The ugly truth I don’t have the heart to share with most aspiring game developers
I realized I passed a pretty depressing anniversary recently. It’s been 20 years since the first time I applied to work for a game studio. Two decades.
I remember the first one better than most. I was 18 and working my way through college at ITT Tech when I learned Greater St. Louis had one real game studio that was doing well for itself: PopTop Software in Fenton, Missouri, known for the Railroad Tycoon and Tropico series.
Looking back, I don’t even recall whether they were actually hiring. That’s how young and full of hope I was. With the greatest enthusiasm I put together what I’m sure was the worst unsolicited studio application in history. In the cover letter I described the software development degree program I was still in the process of completing and proceeded to attach photos of primitive 3D models I’d made. I think I even said I was looking for work in basically any position they’d consider giving me.
If you can believe it, I never heard back.
That’s probably okay because within a year or so, Sid Meier’s Firaxis had rolled through town and absorbed PopTop and its operations into their home base in Maryland. St. Louis was down to zero for a long time.
With no options but to take a local commercial software job outside the game industry or relocate somewhere without any prospects, I settled down in town and did development work I didn’t really care about. I learned quickly and performed well. In my free time, I frequently did game jams with buddies from college, and soon, we were pretty good at that too. Before long, I was a much better bet for an industry software job.
It didn’t matter. There was nowhere to work locally as the months turned into years. North America’s development hotspots had plenty of competition–including many people who took the option to relocate and hope for the best–so no one needed me for much of anything.
I got my own place. I advanced in my career. I got married. Suddenly, 15 years of my life had gone by. I was still a hobbyist.
When my son was born, I went independent, taking contract software jobs and starting my freelance writing days. I got proficient in Unity and made small games for Upwork clients. It was game development for trace amounts of cash, but not in a way that anyone respected–me least of all.
This was when I started trying harder than ever to break into the industry. Early out of college, I worked at one of the Midwest’s rare tech startups with a guy who went on to cofound PixelPress, a product that allowed kids to make games while playing with real physical toys. I loved the concept, and on one of our occasional check-ins, he eagerly invited me to come in to interview.
Needless to say, I was over the moon. I was living in downtown St. Louis at this point, and their office was within walking distance. The first interview felt like a dream. It was actually something I’d dreamed about many times. It had the vibe of a small formality between friends who were excited to work together. They said they wanted to bring me in one more time to discuss details and spoke very suggestively about the likelihood that I’d get the job.
I was literally straightening my tie for the last interview when they reached out to say the funding for my position didn’t come through after all. I was out. The whole job was out.
I believe my friend and former manager felt bad. We spoke on occasion after, and I tried not to sound as bitter as I was. I’d wanted it too much.
He had his team bring me in again years later, and a similar story unfolded. This time a whole small development team sat around a conference table. We talked about all our mutual contacts in the area, local events, and they expressed great enthusiasm as I described an indie game I was working on in my spare time.
Then nothing. I reached out to my friend one more time, and another member of his team responded to say the position had been filled.
That was the best, *closest* shot I’d had in St. Louis. The worst that springs to memory was when I’d applied to Graphite Labs. I’d received an error message in response from their email server which I brought to their attention and even helped them troubleshoot before they ghosted me.
When I put out my first indie game and mentioned it in the Facebook group for St. Louis’ game dev co-op, a leader of the group asked why I hadn’t added a splash screen that said the game was made in St. Louis. I couldn’t help but laugh.
Not that things have gone any better elsewhere.
It may or may not be a mystery that I started this website, my podcast, GameDev Breakdown, and my industry freelance writing trying to ingratiate myself with someone, anyone, who would take a chance on me. That was all seven good years ago now, and it’s never been close. Nearly 3,000 community contacts on Twitter, and the same people who will joke around and engage with my Tweets were happy to leave me on read or brush me off when they had a job to fill.
Ubisoft recently let me know they enjoyed getting to know me during the interview process, and I was a particularly stand-out applicant, but I was not what they considered intern material.
They had not granted me an interview.
After that, I swore the whole thing off. Declared to myself and anyone around me who would listen that I was going indie ’til I die. The constant low-key heartbreak had gone on for too long. I could enjoy being me, running my mouth around the web and working on whatever I wanted. It wasn’t what I wanted of course, never was, but it was mine.
Enter PlayStack. I wasn’t familiar with them, but they’ve published some very successful titles as of late, and many folks I’ve spoken with have high opinions of the company and its staff. I was minding my business early one morning when a LinkedIn notification went off on my phone. Usually that means almost nothing. Someone I know knows someone who posted an article or something. This was a message, though, and a real one from a producer at PlayStack on August 23rd.
“Hey Todd! We have a game build in Love2D that we would like to port to consoles. Would you be interested in helping with the project?”
I think it’s safe to say this was because Love2D is a rather obscure framework by comparison to most others, and I’m one of relatively few people who have shipped a game with it on Android and iOS.
I responded less than 60 seconds later.
“Thanks for reaching out. How cool that you have a Love2D project to work with! I know that’s a bit less common, but I really enjoyed working with it in the past. Consider me interested in learning more!”
We never spoke again.
This was in the heat of Gamescom time, so I waited a day and tried following up again.
“I’m sure things are busy due to Gamescom, just wanted to add that I’m happy to chat here or at <email address> if it’s more convenient. Looking forward to hearing what your team is up to.
I waited most of a week and followed up at the studio’s “jobs” email address. I won’t post the whole thing here, but I explained who I was, what had happened, and expressed interest again in hearing about what was going on and how I might be able to help.
Nothing again. Nothing to this day. I enjoyed CEO Harvey Elliott’s quote a few days ago in 80LV:
“At Playstack, our commitment has always been to stand alongside developers as a trusted ally…”
I never asked for any of this. They came to me, and now no one even had the decency to say “Hey, sorry, we reached out too early, and this won’t work out after all.” Now it’s just another story from two months ago.
I share all this for a lot of reasons. I’m an adult now with loads of professional experience in development, light management, running an LLC, etc., and I’m proud to say I don’t treat others this way. Professionalism in this industry seems practically nonexistent. It’s really stunning. The moment I step outside the industry, everyone is thrilled to give me a shot and polite about it when something doesn’t move forward. Once games are on the table, no one feels obligated to be human anymore.
I’m angry about it all. I don’t mind saying it. I’ve given this industry everything I have, and I’ve had to pass it all through an open window because no one would open the door. More than just for me, I’m mad that the same people are going to do this without another thought to more young people every year. The ones who do make it into the industry will make major life decisions over it, and we all know very few of those decisions will pay off.
Finally, I say it because I know it’s not going to change. An exec recently left Netflix to found Midwest Games up in Wisconsin. Everyone celebrated the second coming of the industry to the Midwest. I’ve already asked them where to send my information as they grow the team. They’ve already not responded.
My options remain: kick ass as an indie if such a thing is still even possible in a marketplace increasingly tainted by generative AI garbage and big-budget teams pretending to work out of a spare bedroom, or I could one day divert success elsewhere into launching a studio or a small publisher of my own.
But neither of those would really count, would they?
Now, when I see someone upset on social because they sent out one round of applications and haven’t heard back yet, I shake my head and stay quiet. The truth is too upsetting, and I can’t take on their burden too.
Todd Mitchell is a US Midwest-based comedy writer and game developer with bylines at Weekly Humorist, Fanbyte, Slackjaw, End of the Bench Sports, and more. He’s the author of Inside Video Game Creation, the founder of CodeWritePlay, and host of the GameDev Breakdown podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mechatodzilla.