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How to Make a Game Design Portfolio That Gets You Hired

How to Make a Game Design Portfolio That Gets You Hired

How Important Is a Game Design Portfolio?

If you ask a recruiter what the critical factor is when it comes to choosing between two equally qualified candidates, they’ll tell you it’s their portfolios.

A portfolio is an opportunity to showcase not only your work experience, but your personality, insight, and judgment. The same skills companies are looking for when hiring a game designer!

Why Do You Need a Game Design Portfolio?

A game design portfolio is even more important than a CV, resume, or cover letter. At a glance, it showcases your background, experience, sense of taste and ability to communicate clearly.

A good game studio gets a lot of applicants – and there isn’t enough time in the world to sit down and play every prototype or research every candidate who applies to a position.

Instead, recruiters quickly review your portfolio, then – if they like what they see – pass it on to game designers who use it to assess your experience level.

Portfolios aren’t everything, of course. At Riot Games, we’d start with a design test to quickly narrow down our options to the strongest game designers. But portfolios played a huge role in the next round.

For starters, it’s a great chance for candidates to stand out. I still remember the portfolio designed to look like our website’s champion profile pages.

Although this created some buzz, another candidate won out in the end. They presented a portfolio with a clear, clean design, language, and terms that matched our games, and short video clips from their game projects.

Both candidates showcased hard work, but one really understood what we were looking for in a designer!

What’s Essential In A Portfolio?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a game designer, a programmer, or an artist who makes 3D models. Your portfolio needs the same core pieces:

  • About Me
  • Contact Information
  • Link to your CV, resume, or LinkedIn
  • Examples of your work: gameplay clips, design documents, models – whatever shows off your skillset best
  • Your roles on design teams and most important contributions
  • Details showcasing your personality

There are almost as many portfolio formats as there are people behind them. But if you want to make a quick and easy online portfolio with a pre-existing template, try one of these sites:

  1. WordPress (lots of customization and premade portfolio themes)
  2. Squarespace (fast and easy)
  3. Artstation (built to show off art)

Creativity is a bonus, but don’t make your portfolio site difficult to navigate. A hiring manager should still be able to review your work at a glance.

There are some amazing examples out there of stylish portfolios – but there’s more to a game designer’s portfolio than graphic design! Let’s look at what content you should include, and how to present it.

How Does a Game Designer’s Portfolio Differ From the Rest?

To get into the game industry, you need to prove that you can create gameplay players will enjoy. But no matter how amazing your prototypes are, most people won’t have time to play them.

Instead, a front page full of striking images, video clips, and design elements will grab their attention. Find compact ways to highlight your work, even if your skillset or work history doesn’t lend itself to stunning visuals or polished gameplay demos:

  • Level designers use 3D models or screenshots of levels that show their understanding of space, lighting, flow, and level scripting, as well as bottom-up or top-down design.
  • Technical designers include screenshots or video clips of a feature in action to demonstrate their scripting indirectly, along with a description of how they built it.
  • Narrative designers can list barks (shouted lines) and descriptions of environmental context for artists and designers, along with slightly longer narrative samples.
  • Character designers feature concept art and final designs that highlight the most important and unique qualities of a character’s visual design.
  • Mechanics designers showcase tools and processes, paired with analyses of existing games and systems.
Character design, Madeline from Celeste

As you can see, the portfolios for these different designers look NOTHING alike. You’ve got to know yourself and which part of a gaming company you’re aiming for. A portfolio should highlight your best work in the field you most want to work in.

What Do Video Game Studios Look For in a Game Design Portfolio?

When a game studio is trying to hire a game designer, they’re looking for the best possible blend of a number of different skills:

  1. Experience
  2. Communication Skills
  3. Critical Thinking
  4. Decision Making
  5. Player Empathy

A lot of these are subjective and difficult to measure in a short interview. But a designer’s work quickly teaches you how that designer thinks and prioritizes.

So how can you best communicate these attributes to a game studio? Here are a few guidelines:

1. Make your focus obvious: Are you a single-player designer or a multiplayer designer? Do you mostly do indie work or do you have experience at a AAA game studio? The answers should be obvious at a glance.

