A few of us have known since we were little what we want to be when we grow-up, while some of us could graduate and still not know. One thing seems sure, that the sooner you set a destination, the sooner you will arrive there (barring GPS glitches or user error). So how does one go from not knowing to knowing? Exploration and introspection are two great ways! And if the headline brought you here, you have at least narrowed it down to an industry. An ocean is smaller than a nebula, so this is quest progress!
Exploration can be preliminarily broken down into reading, conversing, observing and experiencing. What does this mean? You can read up on the different parts of the industry (and the disciplines within them); talk to informed, veteran insiders; you can ask to job shadow someone; lastly, you can make games. These paths will serve you at all levels of your journey, whether a neophyte who enjoys gaming but doesn’t know QA Testing from Product Management, or a well-informed applicant who knows their exact dream job and already has done some business networking.
But you do not have to sail this ocean on a rickety self-made raft without a compass, map, nor companion, ye brave Wind Waker. Have you stepped into the UCI Career Center at least once, or even surfed their website? If not, DO IT! DO IT NOW! (“GET IN DA CHOPPAH!”) If you do not know the best ways to do job and career research, they are there to help you. Discover your options here.
Quest tip #1: Reading job postings on company websites can be educational. Sometimes their jargon might leave you not entirely sure what you read, but you can get help clarifying. Find a good source of information to get educated on this rich and diverse industry.
On-campus, the Video Game Developers Club at UCI and The Association of Gamers (TAG at UCI) are great clubs for making friends and networking. LinkedIn, Reddit, and Facebook Groups are some of the top ways to find recruiters whose job is to help answer your questions. You can also use them to find organizations like the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) (with chapters in OC, LA, and more) or SoCal Game Devs. Also, (watch Extra Credits.)
Quest tip #2: Companies will sometimes hire a candidate they know (plus trust and like) with most of the required skills over a total stranger who looks like a perfect candidate on paper.
Networking can be an art form, and like all major points above, the sooner the better. Companies want to hire people who can do the work and add value. As one favorite author has put it, your goal should be to increase the pleasure and reduce the pain of your employer and colleagues. Networking lets you get to know others and to be known. So be mindful of your image and reputation.
After you have completed your first major quest milestone and figured out what you want to do and where you want to go, it becomes clear what skills or degree you would need to best reach your destination. Much better to figure that out freshman year than senior year! (But there are still options for those in the final phases of their degree program.)
While applying with degree in-hand is one option, the strongest move is to apply for internships before then -or- to make your own games (including mods, characters, levels, et al). Blizzard Entertainment has one of the most developed and robust internship programs in this young industry. Sadly, this year’s application window just closed, but start planning for next year’s or search for others. If Los Angeles is not too far away, check out opportunities with Riot Games.
Quest tip #3: Think outside the box and be proactive–do not wait for things to come to you (or for them to happen in a preconceived conventional order).
Making your own games does not mean making your own AAA video game for all major platforms–although more power to you if you do that (mad respect). Making a rudimentary card game, board game, even word game, they all count; drawing characters, writing a backstory; playing with a level editor. The merits of this may or may not be obvious, but JUST DO IT. (Remember: “Don’t let your dreams be dreams! Yesterday, you said tomorrow! So just do it! Make your dreams come true. Just do it!”)
Once you apply for jobs, you will hopefully start having job interviews. If you have had none or few, tap back into the UCI Career Center for job interview tips and preparation! After working so hard to get so close to the goal, do not go in cold and raw. But that is a whole other chapter for another time.
TL;DR: Learn the various parts of the industry and how they all fit together to decide where you want to be within it. Acquire the skills for the job you want and also find allies to guide or support your journey to your goal. The more you know and do before you apply for a job, the easier it will be to get a job.