On Art Tests

This isn’t going to be about how to perform an art test as a prospective job candidate or what to expect, but about why an art test even exists, the ethics of this archaic hiring system and what I personally think an art test should be. This is coming from someone who doesn’t and has never worked at a big studio, but at this point in my career I’ve performed multiple myself and even been on the other side of the table reviewing potential art hires and creating an art test for the applicants. There are a lot of strong feelings around this process so brace yourself, this could get controversial.

First, I’ll quickly cover what I think the purpose of an art test is. When a game studio needs to hire a new artist and puts out that job post, the inbox will be absolutely flooded with applicants. Even working on an indie game with a tiny studio I was amazed at how many applicants we were getting for our job openings. It’s a big task narrowing this list down to just the best. After you rule out the people that didn’t even give a portfolio, have zero relevant experience, need Google Translate to communicate, can’t follow the basic application instructions etc., you have to go deeper. The portfolio and CV might look good, but how can you know for sure they are a competent worker, can communicate well and complete a task in a reasonable time frame? And how will you know if they can do these things better than the next applicant that also looks good? A good, honest art test can help you make that decision.

What should an art test be? I can tell you one of my own experiences as an example of what one shouldn’t be. I once was asked to perform a test for a mid-level artist position for a studio here in NZ. I hadn’t even had an interview with anyone at the studio and they were already asking me to do an art test. In this particular brief they provided a concept of a really detailed scene and the instructions were along the lines of “Please create this entire scene from scratch, fully textured and lit in engine. You have 10 days to complete it.”. So they were well aware that this task would be a big undertaking and expected the applicant to take at least a week to complete. I asked if there would be any compensation for this, they said unfortunately not, and I politely declined. That alone gives you a pretty decent idea of the studio’s attitude towards their workers, and I was very okay with missing out on that job opportunity. I really got the impression that they barely looked at my application and just forwarded me the art test because that’s hiring procedure there.
I strongly believe that under no circumstance an art test should require an entire week of an applicant’s time. ESPECIALLY if it’s unpaid. I don’t know if people behind hiring forget that an applicant looking for work is applying to other jobs as well, possibly even has been requested to perform art tests for those roles as well. They might still be working somewhere and only have their spare time to apply to jobs. Not to mention it’s kind of cruel to make a group of applicants perform a long arduous task knowing full well that only one of them will be getting a job out of it.

Here’s the big one. Should an applicant get paid for spending their time doing an art test? I’ve thought about this many times over the years and I’ve come to the conclusion: Yes, they probably should. In the past I’ve seen so much discussion on places like Polycount forum around this topic and many a heated debate. Artists who landed a job at a big studio vehemently defending the hiring process and why it’s fine that they had to spend a whole week making a character for an art test and didn’t get paid for it. I can only imagine this is perpetuated because they had to get this shitty deal, then everyone else should get the same deal. “There doesn’t need to be payment because the reward is getting a job!” Yeah, okay buddy.
I think it’s pretty simple. If you’re hiring for a paid position, you have money. Hiring should cost money, so you set aside some money for hiring. You’re asking applicants to spend a chunk of time on something, they should be compensated for their time.
An exception I might make is for a junior position. Like first job in the industry ever junior. Not just because the expectation is to treat them horribly, but it’s likely they are graduates with a sparse portfolio and not much on their agenda besides applying for jobs. However, after being in charge of reviewing applicants and organising an art test myself, I’m beginning to wonder if art tests are really necessary at all. We needed a junior artist at one point and I didn’t need an art test to tell me who is going to be the best worker, I was expecting this to be their first professional project and regardless would require a lot of guidance. I could get everything I needed by looking at the folio to see the kind of stuff they like to make, and most importantly by talking to them in an interview to see if they would be a good team fit.
Even for a later role, hiring for an experienced animator. I pretty quickly narrowed it down to 3 or 4 applicants just by looking at their folios and experience, after interviews I knew which one would be the best. We still ran (paid) tests on the final applicants, and all it did was reinforce that my pick was the best candidate. And later again we hired for another animator and I knew that one candidate was perfect just from the portfolio, so he was hired with no tests and it worked out great. Of course this isn’t a surefire method of hiring (neither is the addition of art tests!) but it shows the importance of having an experienced artist involved in reviewing candidates.

Yet again, I’ve gone on for too long and I still wanted to tell what I think makes a good art test and use the one I created for hiring an animator as an example. I’ll try to make it quick.
Think about the range of tasks you expect this hire to perform and incorporate those elements into the test in their simplest form. I expected our animator to be able to rig, skin, animate and set up animated characters in Unity. So I purposely gave a simple character mesh that was mostly one shell, low poly and stripped off a bunch of bits to make life easier for them. Asked them to make an appropriately detailed skeleton for the mesh, I wasn’t going to judge the features of the rig controls, and they can use whatever tools they like. I wanted to see one single looping animation (gave them a choice of three ideas) and they should try to show some personality in there. Last thing was simply proving that they can import a character mesh into Unity and assign the most basic animation setup and that scene was the final deliverable.
Do everything you can to make the test as brief as possible. My test I expected to take candidates around 8 hrs and I reinforced please don’t spend much longer than that, just submit what you have in that time. This isn’t easy for say a character art test where you want to see an entire character made with a high to low poly workflow, that would take a long time… but do you actually need to see that? Think about the simplest form of a task that would demonstrate skill in something.

At the end of the day, I only wanted to write all this because as an artist I’m sick of seeing these unnecessarily involved art tests, more so when the studio won’t compensate for such a big ask. And as someone who has been involved in the hiring, it doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe the art test isn’t needed at all, and hiring folks should be questioning that instead of just making it a given because of what? Age old tradition? Uncertainty in their own judgement? Doubt of the applicants abilities? I dream of a future where a solid portfolio, experienced CV and agreeable personality is simply enough to prove an artist’s merit.