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11 things you should know about interviewing developers

Larry's got 11 tips for handling developer interviews at Gamescom and PAX Prime

Gamescom in Cologne and PAX Prime in Seattle are coming up quickly. Gamescom starts next week, and PAX Prime hits at the end of the month. Although I’ve never traveled to Germany to attend Gamescom, I have been to all the PAX conventions in the US at least once. They are by far my favorite kinds of conventions. Unlike E3, which is primarily for press, or Comic-Con, which is about general entertainment, both Gamescom and PAX focus on two of my favorite things: games and the people playing them. Although press does make its way to both conventions, the players are the first focus.

As a player attending either one of these events, you will get a chance to speak to the actual people making the games on the show floor. I believe you will find most of these developers to be extremely passionate about the product they’re developing. However, that might not be enough to give you the answers you’re looking for. I have been interviewing developers for going on five years now, so let me give you 11 pieces of information that might help you get better answers.

1. Research the games

I cannot tell you how important it is to know the games that you’re going to see at the convention. Both Gamescom and PAX have maps of the show floor, letting you know which games and product developers are going to be there. And there is also a schedule of panels, check that out and make you can get to the ones you think are the most important. There are also phone apps like Guidebook that will allow you to set a schedule based on the convention itself and it also gives you a digital version map of the convention, too.

Once you have a decent schedule set, you should do research on the games that you’re going to see. Find some of the key features about the game that you would like to hit on. Find out what has already been talked about, so that maybe you can expound upon that or maybe not reiterate a question that has been answered multiple times already.

2. Developers are people

One of the biggest things to understand when talking to developers is that they are people, too. This means that they are fallible. Most of the time, there will the a PR or community person within earshot, so that mistakes can be heard. If something is said that a bit out of place or seems to hit you funny, allow them to correct the mistake or ask for clarification. If for some reason the developer talks about something he is not supposed to, be respectful and don’t publish it. Or at very least, get it OKed. Bottomline: Treat them how you would like to be treated if you were in their shoes.

3. Call them by their names

Learn the developers’ names. If you can learn them beforehand, that would be wonderful. But learning them during the interview is fine. You should also pay attention to the PR rep’s name, too. Most likely, any of your future communication will be handled via the PR rep. Then during the interview, refer to the developer by his or her name. Don’t over do it by using his or her name in every sentence, but a couple of times during the interview would be good. This will not only make the dev feel good, but you will also be more likely to remember the name later when writing up the article.

4. Developers love the games they are making

Oftentimes, gamers like to trash on games. It’s a thing. I get it. And sometimes, games really, really deserve it. But most of the time, if a game makes an appearance at a convention, there is significant money and love dropped into the game. The developers who put up with spending a lot of time in a loud, crowded convention hall have put their heart into the game and want to share it with others. It would behoove you, if you actually want them to answer your questions, to not insult their game, no matter how bad it is.

5. Ask open-ended questions

I think this one is obvious, but over and over I hear “professional” games reporters ask questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Of course, it’s not always possible to avoid a polarized answer, but if you do run into that situation, try to have an immediate follow-up question. Avoid yes/no questions when possible.

6. Ask questions that they can answer

We all want to break the biggest news, right? We want to be the first with bits of information that no one else has. Well, unless you’re working for IGN then it’s unlikely you will get the biggest reveal for a particular game, but you might be able to get tidbits of information that no one else has. And the best way to get that is to ask questions that developers can answer.

For instance, you might know that developers aren’t talking about all the classes in an RPG. So it would be foolish to ask, “Which classes are going to be in the game?” The developer will clearly answer: "I can’t talk about that yet." 

But a developer might be able to talk about how classes fit into the rest of the game, so you can ask: “What was the philosophy between balancing gameplay mechanics and the game’s story?” Of course, it’s possible that the dev will not be able to answer anything about the classes, but you’ll likely get some hint as to how the classes work within the overall game.

7. But don't be afraid to ask for secrets and easter eggs

If you’ve been respectful and polite to the developer, you might be able to point-blank ask about the secrets of the game. 

I’ve asked the Star Wars: The Old Republic developers flat out: “Where should I look for the biggest secrets in the game?” At the time -- several years ago before the game was launched -- the answer was holocrons. I was told to look up and listen for the noise that holocrons make.

8. Ask for their favorite parts of the game

As I mentioned before, developers love their games, and they love talking about them. Besides making the game, they also play it. So if you’re looking for secrets, sometimes you can ask them about their favorite parts of the game or ask them about their favorite experience while playing the game. 

You’ll be surprised sometimes what is revealed during those anecdotes. But ready for follow-up questions for clarification because that can be revealing, too.

9. Ask for a business card

Developers don’t come to conventions without business cards, and some devs actually have some very cool business cards. At PAX South this year, I interviewed the developers of Life is Feudal, and no lie, the lead developer had a metal business card that he loved to show off. 

However, the real purpose is to get the developer’s information and to show that you actually cared about the game and the interview. Of course, you’ll want to have business cards of your own, too. Even if it's just for your blog or YouTube channel. That will show that you take the interview seriously.

10. Thank them for the interview

It seems to be common sense to thank the developer for the interview, but sometimes common sense isn’t so common. And when you’re caught up in the excitement of the show floor or finally speaking to the developer you always wanted to talk to, you can forget some of the basics of conversation. 

Be polite. Shake the developer’s hand and thank her for her time. This will demonstrate that you understand the importance of her time and might open you up for more interviews in the future.

11. Send a follow-up email

Lastly, send a follow-up email to either the developer or the PR rep or both. Thank them again, and if you have any follow-up questions, this would be the time to ask them. If you know when your article will go live, the follow-up email would be a great place to mention that, too. 

PR reps really like to know when articles are going live. Who knows; you might actually get a promotional link from the developer’s Twitter account or featured on the game’s website.

If you’re going to Gamescom, be prepared for what is the biggest gaming convention in the world. There will be a lot of people and developers there to talk to. Let me know how it goes. And if you’re going to PAX Prime, look me up. I would love to talk to you; I will be there the whole convention. Thanks for reading, and I'll talk to you again soon.

Published Jul. 31st 2015
  • Stan Rezaee
    Featured Contributor
    A lot of people assume journalism is easy after reading one OpEd (which they always call a news article) they disagree with. Yet many fail to understand the concept of how important interviews are and the insight you gain from listening to a professional. Everything listed here are interviewing guidelines every writer should have learned in school along with networking skills they need to pick up. This was an excellent guide for anyone trying to learn about real journalism.
  • Geir Haugland
    Contributor
    Excellent read. I agree that open-ended questions is a focus one really needs when conducting an interview. I have never personally interviewed anyone about video-games, but I have conducted several research interviews, and let's just say I learned the hard-way that yes/no questions doesn't provide you with a breadth of information to write something about. Also, it's not a fun interview to conduct. Some might feel that they are being interrogated, not interviewed, if question after question is of a yes/no dichotomy.

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