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How to Make a Level Design Portfolio That Will Get You Hired

Nathan Kellman

Nathan Kellman

Nathan Kellman is a level designer who has worked on AA and AAA titles such as Diablo 4 at Lost Boys Interactive. Currently, he is a level designer at Escape Velocity Entertainment working on an unannounced game. In addition, he's also working on an FPS game called Mantra as the lead level designer. You can connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Like other disciplines in professional game design and development, level design is arduous to break into. Many people want to build the world that players are immersed in.

To get that chance, you have to show recruiters that you have what it takes.

Over the last three years, I have reviewed hundreds, if not close to a thousand level design portfolios that came in many forms.

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I’ve seen some with amazing work that kept getting rejected by studios because of poor presentation.

Today I am going to discuss the distinct qualities that are necessary for a great level design portfolio. The main guidelines are:

  • Showcase your design process
  • Include level design studies
  • Speak to both the recruiter and hiring manager

But before I get into the main points I want to make one thing very clear:

You are a game designer, not a game artist.

By the way, if you have any questions as you read this post, feel free to ask in the Funsmith Club Discord where you can seek advice and network with game devs of all levels including me.

You can also get notified on exclusive game design tips, workshops, and guides (like this one) here 👇

Level Design and Environment Art Are Two Different Things

I have spoken with many students who confuse environmental art or level art for level design. Here are the differences between the two.

  • If you enjoy creating assets and care about how beautiful the colors are on rocks, trees, and lighting, congrats! You are an environment artist.
  • If you care about whether a player can flank an enemy using cover, or if there are enough jumping platforms, congrats! You are a level designer.

As level designers, we do care about things such as composition, color theory, and shape language, but we use all of these to support gameplay (the interactive part of a game).

Level design is a type of game design, and gameplay in a particular space is the number one thing a level designer should care about.

Our job is to make sure players are using the game mechanics available to them in interesting and exciting ways.

Different studios have different workflows and rules about the level design team touching art assets, but at the end of the day, we care about gameplay first and foremost.

We work with environment artists to make sure levels are not just beautiful to look at, but fun to play in.

Now that I’ve covered what exactly level design is, let’s get into specific portfolio tips for level designers.

How to Structure Your Level Design Portfolio Piece

The goal of a level design portfolio piece is to show the process that got the game to where it is now.

Many people make the mistake of just taking screenshots of the final result. We want to see the entire process you went through during level design, so we can understand your approach as a designer.

When I look at students’ portfolios, I always look around for four main elements so I can understand how they get to the final iteration of their level.

2D maps

image4 1
(By Kyle Robinson)

These are 2D images that show a map of the level’s mechanics and moments. These do not have to look like an amazing graphic design piece, as long as they’re clean and get the point across.

Blockouts

These are in-engine screenshots or videos of the simple block mesh that was used early in the level design process. These can be anything from simple cubes to rough 3D models.

image13 1
(By Luis Brito)

I always recommend simple cubes because beginners and students can get caught up in the details. Videos and gifs are always better than screenshots so we can see your iterative process.

Documentation

Level design documentation can range from a one-page level document to a flowchart, covering anything that you used to gather references and ideas.

This could be screenshots from other games or any other images you used as inspiration.

Including documentation shows that you analyze other games. We are all inspired by something.

image10 1
(By Marloes de Graaf)

Final level

Finally, showcase gifs and videos of your final level playthrough. These could use full art or detailed blockouts. Here we get to see all of your hard work in its final form!

You can include before and after images and talk about why you made the changes you did. If it does include final art, talk about how you collaborated with the art team.

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(By Mathias Larsen)

What Level Design Portfolio Pieces Should You Choose?

I always recommend only putting pieces in your portfolio that strongly represent you as a designer.

Only include the three to five pieces of work you are proudest of and that best represent your current abilities.

If you see your skills growing, make another piece and replace the old stuff. Your portfolio is always changing and evolving.

As a level designer, you will have to gain the ability to evaluate your own work. I will never know your work as well as you do yourself, so I can’t tell you exactly which pieces to include.

That said, I can explain the different types of work you can put on your portfolio and how to approach them.

