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Tech wars and talent shortages

How game industry recruiting has changed, from what publishers need to what developers want

Mary-Margaret Walker became a game industry recruiter in 1996, stepping away from her time straddling development and HR positions at Origin Systems and 3DO. While she had success managing design teams for Ultima games and staffing an upstart hardware maker with more than 200 new hires, she was getting burned out, and the flexibility of a stay-at-home job appealed to her. So she made the jump to being a game industry recruiter, which she admits in hindsight was perhaps not the best decision.

"It was really hard at the time to transfer from game development to recruiting," Walker told GamesIndustry International. "The industry had no respect or value for recruiters, and I didn't know that, believe it or not. I didn't do enough research, so it was a big surprise to me when I became a recruiter and had people be openly rude to me that had never known me before... They felt like I was the enemy. All of a sudden I was no longer part of the 'they.' I had somehow stepped out of being part of the games industry, so it took a long time to be seen and accepted."

That same year, Marc Mencher founded the outfit now known as Game Recruiter. Like Walker, he started out as a developer and had handled part of the rapid staffing up at 3DO, but he first saw the need for game industry-specific recruiters years earlier when he worked at Spectrum Holybyte. Mencher was originally a programmer, but as he was promoted and had to hire on his own staff, he found general recruiters ill-equipped to handle his needs.

"I went out to the recruiters out there, but they didn't understand how to make software," Mencher said. "They didn't play games. They didn't understand the pipeline, so how were they of any value? After two weeks of being annoyed with garbage candidates, I fired all the recruiters, taught myself how to recruit, and I staffed my own team."

Times Have Changed

Obviously, things are a bit different these days. For example, not only have publishers seen the value in recruiters, but many of them maintain their own full-time internal recruiters to help fill positions as they open. As Sega Europe's HR & recruitment manager, Ben Harrison is one such internal recruiter. Although Harrison can't claim the same amount of experience as Walker or Mencher, he's still seen it change dramatically in the six years since he first got into gaming with Sega.

"Traditionally, the industry was largely based on individual contacts, old school head hunting with the recruiter's 'black book,'" Harrison said. "Recruitment today is a technology-based industry, with opportunities far more accessible to both candidates and companies alike. Advances in technology, recruitment advertising, social media and online tools such as LinkedIn mean that candidate exposure has intensified and recruiters are able to get in touch with pretty much anyone at the touch of a button.

"Alongside this, we have seen the emergence of internal recruitment departments within most medium-to-large-size businesses, meaning less of a focus on using external recruitment agencies," Harrison said. "Of course, agencies are still an integral part of recruitment strategies but solely relying on their resources is becoming far less common...Publishers and developers are realizing that it's better to have a close relationship with a small number of professional recruiters using their resources for tough-to-fill roles."

So game industry recruiting has moved from something that essentially didn't exist to an accepted practice to one so valued companies now hire people just because they are good at finding good people to hire.

Misunderstood Motives

Despite this growing acceptance and understanding, Walker said every now and then she still gets treated like a used car salesman, and there are still a number of myths and misconceptions surrounding the field.

"This is the hardest part," Walker said. "Whether you're an internal recruiter, an external recruiter, contract, whatever... it is not about helping people find a job. It just isn't. It's about filling job openings. Companies hire me to fill their openings. If I'm tasked with filling a director of marketing position, the person who is paying for that service is not going to be thrilled if I've spent the majority of my week helping four art directors find a job."

"This is the hardest part...It is not about helping people find a job. It just isn't. It's about filling job openings."

Mary-Margaret Walker

On the other hand, even with the publishers who pay the bill, Walker needs to draw some boundaries about what exactly her role will be.

"I'm always very frank with the client and the candidate that the minute I have them both at the table, I have to have integrity," Walker said. "I'm not going to get the candidate the highest salary; I'm not going to get the client the lowest salary. Of course, it's not just salary; it applies to everything. Because the best thing for both sides is when it's the right fit and what is being offered is what is being well-received."

Even if a publisher does get a discount on a new hire's salary, if that hire proves a bad fit for the job, they could move on or wash out in short order, erasing whatever savings a low-ball salary offer might have gained. The goal of a recruiter (especially one who wants to stay in demand) would seem to be finding a good match that leaves both the talent and the employer happy with the arrangement. Harrison suggested a bit of candor helps in finding a good match, saying recruitment is by no means a sales environment.

"I am very honest with candidates and always try to give a realistic impression of the challenges ahead," Harrison said. "The single most important aspect of the recruitment process is that this is a two-way process and we, the publisher or developer, need to impress the candidate as much as much as they need to impress us. Hiring people who understand the business and culture as well as the skills that are required leads to motivated members of staff that are engaged, happy and ultimately want to stay and grow with the organization."

