Career Corner #1: Getting Interviews At Game Companies

Welcome to Career Corner! If you’d like to ask a question, you can do via my CuriousCat inbox here. 

For this first career corner post, I batched together two similar questions about interviewing:

Advice on having the proper resume, cover letter, portfolio to get the opportunity at an interview? Personally 3+ years experience in test engineering with school and hobby projects. However, I seem to have a hard time getting the response.

Did you ever have to interview/hire anyone and if so can you share what went well/poorly for you personally?

Interviewing new members for your team is sort of part and parcel for many game developers, so I’ve been on a large number of interview panels over the years. I have observed in the past that the key to interviewing well is actually 75% about what you do before you get into the interviewing room, but there are also some tips and tricks once you’re there. Let’s cover the process.

First: Getting the Interview

I’m going to assume you’ve already read this section from my ‘how to’ guide, which covers all the high-level reasons why you (likely) aren’t hearing back about interviews. Assuming you have and you are really doing all of these things sincerely, where can you go from there if you’re still not hearing back?

Step one is to keep polishing that portfolio/resume and make one or two things really shine. This can seem like a frustrating piece of advice, but it’s really the primary way to eventually get hired. I see so many student, grad, and hobby project portfolios which have 2 or 3 semi-polished looking projects, a smattering of very basic skills in languages like Lua/JavaScript/C#, and a bit of semi-polished writing or narrative work (in the case of narrative designers).

But here’s the problem: I also see a lot of great portfolios, and those are the people who seem to get hired pretty quickly. Essentially, for an entry level role, you are competing against people with great portfolios, not just okay ones. 

So if you’re not hearing back, your portfolio might be hitting that “just okay” bar. Here are some quick signs your portfolio may not be there:

  • You’re mostly applying for jobs at companies which make 3D games, but all your portfolio work is 2D. The jump to working in 3D is not small, and you are competing against people with experience in 3D.
  • You haven’t listed any commonly-used engines (Unity, UE4) on your resume. Again, sometimes schools will force students to use weird proprietary engines so I will often see where this candidate went to school to figure out if they were constrained in that way– but if you have only used something like GameMaker and you’re applying for a game design job, you are competing against applicants who are already familiar with the tools they’ll need to use on the job.
  • Your portfolio projects aren’t polished. If you’ve got 4 or 5 projects on there and they’re mostly things you did at game jams, over a weekend, or are quick prototypes, then it’s difficult for a hiring manager to imagine that you know how to bring something to a degree of polish which would be suitable for a public audience. Cut your portfolio down to a smaller number of projects, go back, and polish them up further. If you don’t have a clear idea of what polishing looks like, check out this GDC talk by Mike Bithell.

If you really feel like your portfolio is in a good state, then Step Two may simply be that you’re getting to these roles too late. If a junior game dev role has been live for more than a week, it’s probably been flooded with resumes. The good news is that getting into the process earlier isn’t some inscrutable thing; I wrote a guide for it here a little while ago. 

Second: The Interview Itself

So, you’ve got an interview booked. In games, odds are good your first interview will be a phone interview followed by an in person “onsite.” All standard interview etiquette applies here, but with game development interviews in particular, there are a few extra things to be mindful about.

  • Know what the company makes. If you’re already familiar with their games and have played them, great. If not, acquire and play them before the interview. It’s just good etiquette, and you can answer questions you’re asked within the context of “well, looking at [last game your studio made]…”
  • Don’t bash what the company makes. If you’re interviewing for a job at a major company, it’s bad form to dissect or criticize games the company has previously made because odds are good you’re sitting in the room with devs who worked on those projects. The counterpoint to this is that sometimes you will be directly asked “in [last game], what would you have done differently?” as part of a designer interview panel– this is certainly an option to dig in, but still try to be respectful!
  • 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.
  • Be prepared to talk about yourself. Game studios are incredibly collaborative environments. No one wants to work with an asshole. You will likely be asked behavioral questions designed to suss out what it’s like to work with you. Typically, these will involve similar kinds of themes– tell us about times when you disagreed with coworkers/peers, times when you disagreed with a manager/authority figure, times when you decided to go the extra mile to help someone in need, times when you gave someone feedback which didn’t go well (or received difficult feedback yourself)… in general, you can be prepared for this sort of question by doing some reflection on your own work or schooling history before the interview. What sorts of people have you enjoyed collaborating with? Who has been a challenge to work with for you in the past? Why? What did you learn? How did you resolve challenges with them (in detail)? Did you change as a result of those interactions?
  • Treat every interviewer with respect. If you have multiple interviewers, make eye contact with both of them and speak to both of them when you answer questions. Shake hands. Introduce yourself. Ask about their role on the team. Don’t talk over or interrupt them. When you answer questions, give all the info you need to give, but try and be concise (I’ve listened to candidates go on for 15 minutes of a 30 minute interview on a single answer non-stop… eek.)
  • 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?