From Student to Designer: Part 2 – Portfolios

As usual, my advice is specific to design and to seeking a more traditional job in AAA development, as opposed to breaking in as an indie, but most of it can be applied elsewhere. This is just my personal advice, so I recommend getting others to review your work for second and third opinions, and ultimately make your own decisions.

Part 1: Websites & Resumes
> Part 2: Portfolios
Part 3: Cover Letters
Part 4: Design Tests
Part 5: Interviews
Part 6: Entry Level Design Jobs

“Your portfolio is only as good as your weakest project.”

-everyone I talked to

I see a lot of design portfolios from students – not as someone hiring them, but rather because I review a lot of them to give feedback before they are even sent out – but I think most of them are insufficient. A good portfolio from a student (or just someone aspiring to be a designer) is pretty rare and takes a lot of work to get together into a manageable shape. There also seems to be a big disconnect between the what the  industry needs (based on job descriptions and what designers do at their jobs) and what schools or advisers are telling people they need.

Good news: if you have a good portfolio, you will easily stand out – and that’s important because there are so many students looking for jobs, so competition is pretty fierce

Bad news: a good portfolio requires a lot of work, and you may already be graduating without any appropriate portfolio pieces, putting you at the starting line all over again. This can be really frustrating, especially since a lot of school sell you on their programs by promising jobs.

 

PURPOSE OF A PORTFOLIO

A portfolio proves that you have the skills, knowledge, and desire to work in game development in your desired role (designer, artists, programmer, etc.). Since this is a creative industry, a prerequisite to getting a job is almost always to create something – and a portfolio is where you show off what you have created.

For people already in the industry, your portfolio is usually your list of shipped games (and many of them skip making a portfolio once they’ve shipped games anyway). Until you’re in that position, your portfolio is the only proof you have that you can ship games. Of all the people I talked to for their advice and recommendations when writing this article, every single one said that your portfolio is the single most important thing for an entry-level designer.

Your portfolio should answer questions like:

  • Do they have the technical skills to work in AAA editors?
  • Have they done comparable design work similar to what they would do in the industry, such as level design or mission scripting that could fit into a shippable game?
  • Can they communicate about design clearly and intelligently, using industry terminology and common design concepts?
  • Is their work interesting, with good, clever gameplay, and maybe a bit ambitious?
  • Can they iterate on something with a high degree of polish? Can they finish something they started?
  • Do they understand the game development pipeline? Do they know the separate roles? Do they understand how one goes from paper designs, to graybox, to an iteration cycle that results in a polished game?

Back when I wrote about websites and resumes, I implied that your portfolio goes on your website. This is true… mostly. There’s design portfolios out there that exist in .PDF format and I think that’s fine. Just keep in mind that my advice assumes a website, but not everyone uses one.

 

WHAT GOES INTO A PORTFOLIO

In the process of answering the above questions, there’s the practical stuff – what you are actually showing off in your portfolio.

This article has been revised four times so far, each time to take into account feedback I’ve gotten from other designers. I do see a lot of portfolios, but that’s mostly because I volunteer time to review them before students send them out in the search for jobs. But my experience still pales in comparison to people who do spend their time hiring – they see a lot more. So I encourage you not to take my advice verbatim, but rather to get a few different opinions and maybe Google what other students are doing to see how your work compares to theirs.

What I Expect

Below is what I look for in every design portfolio I see and I usually point them out to students when they are missing.

  • 3-5 projects that show the breadth and depth of your design experience
  • At least one of your projects should be in a 3D toolset like Unity, Unreal, or similar. Unity, especially, has become a common tool for students to use since it’s similar to many AAA toolsets and it’s also used in a lot of mobile and indie development.
  • At least one project that displays iteration and polish work. The idea here is to show that you can bring something to completion.
  • Clear explanation of your role on the projects and key design elements
  • Video walkthroughs of your projects, although clearly annotated screenshots may be so long as you include downloadable files. Regardless of video, you should always have screenshots. I know video can be an absolute pain to make, but I get a much better feel for student projects by watching one than just looking at screenshots and reading about them.
  • Your projects do not have to look pretty. Designers are not (normally) responsible for art, so I understand it if your levels consist largely of well-organized gray boxes. A good-looking game can get eyeballs faster and can be an advantage, but ultimately you’ll be judged on your design skills, not your art skills.

What I’d Like

Outside of the major elements, there’s other stuff you can add to your portfolio that will improve it. Mind you, none of these can replace those core portfolio pieces mentioned above, but they can supplement them.

