Bamboo Cyberdream

a panda wanders the electronic landscape

Design Interviews

(I had most of this written a while back, but have been sitting on it until my next job was settled. Didn’t want to jinx things.)

I have a lot of fun going to parties where I get to meet new people. Part of this is because I genuinely enjoy hearing about people’s lives, though I often express this interest with an unfortunately glib “so what’s your story?” Moreover, its really fun when the the topic comes around to what people do for a living because I get to smile and say “I design video games.” This elicits one of several responses.

  • Guy who doesn’t give a shit about video games:

Oh. I teach poetry.

  • Girl who doesn’t give a shit about video games:

My boyfriend plays Call of Duty a lot. Did you make that?

  • Girl who doesn’t give a shit about video games, but is kind of wanting to keep talking to me:

Oh yeah? I really like the Wii! And that guitar game!

  • Guy who likes video games:

Dude, that’s sweet! How’d you get that gig?

  • Girl who likes video games:

[See above.]

  • Game Programmer:

Man, I want to be a designer. How did you get to be one?

  • Other Game Programmer:

You design folks are fruitcakes.

  • Game Designer:

Oh, nice. Where do you work?

The point is that outside the industry, “Game Developer” is seen as a sexy job, and inside the industry, “Game Designer” is seen as a sexy role. This is not universally true; most artists/programmers/producers are very happy doing what they do. But there is a strong segment that wants to do design and feels like it’s the secret cabal. It’s also a frustrating secret cabal because oftentimes designers seem to have no tangible skills that differentiate them from other developers (or often seem defined by a lack of tangible skills, i.e.: “can’t code; can’t draw; must be a designer”).

Since I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately, the question I get a lot (especially from industry friends) is “what the heck do they ask you at a design interview?” Since “design” covers all manner of tasks, it’s hard to imagine how a company can suss out your abilities in an interview. So I wanted to do a writeup on my experiences with design interviews at several different studios over the past few months. I’m not an authority in this situation, so you don’t have to take my word for it. This is just a kind of “what happens at design interviews, how I got them, how I prepped for them.” This is also based on my experiences interviewing people for positions at EA, so there’s some of both sides here. (I’ve avoided mentioning specifics of actual companies or people, but all the stories are true.)

Step One: Get the Interview

In most cases, this is the hardest part. Again, because design is so amorphous, it’s hard to distill your qualifications into a resume. Especially if you’re just starting out and only have small personal design projects to talk about. (Of course Step Zero is doing those small personal design projects; like the book says, to be a designer you just have to say “I am a game designer,” and then make some games. No excuse.)

Obviously the best way to actually get an interview is to know somebody working at that company. It’s unfortunate when you’re trying to break in, but that’s the industry. I once read (no source, sorry) that something like 90% of positions in games are filled without ever being advertised. So really you’re much better off going to an IGDA meeting than scanning Knowing people is good; that’s why smart people like Darius write entire series on networking in the games industry.

Whether a contact can help you is a function of two things: how well they know you and how high up they are in the organization. (If you want to do design, it also helps tremendously if they, too, are designers.) Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother befriending lower people on the totem pole, for two reasons: (1) the real reason, that friendship and fellowship are good things in and of themselves, and (2) the more mercenary reason, that today’s junior designer is tomorrow’s project lead. But it does mean that you need to calibrate your expectations of what a contact can do for you. A junior artist who knows you very well is less likely to get you an interview slot than a creative director who remembers you from a conference. (Of course, after the interview they’ll go ask that junior artist what it was like to work with you, so still be nice to them. :-) )

Interview Prep

There are some things you should do before the interview. They seem obvious, but it’s amazing how some people don’t do them.

  1. Research the company. Don’t ask them where they’re located, what kinds of games they make, what their last titles were. You should already know that. All companies have websites now. Most have Wikipedia entries. Read them.
  2. Play their most recent game. I guarantee you that it will come up in the interview. They’ll ask what you thought of it. Nobody will immediately dismiss you for not having played it, but it will throw a monkey wrench in the conversation. You don’t have to have finished it, but at least give it a couple hours until you feel you have a good sense for what works and didn’t work.
  3. Research the people. Most of the time the recruiter will tell you who you’ll be talking to. Google them. They probably have pages on MobyGames or personal websites. Know the types of games and specific titles they’ve worked on. This lets you (a) avoid badmouthing someone’s past work [they may not like it either, but that’s not a safe assumption] and (b) “casually” drop how much you liked a game and then act surprised if they cop to having worked on it. You should only employ (b) if you actually did enjoy the game, though. Lying, pandering, or kissing ass doesn’t get you anywhere.
  4. Hygiene. Seriously. Shower, deodorize, etc. before meeting someone for an interview. Wear clean clothes. Brush your teeth. Carry breath mints if you have to (much better than chewing gum). Yes, everyone knows stories about the genius developer with poor hygiene, but nobody really likes him that much and you aren’t as brilliant as he is.

