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Breaking into game design: Part 2 - build your portfolio
by Ethan Levy on 06/21/13 09:43:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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.

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Robert Witbeck
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The Hiring Manager isn't a member of the HR team. I know from experience and a little bit of research that the Hiring Manager is actually from the team that wants the new employee. So if you are applying for a design position than the hiring manager is actually one of the supervisors from the design department that you will be reporting to directly (usually) after you get the job.

"The hiring manager is the employee to whom the new employee will report when hired... He or she is the employee who works with Human Resources to fill the open position through every step of the organization's hiring process." (

Meaning that he or she is one of those people crunching 12+ hours a day and then has been tasked with finding a new employee on top of all their normal work. This making them one of if not the busiest person in their department and possibly the whole company.

Ethan Levy
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To clarify, by hiring manager I am not referring to someone in an HR function but the game team member who will be the new employee's manager. This person is the "hiring manager" who is generally the primary point of contact with HR regarding the contact. This will generally be some sort of Lead Designer, Creative Director or Producer in a design roll, Lead Artist, Art Director or Producer in a art role, Lead Programmer, Tech Director or Producer for an engineering role, etc.

So yes, this person will generally be one who is crunching 12+ hours a day and is also expected to perform management and hiring duties on top of any game work he or she already has to do.

To the idea "HR who miss good candidates because they "don't have time" to check their portfolio and their games, should be fired on the spot simply because they are not good at their job." well, HR are human resource specialists, not game creation specialists. Someone who is searching for a candidate to fill a back-end programmer or systems designer roll may have no idea what they are actually looking for in terms of work output. If I showed you a systems design portfolio it would be quite difficult for anyone outside of the design skill to evaluate the work other than to say "these are spreadsheets, they appear to have tuning values..." In my experience, it requires a strong collaboration between HR and game team to locate, evaluate and hire candidates.

Lihim Sidhe
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"No matter what your mountain is, you cannot wait till you "land that gig" before you start learning how to design content."

Absolutely. What this article is saying that before we even hope of approaching our personal mountain there is a mandatory summit that must be challenged - Portfolio Mountain.

Stephen Richards
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Some very good pieces of advice here. Obviously acquiring these skills is very time-consuming, which is why studying anything at university is often a good idea, as it gives you three years to build a portfolio in your spare time.

However, I must cynically point out that you can be very talented and follow all of this advice, but your chances of actually landing a job in design are slim (a possible exception being if your uni has close ties with actual developers). Pretty much the only ways to break in are through QA or an internship.

Obviously neither is ideal: QA is (generally) gruelling and unrewarding, while an internship may not offer a salary. But this is simply the result of market forces: there are far fewer positions in design than people who want to work in it.

If you search around for design jobs you'll quickly realise most of them want 2-3 years experience in the industry. And even the ones that don't explicitly ask for this will have lots of applications with said experience. In other words, your resume as a newbie is one of the easiest to toss in the discard pile, no matter how flashy your portfolio is. You're competing with people with industry experience, which almost always trumps personal portfolio development.

One more thing. I don't know if Levy's planning to explain this later, but the majority of games industry jobs are acquired through networking. So begin by going to every industry-related event you can afford to, meet as many people as possible and try to show off your work as much as possible. (Hint: this would be the perfect time to whip out your phone/tablet and show that designer/recruiter the amazing app you've developed and distributed!)

Ivan Kanev
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Ethan, thanks for the article, great summary it is. :) Hope it'll be helpful for the people questioning themselves how to arrange a portfolio in order to present their skills the best possible way.

Also, Robert nailed that one point in your article, that I think is questionable - that moment, when the hiring manager is actually not HR, but a member of the dev team.
Going through: resumes, CVs, portfolios, motivational letters, youtube/vimeo videos, un-openable links, infected with viruses or simply not-attached documents and so on, for the past 6+ years working as a producer, couldn't make me agree more.
If the studio is actually aware of the needs of their project, they'll make sure that you're at least once interviewed by the people that you're trying to work with.

Shane Bromahm
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Interesting article, and one deserving of the space. My advice to a candidate is to produce an excellent portfolio that shows more than just spreadsheets and documents. There are so many designers, proven or not, that showcase this kind of work. Generally prosaic, uninspired works. Go the extra mile and develop a game. Build levels, script, create a decent combat system or a core mechanic using Unity, or another program. Define yourself as a candidate who is willing to learn about each aspect of game development and has the drive to learn.

If you do this, and get an interview, then you know you're at a studio who values creative and talent. It's worth the wait.

Best of luck.

Alexandra Willis
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"a prospective game designer should exit college with one game on the app store for each year in school. "

Does this mean that the game necessarily has to be successful, or does it just need to be out there? Additionally, is this is the achievement level of the average student/intern you'd hire, or a something you'd generally advise college students to reach for? I've finished my freshman year and I've been working at video game studios the past two summers, but don't have any games with my name on them published so far.

Jeff Goble
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Hello there. I wish to be a Game Designer and will do anything I can to do so. I am currently a student at Full Sail University and I feel that the school itself is pretty useless, not teaching me anything at all. I want to leave the school, but I am unsure if that is the right thing to do. I am very good with creative writing, dialog, and storytelling, but I lack the programs needed for a portfolio. I can acquire those programs and self teach myself. I just want to make sure that is the right thing to do, by leaving school and self teaching the things I would need. I have seen that a Computer Science is a beneficial thing to get. As well, I am presently working on a board game to get made, I just need to tweak it a bit. Any and all help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Jeff Goble