No Local Game Industry, No Problem!
For many of us, the dream of working in the games industry is not within reach. Metaphorically, I like to believe it always is, but I mean this in a literal sense. It's likely that the city or country you grew up in doesn't have a game company. But if making games is truly your passion, then this shouldn't stop you.
Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on the subject (especially legal aspects), a lot of the information here applies only to the U.S., and the information presented may change at any time. If you find the subject interesting, please do some additional research to make sure you have up-to-date information.
Move to a different city
One solution if you want to work in games is to first move to a city with a game company. There are quite a few ways to go about this: you can find the nearest city with game companies, you can find a "good place to live" which also happens to have game companies, you can find game industry clusters, etc. The choice depends on what each individual is looking for. You may want to stay close to family, you may want the best schools for your kids, or you might be looking for a sense of security, where leaving one game company means you can find another game-related job in the same city. If you can have it all, great! If not, my suggestion is to look for an industry cluster. Networking is easier and very useful in a city like this. And if you have been a good employee but still get laid off, you'll have a few doors you can knock on immediately.
You'll notice in the previous paragraph I said "first move to a city with a game company". Another option is to apply to companies from your current city and hope to relocate to a new city once you get a job. There are a couple of advantages with this approach: you're not limiting yourself to a single city and you can keep your current job while searching. If you're not paying rent, then this is another advantage. Doing a remote search is certainly possible, but it's a long shot. Companies tend to prefer local candidates for many reasons. First of all, local candidates can generally stop by for an interview faster than a remote candidate can. Second, if a company pays for your interview trip, they'll be spending hundreds of dollars. Before they get to that, they'll make sure you're worth it. Also, if a local candidate gets the job, they might be able to start very soon. But a remote candidate may have several things to do before leaving their current city: break an apartment lease, quit a job, pack everything up, do the actual moving, etc. For further advice, I suggest reading Tom Sloper's "Location, Location, Location" rule (lesson 27 on his website) and his other FAQ's (link at the bottom).
Move to a different country
If your country doesn't have any game companies, what then? Moving to a different city seemed difficult enough, and now I'm talking about changing countries. The main issue here is that each country has its own immigration laws. I'll focus on the U.S. for a brief moment and mention two options for foreign game developers: OPT and work visas.
OPT is something to consider if you're thinking of going to school in the United States. It stands for Optional Practical Training, and it's a period of time in which undergraduate and graduate students can legally work for 12 months on their F-1 visa. A 17-month extension can be granted if the student's degree is a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degree. So, if things go well, it means a student has the potential to work for 29 months at a game development company without requiring sponsorship for a work visa. It also means that you are not tied to a particular company so you can switch jobs if you like (you are allowed to have unemployment periods up to a total of 90 days, or 120 days for a STEM degree). The OPT period is a good time to get a feel for what the game industry really is, to see if you are truly that passionate about making games. If you are, then you may want to stay in the country longer. It's time to talk about work visas.
One type of work visa is the H-1B. This visa "requires the theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge requiring completion of a specific course of higher education". Game developers of all tracks (programming, art, production, etc) should be eligible as long as they have a degree in that field. If you are a student who wishes to work beyond OPT, or if you're a developer wanting to work in the U.S., this is what you should be looking into. Keep in mind, though, that this type of visa requires a sponsor company. This means quite a few things: you need to have a job offer before you can get an H-1B, your sponsor needs to pay all visa-related fees (which ascend to the thousands), and you are tied to the company you work for.
Fill a possible void
Some people may see the lack of local game companies as a bad thing, but others may see it as an opportunity. Research may show that your city is a good place to start a game company. And with a lot of developers "going indie" these days, you might be able to pull it off. But before attempting such a huge task, do plenty of research first and read up on how to write a business plan.
If you are not able to move, don't worry, there's still hope. Plenty of developers are freelancers and it's known that game companies sometimes hire developers for contract work, especially for art. Usually, there's no need to be local for these kinds of jobs. Another option is to apply to a company that lets their full-time employees work from home. While not very common in the games industry, these companies do exist. One such company is Boomzap Entertainment. My takeaway from their FAQ is that, as long as you're available on IM and do your tasks well, you're as good as any employee working 8 hours a day in a physical office. And finally, if you're a student looking to fill up your free time with game creation or if you'd rather be in a different industry but dabble in games, you can look into mod development. Many games allow mods and even total conversions. It's easy to find teams on the internet, and it's easy for teams to find you too. There are many ways to break in to the industry, not just the obvious ones. I'm not going into too much detail here, but these "other options" could be the topic of a future post. There certainly is enough material for it.
It's easier said than done
The words "no problem" in the title are probably misleading. It's not easy having to move to get a job in the industry. Sacrifices have to be made, like leaving a safe job, moving away from family/friends, starting over someplace new, etc. There are also no guarantees. You may move to a new city and you still may not find a game industry job. Or as a student, you may apply to OPT and get rejected. The same goes for the work visa; it's very hard to find a sponsor. If looking into non-obvious options, these could be harder to find and you may run into more competition due to the convenience they provide.
But hey, this is your dream, remember? And no dream worth following is easy. Also keep in mind that many times, the best experiences are in the journey, not at the end. Sure, there are no guarantees, but you should still try to go against the odds. It'll be worth it.
http://www.gamedevmap.com (can search for game companies by name, city, or country)
http://www.sloperama.com/advice.html (Tom Sloper's FAQ's)
http://www.uscis.gov/files/article/OPT_FAQ_4apr08.pdf (OPT information)
http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/types/types_1271.html (U.S. Work Visa information)
http://www.boomzap.com/docs/Boomzap_FAQ.doc (Boomzap Entertainment's "working environment" information)