Picking your next employee is almost as important to as committing to your next game concept. Developers large and small share their insights into hiring the right people for the right jobs
Game studios, quite rightly, are recognised for games that they build, but that are equally defined by the people that make up the team. Take away a game project, and a studio can live on. Remove all the staff, and a developer is just an empty building.
People, then, are the number one commodity for your next project. That, makes hiring just about the most important thing any studio does beyond actually crafting games.
But most game developers aren’t passionate about the logistics of hiring. Most come to this industry because they love making games. Compared to tasks like writing narratives and designing levels, drafting a job description is hardly appealing. Getting that process right, however, is almost as important as turning up to work in the morning.
Understanding every nuance of game development recruitment from the hiring side ultimately takes years of experience securing talent. But the learning never stops, so it helps to lend an ear to other studios. Studios like Sports Interactive, renowned for the Football Manager series.
Every single person I meet, I’m subconsciously measuring up for potential roles.
Spilt Milk Studios
Here the team works in annual cycles around their flagship IP. That approach allows the team to look at recruitment on a yearly basis, and welcome new talent in a rather orderly fashion. It’s an approach particularly suited to larger teams, but according to the studio's director, the method should never come at the expense of ad hoc hiring.
It's normal for us to have a couple of open positions at any one time – it’s harder recruiting for certain disciplines than others,” says Miles Jacobson. “But we tend to only hire for what we need, and try and give those people careers – I’m very proud that more than a third of our team have been here for more than a decade. But that doesn’t mean we’re closed to new talent joining. Quite the opposite.
“We tend to avoid contractors, in the same way that we try and avoid middleware. We prefer to roll our own, and have the knowledge to any secret sauce in the studio.”
Already, Jacobson has highlighted an important point; the common distinction between ‘job’ and ‘career’. Most of those pursuing work in the games industry are not just looking to pay the bills. They come to the industry with a passion that they want to fuel a career, and there's a lot of vacant positions to choose between. That means securing the best talent for your game project comes down not just to waht they bring to the table, but what you offer them. Show prospective employees that the job on the table is about much more than current salary and responsibility, and you’ll likely attract applicants that will bring a great deal extra to the position.
Recruitment in an increasingly complex sector also presents studios looking to hire up with another consideration. Broad, varied recruitment strategies can reach higher numbers of a wider array of job seekers. But equally, an elegant, simple approach can keep things sharply focused; something especially useful in a world of specialists, and small teams with limited resources.
There are so many options either way you go, with agencies, HR experts, online resources, word-of-mouth and good old fashioned networking each providing a robust route to welcoming future colleagues. Choosing the best strategy for your studio comes down to resources you already have and roles you may be hiring for.
Over at long-standing UK studio and current VR specalist nDreams, the team have found that keeping their options open reaps many rewards in spite of - or perhaps because of - the effort needed.
“nDreams has a very broad recruitment strategy and a mix of approaches to sourcing for our roles,” explains Tamsin O’Luanaigh, the outfit’s HR manager. “These include advertising for specific roles and ongoing advertising for roles we know are hard to source. We use a mixture of direct advertising and agency sourcing for both permanent and contract roles, and we always welcome speculative applicants as we are keen to build a pipeline of talent who we can contact when opportunities become available.”
Our third interview is essentially me trying to work out whether or not they are an axe murderer.
That broad method, O’Luanaigh reveals, has largely been established and refined in the last year. And according to her colleague and nDreams VP of development Tom Gillo, it has brought many advantages, without sacrificing the importance of employing for careers over jobs.
“Using a variety of resource pools allows us to be more flexible as our projects determine the size and scale of the resources we need,” he states. “It’s also important to recognise the value of having a core pool of talented and passionate individuals in-house who can offer the extra resources as and when they are needed.”
Sometimes building an internal HR resource while partnering with agencies and following various other routes is simply too costly, or too much effort if expansion plans are modest or temporary.
Spilt Milk is a team of two. Managing director Andrew Smith and technical director Andrew Roper are currently busy polishing Lazarus, an ambitious blend of shmup, MMO and roguelike. That doesn’t leave them too much time to devote to recruitment, but the team is convinced by the power of harnessing external contributors as their development demands change.
“We are always on the look out for talent,” says Smith. “It’s accurate to say that every single person I meet, I’m subconsciously measuring up for potential roles – but that’s not because I’m a vulture; more that you never know when an opportunity might happen and you’ve got to move quickly. Also, I’ll always remember a far smarter person than me saying that you need to hire for the people, not the roles. That’s often a luxury small indies don’t have but, basically, if you find someone amazing who fits the team, you just have to try to find a way to bring them on.”
