10 Tips for Being An Unemployed Game Dev

I was invited to be a guest speaker at IGDA Orlando with short notice. With the closure and recent resurrection of n-Space and the pending annual layoffs of doom at EA, I figured that something about how to deal with unemployment might be helpful, given my current Level Up in that particular skill branch. I did a lot of ad-libbing, but the talk went well and I crafted the below post from my hastily typed notes on my iPhone. Lots of folks came up to me and asked me questions as if I knew something afterwards, so it must have been moderately compelling and I must have given the impression of proficiency.

Without ado:

Item 1: Don’t Panic

So you just got laid off, huh? You are probably thinking: “Holy Hell. How am I going to pay for things? What am I going to do with my life? What did I do wrong? How could this happen?” Calm down. It happens to many of us. It doesn’t mean you are a bad artist/producer/coder/designer. Yes, it probably isn’t fair. Yes, there are probably some assholes who know nothing still with their jobs. Yes, you will have to tighten your belt, but it is okay. Unemployment insurance compensation doesn’t pay much, but with careful planning, you won’t starve.

Or maybe you are a recently graduated or soon-to-be-graduated student. You ask yourself: “How will I get a job when all these people with experience are flooding the market?” Again, don’t panic. While it certainly sucks to time your life to be graduating during an ever-deepening recession, there’s little you can do about that. Blame your parents for poor planning. You, however, can only make the best of it.

The key to Item 1 is to not take the first job that will have you simply because you are panicked that nothing else will come along. This is a common mistake simply because so many of us out there are desperate for a job and so many companies want to hire replaceable parts. You need to find a studio that will support you and make you feel that your work is worthwhile. After all, why are you in this industry?

Daniel Pink’s newest book Drive is a great read on motivation and fulfillment, if a little pop-science-y. In it, he lists three components of work that make work inherently fulfilling: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Find a place that will provide that for you. There’s so little time for us on this Earth. Don’t waste it by slaving for jerks because you are in a panic and don’t see any better options.

Item 2: Do Your Homework

Almost as bad as accepting a job you know you will hate is tricking yourself into believing that you won’t hate it. Now more than ever you need to be in everyone’s business. Do you have friends in the industry? How are they liking where they are? What does Gamasutra say today? More layoffs at such-and-such? A new EA Louse coming out about another studio? Those are good indicators (but not sufficient) of places that are not pleasant to work. If you are applying for a position, is that position open because it is new (good) or because the last guy couldn’t deal with all the BS (bad)? Does this place seem to make games that are made with care and artistry? Or do they make shovelware? Does that even matter to you? It’s okay if it doesn’t! In doing your homework, you will find out. This isn’t a one-day event. This is something you need to be doing regularly.

Moving costs a lot of money. You are only hurting yourself (and hey, maybe your family, remember them?) by picking up and moving to some place at which you won’t be happy. Don’t let it happen to you.

Ok, I promise the doom-and-gloom is mostly over.

Item 3: Play Games

Yes, sir! You have forty hours a week more than all your sucker friends with jobs and you still have a stack of games from two Christmases ago that haven’t been opened. Time to get cracking. Play great games. Play shitty games. Just play a lot of games. Not only will interviewers expect you to know what is popular, but they will want to know what you would change about titles. Stay current and play as much as you can. If you plan on applying to a social game company, you better have played more than Farmville. If you plan on applying to a company that makes shooters, then you better know why Halo succeeds and Killzone has mostly failed.

THIS ISN’T JUST A TASK FOR PEOPLE WHO WANT TO BE DESIGNERS. The dirty little industry secret that we designers keep is that everyone is a designer. Code slingers may spend their lives knee deep in Perforce, but they too need to know instinctually how games work just as a designer does.

Remember that you are playing these games with a critical eye. You are playing to learn and to have fun. If this task is work to you though, then maybe you should pick another industry, I know I don’t need to give you all more reasons to play games, so I will move on.

Item 4: Start a Blog

Hey, look, I follow my own advice sometimes. You aren’t starting a blog to get nerd-cred points, although those might come eventually. You are starting a blog to make yourself a better communicator. Take those games you played in Item 3. What did you enjoy and why? What did you not enjoy and why? What do those games make you think about? These are good starts for blog posts.

The reason I started this blog was simply that I was not a morning person. I’d get into work, fire up the computer and look at a blank Word document that needed to be a design draft by 3pm. I found that browsing the news sites of the day and then writing a short post about something I found interesting or disagreed with really primed my mental gears and got me going. Then I kept up with it, met some awesome people and it became a Thing I Did with capital letters. It doesn’t have to go that far with you, but you should realize the exercise’s potential in cultivating your written talents.

