What really happens in a design interview in the video games industry
So you’re taking your shot at a job in the video game Industry as a UI UX Designer. You’ve got a portfolio (kinda), a resume (ish) and more than enough furlonged freetime to apply to dozens of game companies the world over. But… What if the worst thing in the world happens and you don’t get a rejection letter?
Ah-good-day-to-yous, My name is John Burnett, a UI UX Designer, Art Director and remote UI Mentor of some 20-ish years in the video game industry. In this age of wanting to give back generously to students (and soon to be students), I’ve thrown together this little guide on what to expect in an interview with a video game company as a UI UX Designer.
If your application sparks any interest, you’ll first receive an email from what I’m going to playfully call a Frontliner. The Frontliner can be anyone from a recruiter, a producer, hiring manager or even the Art Director themselves. To be blunt, their job is to vet if you’re crazy, a liar or generally unviable to work with at a very early stage. The Frontliner will also ask you questions that orbit around your career, your past and your comfort-level(s).
Although the conversation will be sedate, the Frontliner may ask you the most hot-seat question of the entire process: what’s your salary range? Salary negotiations are monumental conversations in and of themselves, but in lieu of the answer you should definitely have an answer. Uncomfortable assigning yourself a dollar-value? Start with the wise words of a former coworker of mine: they’re all made-up numbers.
You may have signed an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) at this point, likely because the game you’ll be working on if it’s still under wraps. The Frontliner will be the first one to lift the veil and tell you what the game is. If you didn’t sign an NDA, the Frontliner will, in very oblique terms, clarify if this is an opportunity you really want, or if you should do some light calisthenics for a graceful bow-out.
Real Questions Said By Real Frontliners during Interviews
- So tell us a little about your career history
- Are you comfortable / have you ever made UI UX Designs on the _________ platform / SKU?
- Are you comfortable within the _________ genre?
- Are you familiar with our Company’s games and history?
- Have you ever worked with a team remotely before?
- Are you familiar with any implementation tools like Flash, Animate CC, Unity or Unreal?
- What made you want to work with our Company?
- What’s your salary range / expectations?
- What’s your hourly rate?
- What’s your per-diem rate? (I was caught so flat-footed the first time I heard this question, I threw out some stupefying Dr. Evil-esque price-quote and lost the gig instantly)
- This is only a remote contract for now, will you be willing to relocate once “everything blows over”? (they are absolutely not hiring remotely if they’re asking this at all)
— If you’re Junior or making the jump, expect these questions as well
- Will this be your first job at a video game company?
- What kind of relevant experience will you be bringing to the Company?
- Are you proficient in Photoshop? … Because that’s all we use here.
- Have you worked in an Agile / Scrum environment before?
- Do you play games often, especially the kind of games we make?
The Art Director
Passing the First Gate, next you’ll talk with the Art Director — either alone or with their Art Lieutenant of sorts (a Lead or Senior Artist). The AD will lob softball questions at you, mostly because video game Art Directors tend to be fairly UI UX agnostic. However, they will still be fiercely interested in your process and previous work. There is also the likely possibility their Art Lieutenant is a UI UX Designer, and they may ask you the more piercing — but equally tonally placid questions.
Real Questions Said By Real Art Directors during Interviews
- Give me a basic overview of your career in your own words.
- Any piece in your Portfolio you want to jump in and start with first?
- So what was the most challenging part of this project? (they’ll specifically cite something in your Portfolio)
- How do you start making a screen? Walk me through your basic process
- So on this screen here, how much of this did you do, all of it? (citing something in your portfolio)
- How do you deal with making UI systems you might not have all the information on?
- Are you comfortable with the _____ genre? Because I’m not seeing very many examples of it in your portfolio.
- What tools do you usually use to make your screens?
- Do you feel you’re stronger in UI or UX?
- How do you work with Designers to make sure there is clarity and momentum in the pipeline?
- How do you create Systems meant to protect your Coders and save them time / sanity?
- At what point do you give push-back on any feedback? What’s worth “fighting for” on the project?
- How comfortable are you with little guidance? How autonomous are you?
- Have you worked with a small Strike Team before?
- Have you worked alongside a fellow UI UX Designer before (at your level or above)?
- Have you worked with a Coder or Designer before?
- Is there anything in your Portfolio you’re particularly proud of?
- Is there a style or genre you’re naturally attracted to?
- What game off the top of your head has the best UI UX Designs? Why?
- If you could work on any game property or IP, what would it be?
Lastly, you’ll meet with the team in a perfunctory little meet-n-greet to see if everyone can get along for 30 minutes without somebody exclaiming, “There goes the neighborhood!”
If you’re talking to the team, it’s likely you’ve been fast-tracked to an offer that’ll be in your inbox within the week and there’s nothing but daylight.
A word of caution about meeting the Team (gentle reader, please imagine a room full of candles suddenly blowing out). Depending on the Studio’s druid-like traditions, you may not just talk to your immediate Team. You might end up talking to the Executives, as well. This may include the Producer, the Creative Director — all the way up to the CEO and President if the Company is treehouse-y enough.
