Hiring for indie games: It’s harder than you think

Ever wonder what it’s like to hire for a position in the game industry? If you’re an aspiring indie studio founder who may have to do some hiring or a candidate who wants some insight into what you’re up against, you may find some of these insights surprising!

Late in 2020, I decided I wanted to experiment with a more organized approach to social media management for Cosmic Turtle projects. I didn’t have time to do this myself (and I wanted it done properly), so I posted an ad online for a (very) part-time Social Media Manager position.

In less than two weeks, I received over 100 applications. The process of sorting through these applicants was remarkably informative, with candidates demonstrating a spectrum of experience and level-of-effort that ranged from multiple years of relevant experience and detailed portfolios to no relevant experience, no cover letter, and bare-bones resumes!

In an effort to help other indie studios understand what this process is like, and to provide some advice to future applicants for similar positions, I worked with Cosmic Turtle’s newly hired social media manager, Cassie Hoglund, to compile data about the applicants and write down some key insights. (Cassie has since moved on to Proletariat Inc. and I’m really happy for her!)

First, I made clear in the posting that I would pay $20/hour, which definitely increased my chances of finding someone great for the job. I wanted to be up-front about it instead of asking people to just send their rates for a few reasons:

  • People who desperately want to break into the industry might be tempted to underbid in the misguided hope that I’m just looking for the cheapest labor
  • Conversely, people with experience should know that I’m serious
  • …but consultants who focus on cash-rich companies will know that this is not for them

(I checked Glassdoor to get an idea of how this compared to standard salaries for Social Media Manager and it was… surprisingly average.)

The key requirement for the position was “Demonstrated fluency with social media: You’ve done something interesting with it on your own already, like run a youtube channel or a novelty twitter account or… I don’t know, something cool I never would have thought of.” The key requirement was vague because, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I deliberately left it open-ended, hoping I’d find some truly great candidates but keeping expectations low.

By the time I closed out the listing, I had received 115 applications. Only 30 applicants had 2+ years of professional experience in any area and had professional experience with social media management of some kind. Ultimately, there were just four candidates who stood out enough for an interview… but it took a few days of digging through applications before I could even figure out what “good” looked like.

Roughly half of all applicants (55) claimed to have some experience in social media. Many of those applicants’ managed accounts had relatively few followers, even after many years. Some applicants had managed Facebook pages for large companies with tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of followers, while some claimed that having a personal Twitter account was sufficient demonstration of their social media experience (it’s not).

There were eight applicants who just sent an email with a resume and nothing else. Most of them had no relevant experience, and many didn’t even have any indication in their resumes they were interested in the game industry. Please be aware that if you do this, you are wasting everybody’s time and will be rejected immediately. Interestingly, seven out of eight of these applicants were men.

Seeing that small cluster piqued my interest in other potential differences along gender lines. Of applicants with two or more years of social media experience, it was roughly even. But out of all applicants with any social media experience, 56% of all female applicants had social media experience, compared to only 43% of male applicants! This phenomenon has been written about extensively already; This Harvard Business Review article is worth a quick read.

In terms of general levels of professional experience, the numbers were roughly the same (between no experience, a year or less, one to two years, or more than two years of professional experience in some capacity) between men and women.

We also broke down the data by the area in which applicants had personal experience outside of social media.

First, there were a few game developers trying to break into the industry. These were students in their last year of college, specifically for game design or programming. I would honestly rather hire any of these people to work on a game than to manage a social media account! My advice to these folks is that if you’ve got a bunch of game programming work in your portfolio already, you’re better off applying for a junior developer job. It’s a bit harder to break in as a game designer, but don’t sell yourself short if you’ve got a good portfolio.

(Side note for game design students: Make sure your game design portfolio actually demonstrates game design. A list of games is not a portfolio, even with a few screenshots. Downloads are good, but video footage is better, and extensive commentary explaining mechanics and processes are great. Diagrams, step-by-step guides, brainstorming docs… Quality over quantity here!)

The second interesting group was people with marketing experience but no game industry experience. These were almost universally women, many with experience doing social media management for companies and brands, often exclusively on Instagram. I don’t want to discount any of this experience, but (in my opinion) there’s something very different about marketing games than just about anything else and, if given the choice between someone with two years of marketing experience outside of games versus someone with one year of equivalent marketing experience exclusively with games, I would almost always pick the latter.

Third, eSports. I had 24 applications (20% of the total!) from either streamers, eSports event organizers, or social media managers for eSports teams and organizations. A few of these were really big — streamers or organizations with tens of thousands of followers, even hundreds of thousands! Don’t get me wrong, these are really impressive… but eSports has the wind behind it right now — it’s hot. Meanwhile, indie games are… well, Google ‘indiepocalypse’ if you’re not familiar. I could be wrong, but my hunch is that it is more difficult to get ten thousand people following a game account than to get fifty thousand people following a League of Legends team account.