2. Only include your best work: Make sure each project you include adds something unique to your profile. Is it your only board game? A role with more responsibilities? If you don’t have an answer, don’t include it.

That doesn’t mean every work has to be ready for release. Prototypes, mods, and game design documents can all make great portfolio elements if they demonstrate those attributes the game studio is looking for.

A basic game design document in an easy-to-read visual format.

3. Highlight the most valuable parts of each project: For example, if you’re proud of your multiplayer gameplay, include a quick YouTube montage of a couple of players gaming while you speak over it discussing your work.

(On the subject of video clips, here’s a bonus tip: always include subtitles for hiring managers in busy offices!)

4. Describe your process: What roadblocks did you run into, and how did you overcome them? What went well, and what lessons did you learn?

This kind of analysis can turn a quick, rough project like a game jam into a valuable demonstration of your design sensibility, even if the final product isn’t impressive.

How to Get Experience for Your Own Game Design Portfolio

When a recruiter is skimming applications, a well-presented portfolio with only the best examples of your skills makes them a lot more likely to pass YOUR resume on to a hiring manager.

But what if you’re just getting started and don’t have any examples of your work at a professional level of execution?

Step 1: Find opportunities in game development projects

And here are a few ways you can do that:

1. Game Jams: Game jams are 2-3 day events where you quickly prototype and assemble games with a small team. These are fantastic options for beginners who know enough basics to contribute.

Ori and the Blind Forest started that way when the other founders and I got together at a game jam to create a simple platformer adventure game. But you can also show up without a team and mix your skills with others on the fly.

You can find out more about game jams and how to find them here.

This humble bouncing square was the start of Ori and the Blind Forest.

2. Start Your Own Project: The next option is to come up with and develop a project on your own. This journey will teach you which skills you need to develop and which areas of game design intrigue you.

If you’ve never worked on a game before, start small! A short, complete experience is much more valuable for your portfolio than overambitious work that takes many years to make.

It’s not easy, but chasing a dream is incredibly powerful fuel for pushing yourself through the difficulties ahead of you.

3. Become Part of a Project Team: Finally, you could find an existing team of volunteers and offer to help them with a small part of a project. Many people are developing mods, games and even entire platforms for free.

This is how I first started my game design journey: approaching the Graal Online community, asking what they needed, and learning how to make levels, items, and eventually monsters.

Step 2: Document your process as you work

What really differentiates so-so portfolios from stand-out portfolios is how you showcase your work.

In particular, try to demonstrate that you understand the entire process of performing your craft. Record your process in a condensed but accessible format, highlighting your insights, lessons, and decisions along the way.

This proves that you did the design work – and didn’t just sit by while someone else solved the problems.

Here’s the kind of thing I’d expect a game designer to have ready when discussing a project (depending on their contributions):

  • Screenshots of their work
  • Bullet points of major decisions and changes along the way
  • Time-lapse videos for visual design work
  • Simple illustrations to help communicate mechanics, narrative structure, etc.

Step 3: Ask others for their insights and references

Turning inspiration into execution is at the heart of a designer’s role. Ask for input throughout the design process, and learn how to work with all members of the team.

If you’re working on a solo project, learn how to get useful feedback from playtesters, and how to put it into action.

This will help you grow as a game designer, but it’s also evidence of your social skills and collaboration ability. Ask collaborators to write a few lines about how they enjoyed working with you, and sprinkle just a couple examples into your portfolio.

Step 4: Study popular titles in your specialization

Analyze content from other games and practice thinking consciously about how they are made. The best games in the industry are the standard you should strive to learn from.

Keep your career goals in mind as you pick a narrow focus and go deep into the details. A level designer should focus on map layouts, NPC placement, and lighting, while combat designers are much more interested in animation, timing and communication.

Step 5: Critique and improve

A lot of the design process involves iteration. The designers identify what is wrong, adjust, and repeat until they’ve achieved their goals. Examine your game frequently to identify flaws and how to improve on them.

