Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Placement of Students in Industry

Wow, it's been awhile since I wrote anything here. The busiest schedule ever will do that to some people, so for those of you patiently waiting here, I apologize.

I just finished having an epic Twitter discussion with @bbrathwaite and others today, and it made me want to write out in long form something that's been bugging me a bit lately.

Among entry-level jobs in the game industry, it is definitely not one-size-fits-all. The best entry-level jobs offer outstanding work environments, working under amazingly talented senior staff; students who land these kinds of jobs are likely to learn a lot, and go on to positions of prominence in their own right years later. The worst entry-level jobs are little more than meat grinders, throwing inexperienced students in a bullpen and working them to a soul-crushing death on largely uninteresting and unrewarding projects, without providing much in the way of learning opportunities (let alone decent pay or benefits). The majority of jobs are somewhere in between the extremes.

Likewise, students themselves fall along a bell curve. Some are superstars, some are abysmal, and the majority are somewhere in between. Now, the really terrible students probably won't even graduate, let alone make it into the hyper-competitive game industry, so that problem solves itself. The mediocre students, they can get mediocre jobs, and hopefully the reality of the industry will give them enough of a new perspective to bring out the best in them (or conversely, they'll decide that the industry isn't all it's cracked up to be, and they'll gracefully exit) -- again, problem solved. But what to do with the really amazing students?

My personal feeling is that for the really amazing students, they deserve better than the worst the industry has to offer. I'm talking about the students who have already distinguished themselves before they graduate -- the ones I would hire myself, in a second, if I owned a game company. I do not want the best and brightest our schools have to offer, getting thrown into a meat grinder. There are better jobs out there, and I would like to see the most deserving students get the best opportunities. Ideally, their school (or at least one of their instructors with industry connections) helps place them in a good studio. At minimum, they should be taught how to sniff out and avoid the really bad studios, how to detect the warning signs of a toxic work environment.

Mine is not the only school of thought on this matter. Maybe you'll recognize some of these attitudes:
  • Industry experience matters a lot. Even the best student can't hold a candle to an average person with even 1 to 2 years of experience on a real development team. Don't hold students in such high esteem. (To which I would respond: as a teacher, I'm supposed to disrespect my students?)
  • The first job always sucks. That's typical for the industry. Newly-minted graduates need to "pay their dues" just like the rest of us. (I would say: just because something is commonplace doesn't make it right.)
  • Don't forget how competitive the game industry is, especially these days with so many layoffs, and industry-experienced people applying for entry-level positions. Any job is better than no job, and even the best students should be thankful for even the worst opportunity. At worst, they can still add "industry experience" to their resume. (I think this sets up a false choice, as if a student's only options are "bad job" or "no job." As I mentioned, there are hugely positive entry-level experiences out there, even if they are rare. Maybe I'm too much of an idealist, but I think that a few rare people are good enough that they deserve better.)
I wonder, though, if this comes down to a difference between the viewpoint of an educator and that of a hiring manager. I'm thinking primarily about what is best for my students; they are thinking about what is best for their company; and the two are not always the same.


Ted DiNola said...

Ian, thank you for sharing - this definitely fleshes out yesterday's Twitter discussion quite a bit.

As a recent graduate from a Game Development program as an engineer, I've been looking for my first position in the industry. Frankly, this has been a very interesting experience so far.

I think the best thing I've learned so far is how important it is to talk to employees at prospective work places - especially those near or slightly above the position you'll be starting with. Finding a negative response to be common has helped me swing around the fence for jobs that already looked like dangerous investments of my time.

However, with the current industry environment, and the acceptance that the game industry is a business, the odds are in favor that my first position will probably be at a company that wants to milk me dry as a consumable resource.

I've already met a good deal of developers with only a few years of industry experience who have completely lost their passion for the industry, which is by far one of the saddest things that I think can happen to a bright young developer. I hope that, should I end up in the same situation, I can find my way out of the meat grinder before there's nothing left of that drive.

Daniel Cook said...

One of the interesting comments to come out of the last PH was that in today's market there are no longer any 'dues' that must be paid. There is no ladder to climb or gauntlet to pass before you are 'in the industry'.

We have so many emerging game markets at the moment that the clearest path to being a game developer is to make games. The tools are readily available. So is distribution and monetization. Only a fraction of 1 percent will be successful. But that is the modern spawning process.

If you can't make a game in the mobile, browser or social game market, then perhaps you are not ready and need to improve your making more basic games. (Making more games and learning from your mistakes solves a shocking number of skill and experience related problems)

The path of selling your labor to a large company is an odd one. Yes, you can become part of a fraternity. Yes, you will be horribly hazed. No, you likely will never be rewarded. There is experience to be gained, but it is the sort of lesson that involves the powerful using the weak.

A good lesson perhaps, but if you have the talent, why not just make games and avoid the thousand yard stare of servitude?

take care

Ian Schreiber said...

Excellent point, Danc. In the discussion yesterday, everyone seemed to implicitly take entrepreneurship off the table; as you say, if the solution to "breaking in" is "start your own company and do it yourself" then all issues of unpaid OT, crunch, exploitation, etc. immediately fly out the window.

Still, there are some reasons why that isn't a panacea. First, some students simply don't have that entrepreneurial spirit. Second, I think more game professors have industry experience than startup experience, so in a lot of cases the mentorship and encouragement just isn't there. Third, while jumping right into your own startup on graduation (or before!) has the lowest burn rate ever -- what I call the "eat Ramen in Mom's basement for 6 months" business model -- it also has a higher chance of failure because the person has no business experience (regardless of their game dev experience), and some people need to have positive cash flow right away for a number of reasons, so making their own game just isn't a pragmatic solution.

But mostly, the discussion in question was sparked by a common request I see as a professor: that of a small company writing me to ask if I have any graduating students that I could recommend as employees for them. What's the best way to respond to this? If I see this as a positive opportunity, I would be a fool to hide it from my students. If it's a weak opportunity... well, that's where this blog post came from. Some professors would happily encourage their best students to take a poor opportunity like this because "hey, it's a job". I take a different approach :)

Ryan said...

Consider me a success story. I graduated from the Guildhall at SMU in May and after a really great 2-month stint in the Netherlands with Triangle Studios, I landed a job at Gearbox Software.

It's been a wonderful experience so far and the people I work with are supportive and driven. Gearbox has exceeded my expectations for a game company in almost every respect!

The opportunities are there, and there are still companies willing to take "risks" on highly talented individuals regardless of whether they have existing industry experience.

Anders Howard said...

Right out of school I got into one meat grinder project, then another. Took me a year but a great team finally took me in.

It's great to have some senior talent to work with, its making all the difference in accelerating my growth. But I'm still not sure if I wound up in my position from hard work or blind luck.

skysenshi said...

Wow, thanks for the update. You're right, it's been a while since I've last read the blog.

The situation is even worse in my country (a third world nation), which is why despite my passion for teaching game design, I am worried about the future of my students. I've been in that grind and I feel kind of guilty having to send some of my students in there...