Hugely-experienced, highly-skilled, determined and full of energy. That’s one description of the perfect employee. But how about: an excellent communicator, with a willingness to learn, attention to detail, loyalty and reliability. That sounds good as well. In short, there’s too many potential strengths for any one person to have them all.
OK, so no one’s objectively perfect, but that shouldn’t stop you trying to find and hire the best possible person for your next opening. Which is probably right now, with many games companies across the UK hiring all year round to keep up with demand.The UK games industry, particularly in more technical roles, has always struggled to find enough hires in order to fill every available position, but it’s not the only area where there are skill gaps, or fierce competition to hire the very best candidates. Increasingly the broader industry goes toe-to-toe with other entertainment and technology sectors for staff across a huge range of roles. And there’s a lot more to finding the right person than picking the best applicants from Linkedin and then the best candidate from the interviews. So we reached out to recruitment experts, both in-house and at agencies, to get their thoughts on the process.
THE EARLY BIRD
When we asked what kind of timescale employers should be thinking about when hiring new talent, the basic answer was simple, but the reality is anything but. “A hiring cycle will ideally take around three months from end to end – an initial month to establish a candidate pipeline, another to perform interviews and a final month for the successful candidate to serve their notice before joining the team,” Splash Damage’s Head of Recruitment, Alex Wright-Manning begins. “Of course, this is very much an ‘ideal’ timeframe, and often we can find that this will vary wildly according to the discipline, seniority of the role and candidate availability. As such it’s incredibly important that requirements are communicated to those responsible for talent acquisition and management as early as possible,” he continues. Aardvark Swift’s senior recruiter Max Stuart notes that for many, the hiring cycle is constant and agrees that timescales in certain roles are far longer than the ideal:
“It is common knowledge that there is a huge skill shortage in the games industry, specifically on the senior engineering side and it is rare that a studio is never looking to hire. With this in mind, when ramping up for projects, it is paramount that measures are taken well in advance, as far as possible, as it can take six months and beyond to find the candidate that fits with the studio ethos and has the correct skillset.” The key is not just to start early, though, but to ensure that recruitment is an integrated part of project planning. “Creating a recruitment plan is pretty much entirely project based in the games industry. What projects are you working on? What projects are you going to be working on? What stage are you at with each project? With careful planning you can keep people busy and hire new staff where needed. You can always bring in contractors to fill the gaps,” says OPM’s Kim Parker Adcock. “The recruitment-development relationship should be a symbiotic one,” agrees Wright-Manning. “Often, a studio’s talent function is the most outward facing department. They are acutely aware of market forces, trends and hiring costs, so including recruitment teams in scoping and planning projects to ensure that they have the clearest picture of the talent landscape is vital.”
And to keep that talent pipeline flowing, your studio needs to look right back down the pipeline to educational establishments, adds Aardvark Swift’s MD Ian Goodall: “If studios have the time & capacity to do so they should seriously consider their future talent pipeline, in particular younger professionals and graduates… In an ideal world studios want skilled & experienced devs – the AAA candidates. In reality the talent pool of this particular type of candidates isn’t large enough to meet every studio’s requirements, there simply isn’t an overspill of talent moving around the industry. One answer is to look to the next generation and develop their skills a and help them become the highly skilled and talented person the studio will be seeking in the future – in short, to develop their own pipeline.” Goodall namechecks the agency’s own Grads in Games initiative in this area and studios such as Creative Assembly, Sumo Digital, d3t, Boss Alien and TT, who have all invested in developing talent from a very early stage.
That’s great advice for the future, but if you need to grow your team now, rather than waiting for your team to grow from freshly-hatched graduates, you’ll also need some more immediate advice. Taking staff onto an existing team isn’t just a matter of making a shopping list of skills and experience and tick-listing them off, though that’s still something you’ll need to do. In addition, you’ll want to consider your new hire’s outlook and personality and how they’ll fit in with the current team and studio as a whole. Yes, it’s time to consider that much used phrase: company culture. Splash Damage’s Wright-Manning kicks us off: “Every studio has its own culture and values, and hiring in line with those is crucial to long-term staffing stability. Skills can be easily taught and honed, personality and attitude cannot. Building a team of like-minded, passionate individuals who adhere to similar personal and professional values is a proven way to increase staff happiness, productivity and longevity.”