What Talent Shortage?

But the game industry isn't exactly a hallmark of stability, and when it comes to attracting great talent, that puts game publishers into competition not just with each other, but with employers in tangentially related fields.

"Game companies themselves need to change the way they interview, the way they approach candidates, and the way they treat the people who work for them and the candidates they're going after," Mencher said. "They gotta wake up. It's no longer everyone wants to work in the game industry because we're the game industry. That used to be, but it's not so much anymore, because it's not a stable industry. So some people are saying, 'Let me go into medical sims. Let me go into military sims because that's way more stable.' And it is."

"Game companies themselves need to change the way they interview, the way they approach candidates, and the way they treat the people who work for them and the candidates they're going after."

Marc Mencher

Walker brought up the same issue, saying game makers are now competing with social media, software-as-a-service companies, and an array of dynamic players in high-growth industries that are increasingly targeting the same talent pool. Unfortunately, she said, companies have some mistaken impressions of how deep that pool really is.

"There are enough people on the market that they don't want to hire anybody else who doesn't have the exact skills they're looking for," Walker said. "But there's not enough people on the market to fill all the job openings. So the job openings go unfilled and people are unemployed. And it leaves a false impression that there's talent out there to pick and choose from, when in fact there isn't if you're going to be really picky and expect the person to have everything you're looking for."

Mencher has noticed much the same sort of problem.

"We've got a little conundrum going on in the US," Mencher said. "We've got a little tech war going on because there aren't enough college students registering into computer science programs, so there isn't enough talent in the US to fill the needs of the US game companies...There are too many jobs available in the industry. There's a glut of jobs. Everyone is hiring."

In the old days, Mencher said the solution was just to bring in developers from England. H-1B work visas were simple to obtain in the US, and companies could give their imported talent a significant raise while still paying less than the market rate. However, those visas became much harder to get after 9/11, so as Mencher put it, "we're stuck with the US talent and every game company wanting it."

Burst Bubble Backlash

September 11 wasn't the only event from that era with a reverberating impact on this subject. Walker said the dot com bubble of the late '90s also looms large over the field today. At the time, employers showed "a real respect for talent," Walker said, fighting to hire top talent by letting them make unreasonable demands about everything from signing bonuses to unheard-of workplace perks. When the bubble burst, a lot of companies who won those sorts of bidding wars went under, and many of those who survived took the lesson to heart.

"People who are trying to hire aren't acknowledging that there's a talent shortage. They're not acknowledging that they need to allow for certain deficits in a candidate..."

Mary-Margaret Walker

"There's been a backlash for a really long time of the companies not wanting to acknowledge that talent is worth that level of frenzy ever again," Walker said. "Because people who are trying to hire aren't acknowledging that there's a talent shortage. They're not acknowledging that they need to allow for certain deficits in a candidate and get a really good hire and fill those deficits by bringing them up to speed."

So if the industry is awash in job openings, why are some well qualified developers still struggling to find work? Walker said part of the problem is that a lot of companies are looking for "purple squirrels," people with incredibly unlikely combinations of skillsets and experience. Even if such candidates prove non-existent, Walker said some companies would rather hurt themselves and their projects by sticking to the original job requirements instead of breaking it up into two positions or filling it with one candidate who has 85 percent of the qualifications.

"Every time a new system has come out, I've always had a demand for somebody that had three years of experience on it," Walker said. "The minute it just came out, they're looking for somebody that has three AAA titles on it!"

"Every time a new system has come out, I've always had a demand for somebody that had three years of experience on it."

Mary-Margaret Walker

Speaking of which, demands for developers with a certain amount of experience on AAA titles is another way companies can hurt themselves in the hiring process, Walker said.

"Being on a AAA title is an accident," Walker said. "It's not necessarily an indication of that person's level of talent. It can be, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're a highly talented person. There are a lot of high-value people who didn't manage to be on a AAA game that are getting overlooked, and a lot of people who are not high quality talent that are accidentally on a AAA game, and they're getting hired."

Attracting the Best

Misconceptions and missteps from both sides of the employer-employee divide complicate the recruiter's task, but Harrison said the biggest challenge for a recruiter, regardless of the industry, is simply attracting the best talent for a position.

"There is so much choice for prospective candidates and seeing what opportunities are out there has never been easier," Harrison said. "Attracting the top candidates starts with getting the maximum level of exposure to the market and ensuring that the candidates we want are aware of the opportunity. Following that, it is important that we have an attractive opportunity with professional challenges, exciting products to work on and a competitive benefits and remuneration package."

