So you want to be a developer?

GDC Online 2010: Industry recruiters from 38 Studios, Foundation 9, and Obsidian Entertainment tell aspiring game makers what it takes to land a job making games.

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Who was there: Lindsey McQueeney (recruiter for 38 Studios and Big Huge Games), Dino McGraw (recruiter for Foundation 9, Double Helix, Backbone Entertainment), and Jim Rivers (hiring manager for Obsidian Entertainment).

What they talked about: While most of GDC Online is intended for established developers to network and swap lessons learned from years in the industry, the show also has a Game Career Seminar for aspiring game makers.

Lindsey McQueeney holds the keys to working on 38 Studios' Kingdoms of Amalur.
Lindsey McQueeney holds the keys to working on 38 Studios' Kingdoms of Amalur.

Rivers began the talk by stressing that every studio recruits people differently, but there are some common themes. For starters, McQueeney said the team wants to see resumes and online portfolios. Rivers stressed that a Web site is absolutely necessary, whether a person is looking to become an artist, a programmer, or any other discipline. Rivers said prospective employees should be wary of the banner ads they allow on their site, as male organ enhancement ads can distract from the quality of their work.

A good, well-organized Web site can be a great differentiating factor, McGraw said, as applicants need something to make them stand out from the crowd. For example, artists should separate their samples by genre, so a studio making a sci-fi game doesn't need to wade through samples of fantasy art. Rivers echoed that sentiment, saying that if he has to search around for what he wants, he has probably already moved on to the next resume. On a more fundamental level, McQueeney said it's important not to have typos or grammar errors on a site.

While it's important to stand out from the crowd, Rivers said it's important not to stalk developers, saying that comes up far too frequently. Dropping by the studio unannounced is also frowned upon. He also said that AAA developers aren't looking for jacks-of-all-trades, so applicants should focus on a specialty and pitch themselves as that one thing. McQueeney said talents in other disciplines might make for a handy bullet point on a resume but should be considered secondary to a primary proficiency.

Rivers said programmers or designers shouldn't be shy about sending in their best work, even if it doesn't look great. The people hiring understand that programmers aren't expected to be great artists; they're more interested in how good the programming is. On the other side of that, when submitting something that was a group effort, applicants should be sure to specify exactly what they did on the project. Rivers said he gets suspicious about projects that someone claims to have done entirely on their own when every aspect of it showed specialized skills at work.

Having a LinkedIn page is also key. McQueeney said it's one of her top two tools for recruiting. While it's good to list extra clubs and talents, she said it's not worth it to embellish on a resume to pad it out. It's OK to specify entry-level knowledge or real proficiency in a subject, but all the information should be helpful to the hiring manager. Rivers said the "fake-it-till-you-make-it" approach is particularly hazardous for aspiring developers.

"We've been doing this a pretty long time, and we can see through BS pretty quickly," Rivers said.

As for how to get a recruiter's attention, Rivers said it's fine for people to approach them politely. McGraw said that's a great way to separate themselves from the herd. If someone goes to his LinkedIn page and sees he's a Yankees fan, that's a good hook to start up a conversation. On the other hand, McQueeney said she doesn't want people doing background checks on her or talking to her about what she did on the weekend.

"That would just be creepy," McQueeney said.

One piece of advice Rivers gave for approaching recruiters at a show is to think friends first, business later. If they've just come off a long day of work, they probably don't want to go right back into work mode to deal with an applicant.

Rivers said he's looking for people that constantly grow. If Rivers tells someone when they apply, "You're not quite there," he might go back to that applicant's Web site in six months to see if they've improved. If they haven't changed anything, Rivers writes them off.

While much of the advice sounds generic, McQueeney said the panel wouldn't be here talking about simple spelling and grammar mistakes if people didn't make those mistakes every single day. It's heartbreaking to reject people for the smallest things, she said, but if a programmer doesn't care enough to put together an error-free cover letter, there's no way the hiring manager can assume his code will be clean.

There's something to be said for personality as well. Developers work in close proximity for extended periods of time, so they need to be able to get along. Rivers said the biggest cancer a studio can have is one jerk. People need to learn to play well with others, and McQueeney said it might be enough to axe an applicant if they simply won't make eye contact with her during an interview.

"We don't hire five-star technicians with two-star personalities," she said.

As for specific interview tips, the panel laid out a number of tips. Don't talk about salary or benefits initially. Don't be jaded or critical of the company's games. Do research on the background of the interviewers. Don't act cocky, as the interviewers will almost certainly be senior people unimpressed by that attitude. Try wearing at least a shirt with a collar and nice jeans.

And above all else, be clean. Rivers said he had one applicant with what appeared to be algae on his teeth, and the interviewers couldn't focus on his qualifications because they were too distracted. Odor has been another problem in the past, as people who come in to an interview smelling funky are probably going to come in to work smelling the same way. Tics like stuttering or pausing are less problematic, unless the job position in question relies heavily on being able to quickly communicate with others.

Rivers also said it's important not to get discouraged by minimum requirements in job postings. Junior artists applying to senior artist positions may not be considered, but McGraw said he hires more on talent, so a two-year experience requirement for a low-level position would be a better possibility. A college degree is one such flexible requirement.

"We haven't reached a place in the industry yet where you're required to have a degree," McQueeney said. "It's certainly helpful, but it's not a requirement yet."

McGraw added, "If you rock, I don't care where you learned how to rock."

On the other hand, the entire panel said a formal education can help greatly in ensuring people understand their field and how their work needs to be created to work in a game development context.

For some positions like concept artist and character artist, there are so many applicants that Rivers said it was like finding "a needle in a stack of needles." On the other hand, there are few people who pursue jobs like user interface artist, so talented programmers in that field are highly prized. McQueeney cautioned that people shouldn't go into a niche field like that unless it's what they have a passion for; good interface artists and designers are so prized that developers are not always willing to hire them for other positions.

Quote: "You guys are the future of our industry, so we want to make you better so you aren't struggling as often."--Rivers

Takeaway: There are dozens of possible pitfalls for prospective developers, but many of them can be avoided with a little common sense. The rest are made easier to navigate with a little forethought and careful preparation.

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