Wow, it's been a while! I guess I've been a busy bee. A lot of it had to do with planning my move back to Canada (woohoo!) but interviewing for my next job certainly ate a big chunk of my time. I have to say interviewing sucks, especially once you enter the professional field. And the higher up the ladder you are, the tougher it gets. But there are ways to make things a little easier.
Saying you must do research on the company you're applying for isn't just a cliche. It is VERY important, especially in the gaming field. It not only gives you insight as to what the project you could end up working on is about, but also informs you as to what their other games are and their quality (or lack thereof!).
Keep in mind that an interview is a 2-way street, except that your side is narrower than theirs. The company is trying to assess if you're THE right candidate, but you too have to determine if it's an environment and/or project to which you want to devote the next few years of your life. So while the studio ultimately decides if you get the job, if you didn't do your homework and accept a job that wasn't necessarily the right fit for you, you may end up very miserable. If you're not happy in your job, chances are your performance will suffer, and with that so will your evaluation, your chances at promotions, and in an industry where everyone knows everyone, it could even hinder your ability to land the right job elsewhere.
Being a game designer doesn't mean you are the right candidate for every design job. Even a great chef will not just waltz into a kitchen and pretend he can cook any type of food. Everyone has their specialty and that's where doing your homework will save you from a painful interview. Look up the studio's games. Play them then ask yourself some of the questions they are likely to ask, such as:
1. Have you played our games? Which one do you like best and why?
2. What did you like the least and why?
3. How would you improve the features you disliked?
4. What other games of that genre have you played?
5. In your opinion, what are the most important features for this type of game?
These are just the basic warm up questions. If you're having a hard time answering those, you're already in trouble as the really tough ones are yet to come. If you haven't played any games in the genre you're applying for, then you should consider applying elsewhere. It's not only that you don't know and understand the preferences of the community, but it's mostly the fact that it didn't appeal to you enough to play it for fun. How can you design well for something you don't care much for?
Now the part I absolutely detest is the design test. Not every studio will give you one (thank God!). You normally have a week to complete it (and you will need it, especially if you're working full-time during the day). It starts off with a bunch of question to assess your knowledge of the gaming world (usually around the genre you're interviewing for), questions on your own professional accomplishments in the industry, questions about your knowledge of the game itself (if it's already released like in the case of an MMO) and finally a design question where you have to create a quest or mission based on parameters provided in the test.
That last one is a real pain. Some studios will only ask you to write a general outline of the quest. That's not bad. But some will ask that you also give a fully detailed level design of the quest with visual support that would be good enough to proceed directly to implementation. While I understand how these give the studio a good idea of your design and documentation skills, it does bother me a bit as it feels like I'm doing free design work for them.
And the same is true when interviewing in person. Sometimes you will be asked how would you resolve a very specific issues currently affecting their game. Be prepared that they could end up using your solution even if you don't get the job. Giving such freebies or not is up to you, but the quality of your answers certainly increases your chances. Just don't give away all your best ideas when asked what would you add to the game. Give them good ones with just enough details to pique their interest. Save some of the better ones for the 2nd or 3rd interview. And keep the awesome ones for when you actually get the job :P
Interviews are always tough and a bit nerve wracking, but if you're going for a genre that you love, your passion, knowledge and enthusiasm will shine through and carry you. Just make sure you don't burn bridges with previous employers. You wouldn't want to pass all the interview process with flying colors only to lose the job because you couldn't provide positive references!
Good job hunting!