Getting A Job In Game or Narrative Design: Pt. 4 – Interviewing and Completing Design Tests

This Series

Pt. 1 – Preparing Yourself

Pt. 2 – Your Resume, Website, and Application 

Pt. 3 – Networking

Pt. 4 – Interviewing and Completing Design Tests

Pt. 5 – Turn That First Gig Into a Career! 

Pt. 6 – Having Hard Conversations (Upcoming)

Note: These guides are provided for free because I don’t believe things like this should be behind a paywall. However, if you’d like to support me continuing to create content which helps people get hired, you can buy me a $3 coffee here.

Getting A Design Test/Interview Is Like…

Fishing. Except the fish is a hiring manager. And the bait is your resume. And… actually, this metaphor is getting weird. Let’s back up a moment.

I’m going to assume you followed the steps we described before about networking, and that you’ve been able to hand off your resume to someone “on the inside.” That might be a recruiter, it might be a hiring manager (a person on the dev team who’s handling the resume selection for a particular role) or it might just be someone you happened to know on the team who isn’t involved in the hiring process.

Either way, from this point, a few things need to happen:

  • Resume hand-off: Your resume needs to actually get to the hiring manager. If you were able to get your resume to the hiring manager directly, you know this step’s been taken care of.
  • Resume reviewed: The hiring manager needs to look at your resume. If they’ve already got a few candidates lined up for interviews, they may no longer be looking at resumes. This is why you want to be in the stack before the role is open!
  • You’re contacted: The hiring manager needs to reach out and set up an interview with you. At this point, it’s safe to say that whatever was on your resume was sufficient to get you to the interview stage. Great! Proceed to the next section.

But I Haven’t Heard Anything Back!

If this is happening to you, one of the following might be a culprit:

  • Your resume is being reviewed and you aren’t a fit, but you haven’t learned why. Reach out to the person you gave your resume to and inquire: “Hey, is there anything you’d recommend I do to be a better candidate for future roles like this? I’m still trying to break in, so any advice you can give me would be really helpful!”
  • Your resume never made it to the hiring manager. If you usually pass your resume to people who happen to work “at” the studio but aren’t involved in hiring for that role, you may have mixed results. Especially with larger studios (200+ people), the company can be so spread out that a resume coming from a fellow employee is no different from a resume being sent in by a total stranger. Instead of sending your resume to an employee uninvolved in the hiring process, ask, “Hey! Is there any way you could intro me to the hiring manager over email?”
  • Your skills just aren’t there yet. If you’re not getting feedback on what wasn’t a fit about the role and you know you had your resume in early, odds are good that you simply need to deepen the skills required for that particular role. Maybe that systems design role required UE4 expertise and nothing on your portfolio demonstrates that you understand how to use the engine to build something. Maybe that narrative design role required an understanding of branching dialog, but your Twine samples were weak. Maybe that level design role wanted some examples of stuff you’d built to polish, but everything on your portfolio was whitebox. There can be lots of reasons your skillset isn’t a fit for a given role — rather than try to improve your portfolio to fit any one particular job, just continue trying to learn as many commonly-used tools as you can and ensuring your portfolio demonstrates your latest, best, highest-quality mastery of those tools.
  • Your overall experience level just isn’t there yet. I sometimes hear from new grads or students who are trying to get hired at large, highly-competitive companies (like Riot, Naughty Dog, or Blizzard) right out of school. The fact of the matter is, these companies rarely hire people without a shipped commercial title, and it’s almost always in an engineering capacity. If you’re only sending resumes to these companies, take a step back and look around at what other, smaller, less well-known companies exist in your area. You’ll likely find you have a better shot at getting your foot in the door.

I Got A Design/Writing Test!

Not all companies send out design or writing tests. Some companies may have them, but only for junior roles. Others might send out a blanket design test to anyone who applies.

Every design or writing test will usually come with an NDA which prevents you from discussing the test with anyone else (and also prevents me from sharing past tests I’ve taken here). However, here’s a general idea of the kinds of things you can expect:

    • Take [Level from of our studio’s last game] and choose three things you’d change about it. Explain why you made those changes.
    • Create a level for [Big, well-known franchise]. Here are a couple of beats you need to hit. Design a whitebox area which communicates your level and outline how enemies spawn, where resources drop, and what the player’s path through the level will be.
    • Design a new weapon for [Game mode].
    • Design a new enemy for [Game mode].
    • Tell me about [Playable hero from a popular PvP game]. Why is this character non-viable in competitive play right now? What changes would you make to improve this character’s viability?
    • Pretend you’re revamping [Hero from a PvP game]. Change only one ability in this hero’s ability set. How would you change it? Why did you pick this ability?
    • Imagine a new character for [Already-released game in major franchise]. Write a quick bio for this character, a pitch for the way they feel to play and/or the types of abilities they have, and an explanation on how this character fits into our game world.
    • Create a new mechanic to deliver character VO in [Popular game]. What is the mechanic? How does it function?
    • Here’s an example of some English-localized text translated from Japanese in [Major game franchise]. Rewrite this text so that it matches the characters better. Here are two character bios to help you out. Each line needs to fit the character count requirements specified.
    • Here’s the setup for a scenario where [Popular main character] meets [New villain]. Here’s a bio for the villain. Write one minute of dialog for a confrontation between the main character and this villain.
    • How would you design a UI to support a crafting feature with the following requirements? [Word doc attached]