1. A recreation of a small section of a level from a game you enjoy, with commentary

For students looking to build their portfolio as level designers, I highly recommend level design studies based on levels from existing games.

Recreating levels from actual games can teach you a lot about level design.

The key for this exercise is to strip the game of all the art and complex systems and focus on the fundamental game design—the pacing and basic mechanics.

The goal is to use basic blockouts and scripting to show that we can analyze levels with a critical eye. Include this level design analysis in your portfolio.

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(From my level design study of The Last of Us)

I approach these by playing a level multiple times and taking notes on everything in the level, including narrative design, puzzle interactions, environmental storytelling and enemy placements.

While playing, I try to sketch out the level in a notebook to get an idea of the space’s size and shape.

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(Level breakdown for my Titanfall 2 study)

Once I have my notes and sketches, I hop into Unreal Engine and use basic cubes to get a rough blockout of the level. I also focus on the mechanics that are specific to that level, but only in a basic form.

image16
(Level breakdown for my Titanfall 2 study)

After blocking out and getting it playable, I wrote a blog post talking about what I learned from recreating this level and the reasons why I believe it’s an amazing example of game design.

        Pros: This demonstrates that you can be analytical when playing games and break levels down to the bare bones that really make them work.

        Cons: While this shows you can analyze games, you are not designing or creating original ideas. Original level design is the centerpiece of your portfolio; this just complements it.

2. An original level for an existing game

Pick a game that you enjoy and create an original blockout from scratch, aiming to go all the way from pitching an idea to a final-quality blockout that could fit into the game.

It’s a big plus if you can find images of blockouts from that game and try to make your project look exactly like them.

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(A level by Abdul Banglee inspired by Ghost of Tsushima)

        Pros: You have a game you can directly reference when building the level. If something does not feel right, you can turn on the game and play through to see what you are missing.

        Cons: To be included in your portfolio, it needs to really nail the feeling of the original game design you were inspired by. I have seen many examples that make the claim but feel nothing like the original.

3. A level created in the level editor of an existing game

Level editors are simplified engines that include assets from a shipped game. Some examples of these are Forge for Halo, Hammer for CSGo, Snap Map for Doom, and Source for Half-life.

Levels that are created this way are called mods. This approach is great for new designers because they do not have to worry about creating assets from scratch.

If you are aiming to work for a specific studio that has released a level editor, learn how to use that editor, since it is a watered-down version of the engine the studio uses.

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(A Halo Forge map called MLG NEXUS by Garrett Billian)

        Pros: You do not have to worry about creating assets like characters, environment art, sounds, etc. Many level editors also have communities where you can upload your work for feedback.

        Cons: Not every studio releases a level editor. Most of them are first-person shooters and some are very old. If your portfolio is full of level editor pieces, it can be attractive to a narrow audience of studios who use similar tools, but no one else. A lot of the industry is switching to Unreal Engine or Unity, so you will still need to learn these.

4. Level design work from an original game you worked on

This doesn’t have to be professionally published game design work. It can be a personal project or a school project, as long as it’s the work that best represents you as a designer.

As a student, you are constantly learning and growing in every class. Keep your portfolio up to date, and don’t include basic assignments and levels made from tutorials. (Professional devs can spot tutorial work a mile away, since we watch them as well.)

Capstone and team projects are better because they show your ability to design something from scratch and get it to a playable quality.

I highly recommend that while you are working on a project for school, you document your process from the beginning so you can talk about it in your portfolio.

(Alien Removal Division trailer by Marloes de Graaf)

        Pros: You have a lot of control and freedom to express your creativity and explore original ideas. The world is your oyster.

        Cons: Creating something from scratch can be daunting. It’s up to you to figure out what makes your game fun and to answer every question that comes up along the way. You can reference similar work, but it might not have the answers.

5. Levels made in a CGMA course (honorable mention)

CGMA stands for CG Masters Academy, which is an online academy full of classes that are taught by current industry professionals.

The classes are mostly geared to artists but there is one level design course that many people take. It is a 10-week course where designers learn the jargon and techniques of the discipline.

Here is an example of what one of the exercises looks like:

I highly recommend students to take this only if they are serious about becoming a professional since it costs money.

As far as portfolio work, if you take the class seriously, you can come out with two to three pieces to show.

