Interviewing at EA Mythic

Ever since I started playing video games at an early age, I always wanted to develop them. I had my first taste of this in grade school when I figured out how to modify some of my favorite games by editing the data files in a hex editor. In high school, I bought myself a copy of Borland Turbo Pascal (and then later Turbo C++) and taught myself how to program—building rudimentary games. For college, my mother really wanted me to become a lawyer so I decided that the best way to get there was to major in political science. While I did well, I just wasn’t really interested in it. So in my junior year I changed my major to computer science. Of course, I had already chosen my university based on their reputation for political science and law and as such the computer science curriculum wasn’t the best. Since freshman year I had been running a MUD (I had to finagle an account on the engineering Ultrix machines as I wasn’t in the School of Engineering—we also weren’t supposed to be running servers either but I had some crafty ways to hide my work from the TAs). In my junior year I built a raycasting engine and a simple FPS (similar to Wolfenstein 3D). While I continued to follow the game industry and read-up on the newest techniques from folks like Michael Abrash, John Carmack, Andre LaMothe, etc. my foray into game development was still-born. In my senior year I took an internship at the Naval Research Lab and was pigeon-holed into telecommunications from that point on (I believe I’ve finally escaped, though I’m currently working on some very interesting and vital Internet infrastructure). Anyway, you didn’t come here to read about me and my failed attempts at game development, you want to know about interviewing at EA’s Mythic Studio in Fairfax, VA. Home to Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC) and the upcoming Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (WAR). Back in July, I contacted my friend Scott who works at Blue Fang Games in Waltham, MA to find out if he knew anyone at Mythic Entertainment. Fortunately he did, his friend Ralph, an artist at Mythic, was able to put me in touch with the CTO, Matt. At this time they were still in transition due to the acquisition of Mythic by Electronic Arts so Matt’s email address changed and communication was difficult. I continued to persevere until Matt agreed to bring me in for an interview at the end of August. It was an all day interview (from 10am until 5pm), which I was glad for—I really dislike it when companies only speak to you for an hour or two; it’s just not enough time to assess someone. Knowing the culture at the company I didn’t wear a suit and tie to my interview, but khaki pants and a button-down shirt thinking that I should at least dress somewhat nicely to the interview (even this elicited a mixed response, which I’ll speak about later). When I arrived at Mythic, Matt (the CTO) came out to greet me and spoke with me for a short while about why I wanted to become a game developer, my professional experience and skills. He then walked me over to speak with Darren who is essentially the director of operations for Mythic, managing their datacenters and ensuring that the hardware and network are operating. One of his direct reports, Andrew, was in his office so they decided to tag-team interview me—which I didn’t mind. Darren explained his role, the machines in their co-lo out in Ashburn and their pipe to the internet. Andrew quizzed me about various programming languages and had me explain my most recent project at Cisco. I brought up Ruby and tried to make a case for it increasing their productivity in operations through the use of scripts and custom web apps to help manage and monitor their systems. Andrew was already using Python and had done some of this already (though not to the extent I had envisioned) and didn’t see the need to learn yet another programming language. Granted Python and Ruby are equivalent enough that one or the other is suitable for these type of scripts/apps. Matt had thought that the best fit for me would be here in the operations group since I did not have any professional game development experience. Next I met with Ed who works on the WAR game server. He explained that one of his biggest problems was NPC path-finding and that they were evaluating a new library from a company in Europe (France, I think). But even that wouldn’t scale to the number of NPCs they have in a shard. He showed me the ‘tools’ they used to design spells and NPC behavior—basically an Excel spreadsheet that the game designers fill in that gets imported into the game server. I left with some ideas on how to improve these tools quite a bit (using a DSL written in Ruby that would be easy for the designers to write spells and behaviors in or a Rails app which used for drag-and-drop building of spells/NPC behavior from basic building blocks). Following my meeting with Ed, the team took me out to lunch where I made a pretty big mistake—instead of talking about games the whole time, I admitted that I had to pack-up my PS2 over a year ago because my toddler kept grabbing at the cords and opening the game cases. One good thing that did come out of lunch is that I learned about The Venture Bros., the best cartoon on TV. I think it’s absolutely hilarious and I’ve been recommending it to all of my friends ever since. When I got back to the office, they introduced me to Brian who also worked on the WAR game server. I had a great conversation with him and liked him quite a bit. He has been working at Mythic (or Interworld Productions as it was known at the time) since their first MUD, Dragon’s Gate. What I found interesting about Brian was that he had been working there since high school and had no formal computer science background (though he said he was working on his degree at GMU). An interesting tidbit that I learned from Brian is that for all of the games Mythic has released, the server-side codebase is derived from Dragon’s Gate—they just keep adding functionality to it over the years and try to patch over the brittle parts. After speaking with both Ed and Brian, I was very excited about working on the WAR game server and thought this was the group I could quickly contribute to. Next they had me speak to another developer named Matt (not the CTO). At first, I had mistakenly though he was in the operations group working with Andrew and Darren. Matt works on the game server for DAoC which appears to be in a sustaining mode. Following the interview, I was still not clear on what work needed to be done on DAoC. I think this was one of my worst interviews at the company as there seemed to be a lack of understanding between us—the questions he was asking me were not at all clear (perhaps that was the point), so I tried my best to tease more information out of him and answer them to the best of my ability. As sort of an afterthought they had me speak to Marty, another game server developer on DAoC who said his background was on the client side (3D Windows application programming). He was the most hostile towards me and also the most frank. He was appalled by the fact that I had packed up my PS2 to prevent my children from breaking it—he explained that if he were in that position he would tell his wife to take the kids away so he could play (the way he said this made me feel sorry for his family). According to Marty they are only looking for folks who’ve worked in the game industry before or are hard-core gamers (at the expense of all else, he recounted the personal sacrafices he made to get into Mythic—essentially commuting up to Northern VA on Monday, staying for the week and commuting back to his family for the weekend). His rationale for preferring hard-core gamers was reasonable—he explained that in design meetings they typically referred to other games and this shared knowledge of the details of games (through having played them) allowed the team to come to consensus much sooner. He used Elder Scrolls Oblivion as an example, but couldn’t remember the name of the game (which I had to remind him of). So while I stay up-to-date on the latest games, actually having played them helps to build this shared gaming culture. Marty also thought that I was way over-dressed for the interview (in khaki pants and a button down shirt), he was wearing a t-shirt and shorts and I thought I should’ve worn something more casual. I tried to explain to him that this was a job interview and that I wanted to make a good impression but it had the reverse effect on him. Finally I had a sort of exit interview with Matt (the CTO) who asked for my impression of the team and the company (which was good) and he gave me a tour of the area surrounding the art team for WAR. The art on the walls there is simply amazing and having been a huge fan of Warhammer it was a real treat. At this time he also explained to me why Imperator Online was cancelled—it just wasn’t fun for them when they played through it. MMO’s with guns are really hard to balance and after many months of development the game just wasn’t coming together. Matt also confirmed that WAR would be released on both the PC and the Xbox 360 (the latter of which he recommended I get, instead of the PS3 or Wii). Matt was most concerned about my salary at Cisco, constantly assuring me that they would be unable to me it. I explained that I was willing to take a bit of a pay cut for the opportunity to work as a game developer on Warhammer. I left with mixed feelings, not sure whether I would be offered a position at Mythic. I was quite surprised that I wasn’t given any form of coding test. Following Labor Day weekend, I heard back from Matt that they decided not to offer me a position, here’s the content of his email:

