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How to Get Hired at a Game Studio: Game Designer Edition 2021

In our How to Get Hired series, we interview hiring managers all about their departments, their best practices for success at Filament Games, and qualities in applications and applicants that make an impression. For this installment in the 2021 reboot of this series, we interviewed Chief Creative Officer, Dan Norton! 

See our previous How to Get Hired post on game design here, and see our current open positions here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe your role and your day-to-day work? How does your role interact with other roles in and out of your department?

My role at Filament is Chief Creative Officer, so I oversee the design team. That means I manage the designers, I manage Filament’s design methodology, and I hire designers. That’s it in a nutshell!

I have weekly check-ins with the designers where we talk about their projects and anything else that’s going on in their work. I also have a weekly meeting that we call the “Design Shindig” where we cover different design methodologies, problem-solving scenarios, just catch up on whatever cool games people are playing, or discuss whatever else we need to catch up on.

Tips for success at Filament Games? 

Successful designers at Filament need to be able to think very creatively and broadly about how to propose game mechanics for their projects that authentically embed learning or other positive impact goals. The goal for designers is to make games where the act of playing the game is the same as the act of learning the game. We try to avoid making games that, for example, give you a little bit of gameplay and then ask a quiz question. We want the player to experience the educational content as part of the play cycle and that’s a game designer’s core design responsibility. Also, designers need to be proactive problem solvers. They need to go out and work with their team and the client to lay out the track before the train gets there, to understand problems, and help share solutions to those things before they negatively impact the project. 

At Filament, our designers are considered client advocates. They are the main conduit, day-to-day, representing the client’s goals on a project. When we’re having internal communications about how to manage the project creatively, the designer has to have a really nice, deep understanding of what the client’s mission and outcomes are, and be able to interpret those into design decisions – and defend those decisions sometimes, when necessary. 

What should an applicant make sure to include, and on the other hand, make sure to avoid, in an application for your department?

The most common area of an application that people tend to biff is the cover letter. I think a lot of applicants consider a cover letter an annoying waste of time – which I get, especially if you’re trying to get a job and you’ve written like 15 of them, they can get fatiguing – but Filament designers are writing a ton. They need to be really strong, clear communicators both with their spoken words and their written words. When I review a cover letter, one of the questions I ask is “does it appear that this person knows they’re applying to Filament” – is it a letter that was written because they want to work at Filament, or was it a letter that they have copied and pasted into 15 other applications? If it’s the latter, that’s an instant out. It purges way more candidates than you might think. 

I’m also looking for concise and clear communication about where and why their interests as a designer overlap with Filament’s goals as a studio. That’s general advice for applying anywhere – when an organization is hiring, they want to hire someone who just happens to be completely passionate about exactly what the organization needs. That may seem selfish, but if an organization has a position open where hiring managers may be sifting through tons of applicants, an organization can ask for that.

I want someone who’s really intrinsically motivated to do the things that we need to have done. It’s great to talk about your own interests in a cover letter, but what we’re looking for is not just that you really, really love video games, but that the actual unique problem-solving space of positive impact games is something you’re really passionate about, and that you really like both the problems and the outcomes of working on the type of stuff that we do. We want to hire people who want to work here. If your main goal is to acquire a job, and not this job, and that shines through in your cover letter? You’re not going to get any further in the process.  

Obviously, portfolios are essential for the application. Our criteria for portfolios is pretty broad; we’re willing to look at a lot of different types of work. It’s really nice if someone’s already worked on creative positive impact games and includes that work in their portfolio, but we’re also willing to look at portfolios containing art games, or unconventional game mechanic games – stuff where the design is unique and was trying to express something beyond, for example, “I’m a platformer” or “I’m a first-person shooter.” If people are interested in making games that express interesting ideas beyond adolescent power fantasies, that’s usually a big plus.    

Also, if you apply to Filament and you don’t get a gig, and then you apply for some other random position at Filament, that isn’t great. We’re looking for people who are really excited about a specific position or task. You may be really excited about making games, or even really excited about making games at Filament, but if you’re indifferent to whether or not you’re in production, or QA, or programming? That’s not ideal. We’re looking for someone who is passionate about a skillset in game development, not all of them. 

