Tagged in: intro to games

Types of Designers

“So who writes the story? Who designs the bosses? Do you make the levels? What about skill trees?”

In an effort to help clarify “what does a game designer do?”, I want to go over all the different TYPES of designers. There are designers who are affectionately called “jack of all trades” who dip their hands in all elements of design and sometimes even art and programming, and then there’s specialized roles like “systems designer” and “combat designer” and “level designer”.

The truth is, any general definition of design has flaws because the actual responsibilities of a designer varies depending on the size of the studio, the platform, the genre, the size of the game, the studio culture regarding roles, how specialized people are, and even whether there is a “design department” at that studio. The designer on a first person shooter has very different practical responsibilities than the designer on your next favorite match-three mobile game.

 

GENERALISTS

Designer / Game Designer

Generic term to mean any or all of the design specializations, used at any size studio, any genre, etc. Most companies just use this term for job titles, while individual designers might still specialize informally. The larger the studio, the more likely they will have specialized designer titles.

Overall, designers are concerned with the rules  of the game, what ways a player can interact with the game, how the mechanics and story work to provide a desired experience to the player. This is the vague description that gets clarified as you read on.

Junior Designer / Associate Designer

Junior or Associate designers usually have less experience, and less creative control. They may spend more time implementing under the eyes of a Designer or Senior Designer. This is often an entry level position, catering to new hires from outside the industry (such as students), those transitioning between roles within a company (from art to design), or existing designers hired into very different scale of games (moving from a 2D game studio to a AAA studio).

Senior Designer

A senior-level position in the design department. Someone who could fill the position of “lead” and usually takes charge of a large system in the game, such as all combat or all levels, and delegates to or guides other designers. They may be the major point-person for a system and work with programmers and artists and the leads to bring it from an idea to a fully featured system.

Lead Designer

Leads translate the Creative Directors vision to the design team (much like the Art Director or Lead does for the art team). They review the gameplay from its macro to the moment-to-moment bits, giving direction and feedback to designers and making decisions regarding the gameplay mechanics.

Creative Director

The top of the game development pyramid who reports directly to the owner of the company and to the publisher funding the game. They hold the ‘vision’ of the game – this is the closest to “the idea guy” that you can get. They are analogous to a film director, and are usually the most visible in the media as the face of the development team.

Creative Directors can come from any department – art, programming, design, or even an owner of the company. Some studios use Director or Executive Producer to describe this role, but Creative Director is the most common.

 

LEVELS & MISSIONS

Level Designer

A level designer is responsible for the architecture and gameplay in a chunk of physical space – a level. They care about how the player flows through the level, puzzles or enemies or other obstacles they encounter, and implement basic geometry of the level and the moment-to-moment gameplay. They work closely with level artists to get the aesthetics in place, and gameplay programmers for specialized functionality they may need, and the writer and creative director to ensure the level fits within the overall game.

Where do I hide the intel? Where is the next objective? How does the player get from A to B – an elevator or a ladder? Which enemies attack the player in this room? Where is the cover placed? What kinds of puzzles exist? Where are the exploratory spaces? What story elements do I need to communicate to the player, and when?

Multiplayer Level Designer

These designers have the same basic responsibilities as other level designers, but they focus on the unique needs and challenges of multiplayer gameplay. They focus on designing levels that accommodate competitive and/or cooperative gameplay and the placement of any elements specific to a certain mode (flags, control points, enemy waves).

How long is this racetrack, and is it wide enough to accommodate all the players? Where are the control points that players need to take over? How far apart are the flags in Capture the Flag? Where do players respawn and how do you prevent spawn-camping? How many players need to be in this arena to defeat the boss? What architectural features of the level best cater to different player classes, such as a sniper vs. short-ranged melee attacker?

World Builder

World builders are a type of level designer – many of their responsibilities are the same, and someone qualified as one would usually be able to move to the other. The world builder title tend to exist more in open world and MMO spaces – games that don’t have individual concrete levels but rather large areas for the players to traverse around. As such, these spaces usually have multiple purposes (story missions, side quests, activities or minigames, multiplayer hubs) as opposed to traditional level design where the space has a single purpose.

Does this area have large city buildings, highways, shops, mountains, rivers, or flat? How does this area fit in with the areas directly around it? What landmarks make this area unique? What kinds of enemies, architecture, plants, or other features populate this area? How does the player navigate through it? What are the critical paths players take as shortcut, and what are the dead spaces players tend to avoid?