  • Programming work, clearly demonstrating your coding skills and technical knowledge. If you can code, you should show it, even if you are not applying for a programming position because ultimately games are pieces of software.
  • Group projects can show that you know how to work with people. Making a game as a team, such as a modding group or as a pair, is a lot harder than making one by yourself. Be careful about only showing group projects, since it can be hard to tell what you – personally – can accomplish.
  • Press coverage on your work from Kotaku, Polygon, RockPaperShotgun, or other media outlets. If gamers and games journalists can recognize your talent, I want to know.
  • Industry prizes or awards like being an IGF or Make Something Unreal finalist or featured in the AppStore. This is about the industry recognizing your talent.
  • In depth knowledge of a closely related field, such as computer science, usability or user experience design, architecture , and economics or mathematics. For example, using your architecture background to describe the decisions you made in a level you designed in Unreal is really cool and I’d love to see that kind of thing in a portfolio.

What I Don’t Want

Here’s some really common general mistakes I see on portfolios. I talk a bit more about what I’d consider problematic portfolio pieces later, but consider these my high-level guidelines:

  • Unfinished games or game jam games that did not get any iteration and polish work after your 48 hours were over. This would be like an artist putting up sketches as major portfolio pieces, instead of finished work.
  • Creative writing samples, unless you are applying as a narrative designer. I have seen: lore bibles, pen and paper campaigns, short stories, screenplays, and rough drafts of an epic fantasy trilogy. These are almost universally bad, which makes me wonder if your design work is equally bad. Writing is its own skill, and it’s a hard one to master.
  • Requiring me to purchase your game in order to evaluate it. Now, it’s okay if you’re selling a game and want that as a portfolio piece, but I think you need to give a potential employer enough information about it: video walkthroughs, trailers, screenshots, demos, sales numbers or accolades.
  • A lot of focus on non-gameplay projects: music compositions, 3D modelling or character design, textures, particle effects, lighting. Each of these are their own job on a AAA team and not the job of a designer, though the job roles get fuzzier at mobile and indie studios. The main red flag is if you avoid showing off gameplay.
  • Offensive work that insults or stereotypes a class of people (sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.). This includes stereotyping disadvantaged people like the disabled or the homeless, and overly sexualized women. I think the exception here is a game that was traditionally shipped that you were not sole designer of (Left Behind the video game, an adult game for Playboy, etc.). Sometimes artists can get away with some more eye-raising content, especially with female character designs (I’ve heard some complain more that it’s uncreative than insulting), but since you’re a designer you should be able to avoid this.

 

GOOD & BAD PORTFOLIO PIECES

Your projects are your games or the levels you’ve designed. Veteran game developers fill this with the games they’ve shipped professionally. As a student, though, it’s not likely you’ve “shipped” any games, so instead this is where you put your side projects, mods, and stand-alone games you’ve made by yourself or with a team.

Safe Projects

Here’s a list a projects that I propose as good portfolio pieces – they are safe, they show off a lot of technical skill, but sometimes they aren’t so great at displaying your creativity. Obviously this is not a comprehensive list! Consider these suggestions as the equivalent to writing prompts.

  • A Skyrim Mod with a new dungeon interior, and a quest line with heavy branching and multiple ways to complete your objectives. Make sure to include combat. The quest should feel like it belongs in the shipped game while still presenting something novel to the player.
  • A Team Fortress 2 multiplayer map that was highly rated by the community, with details on the mode and design considerations when building it. Provide a top-down 2D overhead map and mark out the critical path.
  • A Left 4 Dead 2 map that covers a 10-15 minute defense prior to helicopter evacuation, with clear explanation of the different waves of enemies, the entry and exit points, the main front lines, and how the level design can be used by different enemy types.
  • A game made in Unreal 3 or 4 that creates entirely new gameplay, such as a third-person puzzle-platformer, with at least 20 minutes of gameplay. The gameplay, art style, aesthetics, HUD, and similar elements should all be unified, but do not need to be all that pretty (designers are not responsible for art!)
  • A Portal 2 level that is about 30 minutes of gameplay, with video walkthrough, using one new mechanic you designed ((ex: time travel, light, malleable gravity) in combination with mechanics in the shipped game. This should look visually very close to the retail game and have a great deal of polish.
  • A 3D adventure game made in Unity, with intuitive puzzles, a clear story, good aesthetics (but do not need to be pretty remember)

You get the idea…

All of these are 3D engines – not a single 2D game in sight. That’s because there’s a different level of complexity in designing for a 3D game environment, and that’s what you’re expected to design for at most studios. Now, this comes down to a pretty predictable list of projects mostly in FPS engines for mainstream games, but those are also great engines to know and these projects will help make people comfortable with your technical skills. Consider this a baseline before you start throwing in curveballs or more unusual projects.

