Putting your best foot forward

It's established practice for artists to have a portfolio and / or demo reel. It's an accepted part of any application process for art positions, be they in the games industry or another creative industry. 

But what about game design?

Should a designer have a portfolio?

As someone who gets asked that question a lot, and also assesses hundreds of applications for design positions a year, I'd have to say yes, at least in that it can give you a huge advantage for certain positions.

Sure, it's probably not as important if you're an experienced designer with a proven track record, and a long list of shipped titles, but that's not the majority of applicants for most roles that appear in the wild. Honestly, in the current industry landscape it might not be the worst advice to have one even if you are one of those folks.

Where this becomes vital is for young designers looking to make the breakthrough into an entry level position, or to make their mark as a junior designer.

So why do I say that, and what should be in there? So let's build an example with the help of a handy listicle!

1. It shows you have made games already

I've talked about this before. You want to be a game designer right? So you're already making games right? Of course you have or you wouldn't be applying for game design positions now would you?

A portfolio is what allows you to demonstrate that you have already made stuff! It lets you demonstrate that you are already a designer, and that you are already learning in the best possible way - by making games!

A mock-up block out might look like this:

I can't speak for every person who looks at applications, but for me this is the main thing I'm looking for. I want to see that you are already at least knee deep in design decisions, and learning how games come together. We know from experience that this is where the real knowledge comes from.

Playing games is all well and good, maybe even DMing the odd D&D module here and there is fine and all, but nothing, nothing, beats the process of actually having to make a game in terms of starting to learn the craft. We want to see that you are already on that road

How do you do this? Simple. Have a short section for each game project you have worked on. Preferably with some visual material from the game in question. Screenshots, and videos if possible.

This is important even if you aren't involved in the art, or you are embarrassed by how it looks because it was a student project. It shows what kind of games you have worked on, and by extension an experienced designer assessing your portfolio can then make some judgement as to what kind of design decisions you have been exposed to, which leads us to ...

2. It tells us more about you ...

... and by this I don't mean where you went to school, what tools you've been exposed to, or what your high school GPA was. No, here I mean that it gives you the opportunity to show what kind of a designer you are. Your portfolio should describe, honestly, your level of involvement with each project.

We want to be able to gauge what kind of design you've done so far. It doesn't matter whether you have created something deep and complex, or a simple flappy bird clone. What we are looking for is whether you have followed a process through from start to finish, and what you might have learnt along the way.

Here is where many fall into a trap. There is a temptation here to go overboard and include lengthy documents or details on what exactly you did on a project. Resist that temptation! Whoever is doing the hiring is looking at a lot of applications, and their time is precious. Don't bog them down, or give them the opportunity to skip the rest of your portfolio. You don't want to distract them from seeing all you have to offer.

You don't have to oversell the project or your skills, we are mostly interested in what you might have learned. We also know, from experience, that design documents are only a starting point. The true lessons of any game project are derived from the process of iteration and change that lead you to the games final form.

This is also where many portfolios miss out one very important factor that can really push an applicant over the edge ...

3. Don't forget the 'WHY' as well as the 'WHAT'

A portfolio is actually a great opportunity for you to highlight any important design lessons you have already learnt.

I love it when it when I see a short section (try to keep it to a single, short, paragraph) that sums up what you believe that particular project taught you. It's a chance to demonstrate some design maturity and a little bit of critical thinking.

This is something I don't see all that often in applications, so I appreciate it all the more when I do. It can be as simple as those few lines, or could be an opportunity to go a little deeper.

Don't be afraid to take it to the next level here, but only if you can do so smartly and succinctly. You still have to be mindful of the warning in the previous section about going overboard, but this is an area where a little extra can set you apart.

Video is a great option here for separating yourself from the pack. We live in an ever more visual age, and using modern tools to help sell your design considerations is a great opportunity to demonstrate your critical thinking skills, something hard to put across in a project description.

If you designed a multi-player map for example, and have a demo video with a fly through, why not record a voice-over track that talks through some of the design decisions you made? Talk to the 'why I did this' of your design, and not just the 'what I did'.

Use free tools like Fraps, capture your game, talk about what your learned. Then you can also embed the video to save space, and it is there if the person assessing your application wants to dive deeper.

Wrapping up

A good portfolio can really set you apart from other applicants. If you have a set of game projects to show off, then make sure you do so. There are also a whole plethora of website and graphic design templates out there that are free, or cheap, that can help you create a portfolio site that looks good quickly and easily.

Its an area often overlooked, or seems to be an afterthought for many applicants, but it's becoming more and more important these days, so take some time to consider whether your have the best portfolio you could possibly have.