“This is the foundation of our hiring process. Our most important evaluation is for culture fit. For this, we use a standardised assessment across the business for every role, discipline and seniority level, driving consistency and allowing for a broader range of interviewers to perform evaluations of any potential new hires. Collaboration is key to successful games development, so we always leverage interviewers from disciplines outside of the interviewee’s specialist area. This also removes artistic or technical biasand allows us to evaluate candidates purely based on studio culture fit. It also lets us draw on a much larger interviewer pool, providing additional recruitment process support, expertise and increasing interviewer diversity.”
Aardvark’s Ian Goodall points out that culture fits must, of course, work both ways: “Careful thought should be given to what the studio values are. Seek to match those with potential candidate’s values and what they personally consider important. Does what the studio wants to offer fit with what the candidate is looking for?” This desire to ensure that every candidate is a good fit must be tempered by a need to maintain a healthy diversity – not just in the usual sense, but also to ensure creative diversity and different approaches to problem solving.
“Skills aside, caution is needed here if we are to increase diversity in games. The default human-nature is that people tend to hire people similar to themselves, or that they like, and this can result in replication of an environment that might be great, but never evolves,” says Codemaster’s recruitment manager Meg Daintith. She continues: “The most important thing for a successful team is that the candidate’s values match the company’s vision and mission statement. By all means take them for a culture-fit coffee with the team, but you should also challenge your own perceptions and use questions to dig in to their motivations – find out who they are beyond their demographic.”Of course, diversity just comes naturally to some. Julia Fager, recruiter in Testronic’s London office notes that the company’s localisation work makes for a very diverse group: “We work with candidates from all over the world, and they are eager to learn about each other’s cultures and differences. I have heard my colleagues saying that they have made friends for life. When you are new in a country that can be a great support.”
INTERVIEW WITH A CODER
Gone are the days when a job application consisted invariably of sending your CV, followed by a straightforward interview. The interview process is now often far more involved, with early phone interviews, multiple interviews with different stakeholders, even group activities and more social meetings can be part of the mix.
Aardvark’s lead recruiter and director, Simon Hope, provides us with some quick and easy guidelines: “Four steps maximum and try to combine elements where possible into one visit for the candidate. If the process takes too long to work through you risk losing candidates to other studios,” he warns, adding that you should “know what you’re looking for, both technically and culturally. An initial screening via telephone or Skype, look for and identify particularly important traits and behaviour. Then, do tests or tasks at a second stage if evidence of their ability is required beyond portfolios. Finally, interview with hiring managers, and look to build in the cultural & company fit where possible, whether this is lunch with the leads, or drinks with the team.”
OPM’s Parker Adcock has a similar structure in mind: “An initial phone call should always happen, it’s quick and easy to get the basics out of the way and to go over any queries you may have from their CV. We recommend one or two interviews after that to meet the boss, meet the team, have a studio tour, take a test, and so on. It’s important to be thorough, however you have to remember the longer the process is, the more likely you’re going to lose the candidate, so have a plan, stay organised, have a time-frame and stick to it.”
Any extra steps create a greater burden on the staff involved in the hiring process (not to mention the candidates), so a balance has to be struck: “It is vital to safeguard the candidate experience and balance the time-investment required. Great candidates will have lots of choice. On the flip-side we will decline far more people than we ever hire, but that should always be done respectfully of people’s efforts and with added value and feedback wherever possible,” Codemaster’s Daintith notes. So, with that conundrum in mind, how many candidates should you be looking to interview and what considerations should you make when devising the process? Well, there’s certainly not a single answer but some common variables will guide you.
