So lots of people have responded to my encouragement to get into the industry, asking, how do I get in? There are a million step by step “how to get into the games industry article” out there. I’m not going to write another one.
But I think there is a more primal answer to that question. It doesn’t just apply to games. It applies to any creative field in the world.
How do you get in? How do you become a creative professional?
The answer is simple: "Stop at nothing."
I got into the screenwriting by writing 6 plays, dozens of stories and 8 screenplays. I put on a half dozen plays, my first with my friend Dave when I was a senior in high school, raising the money, renting a space, casting actors, putting up signs, begging people to come, hiring a fire marshal, building sets. Not knowing what we were doing, we bought a dozen slabs of sheet rock at the hardware store, slung them on the roof of Dave's beater piece of shit car, and drove them to the church we rented. Turns out, there’s a reason you build sets out of stretched canvas over wood frames and not sheet rock. When hung by amateurs, sheet rock likes to fall down and almost land on/kill people.
I learned more about production by doing that than reading a hundred books. All of that for a two night run. I went on to write and/or produce plays with friends (some great people like Kerri Green, Carols Jacott, Noah Baumbach, Will Wood, Lester Lewis and more others than I can count) at college, in Idaho and in New York City.
All in all, I made about negative 500 bucks doing all that.
I got my first job in screenwriting as a result of working at a summer theater as a carpenter. I scummed my way into a writing class that I wasn't supposed to be in and met playwright Jon Robin Baitz. I begged him to read one of my plays. He did, liked it and passed it on to his agent. She informally repped me long enough to get me a gig writing my first screenplay. When I finished it, my friend John Gatins and I got in my car, drove overnight down to LA from San Francisco and, after waiting for the studio to open for 4 hours in a donut shop parking lot) hand delivered the script to a very surprised studio exec.
And after she read it, she expressed her opinion on the work by no longer returning my calls.
Then I wrote another four screenplays that failed to attract any attention. People stopped returning my calls. I found I no longer had an agent by calling my agency and being told, "Oh, Amanda left. She's got a job at Disney now." I was rubbing the sticks together, but couldn’t get even a tiny spark.
And then I did something stupid.
I gave up. I put writing aside. I focused on women and weed and my social life and trying to make ends meet installing computers into homes and businesses (which I sucked at). I dabbled in creativity, sure. I tried to make a board game (under the tutelage of my housemate, the great Neal Sofge). But deep down, I had thrown in the towel. I was no longer Ken Levine, the guy who would stop at nothing.
I was Ken Levine the guy who did half-assed IT work.
And seven years later, when I was closing in on thirty, I got gripped by a kind of panic that I’ll never forget. I realized if I didn’t do something, nobody was going to come along and make my life happen. I wasn’t a special flower.
I had to get to work making my life what I wanted it to be. But how? And then I realized the answer had been sitting in front of me ever since I first dropped a quarter into a Space Invaders machine in 1978.
I was gonna make games. But there was a small problem. I knew NOTHING about games. It was 1995. There was no internet. No twitter. No Facebook. I had never heard of GDC. There was nothing except a few magazines I read religiously either at home when I could afford them or getting the stink eye from the guy who ran the news stand when I couldn’t.
Turns out, one of those mags had a HELP WANTED section. And so I started to apply. I don’t remember what my cover letters said, but I imagine they must have betrayed a small whiff of my desperation, a frisson of SAVE ME FROM FAILURE AND DISAPPOINTMENT.
But I hope they also indicated: GIVE ME A SHOT AND I WILL STOP AT NOTHING TO MAKE IT WORTH YOUR WHILE.
And when finally I got a job at a company called Looking Glass, I was once again the guy who would stop at nothing. I’ll never be able to tell you exactly why they hired me, but once I got in the door, I wanted to learn EVERYTHING about making games. I talked to everyone. I poked my nose in everywhere. I sold myself to people. Uninvited, I wrote design pitches, white papers, story ideas. I sat and waited until my mentor Doug Church would show up at the office, sometimes at 11 pm (he kept his own schedule, and sometimes would disappear only to show up at ungodly hours to work for two days straight) and learn from him. I don’t know if he asked for a disciple, but I did my best to become one.
