Connect with top gaming leaders in Los Angeles at GamesBeat Summit 2023 this May 22-23. Register here.


Sunni Pavlovic is studio manager for Thatgamecompany, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based creator of hit games such as Flower and Journey. In that role, she is in charge of hiring and evaluating job candidates who want to work alongside studio visionary Jenova Chen.

The company has grown slowly in the past few years, and it now has 15 employees. And one reason for that slow growth is that the company is very careful about who it hires. Pavlovic and her team devise tests for programmers and think about not only what a person can do, but how they will fit with the rest of the team. Thatgamecompany can be choosy because it has such a reputation for making unusual, groundbreaking games that developers would love to make.

Pavlovic gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last week on hiring practices for game studios. We caught up with her afterward for an interview. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Sunni Pavlovic, studio manager at Thatgamecompany.

Above: Sunni Pavlovic, studio manager at Thatgamecompany.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: You were talking about tips for hiring people and building a studio?

Event

GamesBeat Summit 2023

Join the GamesBeat community in Los Angeles this May 22-23. You’ll hear from the brightest minds within the gaming industry to share their updates on the latest developments.


Register Here

Sunni Pavlovic: Broadly speaking, it’s kind of advice about hiring, but really it’s about what we at Thatgamecompany did and why it worked for us. We’re coming from a very specific direction and goals. But outside those specifics, hopefully there are still approaches and thoughts about — my goal was to get people thinking that hiring is important. It’s crucial to building a studio and making games.

The people you hire will make your game. It sounds obvious, but even here at GDC where we’re here to talk and share information about how to do things better, we don’t talk about things like hiring. I’m very involved in hiring. That’s part of my contribution to the studio and to game development. Maybe we should shine a light on, hey, if we do hiring well, it helps our games and it helps our studio.

GamesBeat: Do you feel like your way of doing things is different from the way a lot of bigger game companies hire people?

Pavlovic: I can’t speak to that specifically, not having been on either side of things at bigger companies. But as much time and attention as we apply to developing games, I apply that to the hiring process as well.

One key thing I mentioned is, taking the time to get to know an individual and let them get to know you. Not for every single applicant, maybe, but when you’ve selected a handful of promising people, then making sure you put the time in to say, “This is what you can expect. This is the role. This is what we’re looking for. This is why it might be exciting for you, but also why it might not be a good fit.” Treating them as a human. Even if you have to reject someone, there are always benefits in doing it well. Word gets around.

When I was here on Tuesday, a conference associate was at the door for the speakers’ lounge. We’ve never met in person, but I saw her badge and knew that she’d applied to us. I was able to say, “Hey, I know you, you did that project,” and so on. We never got far toward hiring her, but I got to know her because I’d taken the time.

Journey

Above: Journey

Image Credit: Thatgamecompany

GamesBeat: Do you have a strategy for what happens if you make a bad hire?

Pavlovic: That has happened. I’ve been at thatgamecompany, and three people have departed the studio in that time. Historically, we’ve not been very good at letting people go. We’re not good at identifying problems and addressing them immediately. But we are good at giving it time to digest, so it’s clear enough.

One of the points I made was, if someone has to leave, it’s important to make it safe for them to leave. Make sure that you’re not going to give them a bad reference, that you’re not going to badmouth them. It shouldn’t be like, “We never want to talk to you again. Don’t come back.” Usually we all think an individual would be better off at another studio and would be happy and fulfilled. We want to support them.

Finding people to do great things here isn’t about being competitive. It’s about the greater industry. If you’re going to make contributions, you should be able to do that where you’re the most empowered and satisfied. We’ll tell them, “If you need help finding another job, if you need us to vouch for you, we’ll do it. If you’re afraid of making that step to leave, we’ll give you a cushion.”

The way that worked out with Asher Vollmer, he went on to make Threes. We hired him to work at Thatgamecompany because he’s obviously super talented. He had a lot to contribute. But he didn’t feel like he was reaching his peak at Thatgamecompany. That’s proven out. He had this idea for a game that was Threes. He approached us about it and we said, “Hey, if this is your passion, you need to do it. If you’re suppressing it to work on our project, you’re not going to be giving your all to it anyway.” He was really nervous, because he’d just come out of school and been at the studio for a year. He was relatively young. But it bears itself out. He made a great game and people loved it.

Journey

Above: Journey

Image Credit: Thatgamecompany

GamesBeat: How do you remain thoughtful about hiring without being too slow?

Pavlovic: I try to be very mindful of that. I know what it’s like to look for a job somewhere. It’s very stressful. There’s a lot of uncertainty. There’s a few things I try to approach with. When someone has gotten a little way into the process – we’ve had an initial phone call, a second phone call, the candidate is going somewhere – then we’ll say, “Hey, we like you. We have a process.” I outline each of the steps of what they can expect, so they’re not completely in the dark and wondering when they’ll hear back.

Communication is important. I want them to have the information they need to feel like they can take on this challenge. I also explain the reason why we have this very thorough process. We’re a different kind of studio and our requirements are different. We want to make sure people fit and we can keep them for the long term. Usually they get it and it works.

Being transparent about your process is one thing, being aware of limitations. I talk about how we give tasks and how that’s sometimes controversial in the interview process. I’ve heard some applicants say that studios have given them a lot of work that’s totally unreasonable compared to what the job requires. That’s not what it’s about. The reason why we have these tasks is because I need to verify that their skill set transfers over. Everyone has to wear multiple hats with us. I need to know that you can come in and hit the ground running, so I need to see a demonstration.