Fourth, community management. There were several candidates with lots of experience as moderators for Discord servers and Facebook groups. I think there’s some really interesting stuff going on in the world of game-specific Discord servers with bots and contests and stuff like that. I put aside a few of these candidates to potentially talk to later, but as long as there’s no Cosmic Turtle community to speak of, there’s no need for a dedicated community manager.

There were a few other interesting clusters of candidates: Several filmmakers and video editors, a few creative writing majors (one with a PhD!), a few musicians, even someone who was making a living with a Minecraft server. All of these were fascinating candidates, and I tried to dive into whatever they were working on, understand what made them interesting candidates, and write as many personalized responses (well… rejections) as I had time for.

A few other notes about applicants:

  • One of the listed requirements was solid technical and creative writing skills in English. Obviously, a few candidates leaned really hard into this one, hoping it would buffer their lack of experience doing social media management, and I don’t blame them. But a few candidates very clearly did not have solid English skills, and I am kind of baffled as to why they applied.
  • A few candidates leaned heavily into SEO and/or web design experience. These are great skills to have, and arguably SEO is similar to the data-intensive parts of social media management, but many of these candidates wrote exclusively about SEO or web design in their cover letters, leading me to wonder if they even understood what the job was or had bothered to customize their cover letters.
  • Several candidates had a “goal” section in their resume that listed a totally different position. Look, I know that I pitched the job in a way that made it sound like a potential side gig, but just delete the “goal” section if it’s so drastically different from the position you’re applying for!
  • Had several teenagers offer to work for free to build experience. I understand and appreciate the hustle, but no. Definitely, absolutely not.
  • Several candidates’ cover letters leaned heavily on being passionate about games, having played lots of games, or having played games since they were very young. While I appreciate the sentiment, this is kind of a baseline expected qualification for someone who wants a job like this. Focus your cover letter on why you would be good at the job itself, not why you want to be in the industry so badly; Remember that one of the reasons so many studios get away with paying (and treating) their entry-level employees so poorly is that so many young people who love games desperately want to get into the industry. Focus on what sets you apart!
  • A few candidates wrote INCREDIBLY LONG cover letters, sometimes with excessively flowery clearly-thesaurus-assisted language. Please, I beg you, do not do this. Several of these candidates were completely unqualified, but talked about how great Cosmic Turtle is in extremely obviously generic terms. There’s also, of course, a lot of discussion of work ethic and communication skills and… well, it somehow comes off as simultaneously extremely desperate and infuriatingly condescending. Who would even want to work for an employer who fell for this kind of thing?

Ultimately, it came down to just four candidates who had roughly equivalent experience. Three of them included portfolios with concrete examples of their strategies, example posts, explanations of how they recorded and responded to data, and other useful information that made it abundantly clear that these candidates really understood the job. The fourth had a web site with similar information. So I set up four interviews over Zoom, asked everybody the same questions, took notes, and made a decision.

One of the biggest lessons I learned during this process was the importance of shortcuts in evaluating candidates. Of course, I knew about this intellectually; There’s a lot of griping in this industry about how hiring managers often don’t understand as well as domain experts what makes a good candidate, so they might throw out a good candidate because they don’t meet the exact requirements as defined on paper.

Here’s the thing, though: The number of people who have heard of Moustachevania or Cosmic Turtle is tiny, and yet I received over a hundred applications that took me about 16 working hours to get through — that’s about nine minutes per application on average! When I first started looking at candidates, I wasn’t sure how good my top candidates were going to be so I was spending a lot of time going to every social media account listed in a resume, making notes in a spreadsheet, researching games and studios and eSports leagues, etc. etc. Definitely not sustainable.

By the end of the process, I was trying to get through each candidate in no more than a minute if they were clearly less qualified than my top candidates.

If Cosmic Turtle was more well-known, I could have received hundreds or even thousands of applications, and even a minute each would be too much time to spend narrowing to a top 20 or even 50. (Obviously, if Cosmic Turtle was more well-known, narrowing down the first round of applications would be someone else’s job, but that person needs their sanity too!)

So I had to balance my desire to evaluate candidates as fairly as possible and to keep the process ethical by my own standards, but I only have so much time. For interesting candidates who didn’t make the short list, I tried to write custom rejection letters. Everyone else received a form letter, except the few candidates who seemed to put in less-than-zero effort to apply… and the person who emailed as a consultant offering exactly what I already said I needed framed as, “You could be leaving money on the table! [by not having a social media manager]!” (Please don’t do this, it is extremely obnoxious.)

In the end, I learned a lot, exchanged emails with a lot of really interesting people, interviewed some great candidates, and even found a writer to help with my big 2020 update to Troll Farm. Was it worth it? Definitely. And I hope that reading through this lengthy essay was worth it for you too!

Want to know what I’m up to with Cosmic Turtle now? There’s a web site for that.

Indie game developer. Freelance game designer. Http://www.aaronnemoyten.com Former live producer on Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes at EA. Film degree. Musician.