Mission Designer

Sometimes a mission designer and a level designer are interchangeable, but in cases like open world games or MMOs a mission designer usually handcrafts gameplay in a space that already exists, or exists for multiple purposes. Mission designers are focused on what the player is doing during a mission – the gameplay beats, objectives, combat, implementing dialogue and ensuring story elements are communicated to player.

What is the player’s current objective – is it interesting? How does this mission fit into the overarching story? Where does the player traverse to in order to complete the mission? What is the pay-off at the end? Is there any new functionality being introduced in this mission? What kind of combat, puzzles, or other obstacles does the player encounter? Is there appropriate spectacle in the mission to signify its importance in the game?

Quest Designer

Very similar role to the Mission Designer (and sometimes interchangeable), Quests tend to be secondary story-focused gameplay, usually smaller but still using many of the same mechanics as a mission or main story line. You find quest designers in studios making role-playing games and MMORPGs.

Is this quest part of a quest chain? What is the ultimate pay-off of this quest? What kind of quest archetype is it – explore and discover, fetch, combat, or something else? What enemies are involved? Where does the player have to go to get, engage in, and complete the quest? What area of the world does the quest cover? When does the player first get the quest? What story does the quest tell and how does that fit into the overall design of the game?

 

SYSTEMS

Systems Designer

A catch-all term for various systems design. Systems refers to global rules or things the player interacts with across the entire game, not specific to missions, quests, areas, or levels.  They aren’t focused on the moment-to-moment experience so much as the overall birds-eye-view of the game. To help clarify, a system may be something like “combat” while a mechanic may be “throwing grenades”. They spend a lot of their time in excel sheets and organizing information.

What kinds of slots can the player equip armor or clothing to? How does the player level up, and at what rate? How often does the player get a new weapon? How many pieces of intel are they, and what is their spread across the entire game? What are all the different puzzle mechanics and at what rate do you introduce them to the player? How many quests, challenges, minigames, and other optional pieces of gameplay are there?

Combat Designer

These designers are often at large studios that make games where the main interaction is fighting. Combat designers are concerned with enemies, weapons, bosses, ammo, difficulty balancing, and any class-based combat skills. While they are focused a lot on the combat systems, they also govern the moment-to-moment experience a player has in various combat scenarios throughout the game.

When does the player encounter a new enemy type? What is the optimal combat distance for a shotgun and a sniper rifle? How many bullets is in an enemy volley, how often do they fire, and how accurate is each bullet? Does the game use dynamic difficulty adjustments to the player’s style, or a flat easy/medium/hard setting? How much do you want to starve the player of ammo? Do bosses have weak points and, if so, what is the optimal way to attack them? How much health does a player has, and how much can a medic class heal them for?

Combat designers on competitive fighting games like Street Fighter actually have a pretty unique role that differs a bit from the above. They are concerned with such details as how many frames it takes for an attack animation to play, and dealing with the rock-paper-scissors elements to ensure that each character is extremely well-balanced.

Economy Designer

Economy designers are focused on the design, implementation, and – most importantly – the balance of a virtual economy. This mainly covers how the player earns and where they spend in-game currency. This is rarely a job title on its own but rather a descriptor for a type of system a design may be in charge of. For example, both Valve and CCP have full-time economists on staff, but any game that has loot and vendors would need a designer to oversee this system.

What ingredients are required to craft a new potion? How many experience points do you need to level up? What kind of loot drops from enemies? What are the loop drop rates, and how often do rare or common items drop?  Can players trade items with each other? How does an auction house work? If there are vendors, how does the player interact with them?

Multiplayer Designer

Multiplayer Designers focus on custom  cooperative or competitive gameplay modes and design, such as deathmatch, horde modes, MMO groups, guilds or clans, and leaderboards. They also serve the role of Multiplayer Level Designer where appropriate (depending on the size of the team or style of game).

Is the multiplayer mode cooperative, competitive, or both? What type of modes are in this game – horde, deathmatch, capture the flag? Can players organize their own guilds or clans? How many players can play together in a single match? How do leaderboard work and what do they score on? What, if any, rewards do players earn from multiplayer achievements? How do players enter and exit multiplayer from the singleplayer campaign?

Puzzle Designer

Puzzle designers are kind of the mirror of a combat designer, except that the obstacle is not an enemy but a piece of logic, like a locked door or a series of scrambled letters. Puzzle designers are often a level designer, such as in Portal or any sokoban style block-moving game. However, the role extends to puzzle games that are not based about hand-made stages – they also include balancing games like Candy Crush Saga or Bejeweled.

