Last week I had a chance to hear Larry Hryb (AKA Major Nelson) of the Xbox Live team talk to a group of college students at Microsoft’s Cambridge (MA) facility. The audience was made up mostly of students with aspirations of making it in the gaming industry. Game programmers, graphic designers, game developers, game audio enthusiasts, and more. Larry talked about Xbox Live and Xbox specific topics for a while and then joined a panel of people in the game industry that included someone from Linden Labs (Second Life) and some independent game companies. They talked about careers in the industry. Obviously one of the things students wanted to know was what they need to do to get into the industry. One of Larry’s kick off comments was most interesting. Basically he said (I’m paraphrasing) was “I don’t care what games you play, how much you plan, or how good you play. I hear that all the time. Tell me what you have created.”
There is a huge difference between being a consumer and being a creator. Being good at one does not mean you will be good at the other. A video game company and in fact any software company is looking for people who can create. Several people on the game industry panel said they wanted to see code from potential developers. Art from potential game graphic artists. Potential game designers who are not also programmers (and there are places for those people) can create board games to show off their talents and imagination. The important thing is to show of what you can create. It doesn’t matter where you get or create your portfolio but that you have one. One independent game developer whose games are making him money on Xbox Marketplace said to get a hold of XNA and create a game to demo. Maybe even get it on Xbox Marketplace and have some evidence that you can create marketable products.
This idea of having a creation to show goes beyond just games though. An interview for just about any entry level software job is going to cover what you do beyond your course work. Everyone expects you to do well in your course work and to get good grades but what they want to know is what you do outside of class. Do you create interesting projects? Do you take your own ideas and express them in code? You may talk about wanting to change the world but what steps are you doing to actually make a difference?
Yes internships can help with this. But not everyone can get a great internship. Everyone can get development software and create software that can make a difference for themselves and perhaps even the world. Microsoft has programs like MSDN Academic Alliance (your school may already be a member) and DreamSpark that gives departments and students professional software for their use. Dreamspark is completely free for students as well!
There are competitions like the Imagine Cup where students create teams and compete internationally. Over the past few years many students have used their projects as portfolio projects or even to launch their own businesses. You can see what some of this year’s projects look like and vote for your favorite at the US Imagine Cup People’s Choice Video Gallery. Oh and there are several types of competitions in the Imagine Cup including a Game Design competition. If you don’t think that winning a major international development competition impresses prospective employers think again. Be thinking about entering next year!