It’s May and, as a friend pointed out, this is the month when students all over the country graduate from game design academic programs and look for jobs. So I am going to lay out my advice on game design portfolios.
This is so long I’ve split it up so I can post each part separately. I’ll update these with links as I roll them out.
A Note on my Advice
- I’m giving advice on design, not art or programming or production or audio. I am a designer, so I can only really evaluate and comment about design.
- Some of my advice assumes you’re interested in AAA, but I think it applies to most parts of the industry (mobile, indie, mid-sized studios, etc.).
- I am assuming you are a student that has not worked at a professional game development studio, except as an internship.
- You don’t actually have to follow my advice. That’s why it’s called “advice” and not “rules”. I don’t actually get any say in hiring anyone, so my advice is less useful than, you know, someone hiring you.
- I use a lot of bullet points.
These are the basics. I really think you need to have all of these if you are a student, because you can’t point to a game on the shelf of Gamestop and say “I made that.” Once you’re in the game industry, it’s a lot easier and you don’t have to prove yourself as much. But until then, you are untested and a risky hire.
- 3-5 game design projects, showing breadth and depth of your experience
- Videos, documents, demos, downloads, and/or supporting content
When I look at a student’s portfolio, I ask myself, “Could I hire this person and immediately put them to work? Do they have experience in the genre I am making? Do they have experience with our tools or tools very similar to ours?”
Sadly, the first question I have is not “Is this person a good designer?” That is the follow-up question and definitely needs to be answered. But when I go over someone’s portfolio and resume for them, I am usually looking for reasons to rule them out – and the fastest way to rule out a design application is to see if they have any relevant experience with the kinds of tools and content the studio actually uses. You can be the best undiscovered board game designer, but if you know nothing about first-person shooters and have never made anything in a 3D level editor and you’re applying to work on the next Call of Duty, I think your chances are a bit slim.
The purpose of your website is to showcase your skills and work related to the job you are applying for. It should be easy to use and navigate, and I should be able get to all the information I need in just a couple clicks, and not get bogged down or distracted by content unrelated to game development.
Generally, website design is its own beast and hard to get right. Unless you have experience, I really recommend trying to design a website from scratch. Grab a couple people to go use your website after you make it and give you feedback (much like you would when playtesting a game). Below are a pile of mistakes/suggestions that I’ve seen come up, or questions people have asked me:
- Try to purchase firstnamelastname.com or something very similar for your website url. Alternatively, if that is not an option, you could use something that is fun and easy to remember (example: tomtomtom.com). This is one of the few things that I think is worth spending money on.
- Do not use a URL that is difficult to remember, misspell, is unprofessional, or can turn people off (xxxHardCoreCha0s.weebly.com is a no-no).
- Use a simple WordPress theme or similar popular packaged template that is simple, clear, efficient, and easy to use and navigate. Check that it works on mobile, too, if you plan on going to GDC or another career fair
- Do not try to make the website from scratch if you have no web design experience. Web design is hard, and a poorly designed website can turn some people off. I’m personally pretty picky about this because I used to do web design before I found games, though I know others will overlook it.
- I should be able to reach your resume in just one click.
- It should be clear from your home page what game development role you are looking for. I don’t want to be confused about whether you are a level designer, programmer, writer, or environment artist.
- I should be able to quickly find all of your major portfolio work from your main page. I should have a good idea of how many portfolio pieces you have. Before navigating to one of your projects, I should have an idea of whether it’s 2D or 3D, and/or what engine it was created in.
- Your design work should be the most important thing on your website. Don’t clutter it up by adding a whole bunch of unrelated or non-design work. I recommend using a separate page and dumping all this stuff there, but make sure it’s set aside and clearly labelled as separate from your design work.
- Don’t rely on icons, thumbnails, or images with no text, especially if these are supposed to be links. I need more information before clicking them, and a lot of times I don’t even realize they are links so I never see the content behind them.
- Don’t use a lot of flashy stuff like sliding image galleries. It makes it hard to find what I am looking for when images disappear moments after I see them. Sometimes I want to link someone directly to a page with an image on it and many of those plug-ins prevent that.
- No auto-play videos or audio please.
- Don’t use a contact form – just share your email address. Most people do not use or skip contact forms – it can be a turn off, and extra hassle. If you’re looking for a job, a contact form ends up being an extra barrier. Just post your email on your website for people to use.