     

  • Usually, tests will also come with a recommended time limit (say, no more than 10 hours) and a deadline for turning the test in. Otherwise, they’re usually pretty open-ended.To what extent you are willing to complete design tests, especially very involved design tests, is totally up to you. Some candidates choose to decline taking a test and opt out of applying for companies which require them — and when hiring, I don’t like using them to filter candidates, personally. However, right now in design hiring they tend to be an unavoidable thing to some degree.Should you choose to take a test, I recommend keeping in mind the following things:
      • Be visual. Anywhere you can create or add a diagram to clarify something, do so. Try to keep your visuals relatively neat and well-labeled. If you can explain a concept easily by just throwing some cubes and free assets into a Unity level and taking a screenshot, do that.
      • Don’t write more than you must. Brevity is the soul of wit. I’ve seen some design tests where the question was relatively simple, but the test-taker sent in 9 pages of wall-of-text explanation. Remember: this is a test to see how you’ll perform as an actual designer in this role. If you’re sending out 9-page specs to people for relatively simple features, few of your teammates will be inclined to read them. I like Stone Librande’s One-Page Design Docs as a lens through which to consider everything I write or create as a designer.
      • Make sure all game-specific terms are correct. Nothing is more embarrassing than seeing a design test where the candidate has misspelled the company name, game name, or name of the main character. It’s Nathan Drake, not Nathan Durke!
      • If you need more time, ask for it. It’s standard convention that if the recruiter asks if you’re ready to take the test and your honest answer is ‘no’ (maybe it’s the holidays, maybe you’re going through final exams, maybe the baby’s not been sleeping well…) it’s OK to ask to push the test back a few days. Any game company worth working for will be cool with a delay. If they aren’t, you don’t wanna work there anyway, trust me.

    OK, Interview Booked. What Now?

    First of all: Yay! Good job, you!

    Game industry interviewing is a little different from interviews in other industries. If you’ve ever interviewed in general tech, you’ll find many similarities in common.

    Know before you go:

    • Attire is casual, always. I showed up to my very first game industry interview in a suit, nylons, and high heels. I got (gently) laughed at. This might run counter to every piece of advice any Baby Boomer ever gave you about “dressing for the job you want,” but in game dev interviews, you should wear whatever makes you comfortable. This is standard behavior across every game studio in the world. As long as your attire isn’t something truly risque, like a bikini top and short shorts, you’re fine.
    • It might be a long day. If you’ve interviewed in other industries, you’re probably used to having a single interview with one or two interviewers — and then, if you move on to the next round, being called back in on a later date. Many game companies now follow the format of what a “big tech” interview “loop” looks like: You come in and are expected to interview as many as 3 – 7 times in the same day with different folks. You might be asked lots of the same sorts of questions. You might be asked how you work with different kinds of disciplines if you’re being interviewed by representatives from non-design areas of the team, which is common. Or you might find you start the day with a recruiter interview, move to dev team members, and end the day with an executive team member or your would-be manager. All of these patterns are reasonably common.
    • Not everyone will have seen your resume. Be ready to discuss all of your past experience and to talk about it in an upbeat, interesting, and succinct way!
    • As a designer, expect to be asked whether you’ve played this company’s games. The answer had better be “yes, and here’s what I thought.” Even if you’ve never heard of that company’s games in your life until the moment you received your interview confirmation, go download/purchase them and get playing! If they’re a new company but you can guess at the types of games they’re making (e.g. mobile free-to-play), brush up on some popular games in that genre and make sure you’re ready to chat about those.
    • Be prepared to be asked what you’ve played lately and to discuss the details of those games. Hopefully, as a designer, you’ll have a wide variety of recent things you’ve played to discuss. You’ll very likely get in-depth questions about them which are aimed at testing your understanding of them. Think about the list of games you’ll talk about before your interview. What’s interesting about them? What works well? What could be better?

    I’m Interviewing, But No Offer…

    This can be another common roadblock. The good news is, if you’re landing interviews and you do not believe it’s possible that your resume is misconstruing your experience in any way, you can safely declare your resume ‘solid enough’ and set it aside as the culprit for now.

