What was your first job in the gaming industry?
Right out of college, I got a job working for a company that did third-party testing and tech support for a number of large game publishers. We got to test a lot of great games, but there was always some sort of dreadful "edutainment" product looming on the horizon that made you dread the end of any enjoyable task. It gave me a strong appreciation for just how tough QA and testing work really is.
Did you find it difficult to get your first job given that you had no prior experience?
Not really, but I'm an old man, so I was "breaking in" during the height of the DotCom Bubble when the industry was DRAMATICALLY smaller and the overall job market was much less competitive than it is today. I was also lucky that the company was local and that I had friends working there already who gave me a bit of a "bump" when I applied.
What sort of training or education did you complete in advance of applying for your first position?
I have a BA in Political Science and a minor in Philosophy. "Plan A" for me was law school, but it didn't take much of that for me to realize that being a lawyer would suck out my soul and make me a miserable shell of a man. Games seemed like a good "Plan B".
While my education wasn't really "game related", I think any form of higher education is helpful for future developers. Learning to deal with multiple, discreet and challenging tasks simultaneously is obviously useful. Experiencing an environment where your ideas and performance are routinely judged and scrutinized (and then making use of that feedback) is helpful. Learning to communicate clearly and effectively when discussing complex subjects is EXTREMELY important.
Speaking of education and game development, a brief word of caution:
The upcoming generation of developers has the benefit of an ever-increasing array of very solid, degree-oriented Game Development/Design programs. A good program will set you up with a great portfolio and solid experience that will make it MUCH easier to "break in" to the industry itself. Unfortunately, there are also a fair number of "degree mill" programs out there that are all but worthless. It's VERY important that prospective students do a lot of leg work and research ahead of enrollment to make sure they are spending their time and money wisely.
What is your job today?
I'm a Designer with a small start-up in Huntsville, AL. We haven't announced our first product yet, so I can't get into too much detail at the moment.
Design work in smaller studios is a much more holistic task than the very granular, rigid processes you tend to find in large "big name" studios. You can't just hand something off to a Development Director or Project Lead and expect them to shepherd it through the rest of the pipeline. You need to work directly with engineers and artists and other designers to make sure every one of your precious ideas survives when released into the wild.
One thing never changes, though: You must always keep your Executive Producer happy.
For someone interested in starting a career making games today what is the main piece of advice you would offer them?
I assume it goes without saying that you need to work hard, play lots of games, break in any way you can, start at the bottom and work your way up, etc.
Beyond that, my advice (specifically to future designers) is to play games like an anthropologist seeking to understand "fun". It's easy to explain why you love what you love, but professional game developers are usually tasked with creating things that OTHER people find enjoyable.
So play games from genres you don't really like and try to figure out why other people love them. Be humble and respect the validity of designs that you, personally, dislike. Those designs succeeded for a reason and you need to learn what it is.
And who knows? Maybe you’ll come to love those games in the process as well.