I recently finished an internship at a small Japanese-owned games publisher. Here are some things I have learned about games-related internships, particularly ones at small or developing companies.
First of all: if you’re interested in working in the games industry or doing anything with games in any capacity, you should try to find an internship. No question about it. If you’re in college, don’t put it off until after you graduate and have lost that particular support network. If you don’t have skills in programming, art, or animation, an internship can help you figure out what part of the industry you could potentially work in. There’s a greater variety of work to do with games than you might initially think.
If you can’t find one at a well-known company, by all means try to find one at a smaller or relatively-unknown company. I actually believe that working at smaller companies could be much more valuable than working at large, well established ones. I started off as a marketing intern but ended up doing a lot more, because the place I was working at was a developing startup and needed help in other areas, too. In a smaller company, you’ll see a lot more of the business, and probably learn much, much more. Besides, working closely with a small team of people is fun.
(Additionally, you won’t be fighting against hundreds of other people for the same few internship spots.)
I recently read Replay by Tristan Donovan. There’s a great bit there at the end where 2D Boy mention how their idealistic misconceptions about the gaming industry were rudely corrected after working at EA and seeing that games are made in offices and meetings and not by happy wizards who eat cotton candy and shoot magic out of their fingertips. Doing an internship could help you make this discovery yourself, before you’ve committed yourself to a career and a course of action. Previous to this, I’d only ever worked as a librarian, as a research assistant operating out of someone’s dining room, and as a camp counselor who ran around covered in mud all day long. Offices are arresting. Sometimes they are mildly disturbing. It is entirely possible that you may not like them very much, and it would be good to figure that out before you’re stuck in one.
In the end, I ended up interning at a company that publishes the kinds of games I don’t normally play much of. If you think ‘game’ means manly-faced American-made guns-for-hands Triple-A Unreal-engine shooty-times, or if you think that those are the only games that make money, or the only ones that deserve attention, this is a huge problem. You are also at risk of becoming an enormous dickhead.
“I can’t find an internship at Bethseda/Epic/Valve,” you might say. “And I’ve tried! Argh! The economy!” I say: don’t try worry too much about your favorite developer. You like their games; that doesn’t mean they’re the only people who can teach you anything about the industry. You’ll learn a lot more by working at a smaller place.
It’s an internship. You have absolutely nothing to lose, particularly if you’re getting class credits for the experience.