However, I would not recommend making your whole portfolio CGMA work. It would be a great exercise to create a level on your own after the class so you can keep enhancing your skills.

I would say that Gabriel Fuentes’s portfolio is the best example of how to show off your CGMA work.

        Pros: You’ll learn vocabulary and techniques for industry-standard games from a current industry professional. You will grow as a level designer and will likely get at least one portfolio piece out of it.

        Cons: This is a 10-week intensive course that requires a lot of work from you. Also, almost every level designer trying to break into the industry takes this course, so a portfolio that relies too heavily on CGMA work will not stand out to recruiters.

How to Capture the Attention of Key Decision Makers

When writing your portfolio and resume, it can be hard to know what to say. I always tell people that your portfolio is being made for two people:

  1. The recruiter: Someone who knows little to nothing about game development but knows what to look for in a candidate
  2. The hiring manager: A lead-level designer or other expert in the field who has been creating games for 10+ years

Be direct and concise

First of all, think about presentation.

Your portfolio should get straight to the most relevant information. To quote The Office, “Why do more words when less do trick?”

As funny as that sounds, for creating your level design portfolio, it’s what you have to live by.

Recruiters look at hundreds of resumes a day, on average spending 10-15 seconds per application. The info they’re looking for needs to be front and center.

For example, a recruiter will not read an essay describing your responsibilities on a project.

Instead, write a one-sentence bullet point listing exactly what you did with what tool under a video of the game.

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(Diablo 4 description from my level design portfolio)

Then use small paragraphs and bullet points to go over your process, separated with images, GIFs, or videos.

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(Abdul Banglee does a great job of this in his Fort Azami portfolio piece breakdown)

A streamlined portfolio also shows the hiring manager that you can get your ideas pitched effectively. No one at a game studio wants to read a 200-page document. They want to get straight to the meat of the idea.

I know many level designers try to stand out with interactive or over-the-top portfolios, but your creativity should be on display in your work, not in a unique website design that’s hard to navigate.

Use keywords

Some recruiters are looking for specific keywords to narrow down the tens of thousands of applications they’re reviewing. They can receive thousands of applicants a day, so they do this in order to make their lives a bit easier.

Many may think “There are so many places, I’m sure they all have different keywords; I can’t fit them all!”

I would tell you that at the end of the day, a level designer is a level designer. While studios may have different tools and workflows, generally the method of creating a level is similar. See the example below:

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(Lost Boys description on my portfolio)

Also, as a student or junior designer, you have to make sure your resume can be sent to a variety of game studios and still catch their eyes.

Use these 4 steps to get those keywords into your resume:

  1. Look up 3 to 4 positions at different studios that are similar to what you want to do.
  2. Read through the descriptions of the roles and identify similar requirements between them.
  3. Now look at their differences, and at requirements you fall short of. How can you appeal to as many studios as possible anyway?
  4. Adjust how you write about your work to match what these studios are looking for as closely as possible without misrepresenting your work.

For example:

  1. You look up junior-level designer openings and find job descriptions at Gearbox, Naughty Dog, Arkane, and Riot Games.
  2. You list the types of experience mentioned in all four sources (even if they use different terms for it, like block out versus white boxing). Make sure to mention all of these in your portfolio.
  3. You notice that some of them mention Maya, but you’ve only used Blender. You mention “Blender” and “3D modeling software” in your portfolio to demonstrate this related skill.
  4. Finally, you adjust your exact wording to fit in keywords that appear in job postings. If a job posting says “Conceptualize, design, and implement compelling game levels that align with the overall game vision and design goals.” you can write “Concepted, white boxed, and iterated on environmental puzzles for a 3D third-person sci-fi horror game.”

As you can see from the example, you shouldn’t blindly copy job requirements one-to-one, but you can adjust your application with them in mind.

This approach is great for people trying to break into the industry because you need to cast a wide net to beat the odds. You do not have the luxury of being picky.

Show your process as a game designer

If the recruiter likes your portfolio, they send it to the hiring manager. The hiring manager will be looking much deeper into your design process and how your spaces play.

Videos and before-and-after images of your work let the hiring manager know about your process and see what kind of designer you are.

For personal and student projects, you do not have an NDA and are free to share what you did, why, and how in as much detail as possible.