- If English is your second language, ask a native speaker to proofread your website for you. Misspellings and improper or unusual grammar give people an easy (and lazy) reason to dismiss you, which is totally not fair for non-native speakers. Find someone or ask twitter or facebook or reddit to proofread it for you.
Think of your resume as a list of qualifications, rather than a complete history of your education and experience. You probably have details in your history that aren’t related to games (the so-called Starbucks barista job) that you can skip because they aren’t really relevant to the job. A lot of advice I’ve read online says that you should tailor your resume for each and every job you apply for separately. I think that goes a bit overboard (I never did it), but a couple selective edits may be useful if there’s something in your history that is irrelevant to everyone except that ONE studio you are about to apply at.
- I want to be able to read your resume on your website, AND download a .pdf or .docx (or both) copy to my desktop.
- I should be able to easily print your resume without requiring color ink or text cut off because it bled too much into the margins. So try not to make the background black or add a ton of images. I think that sort of thing is better suited to graphic design jobs rather than game design jobs.
- Don’t have a multi-page resume unless you’ve shipped games and worked professionally (paid) in the game industry. Students normally have to add more information than is really relevant in order to get to two pages. I think editing down a resume to one page almost always makes it stronger.
- Try to pay attention to white space and avoid big blocks of text. Make sure your sections (Skills / Experience / Education / Etc.) are clearly separated. I want to be able to scan it and immediately pick out your education background, or your list of skills, with no effort.
- If you are applying for a job internationally, learn the resume standards of the country you are applying at. In the US, you do not include your picture or your parent’s occupation. This is true vice-versa – if you are applying for a job in South Korea, you might need to include a photo with your resume.
The Basics of a Resume
I think most resumes for student designers should follow this general format – at the very least, it’s a good place to start.
- Header with your name, contact info, website URL, and job title (“Designer” is fine)
- Objective Statement (though honestly I always skip these)
- Skills section that focuses on, in order of importance:
- Game engines (Unreal, Unity, Hammer/Source, Skyrim/Fallout Creation Kit, and many other programs)
- Design skills that you have done extensive work in (3D level design, combat design, first-person shooters, documentation, 2D level design, economy balancing, creative writing)
- Supplemental game development skills: (Maya / 3D modelling, Perforce). This section is optional and supplements – not replaces – other skills. I would only include skills that are relevant to the jobs you are applying for, and include any tools that are industry standard.
- Games section that lists major game projects completed as a student or on the side. (Yes, side projects count as experience! I care that you’ve made games (or levels for games), no matter where you gained that experience.)
- Education section that includes all degrees you’ve earned (or expected to earn). If you did not attend college, then I would include high school diploma / G.E.D. / other certifications, but if you’re a college grad I don’t think you really need it.
- Previous Work Experience: I think this section is optional for students but your mileage will vary. It’s a good place to call out military service, substantial jobs (if you are switching careers, for example), game industry work like journalism, internships, related jobs like technical writing or a freelancer that made flash games for an advertising firm (that kind of thing). I don’t think you should include working as a cashier at Gamestop or shelving books at your local library because they are not relevant to the job, but there’s no rule against it. I would include any jobs where you worked in design, art, or coding roles since those share a lot with the skills you need in games.
- If you include an objective statement, be specific. Don’t go into how much you love games (that’s usually a given). If you include an objective, I’d keep it to one line. If you are a current student and sending out resumes with a specific start date in mind, then you can use this space to include the relevant info (“Looking for a full-time entry-level design position starting May 2014”). Like I said before, I honestly skip objective statements because I don’t think they are that important.
- Skip references. I am pretty sure the standard in most industries is that if they want references, they will ask for them. Just make sure to have them on hand (and always ask your references ahead of time if they are okay with it!)
- Avoid listing basic computer skills or experience with Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, or Excel.
- Avoid hobbies. I would not include things like being on varsity sports teams, earning awards for debating, being president of the anime club, or similar supplementary experience. I don’t think they add anything since they don’t qualify you for the job, but, then again, if you played football and the person looking at your resume used to play football, that could be a good opener. I usually leave that informal stuff to bring up in interviews.
- If you have hobbies that are relevant to specific companies (ex: you play soccer in college and are applying for a job on the next FIFA), you should totally selectively edit your resume for those companies, or include it in your cover letter. Actually, you should definitely include stuff like this in your cover letter, but I’ll get to that later.