That said: Try your best not to slag people. Be constructive. There are enough negative nellys on the Internet. It is easy to be a curmudgeon. I spend most of my day as one. It is harder and more rewarding to be critical. There is a vast difference. But blogging should be an autotelic experience just like playing games. If you don’t love doing it, you won’t keep it up and you won’t get any better. If you don’t enjoy it after a while, try some other technique to keep your written communication skills sharp. This one works for me, thus I recommend it to others.

Item 5: Network

An unfortunate truth is that the vast majority of interviews I’ve done in my unemployed periods have not come from diligently applying to posted jobs but instead come from people-knowing-people-knowing-people-at-suchandsuch who happen to be looking for a designer. I can recall only two interviews I’ve done where I’ve gotten calls for an interview from traditional listings. The fact is that a lot of companies post listings just in the hopes that a Prince Charming will come along and sweep them off their feet, offering to work for a dollar salary with fifteen years of perfect experience. They don’t want you. Also, some companies have such a bad reputation that they hire tons from traditional listings because no one internally would ever recommend their friends into that hell.

It’s better for both ends to actually know someone by other means. It is better for the employer because they have someone they (hopefully) trust pre-screening schmoe applicants and it is better for the employee because they are doing the Item 2 due diligence by actually talking to a real employee beforehand to find out what the company is really like sans HR bullcockie.

But you can’t get that foot in the door unless you are networking. Sam Houston has a great list of game devs on Twitter. Find the ones making games you are interested in and ask them questions. Most are nice enough and not so busy that they can’t answer a 140 char question. Twitter is a good start.

People have been lukewarm about the IGDA, but I’ve met a lot of great folks there. I guess it varies city to city. It’s pretty cheap to attend their events generally and can’t hurt.

How about conferences? Yeah, GDC is expensive, but you get what you pay for. Are there any cheaper conferences locally? Have you thought of more non-traditional cons where you can schmooze like GenCon? Keep an open mind. Sturgeon’s law applies–90% of your contacts you meet you will only talk to a few times. But the 10% that you regularly correspond with or become friends with is really worth all that extra effort.

Of course, the autotelic warning from above applies here too. You aren’t networking for the purpose of these people helping you. You should be doing it because there are interesting people out there in the world and they are tough to meet if you are playing Farmville by yourself all day and not making an effort. Most achievers can smell out people who want to be friends only for their personal gain. We know who you are. There is no hiding it. If you are that kind of person, then I have no advice for you, sorry.

Item 6: Practice

When you were employed (or when you were studying), you were constantly engaging in behavior (hopefully) that made you better at what you do. You were writing designs, or making characters or writing code or whatever it is you did for a significant portion of your week. Now, you aren’t being paid to do that. How will you make yourself better?

I make board games. I’ve talked about this briefly before. I choose to do this over coding and self-producing my own games because there is less overhead. I can go from stupid idea to realizing my idea is stupid via paper prototype in maybe an hour or two versus a few days via my sloppy coding ability. Honestly, I don’t think I work hard enough at this. I resolve to do better.

How will you make yourself better? I ask again. Will you write a novel? Make a comic book? Record an album? Make a Team Fortress 2 map?

After you are fired, you get about one month of guilt-free time where you can sleep until noon every day and watch Ninja Warrior on G-4. After that first month, if you keep doing that, you are a slacker. You are blessed with all this free time! Don’t squander it! My next item ties directly into this.

Item 7: Finish Something

I am guilty of this and so I turn my shame into lessons for whoever is reading. The points of practicing are twofold: to get better and to provide proof of your efforts. There are many, many writers out there with unfinished novels on their hard drives. These people are not novelists, they are chapterists*.

It is easy to make a board game and not really worry about playtesting it. It is easy to write half a novel. It is easy to write janky code that sorta-kinda-works but not really in all situations. It’s harder to make a tested, elegant game system. It is harder to finish a novel. It is harder to write robust code. Finishing things is hard work and it proves you are still capable. It proves it to yourself when you get depressed that you are out of work and no one wants you. You can say: “I’m still a writer. Look at that novel I finished!” Or: “I’m still a designer. Look at that board game that my playtesters liked!” And better than proving to yourself that you still have it by finishing, you can parlay that experience to interviews: “Well, I’ve spent the last few months making a mod for Civilization 5 and it has five thousand downloads” sounds a hell of a lot better than “I’ve watched the entirety of Quantum Leap” in an interview.

But, you doth protest: I try writing stuff or coding stuff or designing stuff and it is shit and I don’t want to finish! My reply: OF COURSE IT IS SHIT! You learn by making shitty works. If you were able to summon up the great American novel by force of will then you wouldn’t need to practice writing, would you? My best advice for aspiring game designers is to not be afraid to make shitty games. You learn from making shitty games/novels/programs. Fear of failure is fear of progress. Students often wail over the catch-22 that you need experience to get a job as if the only way to get experience was via a job. Yes, it is the most salient way to show experience, but it is far from the only way.

