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How did our Indie Mavens get their first jobs in video games?

How did our Indie Mavens get their first jobs in video games?

Everyone starts somewhere. Even the biggest names in video games had to work their way up to being legends, and that path may not have been as straightforward as you'd imagine.

But for those starting out, breaking into the games industry can be an incredibly daunting task, and without some guidance, a great deal of people may just give up entirely.

To prevent this, we turned to our Indie Mavens to find out how they got started in the games indsutry, and what tips they have for any aspiring developers and designers out there.

Specifically, we asked:

  • How did you get your start in game development?
  • What tips do you have for those looking to get into the games industry?
Ben Murch Co-Founder Perchang

My first foray into the games industry was during my third year at University as part of their placement year scheme. My University wanted me to work in a nuclear power plant (I'm actually not joking about this).

I felt otherwise, and applied to around 200 games companies across the UK and a little bit of Europe. 99% didn't reply. A few said no thanks. One said yes.

Well, one is all you need, so I spent the next year of my life in Oxford with Rebellion. It's one of those major turning points in my life, and I'm the most thankful person to Jason and Chris for giving me a shot!

But it all started years before that.

Careers day at school was a chore. 15 year olds really don't want to spend the day seeing how depressing life gets after education.

Yet we sat there as various grey suited drones waffled on about being a civil servant or lawyer or meth dealer... not sure on that last one, they'd pretty much lost my attention.

However, one man took to the stage and filled my little heart with joy and wonder. He was a freelance computer games artist. Holy sh*t! David Bowie might as well have leapt into the spotlight!

I was enthralled with his stories of game dev. And that man, on that stage, twenty years ago gave me the second best bit of advice that anyone has ever stated in my presence....

"Don't wait. Start building your portfolio now."

Start your craft now. Design levels, make art, write code, prepare yourself for where you want to be.
Ben Murch

And he was right. I went home that evening, booted up MS Paint (once again, not joking about this!), and started drawing and learning.

I carried on practicing in my evenings and at weekends, and by the time it came to applying to those 200 companies in that third year of University, I had a not-too-embarrassing portfolio to send out.

So, here's the advice. Firstly, start your craft now. Design levels, make art, write code, prepare yourself for where you want to be.

At an interview, showing a demo or scene or level or track is around a billion times better than talking about it. Despite being in the industry for a long while now, I'm still learning newness to get me prepared for what's five years down the line.

And secondly, don't give up. Making it in this industry is extremely tough. It might take you years of backbreaking work and soul-crushing rejections to break in, but once you're here... you'll never work another day in your life!

Good luck!

Aaron Fothergill Co-founder Strange Flavour

I started writing games in school while doing my O levels. I didn't have my own computer so it was a case of getting what time I could on the school PETs and trading hand-made games and programming knowledge for borrowed time on various friends' home computers.

My first actual foray into the industry itself was a few years later with a game called Jitterbugs that I wrote in GFA BASIC for the ST Format cover disk (I got a whole £150!).

Don't be afraid to just drop something when you get too stuck and try a different project.
Aaron Fothergill

Not too long after that I went full-time starting up my first software company, writing games, tools and running the STOS club.

A few years after that, I had to shut down and get a 'real' job, which led to a sequence of working for other companies that got bought by bigger companies and I ended up at Argonaut Games, which I count as my next proper "getting into the games biz" stage as I was involved in an entirely different scale of project.

What tips do you have for those looking to get into the games industry? Essentially one thing. Write games.

Find a system you can learn and work with, decide what sort of games you want to aspire to and find out what ones you can attempt to write now (I think I spent my first year iterating through various goes at doing a "Shoot the TIE fighter game" based on the scene in Star Wars where they're escaping from the Death Star).

You'll learn a lot more about writing games by actually doing it. Start small, learn stuff, try a different game or idea etc. repeat.

Initially, don't be afraid to just drop something when you get too stuck and try a different project, but eventually you should be able to sit down and actually complete a whole game and learn just how hard that last 10% is!

Pierre-Luc Vettier CEO Zero Games Studios

I always wanted to work in the video games industry. My first experience in game development came 8 years ago, as a trainee at the Game Design department of Eugen System.

Working on R.U.S.E. and Wargame: European Escalation had been a really great experience. And I had been lucky to work for them as I was a huge fan of Act of War, so I absolutely wanted to work for this studio.

Eugen System's Wargame: European Escalation

A few weeks after my job interview, I wanted to be sure to be retained for the Game Designer role so I managed to find the phone number of the CEO (but I don't remember exactly how...) and I tried to convince him to take me in his team. And it worked!

I'm not very good at giving advice, but try to get as much experience as you can everywhere!

Try to create your own games at 100% (even if they are bad, you don't care as you'll learn many useful things!), try to code if you can and try to create some art if you can too!

