By Alan Emrich
Like everything else, it’s not always what you know, but who knows you.
Even before I launched the Master of Orion III web site [www.moo3.com], I knew this would happen. As the former Online Editor of the US magazine Computer Gaming World, I seemed the logical person whose email address must serve as the principal contact point for the project. After all, I wrote the design document and I’d had a lot of experience dealing with online flame wars and handling “hate mail” from less-than-friendly fans. So even though I knew this would happen, everyone else on the project took some comfort (or sadistic satisfaction) in the fact that they knew it would be happening to me first.
What we all knew was that, over the course of the project, from among the fan base deluging the message boards and overloading my email box, would emerge a handful of enthusiasts that we’d actually bring into the project – that there would form an “outer circle” where these fans would be non-disclosed and be allowed free access to the team. We decided that we’d create Master of Orion III, if not with the windows wide open, at least with the blinds up and let the fans have fairly free access to the team. Over time, there many many virtual faces pressed against the glass of that window to this project. They saw us but, more importantly, we saw them.
It was a risky decision to expose our work thus, but one we had agreed upon with the Hasbro/Microprose Project Director (a sort-of Marketing / PR Guru all rolled into one) that this was an approach we should try. It was an experiment, really. With the kind of cult status the previous Master of Orion games enjoyed and the general well-heeled and thoughtful players it attracts, we anticipated that the best and brightest from among them would rise, like cream, to the top.
And by goodness, they did! The project ended up non-disclosed about a half-dozen “civilians” and solicited their input for the game. Each has something special that they bring to the table, and the team was grateful for every scrap of the passionate volunteer help provided. MOO3 created a rare opportunity.
It’s All “Show Business”
This has caused me to reflect upon how those nice people, in jobs ranging from Ultra-High Tech Physics to the Isreali Defense Force to unemployed, started carving out a niche for themselves in the computer game industry. Beyond those we’ve actually non-disclosed and brought onto the project, I’ve received several emails and phone calls from others wanting to get into the computer game business and asking me how to go about it. Well, I thought I’d share with you a little free advice along those lines (and it’s worth every penny).
Let us being with a vision: picture the Circus employee who follows the parade through town and sweeps up the elephant dung. When the poor wretch is asked why he doesn’t get a different job, he replies “What? And give up a career in Show Business?” That guy has the right attitude. Computer gaming is Show Business; we’re all competing for that same entertainment dollar that might otherwise be frittered away on a movie or sporting event. So, to the people with the passion to pursue their hobby as a career, even the worst job making computer games is still a glamorous career “in Show Business.”
If you have that sort of attitude, can afford the pay cut (if you’re switching careers), and are willing to try an employment approach that one could hardly call a “career path,” I’ll stake you to the same advice I’ve been giving computer game making “wannabees” for years.
First, attend trade conferences. The E3 show will show you what the competition is like out there among the game publishers, but you’ve got to attend the Computer Game Developers Conference in the the Spring if you’re to really going to learn the truth. There, you will meet the people at various publishers who already do the job you might hope to have. They’ll tell you what it’s really like, what they’re really paying, and whether they’re glad they’re in the Game Business or thinking about switching careers. You’re probably looking at $2,000 out of pocket (for travel and lodging), but that’s a pretty reasonable investigative investment before you quit a real job that feeds the kids and pays the mortgage. Just be sure to make the most of that trip; bring resumes, business cards, talk to everyone you can (and get their business cards). Computer gaming is still a small enough business where it’s not too hard to make good connections, so network!
Second, make a good reputation for yourself as a fan. Be the one whose thoughtful posts people remember. Try to write some reviews that attempt to penetrate beyond the game play experience – reviews that probe into the design, production process, marketing strategy, et al; look at a game not only as a work of entertainment, but also as a product in a hobby/business. Sometimes the process is a more important story than the product. Once you have a good reputation as a fan, people at computer game developers will answer your insightful emails and begin chatting with you. That, my friends, is your foot in the door.
Third, volunteer. Yes, this means working for no pay. Work for the sheer love of what you’re doing – demonstrate your passion for games and gaming. Steven Spielberg got his start making movies by hanging around the studio lot doing whatever he could as a volunteer. Go ahead, let some poor software developer reap the rewards from your volunteer efforts. It won’t be long before you can suggest yourself for the next opening that comes along and, once you gain some friends in the company and generally make yourself “indispensable,” you’ll get the job.
But don’t forget about that first step ― the investigative step. What seems glamorous from the outside often loses its luster when seen on the inside. Although working in the game industry isn’t the “fun and games” of myth, many of us love it just because we get to be around games all day.
Alan Emrich is the former Strategy Games Editor at Computer Gaming World magazine, has written several computer game strategy guides, and has designed and developed several published board, card and computer games since the 1970s.