After a lot of consideration, we don’t think it is a good fit for you here at Mythic. You obviously are very talented at what you do, with our limited position slots available here; we would like to fill them with individuals with game job experience if possible. Take care, we wish you the best with your future endeavors.

Having gone through this experience and done quite a bit of research, I’ve come up with the following tips for interviewing at EA Mythic, or any game developer:

  • If you don’t have any game industry experience, create your own by making your own game. Go through the entire process and complete it—don’t show off a half finished game.
  • If you’re not a rabid gamer, become one. At lunch talk about your favorite games, why they are your favorites, what new games you’re looking forward to, etc. Here they’re looking for passion. The thought is if your passionate about games, your passion will show in your work (and you’ll be willing to work 80-100 hours during crunch time, the two or so months prior to release).
  • Don’t try to push any new technology or programming language during your interview. Once you’ve gotten the job you can then try to effect change. Instead show how your skills can work within the existing situation to improve it. This is true of basically any job—it’s naive to think that you know better than they do after having worked in the domain for so long. Though the game industry in particular appears to be quite insular and has only recently started switching to tools, processes and procedures that have been shown to work well in software development projects.
  • Provide specific examples of how you can contribute to the team. You need to sell yourself to them.
  • Research the company and culture as much as possible prior to the interview. I did quite a bit of research about Mythic before interviewing and knew a lot about the founders and the products, but I didn’t know that much about the culture. I should’ve used Ralph (my friend’s friend) to find out more prior to my interview.
  • And, of course, they’re looking to see that you can communicate with them and that you’re not a total jack-ass. Remember, we’re dealing with real people, treat them the way you wish to be treated. Even though Marty was rather hostile to me during my interview, I still treated him with respect and answered his questions honestly. Having hobbies you can talk about in a lunch setting may also be good, but the lives of the guys I spoke to seemed to revolve around games and television (not really what I’d consider hobbies).

If you have any additional tips/tricks for landing a job as a game developer, please post them in the comments.