J.C. Connors has been running large game studios for many years. He’s interviewed and hired literally hundreds of people, so we’ve invited him to share his best advice on how to ace your interview. His guest post below is full of high-value tips and insights, so if you’re interviewing for game jobs, keep reading!
J.C. Connors: Interviewing for game companies can be daunting. It’s a bit like being a guest star on a long-running sitcom: Everyone you are about to meet has worked together for the past five years, knows each other’s quirks and passions, cares deeply about their team and creative process – and you’re the newbie who only has an hour to impress everyone.
In the last few years, the game industry has become more competitive than ever. Big studios are shutting down, developers are focusing more on quality, and schools are graduating more talented engineers, artists, and designers than at any time in the history of video games.
I interviewed over 100 candidates last year, and have witnessed some amazing interviews and some truly abysmal ones. Here are a few tips that will help you tip the balance.
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Tip 1: Be Specific
The biggest mistake I see candidates make is that they talk in overly-vague terms about what they did on a project, and I walk away from the interview not knowing what they actually contributed to their last game.
Games are team efforts, and there’s always going to be a tendency to say “we did this, we did that.” Don’t do that in interviews. Use the time to talk about what YOU contributed to the project. “I programmed the AI system so it would detect players and attack them during our stealth missions” is more impressive than “we built a pretty good AI system for the game.”
This tip also applies to your resume. Write specific descriptions of what you personally contributed! This is especially helpful if your resume consists of projects that people might not be familiar with. Spend a line in your resume, or a couple of sentences in an interview, to give people context about the game you are talking about. Don’t rely on people googling Battle Pong to see if it was a third-person shooter or a match-3 game.
Similarly, job titles are very loose in the game industry. So for example, saying you were a “Level Designer” on your resume is fairly unhelpful, while saying you “whiteboxed and scripted four levels and one boss battle while mentoring two other designers” will catch a hiring manager’s attention.
Tip 2: Don’t overly criticize your last job
It’s easy to get burned out on a project, especially after a long crunch. As a result, game companies have their spidey sense tuned for folks whose bitterness and cynicism might drag down their own team morale. Be upbeat, keep your criticisms simple and relevant, and don’t point fingers.
Tip 3: Ask good questions about the studio’s projects
I’ve always found that when an interviewee asks great questions at the end of an interview, I’m much more inclined to hire them. Someone who asks me “is it fun to work here?” isn’t going to win any points, but if someone asks “I saw Battle Wookiee 2 was a top 100 game in the app store – what prevented it from being top 50?” then I know they’re really interested in working on my team.
Tip 4: Show you’re a team player
One way to do this is to give an example of a time when you influenced a project outside of your discipline. Game studios are always on the lookout for superstar candidates that help push games forward by collaborating across disciplines. If you have a success story about how you, as a programmer, knew that the UI in your game wasn’t great, and then met with artists and designers to fix it, that’s a great quality that I’ll hire you on.
Similarly, show that you have knowledge of your game beyond your day-to-day work. If I ask someone what they thought of the last game they worked on and they don’t have an opinion, it’s almost an immediate no-hire. Even if you only modeled the trees in a game, you should have an opinion on the combat system.
Tip 5: Prepare portfolios and samples
Ask the company if they’d like to see examples during the interview process. Artists are always asked to bring a portfolio, but this can really help other disciplines as well. I once had a designer bring in a Half-Life level he did in his spare time and ask if he could spend 15 minutes walking us through it. He got the job. Programmers can bring code samples or games they’ve prototyped themselves. Producers have presented case studies of production crises they’ve handled.
Not every company asks you to bring examples. But you have a much better chance of being hired if you are proactive about this by volunteering to show something off.
Tip 6: Be self-critical
Be honest about the mistakes you’ve made in the past. Everyone wants you to be confident in an interview, but it’s just as important to show that you’re capable of learning.
Many interviewers will specifically ask you about a time you failed or weren’t happy with a task you worked on. You’d be amazed how many people have no answer for this, and the lack of humility is definitely a red flag for your interviewers. So be sure you’ve prepared a real answer for this question. Adequately describe the situation, but also talk about what you learned – and how you can avoid making that mistake again.
Tip 7: Energy!
Show that you want to be there on the interview! Smile, give firm handshakes, ask people how their weekend was.
Game developers work long hard hours with each other, so showing that you’re a pleasant human being goes far in the interview process. Even if ten minutes into the interview you’ve decided everyone at this studio is a jerk and you don’t want to work there, stay positive – the industry is small, so leaving a positive impression will only help you later.
Bonus Tip: Have Fun
Interviews can definitely be stressful, but try to have fun. Remember that lots of gamers would be envious to find out you spent a couple of hours hanging out with the people who created their favorite games!
JC Connors has been designing games since the mid-90’s, and served as the head of an 11-team game studio for several years. He’s currently rocking the mysterious and intriguing title of “Senior Leader” at Amazon.com where he interviews well over 100 game development applicants each year. You can connect with him via his LinkedIn profile.