If someone offered you a million dollars to do nothing but apply for jobs for the rest of your life, would you do it?
I’m talking about writing and rewriting your resume, trawling job boards, filling out applications, hearing nothing…and then doing it again and again. For weeks, months, years. Decades, even.
(The catch to this deal is that you would never actually get a job; you’d only apply and get rejected.)
Would you say yes to this offer right away? Or would you have to stop and think about it?
I mean sure, a million dollars is a lot of money…but applying for jobs REALLY sucks.
And yet this is how most people go about finding their next opportunity. They surf job boards, write resumes, apply apply apply…and then they hear No (or worse, crickets) and the whole process starts over again.
(And nobody is paying them a million dollars to go through this torture, either.)
It’s hard. I know. I’ve been there myself. And I’ve watched my writing students struggle with this exact same problem.
But guess what: several of the people from my masterclass have gone on to land jobs writing for games.
One is working on an indie title; one is working on a VR project; and another one has landed his dream job at a new studio.YASSS
They’ve all been chasing this dream for years, and now it’s coming true. They made it happen. Yes there was hard work involved - but they also took a different approach to landing these jobs. And it worked.
But before we jump to the solution, we’ve got to understand the problem. So first let’s talk about the painful, ineffective way that most people approach their job search.
Here there be dragons
This advice comes straight from one of the best career books I’ve ever read: Pathfinder by Nicholas Lore. In it, he writes:
“Most of us seek to enter a new field in the least effective way possible. It goes something like this: you, resume in hand, bow and scrape before the dragon - AKA the HR department - that is guarding the door into your new field.”
That’s right, he said dragon. But why?
Because the HR department is very motivated to breathe fire and say NO WAY to applicants. And that’s because, as the author writes,
“HR is part of the administrative function, usually one of the most risk-averse parts of any organization.”
That’s right: the dragon is a scaredy-cat. If they hire someone, and that person turns out to be a bad fit, HR gets in big trouble. But if they don’t hire anyone, well, then their only problem is an open job position - which is a better problem to have, from their point of view.
Dragons like to hold out for the unicorn applicant - the perfect person who may or may not even exist.
(I bet you’ve seen job listings were you thought: “Who would ever qualify for this?” The answer might very well be “Nobody” but dragons are prone to magical thinking and an unhealthy obsession with unicorns.)
Plus - and this is especially true for creative fields like writing - HR is not always the best judge of applicants. Unless they are trained writers themselves, they may not know what to look for. And that means they may reject an application before it ever reaches the Narrative Director or other team lead, who might actually get incredibly excited about what you have to offer.
It’s pretty clear the usual way of applying just doesn’t work.
And here’s why:
Because it rarely, if ever, puts you in the Sphere of Agreement.
What the deuce is the sphere of agreement, you ask? It’s a place were everyone there agrees that yes, you belong there.
You already have many spheres of agreement in your life. Your friends agree you belong with them. Your university decided that you are in their sphere when they sent you that glorious acceptance letter. Your soccer team, your improv group, your pals on your Discord server agree you are one of them. Your pets DEFINITELY agree that you belong right there with them, snuggling on the couch.
Seems like it would be a lot smarter to skip the dragon and just find the people who would welcome you into that magic sphere.
So why don’t we just do that?
Partly because the system tells us that the way you get jobs is by applying for jobs. Studios continue to post job listings, even though 75% of all jobs are never listed. So people keep applying, thinking “I guess this is how it works.” And then it doesn’t work. And then people blame themselves. It’s not you; it’s the system, which is broken.
And let’s be honest: online applications feel a lot safer than real-life interactions with people. With online applications, we can just click Send. No nerve-wracking conversations with strangers, no awkward social moments. We’re solidly in our comfort zone…but that's not where we need to be if we want our life to change.
There’s a better way. The good news is that this approach knocks the dragon down to size. The bad news is that it means getting out of your comfort zone, which requires courage.
But you’ve done scary things before, I bet: you can do this, too.
Play the numbers game - with people
The author writes,
“Presenting yourself in the best possible light takes a lot more than the right clothes and a great resume. Your success in the job search depends on the two axes of this chart.”
Say hello to a janky iPhone photo of a useful chart:
X axis is the number of transactions ( = efforts to get a job, like a conversation, an application, an interview, and so on). A job search is a number game. The more transactions you have, the better your chances.
That's the quality of transactions. The higher up the graph you go, you closer you are to people who can hire you, will help you or can recommend you as an exceptional candidate.
Look at the top of the graph. “Your brother owns the company and idolizes you.” Here, you've got everything going for you. How many transactions (conversations) do you think you’d have to have with your brother before you got the job? I’m guessing One. Because you are 1000000% in his sphere of agreement. He agrees that Yes, you are the greatest and he'd love to work with you.
Now look at the bottom of the graph. Not the very bottom, but close to it. “High-quality marketing effort, including research, excellent resume, and letter directed to the appropriate person.” How many transactions will it take to get that strategy to work? About 100, looks like.
Would you rather take 100 swings? Or one?
How to play the Sphere of Agreement game
Ready to play? Let's read the rules, straight from the author.
Be what you want to do. The first step to taking on a new role is to decide it's what you are now doing. If you are a junior writer at your studio, and you're ready to become a senior writer, then decide that's what you are. If you're a screenwriter who wants to become a game writer, just decide. Want to break in? In your mind, tell yourself that you already have. Declare yourself a pro, and then absorb everything you can about the role, so that you know it as well as a pro. Whatever a working game writer does, that's what you do now, too. (You are a creative person; one of your many superpowers is that you have a vivid imagination. Put it to work on your behalf. Can you see yourself in your new role? I bet you can.)
Study your new field. Read books on writing and game design. Watch the YouTube videos and LudoNarraCon and WGGB talks on game writing. Check out the GDC Vault. Learn everything you can - from working professionals, whenever possible.
Attend conventions. We'll save this one for post-COVID, but someday in-person conventions will be back. I'll see you there. In the meantime, follow game writers on Twitter. Use Discord. Hang out where they hang out, online and offline.
Create a network of supporters in the field. This is key. Top priority. This strategy is a big reason why my students found work in the industry. It can be done, even if you're new. The book goes into a lot of detail on how to make this happen.
Do projects that place you inside the sphere. When opportunity knocks, you want to be ready. Build a Twine game. Write an analysis of a game's narrative. Write fan fiction! Build out your portfolio. People need to know that you can write well and that you understand how stories work in games. Portfolio pieces show that Yes you can and Yes you do.
This is the high-level walkthrough of how to make this happen. There are clearly many details missing. But now you have a roadmap. You can see how to get from here to there. All you have to do now is take that first step outside the Shire.
If a game-writing career is calling to you, you can absolutely make it happen.
Don’t let the dragons get you down.
See you next week, when we launch our three-part series on what game studios look for in writers. If you've ever wanted to find out what creative directors and story leads REALLY think, this is your chance to find out!
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.