As usual, my advice is specific to design and to seeking a more traditional job in AAA development, as opposed to breaking in as an indie, but most of it can be applied elsewhere. This is just my personal advice, so I recommend getting others to review your work for second and third opinions, and ultimately make your own decisions.
I will be honest: I have never had to interview someone for a job. I’ve never been on that side of the table, so some of my advice might be a bit vague, so I’ve leaned on friends to help me with writing this. This article touches quite a bit on “general employment topics” which is mostly outside of my purview. (If you are already in the industry or had professional interviews before, this article won’t really tell you much you don’t already know).
Interviews and design tests and all that jazz are really nerve-wracking for a lot of people, like a first date with someone you’ve admired at a distance for so long and now finally you have their attention and all you can think about is if there’s food in your teeth. My goal with this article is to demystify the interview and hiring process mainly for students who have never gone through it before. Along the way, I’ll give you some tips on what to do.
Typically, the process of getting a job as a designer at a game studio goes like this:
- Resume, Cover Letter, & Portfolio submitted
- Interview over email
- Informal Interview
- Phone Interview
- Design Test
- On Site Interview
- Offer Letter
Many studios skip steps or change the order of them. This isn’t some kind of formula that companies follow, but rather common sense.
(You can always count on the offer letter being the last step though.)
Resume, Cover Letter, & Portfolio submitted
See my previous advice for resumes and cover letters, and for design portfolios for more details! Below I’ll go over all the different ways I know of where a resume ends up in a studio’s hands.
- Fill out an application, usually through a website form. These can feel impersonal (they are) and as though your resume will just end up in the trash (they won’t). These are common at big studios and publishers that get thousands of resumes for a single job opening.
- Use an email provided by the studio (such as email@example.com) to send your resume, using the email content as a cover letter, and any other information they’ve requested. More common at smaller studios.
- Get recommended personally by someone already working at the studio for an open position.This is why networking is so important, but remember that most people will only recommend those they’ve worked with in the past, which doesn’t really help entry-level people.
- Visit a career booth at a convention (like GDC, PAX, ComiCon) or at a career fair set up by your school. Often they’ll still have you submit your resume via email or through an application, but sometimes they accept them.
- Get laid off from a high-profile studio… is not a technique a recommend. When a studio has a large number of layoffs or closes down, such as Irrational Games after Bioshock: Infinite wrapped up, other studios go in to snap them up (starting with leads and working their way down). Sometimes there’s actually a career fair organized in the former offices.
- Get recruited directly by studios who find your information on LinkedIn, any social media presence or blogging you do, or even word-of-mouth. Unlikely for students (though this is actually how I got my first job back at 5TH Cell). Pretty common among people with lots of experience.
- Get recruited by external recruiting agencies who look for individuals that qualify for job postings, and then connect the applicant with the employer. They take a slice of your income, or the studio pays extra on top to the agency. I would not use recruiting agencies if you’re a student. Probably never use them, but that’s a separate topic.
Interview Over Email
I don’t think email interviews are particularly common – phone interviews mostly cover this. But I have run into it before with a studio, where they asked me some general questions to see if I was a good match. I didn’t do any email interviews with any others, so no idea how prevalent this is. However, remember that any email correspondence you have with someone at the company, even if it’s with a receptionist, is basically an interview. Always be polite and professional.
These aren’t exactly real interviews. I call them “sanity checks” because their goal is to mostly check that you seem smart, know your stuff, and are the kind of person the interviewer might want to work with in the future. It acts as a convenient pre-screen for a real interview.
You can find informal interviews at networking events or conferences like GDC where a bunch of people from different parts of the world are suddenly in one place so it makes total sense to just talk to those you might want to hire. I don’t think anyone is exempt from this possibility, but usually they are arranged ahead of time and not really spontaneous. I’ve done probably a dozen informal interviews as the interviewee – some pretty bad (as in, obviously not a good fit for either of us) and some with more traditional follow-up interviews.