Everything in the game creation process is a good opportunity to help you to improve and gain some experience that will be helpful to get the job you want into this industry.

Henrik Johansson Designer and artist Mediocre

As a teenager, I tried to make games after school for a number of years and later I joined an international team of developers in what ultimately became a cancelled project.

If you make something original and polished I do believe you can make it.
Henrik Johansson

After this I felt that I had given it my best shot and chose to pursue a career as a graphic designer instead. A decade later, around when the iPad came into existence, I decided to make a game with a childhood friend of mine for all of those games we never finished.

Our expectations were very low, we just wanted to finish something we could feel proud of and publish it. To our surprise, it was a big success and we've been making games ever since - that was 7 years ago and now we've released 8 games together.

Do what you love. Competition is fierce and there is so much noise, but if you make something original and polished I do believe you can make it.

Don't expect an instant success, it's okay to fail and you'll learn so much from your first projects. Just make sure you make something you believe in.

Nathan Fouts Founder Mommy's Best Games

Back in '97, using the ol' postal mail, I sent letters to around 40 places and heard back from only three saying there were no jobs available.

Reluctantly, I took a job at a chemical place that had a small software department. It paid okay but wasn't very interesting.

You won't want to work with everyone and they won't want to work with you.
Nathan Fouts

About nine months into that job, I finally heard back from Running With Scissors. They had been doing this thing called "crunch" for months finishing their newest game POSTAL.

They flew me out from the freezing, bleak winter in Indiana, to breezy, warm Arizona. We wined and dined and talked game development – it was a grand time. They hired me mainly because of my demonstrable game development experience. And because we jived together as a team.

You won't want to work with everyone and they won't want to work with you. That's okay! But have your best, most polished game demos together to show people your experience and you'll eventually find a cool team in which you fit great!

Travis Ryan Studio Head Dumpling Design

I was a farm boy; shovelling cow dung, running dairy, bailing out in the fields 'till sunset (it was awesome btw!).

My dad was an electrician and one day an ASTEROIDS arcade cabinet appeared in our kitchen for repair. It lived there for a few weeks, its vector glow burning into memory, long enough for a curious little Travis to find and start fiddling with its dip-switches.

I guess the long and the short of it is: just do it!
Travis Ryan

There weren't many to play with - number of lives, language I think? - but it was my first introduction to tinkering with something and changing the experience.

That kickstarted an obsession with arcade games - Japanese design and head-to-head fighting games in particular - which would eventually land me my first job 'close' to the industry; in a Sheffield game centre, cleaning arcade cabinets in the day, while trying to keep out the riffraff at night.

I was surrounded by wall-to-wall arcade play, every fighting game I could imagine, deluxe racing cabinets, idle puzzlers - it was glorious!

I'd watch players from all walks of life pop in for a quick distraction during work breaks, settle scores head-to-head, endlessly replay stages trying to trail blaze a 'New Record'.

I studied up on all the latest games - it was photocopied movelists back then, kids! - shared tips-&-tricks with other players, I encouraged competition by challenging players at busy times (I somehow wound up on TV's Games Master, I'll leave the episode hunting to you!) I spent about a year doing this and its one of my fondest time in gaming.

It was around the time of the Saturn and PlayStation launch, with their superior home ports, and the writing was on the wall for the arcade scene. I got a job as Games Tester for local developer Gremlin Interactive.

Throughout my time with arcade games I'd developed - via osmosis? - a keen understanding of what made games great to play, and the details required to achieve good 'game feel'.

As a tester, I had a knack for tearing games apart, and any game I felt lacking in some way or another I would write-up reports and offer design solutions.

I wasn't in test for very long before I had that moment from the movie 'BIG'; you know the one, where Tom Hanks is ranting about MacMillan toys to an elderly gentleman, unbeknown to him to be Mr. MacMillan.

Only in this case it was a game called N20 and the man was Ian Stewart, the head of Gremlin.

That led to my first design gig for Gremlin; I was flown to Sicily to work with NAPS team on what would become GEKIDO for the original PlayStation – I'd never worked on a game before, never designed a game, never been abroad, and certainly never worked with a couple of passionate Italian developers - yet here I was designing a game, touching everything from game systems, move-lists levels, characters, story and marketing.

To say those couple of months was a trial-by-fire is an understatement, but I guess I passed as I was assigned a new project with Tony Crowther (I had no idea who Tony Crowther was at the time), initially called 'Gadget Racers', it would become Wacky Races on Dreamcast - my first full game as lead designer (I was the only designer!) where I got my hands on everything from handling to game-systems to track design.

That's how I became a games designer. For the next 17 years, I would go on to work with EA and Warner Bros., come back to Sheffield to join then fledging Sumo Digital where I got to collaborate with design heroes and arcade pioneers at SEGA Japan, and then later at Rare I was again tinkering with arcade play on new hardware.