I’m devoting another paragraph to this because I feel it is that important. Here you are, unemployed, with no penalty but deflated ego if you fail and it is NOW that you are afraid to make things? And you want a job where there are million dollar budgets on the line based partially on said ability to make things? THEN you will be comfortable with your abilities?

*By the way, I totally stole the “chapterist” term from some writer’s workshop I went to once and I don’t remember who it was so I can’t give attribution. Sorry, because I really like the term and the meaning behind it.

Item 8: Read All Kinds of Stuff

You’ve got a lot of spare time! It is silly to believe that all of that time will be constructive relating to Items 6 and 7. But even when you are feeling writer’s/designer’s/coder’s/artist’s block and you aren’t working on your blog (Item 4) or your backlog (Item 3), you can still be doing things to help your position.

Read a ton. Fiction. Nonfiction. Whatever gets your interest. I personally keep record of what I read and post it here on my blog at the end of the year, just so I can go back in the future and remember some of the things I had read and temporarily forgotten. But most important is to not get sucked into the same kinds of books you normally read for leisure. I mentioned Daniel Pink’s book Drive above that I read this year. That isn’t my normal topic for leisure reading. And while it wasn’t about Game Design per se, it is highly illustrative of a number of issues that are tangential to game design.

You will end up finding the oddest connections. And most of all, you will keep learning. But don’t strain yourself to read topics that you generally find dull. I know people who read technical manuals and can down them like they were pulp mysteries. I know if I started one, I’d never finish. Read things for enjoyment and let the enrichment happen as a side effect.

I suppose Drive ended up as being a cornerstone of these ten points without me really attempting it to be. Interesting.

Item 9: Keep a Routine

I personally again have not been following this advice, but I have special dispensation because of certain life events. As I said earlier: you are allowed to wallow in sorrow and watch junk TV all day for the first month of unemployment. After that, you need to kick yourself in the ass and give yourself a routine. Set yourself a time to wake up if you generally oversleep. Many people I know find unemployed time to be the perfect excuse to start working out again. You don’t need an expensive gym membership. I wish I could count myself among them, but I’ve been too lazy thus far. Set yourself some “work time” everyday where you write/code/whatever. I had this for a while and then aforementioned certain life events uprooted it. I firmly believe I will go back to it.

Nearly every site I’ve seen with “unemployment tips” recommends this for the simple reason of depression avoidance. I’m no psychologist so I cannot tell you why it works, but as someone who fights depression, I can attest to the fact that setting a routine certainly helps me feel more in control of my life. Maybe it will work for you, maybe it won’t. But I cannot see it hurting. At the very least it will force you to be organized and realize how much time in a day you spend poorly. You don’t have to be productive 24/7 to be happy; quite the opposite. But if accomplishing things makes you happier, and setting a routine helps you accomplish things, then it follows that setting a routine should make you happier.

Item 10: Enjoy It

I believe fully that my unemployment situation is temporary. Since it has an end, I only have a set number of days in which I have full control over 168 hours of my week (save some mandatory things I have no control over.) Someday, I will trade that free time for meaningful work and a paycheck, but in the meantime, I will treat every day as an opportunity to become better at what I do and enjoy my life. Think about what you don’t have to deal with as an unemployed person:

– Traffic Jams or Crowded Subways
– All-Hands Staff Meetings with 90 PowerPoint Slides with 12 Pt Font and Animations
– Having to Pay Full-Price Rather Than Matinee Price for Movies
– Not Being Able to Play One More Round of TF2 Because You Have to Get Up in The Morning

Hey, being unemployed isn’t so bad! Go out and make the most of it! Or stay in. Whatever.

9 thoughts on “10 Tips for Being An Unemployed Game Dev

  1. Some good points on here, thanks for sharing. I’m only a few months from graduating and being in this job market myself and it’s easy to see where several of these points especially would really benefit me.

  2. Zach,

    These are very helpful points to hear. I saw you present these at our IGDA chapter meeting (thanks a ton for coming out), and I felt these words would be help for my team to hear. We are a dev team over at Full Sail and will all be graduating soon. Thanks again for your time and your words.

    Brian R.

  3. I’m asking because I can’t really see it.

    Why Halo succeded and Killzone failed? Marketing? Quality? Fanboyism?

  4. You guys have it so easy these days. When I was designing games in 80’s we had to drag the comatose drug addicts away from the door to get into the office.

  5. Zack,

    you reminded me why I wanted to write to begin with. I have to say that even though I am not a fan of shooters I know I will have to do my homework in that area and get ready to see why Halo and Killzone work and don’t work. As for all your points, simply not doing some because you’re afraid sets you up for bigger or worse failure as you don’t do it. So, it reminds me to fix my blog account and get to what I do best as well: write.


    Benjamin Liles

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