    Instead, it’s likely one of the following issues:

        • You seemed withdrawn. Interviews can make anyone nervous. However, it’s often a reality of a designer’s role that you need to be a feedback focal point for the team at times and a rally point at others. You need to be able to win peoples’ trust and keep a project moving in the right direction. If you seem cold, distant, inscrutable, unfriendly, or unapproachable during an interview, you’re going to have a harder time resonating with the interviewers. The interview is a time to put on your best confident smile, keep your shoulders back and your head held high, shake hands firmly, and maintain good eye contact.
        • You didn’t seem prepared. If I’m interviewing you for a VR game design job, one of the first questions I’m going to ask is, “What do you think are some of the most successful solutions to movement in VR right now?” Movement in VR is an incredibly fundamental problem right now, so if you can’t name specific implementations of movement in specific VR games, that’s really worrying to me. Make sure you’ve spent an hour or two beforehand thinking about the kinds of questions you might be asked. If you need more time during the interview itself, you can always say, “Hmm, that’s a great question, let me think.” Take your time.
        • Your social skills weren’t great. If you constantly talked over your interviewers, interrupted them, didn’t make eye contact, were very open about your political leanings or some other non-interview-appropriate topic, left many long, silent pauses, or bashed on the company’s games in any way (Dragon Age 2 was a mess, am I right?) expect that they won’t feel particularly amenable towards you.

 

    • There can be lots of other smaller issues at play — such as bad timing/coincidences, another candidate simply being better qualified, and that kind of thing — but if you’ve interviewed a few times and received no offers, it’s highly likely that one of these above issues is the culprit.

      What About Pay Negotiations?

      OK, hot tips time.

      If the recruiter asks you about your salary requirements or history up front: This is a dick move and it’s actually illegal in many states now, but some recruiters still do it. The recruiter usually is asking out of a concern that you might be looking for more money than they’re willing to pay. The standard approach I use is to be polite, but firmly nonspecific. “I’m more focused on finding out whether I’m a fit for the team and role. Rest assured that if those are a match, I’m flexible on salary.” Don’t give them any numbers to work with.

      If the recruiter demands to hear a number to move forward and/or you’re being forced to fill out an online form with your salary requirements, this is an extra level of dick move but I’ve seen it before. Good recruiters don’t do this, and instead properly educate applicants about the expected range for the role up front. Personally, I look at this kind of scenario through a lens of “what is going to get me past this recruiter as fast as possible so I don’t have to deal with them again until the team wants to bring me on.” Fill out whatever lowball number you’re comfortable putting in.

      If you get an offer, you should not feel beholden to the number you were forced to enter. I usually say, “I gave you that number to get the conversation started, but that number marks the lowest possible end of my range. I’d like to think we’re both invested in reaching an amount which will allow me to be happy, comfortable, and valued at [company] and to do my best work here for years to come.” The implication is that if the recruiter offers you that amount, you’d be willing to job hop at the first sign of better pay — and no one wants that, least of all you and the recruiter!

      If the recruiter gives you a number, then you proceed to the negotiation step. If this is your first gig, it’s totally normal to feel nervous about negotiating, but let me assure you that it is a totally normal part of the recruitment process. 

      Here’s a great set of steps which basically anyone can use to negotiate, even if you’re not a woman. All of this is excellent advice. Use it. Get the best number you can.

      If the recruiter says “Sorry, we don’t negotiate,” let me assure you with all the love in my heart that this is absolute bullshit. I’ve worked at several lovely companies which made this claim — among them, Facebook and Microsoft. Once I was on the inside, I realized just how untrue those claims were. Everyone negotiates. Check out the linked article above for some specific tips and phrasing to use in this scenario, but the gist of it is: you say, “Okay, if we can’t negotiate my base salary, let’s discuss a signing bonus/my PTO package/my merit bonus structure/my stock.” There is always a negotiation to be made. Even if it’s just an extra $500 a year. Always negotiate.

      I Have The Offer! Now What?

      Sign it, you lucky duck!

      Well, with one caveat: if you have a personal project, make sure you ask them for an inventions clause or written permission to continue on that project outside of work hours. List out every personal project you might work on, even things you haven’t started on yet or have only dreamed about making. I’ve known colleagues who went to work for a game company without doing this, and after being there for 5-6 years, suddenly realized they wanted to work on a hobby project and hadn’t protected their right to do so up front years ago. They’d simply seen an offer and signed it.

      It’s often much harder to get an exception to this once you work for the company, so if you care, do it now!

Next Up

We’ll discuss how to be successful on-the-job, and what to do in your first few weeks to make sure you’re everyone’s favorite new hire and/or intern.

Go to Part 5 now!

 

Note: These guides are provided for free because I don’t believe things like this should be behind a paywall. However, if you’d like to support me continuing to create content which helps people get hired, you can buy me a $3 coffee here.

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