"We've always had the mantra that happy employees work harder, are more creative and will stay for longer and this really starts in the recruitment phase..."

Ben Harrison

That may sound simple enough, but Harrison said the enticements that matter to top candidates have been changing. Salary is still crucial, obviously, but quality of life and work-life balance are increasingly important to employers as well as potential employees.

"Candidates are looking for the whole package," Harrison said. "For example, a flexi-time policy or extra time off at Christmas are seemingly small measures but they go a long way to making candidates buy in to the vision of the company. We've always had the mantra that happy employees work harder, are more creative and will stay for longer and this really starts in the recruitment phase when we are looking to attract the right talent."

Mencher sees a similar evolution of attitudes, and it's one he attributes to the industry's maturation. Or perhaps more accurately, the maturation of the people within the industry.

"When I got into the industry, I didn't meet anyone over 40," Mencher said. "Now when you go to [the Game Developers Conference], 50 percent of the room has gray hair. As we're aging, folks are wanting different things from game companies. They don't want to be abused. They don't want to work 18-hour days."

"As we're aging, folks are wanting different things from game companies. They don't want to be abused. They don't want to work 18-hour days."

Marc Mencher

Even so, some studios still have a reputation for putting employees through the wringer. Whatever benefits they feel they get from the regular crunching, Mencher said they can be at least partially offset by problems with talent retention.

"Those are my favorite companies to pull talent out of," Mencher said. "They get good training and then I can move them into a game company where they have a normal job and they don't have to work overtime."

While quality of life issues are more important for developers than before, Mencher said the base salary also seems to be closer to the forefront of developer concerns these days.

"That's what's winning out now," Mencher said. "Forget the stock, forget the equity. Most candidates tell me to take it and shove it. Don't want it, don't care about it, give me the cash. A lot of candidates used to go for the cash and the stock, or the equity stake, and now people are saying the industry is too volatile. There are too many companies that have come and gone. People are over it."

Walker agreed that stock options had lost their luster for a while (another lesson from the dot com bubble), but said developers are starting to care more about them with some companies actually adding value and showing growth again. But again, quality of life is still a big selling point.

What Devs Really Want

International Game Developers Association executive director Kate Edwards echoed many of those sentiments. The prevailing attitude 10 or 15 years ago was that people just wanted a job making games, and didn't care about conditions or benefits so much, she said. Today, they're paying more attention to the details.

"Knowing that the company values them and they're not going to be chewed up and spit out through crunch time is so much more important than any of the frills," Edwards said. "And I think the frills and the way they're presented in a lot of the startups I'm seeing are now kind of an indication of, 'We value a balanced life.'"

Edwards still gets e-mails from would-be developers who would be happy with any job in the industry, but she added people are at least asking more questions about work-life balance, benefits, and the like.

"What most game developers want more than anything is the freedom to create, and autonomy, knowing they'll be going into a place where they'll have the freedom to do what they're hired to do."

Kate Edwards

"Having been at Microsoft for 13 years, I saw at least in that context a very stark transition from the attitude where 16-hour days and free drinks and all that kind of stuff was what the appeal was to people who had a better established work-life balance," Edwards said. "Those priorities went away and it's more about the long-term viability and overall job happiness. I think a lot of companies still use the tangibles first as an attractor, which is very natural and it's not going to stop. But my impression is more developers have become wise to the idea that's not all they need out of life. They need more."

Quality of life concerns have come to the forefront, Edwards said, and they encompass more than just avoiding crunch. It's also important for developers to have hospitable work environments for all kinds of employees, and that the corporate culture encourages diversity, creates a fun place to work and fosters creativity.

As for how recruiters should focus their pitches, Edwards said developers want the ability to do their jobs without interference, and to know their work is going to be appreciated by their employer.

"What most game developers want more than anything is the freedom to create, and autonomy, knowing they'll be going into a place where they'll have the freedom to do what they're hired to do," Edwards said. "Yes, they're part of a team and they know their designs and ideas will go through review, but they [want to] feel their creative contribution is valued, where it's not like they have to jump through 50 hoops just to create something."

While Edwards heads up the IGDA, she acknowledged that these are just her impressions of the situation. To back those impressions up with more solid data (or to challenge them, as the case may be), the IGDA is launching an annual survey at the Game Developers Conference to gauge developers' own attitudes toward the industry, their jobs, quality of life issues and the like. Results from the survey are expected to be announced by E3 in June.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.

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