We recently had a job listing for a game design intern role, and received a lot of applications. The number of promising applicants has grown a lot in the past couple of years, which is very exciting, but there are still some common mistakes that we see pop up. Often these are easy mistakes to fix or avoid, and sometimes they require you to do some hard work. The hope is that I can give some guidance for you, a prospective applicant/candidate, to help you prepare and make the best possible impression. I’ve tried to write this to be as generally useful as possible, but other teams might be looking for different things, so the golden rule is to always read the entire job listing and tailor your application to the role you’re applying for.

The Industry

Getting some perspective, the South African game development industry is still quite small, and will probably be similar for the next five to ten years or longer. Most of the people working in the industry are entrepreneurs or part of a very small team. Many are not yet making a sustainable living from their work on games. This can make it very hard to find a job in the local industry, especially for an entry level role. If this is what you’re trying to do, you’ll need to keep your eyes open for new positions and be able to quickly jump on them. You should also consider looking internationally for remote positions, especially in the same time zone, at places like this — more remote work jobs is one of the rare positives from the recent pandemic. If you have the resources, you can also consider starting your own team — although the industry is difficult and fickle, so seek out guidance/advice and don’t put all your eggs into that basket. Alternatively you can look for a job in a different industry where you’re able to more easily earn a living and develop your skills, potentially on the side in your free time — this is a great way to get going and a surprising number of people start their journey this way.

Make Games!

If there’s one thing you take away from this post, it’s that you should be making your own games. Wait, that’s why you’re applying for an entry-level job, how are you meant to make games without a job and the experience? Maybe you’ve even completed a tertiary education programme in game dev, isn’t that enough? The answer is that you need to be making your own small games as part of game jams and/or in your free time, to develop your skills and build up your portfolio. The industry is very competitive, so if you’ve never opened a game engine and got something to be playable, you haven’t put in the minimum effort to get in the front door. If you’ve only ever made games for student assignments, it probably also won’t cut it either — your peers are doing more.

Your games don’t have to be big commercial releases, small game jams are often preferable. When looking for entry-level positions, I generally look for quantity of games before looking at quality. Have you only made one or two? You’re probably still making mistakes that you’ll solve like second nature after your fifth game jam.

This isn’t a thing you can do once or twice and be done with it, making games and getting better at it is a life-long learning exercise. Even if you’ve studied games at a tertiary institution, you need to be putting in more time into making games than the course requires of you. If you don’t, you simply won’t stand out from your peers. I personally wish there were more entry-level positions that didn’t require this of you and allowed you to learn more on the job, but at the moment it is pretty much a hard requirement.

Besides, making small games and doing game jams should be fun! It’s the best proxy for what making a bigger game is like, so you should also use it as a test for whether this is what you want to make your career. It’s also okay if you decide you want this to stay a hobby for you — it’s a great hobby!

Your Portfolio

For most game roles, your portfolio is probably the most important thing for getting you a job in the industry. This is how you demonstrate your skills that you’ve learnt from making games. Honestly, your portfolio is probably more important than your qualification, if you have one. This can be a bit discipline-dependent — I think for more technical positions like programming/engineering, a tertiary qualification can be valuable, but it’s not a requirement and isn’t a substitute for the experience of actually making games.

What do you put in your portfolio? There are many roles in the industry, so your portfolio should be focused on the role you are trying to specialise in, but a breadth of skill is very valuable and can help set you apart. The best portfolio piece for a game dev role is always a game that demonstrates your skills. For example, if you’re applying for a writing role, a small game that shows your writing skills is usually much better than a non-game story — it shows that you’ve thought about how to integrate your writing with the interactive medium of games. This also applies to programming, art, and especially game design.

When you put your portfolio together, pay attention to its presentation as a whole. How easy is it for someone to play your games? Do we have to download your source code and try to get it to run? Or can we just click a link on itch.io and play your web build? Do we have to guess what part of a team game you worked on? Or is this clearly identified? Are you sending me a huge email attachment (RIP my inbox)? Or do you have a link I can share with the rest of the team?

Your portfolio doesn’t have to just be only your best work. In fact, showing how you’ve put in the time to make many small (bad) games and how your skills have been growing and developing is very valuable, especially for entry-level positions. Feel free to highlight the best stuff, but include as much as you can. A portfolio with 10+ janky game jams will usually be a lot more attractive than one with just one or two medium polished games.

Applying

So now you’ve got a kickass portfolio and you’re regularly improving it with game jams and little side projects. That’s great! Keep doing it! You’ve seen a job listing that you think you’re a good fit for, and it’s time to apply. If you’re unsure if you’re a good fit for a role, just go for it! Let them decide whether you’re a fit — that’s their responsibility and you’ll miss 100% of the chances you don’t take.

How do you make the best possible impression? Read the entire job listing. Every part of it. Don’t just skim it and fire off a generic email, it shows! Now carefully craft your application as requested. Put your cover letter in the body of your email (unless the listing says otherwise) and write/customise it specifically for this team and role. You don’t have to write a novel, just a couple of sentences that show you’ve understood what the listing is looking for and why that’s you — clear communication skills are a serious plus in any role. If they ask for your CV and portfolio, make sure you are including them. Export any documents to PDF so they look the same for everyone. Getting a friend to quickly proofread your application is always a good idea. Then send it off! Make sure you’re using a reliable email address that you have easy access to. Hopefully this is the one! 🤞

Bonus Tips

  • Game design isn’t the same as visual design for games — we see this confusion a lot. Game design is a broad discipline itself, but encompasses things like designing game systems, rules, mechanics, level design, balancing, etc. Think of it as the industrial/product design of games. On the other hand, visual design for games is usually called game art (game artist) in the industry, and also has many sub-disciplines like 2D, 3D, concept, animation, tech art, etc.
  • Honestly, we don’t have time to download each applicants’ project source code, find the right engine version (if it’s even still available), and hope it runs. If you want to include it in addition to a build, that’s okay, but also please don’t include the huge Unity Library folder.
  • Spend some time on your CV and distil it down to what is important. It’s fine to include a line on your hobbies — shows you’re a well-rounded individual — but we don’t need to know if you have a driver’s licence.
  • Check your spam folder for replies. At least one person didn’t reply to my invitation for an interview and currently the spam filter is my best guess, cause why not?!
  • Join the community (like here and here) and network with those around you — those contacts can help a lot in the future, you’ll be able to get a lot of valuable advice, and it shows that you care about the local community.

I sincerely hope this helps you on your quest to make games!

2 Responses to “Get a Job in the SA Game Industry”

  1. Zirk Coetsee

    Thanks, Francois some good points to keep in mind for the future!

    Reply
  2. Brandon van der Berg

    I am only just starting out to learn coding etc and my main goal is to become a game developer. This has given mre some nice background information for the future.
    Thank you Francois

    Reply

Leave a Comment