Breaking into game design: Part 3 – learn to sell yourself

This post is the third in a series about how to land a job as a game designer. Check out previous posts for details on setting your career goal and building your portfolio.

Now that you’ve built a strong portfolio filled with tangible design works, you may think it is time to write your resume and start applying for jobs. But the same way that when designing features on Enhanced Wars I always set a design goal before writing the actual spec, there is groundwork you need to do to figure out what you want to achieve with your resume before you start writing it.

When I was deeply involved in the hiring process at BioWare San Francisco, I spent a lot of time working with our HR partners on identifying candidates. Although I would spend time on LinkedIn searching for candidates, this may be one hour or less a day because I had responsibilities on my game team. The majority of the searching was done by HR.

It is hard to explain to someone who does not have hands on experience developing a game the difference between a content designer and a systems designer. Or to explain that you need a systems engineer who may have previous jobs listed as a system administrator, but you don’t want anyone with traditional sysadmin experience you only need someone who works with cloud services like AWS. These are very complex, specialized requirements and there are no standards or guidelines around job titles and seniority levels in our industry.

So you end up telling the HR partner about the types of experiences you are looking for. You may write a list of studios to look at, job titles to search for or explain a number of tasks you want to see on a resume. “I need a designer with experience creating quests and scripting levels on an RPG. But he or she has to be well rounded. Ideally the candidate has experience creating user experience flows and designing new features on a live game.”

I explain all this to help you understand what is happening on the other side of the hiring process. HR partners will forward the hiring manager resumes that come in through online postings, but will also spend time crawling the internet looking for candidates (mostly on LinkedIn). If they find someone that they think fits the requirements, they will send that person on to the hiring manager to ask if this is a candidate worth reaching out to. In general people on the hiring side are looking for key experiences on your resume that will convince them you are worth reaching out to for a phone screening. In order to prepare yourself to pass through this first hurdle, you must figure out how to sell yourself.

Hero stories
Part of the reason to build an extensive portfolio is to gain a number of design experiences to talk about. You need to think through those experiences and figure out what your unique selling points are as a designer. Everyone applying for a game design job is passionate, so don’t try and sell yourself on passion. Don’t sell yourself with unrelated skills or activities. You need to figure out what are the things you want to talk about when you get that hiring manager on the phone. You need to find your hero stories.

Hero stories are the stories of a real world experience you had that highlights why you are uniquely qualified for this job. The conversations you will have with people looking to hire you will be driven by the content of your resume, so you need to seed that resume with lead ins to your most heroic deeds as a designer.

For instance, let us imagine that I am applying for a lead design position on a mobile team. I would want to prove that I am capable of taking an idea from initial idea all the way through the process to execution and launch. I think that pen and paper prototyping is one of my core skills as a designer so I want to make sure I highlight it with a hero story:

“We started prototyping Enhanced Wars by first laying out our design goals. These were a list of bullet points that started with ‘We will know we are done prototyping Enhanced Wars when…’ then listed out things like ‘we have a game with no stalemating’ and ‘we have played at least 3 full games with the final rule set’. My colleague and I did 22 iterations of Enhanced Wars within 24 hours. Quite late at night, around iteration 16 we thought we had the magic build and called it a night. In the morning, we started the day by reading our design goals. When we tried to verify our magic build, we discovered gaping holes in the design and kept prototyping until we finally had a version that fit all our requirements with iteration 22.”

Now, I don’t expect you to actually fully write out all your stories like this; I certainly never have. But what I do expect is that you think about the many design experiences you have had and put together a list of bullet points for your hero stories. Figure out how you want to sell yourself to fit the position.

Write your failure resume
Another important aspect of interviewing for a job will be showing how you have learned and grown from past experiences. In order to sell yourself with a level of introspection and acknowledgement of past mistakes, I suggest you write a failure resume. This is an idea I learned listening to a lecture from Tina Seelig, the Executive Director of the Stanford Technologies Venture Program.

The failure resume is a summary of all your biggest screw ups and the lesson you learned from those mistakes. These stories will be just as powerful as your hero stories, if not more so, when you are selling yourself as a candidate for a job. For example:

“At PlayFirst, I was given the role of Lead Designer on my second game at the company, Mystery of Shark Island. Although I may have had the raw design skill to do the job, I did not realize till many years later that I simply did not have the maturity level to lead the design of the game when I was so fresh out of college. One of the biggest areas of difficulty I had was in listening to feedback from the senior people in the company – I would often shut down their ideas (with poor body language and tone of voice) and make them feel like I thought their ideas where stupid. This negative cycle meant people did not like to work with me. From my perspective, I felt like the game was failing because other people did not understand my vision and I had to compromise it past the point of fun.

Years later, I learned to ‘find the why behind the what.’ This realization came to me when working on Dragon Age Legends and getting feedback from literally the top people in the company. What I learned then that I wish I had known at PlayFirst is that other people are not as close to your project as you are. You know every intimate detail so it is easy for you to instantly see why other people’s ideas will not work within the framework of the game. But when the CEO has taken time out to sit at your desk because he enjoys playing your game, you can’t tell him he’s wrong. And in fact he’s not wrong, he just doesn’t know the project as intimately as you do. So what I did was to listen to feedback then try and identify the reason why the game was failing to deliver that led to a specific feature request. So, if someone would say ‘I want feature X’ I would reply ‘I think you are suggesting this feature because you are having problem Y, is that correct?’ Now we’re having a discussion about root cause and motivation that the game team can solve, instead of talking about the merits of a specific feature.”

By writing your failure resume, you will be able to sell yourself at a much deeper level. When you get difficult questions or are asked about past failures, you will know how to take a story about a negative experience and turn it into a positive experience.

Now that you’ve identified all the stories you wish to use to sell yourself, you are prepared to write your resume, which I will cover in the next article in the series.

Find your mountain
Build your portfolio
Learn to sell yourself
Write your resume
Prepare to interview