Doug taught me the power of failure. Of trying ideas, investing heavily in them for days or weeks or months. And then beings strong enough to say, “Is this the best we can do?” Boom. Smash. Months of work in the trash. Best lesson I ever learned.
Looking Glass under the guidance of the brilliant Paul Neurath (who is kickstarting some Looking Glass style goodness at http://www.underworldascendant.com) was where I learned what video game development culture was. It was a guild of great women, men, gay folk, trans folk, furries, elves and lycanthropes. Neckbeards, outcasts, neurotics, anger management cases, freaks, geeks and everything in between all united in a common goal: To stop at nothing to make something great.
Without Looking Glass, without that motley crew of edge cases and outsiders, there is no Underworld, no System Shock, no Irrational Games and I’d venture no Deus Ex, no Stalker, no narrative first person shooters of any kind.
The people who tell you the games industry as a whole will reject talented, hardworking people are lying to you.
I’m sure there are places who will judge you by the color of your skin or what fucking chromosomes you do or don’t have. But I honestly believe that those places are DOOMED TO FAIL in the marketplace. Because if you hire on the basis of anything BUT talent and hard work, how on earth can you possibly compete? Talent can come in any package.
But do not make the mistake thinking that somebody’s going to hand it to you. Because even if somebody does, when all the votes are counted, the CONSUMER is the ultimate judge. Nobody in the history of gaming has ever made something great by osmosis. Behind every Half Life, Minecraft and Uncharted, there are OCEANS of blood, sweat and tears. Ask Gabe, ask Notch, ask Amy.
IF you have talent, passion, and a work ethic, you will find your Looking Glass. You will find your home. It may take a very long time. You may have to kiss a thousand frogs before you find your prince. You will meet assholes and scoundrels. People will lie to you, take credit for your work, stab you in the back. You will fail over and over again. You will get to know that towel very well, the towel you are oh so often ready to throw in.
You will celebrate every tiny victory, because for a long time, those victories will be tiny. And just when you think you’ve won, when you’ve crossed the finish line, when you ship something successful, you’ll realize you’ve just traded in your old problems for a whole set of new ones.
I am the product of every great teacher I’ve ever had. Every person I’ve worked with on every play, movie and game. Of parents who told me the value of hard work.
But most of all, I’m the product of failure. Of getting knocked down and standing up again.
People will stand in your way. If you don’t allow them to stop you, you will FORGET those people. They will become as memorable the guy who sat two rows behind you when you first saw Star Wars.
You will be rejected. You will be belittled. You will wonder “What the fuck am I doing here?”
But if you have the talent and the work ethic, you will never be stopped.
All right, a few small tips to wrap this up:
1) Never ask me: Do you have any jobs open? You are telling them, “I don’t care enough about working at your company to go to your web page.” In fact, never ask somebody you are trying to get a job from ANYTHING that a google search would reveal.
2) Presentation counts. Cover letters should be spell checked. It shows you care and you have a work ethic.
3) You generally don’t need to show up at an interview in a suit or fancy dress. Game companies are universally slob-tastic. Just endeavor to be slightly better dressed than the slobs who work there. We don’t hire on talent, not sartorial skills. However, bad hygiene is probably a deal breaker.
4) Be prepared to THINK in the interview. You will be asked questions that seem to come out of left field, questions you could never prepare for. We want to see how you think on your feet. It’s okay to be wrong. It’s not okay to not have a nimble mind.
5) If you've never done creative work on your own time, nobody is going to hire you to do creative work for them. Get writing, drawing, coding NOW. I don’t care if you don’t have time. I wrote and put on plays when I had crappy day jobs. If you want to find your way out of that crappy day job, invest in yourself.
6) For God’s sake, don’t call me Kevin.