Even in a more extreme sense, there are a lot of people interested in applying for a job at Filament because of their passion for playing video games. Obviously, many of us here love playing games – but the act of making games is totally different from the act of playing games. You can’t necessarily transfer your skills and passion as a gamer into the skills and passion of a developer. You need to provide evidence that you’re passionate about the craft, and not just the outcome. I see this a lot, especially in younger applicants. Their cover letter will list all of the JRPGs they’ve played, and that definitely shows that they are passionate about games, but it doesn’t say anything about their passion for making games. It’s way better to list the RPGs you’ve developed in GameMaker, even if they aren’t great – it shows that you’re really interested in the process of making games rather than simply being excited about being part of the puzzle of games at large. A great game designer at Filament is someone who is interested in designing games and not necessarily someone who has played tons and tons of games. 

What are the steps you take during your hiring process?

Step one: receive applications. After we receive and review the applications, and make sure they fulfill the criteria from the previous question when it comes to the cover letter and application materials, we would then move a candidate into a quick check-in interview that I do, where I tell them they’ve entered the chute of design hiring at Filament. This first interview is really brief and is mostly for the candidate’s benefit. I will show up, introduce myself, and tell them we’re excited about their application, and then they have the opportunity to ask whatever questions they may have. Since I run the design team, and I’m one of the founding partners at Filament, I typically have a lot of answers for any questions about the gig. 

After that, I send candidates a design test. The test is the same for each applicant, and on it, they have to solve a design challenge. We tell candidates the criteria of what we’re looking for on the test as well. The tests come back to us anonymously, so we don’t know whose test is whose. The whole design team will talk about the tests and evaluate them on a rubric. After candidates submit the test and we review it, the pool is typically narrowed down to 3 to 5 applicants. 

We’ll then have what we call, informally, the design gauntlet interview. The candidate will come back and meet with me and the rest of the design team. Together, we’ll ask the candidate about the answers on their test and what it might mean to change the design of that hypothetical project, and start thinking about all it might take to make that game. At this stage, we typically cut another candidate or two.

The remaining candidate(s) will then move on to the developer gauntlet. This is the last big interview in the process. Now, rather than designers, we bring in representatives from each of the development disciplines at Filament and they ask a bunch of questions based on their perspectives. After that, I make a job offer to the best candidate! 

What are some qualities, skill sets, or character traits you value in an employee?

I used to try and hire designers who approached design the way I do. I’m really big on communication and collaborating. I excel at the big picture and then facilitate empowering other people to help with the smaller picture as it overlaps with other disciplines. That’s my approach. Early on at Filament, I thought, I really need to hire more Dan Nortons. I’ve since learned to appreciate that there’s a lot of different ways to be a good designer. 

All of my designers have different approaches from mine, and some of those approaches are objectively better than mine. I try to let other people have their own creative approach to success that works with their personality and thought processes. Some of my designers are very methodical and focus on constructing really great, solid plans that solve all problems before they happen. Some of my designers excel at being hyper-powered listeners – whereas I think I maybe talk too much. I think there’s a lot of room for you to have your own style and approach to design at Filament. 

Having said that, regardless of your work style, you need to be a positive collaborator, you need to be someone who is invested in helping everyone else, and you need to be approaching making a game as a creative process. I have zero interest in designers trying to monopolize or define creativity for everyone else. They are not here to stand on a soapbox and explain to everyone else how to do everything – they’re there to help facilitate a creative team that solves problems together. 

I also think I have a grudge against overly narrative-focused designing. For positive impact games, we are looking to make games that are mechanically driven, rather than driven through a story. Sometimes, learning objectives in games are really tied to identity and interacting with other people, and in those cases, dialogue and story become a critical priority, but oftentimes we’re designing games about doing something, learning a practice, or understanding a system. In those cases, we’re focused on custom mechanics or custom systems that can embody and express those objectives. I’m looking for designers who are pretty versatile but need a strong approach when it comes to building mechanics and systems that embed learning objectives, rather than just using games to tell a story as a solution to everything. If we want to focus entirely on narrative creativity, Filament should just make comics. Which would be cool, I like comics. But we’ve got all of these really talented devs around, and you need mechanics and system structures in order to use their superpowers. 

For my personal work style, I like to do things the way I think is best, and I try to extend the same courtesy to my team. I don’t take a micromanagement approach. If you’re someone who has a hard time expressing vulnerability, whether it be about not knowing how to do something, wanting to get better at it, or needing help from another perspective, I might not be the manager for you. I really like designers who proactively ask me for help if they need it. It’s hard to catch someone who is silently failing, and I don’t like bugging people about how they’re doing their jobs, so I need people who are excited to get better at what they are doing, and who are eager to encounter new problems and solve them. I’m always standing by to help them do that work when they need it. 

Interested in applying for one of our open positions? Check out our careers page here! There’s a lot to love about working for us. Learn more about our company culture and who we are below:

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