Do You Need Art School?

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I have an unusual profession. When I tell people that I’m a narrative designer for video games, people usually have one of these responses:

“What does ‘narrative designer’ mean?” Basically, I’m a writer and game designer hybrid person.

“Do games even have stories?” Yes. Games have gotten more sophisticated since BurgerTime.

“That must be fun!” Yes! Well, depending!

“Have you written any games I’ve played?” My games have been played by millions of people around the world. No.

“That’s what my son wants to do.” Neat, I have surpassed you in the eyes of your child!

I’ve been a narrative designer and game writer for over 15 years, so I’ve been around the question block, so to speak. I also have experience writing books, comics, tabletop games, audio fiction, interactive toys, and a little bit of movies and TV. So I know about the art and business of writing and I’m happy to share.

In my first Equip Story newsletter, I asked if you have questions for me. It turns out, you did have questions – and luckily for me, I have answers to those questions! Yes, it’s all going according to plan. *Rubs Hands Menacingly* But let me say up front that I’m not a career counselor or a life coach or someone who makes a lot of money telling people what to do with their lives. This advice is from my own perspective. Results may vary!

Luke asks, “If you already went to college for a degree so you could get a responsible job that isn’t really creatively fulfilling, is there a way to build the experience to get more creative work that pays?”

A college diploma is useful in life. For example, let’s say you have an empty 8.5 x 11 inch frame in your closet. You could let it gather dust on the floor, or you could spend $150,000 and fill it with a piece of paper that has bits of gold leaf on it. (Another option for the frame: a ham radio license for $35. Be the hit of your next outdated technology party!)

Your question implies that going to an art college is a prime way to create the portfolio needed to achieve paid creative work. I had the privilege of going to art school, and in my experience, the student films and scripts I wrote specifically for classes weren’t my gateway into the entertainment bizzz. They were useful exercises and I learned a lot from them. But it was the projects I took on outside of official coursework that directly benefitted my career.

I went to Emerson College in Boston for a degree in Media Arts. On first blush, you might think that I was throwing money away. Well, joke’s on you, because the money was transferred, not thrown. Also, I did make a profit on my education in the long run to the surprise of my grandfather’s ghost. Not because an Emerson degree is a prestigious calling card into the world of Hollywood. The degree qualified me for the sweatiest, worst paying grunt work a film set has to offer. The reason I made money was because of who I met while I was there.

At Emerson, the student body was very ambitious. We worked on projects together all the time outside of class. In my four years there, I wrote, produced, and directed amateur TV shows, a series of internet shorts before YouTube was a thing, and live sketch comedy shows, all with volunteer actors and crews. We were excited students! We were young, dumb, and full of commitment to excellence in media arts. We stayed up late, powered by Boston’s greasiest calzones, filming timeless short films about what would happen if a portable MP3 player became haunted and killed teenagers.

The outside projects and writing were the ones I showed prospective clients in my early years, not my class assignments. Those projects filled out my portfolio, until I replaced them with even more indie projects – and eventually, paid client work – that I would make when I moved to Los Angeles.

More importantly, I made a lot of lifelong friends working on those projects. Those friends got me jobs throughout my salad years. (Or, more accurately, my “Denny’s chicken fingers” years.) My college friend Asterios worked as a copywriter at an ad agency. When they needed to hire up, he got me in the door. When I got a job working as a writer for a flash animation website, I recommended my college friend Joan. We regularly helped each other out. Not just because we were friends, but because we’d already been in the trenches together and knew we could count on each other to get the job done.

“Okay, that’s enough reminiscing, college boy. How do you get the experience necessary to get paid creative work if you didn’t defy your father’s wishes by going to art school?”

First, I would say that you don’t have to be in school to make stuff independently. You just have to find a group of passionate, committed individuals who are willing to trade resources. (“I’ll grip your short film, if you’ll be my sound guy next weekend,” etc.) You might find people like that on Discord,, local workshops, open mics, conventions, game jams, and comic-cons. It really depends on the kind of creative projects you’re looking to produce. Hopefully you have the time and resources to pursue unpaid creative projects. That’s a privilege in and of itself.

I wouldn’t make these “passion” projects, since you’re looking specifically to build a portfolio. I would focus on projects that show you have the skills to make the kind of stuff you want to be paid for. In other words, if you want to direct commercials: produce spec commercials, not a feature. If you’re applying to write mobile romance games (a common first gig for game writers): develop a short and sexy visual visual novel in Ren’Py, rather than get partway through developing a 200 hour RPG that’s, like, basically Elden Ring, only much better actually?

Second, look for ways you can help the people you collaborate with. Let’s say you do a game jam with a talented pixel artist, and someone else you know says they want to commission a nerdy portrait. Recommend the pixel artist you worked with, assuming they take commissions. Get ’em a gig! And it doesn’t have to be work-related either. When a collaborator needs to move out of their apartment, show up with a ratty t-shirt and a willing frown. It feels good to help others! Plus, maybe some of those creative people will be inclined to reciprocate.

Also, I think it’s important to note that while being a doctor or lawyer requires a degree, work as a creative professional often does not. Yes, some jobs will say they’re looking for an applicant with a “relevant degree” in media arts or communication, but not always. Usually that requirement is for salaried positions. For example, I rarely, if ever, see an education requirement for freelance writing positions. So apply for creative gigs on sites like LinkedIn, Indeed, Craigslist, and sites specific to your interests. If they ask for samples, you can use your tailor-made indie projects as portfolio pieces.

Warning: You’ll probably get rejected a lot! I’ve been doing this for over a decade and a half and I get rejected from gigs all the time. My suggestion is to apply as often as you can with thoughtful applications and keep going. I’ve built up a decently hard callous to rejection at this point. In fact, I keep track of all the jobs I apply to and whether I get them or not in a spreadsheet. That way, the rejections don’t feel like an amorphous cloud of failure hanging over me. Instead, they’re a list of companies who missed out on the opportunity to have This Cool Dude write for them. 😎👍

To summarize: Do independent work. Build a close network of creative allies. Apply, apply, apply.

I hope that helps, Luke! For the record, I think going to college for a responsible job is a good idea. You can always make a rad creative project on the weekend, but without a degree, I think it’s illegal to practice law on the weekend? I have no idea, I’m not a lawyer.

🎲 Your Turn: Do you have a question about working as a narrative designer or creative professional? Reply to this email or hit the comment button below. You’ve got questions, I’ve got jokes and maybe some useful insight between the jokes. We’ll see!

🔌 Plugs: I wrote several short stories for Worlds & Realms, a really cool official Dungeons & Dragons book coming out this October to celebrate the game’s 50th anniversary! More details in this Polygon article.

📨 Next Week: How I got inspired to make a sexy X-Men visual novel at a very unsexy business conference.

Geoffrey Golden is a narrative designer, game creator, and interactive fiction author from Los Angeles. He’s written for Ubisoft, Disney, Gearbox, and indie studios around the world.

2 responses to “Do You Need Art School?”

  1. Henry Barajas

    Great advice!

    1. Thanks, Henry! 😁

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