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I read a blog that said something along the lines of:

Some candidates could be inexperienced but with potential to be great. A good way to test this is to have them solve (non-programming) puzzles to test their problem solving skills.

I wonder if solving the puzzles in the game Portal could be a good way to do this.

First of all, its fun, candidates would enjoy the interview and be more enthusiastic about the job.

However, many programmers are familiar with this game, and it would only work if they have never played it before. Also, my first time playing it I didn't find it very difficult, but I also love solving puzzles. So maybe its not difficult enough to really test problem solving skills.

If this is a bad example, what are some good examples (of problems to solve)?

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Zelda is a much better choice. –  Michael K Mar 31 '11 at 15:22
I love Zelda... –  JD Isaacks Mar 31 '11 at 20:49

4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

No, probably not. As you mentioned, if the candidate has already played it, then you're really just testing them to see if they can remember how to solve a puzzle they've already solved once before. And you don't know that they solved it on their own, they could have read a cheat.

Also, not all candidates will like playing video games - it might be hard to imagine, but there are many developers out there who just don't care about gaming. Getting that thrown at them in an interview might cause them to not take you seriously, and you will have to deal with the learning curve of someone who's maybe never played an FPS game before, and that probably won't help evaluate them.

...And another thing, I know some people who actually get motion sick/disoriented/vertigo/nausea from FPS games. Some can handle the old-school 2D strategy games mostly OK but anything with changing camera perspectivs makes them ill. How will you handle these candidates?

The only case this might be useful is in interview for a game dev company where you then ask the candidate not to just play, but also evaluate and critique the game.

If you want to test a candidate with non-programming puzzles, maybe give them word-problems or open-ended hypothetical scenarios from other areas... I can't think of a good one off the top of my head, but something that lets them talk their way through a solution without having to think of programming.

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+1 Good point here: might cause them to not take *you* seriously. –  JD Isaacks Mar 31 '11 at 15:28
In other words....they need to release a damn level designer for Portal!!! –  Crazy Eddie Jul 3 '11 at 22:01

Personally, I hate FPS games, partly because I'm no good at them. I'd be too distracted by what was going on to pay attention to puzzles.

I've heard the name Portal before several times, so it's probably a fairly popular game, meaning that lots of avid gamers will have some idea what's going on, and so it's not a good test for them.

The one thing it might be useful for is making sure the candidate is good at FPS-type games, which may or may not be useful in fitting in with the department culture.

You could try the old-fashioned text adventure games, if you want puzzles that most people haven't seen. Go to the Interactive Fiction archive to find some. I don't think it's a good idea, but at least the problem-oriented games are more intensively problem-solving and have nothing reflex-based.

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Portal isn't exactly a shooter. It's more of a puzzle game built on a FPS engine. You only have one "weapon" and it doesn't do any damage, even to the (extremely rare) things that are actively trying to kill you. And the only parts remotely "reflex-based" are one scene at the very end of the game, and a few of the bonus levels. If you're into puzzle games and problem solving you should definitely try it out. (Especially if you've got a slightly warped sense of humor!) –  Mason Wheeler Mar 31 '11 at 16:10
@Mason Wheeler: Thanks for the review - I never look at anything associated with FPS games, partly because my reflexes weren't that good thirty years ago. –  David Thornley Mar 31 '11 at 16:16

You cannot expect somebody who has never played Portal before to get into the more difficult levels of the game in an interview situation.

You cannot expect somebody who has never played first-person-shooters to navigate using WASD+Mouse. It simply does not work, that's something you have to learn. To try it out, force your parents, grand-parents, or whomever you know to have no experience playing FPS games, to play Portal.

Another related point is spatial thinking. One can be a great programmer without the ability to get along with spatial puzzles (albeit I would guess that decent minds usually perform well at spatial thinking).

Sounds like a bad idea unless you are sure that all applicants have game experience.

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+1 Great point about the using WASD+mouse ... never even thought about that. –  JD Isaacks Mar 31 '11 at 15:26


...if you're interviewing for game testers

Otherwise, you might want to narrow the focus somewhat

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