I’ve conducted a couple informal interviews, which is the limit of my experience as an interviewer. Normally I ask general design questions, games they admire, whether they are into systems or level design or what, and just get them talking about design and an idea for what they are looking for job-wise The stakes aren’t particularly high and you aren’t going to get a job offer directly from one of these, but they can feed into future opportunities.
The first phone interview I ever had was for an internship and I had a chest cold so bad I was afraid to fall asleep because I’d stop breathing. It can’t get any worse than that and I still got the internship. So just remember, as long as you can breathe then you can do it.
Phone interviews are the real deal. You’ll talk to either one person, usually a lead or director, or several in a conference call. They’ll ask you questions about design, about your career goals, and about why you want to work there. They may ask you some questions that require you to design on the fly. Sometimes you’ll have a pre-screen phone interview with a recruiter or HR personnel employed by the company. That is different – not a real interview (so to say), but rather another gut check.
Phone interviews and on-site interviews are very similar, with similar types of questions, so scroll down to my “interview tips” section for an idea of what you might talk about.
By the time you get an on-site interview, the studio is probably pretty sure they want to hire you and this is just the last test. Exceptions are when you already live near the studio and they decide to take a chance and ask you to come in. But if they are flying you in from out of town and putting you up in a hotel they are probably serious – no one will spend that money on someone they aren’t sure about.
This also means the stakes are really high for on-site interviews.
Typically (and remember, there’s always deviations!), these are full-day affairs that involve interviews with lots of people, not just your direct head. Almost everyone I talked to shared the same experience at big studios: you’ll start in the morning, have lunch with some subset of the team, and then continue through the afternoon. Sometimes the morning or the afternoon is taken up by an on-site design test, and the team takes you out to dinner. I know a couple people who had multi-day interviews when they were flown out pretty far (think: US -> Europe). You may have one-on-one interviews, or with a few people at a time, and they’ll rotate in new people – designers, leads, directors, and developers in other departments that you would be working closely with. Smaller studios might have people spend longer with you since they have smaller teams and more of a chance to get to know you personally.
If you end up in an assembly-line style of interviews, you may get a lot of repeat questions since interviewers aren’t going to compare notes until after the whole process is over. Remember that none of these people are “professional interviewers” so some of them will have awesome or difficult questions, and some might be a bit more lukewarm or adversarial. You just never know.
There is usually only one on-site interview, but some studios may call you back for another interview with new people. (I’m looking at you, Riot Games and your 6+ on-site interviews I keep hearing about.)
Not all studios have design tests. Not all design tests are the same (they vary wildly between studios). There’s not much to talk about here since I’ve covered the bulk of design tests in a previous article. Design tests may appear at any time – on-site, remotely, before or after interviews (though, obviously, they won’t show up after the offer letter).
I personally would not do a design test unless a studio has already interviewed me, in person or over the phone. Most studios seem to follow this out of respect for your time and their own since it takes effort to conduct and evaluate a design test.
Some time after having an on-site interview, you should get a response: yes or no. Sometimes the response might take a few weeks if they still have interviews they want to conduct for position to narrow down their list because, remember, you are competing with others for the same job opening. It may also take longer if they offer the position to someone else and they turn it down, leaving you second or third in line. (If they are nice, they won’t tell you that you weren’t their first pick.) If you don’t hear anything back, well, that’s kind of unprofessional but could also be an oversight, so my rule of thumb is to wait a week before emailing a followup.
Offer letters come with a job title and brief description of your duties, a starting date, and a salary offer. You’re expected to sign it and send it back if you accept the offer. This is the point where you can negotiate salary, ask for details on their benefits, what kind of support they give for relocation, visa/international worker issues (which I don’t know much of personally), and if you need to change the starting date. They are usually really flexible about all this stuff, though salary negotiations are always hit or miss. If you have more than one offer from a company, you can use that to help negotiate.
Offer letters typically come with an expiration date! They don’t want you hoarding an offer letter while applying to another studio solely as a bargaining chip, and they don’t want to wait too long only to find out you don’t want the job. If you find that you need more time, you can always ask.
