Opinion: Solving the design hiring problem

Opinion: Solving the design hiring problem

By Jon “Swede” Selin

June 16th 2017 at 2:47PM

Jon “Swede” Selin, VP of design at Pocket Gems, guides us through his hiring process for new designers

Many studios struggle with properly evaluating game design candidates. I've spent over a decade hiring designers at companies like CCP Games and, more recently, for a new hardcore studio that we’re creating at Pocket Gems. During this time, I’ve crafted and iterated on effective hiring procedures and tests.

My process involves finding the design qualities your company needs, then building an interview slate around those qualities.

If you have a career development track or detailed job descriptions you probably already have a decent list to start from, not to mention your company values. The qualities you’ll want to test for will differ wildly from company to company. For example, at Pocket Gems we care a lot about our entrepreneurial spirit, so we test for the following qualities (which might be inconsequential or even harmful to other organisations):

  • Leans toward action (prototyping) over deliberation
  • Proactively seeks out and solves problems outside of area of responsibility

But you don’t just want culture qualities. This is about hiring for game design after all, so you might be looking for things like: 

  • Can iterate on and simplify designs while retaining design goals
  • Understands and respects the difference between designing for depth vs complexity

Don’t be afraid to make an exhaustive list of qualities. At Pocket Gems, we have something like 70 qualities that we strive to test for during the interview process. This is also where you should hone in your specific designer needs. For example, if your organisation is heavy on analyst-type designers but low on empaths, you should define the desired qualities in your next hires that will bring balance to your team.

 

DESIGN THE SLATE

Make sure to split your interviews evenly across the qualities you want to test for. A lead designer interview slate could look something like this:

  1. System design
  2. UX/UI design
  3. Balance and parameters 4. Low-level mechanics
  4. Social systems
  5. People management

There should be no accident what questions a candidate is asked. It should always be the same set, designed to get a read on the qualities you’ve defined. At a larger company with many candidates coming through, you'll need multiple people trained on doing each interview.

For example, you might have three different designers that all know how to ask the ”balance and parameters” questions. It’s critical that you always ask the same set of questions so that you can get a consistent read on candidates. Make your questions about solving specific, real problems. If you ask open-ended questions, the only thing you learn is whether the person is a good interviewer and what their tastes are.

When interviewing someone, you should always make the interview as close as possible to the work the candidate would be doing. What does that mean for game design? Have them solve design problems of course!

This means that for the balance and parameter interview, we might have you whiteboard or use an excel sheet to solve an actual balance problem or improve an economy model. For a low- level mechanics interview, we have you collaborate with one of our designers on designing a kit for a character or unit in a game.

It’s critical that the problem is specific - we don’t say “design a character for a game,” instead the candidate and interviewer decide on a specific game that they both have deep domain knowledge of and design a unit for that game. We’re trying to simulate a real working environment with two designers solving problems inside a product they know well.

DO A WRITTEN TEST FIRST

Finding a good designer that meets your project’s needs is hard. Many developers interview huge swathes of candidates, which can be time consuming and resource intensive. To combat this, I always put a design test first in the hiring process. These tests can take two to eight hours to complete, but only five to 15 minutes to review, allowing us to assess a large volume of candidates while still understanding their profile and skills.

Writing the test questions, follow the same pattern as the onsite questions. Make them:

  • Specific
  • About solving design problems 
  • Map to qualities relevant to you

We let the candidate pick from a list of games that we have tests prepared for. I’ve found that around five to six tests of genre-defining games that are relevant to your company is enough for anyone applying to have a good enough understanding of the game to take the test. In the test we might ask them to add or remove a specific feature to the game, or give them a design for a piece of content with a lot of clear problems in it and have the candidate redesign it.