Get creative with these. Don’t just make more of the same, but rather make something that will stand out on its own. Focus on the gameplay, and how you can innovate within the constraints. I wouldn’t make, for example, a map for Team Fortress 2 that is largely indistinguishable from other maps by fans and hobbyists. Make sure something in that portfolio piece stands out as an interesting central focus.

Unusual Projects

Unusual projects can be good and make you stand out, and help you kind of define the type of designer you are. These are great opportunities to show off your creativity, just don’t forget that familiarity with certain tools is really important.

  • A 2D iOS game with interesting – and new! – mechanics. At GDC a student showed me a turn-based platformer… roguelike? Weird, but it took about 10 seconds for me to understand it and it was immediately obvious that the gameplay was unique and fun. It also had clean aesthetics and a professional presentation.
  • A board game or pen-and-paper game that you’ve exhibited at conventions, and iterated on extensively. Include a video of people playing it, or make it really easy for me to understand in a few quick glances how it plays out.
  • A piece of hardware, such as a new controller, with a game built for it. Another student at GDC showed me pictures of an interactive table device that he had set up at conventions that dealt out real-life quests and scavenger hunts. That was pretty cool. Mind you, there’s an entire industry devoted to hardware and toy design, and it’s separate from the mainstream games industry, but I think this still makes for a good project so long as you have other things on your portfolio.
  • A game that uses unusual control schemes or hardware, such as Kinect or Oculus Rift. Alternatively, I’ve seen a few 2D games that have used the guitar, dance pad, piano, the move controller, and similar peripherals. I’d be careful that these are actually interesting (and make me interested in them!) rather than gimmicks.
  • Any game that has been shown at industry events such as Indiecade, Indie Megabooth, the Experimental Gameplay Session at GDC, a finalist at IGF, or similar. This shows that you’ve had peer recognition for your design work and can make something that is marketable and/or interesting to other people.

What these projects have in common are that they are well-designed, immediately understood, and outside mainstream AAA games.

One of the problems I often see is that student portfolios only have ‘unusual projects’. That might be okay if you’re applying for, say, a job at Sifteo or at an indie incubator. But it doesn’t work all that well if the job description says you need to build missions for an open-world crime simulator, not make a game to be played on a piano. The latter can stand out though – especially if the game is good and not just a gimmick. Good design is pretty universal, so if you can show you have the design chops then people miiiiight let you slide a bit on the implementation side.

Still, so many 3D game-editing tools are free, so you don’t really have an excuse not to get some experience in one!

Projects to Avoid

There’s a bunch of projects that I think are too simple, not complex enough, don’t show off your skills or knowledge as a designer, or don’t present very well. These are the kinds of projects I would avoid because they will bring down the quality of your portfolio. There are exceptions, of course.

  • 2D platformers similar to Super Mario or Metroid. There are so, so many platformers, and they are so easy to make, that this is not going to stand out unless you have some special hook. In general, these come across as amateur projects. Though, obviously, if you made something the quality of Shovel Knight or FEZ then I want to hear about it.
  • A game that has too many rules and layers of gameplay that I cannot understand it. One of the reasons games like FEZ and Antichamber show really well, is that you can immediately ‘get’ the gameplay. If you find you need several paragraphs in order to explain the core gameplay, it will probably not show well. Usually a video fixes this, but if it doesn’t or if you cannot provide a video, I suggest skipping this. This can be really hard with tabletop games, so for ideas on how to show those off I recommend looking up successful kickstarters for boardgames – they are usually pretty good at communicating what is cool about the project.
  • Games that are entirely about environment art and ambience. Imagine your game is set in a graveyard and there’s no… gameplay, just a lot of art, moody music, custom effects, animating tree limbs. I am suspicious of these if there are no other games on your portfolio focused on gameplay mechanics. It makes me think you don’t know the difference between a designer and an environment artist.
  • Clones of games, like Tetris, Breakout, Pong, etc. These are first-year programming projects, and cloning games does not show off your design skills. These could be supplemental works on a section in your portfolio where you show off your programming skills as a designer, along with other scripting examples, but are not stand alone pieces. Of course, if you redesign an old games – and make something like Speed Chess – that could be a great portfolio piece as an “unusual” project.
  • Projects based on tutorials or classroom assignments. A lot of people do these tutorials. All your fellow classmates do the same classroom assignments. I don’t think these help you stand out. I’ve even seen a project based off of a tutorial I also went through myself, which unfairly made me compare my results to the student’s.
  • Prison or sewer levels. Okay, maybe it’s alright to include them, especially since every AAA video game has a prison or sewer level. But it’s kind of a joke I’ve heard from people in the industry, and the result is that your project already looks boring.