I try to outline things like, “I estimate this will take a day of actual work to put this test together.” We have some time for brainstorming and some time for polishing. I’m setting up that expectation so a candidate doesn’t go overboard, but also to get an assessment of what someone can do quick. We do quick prototypes at the studio. But as much as possible, if I can avoid giving a test — if someone has some code samples I can review, if you’re a full-time working professional, I don’t have the same expectations as I would have for a student.

As much time as a candidate’s putting in to perform a task, on our side we’re tailoring a task very specifically to the role. It really hones in on the skills we think someone will be using on a daily basis. It’s not wasted. We’re also creating something fun. It’s not a cookie-cutter task. We personalize it for an individual and for a role. If they think it’s fun and exciting, that’s the stuff they’ll be doing every day.

We’ll put little bits of humor in. I remember one of the tasks John wrote was for a systems engineering role. He was trying to test performance. He said, “Let’s say we’re making a mobile game in 2000, a fl0w MMO on a super old phone, and the device has only so much RAM. How do you get all these operations to happen?”

Journey

Above: Journey

Image Credit: Thatgamecompany

GamesBeat: Is hiring the right person the most important thing a studio needs to think about? What’s the impact of a hire that doesn’t work out?

Pavlovic: I wouldn’t go to the extreme of saying it’s the most important thing, but it’s certainly a very important decision. If you find someone who doesn’t fit and they’re not happy — this is pretty well-documented. If you have a toxic employee, if they’re disgruntled for any reason — if they don’t think they’re getting the amount of responsibility that they expected, or any number of other things — other people pick up on it. I’d say that the people we hire are pretty emotional, artistic people. They pick up quickly on bad vibes. It creates this downer environment in the studio that we don’t want. We have to hire people who are going to be excited and happy with the kind of crazy stuff we do.

Jenova Chen of Thatgamecompany

Above: Jenova Chen of Thatgamecompany

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: In the recap of your talk, it sounded like everything you do is in service to the game. I’m assuming that team size is part of that. After you finish a game, though, and you have a team put together, does the next project have to be something that needs at least that many people?

Pavlovic: If you look at the projects from thatgamecompany, they’ve always gotten slightly more ambitious and taken slightly longer each time. The team size has grown in an organic way. We’re continuing to hire now. We have 15 people, which is larger than the team has ever been. It’s not huge by any means, but it’s big for us.

When this game comes out, we’ll have to go back to the drawing board for the next game. We’ll have a long iteration and preproduction time. So how do we keep all these people busy? Maybe, for the first time, we’ll have a multi-project studio. That’s what we’re thinking of doing going forward.

GamesBeat: Do you do things like game jams to come up with ideas for what you’ll do next?

Pavlovic: We’ve done game jams in the past. One of the primary motivations was to let off steam. If you have these extended dev cycles, and the game isn’t coming out yet, people need the experience of, “I did something, it was good, it’s complete, it’s playable, and we can enjoy it.” That’s good feedback for individuals, especially when they have some zany idea that we could never make at thatgamecompany. We’ll just jam it up. That’s another way to let off steam, and potentially, if something works out really well, we could say, “Hey, if we liked this so much, why don’t we put it into our game?”

GamesBeat: You have had some strong personalities at your studio — Jenova, Kelly Santiago, and Robin Hunicke. Do you have to hire with that in mind, that they have to work well with that leadership?

Pavlovic: Absolutely. That’s why our process is so slow. In general, we have needs in development that we have to fill, but we don’t just hire to fit that role. Maybe if we meet an awesome person that we don’t have an exact fit for, we can still see that person making a contribution in some way, and we’ll see if we can make it work. But more generally, in hiring we look at what they’re adding to the team.

On the flip side, we’ve met really awesome developers who don’t actually add anything the team doesn’t already have. I’m really sorry and I can recommend them to other studios where I think they’d be awesome, but you have to make sure that the team is operating as a whole.

At this point, the company has made three games and been around for nine years. Expecting someone to come in and take a lead position may not be really practical. I don’t know that we want more ego, especially excess ego. Jenova and John have led the team through each of our three games and they’re leading development now. If they’ve been doing it for nine years, for someone else to come in on day one and be lead is unrealistic.

On the other hand, we have a small team size. With so much work to do, everyone has a lot of time to be self-directed and make decisions. We don’t have full leads, but you still get to lead.

Journey

Above: Journey

Image Credit: Thatgamecompany

GamesBeat: Do you have people who come in and apply specifically because they want to learn from these people?

Pavlovic: That does happen. That’s always one of the biggest draws for how we hire, especially with people coming out of school. They’re sort of star-struck. But we always end up having to hire a balance of fighters and the more passive type of person. Without that balance, the strong leadership would topple.

We call them chefs and we call them facilitators. Obviously everyone is skilled. Everyone brings a lot to the table. But you have that personality dynamic. Are they more the type to be a chef and orchestrate? At 15 people we can’t have that many chefs. The person who’s more on the facilitator end of the spectrum can be really talented, but they like enabling people.

Every hire is always evaluating a balance. What is this person going to grow into? Are they coming in wanting to learn and then they’ll grow into a state of mind where they have a lot of strong opinions?

GamesBeat: How often do you get to apply this hiring philosophy?

Pavlovic: When I started in 2012, there were three people at the studio. Now we’re 15, plus a few people we’ve hired who went on to do other things. In three years we’ve had a good number of hires. Even the people who had worked on fl0wer and Journey and came back later, we still had to reevaluate. What’s the team dynamic like now that they’re joining at a later date? About half of the Journey team is still with us, though.

journey-21

Above: Journey

 

GamesBeat's creed when covering the game industry is "where passion meets business." What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you -- not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it. Discover our Briefings.