I remember the year I was required to answer that question for myself. It was the year my university “strongly encouraged” me to declare a major, and I picked Biochemistry… even though I wasn’t sure what a biochemist did all day, or whether it would be a good fit for me. Knowing what I know about myself now, two decades later, I have no idea why I picked it. What the hell was I thinking?
I was expected to choose, and so I chose.
When is it too late to press the reset button?
Each year, millions of young people choose. Not because they’re confident in their choice, but because “Ya gotta pick something!” But what if you choose wrong? Once you choose a career path, are you locked into it forever?
What if you graduate with that degree? What if you get that job? What if you even have a successful-but-boring career for the next 5 years? 10 years? Surely it’s too late to change careers if you’re still doing it when you hit your 30th birthday, right?
Wrong! It’s never too late. But to pull it off, you’ll need a strategy.
Strategies for starting over
Starting over in a completely different career like game development isn’t exactly easy, but it’s infinitely less challenging than doing a job you hate for the rest of your life. So if you’ve been thinking about changing your career to get a job in game development, the good news is that it’s never too late.
There are some common strategies for transitioning out of your uninspired career to change to a career in games. One way is to go back to college for a game-related degree or certificate, either full time or just on the evenings and weekends, and then look for jobs once you complete your requirements.
But another way is to simply start doing gamedev-related work as a hobby. Whether it’s programming games, making 3D art and animation, or doing games journalism, your goal is this: Start learning your new craft, and build a portfolio to show to game employers when you start applying for jobs.
Does that sound hard to believe? I assure you, it works. I know many developers who entered the game industry in exactly that way.
One of them is Jason Van Beveren. He worked in his IT career for years, un-happily, right up until the day he had a change of heart. That day, he started changing the course of his life – he started steering it toward a career in game development. Just a few short years later, he’s now working at a game studio as the Head of Player Experience. I hope his story inspires you to act on your own change of heart.
Jason Van Beveren, what was your career before you started considering game development?
At the time I turned 28 years old, I was working in a corporate role for a Fortune 500 company. I was good at my job, but I hated the work. It paid my bills, kept me in a decent middle-class lifestyle, but I wasn’t satisfied by what I did.
I’d wake up and dread going into the office. As time rolled on, I started to fear that the next few decades of my life would be plagued with that level of persistent unhappiness until I reached the blissful retirement age.
When did you realize that you wanted to try something different?
As I started talking with friends about my dilemma, one of them pointed out to me that I had missed my calling. He had seen my passion for the video game industry and never understood why I hadn’t pursued that as a career option because it was such an obvious fit.
To be honest, I didn’t really have a good answer for him.
How did you start learning new skills for a new career in games?
At the time, I was reluctant to jump into a four-year college program out of the gate. I had no idea what the road ahead looked like for me and, if I’m being totally honest, I was scared at the thought of paying $100,000 for a piece of paper that wouldn’t necessarily get me in the door somewhere.
So I started writing an online gaming blog. I had hopes that I’d catch someone’s eye. I also wanted to know if I was any good at it. After all, if you need a quick, mass judgment on whether you’re good at something or not, where else would you turn but the Internet?
How long did it take to get noticed by a game company?
It only took a month before I was noticed by Parris Lilly, who asked me to run a gaming website he was co-managing. It had a huge community behind it, but needed a little editorial love.
That site did so well that we ended up partnering with a few other sites a year later to build one large portal for all of our content. Through that site, we built up an amazing community, with amazing people that I still talk with today.
How did that help you get a job as a Video Game Community Manager?
Writing content and running a site gave me an incredible perspective on Community Management, and how players like to interact with brands. It also afforded me a chance to interact with game developers on behalf on my community.
Those three years of blogging, editing, and running websites also allowed me to refine my own process so that, when I was finally afforded a chance to apply for community management roles, I knew how to talk about effective tactics for building communities, and understood the industry perspective as well.
Did you take a pay cut to switch to your new job in games?
Yes. But when the opportunity came up to take a job in the game industry after working on the blog for three years, I was ecstatic. The financial situation was actually the least of my concerns. I sat down and found places in my life with excess. Did I really need those daily trips to Starbucks? Or cable TV? I trimmed out the fat in my budget and despite a couple of pinch points, it worked out.
Were you ever afraid you’d made the wrong decision?
About a month after I started my Community Manager career, I sat down and looked at my life. I was waking up with a zeal for my job; every day started with an eagerness to get to work. When my friends would ask me about how my job was going, I’d leap into an energetic explanation of how great things were going, and some of the exciting projects I was working on.
Through my entire professional career, no matter how successful I was, I’d never had that kind of enthusiasm for my work. I knew in that moment that I’d made the right decision. I sacrificed a little money, certainly, but at the end of the day, you can’t put a price tag on that kind of passion.
What advice do you have for others thinking about changing to a game career later in life?
Don’t let a misguided belief of “It’s too late” or “I can’t do it” keep you from the video game industry.
When I started, I had a misconception that the only way to be successful in video games was to get hired right out of college, when I was still a young twenty-something. That misconception was quickly cleared up as I had the chance to meet more and more people in the industry.
Work hard, and learn to be amazing at what you do. Your age is just a silly number, it has no bearing on your ability to do amazing things. You have one life to live, and the worst thing you can ever do is get to the end of it and regret never trying.
Is that still a good approach to become a video game community manager?
Yes, with a “but.”
When I started down this path, Community Management as a professional discipline was at a point of relative infancy, and a lot of game studios didn’t have Community Managers as a general rule. While people certainly saw the benefit of talking to their players, it was hard to justify the financials of it unless you were a top-tier, AAA game.
Over the past decade, Community Management has evolved by leaps and bounds. What used to be a grey practice is now deeply refined, and with that refinement comes better practices, tools, and metrics to gauge successes.
If you’re looking at a future in Community Management, take an active leadership role in a community starting right now. Learn how to lead, how to talk with your fellow players/fans, and get some experience. Meet other CMs and learn to refine your craft.
There’s still space to get noticed if you’re a good leader, even without education. Just a few months ago, Bungie hired one of the founders of the Destiny subreddit to be their new Community Manager.
If you were doing it again today, what would you do differently?
If I had to do this all again today, I’d still consider writing, but would quickly supplement that with a full education path. Thanks to the evolution of the Community Management role, there are now a bevy of subject matter experts that can share their knowledge and experience. They can empower you, and show you what to do.
If you’re looking at something outside of Community Management, education is still important, but don’t just sit and read books for four years. Start drawing, prototyping, and getting the practical experience now. Don’t wait for the piece of paper.
It’s your life
Jason Van Beveren’s story is not entirely unique. In my years working at game studios, I’ve met ex-accountants, ex-marketers, ex-teachers, ex-salesmen, and ex-biologists. The game industry is no longer a “new” industry, but it’s still largely meritocratic: if you can do the work, you can get the job.
And with all the resources available for you to learn game development, you’re quickly running out of excuses. Start learning now, and before long you might just have your dream job – getting paid to make games. What are you waiting for?
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Thanks to Jason Van Beveren for sharing his experiences! You can connect with Jason via his LinkedIn profile. If you liked this article, please share it with friends.