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Tips for Game Designer Applications & Interviews

Applying for jobs, especially as a designer? Here's a few ways to avoid common mistakes and stand out.

Elliot Pinkus, Blogger

February 19, 2013

5 Min Read

How many skilled designers have their applications overlooked because they’re not communicating their abilities?

Recently I had the opportunity to run the interview process as Uken Games expanded its “Design Department” from just myself to a 3-person team. After plenty of experience as an applicant, being on the opposite side of the process was quite the perspective change. After talking to many prospective designers, I noticed a few common mistakes popping up time and time again.

Nothing here is absolute or a deal breaker. There are always many factors involved, like who is receiving your application and the degree to which they adhere to a formal rubric. I tend to look at applicants more holistically. It’s a gestalt impression of their skills, ambition, willingness to learn, ability to clearly communicate, and more. Within that impession there are certainly ways to make yourself stand out, both positively and negatively.

1) Make sure you’re applying for the right job.
This applies to everything from your cover letter, to your resume, to how you present yourself in interviews. In most cases there is a job description. Read it carefully and address the points mentioned. If a studio has thus far focused on text-based mobile games, don’t only talk about your experience making FPS maps in Unreal. If that is your primary experience, then try to frame it in the right way. How can you apply those experiences to the work you’d be doing? Maybe your designing levels taught you how to analyze player behavior and create great experiences.

2) Write a solid cover letter.
There will be hiring managers and interviewers that could not care less, but for me it’s a significant factor. An engaging letter may convince me to move forward on a lacking resume. I want to know that you can communicate, that you have a personality, that you can express why you want to be a game designer. That last piece is key and I’ll come back to it below. Give context to your resume, don’t repeat it. You don’t need to be effusive and hyperbolic about your abilities, and don’t tell your whole life story (yes, we’ve all been playing games since we were kids, got it). Focus on why you want this job, and why you’re a good fit.

3a) I DON’T care how many GDD’s you’ve written or how many pages they were.
In fact, numerical answers for those are a turn-off. What do you consider a GDD? Is it a 2-page proposal or an 80-page bible? If you’ve written 30 game design documents but made one game, I have to wonder if those other documents were not very good. And giving a page count seems to imply that more pages is better, which is absolutely not true and could be the subject of a whole other post. For now, go look up Stone Librande’s presentation about One-Page Design Docs.

3b) DO mention that you have experience writing documentation, but tie it into the development process.
Was it a proposal or specifically defining implementation? Was it prescriptive (prepared ahead of time as instructions) or descriptive (clarifying and tracking how things function as development progresses)? Were you constantly updating it during development? Who used the document?

4a) Show passion.
This is incredibly important, especially during an interview. I want to hear that you’re passionate about the job. And I don’t mean suck up to the company you’re applying for. Acting like who you’re applying to is the Greatest Company In The World only gets you so far. What’s more important is being passionate about the JOB. You’re not applying to be the #1 fan, you’re applying to do great work.

4b) Express why you’re passionate about being a Game Designer.
Now the important thing is not just why you’re passionate about GAMES (you should be, but that’s not exactly uncommon.) Why are you passionate about the role of DESIGNER? Tell me why you loooove to design, and don’t just focus on the end result of releasing a game. What about design really gets you going?  Do you like balancing economies? Devising mechanics? Polishing levels? Studying player behavior? Convince me that you want to do the work. Being a game designer is the best job in the world, but it’s not all fun and games (well, it is games, but you know what I mean).

5) Be able to describe what it is you do as a game designer.
Impress me with insight into your thought process while designing. Talk about challenges and solutions you’ve come across while designing. Make sure to focus on what YOU did as a designer. This should involve talking about failures. If all your designs are perfect on the first pass, you’re doing it wrong. Tell my why your designs had to change and how you figured out the best solution.

6) Be familiar not just with the studio, but the space they operate in.
In our case, many of Uken’s games have been social role-playing games for Facebook and mobile phones. I don’t expect everyone to be an expert in the area (hell, I sure wasn’t when I started), but don’t be a fish out of water. Know a few competitors. For mobile development, the easiest way is to look at some of the games on the top grossing charts (not just top downloaded). That will show you what has been proven to work in the space.

[Cross-posted at http://www.elliotmax.com/. Follow me on twitter @maxmillion

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