What new mechanic am I teaching in this puzzle? How can I re-use the same mechanics, such as a switch and a door, in different ways that feel new to the player? Does each puzzle become progressively harder? Does the player have all the necessary information to complete the puzzle? Is there a timer and how fast does it count down? In this gem-matching game, what is the bonus mechanic for matching 3, 4, or 6 gems in a row?

Narrative Designer

Narrative designers are concerned with gameplay elements or mechanics that allow the player to interact with the story, whether that’s in a linear fashion or through meaningful choices that result in branching stories. While they certainly deal with some level of writing (which varies by studio), they mostly focus on the design and implementation of narrative-related gameplay. While many studios hire writers (because most games, particularly AAA titles, have a story), narrative designer roles tend to exist at studios that specialized in story-oriented games, like Bioware or Tell Tale.

How does the player interact with story elements – through dialogue options, quick time events, or text input? Is the story linear or branching? If it branches, how many branches are there and do they always branch or do they loop back together at key moments? Is there a morality system tied to player choices? How do you communicate that a choice is meaningful?

 

CROSSOVER POSITIONS

Crossover roles are usually a hybrid of design and another specialization, so they may exist in the design department or not.

Monetization Designer

A cross between design and business, a monetization designer deals with how to take gameplay or aesthetic (non-gameplay) elements and sell them to players for real money, and how much these elements should cost. These positions exist at mobile and social games companies,  studios that make free-to-play games (like Riot’s League of Legends), studios that make MMOs (like Blizzard), and at large publishers that have microtransactions and small DLC packets in their games.

Normally your regular developers at large studios don’t worry about money or costs – that’s the job of producers, upper management, and business people. Since monetization designers deal with revenue so much they usually have a business or marketing background and come from upper management rather than up through design.

Technical Designer

Usually qualified to be a software engineer or gameplay programmer, tech designers actually bridge the engineering and design departments. Sometimes this means they take the specs given to them by designers and work with the programming department to implement them. This can be full coding and the development of new features, or it can be using scripting languages to set up gameplay such as missions and then pass them to the designers to make modifications (depending on the studio’s needs and the tech designer’s skillset). You find this role at larger companies, open world studios, and few other places, but it’s not particularly common as a job title.

UI Designer

This person is usually part of the User Interface team, not part of the design team, but has a lot of crossover responsibilities so it’s not unheard of for them to be considered a designer. Their job is to organize and present information to the player in the form of HUDs and menus – any of the graphical elements that are displayed on screen for the player. These elements include health indicators, objective text, tutorials, button prompts, inventories, maps, and crafting interfaces.

Writer

Writers focus on the overall narrative of the game, which is informed by the creative director’s vision as well as the needs of individual designers (jn the case of a mission or level-focused game). They also write the text, descriptions, names, and dialogue throughout the entire game and work with (usually external) teams to localize this text into other languages.

Sometimes writers exist on the design team, since they work very closely with them, and sometimes narrative designers may take on writing duties.  At very small companies, there may be no on-staff writer and this position maybe filled by a designer. But typically if you want to write for games, you need to be good at writing not at designing.

Design Support

This role is a low-level design position that focuses mostly on implementing tedious grunt tasks, freeing up other designers to concentrate on bigger issues. They may go through and populate the world with crates or fish, or use scripting to trigger FX explosions as the player fights in a big battle. They may place volumes or clues around pieces of cover that tells the game how AI can interact with them, and then place those volumes throughout every combat scenario in the game.

I know this role exists at my studio and at least a couple other places, which is why I am including it (we technically call it QA Support, as they are all QA people we’ve brought into support roles to help designers). This role might be that of an Associate or Junior Designer, depending on the company, or fall into a more generalized “contract work” temporary hire.

 

NOT-DESIGNERS DESIGNERS

These are roles that have “design” in their name but are not traditionally considered part of the design team at a game development studio.

Graphic Designer

A term for an artist that specializes in 2D art such as UI buttons, forum icons, web design, logos, splash screens, and similar graphic elements. They do not typically create any in-game content unless they are part of the user interface team, at which point they are usually called a UI artist and not a graphic designer.

User Experience Designer

Also sometimes called UX Designers or Usability Professionals,  these people are usually not directly developing the game. Their job is to take the game in various forms – often demos or larger chunks – and put it in front of potential players in focus groups to test it. They’re concerned about whether players understand the game, are engaging with its mechanics,  and where communication is breaking down – and then passing that information on to the rest of the team. This kind of testing is not about identifying technical bugs, but about poor or misleading design.