Once you have some experience with this, you can add it to your portfolio by breaking down existing games. Try making blog posts or videos that discuss a game’s flaws, trade-offs in design, and possible alternatives.

Just remember that your audience is fellow game designers, maybe even the ones who made that game! Real, in-depth critique is welcome – but don’t drop insults or claim you could easily do better.

Which online tools to use when making a game design portfolio

There are many different ways to turn your game work into portfolio elements. Adobe Creative Cloud gives you most of the tools you need to make interesting images, but there are plenty of free or affordable alternatives as well:

  • Level designers can make rough blockouts in Unity, Unreal, or even Blender.
  • Systems designers can use tools like Machinations to showcase resource flows and progression.
  • Narrative designers can use interactive text game software like Twine to generate visual ‘maps’ of text paths.
An example of a story map in Twine.
  • Mechanics designers could use any flowchart software, while quest designers often use Google Docs and Visio to plan both text and mission flow.

There are many, many, many more tools for visualizing your ideas above and beyond these. Find the ones that are best for your medium.

What NOT to do (mistakes to avoid):

Mistake #1: Don’t put every student project in your portfolio

Recent grads often jam every possible example into their portfolios. This creates a cluttered and distracting look that makes it hard to tell where the applicant excels.

Mistake #2: Don’t include too many rough sketches.

Some unpolished work is fine, as long as it demonstrates skills and experience the rest of your work doesn’t cover. But balance this out with more complete material as well.

Mistake #3: Don’t hide your mistakes.

Talking about your failures builds trust and lets you demonstrate what lessons you’ve learned and how you’ve grown.

Mistake #4: Don’t present yourself as the greatest designer of all time.

You aren’t, and you won’t win points for pretending.

Mistake #5: Don’t imply that your ideas are the only ones that made a project successful.

Game studios rely deeply on collaboration. Show that you recognize and appreciate other people’s contributions.

What are some great examples of effective Game Design portfolios?

Example 1: Joe Sopko – Game Developer

This is one of my favorites. While not visually impressive, it has all of the essential parts of a game design portfolio and a great variety of work:

  • Several games in different genres
  • Design-related research projects
  • Links to both articles and youtube videos that depict his analytical capabilities.

Example 2: Nathalie Jankie – Level Designer

Nathalie Jankie lists her most important work first, and includes videos that demonstrate her level designs. In the description, she lists not just her roles, but her specific contributions.

Overall, she includes a wealth of information in an attractive, concise format.

Example 3: Joeb Rogers – Gameplay and Tools Engineer

Joeb Rogers’ portfolio focuses on exactly what he wants to become – a gameplay and tools engineer, with a splash of game design. Tools design is highly in-demand, and he knows that centering it will help attract interested developers.

Example 4: Yuri Mainka – Narrative and Level Designer

Yuri Mainka divides his narrative and level design work into separate pages, and includes a good mix of examples, analysis, and synopsis.

Click on an example to get a direct link to the entire work, specific writing samples, and most importantly, the goals and contributions Yuri provided to the project.

Bonus Examples: Good Layout and Visual Style

I especially enjoyed the look of these clean, professional game design portfolios:

Conclusion

Game design portfolios can make or break your ability to get jobs early on in your career. With just a few weekends of effort, you can dramatically improve how you represent yourself.

However, nothing can cover up a lack of experience. If you are new to the game design world, the first step is to join a volunteer project, collaborate with friends or start your own independent project.

If you’re struggling to get started with game design, check out this guide on how to become a game designer. There we suggest some actionable tips to start making games for yourself and your friends today.

Don’t give up! There’s a lot of competition for entry roles but few people put in the time and energy to develop their skills AND present them well. You can gain an edge if you do both and get started right now.

Have any other questions about game design portfolios? Let me know in the comments or request other topics you’d like me to cover next.

3 thoughts on “How to Make a Game Design Portfolio That Gets You Hired

  1. Huge Xbox head here, who also doubles as a game programmer …seems like design portfolios are much more complicatd than game scripting portfolios.

  2. I’m currently do web design and IOS app design looking to venture into game design. These are some great tips, I especially appreciate the portfolio website examples you shared.

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