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Newbie Advice: Finding Internships

February 8, 2008

If there were a list of the most popular questions I’m asked, “Do you know about any internships?” is one of them, and it’s certainly in the top 5 this time of year. Those who ask it are often unprepared to actually apply for an internship, however.

Before considering an internship, students should have several things ready to go.

A portfolio and a resume

For some, this comes as a surprise. If you’re just looking for an internship, why would you need a portfolio? Because otherwise, it’s just your word that you’re able to do this particular task. If they don’t know you, your word means nothing, and it means less than nothing when they match it against the portfolio of another internship candidate. Remember that there are a lot of college graduates and other individuals applying for these internships, too. The game industry is competitive, and people want in any way they can get in. If you want in for these positions, you have to work for them. Don’t have a portfolio? Get one. Also, consider that you might not be ready for an internship.

Finances

Know what you’re willing to work for – nothing, minimum wage or a decent salary (and good luck with the latter). Many people would be gladly willing to pay for the opportunity to work alongside professional game developers.

Internships come with a cost – to you and to the company that provides you an internship. The benefits are amazing, though. First it gains you actual industry experience. This experience puts you into a whole other pile of resumes when it comes time to look for a job post college. Secondly, internships will teach you more about the game industry than any class offered in any college. While I can tell my students every single fact of my existence in the game industry, I am, in essence, just relating to them a story. Experiencing it is another thing.

Where you’re willing to work.

Since you may be working for free or for little money, where you’re able to work is important. Very few of us could afford to work for free. However, if you have relatives in a town that also houses a development company or if you get an internship with a company that actually houses its interns, so much the better. The latter option is pretty rare, though. Consider potential locations where you’re able to work ahead of time. Gamedevmap.com is a great resource.

What it is you want to do.

“Anything” isn’t a valid answer unless your portfolio shows that you can actually do “anything.” Instead, tailor your portfolio to the job you’re after, and ideally, make that a job you want to do after you graduate college.

Know the answers.

But why aren’t there more internships if people are willing to work for free?

Because it’s not even close to free for the game developers. There are tremendous time costs associated with internships, particularly in companies that don’t already have some kind of internship program set up. Many developers don’t. There’s time killed in the interviews, in HR, by the person who sets up the space to put you, the IT guy who has to get your machine all set up, getting you acquainted with the way things run and getting you acquainted with the game in development. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll have a lot of questions and those questions take time away from people whose time is very, very expensive. Best of all, even if you work out wonderfully, you’re planning to leave them when school starts again. So, they could actually be training you for some other employer. It’s not exactly a win-win scenario.

Why aren’t there more internships advertised?

Supply and demand: For every internship available, there are 4,000.5 students available to fill it. No one needs to send me an email asking me if I know of any designers, artists, programmers, etc. that are interested in an internship. There are a flood of such people trying to get in.

What’s the easiest way to get an internship, then?

Three things come to mind:

  1. Be an outstanding student. If you have a professor that also works in the industry, odds are she has a lot of contacts who have said to her, “Listen, let me know if you have any kids that are able to…”. Connections are everything, and those students that are true rockstars get the bread and the butter.
  2. Be disciplined. Act like you’re already in a job while you’re in academia. If you’re not acting disciplined in class (i.e. handing in stuff late, coming to class late or not at all), think about the broader ramifications. “Hey, industry friend. I have this student who doesn’t show up, and turns in his assignments when he feels like it, and I’m willing to risk my credibility with you on a bet that he will be different when he’s in your care.” Not so much… When industry profs recommend students, it’s their professional ability to judge talent on the line. Make sure you’re worth that bet.
  3. Network. Most internships aren’t advertised. People get in through people they know.
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    11 Comments leave one →
    1. February 8, 2008 11:26 pm

      Considering my recent effort, this couldn’t be farther from the truth:

      3. Network. *Most internships aren’t advertised*. People get in through people they know.

      Thanks for writing this up. This was just what I was wishing for. 🙂

    2. February 9, 2008 7:31 am

      @David – do you mean that most internships are advertised? In my experience, it’s been a case of companies making room for particular people for summer jobs. I think the jobs would all be filled by a friend of a friend before they’d ever need to advertise them.