UX Designers often work for publishers like EA or Activision, large developers like Blizzard, or hired on a freelance basis. Smaller studios will rely on their publisher to organize focus tests or usability tests for the game.

Sound Designer

Part of the audio department, a sound designer deals with the sound effects found throughout the game world (from the player’s footsteps, to the firing of a gun, to the ch-ching of money earned), in its user interface (button clicks, new objective dings), and the music that accompanies it. They may create their own sound effects, or choose effects from a sound library their company subscribes to and modify them to fit the needs of the game.

Software Designer

A software designer is one of many terms to describe the role of a programmer. Despite the name, this is not a design position.

Hardware Designer

This is a pretty specialized role that exists at companies that deal with hardware – console manufacturers such as Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, and Valve, for example. There are also companies that deal with peripherals, such as the belated RedOctane and upcoming Oculus Rift. You may also find these roles at toy companies that create electronics for kids, which may also use the terms Toy Designer and Product Designer.

Game Architect

Despite architecture and level design having a lot of shared elements, a “game architect” is actually a highly technical and senior role in the programming or engineering department.

 

EXCEPTIONS

Oh boy are there a lot of exceptions, but I think if you internalize this list you’ll be 90% of the way there. Remember that titles and roles usually share a lot of responsibilities. For example, on one project I was a level designer and mission designer for a one-hour chunk of gameplay, while also juggling systems design for skill trees/perks/leveling.

One of the big exceptions is that some companies still use different titles than the ones listed above, so there are still some weird cases out there that you might not recognize. For this article, I looked at a bunch of job posting at AAA companies and found titles like “Lead Gameplay Designer” and “motion designer” and an “industrial designer”. Some of these reflect unique jobs that don’t exist everywhere in the industry (ex: Valve), and others are just quirks of the studio’s organization, often reflecting specific gameplay experiences they deliver (ex: Bioware).

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.

Q&A: Twine as a Portfolio Piece

I noticed that your personal projects were all game jam entries, and looked like most of them were done in twine? How useful do you think twine is to getting a design job in AAA? Would you use twine to build a portfolio to get a job today? I just get the sense (from job postings) that AAA only wants to see Unity or Unreal projects, and so I feel that any work done on board games and card games is frivolous to the goal of “getting a job at a studio.”

So it’s true: I have a bunch of game jam and twine projects on my side bar as personal projects. However, my website is not really set up to get me a job because – fortunately! – I already have one. They are up here because this is just my website where I want to collect all my game development related stuff in one place.

If you look at my website, my actual portfolio is listed under Professional Work. These are my shipped games. I don’t think any employers, at this stage of my career, will really care about my game jam entries (unless they were deliberately offensive, racist, sexist, etc.).

I do not recommend using twine to build a design portfolio for a AAA job.

I say that with a broken heart, because I make no secret of how much I love the tool. But the work I do in AAA game development is very different than the work I do in twine. I don’t need my side projects to prove to employers that I can work in AAA because my list of shipped games does that already.

I go by the 80/20 rule on a lot of things. If you are a student with a collection of game projects in your portfolio and are applying to a AAA studio, 80% of those projects should be with AAA tools or content in mind, and 20% can be something unusual, unique, and different. That means out of 5 projects, 4 can be Unreal, Unity, or Source levels (or similar) and 1 can be a project that explores the use of economic game theory in a 2D shooter (to use one of my old portfolio pieces for an example). That also means that board games or card games are okay as part of that 20%, but you really need to support their inclusion (did they win awards? Were they showcased at conferences? are they published? can you write about their design in an interesting and engaging way?).

I’d still hesitate to use twine as part of that 20% unless there’s something very complex going on with it (such as developing a system for dynamic narrative) or you’ve gained recognition for that project (as an IGF finalist, for example). Twine MIGHT be okay if you’re applying for a story-focused game company that is a bit untraditional like TellTale Games or Quantic Dream (but I don’t work there or hire there, so I can only guess). But if you are applying to a traditional RPG studio, using a tool like Skyrim’s creation kit or Unreal or Unity will get you a lot further.

Remember that a design portfolio is not just to showcase that you are a good designer, but that you have the technical skills to work in game development. For a AAA studio, that means you absolutely need to show off your design skills using AAA tools.

I’m trying out a new thing where instead of responding to emails about game development privately, I’ll be posting some of the questions – with permission – and answering them here.

The Restaurant Analogy of Level Design

Today I want to talk about something that seems to confuse a lot of design students: the difference between a level designer and an environment artist.

