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Testing, Testing...
by Martin McBain on 06/07/14 07:17:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


We've all been there - you submit a job application (or are headhunted by a studio) and they're really interested, love your work and think you're the perfect candidate, but, umm, would you mind completing a quick test? I know some people flat out refuse to co-operate with any kind of testing policy, considering it demeaning or a waste of their limited spare time. However, a test isn't always simply a test of ability, but a measure of your attitude. On this basis alone, I'd consider very carefully before refusing to participate in this increasingly common step on the road to recruitment.

Of course, you could argue that the team contemplating hiring you should be experienced enough to glean from your CV/resume and portfolio or showreel whether you've got the requisite skills. This is true - to an extent. Whilst it's highly unlikely that someone who has held a very senior role for many, many years lacks the expertise that their CV suggests; for less experienced candidates, at least, I've had prospective employees be somewhat economical with the truth, right through to making wild, unsubstantiated, claims regarding abilities that they have no knowledge of whatsoever. Some potential hires are even underhand enough to rip sections from other people's showreels and present them as their own - fortunately, this devious behaviour is usually spotted fairly quickly. Word gets around and the actual creator of the animation generally gets wind of this and kicks up a big fuss (and friends and acquaintances pile in too!) as artists always recognise their own work and often that of their colleagues past and present. Nonetheless, not everyone is honest and upfront about their lack of experience in a particular area; for this reason, I did start setting tests for prospective hires, but - and this is a big but - the tests are always a reasonable length and all assets, script, and so on, are supplied.

I believe this is fair; a candidate who is serious about joining the company, who genuinely has the skills that are essential - and who is passionate about the quality of their work - is generally agreeable to performing a brief test of ability. I'd never set ludicrously lengthy tests, those that go beyond the realm of the job description or require masses of time spent sourcing assets; for a simple animation test, I'd supply the character rig and model, plus any necessary tools. Neither would I expect an applicant to take time off work to come into the studio; any tests should be available to perform at home and should accommodate the potential recruit's current commitments. Moreover, so long as the candidate has fulfilled the brief, I wouldn't demand a constant flow of petty alterations, for instance, due to a slightly different interpretation of the script. Actually, a spark of originality always bodes well and insisting on enforcing a series of unnecessary changes is a guaranteed way to put your potential new recruit off the studio and through the doors of a competitor.

What about taking tests myself? Well, I have to say that I don't really mind - so long as it's not ridiculously time consuming. Like most people in the games industry, I have a very tight schedule so spending absolutely ages working on an animation or cinematics test is a pain to fit in and is no more indicative of my ability than a test with a much shorter turn around. In fact, it could be argued that performing a test within an allotted amount of time more accurately reflects the pressures of working in game development! One behemoth of a tripartite test took literally weeks to perform and the company provided absolutely nothing - no script, no character models, nada. Ultimately, I actually enjoyed writing the script and all the rest of it; however, due to concerns regarding the company's stability, I declined their offer. Okay, my decision wasn't based on their approach to testing - but I have to say that the studio didn't exactly endear themselves to me by imposing a test that monopolised my every spare moment for several weeks. If you set tests that are a lengthy as this, then you seriously risk sending the message that you don't value the candidate's time. 

However, this situation is fairly unusual; in my experience, I've found studios generally to be rather apologetic and somewhat tentative when asking if I'm happy to submit to testing. I don't find it a problem; I have the skills listed on my resume and am happy to put my money where my mouth is. Yes, I've been in this business a long time, but if all candidates are required to be tested, even if it's merely a formality for more experienced candidates, then there's little to be achieved by being difficult and stroppy. It also gives you a great opportunity to suss out your potential new employer - if they make absurd demands at this stage, then what are they like to actually work for? After all, the recruitment process is a two way street and you are also determining whether a studio is going to be a good fit from your perspective too.  

In a nutshell, tests can be a useful tool is assessing technical and creative ability, but also an applicant's enthusiasm - gauging both aptitude and attitude. If they feel that testing is beneath them, then will they exhibit the same behaviour once hired and are asked to pitch in with the rest of the team? Equally, is the studio setting the test reasonable in their approach towards you at this early stage? If not, then you may want to look elsewhere. Testing can be a real eye-opener on both sides, but, generally, the best candidates are those who willingly agree to and actually enjoy this aspect of the process. Attitudes towards testing vary from individual to individual and everyone is quite within their rights to object, but I don't believe that a blanket refusal is particularly helpful to those wishing to become part of the team and, to be honest, I've certainly found that the best animators usually love to animate at any given opportunity and relish the chance to show off their awesome skills!


