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Scott Jennings: MMO Interview Survival Guide

Column By Scott Jennings on November 04, 2009

Welcome to the first in a series of columns where I invite you, the reader and MMORPG enthusiast, behind the veil into the sausage factory - some of the cautionary tales from behind the scenes of MMORPG production. Why is it called the sausage factory? Well, much like any food preparation, if you could see it being made, you would probably lose your appetite. Game production has much in common with any other software development that takes hundreds of people and millions of dollars; lots of office drama, lots of paperwork involving 401K plans, and lots of procedural work that has very little to do with games. However, the dress code is looser (usually devolving to a plaintive cry from Human Resources to "please wear pants") and most of your coworkers will have Transformers figurines (and for the love of all that's holy, never call them dolls).

So, of course, the first thing you ask yourself upon hearing about an industry with low pay, long hours, high expectations and rigorous competition is "how do I get me some of that!" Congratulations - you're partially insane, and that's a job requirement for any gaming industry position. If you're truly insane, you'll want to work in design.

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Game design in theory, especially in MMORPGs, involves a lot of very creative people hashing out together the 'game' part of the game - the experience that the player has from start to finish, whether or not the systems work and are balanced, and whether or not the end product is actually fun. In practice, game design involves four things:

  • Writing hundreds if not thousands of pages of documentation that very few people will ever read,
  • Attending hours and hours of meetings where people demonstrate conclusively that they never read your documentation,
  • Convincing programmers and artists to implement the things written in your thousands of pages of documentation, usually by using the threat of more meetings as a cudgel, or possibly alcohol and/or blackmail,
  • Going home and posting on message boards like MMORPG.com using an anonymous account about how clueless the designers are of the MMORPG you play in your spare time that has nothing to do with your day job.

Naturally, the first step in being given a wiki account and the instructions to "write what the game is, please" is to actually get your foot in the door. "Breaking into the industry" has been the subject of countless columns, presentations at trade shows, and desperate backpedaling away from people thrusting resumes at you in hallways. As it happens, I have somewhat of a unique perspective on this:

  • As the lead designer of two MMOs, neither of which you ever heard of because they were canceled, I interviewed many prospective designers looking for work,
  • As the lead designer of an MMO that was canceled last month, I'm being interviewed as a prospective designer looking for work. (Hire me! I write lots of documentation!)

If you're dressed like this,
you're not getting the job.

Of course, given the latest figures in the news that 10% of you fall into the second category, the first is a bit more interesting. Thus, some brief notes on what I looked for in interviews. Note: all of these events below really happened.

Look presentable. But since this is the game industry, not too presentable. If you show up in a suit and tie, you'll frighten us all to death. If you show up in shorts and flip-flops, you may not be taking this seriously enough, no matter how hot it is and no matter how comfy your flip-flops are. It's a fairly fine line to draw, and a good rule is to dress about one "level" higher than the standard attire of the office you're going to. If I don't know in advance the dress code at a company, I'll wear nice slacks and a conservative polo shirt. Remember: ties scare people.

Once you're in the interview, don't answer your cell phone and tell people you're busy being interviewed. Really, it's OK to put it on vibrate and not answer it. People will understand. Your interviewers will be somewhat less understanding.

If someone asks you what you did at your last job, "I played World of Warcraft all day because I hated the project I was working on" is not an acceptable answer, no matter how true it may be.

Show that you are literate. Much of your job will involve writing documentation (whether or not anyone reads it is entirely beside the point). Thus, treat what you submit with your application - your cover letter and resume - as the first step in this. Spell check. Grammar check. Actually read what you write afterward to catch all the stupid mistakes that word processors miss. And if you are sending a writing submission, that goes quadruple - if you submit a piece that obviously was not proofread, you've just demonstrated that you don't have the attention to detail to correctly finish the first piece of work that we've given you. There won't be a second.

Don't insult the interviewer. It's fine to have opinions, and to express them, but at the same time, do so with respect. If you are applying to a position on a live team for an MMORPG (and you're even more insane than anyone else for doing so, by the way!), don't start with a detailed dissertation of how every core assumption that the designers made was clearly wrong and how you would immediately improve things given just the fraction of a chance. Because, um, the people interviewing you are those designers who made clearly wrong core assumptions. Whether or not they are wrong is almost beside the point - to fix that, assuming that is in fact your objective, will entail working with others (including them) and building a consensus among a team of dozens that your views are in fact correct. There are ways to do this, and insulting the people interviewing you for a chance at it is not the best way to start. By all means be honest - but not confrontationally so.

Have opinions, and be prepared to defend them. This actually is fairly important, and is what disqualified many candidates that I interviewed (and was a pitfall that I stumbled over myself in a few). Being agreeable in an interview can be helpful, especially if people are trying to determine how well you'll get along with other team members. But as a designer you are being paid, in large part, to have opinions. Your job will be to analyze parts of the game and determine whether it will work, how it can be broken, and whether or not it will be fun. And a good game designer will rarely be able to turn that off - they'll do this not only for what they work on, but for every other game they play as well.


Opinions, good. Sucking up... bad.

One common question I asked in interviews is quite simple: what is your least favorite zone in World of Warcraft and why? I use this question because literally everyone has played World of Warcraft, and because everyone who has, probably has run into some of the (few) pratfalls that Blizzard made in creating the game. Too many candidates, though, are tripped up by this question - they're so frightened to express an opinion that I would disagree with, or maybe of picking a zone that I disagree with, that they simply say they don't really have a least favorite zone - they all are equally good! The better candidates will pick one of the usual suspects (Stranglethorne Vale being a popular choice) and then explain why. One candidate surprised me and picked Nagrand - one of the more popular zones in the first expansion. This surprised me, and I pressed for more details. He explained that the feel of the zone was very different - gentle hills and pastoral valleys, as opposed to the otherworldly feel of the rest of the expansion. He went into further detail about how many of the major quest lines within the zone he felt were poorly laid out, and how the general flow of how you travel through the zone was at odds with how people normally play.

I hired him. And I like Nagrand.

Have experience. This is probably the hardest hurdle for people outside the industry to cross, and with good reason. The gaming industry is extremely competitive, and game design positions even more so. There are usually dozens of applications (if not hundreds) for every opening. Interviewers can choose to be picky, and the person with experience and working on a development team will almost always have an edge. Thus, if you don't have experience - get some. Whether in another discipline (I started as a programmer, many start in QA or customer support) or as part of a mod team, show that you can produce content and have something to point to. That will get your foot in the door so that you can proceed to make all the other mistakes listed above!

Hopefully this brief summary from the hiring trenches has been of some help to you, and may we not apply for the same positions.

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Scott Jennings
Scott Jennings is a veteran MMO designer and the Internet personality once known as Lum The Mad. He has previously worked for Mythic Entertainment, NCsoft and others. His popular blog can be found at BrokenToys.org.

Aside from this column, Scott is also currently contracting with NCsoft.

Every Wednesday he provides us an insider's look at the MMO industry.
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