Both a level designer and an environment artist have to work together in order to create a finished, polished, level that looks good and plays well.

ART vs. DESIGN

The level designer is most focused on “plays well”. They are trying to solve problems like:

    • What is the player doing in this space?
    • How long is the player in this space?
    • Is there combat in this space?
    • How big does the space have to be for the player (and allies) to fight the enemies (and/or bosses)?
    • Are there puzzles? Where? What is the structure of the puzzle?
    • Am I making the player traverse through the environment vertically as well as horizontally?
    • What are the different areas? Is it just one big flat landscape or are there twists and turns? Is it claustrophobic and oppressive or open and exploratory?
    • I need to put the player into a small, narrow hallway. What is the length of the hallway? Where are the turns?
    • I am hiding a piece of intel in the level. Where do I put it?
    • There will be combat in this room. Where is the enemy’s front line? Where is the player’s? How do enemies enter the room? Where do they enter from? What are they defending? Is there cover? Where? How much? What size? How close to each other?
    • Where do the doors go?

The environment artist is most focused on “looks good”. They are trying to solve problems like:

    • It is manmade architecture or organic forms or alien?
    • Is this an open space or an enclosed space? It is an exterior, with a sky and atmosphere and wind and plants, or an interior with ceilings and windows?
    • Is it a modern building? Or one in a traditional style? What style – art deco? Renaissance France? 1890’s Japan? 2090’s post-apocalyptic space station?
    • What is the texture of the walls? Stone? What kind of stone – granite? Sandstone? Concrete?
    • Are the rooms sized realistically? Are the ceiling heights normal? Are the doorways the correct size? Does the ceiling need support columns?
    • Was there battle here previously? Should there be broken glass and bullet holes and bodies?
    • Was the place vandalized? Does it need graffiti and rubble?
    • There is a piece of cover that is 4m x 1m x 1m needed for combat. What kind of prop matches the environment and this size? Is it a pile of crates? A planter? A conspicuously shaped rock?
    • What is the mood of this place?
    • What do the doors look like?

(I apologize to the environment artists who read this. I am obviously a designer and not an artist).

You need both the level designer and the environment artist in order to finish the game, and they need to work together and negotiate the aesthetics of the level.

Unfortunately, a lot of student designers are applying for jobs with subpar environment art portfolios, rather than good design portfolios. Usually these students have one big thing going for them – they have a portfolio of work created in 3D engines similar to what’s used at AAA studios (Unreal, Source, Unity). Unfortunately, their work is very light on design, and very heavy on environment art skills, but they actually aren’t trained artists.

It’s confusing to us, too, because we have to ask “So what job are you applying for again?”

RESTAURANT ANALOGY

Look at it this way: think of a level as a restaurant (a very simple restaurant for the sake of this example). To get the food on a diner’s plate, you need someone to cook the food and someone to take the order and deliver the food. We’ll call these the chef and the waiter.

If you’re applying for a  job as a chef at a restaurant, you don’t say “I want to cook the food” and then show off how well you talk to customers and refill their glasses. You don’t apply for a job to serve at the front of the house to wait on the customers, and then go fry up some bacon on your interview. Unless we’re talking food trucks, these are totally separate jobs. A manager looking for a new hire is going to think you’re an idiot if you confuse cooking with waiting tables.

The same is true for level design and art. You don’t apply for a level design job and then show off a portfolio full of pretty plants you modeled in Maya, textured in Photoshop, and then decorated your Unreal map with.  You don’t present a video walkthrough of your level highlighted the “moodiness” and “ambient sounds” and “custom animation of trees in the wind” and expect to get hired for a level designer job.

Similarly, you don’t fill your portfolio up with grayboxed multiplayer maps, combat scenarios, custom boss battles, and devilish Portal 2 puzzles and expect to get a job decorating rooms with carefully crafted rubble. (I’ve never actually seen a designer apply for an art role, though).

When a designer fills up their portfolios with art and barely a piece of gameplay, they are basically applying for a position as a chef, and then completely avoiding the kitchen.

Would you trust a chef that refused to cook for you? Would you trust a chef that didn’t know any recipes? Would you hire a chef that refused to talk about food and instead told you about that time a customer tipped them for recommending the lobster? Or how they handled the family of forty people that arrived without a reservation? If I am hiring a chef, I really don’t care. I care that you can cook.

A designer doesn’t care about polys or normal maps of what kind of stone goes on the walls. A waiter doesn’t care about the difference between a saute pan and a skillet. They care about the end result – the level or the food – but their expertise lies in different domains.