As the appetite for AAA arcade games dried up on console, it was thriving on mobile, which I guess explains why I decided to start all over again and form Dumpling.

Dumpling Design's first game, Dashy Crashy

I guess the long and the short of it is: just do it!

For me, joining the industry as a games tester (QA) was an incredible insight; I got to be around production, to understand and absorb every facet of a games development lifecycle and how things came together - this ultimately allowed me to translate my passion and experience as a player, into a development role.

Get involved in the process of putting something together and surround yourself with experiences; in games with players, in development with veterans and in life with as much non-gamey stuff as possible - perspective is a strength.

Finally, be curious and feed that curiosity; the endless tinkering and 'What if?'s are where great things come from.

3 pointers to consider when putting something together:

Audience is everything; always know who you’re creating for! Whether you're targeting 1 or 1 million people, understanding your audience - their habits, their expectations, what makes them tick - will provide you with guidelines to create within and can also highlight areas to challenge and surprise that audience.

A creator's most important tool is communication; primarily via your game to audience, but also fellow developers, press, publishers, investors - they all speak a different language, listen to them and learn how to talk with them. Hint: most of the time it's visual!

Ideas and process trump tools; every single project I've worked on utilised some new toolset or custom engine. Understand what it is you want to achieve, why you want to achieve it and how you want to apply it. As with any industry, tools are just that, and can be made to work to requirement.

Leanne Bayley Developer We Heart Dragons

OK, so my first job in the industry came about because I was recommended for a role. I met Alex Trowers at Animex Festival (held at Teesside University - tickets on sale now for the next one) many years ago, at one of the events' "meet the speakers" evenings.

A group of budding designers (myself included) had gathered around Alex and he asked us 'what is your game idea, everyone who wants to be a designer has one, so what's yours?' and no one wanted to reveal their idea.

After assuring us that he wasn't going to steal our ideas, I stepped forward and talked about the game I had been thinking up.

The more like-minded individuals you can surround yourself with, the better!
Leanne Bayley

At that time, I was the first person to describe a game to him in terms of its mechanics and how it played, rather than a story line for a first person shooter, and that stood out (as Alex has been hearing story lines to FPSs for some 20 years).

So when he had to leave a design position and heard that I had just been made redundant he called and asked if I would like his job.

He put in a good word with the employer, I had an interview and started a few months later. I had no experience, no demos, never written a GDD, but I knew what I was talking about, was an experienced gamer and had complementary skills such as 2D/3D art, document writing and people management.

In my case, it was who I knew (and I didn't really know anyone in the industry save a handful of people I had met at Animex) and I think this can really help anyone starting out, whether you're looking to work in a AAA studio or start your own indie outfit.

People make games, so the more like-minded individuals you can surround yourself with, the better! Go to events, go to game jams, talk to the makers, find your local dev meet ups, pitch at the Big Indie Pitches!

You will learn things from your peers, they can help you better your portfolio or critique a demo, and maybe if you've made a good impression your name will come up in conversation when someone is looking to fill a role with someone like you.

Kepa Auwae Business / Design RocketCat Games

I always wanted to make video games. At the time, I was a registered nurse working in home care. I was working nights, which weren't very busy at all, so it gave me a lot of time to think on the idea of how to start making games.

I had no previous experience with making games at all, though I did very briefly mess with modding for various games over the course of my life.

Try becoming a citizen of Denmark, if at all possible.
Kepa Auwae

I was on a chat channel that was started a decade before, to coordinate with people I played the old MMO Asheron's Call with.

I asked someone from that channel that was a programmer, and another that could draw as a hobby, if they wanted to try making an iOS game with me. Neither of them had any experience, either.

We started making games, a couple very small ones at first that failed hard and were never seen from again. One false start before that, which never got off the ground and it became my company logo, anyway.

Our first big game, Hook Champ, was successful enough to keep going. The artist could then work full time. Our next game, Super Quickhook, was successful enough where the programmer could also work full time. I moved to working on games full time not too long after.

Short summary: I was really lucky.

Hook Champ


If you want to be an independent game developer, you really should save up money or have a trust fund. You need to eat to live, sadly. Living in a socialist country may help with this, too. Try becoming a citizen of Denmark, if at all possible.

You'll need some money to fall back on because making a commercial game is (usually) a long and time consuming process, and also because your chance of failure is really high.

You can do everything right and still fail, just because getting that initial success is difficult. I'd say success is really more arbitrary than anyone cares to admit.

We don't like to talk about this because it makes for poor "self help guru advice" material.

The above goes for any creative field, really.

Deputy Editor

Ric has written for for as long as he can remember, and is now Deputy Editor. He likes trains.


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