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Greg Quinn
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Well said, the test needs to be short, but at the same time gauge the candidates abilities and attititude.

Personally, I think a one-hour, in-house test can be most effective (for a programmer).
Giving them the time to complete something at home in their own time, leaves the test open to many 'vulnerabilities' if you want to call them that. The candidate could get external help, or spend hours using google to get the task done.

Put them in a pressure situation to complete a few tasks where they have limited time to look for the solution, or get external help.

And of course its always fun in the interview throwing out one of those tricky, cannot be answered questions to see how the candidate tries to resolve the problem.

Rod Runnheim
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I agree with this. I like to give short, relatively simple "code in front of us" tests with a lot of interaction. Then a "design in front of us" (code design) as well. The idea is to see how they interact as much as it is to test their skill. It's easy to choke on these, but if the interview team starts to chip in, things start to smooth out, and the candidate loves the experience.

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Sounds good, and is typical of many places, I think. Except on the job, nobody is ever going to be looking over your shoulder for 45 minutes as you verbally and visually work your way through a problem. Whiteboard questions humor me - they typically amount to 50% of a programming interview, yet they represent 1% of your job in practice.

Take home tests are better, and more representative of a programmers actual output. Yeah they can google the answers. Unless your IT department is facist, you will be able to google on the job. Sometimes improvising on things you don't know should be part of the interview.

another way to look at it - if your interview question can easily be googled as a shortcut, then perhaps it's a poor interview question.

Terry Matthes
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What ever happened to a portfolio and an interview?

Rod Runnheim
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Well....after reading 30 resumes for a position, they blur together. Most are so terse that they have a list of the expected buzz words and references to job experience but no context.

That's okay. I've always viewed resumes as bullet points / talking points for the interview itself.

I think the test should be more to see how the candidate reacts than it is to measure their skill. If done well, the technical phone screen usually omits candidates that are clearly not qualified...if the questions are good ones.

John Ingato
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I didn't realize artists were given tests as well. I've been given many tests(programming) in the past and I don't really mind them as long as they are reasonable. I'm actually interviewing a few places at the moment and did 5 tests in the past week or 2. Once of them was to make an entire game...literally. It had to incorporate drawing the scene and physics / collision detection as well. I think that was a bit overkill, but I didn't mind.

I was only given one other test like that in the past. Most of the time they're relatively easy, just a couple hours, to see if you are good enough to bring in for an on site interview. I have a pretty decent background, but I think if you don't have a lot of experience then doing a programming test can be beneficial for you to be able to show off your long as the test is relevant to the position. It doesn't make sense to give a gameplay engineer candidate low level graphics tests for example.

Ron Dippold
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We always give a simple technical programming interview (when the job involves that) for a couple reasons, all of which you touch on:
- People inflate their resumes and portfolios. You can't tell how much of that 'I' is 'we'.
- People outright lie on their resumes, and a lot of those people are disconcertingly good BSers.
- This biggest thing is being actually able to see how s/he approaches a problem.

We never make it a 'gotcha' test. It's something simple and self-contained. Any engineer who's as good as his/her resume can do it in 30 seconds to 5 minutes. For instance, method to sort an array of integers with no concern for speed (next verbal step is how would you optimize it). You can use any language you want. And if you say 'I'd use qsort()', that's extra points as long as you can explain when you would /not/ want to use qsort().

Interestingly, we've never had anyone refuse to take it. But we get a stunning number of people who don't even know the basic syntax of what they claim is their best language. We do make allowances for test stress, but a guy who claims to be a C expert should know for( i=0; i<n; i++ ).

We had the guy who insisted he could do an insertion/tree sort in a single pass and refused to let the interview move on till his time ran out. You get the people who can just bang it out, boom. You get the people who have to think about it (who writes their own sort any more? that's what makes it a good test). The really promising ones write down an unsorted list and work out the algorithm in their head before writing code - good problem solving at work.

Basically, like you said, it's a whole look into their actual skills that's near impossible to BS through. And we likely would have hired some of them without the test.