Just make sure you get to the point and focus on the most relevant experience.

Level Design Portfolio Examples

If you’re having trouble starting your portfolio, look up others!

You can go on LinkedIn and look up junior level designers who have their websites linked and see how they talk about their stuff.

Here are a few level design portfolio examples I recommend you checkout:

I generally tell students to stay at junior sites when looking to build their portfolio, but here is a great example of a senior designer’s detailed portfolio:

It’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, it is your portfolio. Present your work in a way that you feel is best. Look at these sites to see what you like and dislike about them, and use pieces of the approach for your own.

But also notice what all of these good portfolios have in common: they display the information in a way that is easy to digest.

Don’t make your design more original or personal at the cost of readability.

Final Thoughts on Level Design Portfolio

If you apply the steps, advice, and examples in this post, you should end up with a competitive level design portfolio.

You can find me in the Funsmith Club and ask me there for a review. In addition, I also do monthly portfolio review videos on  The Design Den.

Portfolios can be very scary to create and stressful. My advice is to just tackle everything one part at a time and always keep looking for feedback and iterate!

Level Design Portfolio FAQs

How many portfolio pieces should I have?

Include three to five level design pieces. Recruiters have less than 20 seconds to review your work, and they’ll judge you on your weakest piece—so only include your best.

Should I focus on only the types of games I’m interested in?

A diverse portfolio shows that you can solve a variety of design problems.

Even if you want to work on isometric games, a portfolio that also includes work from a third-person single-player game, a first-person shooter, and a multiplayer level will let you apply to a wider variety of studios, instead of banking everything on getting your dream job.

Is it better for my portfolio to use level editors for existing games or game engines like Unity or Unreal?

The best approach is to include some work with level editors and some with game engines, but if you have to choose, go with Unreal. The industry is using Unreal more and more.

For game engine work in either Unity or Unreal, I recommend just using blockouts and not final art. It’s a better use of your time to learn how to make basic prototypes using visual scripting.

Including some level editor work is great because it shows you focusing solely on the gameplay experience since art and systems are already implemented. Examples of these editors are Hammer, Forge, SnapMap and Source.

Would learning environmental art make me a more competitive-level design candidate?

Having some art knowledge is nice to have but not required, since level design is primarily a game design role.

Basic 3D modeling can help you block out levels faster, but many studios don’t require it.

A basic understanding of environmental art will help you collaborate with the artists on your team.

How much scripting do I need to learn as a junior-level designer candidate?

Scripting can be huge for a level designer, the more technical the better. However, every game studio has different requirements.

At a minimum, learn how to use Unreal blueprints well enough to prototype puzzles and a basic mission system.

If you already have a scripting background, you can learn to do this in Unity with C# instead.

The more scripting or blueprinting you are able to do, the more game design content you’ll be able to work on.

How big should the scope of a solo-level design project be?

For a solo project, keep it to a 5-8 minute experience using only blockouts and level scripting (10–15 minutes if you feel ambitious).

You do not need art or VFX. If you do include them, use them to help sell your design choices, not just to be pretty.

Allow about eight weeks for a project like this:

  • 1 week pre-production (ideas, documentation, 2D maps)
  • 2 weeks for a first pass
  • 2 weeks for cleaning up the blockout
  • 2 weeks for scripting
  • 1 week for polishing

Get feedback on the gameplay from playtesters as you make it. The whole goal is to build a playable space.

Kyle Robinson’s Sunken Heart is an excellent example of a level designer solo project.

How big should the scope of a group game design project be?

If you are part of a group of people from multiple disciplines who want to make a game for your portfolios, a small polished game or even a “vertical slice” demoing what a game could be will serve you best.

Of course, this depends on team size and dynamics, but it’s almost always best to scope your game design project down to its bare essentials.

I recommend aiming for a 5 to 10 minute game and starting with an existing game concept—either combining it with another game or adding a new mechanic to it.

For example, my friends and I made Mantra as a volunteer project. It is pretty much TitanFall 2 with stylized art. This allowed us to use TitanFall as a direct reference as we built our game.

For a game design group project, give yourselves a concrete deadline of 3-6 months, or 6-12 months if artists are involved.

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EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan