This article was originally posted on gamasutra.com in 1999
This past June I drove from Ohio to California, I had scored an internship with Electronic Arts. For three months, I worked on a new Playstation game, my first game development job. During the drive back, I had plenty of time to think over just how great my summer was. My childhood dream of entering the game industry had finally come true. It was confirmed; game programming is definitely my thing.
This is an article about internships in the game industry. It's for those of you who haven't had an internship yet and for those of you planning to hire interns.
First, I'll rattle on about the specifics of my summer, what was it like working at Electronic Arts and what the interns did. Then, for both prospective interns and companies I'll discuss Motivations, Where to Begin, Getting Hired, and outline an Ideal Internship.
The large Electronic Arts buildings in Redwood City really impressed my ex-girlfriend. I gave her a tour to show off the art on the walls, the video game machines, the nine foot tall Future Cop mech, the free espresso, the volleyball/tennis/basketball courts, the health center, and the sports bar. I then proceeded to drink on the job; it was the weekly T.G.I.F. party.
I worked, too. I programmed for Nascar Rumble, a game scheduled to be released this coming Spring. My code produces the graphics for some of the power-ups in the game. All it took was some creativity, programming, and comfort with 3D-vector math. OK, It wasn't really that easy. Although I enjoyed it, programming on a game is not the same as playing a game.
My first two weeks were spent programming an in game tool. During that time I had a crash course in the layout of the codebase for the game. Once I got approval to start working on the power up graphics, it took another two weeks until I had some initial prototype effects working. Throw in another month for the full development of my first 'real' effect, and the summer is already two-thirds over! The last month I spent cranking out another five effects.
Why did it take so long to be productive? It's called a learning curve; the beginning is difficult. I spent the majority of my time figuring out how to work in a strange codebase. There's no documentation, and good examples can be hard to come by (they are too specialized or optimized). But once I had working code that was familiar to me, I could modify it for many other uses.
I was not a lonely intern, however. There were 20 other interns working in art, programming, sound, and marketing positions. Other programmers worked on things like: developing a new display algorithm for a Playstation 2 game, animation control, special effects graphics, bug fixing, and tools. Artists produced textures and models to be used in games, as well as cleaned up and reformatted existing work.
We did more than just work, however. Once a week we gathered for lunch and a discussion about various positions in the entertainment industry. Speakers came to tell us about what it's like to be an artist, programmer, producer, marketer, and so on. We also had discussions with EA's COO John Ricotello, and the company's CEO, Larry Probst. We also held regular events such as game tournaments, baseball game outings, barbecues, and go-kart races.
At the end of our internship we reviewed our experience, were reviewed ourselves, and received some free games. The feedback from our managers was helpful; it let us know what we did well and what to improve. All the interns I heard from were pleased with the summer.
It isn't too difficult to understand why a student would like an internship. Most students take the summer off, and work of some sort is a good idea. The types of jobs one can get are slightly limited, however. There is only three months time before you know you will be leaving and you likely don't have much training. So, get a job at McDonalds, or at a restaurant bussing tables. Or, get an internship. There you get to sit at a desk, get paid more, and gain valuable experience.
Experience comes in a few flavors. First, you'll likely learn something useful about the type of work you're going to school for. Second, you'll be exposed to office life - the rituals, the restrictions, and the amount of time you do things other than 'work'. And third, you'll have work experience worth putting on a resume. If you decide to take a job in another city, you get bonus experience: that of living someplace new. And, as Reznor said, "There's nothing quite like the feel of something new."
But what of the other side, why should anyone hire an intern? Marc Wilhelm, art intern for Road Rash: Breakout, claims that "it lets companies recruit America's best and brightest and yank them right out of school before they get a taste for other companies." Which, in essence, is true. An internship is an excellent trial run for a potential future employee. During the internship the student can be assessed, trained, and motivated. By the end of the summer the company will feel familiar, and chances of return are high. As an employer this is an excellent way to attract fresh talent.
Students can get work done too, and they're cheap. Interns can work on real problems that might be mostly time consuming for fulltime employees. Although it may take the intern longer, it will still leave others to focus their time on harder and more critical issues.
It's fall quarter, back to school. Employment for next summer is the least concern of the student, right? Not for one who's serious about looking for a good job. Fall is an excellent time to start researching possible internships, making contacts, and setting up interviews.
For the employers, this means that things need to be prepared. A full program need not be set up, but someone should be able to respond to inquiries. A plan for when you will be interviewing / accepting / notifying is required. A clear example of how not to do this is Industrial Light and Magic's plan. Last year they stated: "Applicants who are selected for the program will be notified approximately two weeks before the start of the session." Obviously anyone serious about getting a summer job requires a few months notice. Not only to make plans, but to consider other jobs in case any other does not work out. Most acceptance/notification times are in the months of March and April.
These dates can not be too rigid, however. Requiring a student to commit too early will cause them to stall while waiting for other opportunities. Delay too long and they might accept a job offered earlier. To balance these opposing forces many companies are flexible, extending earlier offers to preferred candidates. In my experience, acceptance deadlines have been from two days to six months. But most have been a few weeks.
