Interview Them

It’s not a good time to be looking for a job: the last time the unemployment rate was this high, consumers were buying up the Atari 5200 and Nintendo had just released Mario Bros. to arcades. Studios are either churning employees to cut expenses (which is actually good news for new graduates) or freezing hiring unless someone knows someone who knows someone.

That said, getting a nibble on the line can be exciting. Deep down you are so tired of being unemployed and so excited to be creating again that you may have the tendency to throw yourself at any employer who shows the slightest interest. Interviews are a two-way street. If you care about what you will be doing, you should be trying to learn just as much about the studio and how you will fit as the HR person on the other end is trying to learn about you and your skills. Otherwise, you could find yourself miserable in an awful fit situation, unable to execute on a good job offer out there somewhere.

Here are some things about which to consider finding out more which you may not have considered:

  • Brainstorming Methods. This can tell you a lot about the creative culture of a studio. How do they structure brainstorms? Where are they held? How often? Who leads them? For instance, I once worked in a place that had one white board in the whole studio, shoved in the corner of a conference room. Knowing that would have been a sign that brainstorming really didn’t happen there, which tells you volumes about the creative process.
  • Conferences. You have to be careful as to how you phrase this one because you don’t want to seem like you are interested in the position to travel the world. The real meat of the question is how the studio treats ongoing education. Do they hold classes? Bring in guests? Send people to GDC, Siggraph, etc? If a studio focuses on training and educating its employees, then it tells you about how the organization sees its contract with those employees. Are they a resource to be spent or an investment to be curated? You may never want to actually go to GDC, but knowing the answer to this is still valuable.
  • Genre/Platform. Consider the tough position of the HR person. He or she wants to make sure you are a fit for the future, but can’t actually tell you what the requirements of the future are. Either he or she doesn’t know them or is not allowed to talk about it. So many games have been revealed simply because of a too strictly worded job posting. But that doesn’t mean you have to go into the situation blindly. By asking about the studio’s plans for genres or platform expansion you can easily read between the lines. Is this a studio ready to expand and change or are they happy doing what they do? Neither is the right answer, but you need to know what you will be working on in the future in general terms to get a hint as to whether or not the place will be a good fit for you. When I was at Tiburon I saw many people who didn’t want to be working on sports games. I’m pretty genre agnostic, but even I tired of sports after a few years. It’s good to know the general trajectory you face.
  • Advancement – For the love of God, never ask this directly in an interview, but you can ask around it. How does advancement work at the studio? If you are looking at a junior position, are people promoted to more senior positions? Is there a formalized system for this? How long does it take? This, like the conferences question, lets you know about how the studio sees its workers – stratified cogs in a machine or adaptable parts of the whole.
  • Autonomy – Autonomy is really tough to get a hold of in an interview, but wholly important to get a handle on. Autonomy is a function of two variables: position and studio culture. There’s nothing you can do about the first–more junior positions will have less autonomy. But the second is what you want to know. Does the studio trust its creators with creative decisions or are these decisions dictated from outside sources and to what degree? After all, what is the point of being a designer if you aren’t allowed to actually design? You can usually get a grasp of this simply by asking someone in a design role (if you get to speak with them) to talk about the process of how ideas get into the game. If there’s a lot of experimentation there, then the level of autonomy is likely pretty high. Also, you may not be looking for autonomy. Creativity is hard work. Maybe you want a place where you are told what to do down to the finest detail? I don’t, but know people who are more than happy to be a part of that relationship.
  • What Came Before – Again, this is impossible to ask during an interview but you can ask around it. Is this a new position or are you replacing someone? If you are replacing someone, why did they leave? Was it voluntary? I personally prefer to come into new positions because you can more easily define the role yourself–expectations aren’t set by a previous employee. But more importantly, did the previous employee leave because the job is insufferable? There’s no easy way to find this out. If you do a site visit, you may be able to talk with team members and get a feel for it, but even then it is hard to know.