The exception to the rule on all of these is: if your game got recognition, I would put it in anyway. If you made a level that is all mood and environment art and no gameplay, and it’s called “Dear Esther”, you bet that I want to know about it. And if you’re REALLY proud of your 2D platformer or creative writing sample or prison level, go ahead and include it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though…

How Many Portfolio Pieces?

I used to say to follow the 80/20 rule: if you have five projects, then four should be from the “safe” category and one from the “unusual” category.

Since writing this article initially, I’ve backed off quite a bit on that – largely from talking to others who have become designers and had portfolios that deviated a LOT from my suggestions. I found they made a couple really interesting “unusual” projects, had a relatively impressive resume (including internship experience), and – obviously – they are really good designers who even as students could talk intelligently about design. I think the hard part is getting that interview where you can demonstrate that knowledge.

Instead, my recommendation is to have at least one of those safe projects – detailed, polished work that you’ve iterated on a lot over time from a popular AAA engine like Unreal or Unity. After that, I still think your portfolio pieces should be substantial projects, and not quick game jams or weekend projects, but once you’ve shown off your technical aptitude then you have a lot more leeway to be creative with the rest of your portfolio.

I do like seeing at least three good, sizeable portfolio pieces that each stand out from one another where each is a different genre, or at least focuses on a different kind of gameplay. For example, a piece focused on combat, and another focused on puzzles, and a third that showcases your level design or scripting talents.

 

HOW TO SHOW OFF A PROJECT

So now that you’re done throwing out all your current portfolio pieces (I kid… don’t do anything drastic!), I want to talk briefly about how to show off a project.

Give me a single page with all the information about the project.

Clearly label it with the following information:

  • Engine it was created in (Unity? Unreal? Custom?)
  • Specify if there’s something unusual with the format (i.e. if this is a hardware project, or Oculus Rift game)
  • If you were the only person, or if you had help / it was a created by a team
  • Any downloadable files and instructions on how to use them, if necessary (note: if it’s a map or mod of an existing game, chances are no one will play it, but even then I’d like to see it as an option).

You can use bullet points, a table, sentences, whatever you want – just make sure it’s easy for me to scan the page and quickly find this information.

Next, you should summarize the piece and tell me why it’s important. This is a brief (1-2 sentence) explanation of the gameplay and highlighting one element – is it the complex scripting? The level of polish? The boss battle? The combat design? The puzzles? This summary should focus on the GAMEPLAY. I want to know what kind of design work it entailed.

Here’s some supplementary material that will give me details about the project:

  • Screenshots that show off the gameplay. Taking pictures of gameplay can be hard, but it’s important. Make each screenshot show off something different in the game, rather than several angles of the same thing.
  • A video walkthrough of the game or level. Make sure you use a simple format (like embedding it as a YouTube video), and that it is not auto-playing. Trailers for a game also work well, but the point of this is to show off gameplay, not sell a product.
  • Written details on the gameplay, how you implemented it, what your goals and challenges were. You should be specific, clear, and talk about one part of gameplay in depth rather than trying to explain all of it – this is where I get an idea of how you think and whether you understand good design and game development. Again, this doesn’t need to be long – a paragraph may be enough, depending on how much detail you want to go into.
  • Any 2D maps, or overhead screenshots with overlay diagrams, identifying key gameplay elements like the critical path or pickups or interactive elements.
  • Design documentation you’ve written for projects. These could be level design docs, quest designs, game design ‘bibles’, systems balancing excel sheets, flowcharts, or similar. Please do not include any giant 50-page beasts – no one is impressed by the length. Short, concise and actionable documentation is great to see, as are visualizations of game design flow. If all you have are giant unwieldy documents, then I would skip this.

Besides that, it’s a bit more free form depending on the project you’re showing off. A lot of designers I’ve talked to say they like to see how a project evolved over time to get an idea of how you think and iterate. This is where early documentation and before/after screenshots can help. I would definitely include any accolades or awards, or any special details that you think makes this project stand out, but remember that more is not necessarily better and you don’t want to drown someone with a ton of reading.

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