Mike Kiessling
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For art hires I usually create a simple test aimed to test the candidates skill, reading ability (as in, follow the very precise instructions) and ability to adapt to the style/requirements for the project I'm hiring for.
The time to complete is up to the candidate, I want them to present their best effort.

If that goes well I have them come to the office and re-do a small portion of the test on-site in about 2-3 hours. Say, he/she modeled a character, then I ask them to redo parts of the costume or something like that.
That is used to judge their speed/proficiency in an actual work environment, but even more to filter out people handing in someone else's off-site test.

No kidding, I've heard quite a few accounts (from very close friends doing the hiring in other companies) of candidates faking their way into a job by paying someone to complete their test, and I have personally experienced someone applying for a job on my team with artwork that I HAD LITERALLY CREATED MYSELF.

So anyway, I think tests are OK as long as they don't take forever and a day to complete, they help weed out the fakers, give me a better idea if someone can fit into our team and also allow the candidate to judge from their end if the feel comfortable with the requirements.

adam anthony
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2-3 hours for an onsite test? Thats asking a lot from some one who probably doesnt have time for free work....

Paolo Gambardella
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I found a new job when I rejected to do any test and I propose the company I work for to have just a chat (of course bringing my laptop with my portfolio). That happened after months of trying with one-week tests with many companies. Just saying...

Katie Lucas
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I don't think it's so bad as long as you've talked to them first -- the problem is that increasingly it's the FIRST stage of talking to companies. I get tons of approaches by agents because of where I currently am and where I've been in the past. And when I say "hey, sure, I'll have a half hour chat with your client and see if might be good fit", they say "oh no, you have to do a four-hour programming assignment first"...

This is usually before they'll even discuss salary, and frankly I've got fed up enough with doing the tests only for the client company to reply "yes, we'd love to talk to you about our role which pays half your current salary..." So these days I tend to respond that if they're after 'exceptional' people they'll understand that we're exceptional and they'll make an exception and we'll have conversations before I invest time in their test. And if they say no, I figure I didn't want to work there anyway... because if they're like that on the first conversation, what's asking for a pay rise going to be like?

Daniel Silber
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I'm going to have to agree (vehemently) with Katie - it's one thing to use a test to make sure that someone has the skills they claim before finalizing the hire... But to demand a test to even open a dialogue is disrespectful of the applicant's time.

Once I applied to a position where he had only to ask me a few questions - and we both realized it wasn't a good fit. Lots of time saved for both parties.

Steve Lawson
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Testing is reaching new heights of absurdity in the games industry. It's yet another reflection of the poor quality of life game industry employees are willing to endure. As long as prospective employees keep taking the tests, the industry will continue to doll them out without respect and regard for candidates.

Two of the industries largest game publishers/developers in Los Angeles are requiring 40+ hour art tests without exception. This is prior to an interview or any pertinent discussions about the position including salary. Just take the test.

As was mentioned above by someone, you have no idea who has actually produced the work, or how long they've spent on it. All you can know is that some number of hours less than the number of hours between receiving the test and submitting it. Did competing candidates spend 18 hours a day for 7 days straight on their submission? Are folks with jobs and family commitments supposed to compete with that? Furthermore, how many artists have legitimate copies of software at home? 3d packages start at over $3,000 plus $500 per year?

If companies believe that art testing is an accurate and useful way to screen candidates, they should gladly pay candidates to do them as a show of good faith. That way, at least artists would know the test has been requested with some measure of forethought, respect and mutual benefit.

The argument that tests screen for BS'ers doesn't really hold up. Those people exist in every line of work. Somehow the vast majority of other industries manage to not ask prospective employees to do 40+ hours of work for free prior to an interview. I do believe today's prevalence of testing may be a result of decreasing skill levels and confidence amongst middle managers whom find themselves tasked with hiring. I don't know of any other industry or profession which requires the level of testing commitment which might be required of a games artist. Other professions may require degrees and certifications, but the important difference is that those are transferable and universal whereas the 40+ hours invested in and art test has zero value outside that single company. Game art isn't rocket science; there's nothing special about it compared to other highly skilled trades, industries and professions.

Art tests don't test skill, they test desperation. You can't possibly negotiate from a position of strength after investing so much time into a single prospect. The only way testing will decline is if people demand their respect and stop taking them.