Basic Interview Tips
So now that you know the process, I’m going to go over basic interview tips specific to games.
- Dress casually. Jeans are FINE. Sneakers are FINE. Game-related tshirts are FINE. If you want to dress up a bit, then swap out jeans for slacks or a skirt, sneakers for nicer shoes, and making a button-up shirt. Do not wear ties or full suits to your interview. Wear something comfortable first, good-looking second.
- At a traditional game studio, don’t worry about neon hair, piercings, or tattoos. It may be worth toning it down if you’re interviewing at a studio that’s not part of the tradition games industry or tech (such as educational games and government-funding training sims), but this is really your call.
- If you have no real interview experience, mock interviews with a friend might help you, where they pretend to be an employer and ask you questions. Personally, I did really poorly in mock interviews compared to the real ones but I think it got my nervousness out of the way.
- Bring a couple copies of your resume. I’ve never had to use them, but they make me feel more prepared. Don’t worry about printing or bringing physical copies of any portfolio pieces, but if you want to be extra prepared you could put some of your work on a USB drive.
- Know about the studio’s games and its history. Some studios require you to be a regular player of their games (Blizzard and Riot come to mind), while other studios just ask for a passing familiarity. It’s good practice to be able to talk about the studios games if you’ve asked about them.
- If you know what game the position is for, make sure to read as much as you can about that game. If there are prequels or other games in the series, try to get your hands on them (even if it’s just a demo). Arm yourself with knowledge about other big games in that genre.
- If you were a student, if someone asks about your experiences make sure to talk about what you did personally, not what your student team or class accomplished. Try to isolate your contributions because they should want to hire you, not your classmates.
- Don’t pretend to know an answer. Don’t lie about a game you haven’t played or fake your way through part of an interview. These are terribly transparent, especially since a lot of questions (see below) actually lead to more in-depth discussion. Instead, be honest if you don’t know the answer or if you haven’t played a specific game.
- Be a little humble, even though you are there to try to impress people. One of the goals of the interview process is how you would work well within the team. Some team structures are kind of antagonist, but most of them are very cooperative and developers want people that are easy to work with.
Questions THEY Ask
I categorize questions people may ask you at an interview as: general interview questions (not specific to games), general games talk, and design on the fly.
One secret? Sign up at Glassdoor.com, look up your favorite companies, and read the comments people leave. Some wonderful unscrupulous souls love to leak interview details there. Here’s 32 pages of interview questions for “game designer” positions.
General Interview Questions
You’re going to run across some number of these and I don’t think they are all that interesting for the most part (I prefer design-specific questions). For an extra resource, check out this list of the 50 Most Common Interview Questions (with some advice on how to approach them).
- Why do you want to work here?
- What was your experience at [previous studio] and why do you want to leave?
- What is your greatest weakness? (Correct answer: attention to detail)
- What is your greatest accomplishment?
- If you don’t already live in the city, what do you think of it? (And similar easy, chatty questions, including “the weather”).
- Where do you see yourself in five years?
- Can you give me an example of a problem you had with a team member, and how you solved it?
General Games Talk
These are mostly questions that will delve into the types of games you play, what you think about them, and whether you can communicate interesting insights into other games. A lot of times they are questions that lead into design-on-the-fly questions.
Here’s a smattering of questions I would prepare to answer:
- What games have you been playing lately?
- What’s the last game you played? What did you like about it?
- What’s your favorite game of all time? Why? What would you change about it?
- What’s your favorite genre? What games do you feel epitomize the best practices in that genre?
- What’s your most hated genre? (Don’t say the genre the company specializes in…)
- What are some cool trends in games that are interesting? Or, here’s [trend], what do you think about it? (examples: free-to-play, esports, virtual reality games, next-gen consoles, etc.)
- You worked on [game]. What was that like? What was your process? What would you have changed?
- Tell me about a time when you had to [fill in the blank].
- Can you give me an example of a design problem you had, and how you solved it?
Now, when they ask you about games, don’t be afraid to be honest. There is no wrong answer here and no one is going to judge your tastes in game so long as you can back up why you liked it and whether you know enough of the medium to compare it with other, similar games.
