How to Get Hired at an Activision Studio

What do studios like Infinity Ward, Treyarch, Raven Software and Radical Entertainment have in common? There’s a deeper connection than merely the fact they’re all incredibly successful game developers, with games like Call of Duty, Guitar Hero and Skylanders in their portfolio. These are all Activision studios. With nearly 40 studios and offices around the world and a portfolio of almost 70 games, including many of the most successful games in existence, Activision is without a doubt one of the largest and perhaps the most storied-companies in the industry. If you’re one of the countless artists or game devs around the world who would consider working at an Activision studio the crowning achievement of their career, we caught up with the Director of Talent Acquisition for Activision’s many studios, MaryAnn Knoke, to find out what it takes to work at an Activision studio. MaryAnn’s role is to manage all of the recruiters across the various Activision studios. Simply put, if there’s anyone who knows what it takes to get hired at an Activision studio it’s MaryAnn.

Demo reel advice from Activision

Call of Duty Ghosts was developed by three Activision studios: Infinity Ward, Raven Software and Neversoft. Image is © 2015 Activision Publishing, Inc.

One of the most important things in any aspiring game artist’s arsenal is a great demo reel. As someone who no doubt sees her fair share of demo reels, Knoke has some great advice for how to get your reel noticed.

“I always tell people if you have a gut feeling in wanting to be in the games industry, go onto YouTube and just go search senior FX artists, for instance,” Knoke recommends. “If you’re getting [what it takes to work in games], you should be able to look at, maybe, ten of them and be able to see the difference. For example, you should be able to see how that one was much cleaner, how this one was too long, how this other one had too many words or how that one didn’t give enough information on some of the decisions that were made.”

Continuing, Knoke suggests, “Find out who’s in the industry already through game credits and look at their stuff, because they got hired. For example if you want to be an FX artist, find artists who did the FX on games you like. Then look up to see if they have anything on YouTube, LinkedIn or even on their personal website. Look at their work and that’ll give you a good feel for what they did and what they’re doing in their work now.”

Since there’s such a wide range to the styles of games that are out there, when you’re creating your demo reel Knoke recommends keeping it concise and targeting it towards the studio you want to work at.

“If you’re interested in doing animation at a Call of Duty studio, it’s great to show us your animations with some soldier characters as opposed to cartoon characters because it aligns with what our work is,” Knoke says. “Not that we can’t look past that and see you’re able to do movement with other types of characters but it’s just great to be able to see it with our own characters.”

Getting your foot in the door

Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock was developed by two Activision studios: Neversoft and Vicarious Visions. Image is © 2015 Activision Publishing, Inc.

As the saying goes, ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ Having a great demo reel is only as good as your ability to get a potential employer to look at it.

“It’s all about networking,” Knoke comments. “This is a small industry and there’s only a certain number who fit into that senior or above-lead role, so trying to push from the bottom to get more college students in or more modders into gaming is vital for us to keep that bloodline going.”

With all the job sites out there, it can be tough to know where you need to put your work to get it seen. What might come as a bit of a surprise is it may not necessarily matter as much as you might think. The key is put yourself and your work out there so it can be seen. Join some online communities, go to conferences or reach out to artists you admire to get their input on your work.

“To tell you the truth, a majority of people are the ones we search out,” Knoke admits. “We certainly go to our site and look for the people that have applied, but our recruiters tend to go out in the industry and contact people themselves. So [they look for] people who have game credits, have some information on their LinkedIn profile or have blogs they hang out in or they’ve posted some of their work to. ConceptArt.org or something like that. We just go out and scour places.”

Of course, this only works if your work is good enough to get you hired. Instead of spending your time splattering your reel on every job posting and community site out there, spend your time wisely by taking the time to learn what it takes to create amazing work. When you do that, putting your work on just a few sites or showing it to a few people is enough.

Teamwork is more important than you thought

Skylanders Trap Team was developed by two Activision studios: Beenox and Toys For Bob. Image is © 2015 Activision Publishing, Inc.

Many aspiring game artists only focus on their art. While it’s always great to keep improving your work, it’s also worth pointing out that you can be the best artist in the world but if no one wants to work with you, your career in AAA games will be short-lived.

The process of creating games has changed quite a bit over the years. Gone are the days of holing up in the corner behind massive CRT monitors to block out the world around you. While there’s still a lot of indie games being created by small teams, it’s a simple fact that creating AAA level games means you’ll have to work with a lot of people.

“You might get to sit at your desk for three hours of the day modeling,” Knoke says about an example day. “Then you’re going to need to work with the environment artist to get those models to work in the engine for the next two hours of the day. Then maybe you’ll talk to the engineering tools guy for an hour about some of the process improvement you’d like to have and why and how that might work. So there’s always going to be a large chunk of time that you need to work with other people.”

“It’s a very teamwork-based environment at all of our studios,” Knoke says. “You have to be able to work in a team, get your opinions on the table, to listen and take critical feedback and make adjustments based on that, and to have intelligent conversations around what’s being built.”

