Ken Levine, Mike Mika, and Dan Daglow on getting into the gaming industry

When it comes to getting into making video games, there are few that know better than Ken Levine, Dan Daglow, and Mike Mika. I was fortunate enough to pick their brains for a few minutes on the matter. The verdict? Get in through Q&A and love what you do.

Ken Levine, Irrational Games:

You know, a lot of people ask me about what schools and stuff to go to, and that’s tough for me, because when I was coming up there were no schools.

I know that one of the best ways to get a real understanding of game development is to come work in Q&A at a developer, not at a publisher, because you’re interacting with the developers everyday and learning the process. And a whole slate of my guys came up from Q&A. Like, senior guys from the company started in Q&A, so that’s a good place to start.

Dan Daglow, Stormfront Studios:

I could bore you for two hours with that! Most of us have something people have told us our whole lives we’re really good at. That’s a way of hearing what our talents really are. Then there’s [what your passion is]. Typically there’s an intersection between those two things. That’s the sweet spot. And that’s the place to focus on in terms of how you want to pursue your career because that’s the place your skill and your love overlap.

So for somebody for whom it’s landscape art — they love doing landscapes and backgrounds — and they love games, well, environmental artist in games is a category. Whereas somebody is an artist and loves [designing and creating] new characters, there’s character design, or concept artist, as a subcategory. That’s a case of taking that passion and combining [strengths] in the right way.

Once somebody does that, then I think [they should take part in] internships, experiences, student projects, anything that has them shipping a product. Anything where you have to build, finish, and ship.

And then, the final thing I would say after that is being prepared to not be overly discouraged — we’re all going to be discouraged. I’ve had pitches I made and [ended up not selling] the game. I’ll tell you, after 40 years, I still make pitches where I may get, ‘thank you, it was wonderful to see you, but no thank you.” Also, jobs you go for you don’t get. You know, all these things.

Eventually, somebody will say yes. If you keep following your passion, developing your skills, building, and shipping, eventually, somebody will say yes, and the opportunities will come.

We sometimes get this idealized view that for anybody who’s in these environments, it is like the movie star was discovered sitting in a restaurant when somebody walked up to them and said ‘I want you to be my movie star.’ Or the recording artist was singing karaoke and somebody walked up and said, ‘I want you to be a recording artist.’ If you talk to the actual people who do these things, they worked through years of discouragement before the good things happened. [Gaming] is the same way.

The discouragement, first of all, never stops. Forty years, and I still get no for an answer — more often than I would like! But, just persisting through that and expecting it and understanding that every time that happens there’s learning attached to it. Whatever got you the no that time, is something you can learn from, and you can take that knowledge and internalize it.

Once you build it up to a thousand no’s, you’ve learned a heck of a lot. And a lot of people think that means [they can’t do it], or it’s God’s way of trying to tell them to give up on their dream and stop[…] But the way I see it is that’s just God’s way of tell you that it’s worth doing, and it [isn’t] going to be easy. It’s going to take persistence and learning from a lot of no’s to where you know enough to finally get the yes.

Mike Mika, Other Ocean Interactive:

Some of the easiest ways to get into game development is to through Q&A. And Q&A is not what people traditionally think it is anymore. Q&A actually has a design role, it has a consulting role, and it’s not just finding bugs. Most games now are free-to-play or social games, that have to carry on life beyond launch, and Q&A groups are staring to take control of that. So you get to go in and learn everything about how a game is made, what the technology does, and create content for games. That kind of education, that role, is the best way to get wherever you want in the game industry.

People are hiring out of that group more often than not, out of any other field in games. You can be an engineer in school, you can be a designer in school, and you go out there and it’s really competitive to get into a design role. But if you go in through that back door in Q&A, you’re hired really quickly onto actual core teams to carry on franchises or to create new [ones].

I see it all the time. In the last week, three guys I recommended to a Q&A group ended up getting hired literally three weeks after they were in Q&A.

What Don [Daglow] was saying was absolutely true. We hired a guy who was one of the best producers I’ve ever worked with. He was a sewage worker for the city. He came in with no experience, but I told him, “if you come back with a demonstration of a game, or some idea that you have, that would be an effective game we can make, you’re in.”

So he went away and came back a month later with a working prototype of a game on a Gameboy. He had read online how to do the hardware, how to make the cartrige, and all this other stuff. He tried to reprogram one of his favorite childhood games, and he came in with that. We were like, “this guy can do anything. If he can do that, he can do anything.”

[Mobile games] are so in demand. People are doing apps. Electronic Arts, Activision, all those guys. If you come in with a finished app — even if it’s not great — they’ll probably hire you on the spot.

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