It’s tough out there. People say you can’t afford to be picky. Is that true? I think you can’t afford to not be picky. You will likely have to pick up your life and move, work 50+ hours a week (you did ask about crunch periods, right?) and naturally while you are there you cannot execute options that may be better fits. Why would you take the first thing that shows up? My opinion may change when my unemployment checks run out. We all have necessities. But life is too short to not be happy with what you do with over half of your waking life.

The Rural USA Zombie/Ghoul Genre

– Whirlwind tour here, folks.Two years ago when I moved into a house in Florida I said “God damn it, I’m never moving again.” Then I moved to New York City and said “Moving is for suckers, good thing I’m in this Great City.” Well, I’m moving again, this time to a cheaper city to contemplate my options. And it is just a stressful as it always is.

Unemployment this time around has left me a bit crestfallen and unmotivated. I know that this situation is entirely not my fault, but I’m still left feeling inadequate. I’m trying to distract myself by writing. My writing has significant problems but I suppose all writers feel that way about drafts. I’ve got some board games in embryonic form and one that I am submitting to publishers.

In a self-promoting turn, I’m quoted in the debut issue of Handshake Magazine about violence in gaming. The magazine is free and full of great articles with eye-pleasing layout, so check it out.

– I have had time to play a few games. I’m utterly torn by Deadly Premonition. It is wholly awful, but it exudes this sort of creative artistry that shows someone cared for it. I read the postmortem in GameDeveloper and wanted to chuck it across the room when I read how long they spent making real event cycles for the townsfolk and other behind-the-scenes stuff. Maybe they could have spent some time on making the controls not stiff and unresponsive? Or maybe they could have hired someone who has at least written a short story to do the dialogue. In the way of a lot of Japanese-derived voice acting they take thirty second pauses between lines, so when there is literally a four minute scene where the characters introduce themselves to each other and no action or development happens at all, I want to get the source code and just comment out the whole scene.

Other than that, it has some interesting themes going on. You can pick it up for like fifteen bucks now. But be prepared for some gristle.

If you were a fan of Dead Rising then the demo-slash-prequel Dead Rising Two: Case Zero is probably for you. (Dead Rising hit a two run walk-off in the bottom of the ninth to beat Case Zero, if you are looking for the box score.) Here’s another instance where I am torn by the writing. In the opening scene, there is a very tense revelation of backstory as you find out that the child was infected by her own mother and that the father has sacrificed for her. Yay for characters with motivation!

Then you get into the game proper and it just lacks any sense of subtlety. There’s the pair of, ahem, ladies, on a bachelorette party complaining about how “omigod, not hot” it is that they are stuck in a bowling alley with some zombies. Uh, what? The auteur side of me wants to say that this is (as was Dawn of the Dead that the series is based off of) a commentary on the shallowness of popular American culture. There’s evidence to support this. Zombies still stand at the slot machines in the casino compelled even post-mortem (ha! Used that in two different ways this post. Achievement unlocked). There are a pair of “extreme” athlete fans that stay put fighting packs of zombies because it’s “awesome”. If I was working on this, I’d have put a zombie on a computer in the police station with a little image of Farmville on the monitor. But then I look at the lack of subtlety thrown in across the board (sure, there are motorbike forks sitting in this locked shed, why not) and just want to assume they are being silly because it’s their damn canvas and they can use whatever paints they wish.

But here’s an honest question: how does a town with ten buildings have a thousand zombies wondering on the street? Where did those people live? Where did they come from? Who are they? Why do they congregate on the streets? The Willamette shopping mall thing made sense – these folks come from the various burbs. Here it just looks like they were using the copy-paste tool to make it scary.

Here’s another question: why does a hunting supply store have a display of broadswords?

Here’s another question: how was Zombrex named, packaged, manufactured and distributed in a few days/weeks?

Here’s another question: How does Chuck attach nails to a propane tank without rupturing the tank?

Here’s another question: Ah, screw it. I’m thinking too much.

I guess you want to know if it is fun. It is! I played it through twice and cannot wait for the full game. I’d give my pinky finger to design on a Dead Rising game. I love ’em.

– I should write more on here, but when I think about games I start getting pensive and sad, so I’ve been avoiding it. I will rectify the situation.