If someone asked me what games I’m playing lately in an interview, I’d probably start off mentioning that I am playing through some cool indie interactive fiction at the moment. But if I am interviewing at a AAA studio, I’d also follow it up with the fact that I’m playing FarCry 3 for the first time. Since I know that they are fishing for a game in common, mentioning obscure games doesn’t really help beyond giving them an idea of my range of tastes or perhaps introducing them to a new game they haven’t heard of (obviously, with an intent to see if you can explain a game’s mechanics to others).
Really, all these questions are created to get you talking about games and talking about design with fellow designers. They want to know if you can speak their language and have insights to share with them.
Design on the Fly
These questions are pretty devious, but also really powerful tools. They want to know your thought process as you go through it on the spot. They want to know how you solve problems, and if you can solve hard problems (or, at least, tackle them) or if you freeze up.
The important thing is to talk through the problem they give you and not just go silent and try to deliver them a perfect response.
Here’s a few examples of “design-on-the-fly”.
- If you had a billion dollars, what game would you make? These types questions are open ended on purpose, asking you to just brainstorm away. (I don’t like these questions and I think interviewers should stop using them.)
- How would you redesign a given game for a different control scheme? For example, talk me through adapting a third-person shooter for a touch screen. (Kind of similar to some of the design test questions, but more manageable)
- So you said you’ve been playing [game]. How about you talk me through a new mission you’d design for it?
A friend – I cannot remember who! – told me my favorite story for tricky interview questions. The interviewer asked them about an example of a problem they had with a team member and how they solved it. So they described an artist who made a clock tower centerpiece that just did not conform to the needs of design. So, the interviewer stood up, walked to the white board, and proceeded to draw a pine tree. “This is my clock tower.” And then they waited for the interviewee to explain the problem.
As you can tell, these questions are pretty context specific – it really depends on what your common frame of reference is, or what the interviewer is interested in at the time, or what topic is just floating around the room. I don’t believe you can ‘cheat’ these questions by practicing answers, or even prepare all that much for them in advance.
Questions YOU Ask
A lot of people tend to forget that the interview process is a two-way street. You have as much right to interview them as they do you. Ask them questions that show you are interested in the company, how it functions, and making sure it’s a good fit for you.
I think most people have a few key questions they learn to ask. My personal choice has always been to ask, “What is your crunch policy?” This puts some people off-guard, since no one likes crunch or likes admitting how much they crunch but, seriously, everyone crunches. Others may let slip that the studio has awful amounts of crunch (useful information, whether or not you’re willing to crunch like that). But good studios don’t have a problem answering this question and showing that they’ve thought about it. This is my pick, but you may not agree (some designers I mentioned this to said they would never ask that).
Some ideas for questions you can ask (if you want!):
- What game is this position for? This is in case it’s a studio that hires for multiple projects, and didn’t specify. Sometimes the game is under NDA and they aren’t willing to discuss it, unfortunately, but at least that’s information that you’d be working on a new unannounced project.
- What is the size of the team? How is the department structured (one lead, multiple leads, etc.) Probably a better question for smaller studios that have nontraditional hierarchies than larger studios.
- Do designers fill specialist roles or are they generalists? Are they responsible for very specific content or do they take on multiple responsibilities? If you are applying for a level design job, for example, you may want to ask them what the workflow is like, whether you are involved in mission or combat setups or just world building.
- What kind of scripting, if any, are designers responsible for? Do designers do any work in 3D modeling tools (like Maya or 3D Studio Max) or do they whitebox content directly in the engine tools?
A piece of advice I’ve heard is to get the interviewer talking as much as possible, rather than the other way around, and they’ll leave thinking you’re awesome. Don’t be afraid to let the interview derail – I’ve talking to people about travelling, hiking, delicious Thai food, and how awful Frank Herbert’s Dune series gets after the second book. This is fine, and a welcome diversion for people who don’t really like interviews (who does?). The next person or the next break will get the interview back on track anyway.