- You can include really important game-related activities and achievements on your resume. If you are a competitive gamer who’s played ranked matches (League of Legends, Street Fighter, Starcraft, DOTA, Magic: The Gathering, and more), I’d love to know about it on your resume. If you’ve done Let’s Plays, video game podcasts, contributed to games journalism, or taught games at a kid’s summer camp, let me know. I don’t think being a guild leader in World of Warcraft or starting a gaming club at school is not that interesting or unique, so be judicious about what experience you include.
- Do not list C++ as a skill unless you can really code. A single class on C++ does not count. I would list these as “some experience with” as a qualifier, and lump them together as scripting languages, or skip it. Remember that a lot of designers have programming backgrounds, and a lot of entry level jobs also have programming tasks, so try not to misrepresent yourself here.
- You should have experience with a 3D level editor! Top picks are Unreal and Unity – other people in the industry I talk to universally pick those as examples. There are lots more out there, and some studios have favorites (for example, Blizzard often suggests making Starcraft maps on their job positions).
- Experience with Maya is good to have, but not necessary. You probably don’t need to mention specifically that you can model, unwrap, and texture art assets – designers don’t usually do this work these days, though that changes with smaller studios, mobile, and indie startups. You can just say you have experience with Maya (or another 3D modelling tool) and leave it at that.
- You don’t need to include every project you’ve worked on. I would only include large undertakings that required a lot of work – things you would consider major milestones. I suggest that any projects or games you list in your resume should also be in your portfolio somewhere if I want more information.
- Game jams, prototypes, unfinished projects, and short school assignments do not belong on your resume. If you picked up skills from these projects, I’d expect to see them in your “Skills” section, but they are usually too small and not polished enough to really act as a substantial project. (I’ll get into better definitions of what unfinished or prototype means later).
- Do include any shipped game you’ve worked on. Shipping a game, or working on a game for an internship, makes a student’s resume stand out from the rest.
- Clearly label your game projects so I know what tools you used, what genre it is, when you created it, and how much time you spent creating it (3 months, 6 months, 2 years, etc.). I like this because I can get a better feel for your experience.
- Don’t list student projects as though they are industry experience (ex: “lead designer on Tales of Nartharathia at DarkDev Inc.”) unless this was your professional job title and a real business. This is another one of my pet peeves, and I’ve spoken to a few other designers who get annoyed by this. It certainly won’t tank your resume but it’s pretty transparent.
- Do list student projects clearly labeled as student work, and include your role, highlighting any leadership experience (ex: “lead designer on student game, Tales of Nartharathia”). Make sure the game was finished, and that you put it on your portfolio when I want to see more information.
- You do not need to list every single thing you did on a student project – that can get long and unwieldy. Go with the 80-20 rule: 80% of your details should be core design skills, but 20% can be supplemental skills (sound design, art, writing).
- If you can code, I want to know. Like, really code. Video games are still software development, so while you do not need to know how to program to be a designer, it’s a huge boon – especially for students.
- You should be general enough about your responsibilities/experience so that if I never heard of your game I can still get an idea of what you did. If you say “Created level 3, Into the Ice King’s Lair” I actually don’t know what that means. I’d prefer seeing something like, “Level design, documentation, & puzzle design for 10 minutes of gameplay”.
- “Shipped” is a really nebulous term these days. In my opinion, you shipped a game if the game was sold for money at a retail outlet or online game store. If you put a game on the AppStore or sold it for Android or got it on Steam, I would consider it shipped, but I can’t really speak for others. Some sites are still pretty new – like itch.io and gumroad – and most developers will not have heard of them, so they fall into questionable territory. The important thing, though, is that you do not seem like you are intentionally misleading employers.
- You can list additional coursework under education even if it did not grant a degree (ex: additional coursework in economics, playwriting, film, and Japanese language studies). I like seeing this, but then again I have a pretty high esteem of academia. I would only list coursework that is relevant- no one cares that I did additional coursework in Spanish or Social Work when I was in college.
So that’s my advice. Some of this came from others when I asked what they thought were common mistakes, and others are just things I’ve seen when I volunteered time to review resumes for students. Obviously, you’ll run into some conflicting ideas – I think the most contentious part is which games/projects to include, how to label them (work experience? student projects?), and exactly how to describe your role for each. That is something I leave students to figure out on their own. Like always, I recommend getting a few different people to look over your resume and website before you send it out to get different opinions. Think of it like “playtesting”.