When it comes down to hiring, Spilt Milk keeps it simple. It prefers to meet applicants in-person, and it finds that the temporary contractor suits their needs best, while giving the duo a chance to see if a new collaborator might even become a permanent hire.
“Some people want that, some people don’t. In the end, that decision comes down more to their attitude and the way they work in the company’s culture,” Smith muses. “Even with just two permanent staff, we still have a culture of sorts, driven by the personalities of the people involved. Sometimes you find an amazingly talented person who just doesn’t fit.”
Over at Chucklefish, the mid-sized indie outfit behind sci-fi sandbox adventure Starbound, the team see many benefits in keeping recruitment straightforward. While business manager Donna Orlowski plays down any notion that the team has a particular recruitment strategy, the studio is a growing one, with a good idea of what they need to thrive.
“As we recently started working on a number of new games we have locked down recruitment as we have enough staff to deliver these projects,” Orlowski says. “However the aim is to always stay open minded and take an opportunity when it’s presented to us. For example, we’ve permanently hired a number of people who used to be Starbound contributors or contractors – they’ve proven to be invaluable team members, so we could not let them go. This is why we never say never.”
In other words, for a smaller outfit that knows their game, their studio culture and their needs, sometimes an ad hoc approach to hiring is best.
On the matter of studio culture, there is perhaps nothing more important than finding a hire not only with the right experience and attitude, but who will equally gel with your team. A studio is powered by the interactions between its team members, which means finding that cultural fit will see employee and employer get the most from a hire.
“With people working together for so long, we try and find people who are going to fit into our team on a personal level. That’s very important,” offers Sports Interactive’s Jacobson. “Our third interview is very informal, and is essentially me trying to work out whether or not the candidate is an axe murderer. Although someone did once answer ‘yes’ to that and still got the job – but they are a LARPer.”
It’s a point playfully made, but it’s an important one. And it matters whether your studio is micro-sized or vast, most agree.
Moreover, studio culture is in part a responsibility. The games industry’s struggle with diversity and equality is well documented and, while things are getting better, there is a long way to go. Much of the responsibility of engendering cultural diversity can fall on the shoulders of staff already tackling recruitment as a secondary function to their core role. From one perspective, that presents a significant challenge to bettering diversity.
“Studios have to do more than just hope for more diverse CV’s to appear,” asserts David Smith, MD of recruiter Interactive Selection, and founder of the UK’s Women In Games and BAME in Games non-profit networks. “Struggling studios will remain struggling until they take additional action to make the studio appear more welcoming. Games compete with tech and internet companies for much of the very best talent.”
So what can those developers really do? Fortunately, Smith has an answer. “There is no silver bullet,” he posits. “More diverse applications for jobs will
only come when a job and a studio looks to be more appealing. This means friendlier HR policies – e.g. no crunch, more dignity at work– and the visibility of role models. This means more awareness of unconscious bias and looking for the best person with potential, not just a person that can hit the ground running.”
Recruitment is an expertise built from a dizzying variety of undersized components. There is no one right or wrong way to find talent. Much of it will come down to gut instinct, and the real instinct in finding a fit for your team is one we use everyday; our ability to interact with other people. From that perspective, we have each had a lifetime of recruitment training we can take to our next hire.
RECRUITING THE FUTURE
How does - or doesn't - new technology like augmented and virtual reality impact hiring practice?
The only thing that doesn’t shift within the games industry is the constant change. New trends and tech mean studios are founded on a landscape in eternal flux.
As such, change is something developers should be used to. But with the arrival of technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality – and thanks to the new emphasis they place on pan-discipline learning – it would be easy to assume recruiting may be evolving into a more complicated business.
Yet there’s a case to argue that such technological diversification only makes recruiting a more fluid process.
“Honestly, it means it’s a bit easier,” offers Spilt Milk technical director Andrew Roper on the impact of those not working with the likes of VR and AR. “We’re concentrating on making ‘traditional’ games with a core audience in mind, so while it narrows the talent pool, it also focuses it.”
“There are some people who want to work in those fields and if you aren’t in them, they won’t be interested,” says Sports Interactive studio director Miles Jacobson. “The hiring drive from those with funding who are in those fields means there are fewer people around, but also that there will be lots of people with that experience available in a couple of years, as not everyone there is going to succeed.”
Change, it seems, can help the game development hiring process as much as it complicates things.