Jumping Through Hoops

Some companies will have you do tests before moving to the next phase of the process. One studio had me take a written test — it was 23 questions, I had two hours, and had to answer 15. The test itself was actually considered confidential, otherwise I’d post some questions here, but they covered a broad range of topics from the business side of the industry to level design to system design to team dynamics. This was before I had even done a phone interview; when it actually came time to talk to the team, we had lots to discuss since they already had a big chunk of writing representing my thoughts on games.

Another studio had me do freeform essays, with subjects like “how do you think you can change the games industry?” If you’re getting a question like this, it’s now the time to pull out all your grandiose theories, ideas, and brilliant notions. Just keep it in check and don’t try to sound like a revolutionary if you’re not one.

Sometimes you’ll get asked to submit samples of your work. This can be hard if you don’t have much actual work to show, so get cracking! It was especially hard in my case because I had spent the last three years on a game that is still under a non-disclosure agreement. I was able to retrofit some of the systems I had been working on and present them in a context unrelated to my old project. Tricky business.

One studio asked me to make a sample level for their recent game using the mod tools they had released. They also said “if you have anything else already done, that’s fine, too,” but I interpreted a big implicit “build something using our tools” in there. This is where they want to see if you understand the type of game they make, how quickly you can learn a toolset, and whether you can actually build something. My biggest problem with the sample I made for that studio was when to call it done — as one person working by myself (and not being an artist), I could have spent months polishing and getting something up to shipping quality. My guess, though, was that they were a development team used to seeing unfinished work and wanted to get a sense of what kind of designer I was. So that means polishing the areas I wanted them to see (for me story, dialogue, characters), and including in my writeup that I’d like to improve the weaker elements (level layout, visual richness).

The Phone Interview

Most companies, if they find your resume decent-looking and have a potential open slot1, will do a phone interview. I strongly remember Jesse Schell telling me the number one purpose of a phone interview: “To determine if the candidate is a raving lunatic.” That’s pretty much it. If you’re doing the phone interview, that means they already like the look of your resume, and think you might have some skills they could use. The worry is that you might be a raving lunatic with a nice resume, so they want to hear you talk. Your answers to the questions are also important, but it’s crucial that you seem upbeat, intelligent, passionate about games, and able to articulate your ideas. (I’ll get to the actual questions in a bit.)

You’d be amazed at how quickly you can make a decision based on a phone call. I had two phone interviews with one studio — the first with a lead designer which went well. The second interview had the studio manager on the line, and he lead with “What didn’t you like about [our last game]?” So I told him, having previously sketched out my list of pros and cons while prepping for the interview. His next question was “What else didn’t you like?” So I told him some more issues I had with it. Again he asked for more. In retrospect, this is the point where I should have shut up and said “that pretty much covers it,” but I did think the game had other problems, so I continued.

After about 10 minutes of just me and the manager going back and forth like this, he very quickly said “OK, thanks, we’ll be in touch.” I knew I had bombed, and that instinct was confirmed by a call from HR the next day. I didn’t come off as a raving lunatic (I hope), but I did seem like someone who wasn’t really that interested in the types of games they made.

The On-Site Interview

If the phone interview (or series of phone interviews) goes well, the studio will often want to meet you in person. This is the really fun part of the process, since you get to feel like a big-shot getting flown around the country (or world) and put up in swanky hotels. If you enjoy traveling (I do), this is terrifically exciting. If you don’t, this is all the traveling parts of traveling with very little of the sightseeing parts, so it can be stressful.

The actual interview can take many forms. One studio flew me all the way across the country for an interview that lasted just two hours, one of which was lunch. That’s very unusual in my experience, however. Most of the time your interview will last a good part of a working day, and you’ll talk to five or six groups of people in that time.

The on-site interview also serves as a “raving lunatic” test, but it’s more a time to see how you might fit in the studio culture. Your answers to questions are much more important than they were before.

In-person interviews can be intimidating. In one case, I was sitting across the table from one of my boyhood game development idols while he pitched his new project to me. Terrifying on one level, but also part of the steady, consistent demystification of game development that I’ve had since I started working. He’s just a guy. A really smart guy, but he’s not entirely sure how this game is going to get made, whether it will be good, or how to approach certain problems. Just like me! Only with more game-of-the-year awards and industry respect. :-)


Then there’s the all-important issue of what you get asked at a design interview. A lot of it depends on what kind of role they’re considering for you. One studio drew a simple level on a whiteboard and then asked me to redesign it with no more specific goal than “better.” Another asked me to design a game system to model the messiness of a room. I was asked to place myself on a triangle with the corners labeled “Programmer,” “Designer,” and “Producer.” I designed games around matchsticks as well as Cheers: The Video Game (yes, that Cheers). These questions are mostly to see how you approach a problem, how you communicate it, how you deal with feedback (when they start poking holes in it), and, at a raw level, whether your ideas are any good. Bombing a question like this won’t be held against you too much, since in a real design situation you have more time to think and consider the material. More practical tests like the whiteboard level design could have an output factor, though, since it’s a lot easier to say “that level is now better” than it is to say “you’ve created a good messy-room model.”