“There are too many variables to answer this definitively! The kaleidoscope of volume, time, urgency, criticality of the vacancy, rarity of skill and candidate availability are some of the factors involved. For example if you’ve had a network programmer role open for a year then a single candidate is fine, but the brutal truth is that if you need an entry-level artist you can afford to shop around,” says Daintith. That seems to be more of the case at Testronic, where Fager has an impressively streamlined system: “We aim at inviting four candidates per role, for our practical interview.”
“That will give us a good margin that one candidate will pass both the first interview, the language test and the second interview. We always do a phone interview, the first impression is important. If the candidates have years of experience in LQA we tend to send them the obligated language test and skip the first part of the interview. That way the candidates don’t need to come to the office twice. We need to be flexible in our work to make sure we fulfill the need on the test floor. We have a fast recruitment process at Testronic. A candidate can apply and three days later be hired.”
For those trickier roles, Aardvark Swift’s Goodall has some straightforward advice to consider: “With difficult roles such as VFX artist and graphics programmer to name a couple – having a long list of perfect candidates is going to prove difficult. Ideally start with a dozen suitable candidates, certain roles will result in a smaller pool of potential candidates due to the nature of the experience and skills required.
“Work through the recruitment process to get a shortlist of 3 candidates to bring to interview… they shouldn’t delay in seeking to bring in more candidates as alternative options – especially for those hard to fill roles or when specific skill sets are required. If you’re not interviewing them, someone else will be,” he notes realistically. Splash Damage’s Wright-Manning errs on the side of caution: “Ultimately, there are no set number of candidates that you should interview for a role. Yes, an extended time to hire can negatively impact a project, but a mis-hire has far reaching consequences to a team, so it’s vital that you do everything possible to ensure that the hire you make is the right one.”
PAYING THE PIPER
Money isn’t the only reason that people work but it’s a very important part of the equation. And one that remains both sensitive and often confidential. So when is best time to bring up money in what can be increasingly long and involved hiring processes? OPM’s Parker Adcock provides some sound advice: “We make sure everyone knows each other’s expectations right from the off. You don’t want weeks of conversations to be wasted when it comes to the money bit. If everyone’s been honest from the start the salary shouldn’t be an issue.” Aardvark’s Hope adds that while you should be open about a salary band early on, a specific figure can help keep things moving at the right point: “Some developers will make a proposed offer of remuneration just before entering into the final stage of their recruitment process to encourage buy in and commitment from candidates and in turn demonstrate their own.”
How you come up with that number, though, is somewhat trickier, as can be broaching the subject at the right time: “There is an initial mental-maths calculation done when reviewing a CV against a vacancy budget and this normally provides a ball park. If there is an obvious mis-match this early, it’s okay to ascertain a broad expectation right up front but always with discretion and an appropriate tone,” notes Codemaster’s Daintith. Things can get more complicated if the candidate is coming a long way for the role, says Hope: “Candidates are often relocating large distances and increasingly overseas, it can be difficult to ascertain exactly what is required in terms of salary if they have no experience of where their new role is based.” After all, just naming a figure is pretty meaningless if your candidate isn’t prepared for UK housing prices, particularly around the capital.
Most salaries and jobs in the games industry are still full-time roles, where staff come into the office every day. In this respect the industry is looking increasingly outdated, which damages the diversity of our hires and reduces the potential talent pool. Amiqus’s Liz Prince explains: “Flexible working is particularly important for women who tend to be the primary carers for children. In fact, getting women to join – and stay – in the workplace often requires this flexibility (more on this on page 34). But it’s increasingly becoming an important factor across the board. A recent report revealed that more dads than ever (58 per cent) are now actively involved in day-to-day parenting and are looking for workplace flexibility.
Meanwhile, additional research showed that 83 per cent of new graduates from Generation Z (those born between the mid 1990s and 2000) are looking for flexible hours when researching jobs. The facts speak for themselves, but it’s also worth noting that multiple reports have proven that employees who are offered alternative working options report higher levels of overall happiness and greater productivity. And importantly, with a significant proportion of employees only able to work flexible hours, or remotely, why would you discount those people?”
