Thoughts on the Interview Process in the Game Industry

Original Author: Wolfgang Engel

The interview process in the game industry follows fairly common standards. Here are a few thoughts on the process of hiring a person. The knowledge covered on this page is partly from my own experiences -mostly on the side of employers- and from anecdotal evidence. This text is considered an invitation to share your thoughts / advice below.

Let’s start by dividing the interview process in three stages:

  1. Pre-Production – everything that happens before the interview
  2. Production – the actual interview
  3. Post-Production / Probation

Pre-Production

Let’s assume the interested parties found each other via an ad or the recommendation of a friend. Now a first conversation happens between some senior people on the side of the employer and the person who wants to accompany those people. Although an ad might have stated what kind of knowledge and tasks would be required to do the job, it is important at that stage to find out as much information as possible about each other and the future challenges.

There needs to be a well defined job description, where all the expectations can build on. The industry uses standard terminologies to describe certain task groups like AI Programmer, Graphics Programmer, Lead Programmer, Technical Director, Producer, Technical Producer, Animator, Lead Animator, Designer, Lead Designer, Design Director etc.. It is good practice to stick with those terms. They represent a common level of organization.

After a relaxed round of first conversations, it is now a good time to ask for second opinions about the potential employer / employee. It is practice to find out how an employee was perceived at previous employers by asking him for references or calling up people at the previous employer. To evaluate a potential employer, there are websites and communities that track how often a company lays off people and under which conditions and there are first hand descriptions how the working conditions are. Some companies even release press releases about this to please their investors with this kind of data. Some company websites have pictures of the working environment and quotes from the people that work there.

If everything goes well, an interview is setup. In most cases that leads to the interviewee flying in. Booking coach is probably the norm for interviewing people, but some people are oversize. It is good practice to ask if they require an aisle seat. More senior people can expect business class flights, especially for long distance trips. Most companies have policies that describe who is allowed to fly business, first class or coach. In case there is only the coach option it is good practice to mention those policies to senior people.

Picking a Hotel for an interviewee can be a critical part of the interview process. A cheap Hotel without proper heating during a cold time makes even a die hard candidate regret coming by. Even if the position is not very senior, small things like a friendly message placed on the table are a good way to make people feel comfortable. Hotels usually have a free service for this. The seniority of the person hired should be reflected in the way he is accommodated. Companies typically have long-term relationships with Hotels. Those relationships can be used to welcome a potential interviewee.

Production

Like in all parts of our life, behavior patterns are showing the level of social capabilities and the overall vibe of people in the company and the interviewee.

It goes without saying that people need to be polite and friendly, for example offer water and make a guest feel comfortable. A candidate who applies for a job where he is required to interact with a large amount of people in the company needs to be vocal and being able to spread the right vibe that fits into the company.

It is a mistake to start an interview by investigating the interviewee about the question, if he really worked on the games he says he worked on. This kind of investigation should have happened before the interview.

The same is true for questions about the reasons why so many people were laid off at the  potential employer.

Being polite also means that someone is interested in responses. For example, if someone goes through the effort of expressing an opinion, valuing his opinion by for example at least friendly nodding to him is a social ability not uncommon in most cultures. Cutting off responses represents the other end of the spectrum.

The interview is also a bad time to behave arrogant or cocky … maybe you see this person again.

A good starting point for an interview is to ask someone if he can show off some of his previous work. Most senior people will show up with something that makes their claims accountable like screenshots, power-point slides or even source or demos.

Giving the -certainly nervous-  interviewee the chance to talk about an area where he / she feels comfortable will be appreciated by both sides.

For the person who interviews, now is also not a good time to show superior knowledge. Throwing in a few short and entertaining stories that allow the interviewee to smile, laugh and contribute something is certainly a better way to get to know someone. After all a huge part of the interview process deals with finding out if someone can fit into an existing team. A creative team in the game industry is a completely different story than -for example- a sales team. The human factor in the relationship between people plays an important role. They have to create something together, while a sales person is on his own out in the field and comes back with a number and relies on a relationship with a potential customer that only lasts a few hours face-to-face time, a creative team stays together for years and has to overcome all the things that come up when humans have to live in a small space together. There is a complex social network in place that defines the relationships between those humans and it is important to keep the team running with all the constantly changing love/hate -and in-between- relationships on board. People on the team might even deal with difficult personal relationships and you end up with a mixture of chaos and randomness typical for family or close friends scenarios.

In that context I like the following quote from the book “Team Leadership in the Game Industry”: “As will be seen, a major cause of people leaving a company is the perceived poor quality of their supervisors and senior management. The game business is a talent-based industry -the stronger and deeper your talent is, the better chances are of creating a great game. It is very difficult, in any hiring environment, to build the right mix of cross-disciplinary talent who function as a team at a high level; indeed, most companies never manage it. Once you get talented individuals on board, it’s critical not to lose them. Finding and nurturing compentent leaders who have the trust of the team will generate more retention than any addition of pool tables, movie nights, or verbal commitments to the value of “quality of life”.”

Apart from the soft skills there are also hard skills required. In case of a junior position, there are usually programming tests prepared. If the person doesn’t know the right answer, it is good practice to move on to the next question. Interviews are not a good time to start teaching someone a certain topic. Senior people, most of the time need to be hired to extend the knowledge available in the company. They need a chance to show what they can add to the company.

On the Director / Manager level, it is good practice not to let future employees interview their future boss. This could destroy a future working relationship upfront and doesn’t help the team building process. It is like starting a conversation on religion or politics. Someone will be unhappy at the end of the conversations. On this level interfacing with the rest of the team of leads to “feel the vibe” and define the expected interfaces used to interact  in the future is much more important.

An interviewee needs to appear vocal and self-motivated. There shouldn’t be any harm in stating that the answer to a question is not known to the interviewee because there should be other opportunities to show knowledge or it is just not the right job. Bringing in a notebook to demonstrate work previously done is a great way to prove what an interviewee can bring to the table. For a programmer there is nothing that talks louder than a demo and source code and an explanation how it was done. If no one wants to see a demonstration, maybe it is a good time to consider applying for a different job.

In general, if any party feels that the job is not appropriate or the candidate is not suitable, stop the interview and apologize. Don’t waste time with a job interview that won’t lead anywhere.

After a successful day of interviews, there comes usually the part where details of the future contract are negotiated. It is good practice to defer the salary question and think for a night about it. In any other case, the interviewee is expected to open the negotiations with a base salary. A good way to start is to tell what you made before and what you want to earn in the future and why you think your contribution to the company will be worth it. In general most people have a rough idea what is paid somewhere else. As far as I know the gamedeveloper salary overview is cut off at $200,000.

Post Production

If all the negotiations went well, a contract will be send out to the future employee. Losing people by sending out the contract too late seems to happen more often than one would think.

There does not seem to be an official probation period in the US, but it is good practice -similar to European Countries- to observe the new hire closely for the first 3 – 6 months. This is a good time frame to verify if the employee and the company are a good match. Working with someone for 3 – 6 months is the best way to find out if he or she fits into a company. A new hire should be prepared to wait for a certain period to see if the new job is a good fit.