I often get asked how to break into the game industry. Friends and family are always asking and if I can talk to their friend whose life's dream is to work on a game.
My first question is why you want to be in the game industry. Is it because you truly have a passion for games? Is it because you want to challenge yourself with the exciting problems teams encounter when making games? Is it because you want to play games all day? You saw a commercial for schools that advertise programs that lead you to a game design career and it looked awesome?
It is important to address the misconceptions about the game industry. Hopefully this is a given, but you do not play games all day. You play the game to test your work, which involves repeatedly drilling down into one particular area. It is completely different than playing for leisure. The novelty of playing video games during work wears off quickly.
The realities that come with making games for a living are hard deadlines, long hours, and high stress. When you have a job that everyone wants, you are easily replaceable. There is someone willing to work longer and cheaper. Chances are, you, who wants to get into the industry, are willing to work longer and more cheaply than me.
That being said, there are times when it is a lot of fun. There are definitely plenty of people in the industry who love their job and have accepted the conditions. It does work for some, not for everyone. This is not meant to discourage, but you (and your family) should be aware of the environment and the commitment.
The next question is what exactly do you want to do for the game? If you have "a ton of really awesome ideas" and want to be a designer, then you are a dime a dozen. It may sound harsh, but it is true. I have spoken with so many people who have "so many amazing ideas" and "if they just talked to me, I'd transform the game." Anyone can be a Monday morning quarterback. You should be able to think of something tangible you would like to contribute.
With those questions answered, I have three ways to get into the game industry. All of these routes are long and arduous - there is no easy way to get in. The magic formula is a ton of hard work and time.
Have Training and a Skill
Like I said above, have something tangible you can contribute and have the appropriate training for that skill. Examples of tangible skills are programming, sound engineering, art, and project management, among others. Look on the career pages of game companies, and see what they are looking for in their job openings and what kind of training is required. Pick what you want to do and go to school for it. You will be up against people with degrees, experience, and certifications in these areas. Design is no exception. There are accredited universities that offer degrees in game design.
If you already have a degree in one of these areas, you are ahead of the curve. You have the proper training. Now, unless you are right out of college, you need to demonstrate how you can use that knowledge to contribute to a game.
Start in QA and Work Your Way Up
It is possible to work your way onto a game team from QA (Quality Assurance), aka being a tester. Sounds like your dream job, right? Start in QA, do a good job, and work your way up to lead and possibly management positions.
The road from QA is a long one but it can be done. You will start off working very long hours with very little pay and respect. If you can stand out and pay your dues so to speak, you could end up with a role on a game team.
If you are currently in college, a QA position may be perfect for you. You get the game industry experience while working on your degree - hopefully something that actually has something to do with one day making games!
Become The Best In The Country At the Game And Maybe They Will Hire You
Now we're talking! If you can win tournaments and become recognized for your skills, the company may notice you and want to bring you in for ideas. Don't forget to be particularly active on the forums.
This may sound like the easy way in, but you really have to be the best in the country. Even then, there is no guarantee this will get you a job. This is like becoming a professional athlete - how many kids want to do it and how many actually get to do it? I would recommend going the other two routes before training to be a professional gamer while your mom tries to evict you from her basement.
All three of these ways take a lot of time and work. Before you go down one of these roads, think long and hard about if this is what you really want. Do you want it enough to work through 4 years to get a relevant degree? Do you want it enough to spend years in QA, potentially sacrificing a higher salary? If you do, by all means, go for it! There are plenty of highly successful people in the industry and there is no reason you cannot be one of them if you are willing to be realistic and apply yourself diligently.