Practically all the interviews opened with something along the lines of “give us a quick rundown of your history.” You’ll get asked this question a lot. On the phone, in person, over e-mail. Usually the person asking the question already has your resume in front of them — they’re pretty much looking for you to give them the narrative behind it. Practice this spiel, since you’ll be giving it many times. The real trick is to only tell the relevant bits without leaving huge gaps in the story. My spiel picks up at the beginning of grad school, gives a quick rundown of the projects I worked on, follows me out to my first internship, back to grad school, then to my second internship and eventual job. Oftentimes you’ll get interrupted during this if the interviewer finds something interesting or knows somebody where you worked. “How big was the robot?” “Oh, did you work with Todd?” Don’t let your pre-rehearsed spiel keep steamrolling — your audience is engaged! Answer their questions!

You will get asked what you think about the studio or group’s most recent release (assuming they aren’t a new studio). Sometimes there’s generic “how would you improve it?” questions; other times there’s more specific “how would you add vehicles to it?” questions. Also read the reviews of the game so you have a high-level notion of what people liked and didn’t like about it. (You can do this in about 20 minutes by just reading the reviews linked from Metacritic. Make sure to read reviews that loved the game, ones that hated it, and ones in the middle. Best to stick with reputable sites, but all opinions can be valid.) That way you can say things like “I know a lot of people seemed to be frustrated with [system X] and I think [tweak Y] could have mitigated a lot of that.” You’re showing that you know how to make small iterative changes that improve a design, rather than just throwing everything out to start from scratch (even though they probably already had your idea but couldn’t implement it for any number of reasons). It paints you in their mind as someone who can come in at any stage of a project and have impact. Very frequently in our interviews we would find candidates we liked, but said “she’s really more of a big-picture designer, and we need more nitty-gritty people right now.” The tendency in a design interview is to show your ability to have grand thoughts, when what most studios are looking for (especially at the junior level) is people who can work a craft.

A lot of studios do the ever-so-trendy “Microsoft questions;” things like “How would you catch 100 butterflies in an hour?” and “How would you move Mount Fuji?” I detest these kinds of questions, personally, since I don’t think they actually help you learn about the candidate. In theory they showcase ability to think on your feet, apply strategies to novel situations, etc. But in reality the only really memorable answers are the glib or quippy ones. Even if the candidate shows some interesting lateral thinking, it’s just as likely to be a random stroke of luck as anything else. So I don’t ask them when I interview, but they’re out there and a lot of interviewers love them, so be ready. (It’s worth noting that Microsoft doesn’t even use these types of questions anymore, preferring more practical tests.)

One last thing it may be worth doing is playing some of the games to which the studio’s most recent game was compared (the Metacritic survey is helpful here, too). Especially if they came out around the same time or on the same system. I promise you that the team spent a lot of time following competitors’ development (usually not in a reactive sense, but just to know what they’re up against or how the market is responding to games of their type). They’ll have some thoughts on it; you should, too.

Yes, this means prep for an interview could involve playing several different games. But you’re a game designer — don’t you like doing that anyway?

After the Interview

Then you wait. Sometimes this can take a while — during one particularly long stretch of waiting for a studio in which I was very interested, a friend admonished me “Never plan a party or quitting your job based on when the HR rep said they’d get back to you.” Final decisions can sometimes take a while. You don’t want to be a bother, but pinging the HR rep every now and then isn’t too bad. Making you wait isn’t necessarily a bad thing: realize that a “no” will usually be decided pretty quickly, whereas a “yes” can take several levels of approval.

Take this time to send Thank You notes to the people you interviewed with, any contacts who helped get you in the door, or anyone who served as a reference. One of the best professors I ever had was very big on Thank You notes, and it’s something I try to keep up as much as I can. The note doesn’t have to be long or flowery. (Again, you don’t want to come off as a kiss-ass.) If you accept an offer, tell the people who helped you get it, and show your appreciation in a suitable way (“I owe you a beer next time I see you,” or buying something small from their Amazon wishlist, etc.). This person just helped land you a job — show some gratitude!

Finally, be prepared for weird things to happen. One studio closed down two weeks after they had me out there for an interview. I turned down an offer from another place only to get a call from the HR rep a few days later saying “I’m working at a different studio in the same city now; would you like to interview for a position here?”

I’ll Stop Blabbering Now

Hopefully this gives some insight into the somewhat mysterious process by which studios find new designers. There’s definitely a lot of magic and guesswork involved on both sides, and it’s clearly not a science.

Then again, neither is game design. :-)

1 There are some companies (usually the “prestige companies”) that never truly have open positions and simply hire smart people as they find them. This makes it very hard to get in the door, as they typically just respond “we have no open positions,” when what they mean is “you don’t impress us enough.” Having a contact here is more or less the only way to get in. (Shipping a AAA title as lead designer would probably also work, but then you wouldn’t be reading my blog about design interviews, now, would you.)