HOW TO: Score a Job in Social Gaming
This article first appeared at www.mashable.com
Everyone likes to play games, especially when those games involve your social circle. “Social gaming” is a relatively new category of video game for a variety of reasons. The explosion of social media sites like Facebook opened the door for independent app creators. What started as simple graffiti programs has grown to include complex, incredibly popular games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars, among others.
Mobile too has seen a lot of recent growth in the social gaming market. While mobile games were once limited by the graphical and processing capabilities of older hardware, smartphones have paved a new way. Now, with the iPhone planning to use the Unreal engine (also used on the Gears of War series), and technology rapidly improving across BlackBerry , Android (and not to mention the iPad), social games have started to increase both in quality and popularity.
While social games are gaining traction, few people know how those games are actually made. Behind every game, from the FarmVilles to the smallest indie creations, is a team of developers, designers and programmers; even if that “team” is just you and your best friend.
Still, social gaming can be a tough market to break into, especially as more and more people move from “traditional” console games to work in the space. To help, we spoke with some industry pros to get some tips on tackling the social gaming job market.
The Easy-Ins and Hard Routes
Of all the roles that contribute to creating a game, some are easier to approach than others. “As with any game development, the easiest jobs to get are the Q/A or testing jobs,” said Shane Satterfield, Editor-in-Chief of GameTrailers.com. “With so many ex-console [developers] moving into the space, competition for higher level jobs are beginning to get fierce, so testing is a good way to get your foot in the door.” Satterfield cautioned against immediately gunning for a game development position as more people have to work for years before becoming a game developer or designer.
A solid engineer, while perhaps not the “sexiest” job, is almost always a welcome member to a team. “We have so many people playing our games,” said Amitt Mahajan, director of engineering at Zynga Games. “We have unique problems when it comes to scaling our servers to handle the millions and millions and people that play our games every day… we’re looking for folks willing to learn and grow with us in scaling servers.” Zynga’s Staffing Director, Florence Thinh emphatically agreed, writing: “Engineers, engineers, engineers! For popular web companies… finding a strong PHP [or] Flash developer is a hot commodity. Also, UI Designers.”
Regardless of what position or foothold you’re looking for, there are basic qualities that social gaming companies look for. Aside from solid skill sets and passion, it’s important to demonstrate flexibility and desire to learn. Social games (in general) have smaller staffs than traditional games where individuals can be responsible for several different roles. Mahajan stressed the importance of a candidate willing to learn and grow with the company and their specific games. “The hiring practices are very similar in that regard,” Mahajan said. “We look for folks that have demonstrated some passion in their spare time and the ability to actually finish those products.”
If you’re interested in games, Mahajan said, there’s no better experience (or way to show an employer) than to start making them yourself. “You actually get live feedback, it’s much easier to learn what you did wrong… to have an idea and follow through with it, that’s a good sign for potential investors and employers.” That drive and passion is mirrored by Thinh. They look for candidates who don’t get discouraged easily, are flexible, ambitious, smart, and creative.
Still, your resume and even your portfolio should genuinely reflect your personality. It’s less important to present yourself as a seasoned professional (if you aren’t) and better to include information and samples that speak to your interests, passions, and skills.
As much as social gaming might seem like, well, “fun and games,” the reality is that developing social games is a lot of hard work. “You have to have an amazing work ethic and you have to be incredibly passionate about it. And by that I don’t mean that you like to play video games,” Satterfield said. “I mean that you like to talk to friends and family about them on a much deeper level and you’re passionate enough about it to get in arguments.” Social games are made on strict deadlines with lots of pressure and long hours, especially at smaller studios. Those conditions also afford room for creativity and real ownership over the final product. It’s a give and take that can be grueling but ultimately beneficial.
Social games are not like console games for both better and for worse. Console games are able to run at faster speeds with better graphics with more complex game environments. But that’s not really the whole story. Social games are able to present features and unique perspectives that large budget console games can’t.
Ultimately, games are about connecting with people, whether you are playing multiplayer or simply sharing stories with friends about that impossible level in Contra. Social games inherently reinforce that joint experience. “It’s like a live service,” Mahajan said, “we worry about the user experience at any given second… the key thing is that we’re a service and not a boxed product.” That ever-changing game experience allows for quick changes and an organic work experience based on feedback and interaction.
We play games to connect, and social games are inherently built to do just that. “The common mistakes games make is they focus too much on the game on not enough on what you’re doing with friends,” Mahajan said. It’s also important to think about whether the game could be played over your morning coffee or in the subway. “Games are meant to fill those gaps you have in your life.”
Satterfield might agree: “It may seem obvious, but I think the best element of social games is being forced to interact with others. The sharing is especially important as it builds a sense of community within the player that motivates them to reciprocate. This is something that flashy console games have yet to really get right.”
Getting a job in social gaming can be tricky but for people willing to pay their dues it can also lead to amazing creative possibilities in a quickly expanding field. As Satterfield concluded: “The first few years can be a grind, but for those who are talented and dedicated enough, it can be incredibly rewarding.”
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