We can’t talk about what we’re doing, so we’re talking about the people doing the work. Here’s Andy, Lead Writer, here to tell you how a gaming wordsmith makes his own luck. — Sanya
Earn Your Luck
by Andy Collins
Every now and then I have someone ask me how to get a job working on games. I always try to be helpful, giving advice such as “play lots of games” and “learn useful skills” (and if the curious person’s parents are listening, I might add “study hard in school”). But they always follow up by asking me how I got MY job working on games, and I have to add something really crucial to my list of advice, which is this:
Be really really lucky at opportune moments…and then prove that you deserved those opportunities all along.
My very first opportunity in the gaming industry occurred about 20 years ago, as the result of a series of coincidences largely outside my control. But that opportunity wasn’t a job offer. Instead, it was me recognizing that some overworked, underpaid staffers at Wizards of the Coast would probably appreciate not having to spend a half-day every week visiting the local game stores that were participating in a new test program of in-store gaming. So as one of the judges running that program, I volunteered to do that legwork for them. Opportunity…seized.
You might think that driving around to pick up paperwork and talk to busy shopkeepers isn’t the most exciting opportunity, but that misses the point. All of a sudden, instead of mailing resume after resume to some anonymous HR person, I had a built-in excuse to visit the Wizards office every week and to get to know the team working on the project. I busted my ass without pay or any promise of employment, and I showed the team I was smart and capable and eager to help them succeed.
So when the project expanded a few months later, and the team needed to add a body? I don’t think they even bothered with an interview process. After all, I was already right there, I knew how everything worked, and I had proven to the team that I’d do a good job. I might have been lucky to have the first opportunity, but it wasn’t luck that got me hired.
I encountered a similar lucky break not much later. I’d always planned to parlay a couple years at Wizards (still a relative startup) into a job working on Dungeons & Dragons with its then-owner, TSR Inc. Instead, shortly into my stint at Wizards, our boss Peter Adkison bought D&D from TSR and moved the D&D team out to our office in Seattle! I immediately started polishing my resume and making contacts with our new co-workers. Opportunity…seized.
Sure enough, thanks to my accomplishments at Wizards I managed an interview…and two years to the week after joining Wizards as an employee I moved over to R&D as a full-time editor of tabletop roleplaying games. Over the next 12 years, I moved up the ranks to become a senior designer, a member of the 4th Edition D&D design team, and even the manager of about half the RPG R&D department.
Was I lucky to get the opportunity to work on D&D without going through the laborious process of applying to strangers and moving to Wisconsin? Absolutely. But it wasn’t just luck that let me stick around for over a decade and work on so many amazing projects with so many fantastic people…it was a lot of hard work that produced positive results for the team and the D&D brand.
In 2010, when I decided to make the transition from designing tabletop games to computer games, a friend told me I needed to talk to this guy he knew who was starting up a studio in Seattle. Before the day was over I was sitting in the almost-brand-new Undead Labs office, chatting with studio founder Jeff Strain. After a friendly hour of chatting, I knew three things: Jeff Strain was a pretty sharp guy, State of Decay was a game worth paying attention to, and Undead Labs would be a cool place to work.
Unfortunately, it was just too early for them to hire somebody like me. State of Decay was far closer to concept than to reality, and I didn’t have any evidence of my ability to write for computer games. Instead, I had to go earn my stripes on other projects…and as you might guess, I managed to take advantage of a series of coincidences and opportunities.
When ArenaNet advertised a writing position for a new side project, I leveraged a recommendation from a former D&D co-worker already at ArenaNet (coincidence!) to convince the lead designer to hire me (opportunity!). And just when it was time to look for my next job, another former co-worker at yet another studio (coincidence!) let me know that their Marvel Heroes ARPG needed a new writer because the last guy had just left the company (coincidence!). Some good recommendations scored me an interview (opportunity!) and my expertise in storytelling and encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel Comics let me turn that opportunity into a senior design position that greatly accelerated my career development.
Seeing a pattern yet?
That gig went pretty well, but the inevitable post-launch layoff phase left me searching for another job in 2013. State of Decay had just launched, and I’d been having a blast playing the game I had first learned about 40 months earlier. By now I figured the studio might be in a position to offer work to a guy with my resume. Still, competition was going to be tough, right? Well sure, except for the fortuitous circumstance that my boss at ArenaNet was now the Lead Designer at Undead Labs. (Coincidence, thy name is Richard Foge.)
So I set up a lunch meeting with Foge to catch up, and to discuss the possibility of me working with Undead Labs in some capacity. Sure enough, the studio had a new game spinning up that needed some world-building…maybe I’d be interested in writing some spec docs as a freelancer?
Coincidence, meet opportunity.
Would that opportunity have surfaced without all the coincidences lined up here? Probably not. But on the other hand, Foge didn’t offer me work just because we happened to sit near each other for a couple months three years earlier. I’d impressed him enough in my ArenaNet interview to get a job once, and the work I’d done on the Marvel Heroes ARPG in the intervening years showed that I’d developed even more skills since then. I’d earned the breaks that got me here, even if I didn’t know that was what I was doing at the time. And of course, it has taken a lot more than luck to stick around here for the two years since I started as a freelancer.
So if you’re looking to land a job in the game industry–or really, anywhere at all–a bit of luck can certainly help. But lucky breaks will only get you to the front door. After that, it’s up to you to earn the opportunities to keep working, to keep advancing, and to prove you deserved that luck in the first place.