Now, there are the “food trucks” of game development – smaller studios, non-traditional studios that merge roles, indie developers that buck trends. They might look for someone who can cook and serve customers – someone who can build the level and create the art assets and maybe place sounds and fx and create simple cinematics. It’s a much rarer role these days than it was ten or twenty years ago. I’m not entirely convinced that role exists in AAA anymore. Our roles are much more specialized and well-defined these days.

So when I get a portfolio from a level designer that is full of art and moody environments and not a single puzzle or enemy or GAMEPLAY to be found, I look at them like they just applied as a chef and then started taking orders from the customers. It  tells me they don’t understand the very obvious (to me) role breakdown at a game company. It tells me they don’t understand what “design” means. It tells me they are clearly unsuited for the job.

(Unless that level is called “Dear Esther”…)

I write this not so much to rant, but because there’s a lot of students out there with portfolios targeting the wrong job. Any design student would be wise to look at their portfolios and ask themselves, “Is this a design portfolio or an art portfolio?”

Q&A: Which tool?

I am a student in Belgium. My friends and I have decided to create a video game to understand the process and learn to code better.  We are planning to create a RPG, kinda like the early Zelda games with the top-based view, and mix it with movie pieces […], and get a sort of crafting system integrated.  The problem we are having is that we don’t really have a idea what engine / framework has the most functionality to complete our quest to create our first game!

Do you have any tips / frameworks / engines that could be more of use for us?

This is a pretty common question – the specifics change, but it boils down to “What is the best tool in order to make the game I want, considering the skills I have?”

I am a designer, so when I look at frameworks or engines, what I am really looking for are tools that get me as close as possible to the finished game without needing to create a lot of basic behaviors or systems from scratch. A designer may accept a more rigid tool with fewer options if it’s easier and faster to use and gets them close enough to their goals. A programmer may want a tool they can highly customize so they can get exactly to their goals even if it takes more time.  There’s trade offs with both directions, and any given tool is going to give more or less of each.

One person might cut a feature like playing movie-clips (from your example) if it means they could use a much easier toolset to implement the core Zelda-style gameplay. Someone else might decide to use a more difficult tool that they can customize to play those movie-clips, at the cost of cutting some of the puzzles and levels. What choice you ACTUALLY make depends on how core the feature is to your game, how much time you’re willing to spend making it, and whether you have the technical skills to implement it.

Now I started off talking about designer vs. programmer considerations with tools because students have asked me, “What’s your favorite tool for making games?”. The answer is Twine, but I’m unlikely to recommend it to a computer science student because it would be ill-suited to their goals and the technical challenges they want to pursue when making games. Unity 3D is an amazing, versatile engine but I’m unlikely to recommend it to a game design student who has no experience programming because it’s extremely complex and relies on a lot of technical knowledge with no ramp-up that the student may not possess.

Now to answer your specific question about a Zelda-style game with a crafting system –

    • For a designer: Construct 2, for the best ease of use for 2D games, excellent visual scripting language (but no coding, so it can be inflexible), lots of features, lots of tutorials, output to several platforms with a couple clicks (iOS, web, download).
    • For a designer-programmer hybrid: Gamemaker, for a combination of an easy-to-use tool for 2D games, lots of examples and tutorials, and a scripting language (code) allows much more customization.
    • For a programmer: Python and PyGame, as a very popular scripting language for making your own games, fully customizable, with lots of information and tools out there for it. If you, or your team, are mostly programmers or computer science students, this is what I’d recommend (caveat: I am not a programmer!).
    • For an experienced programmer: Unity 3D, though I have no experience with their 2D tools, is fully customizable. If you’ve never made a game before and are just starting out, Unity 3D can be a bit overwhelming. However, it’s surprisingly close to the tools used by AAA devs and a lot of really good, professional independent games have been made in it.

As your very first game, I highly recommend either Construct 2 or Gamemaker – both have free versions with enough features to evaluate them, and both can definitely be used for the style of gameplay you want. I am not sure which is better for a team project when multiple people want to work on it simultaneously: Python might be a better choice for that, so it’s worth keeping that in mind. Again, if you guys feel comfortable with code, then head toward Python and PyGame, but remember that you’ll spend more time laying down the groundwork that a tool like Construct or Gamemaker have already created. (Like I said – lots of trade-offs!).

I’m trying out a new thing where instead of responding to emails about game development privately, I’ll be posting some of the questions – with permission – and answering them here.