Aardvark’s Goodall concurs, speaking on greater flexibility through remote working: “If a studio can open up positions that don’t require an onsite or permanent onsite presence they will see the available talent pool instantly widen. The current skill shortage is likely to be in effect for the foreseeable future – remote working would help open up more candidates to hiring managers.
“One of the biggest barriers to relocation is uprooting families, especially for the older, more experienced candidates. Anything that can be done to reduce the need for moving a significant distance for a new role will result in an increasingly diverse range of candidates being available for consideration.”
THE BEST START
Whether it’s a junior member of staff’s first job, a big cheese coming across the atlantic, or a part-time employee located remotely, you’ll need to ensure that they get the right welcome in order to make the best start. “Keep in contact right up until the start date, things can change, nerves can kick in, and they don’t always tell you,” warns OPM’s Parker Adcock. “Be ready for their start date; make sure managers are working on the day, their workstation is ready and appropriate accounts are set up. Welcome packs are a nice touch and we’ve worked with studios that have a team lunch to help settle them in on their first day.”
And that goes double if the new hire is relocating, says Aardvark Swift’s Hope: “People want to feel welcome, especially if going through relocation. The stresses of quitting their current job and even potentially moving their family means that logistical support and reassurance can go a long way to helping the new addition feel welcome and cared for.” His colleague Goodall provides advice on the next step: “Give serious thought to the induction and onboarding process, review it regularly as first impressions count. As well as integrating a new hire with their team and making them familiar with the studio, make sure their work/project is in line with discussions during the hiring process and is achievable. Be clear on what is expected from the new starter and what they can expect from the studio.”
All of this, of course, leads nicely into the flipside of the hiring coin: employee retention. “However much time, thought and money goes into recruitment should also go into retention – don’t focus solely on recruitment, if the retention process is correct then there is less requirement for recruitment,” points out Goodall. “Spending on internal recruitment function, external agencies, branding , awareness and so on, is currently at an all time high. However, there is little point spending money on bringing people through the front door if they’re walking out the back door at the same rate. While agencies can cover the sourcing and recruitment side for studios, they can’t affect retention policy and practice,” he cautions.
Good and consistent employee retention comes from happy employees, which in turn will also help directly with recruitment says Hope: “Ultimately, the best brand ambassadors and recruiters a studio can have are their own developers, if they love working at the studio that message will filter out into the industry/community and make recruitment easier.”
Now of course, keeping everyone constantly happy at your studio is as impossible as finding the ‘perfect employee’ but we’ll have a crack at improving your chances on that one in the new year.
Amiqus’s Liz Prince gives advice on how to avoid this hiring pitfall
I’d say that most games companies are savvy about the interview process in general. But one thing that crops up time and time again, particularly when we look at our efforts to promote diversity and inclusivity in the workplace, is that of unconscious bias. To be clear, we all have unconscious biases. Scientific studies have proved that it is in our nature to be attracted to people who are similar to us. And in the interview process – and even ahead of that, when reviewing CVs – that can make us drawn to candidates who come from a similar background, went to the same kind of university, have the same kind of hobbies, etc. The entire process of selection is about reduction; exclusion is a vital part of recruiting. But bias has to be accounted for when making judgments on job applicants.
Here are some tips on how to avoid it….
Create a Job Description that includes only absolute requirements, matching capability as opposed to person type. Make the Job Description your contract with yourself, because you’re going to use that document to put controls around yourself later on in the process. Once you have candidates at the selection stage, write down the priorities from the Job Description and create a scorecard before you begin sifting through them. This will keep you on track when bias can creep in. Consider taking information off CVs for a blind review – i.e. name, photo, personal stuff, and consider removing university too. When we’re looking to increase diversity in our workforce, we need to stop looking at cultural fit and start looking at cultural add. Demand diverse shortlists, interview with people unlike you, use structure, scoring and notes. Your brain is powerful, so you have to outwit its instincts. Thwart it with structure, the support of colleagues, and practice over time.
We have the easy choice of recruiting in our own image, to make decisions that are quick and easy and solve problems with a short-term view. But if we recognise bias in the system and in society, we can play our part in making things fairer for everyone and give all talented people a chance to do rewarding work.