“I think students realize teamwork is a part of the process,” Knoke adds. “But I don’t think they understand the full impact of how important it is until we’re in the interview process talking through it.”

Interviewing at Activision

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare was developed by Activision’s Sledgehammer Games. Image is © 2015 Activision Publishing, Inc.

Because of the emphasis on teamwork, you can expect the interview process at an Activision studio to focus on helping the interviewers be able to tell just how you’ll perform in a team setting. Knoke offers some great advice for anyone who might be prepping for an interview.

“If you’re just recently out of school, we’re going to ask a lot about your school projects and the role you played,” Knoke explains. “We’re going to dig into that by asking questions like, ‘What role did you play? What did you do when you came to a roadblock? Have you ever had a situation where your boss disagreed with you? What did you do?’ We’re going to ask a lot of questions that delve into how you deal with some of the difficult situations within teamwork.”

Knoke continues, “So it’s not really just, ‘Have you worked on a team?’ ‘Yes, check.’ But more we’re going to dig into that a little bit and ask for examples and talk about how the work was and ask how your teammates responded, what you were responsible for, were you able to get your ideas pushed through, did you get critical feedback and how did you handle that?”

“That would be for college student projects, but as well as for folks who have experience in the industry being able to talk about those kinds of things,” Knoke adds. “If you’re brand new to the industry there’s also opportunity to talk about that at different roles you’ve had prior where teamwork was a part of the job.”

Make sure you’ll fit into the studio’s culture

Call of Duty Ghosts was developed by three Activision studios: Infinity Ward, Raven Software and Neversoft. Image is © 2015 Activision Publishing, Inc.

Although it may seem like common sense to some, it’s still worth noting that even though there’s many studios under the Activision umbrella, each studio is quite different. Working at Treyarch in Santa Monica, California is going to have a completely different culture than working at Vicarious Visions in Albany, New York.

This goes beyond the obvious office environment differences and into the way, the teams at different studios work. Each Activision studio has its own culture. If you want to work at one of their studios, you’ll need to make sure you fit in with that culture, so it’d be smart to do some research ahead of time to find out what some of the different cultures are and which one you think you’d fit into most.

Still, some common trends occur.

“This is a very fast-moving environment,” Knoke explains. “You have to have the ability to deal with change. Sometimes your work might not make it into the game because things have changed – the storyline has changed or how we’re going to deliver the content has changed – a lot of different things come into play. So having that ability to move quickly in a new direction, being agile is really what it comes to.”

Working with cross-functional teams

Call of Duty Ghosts was developed by three Activision studios: Infinity Ward, Raven Software and Neversoft. Image is © 2015 Activision Publishing, Inc.

Something that might come as a surprise to many, especially if you’re new to the industry, is how much teams change and shift depending on their project.

“Each studio is going to figure out what works best for them for developing the game,” Knoke explains. “We’ll often have a small, cross-functional team that works on particular parts of a level or parts of a map and they may or may not stick together. They might be changed up based on decisions such as, ‘It’d be nice to have this guy’s leadership over on this team for the next level or it’d be nice to have this guy’s modeling skills over in this team because it’s got a lot more models on it.’”

If you’re not familiar with a cross-functional team, the term simply refers to a team with varied skill sets. For example, instead of having a team full of modelers you might have a single team with a couple environment artists, an animator and maybe a game designer.

This sort of cross-functional team is actually quite common in the game dev industry today, but as we mentioned before it’s still important to be able to adapt to whatever situation you come across.

“Absolutely cross-functional is the best way to get the work done,” Knoke states. “But it’s still up to each of our studios to determine what will make sense. Some [studios] still have all of the animators sit together instead of being in those groups because they have an opportunity to learn from each other stronger.”

Knoke continues, “That may not be true for all the particular types of work, though. That might be true for this game in particular, or the first year of this game when we’re developing things in the engine but once we start building them then everyone moves around. So overall a lot of people get shifted around in the studios that I’ve seen.”

Follow your passion

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare was developed by Activision’s Sledgehammer Games. Image is © 2015 Activision Publishing, Inc.

One of the biggest keys to finding success at any studio, or any creative position at all, really just boils down to doing what you love to do. None of what we’ve looked at so far will seem like ‘work’ if it’s something you love to do.

“Figure out where your passion truly is,” Knoke comments. “Then build into that with your skills and what you want to do. So if art is really your passion, dive in and figure out what part of art is your passion.”

“Maybe your passion is concept art, modeling, lighting or FX, you have a lot of different options,” Knoke mentions. “Pick the area you’re passionate about and dive deep. For example, if you want to do lighting, you certainly always need to show that you can do basic skills like modeling if you need to here and there even if you’re going to do lighting, but dive deep into the lighting area.”

“Really understand the different tools you can use for lighting, as well as the different color palettes, how it changes the mood and how important all of that is in the game,” Knoke continues. “Whenever you find what you’re most passionate about it comes through in your demo reel, it comes through in your interview, and it comes through in your work.”