The game industry is rather difficult, however, for a hopeful intern. There are not many companies publicly offering positions. Last year I decided to focus on procuring a game development internship. I contacted thirty companies, was completely ignored by half, politely declined by most others, and had a few good chances left over.
The companies I did contact were all common names that I looked up on the Internet. Spending ten minutes in an arcade with a pencil and paper provides many big names, but these were mostly the companies that ignored me. The smaller developers are often better candidates, but it takes some work to get their names. Digging through the credits of the games you've enjoyed is a good place to find those names.
One of the best routes to a game job is through networking. Do you know anyone working on games, and if not, can you introduce yourself to anyone? Conferences are an excellent place to start, but they may seem out of reach for many students. You can also try finding alumni of your school who work in the industry. The Internet isn't a bad place to make friends either. Find someone working on games, email them and compliment them. Get a conversation started, and somewhere along the line mention that you love games and are looking for a job.
Electronic Arts had a formal application process. I wrote a few short essays answering questions and packaged in some sample code, examples of work, and my resume. Other companies I simply sent a resume to with a short letter expressing my interests. One company gave me a list of quiz programs to write, and a deadline to meet.
These all boil down to a couple components. The companies need to be shown that you are motivated and have potential. To show motivation means that just sending a resume isn't enough. But be sure to prepare one. List your abilities, past work, and education. These all help to show your potential. Motivation can be slightly more difficult to show. Start with a short letter, explaining what position you are looking for and why.
So, now after contacting everyone you can think of, you have a company or two willing to talk. Be patient, but persistent. It may take some time for things to move along at the company, but this is why you started in the fall. You should have a long-term schedule, based on knowing when companies will be interviewing.
Interviews are often made in person or over the telephone. This is a company's opportunity to further explore the motivations and potential of the student. It's also a time for the student to ask questions about the company, and potential positions there. In engineering interviews, I've worn a suit, sat up straight, and hated it. My experience interviewing in the game industry has been far from that. In these interviews, both parties need to confirm that employment would be of mutual benefit. That can be done in a casual manner. Students, keep in mind that it is an important meeting; take time to organize your thoughts beforehand and act maturely.
The employer should have job related issues under control. They will have a pay-rate determined which fits their budget and which they feel suits the student. Bartering for a higher rate is bad etiquette, or so I hear. Beyond an hourly pay rate, there may be subsidized traveling or living expenses. These issues are usually not addressed until after the decision to hire the student has been made. Students should wait until and offer has been made before inquiring into these matters.
And now I will preach about what makes an internship ideal. These are things which as a student you may expect to see, and as an employer you may consider offering.
Moving expenses - Students generally have little income to begin with, so helping to relocate them to the internship is very common. Return trip expenses are also often offered.
Living location & expenses - Moving to a new area can be difficult, especially when one is planning to stay only a short time. It is very helpful if the company can assist with locating a place to stay. Some companies work out specific arrangements for groups of interns at one location. This is a great way to get interns to bond, which is happy. In another approach, full time employees may rent out rooms for interns. This method often works out very well, as it doesn't require the student to set up utilities, sign a lease, and so on. The company should provide at least some information on living options in the area. For the same reasons that moving expenses are often subsidized, so are living.
Work - Possible projects should be determined before the intern arrives. The internship is only there for a short time, and as I mentioned earlier it often takes a while to get a project completed. The intern should have something they can start focusing on, and attempt to accomplish. Project topics should be discussed with the intern and team members for a best fit. A designated team member should available to help the intern on the topic s/he is working on. They should both have the time and control / knowledge of the project.
Networking - The intern should get a chance to meet the other employees. First day introductions are great, and the intern will promptly forget everyone s/he met. Throughout the course of the internship the intern should be able to meet people, talk with them, and make friends. This is often helped by having a mentor program - an employee takes on the job of showing the intern around. If possible, this mentor should be from another team. That allows the intern to learn more, and ask questions without feeling intimidated.
Fun - Internships are more than work. Hey, if you're working at a game company play some games! Other activities are great to plan, too. If the intern has moved to a new area, they likely will not have a group of people to go out with. Inviting them to out of work fun helps to make them feel a little more at home. That mentor can come in handy here, and the company providing a little cash to play with helps.
Information - Interns gain a lot by learning how a company works. EA's weekly meetings with speakers are an excellent example of how to do this. Letting the intern sit in on meetings is another option.
Feedback - It's critical to let an intern know how s/he is doing. The internship is an incredible chance to grow. That can be done best if an intern knows what s/he has been doing right, and what s/he needs to concentrate on to improve. In a similar manner, the intern needs to evaluate the internship.
Don't expect all of these things perfectly fulfilled in any internship. But, a healthy mix will help provide a good experience. I hope my ramblings have helped a bit. Perhaps I've motivated you to consider an internship, or to offer one. Maybe you're just avoiding getting work done. Regardless, I've thoroughly enjoyed the summer job's I've had, and grown a lot because of them. Oh, and if you're an employer, I'm graduating this summer...
[in 1999] Vincent Scheib is in his fourth and final year at The Ohio State University, finishing a degree in Computer Science Engineering. He tends to use his abilities towards aesthetically pleasing ends. Examples, and a glimpse of his distinctive feng shui, can be found at http://www.scheib.net/