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Breaking into game design: Part 5 - prepare to interview
by Ethan Levy on 07/12/13 02:31:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This article is the fifth in a series on how to land a job as a game designer. Check out previous posts for details on setting your career goal, building your portfolio, learning how to sell your experiences and writing your resume.

If you've followed the series of articles up till now, then you've sent your resume and portfolio out to the world and are landing some interviews. The previous article on writing your resume covered the general process of phone and in person interviews that you can expect, so I will not reiterate. Suffice to say that if you've made it this far you will likely have to pass through a gauntlet of interviews to land that job.

An interview is about three things. The team is assessing if you have the skills to complete the job requirements, so you must sell your skills and experience. Beyond just skills, the team will also try to determine if you are a good fit in terms of personality and culture, so you must sell yourself as a colleague. Finally, if you are a candidate the team would want to hire you probably have some options, so the team will be selling themselves to you as the ideal place invest the next few years of your life.

For instance, if you were applying to join me in designing Enhanced Wars, as an interviewer I would prepare a series of questions (and probably some written tests) to get a feel for your skills in not only multiplayer balancing and feature design, but also UI/UX work and using metrics and player feedback to iterate on a live game. Personality wise, I would need to make sure you are self-directed and motivated enough to work on a virtual team and I would not constantly question if you will complete your tasks or are too busy watching Hulu in your pajamas. If I liked you, I would prepare to talk about the virtues and autonomy of working on a small, virtual team as well as the incredible growth potential of joining a new studio at such an early stage.

But Quarter Spiral is just one team. Each studio or game team you will be applying to will have unique requirements and culture, so they will be looking for different qualities in prospective candidates. If you have made it this far, have built your portfoliowritten a killer resume and landed that all day interview session for your dream job, then you need to make sure to go that extra mile and prepare properly for your interview.

Play the games

This should be obvious, I know. But I was surprised by the number of times I would get on the phone with a candidate about a design position on Dragon Age Legends (which was live at the time) only to discover that they had not played the game, or in fact many free to play games. Or to talk with someone applying for jobs in different departments in our studio who had not played any of our live web games. In most instances, this would instantly disqualify someone in my mind. If they did not make an effort to play the games we had poured our blood, sweat and tears into, how could we trust that they would devote themselves to our games?

If you are interviewing with a studio, play any games they have made for at least 20 minutes (hopefully more). Do some research on the team and find out what games people you are interviewing with have worked on in the past. The importance of being knowledgeable about the work of the people you are trying to impress cannot be overstated.

Do your homework

In all likelihood, you will know the names of the people who will be interviewing you. If you have not been given a list, it does not hurt to ask your HR contact for one. Research anyone on the list. Read any interviews by members of the team (even if they were related to past games or studios). Check LinkedIn profiles and look for any blogs or social presences. You may not always find material, but in most instances you will be able to find something that will give you insight into the team and potential colleagues you are interviewing with. This preparation work may or may not come into play during the interview, but it can give you a reasonable first impression of the studio and its culture to determine if this a place you will truly fit in professionally.

Prepare questions

Most interviewers will end by asking if you have questions for them. Sometimes this is just to fill time in the schedule (as I said previously, interviewers do not always do a lot of preparation work before getting in the room with you). But your questions can also help a team get a feel for your personality, preparedness and overall ambitions.

Prepare a decent list of questions based on the job description, anything you know about the studio and anything that is extremely important to you. But also be cognizant of what the questions you ask say about you. For instance, let us imagine you are applying to a junior design position on Enhanced Wars but all your questions are, at their core, about how quickly you can become a lead designer. I would intuit you have unrealistic expectations about the work you will be doing, that you are more interested in title and control than the actual work, and you will generally be resentful of being asked to do the many unglamorous parts of game design. Unless your portfolio and resume where at a true rock star level, this line of questions would be a major red flag. 

Also, during the course of a day of interviews you may feel like you have run through your full list and have nothing left to ask. There is no harm in asking the same questions to different people. You may get different answers that reveal new things about the game team and its culture.

