How to Get Hired at a Game Studio: Game Engineer Edition

Posted: December 10th, 2017 under Filament Games, Opinion.

One of my responsibilities at Filament is facilitating the hiring process, and I will often be the first person to screen applications. Upon first review, I try to give each applicant 10 minutes of my time. Based on Filament’s structure, I need to evaluate a candidate on the following criteria:

  • Are they capable of building a game from start to finish?
  • Can they execute at our pace and quality levels?
  • Does both the studio and the prospective hire have something to gain from working together?
  • Cultural fit: do they care about educational games?

I’ll unpack what it takes to answer some of those questions and give some general advice on how to make it past the first hurdle in the job application process.

General Advice: Presentation Matters
Programmers, as a group, tend to undervalue presentation. When reviewing applicants I realize that, as a programmer, you might not have much control over the art in your projects. This makes your resume and other materials that much more important.

Part of everyone’s job is communicating with teammates as well as clients or stakeholders. A programmer will be responsible for writing instructions, documentation, and code comments. Finally, a large component of a programmer’s responsibilities is supporting the art team’s execution of their vision. Your application is a great opportunity to display your organization and communication skills, so don’t waste it.

General Advice: Avoid Listing Soft Skills On Your Resume
Skills that I cannot assess are hard for me to evaluate. Soft skills concerning what you are like to work with are the responsibility of your references. Avoid all of the following:

Creative * Attention to Detail * Communication * Teamwork * Problem Solving * Decision Making * Planning * Organization * Integrity * Stress Tolerance * Fast Learner * Self-Starter * Takes Initiative * Dependable * Hard Working

Provide Appropriate Context For Skills And Projects
If you merely list a skill like Unity or C# I have no way to gauge your ability or when you last practiced that skill. Technology moves fast and skills become outdated quickly. It’s possible that you do not have the space on your character sheet (resume) to define your ability level for every skill, but I should at least find that information on your Linkedin profile or personal website.

For projects, I need the following information:

  • Development Environment
  • Team Size / Role / Specific Contributions
  • Timeline

I have rarely found applications that provide all of these details clearly. In particular, student projects will vaguely block time into semester length units, which leaves me to guess how many actual hours went into the project. Another common vice is stating that a project was for a game jam, leaving me to research the constraints of the event. Also, avoid giving yourself gratuitous titles on small teams – it can come across as dishonest.

Own your story. I have seen many applications listing themselves as an indie developer only to discover they have some other full time job or responsibility. I will be more impressed if you released a game in the past year working nights and weekends because that demonstrates passion. If you have been indie for a long time and have little to show for it – that raises a lot of red flags.

A Resume Alone Is Not Enough
The quickest route to crushed dreams is to not show off your work. This is a job in the entertainment industry, and showing is better than telling. You need demos, videos, or downloads or I am moving on to the next applicant.

Nothing compares to having something I can play immediately, but video is a very close second. Video can be best solution if there is specific hardware required or for multiplayer experiences. You might also want to provide a video option if your project takes a long time to download / install, requires an account to be registered, or isn’t available for free (if you have free codes, provide them with your application instead of by request).

Programming skill is actually very hard to access quickly. As soon as I see enough evidence in your resume that you are probably a decent programmer, based on education and work history, I move on to any links provided. Only if everything looks good will we invest the time reviewing code samples or phone screens.

What Makes A Good Demo: Focused And Polished
I have seen countless remakes of Flappy Bird, Space Invaders, Arkanoid, Galaga, generic 2D side scrolling platformers, and incomplete projects. Most of these kinds of remakes are worse than the original games, and moreover they are too trivial to judge someone’s abilities. Unity actually provides step by step instructions on how to make most of these. You could build any of these without the risk of solving a hard problem. If you have simple demos that are unpolished I have to decide if you are incapable of executing at a professional level, or if you are complacent with something that is merely functional.

I commonly have job applicants with a half dozen or more unpolished projects in their game portfolio. Sometimes a wealth of projects can be beneficial. For example, if they display adapting to a breadth of different technology or game genres. However, with the limited time I have, I can review, at most, two games. It is critical to point out to the reviewer the most worthy projects to review. There are incredible diminishing returns as you add more projects – some of your work will go completely unreviewed. Quality is markedly more important than quantity.

Constructing a good demo is hard, and some components like artwork and sound are critical for polish but completely unfair to judge against the programmer. Demos are a particularly difficult challenge when getting your first game job and only having student work. I’ll share a secret: we are all embarrassed by our early work. We all started from crude projects, and what’s more important than the results of those projects is what we learned from them.

If you do not have much to show, your best option is to write postmortems for your projects. Talk about each challenge you faced and how you overcame them. Critique your own work. Describe what you would do differently if you started over. Walk through your thoughtful analysis when you reached a major decision point. Share what worked exceptionally well. You have to find a way to share your expertise. Postmortems are always helpful, but they become essential if your work doesn’t match your abilities.

If this was helpful make sure your check out the other articles concerning careers and getting hired on the blog.

Learn more about getting hired at a game studio:
Get Hired: Tips for Getting a Job in the Game Industry
Interested to Employed: How to Get a Job at a Game Studio

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