Indies in particular will spring the Executive trap on you, much less to unnerve you and more to develop group cohesion — especially remote-only Companies. Think Dr. Hammond in Jurassic Park just before an egg hatches: they want everyone to imprint and feel connected. Meeting the Execs will rarely happen to Juniors in larger firms, but you never know…
What I do know is that Companies want some guarantee you can make a million-dollar project wheeze past the finish line. They don’t want the word of some flying-quotes “relatively” sane Photoshop-jockey on a Zoom call…
They want The Test.
The Art Test
The Art Test is the harrowing in the application process; an elephant graveyard where your bones will crown the marrowworks — eventually.
Most Art Tests are week-long assignments that happen after you talk with the Art Director but before you meet the Team. The goal is to evaluate your real skills with a real goal amid real constraints. Nobody is expecting a breathtaking masterwork, but they will interpret your Test as the bounding box of your talents and a vorpal-sharp indicator of how well you follow instructions.
Historically, the Art Test is meant for Junior-level artists who don’t have labyrinthine Portfolios or a ton of LinkedIn social proof. Okay, I lied, even Seniors still get the test; and it’s always an annoyance I’ll never tire of Shawshanking around.
In fact, if you’re Senior or charming enough, you can actually convince companies to not give you an Art Test. Ask the Art Director if you can make a wireframe for one of their game screens and walk them through your process over Zoom. A week-long Art Test is grueling and ultimately wasteful for all parties. No shame giving them a better evaluation and giving yourself an easier time.
But if you fail every saving roll and simply must do an Art Test, focus on it. There’s a big difference between being rejected giving your all, and being rejected knowing you could’ve done so much more.
“I wish I had tried” are killing words.
A Small Selection of Real Art Tests I’ve Received or Assigned
- Make a holographic keypad for a group called The Authority — a secretive, menacing technocracy that reigns over an apocalyptic wasteland. Animate this.
- Make a radar for a 3rd person racing game that orbits around the car and points to incoming threats and indicates internal damage. Also make a traditional HUD for car ammo and health on the screen. Animate this. (This and the above were double-tests expected in a week and I got the flu midway through)
- Create an animation showing a horror-genre sci-fi door holographic panel being accessed, unlocked and opened.
- Redesign this console UI screen for mobile specifications — or — alter this mobile screen for 16:9 specs and a controller / keyboard & mouse
- Make a standard, generic pen-and-paper RPG “paper doll” inventory screen with final art
- Take this in-house wireframe made in Google Sheets(!) and give it an art pass. You may alter the wireframe on the fly as you see fit, but use it as your base.
- Take this bullet-point list from a Designer of what needs to be in an Inventory Shell Menu and make a wireframe for it.
- Take a famous game IP and change the genre, but keep the tone — now create the HUD (Deadspace is now a tactics game, Max Payne is an RPG, Pokemon is a FPS…).
The Great Humbling
I’ve been part of a AAA studio closure, a round of layoffs from another AAA studio and fella, I’ve lost my share of gigs as a Freelancer. I know The Humbling always hurts, regardless of where you are in your career. In fact, I would argue what makes a Senior-level talent is the grace with which one endures ribcage-splitting rejection. At the best of times, it takes a while to recover.
But these are not the best of times.
As such, please allow this salt-and-pepper Gen-Xer who has made it this far to gift you a light when all others fade.
Real Solutions for an Unreal Age
- Know yourself at a technical level. When you get devastated by a rejection, literally keep track of how long it takes for you to recover. If you know it takes a humiliating 2 months to recover, fine — but now you know — and now you can improve that number. Hell, even knowing your recovery is that long may infuriate you and instantly shave that number down to a week!
- Do not despair. If you had a harddrive failure for a week, you’d be in a white-hot panic all those 7 days, but you’d spend every minute trying to correct or work around the problem. Despairing for 7 days kills the hunt to fix anything. Despair builds nothing — and no matter what this chaos-laden future may hold — all better futures are built.
- Have a healthy, supportive network (loved-ones-first) and let them know that you’re applying and where. If you get rejected, they’ll be the first ones to comfort you so you won’t lose precious time wallowing. Also, far better to have people encourage your flailing attempts than for you to flail in shameful secrecy until you get that dream job.
- Keep bolstering your skills. This may seem pithy as hell, but it’s actually at the heart of callusing over naturally. If you’re convinced you can’t do this job, keep making UI and UX designs, and prove yourself wrong. It takes decades of diligent, Renaissance-y practice to make the interfaces you see in modern games. It won’t be the 5th or the 55th practice to get to their level, so you might as well aim for the 555th, just in case.
- Find ecstasy in the process. You are not your job. You are not hustle culture. You are not valueless if you are not working and your value is not your salary. You are an a-dorkable holy nerd born into a knighthood of Creativity, Craftsmanship, Innovation and Invention. Embrace that most sacred Calling. Dweeb-out on everything and then paint, compose, write, act, invent… don’t just absorb the material. Love. And be loved by it. That’s your damn job.