded myself. Once I set the goal for myself (get a job or at least an internship in the industry), I started working towards it as much as I could. Even before coming up with a resume and cover letter, I took a look at my projects and what I had done already. I made a list of my skills and projects — school, personal, or otherwise — and came up with a personal website.


My personal brand is “the meandering medievalist.” I wander through time, across countries, and into books to find the best stories. I take old ideas, play with them, and make them new. The website was a home base for me to market myself toward the job I wanted, and a place to show off my skills. I’ll come back to how I formulated all this stuff in my practical advice section.


Having a personal brand or mission statement makes it easy for you to answer the question “what are you about?” You can pull it out at dinner parties, conventions, elevator pitches, or anywhere else. Being able to present yourself cohesively sets apart the amateurs from the professionals.


Third, I developed more projects and made a portfolio. When they say the application process is different for game design than other industries, this is where they mean it. Forget work experience— game directors want to see that you can write a good narrative and do so as a team player. I used my home-brew content, snippets of my writing, and even a narrative podcast idea I had in my portfolio. I showcased a variety of work.


I also developed other projects— the Maniculum Podcast, for instance. This podcast is a labor of love, and I never expected it to be as helpful as it was in the interview process. Essentially, my co-host and I read a medieval text, contextualize it, and then adapt it to game design, whether TTRPGs or video games.


But what does the podcast demonstrate that an “experience” section on a resume can’t? So much. I can work within deadlines, I can work as a team, I can work independently, I know how production works, I learned new skills (I’d never done production before!), I’m constantly thinking about how to create innovative stories, I know how to research, etc. My time as a barista may have been technical work experience, but it was far less applicable to the career I wanted. Many people think they need to list only their work experience, and that their side projects are unprofessional — absolutely not. That’s an outdated idea, especially in this industry.


Fourth, looking for jobs and studios. Only now did I compile a resume, and then search for jobs, and then write cover letters and apply. I applied for about ten jobs a week, and my ratio of replies was 1:50. It’s a hard market, I’m not gonna lie to you. Do not give up, and do not stop working on your passion projects in the meantime. Update your resume, keep going. Learn more skills. Network. All in all, it took me about eight months of work before I accepted my new position. Additionally, apply to quality postings. Don’t waste your time on cheap positions, or positions that aren’t what you really want to do.


I went through a few interviews before I got the job. Being open and getting good vibes is also really important. Keep working on what you love, even as you apply. Focusing on only game design keeps you limited, and good directors know that. (I have heard several directors say outright that if someone comes from a game design degree without any other interests on their resume, it’s an immediate no.)

My experience is one of many, and I encourage you to seek out others’ expertise as well. Hopefully it has sparked some hope that you don’t need a degree in game dev to reach that dream job.


PART TWO: The Industry

Now, a bit about the industry and the realities of narrative design itself. This section may be less applicable to other departments, so feel free to skip.

Writing is never the core of the game. A good story may be, for narrative-driven games, but writing itself is never the core of the game. You as a narrative designer must learn how to tell stories through mechanics, art, design, UX, and yes, good dialogue and item descriptions and so on. With this in mind, game directors are looking for narrative designers (not just writers, mind you) who can work with the other departments, understand the scope of the project, and kill their darlings. Narrative designers must be able to sacrifice their work for the greater good of the game, or to the greater evil of budget cuts.


Narrative design is different than writing a novel, short story, or even a TTRPG. Practice writing for games. Create barks for your characters. (Barks are the single lines that characters say while attacking, at idle, wounded, etc. They should give you a sense of who the character is as concisely as possible.) Write item descriptions. Try writing a scene with only dialogue — no description. How much can you convey? Is it an info dump? How do you convey plot points or game mechanics with in-game lore? Write quests, practice branching dialogue. The options are endless, and your best examples can be part of your portfolio. Mine are.


As I’ve alluded to above, the industry looks at skills and proficiencies over experience. Home projects will help you sometimes more than work experience. I cannot emphasize this enough. Put your projects on your resume, in your portfolio! Keep learning! Show your incomplete projects! Be creative! If you’re just a check-box writer, you will be overlooked. In short, learn the industry as best you can from where you are. Study the games you like, and the ones you dislike. Practice, practice, practice.


PART THREE: How To Get a Job


Finally, how to increase your odds of success:


1. Know your worth.

Have people play your games. Get feedback on your writing and DMing (if you play RPGs). Keep developing, forget the naysayers. If you realize you’re not up to par with the industry, get better. Always keep improving. Innovate. Write in different genres, different styles. Break down why you love your favourite games, and improve ones you felt were lacking.

2. Brand yourself.

Make a CV. One of the best things I ever did was make a massive list of all of my skills — all of them. That one R course I did in college? On the list. My SCUBA diving cert? On the list. My volunteer service? On the list. I don’t suggest going back to high school experiences, but anything you feel is relevant should be on the list.


Then, make the following bullet points: What was the project and its aim? What did I do, what skills did I develop? What did I accomplish in this role/project? Use specific, active language. Boom. That’s the framework for your resume. Now you can basically pick and choose what to put on your resume, and it’s 100x faster.

Make a website. Use wix, or squarespace, or whatever free website maker you can find. (or code your own!) Look at other personal game developers’ websites. Figure out your brand. What are your skills? Make everything easily navigable. Put your CV and maybe your portfolio on the site. Showcase your projects. If you look like a professional online, you’re ahead of the curve. (With that, also update your social media and LinkedIn to be professional).


Note: these are all skills that will take time, and you may feel like its not worth it and you can speed-run the process. Be my guest, but I don’t recommend it. Learning how to present yourself will help you in the interview process and eventually in the industry when you get the chance to market and represent the games you make!

3. Develop your projects and make a portfolio.

Stop! Don’t apply to jobs just yet. Make sure you have all your projects in a presentable form. Can people see them online? Even just a summary on your website? If directors can’t see your work, it doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t show your skills. Let yourself be found! Social media is your friend. You don’t need a following, you don’t need anything big. You just need to be searchable. (Link everything!) Also, make sure your portfolio is professional. Look at other references. Snoop. Ask for help. Network. Learn.

4. Okay, now you can apply.

Finally applying takes a lot of effort too. I know you’ve just put a lot of work into making yourself look professional, but you must finish the last 2%. Make sure your resume is professional. (You don’t need a summary section. Highlight your skills, not necessarily your jobs).

Tailor each and every resume to the type of job you apply for — narrative design and QA are different categories, so specify your skills for each. Use strong language in your resume! Show your accomplishments! Be specific!


Likewise, tailor every single cover letter to each studio. I mean it. You can have a good framework to base each letter off of, but you absolutely must demonstrate that you understand what each studio is about. Look at their website, check out their culture. Are they community focused? Narrative focused? Address this in your letter. Be genuine.

Other note: cover letters are hard. Cover letters should not be a repeat of your resume, they should develop and specify your skills. Generic example: While doing X project, I used A, B, and C skills to [create a change/milestone in the project]. I can utilize these skills at Y studio by doing [insert how your skills fit into their specific studio culture.]


Interviews and narrative design tests are a whole other bag of worms, so I’m happy to get into that in another bit, but I figure this is a lot already. In short, be honest and genuine in all stages of the process. Admit when you don’t know something. You cannot bluff your way through.


Finally, here is a brief list of resources I have found useful in my job search process:



I wish you all the best in your job-hunting, and please feel free to reach out at zfranznick@gmail.com or LinkedIn if you have any questions. I do provide specific resume and cover letter help if you feel necessary.


Remember: forget the naysayers, keep improving, and don’t quit.


- Zoe Franznick

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