Breaking into game design: Part 2 – build your portfolio

This is post is the second in a series on how to land your first job as a game designer. You can read the first post about how to set your career goal at this link.

Although I do not review as many resumes now that I’m an indie developer working on Enhanced Wars as I did when I was at BioWare San Francisco, I still review the odd resume here or there as a result of a Reddit or forum post. When I do, my top line feedback is almost always the same: “You need to work on your portfolio website.”

At BioWare San Francisco, we had a strong affinity for interns and co-op students (who would work a full semester at the studio for credit). In a very real sense, we would not have launched Dragon Age Legends on time without the contributions from our co-op team members. As such, one of my favorite times of the year was when the fantastic university relations team at EA would deliver the resumes of potential interns they were bringing to campus for interviews.

It was not unusual for me to review 50 resumes in one marathon session to pick out the prospects that I thought would fit a need on my team. Whether I was reviewing a stack of resumes for intern candidates or a single resume from a recruiter for a full time position, my process was almost always the same. Open a resume and scan it for about a minute to look for highlights. Open the portfolio website link and spend a significant amount of time reviewing (if possible). If a portfolio was great, I would request a phone interview. On more than one occasion, I called someone instantly because the portfolio was so good I didn’t want to waste any time lest the candidate be snatched up by another studio. Sometimes the candidate already had. A high quality portfolio was the single biggest factor in landing a phone interview.

Tangible proof
If your professional experience is minimal or non-existant, the challenge you face is that you have no credibility that you will be capable of fulfilling the job requirements. When I’m looking to fill a job, I don’t care about your mission statement, your extra curricular activities or your summer job in a completely unrelated industry. I only care about proof of your design abilities.

It can be difficult to know what to put in a design portfolio, as there are no standards for what a good design document is or how a game economy should be laid out. The best possible thing to have in your portfolio is shipped games. With tools like Unity and Game Maker Studio and the ease of self publishing, it is my opinion that a prospective game designer should exit college with one game on the app store for each year in school. There is no stronger proof that you are a capable designer than being able to show that:

  1. You know how to finish a game and release it to the world
  2. You took the time to listen to your players, either through metrics, comments, reviews or other feedback
  3. You can tell a meaningful story about how you improved your game based on player feedback

Being able to tell me that story in the initial phone interview is an instant ticket to a full team interview.

Building a proper portfolio will take months, if not years. In college, I tried on multiple occasions to assemble a team to make a game. I got plenty of interest from programmers or artists who wished to talk about a game and collaborate, but when it came time to start working on the game they did not deliver. Unless you have a team you truly trust, my advice is to start out by making small but completed and polished games that you can build on your own. If you don’t know how to code, it’s time to learn!

Feature portfolio material
What you build for your portfolio is highly dependent on your mountain. No matter what type of design job you have, the tools exist to prove you are capable of doing high quality design work. If your mountain is to work on open world RPGs, then dive into the Dragon Age or Skyrim mod tools and make quests. If you want to work on multiplayer FPS, then dig into Unreal Engine 3 or Hammer and release levels to the world. If you want to work on a MOBA, then get cozy with the WarCraft III or Starcraft II editor and prototype a new MOBA style gameplay mode.

No matter what your mountain is, you cannot wait till you “land that gig” before you start learning how to design content. Only by proving you can finish content, release it to players, listen to their feedback and improve your content based on feedback will you be able to land that first professional gig. And if your goal is as targeted as working on a specific game or at a specific company, if they have publicly available tools you better invest time in mastering them.

Other portfolio material
A designer’s job is much more dynamic than simply creating levels or quests. There are a number of other documents or types of content you can create and share as part of a portfolio. Here are some suggestions based off the varied types of work I do on Enhanced Wars and other projects:

Game Treatment – no one is going to read a 75+ page game design document when evaluating you for a position. But they will scan a 5-7 page game treatment that outlines a game, its market and its core features at a high level.

Feature Brief – a detailed document that explains the full implementation of a single feature for a game, including UI wireframes and flow, goes a long way to impress. Design a new feature for an existing and well known game in the genre you wish to get hired in. Make sure that in the early part of the brief, you have a section explaining why this feature needs to be added to this game.

Game balance evaluation – much of a designer’s job is tuning and balancing game variables. Pick a game and write a report evaluating balance of a particular system or economy. Take detailed notes on multiple play sessions, compile and summarize fan and review feedback and come up with a series of recommendations on how this system’s balance can be improved.

UI/UX redesign – most of my work in mobile/tablet games involves designing or evaluating UI. Designing UI is a difficult task, especially if you’ve never done it before, but it is critical to a modern game’s success. Pick a screen or flow from a popular game that you think is broken or unintuitive, and propose a detailed redesign.

System balance spreadsheet – most of my time as a designer is spent in spreadsheets or JSON files tweaking values. If you have followed the earlier advice and built some games, you will likely have a system values spreadsheet to share. Clean it up and add annotations so that another human can read it.

Pen & Paper prototype – many games start as simple ideas prototyped on pen & paper. Although you cannot easily share the results, you can share your process. Fully document with text and pictures the process of building a pen & paper prototype complete with your final rule set. Explain the design problem you are trying to solve and show the steps you took to solve it, pointing out what does and does not work.

These are just a few examples based off my experience. If you’ve done your homework and spent time identifying job postings you would like to apply to, you may have other design deliverables you would want to build to prove one requirement or another.

People are busy
The hiring managers who will be evaluating your portfolio are likely to be some of the busiest people on the game team. They will not have a lot of time to review all the materials that you have spent months or years preparing. They will probably not install your game. They will probably not read your full document. They will probably not open your spreadsheet.

If you really want to shine, then for each piece in your portfolio you should create a 90 second or less video on youTube. In this video, show the piece of work, whether it is a level, design document or UI flow. Talk about the process of designing the work. What were your design goals? How did you achieve them? What feedback have you gotten from players or peers and how have you reacted to that feedback?

So, why go through all the effort to make materials that will likely only be glanced at? This will all be explained in the next part of the series about how to sell yourself.

Find your mountain
Build your portfolio
Learn to sell yourself
Write your resume
Prepare to interview