Tagged in: portfolio

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?”

From Student to Designer: Part 1 – Websites & Resumes

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.

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

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.

The Checklist

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.

  • Website
  • Resume
  • 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.

YOUR WEBSITE

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.

YOUR RESUME

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.

Formatting:

  • 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)
    • Scripting languages (Lua, Python, Kismet, Javascript, C#, C++, Java…)  should clearly identify what level of skill you have (basic scripting experience vs. programming knowledge).
    • 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.

 Content

  • 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”.