Persevere

If you've made it this far into the article series, then you should be fully prepared to start applying for a job in game design. I know it all sounds so easy on paper, but the realities of applying and interviewing for jobs are brutal. You will face rejection in all its forms. You will feel like you are throwing your resume down an endless series of bottomless pits. You will nail a phone interview only to never hear from a recruiter or studio again. You will flub questions. You will make it through the gauntlet of in person interviews feeling like the team loves you only to get turned down. You will be told verbally you have the job only to wake up the next day to an email stating it has been given to an internal candidate. These are the unfortunate realities of the job market.

All the preparation I have outlined in these five articles will only get you so far. Landing a job is equal parts luck, skill, experience and random circumstance. Don't take the rejections personally, learn from any application mistakes you make and persevere in the face of the many setbacks you will undoubtedly face. Before long you'll be emailing me with a link to a launched game asking for feedback.


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Comments


Erik Hu
profile image
Here is what I wish I did to prepare for an interview I never dreamed I would get...

To extend what you said about homework: Do not only play their games, but take notes & write a short review from a developers perspective - bring the notes & review so you can talk about it if it comes up.

Do the same for their competition, but tip toe carefully when discussing this if the competition is better or more original.

Ready ideas for games based on whatever they do and bring this. If they make games based on existing IP, create a few alternative ideas for an existing IP based game that they have (ie some one famous, movie,tv show, etc). If they're deeply entrenched in their own IP, look at the general trend of where their IP is going and see if you can extend their ideas - and also come up with some unique ones.

Be ready to cut and be flexible on any ideas you may have had on a game design test. Try to look for holes or alternatives in your own design so you can be prepared with a response if they ask or discuss this. At the same time, too much give may show under-confidence in your design ability, but I believe this line of questioning is based on judging your ability to work in a team and how you respond to feedback.

What's ironic about the "asking questions" is that a lot of suggestions on the internet are for questions about your potential career path at the company. A question like this is supposed to show you are thinking about the future and intend to learn and excel, but I can see how an interviewer (especially if they currently hold the position you could move up into) would see this as a bad question.

I guess that's nasty advice from the internet, as you're applying to that position and not to a future one.

And...
If they ask you to apply for a writing position after denying you for the game design position even though you didn't major in literature - apply anyway.

Jacek Wesolowski
profile image
I can see how this series of articles can be a useful career guide, and I'm also worried that it may inadvertently cause newcomers to focus on a specific career path.

The hiring process for design positions in our company is a bit different from what you're describing, and I'd like to summarize it as a sort of second opinion. My example is not particularly representative of the industry at large, but I think it shows just how much things depend on personal preferences of the people involved.

As a company, we mostly do porting, but we also develop additional content and functionality for existing games (we wouldn't mind a regular development deal, either). Our projects are very varied with regard to scope and complexity. This allows us to hire talented newbies rather than veterans, and teach them everything from the ground up. As a lead designer, I'm directly responsible for the hiring process.

Here are the criteria I use:
1. Yes, you should be a "gamer", but I don't care about your cred. If Solitaire is your all-time favourite, that's perfectly fine. I'm most likely not going to ask you about your favourite game anyway, because I expect that you've rehearsed the answer to this particular question (that's a bad thing from my point of view, see below).
2. I look for people who are unlike the ones who are already on the team. During the interview, I need you to open up at least a little so that I can see what makes you unique. Don't waste time bragging about your Halo exploits - we already have male console hardcore twenty-somethings on board.
3. I'm probably not going to take a look at your portfolio, because I'm not looking for skills.
4. I am going to ask you a lot questions about your past jobs, particularly the ones that had nothing to do with game development. I'm probably going to ask you a question or two about your non-gaming hobbies. The purpose of this is twofold: 1) to see if you have an affinity for thinking in terms that come useful when designing a game, and 2) to see if you're an open-minded generalist.
5. A job is a trade: I get something and you get something else. I need you to tell me what you want in as clear terms as possible, so that I know what kind of trade we can make.
6. I believe one should believe in something. I don't hire people whose main motivator seems to be money.
7. Things that turn me off: competitiveness, hand-waving, sexism, any signs that you may perhaps not get along very well with people in general, formal clothes, claims of prior leadership experience (unless they're very well documented), keeping your Apple laptop/tablet on display even though you don't need it during the interview (I have a pet peeve against people who associate creativity with owning Apple hardware).


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