    3. February 9, 2008 2:33 pm

      The old saying ”it’s who you know and not what you know” is almost true for just about any industry. I think it is a trust issue. People can trust the word of someone who has proven themselves and take their word if they recommend someone else for a position.

      At the moment I would definitely consider an internship if it kept me alive for now. Making your first leap into the games industry for a reclusive highly creative artist/designer has reminded me and my friends of another adage about writers (or artists) submitting their work thousands of times before they get their big break.

    4. February 9, 2008 8:33 pm

      @JB: in the case of the game industry I think the old saying should be modified: “It’s BOTH who you know AND what you know.” Someone with mediocre skills will have a difficult time landing and keeping a job, no matter how well they network.

    5. February 10, 2008 4:42 am

      True enough about the talent aspect as well. Although there have been a few people I know that have got work based solely on their people skills and ability to make it seem like they know what they’re talking about.

    6. gmunster permalink
      February 10, 2008 11:54 am

      Yeah I know I’m not ready for an internship right now, seeing as that I’m just learning everything, but I always wonder if I’ll just know when I am ready. When will I know that my work is just that good? Say I’m a modeler. I create a model and am so proud of it. What are most companies looking for now? Realism? Lots of details to where its a wonder how one person did it? Just how awesome is the texture? These are things that kind of roll around in my head when I think about putting together a portfolio of sorts.

    7. February 10, 2008 12:55 pm

      @gmunster: I think you’ll know as you become more familiar with the industry. I think a great quality bar to look at is the IGF Student Showcase — not as what the industry expects of every student, but as the top of the top. If you can work on a team to create a game with quality equal to the last few years’ IGF entries, you know you’re on the right track.

      As for whether companies are looking for realism or detail or what not, I don’t think there’s a single skill or style to look for. Some companies are looking for someone to do something specific (like, if they’re hiring a texture artist, make sure you’ve got some great textures in your portfolio… but if they’re hiring a rigger, then textures aren’t quite as important for that position, obviously). But I think most are looking for general skills that transfer well from project to project. A great starting point I send future artists to is this (long) discussion thread:
      http://conceptart.org/forums/showthread.php?t=76898&page=1

    8. February 11, 2008 7:25 pm

      Internships are invaluable in this industry for students, great way to get some working experience and make some connections, and potentially have a shipped title before you graduate. I got an internship at Glu Mobile while in my senior year of school, one of my design instructors had a contact there that asked about his students and their interest in an internship. He recommended a few people; I interviewed and got the position.

      If the chance to take an internship arises, don’t pass it up! It also doesn’t hurt to send emails to companies asking about internships, worst they can do is not reply back or say no.

    9. February 13, 2008 6:32 pm

      Just for the record; Brenda, I mistyped what I was trying to say, sorry.

      It has been quite a challenge to find internships from what I have found in the past few months. Not that any challenge is a bad one, but Many, and I mean, MANY, companies say nothing about them, publicly, on their website. There are a few that have, but not many. You’re right. If I were a hiring manager, I would definitely seek from my own base of employees to find somebody first. But I’d also be on the lookout for people who have the initiative to come to me without me even asking.

      Knowing that, I’ve thrown e-mails to companies anyway. Just for the sake of, “Hey, here I am! Check me out, or at least throw me in your database!”

    10. Shawn permalink
      May 26, 2011 12:34 pm

      I am just about to start college next year and plan on going into the game design business as either a coder,graphic’s designer, or a tester. I have had a small amount of experience in c++ programming,visual graphic’s design, and LOVE playing the games myself. I have to do a senior project and have to find a mentor who presumably knows as much about game design as the workers for a game design company. In my area there are not many game design companies sprouting, so what would one suggest I do? I need 5 hours of mentor training this summer and 20 hours mentor training during next year but I am not sure what I should do. ie: I have to make a game from scratch;sign many pieces of paperwork; write an 8-15 page report; give a presentation. All of this has to be completed with a mentor. Any suggestions? (Lafayette,LA)

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