Recently, Valve, the company behind Steam and such games as Portal and Half-Life, had their new employee orientation handbook leaked on the internet. In response, game designer Casey Malone has shared his own new employee orientation handbook with Paste Magazine. Casey is currently unemployed.
So You’ve Decided To Lose Your Job
Hello, and congratulations on joining the team here at your apartment! Arriving home with your box of personal belongings, you might start to feel despondent, but fight that feeling. In this relatively young industry many videogame companies expand rapidly, only to contract at the end of a project, laying off team members of every discipline. Others have been where you are now and others will be there in the future—you are not alone. Metaphorically, I mean. In the apartment, you are actually pretty alone.
This brings me to Team Structure, which is to say that at first, there is none. You’ll be in charge of your own schedule in a way that you have not been since you were an infant. While this seems like it could lead to chaos, you’ll find that team structure eventually emerges. Your cats, for instance, will provide much needed production duties, staring at you with yellow eyes full of judgment and confusion. “Why are you napping in my sunny spot under the window?” they’ll seem to ask. “It’s 2:15 in the afternoon. Shouldn’t you be working?”
The first thing you will notice is that, with the exception of a total lack of income, this is actually pretty great. Please, take a chance to sleep in and eat as many ginger snaps as you can get into your bear-like paws. Did you know that ginger snaps are sold by the pound? Rather than exclaiming to the world, “I ate a whole package of ginger snaps today, ugh,” via Twitter, use this knowledge to be specific. “I ate a whole pound of ginger snaps,” you can Tweet. It’s important to have goals.
If your former employers were considerate, they will release you from their payroll close to the release of a particularly engrossing new videogame. Do not start any games that take less than 40 hours to complete, or would allow you time to leave the house or look for work in any capacity. If you have time to be on Monster.com, then you have time to learn esoteric secrets about the ancient Protheans that only other NeoGaf users can shed light on. Similarly, if you have not started Fez yet, this is the time to do so. Notebooks and aspirin are located in the den.
Fez exemplifies a particular challenge for an unemployed game designer. Not the puzzles contained within, but the game, the product, the actual thing itself. There exists, in the industry and industry press, a myth of the one-man game. That one game developer with nothing but time should be able to concoct an indie darling of a product that will make them a star, or an iOS puzzle game that fills your bank account. Thinking you can produce a Triple A game with next-to-no resources is unrealistic.
In other words, “A Kickstarter, just like your idol Tim Schafer!” should not be Plan A. Plan A is to dig that dusty saxophone out of the bedroom closet, type “Born To Run Sax Solo” into Google, and not emerge from your bedroom until people swear Clarence Clemons has faked his death and moved to Somerville. Plan B is to actually begin looking for work.
After a month of unemployment, you may have left your apartment upwards of five times. Congratulations! This number exceeds the average, and each time counts double if you wore pants. Now that you’re looking for work, and your lower half is at least 50% covered, that number has to increase drastically. Attend game jams and local indie meet-ups, find similarly talented folks of different disciplines to collaborate with, and if you can’t do that, create paper prototypes of board games to maintain sharp design skills.
Hopefully, you left your previous employer on relatively good terms. If you think so, let’s try a little math experiment. Look around you! How many items in your line of sight were stolen from your office? Okay, now, how many of them have HDMI ports? Multiply the first number by the second, and if your number is higher than zero, it’s possible that you did not leave on the best terms.
Those from whom you did not steal quality consumer electronics likely still want you to succeed! They likely want you to find a new job and eventually become the game developer who James Cameron turns to when he finally decides to develop his first five-dimensional movie for the Kinect. Unfortunately, those people probably still work for the company that just let you go. The good news is, unless they’ve also built up a hermetic seal around them similar to the one you’re living in now, they probably know people outside of that company! Which brings us, finally, to the last portion of game development job hunting: Relocation.
In order to find the best new job opportunity, you will probably have to look outside of your immediate area. There are exceptions—do you live in a state that might sink into the ocean at any point?—but in general, it’s time to look elsewhere. This can be rather frightening, considering your current uncertain future, dealt to you by the sweaty palms of a videogame company. No doubt you’re confronting the fear that you’ll be laid off immediately after moving across the country for a new job in a city where you know no one. That you’ll become some chubby gypsy in a Keyboard Cat t-shirt.
I’ll be honest with you—it’s a real possibility. But by going out there and giving it a try, you expand that circle of people who know that you’re great. If that job doesn’t work out, cast that net out again and hope it hits even more folks. Eventually you and your covered wagon full of NES cartriges will pull up into another job in the industry.
The truth is, all of this is a risk. Videogame studios exist where creativity and commerce meet, a union which has always produced as much unpleasantness and chaos as beauty and wonder. Small studios are bought by media giants and then become independent in a matter of years, people who start in QA (the videogame mail-room) eventually become Presidents and CEOs, and people lose their jobs. A lot.
If you want job security, we highly suggest using your time here in your apartment seeking something in the housekeeping or food-service industries. But if you want to pursue your passion, then seek every avenue open to you, accept each speed bump you hit, and always remember that videogames are undeniably awesome. And you make videogames. Whether someone pays you to or not.
Casey Malone is a game designer and stand-up comedian living in Boston, known for his work on the Rock Band series. You can find the latest rap lyrics stuck in his head, or which Avenger he thinks is the hunkiest on his Twitter feed.