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.