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Design Portfolios – Is there such a thing?

October 19, 2007

This weekend, I had the opportunity to talk with numerous potential game designers while I was in Charlotte, NC. Each raised an issue independent of the other –

“How do I create a design portfolio?”

It’s a really good question, actually. The usual advice given to wanna-be designers is this: “Don’t try it. No one ever gets hired as a game designer straight out of school.” Except, that’s not actually true. In fact, in my own career, I’ve hired two guys straight out of school, and both were undergrads.

Four things are changing this old rule:

  1. Language: As practicing game designers, we’re both defining and using a grammar of gameplay that allows us to pass this knowledge on from one generation to the next.
  2. Education: Seriously good programs are springing up that actually teach game design – not art-as-design or programming-as-design, but the actual meat-and-potatoes game design stuff that you’ll find written about in books like Koster’s Theory of Fun or Bjork and Holopainen’s Patterns in Game Design. This is not to say that both art and programming aren’t valuable. Obviously, they are. So is design, and it is its own thing. It can be taught in conjunction with the others, but not as an afterthought.
  3. Team Size: A hierarchy of design is becoming more the norm. Instead of the seer dictating how his or her game should be done (or coding it alone), there are usually multiple designers of varying skill and responsibility on a project, from the lead right on down to the design intern.
  4. Industry Scope: The game industry is a lot bigger than just Blizzard, EA and Epic. There are hundreds of companies making casual games, cell phone games, serious games, collectable card games, flash games, advergames, tabletop games, pencil and paper games, board games, indie PC games and so on. These companies need designers, too.

This brings me back to the original question. How does one create a design portfolio, particularly if one doesn’t have access to the high-powered software necessary to create games?

Get Some Dice

The answer that I ultimately came up with was this: “Make games. Any kind of games. Flash games, board games, card games, collectible card games. Use whatever you have at your disposal and make a game out of it.” Access to hardware and software shouldn’t be and isn’t an excuse. After all, how many polygons are in the Risk board game? Of all the many, many games I have on my shelf, from Wii titles to 360 titles to PS2 stuff, Risk is the one I’ve been taking down and playing the most. Next, I’m planning to move on to Settlers of Catan.

Those two guys that I hired straight out of college weren’t hired on the basis of their amazing Unreal level or previous work on a AAA title. Fact is, there are a lot of designers working in the industry today who have neither of those on their resume. Rather, these two designers were hired on the strength of the existing non-commercial games they’d actually made, both digital and non-digital, as well as their amazing enthusiasm for games from a design perspective.

Don’t Send the Design Doc

This brings me to another point – they wouldn’t have been hired on the strength of their design doc. Many times, designers that are frustrated by an inability to program or a lack of artistic skill will instead create a game design document – usually something in the 250 page range – that covers every last detail of the game in question. While knowing how to write a solid design document is a great skill to possess (and if you’ve seen bad ones, you’ll agree with me wholeheartedly), it will rarely get you a job. When given the opportunity to a) hire a guy who seems perfectly competent based on his actual game or b) you after they read your massive design doc just to make sure they’re making the right choice, the dude with the prototype is going to win every time.

Game design is an interactive medium – and you can’t judge the value of that medium unless it’s in motion. I’ve designed perfectly great things that turned out terribly as well as accidental moments of complete joy. Neither of these incidents were illuminated by a game design doc. In fact, it is these shortcomings that lead developers down the road of iterative design, agile and scrum development.

So should you just skip the design doc altogether? No. With practice, you get to know what works and what doesn’t with some degree of accuracy (usually because you did it before). Furthermore, some sense of written direction is usually necessary when you’re dealing with dozens of different individuals or individuals in multiple locations.

For me as a contract designer, the ability to communicate the design of a potential game in a concept doc is my bread and butter. Often, that concept doc evolves from concept to proposal to a full design doc for a prototype. For students of game design, creating a design doc can be a seminal moment – the first time they actually think through everything that it takes to create a full-scale video game. Through the process, they see the game from the other side of the screen – the designer’s. It’s not the doc itself that caused that seminal moment, but rather the process of design. However, it’s often through this process that students first begin to see everything that’s involved in the creation of a full-scale game.

In a nutshell, writing a design doc is a phenomenally valuable exercise and key skill that designers should possess. However, and like I said before, your 250-page doc is unlikely to be the thing that gets you in the door.

Show Me Something

To get in the door, you need some kind of artifact. If your idea is compelling and your desire to be a game designer is sincere, have something to show for it. There are literally hundreds of possibilities. Just as an animator may show his or her sketch book, so too can the game designer show his or her ability in low-tech or no-tech ways.

Here’s one – create a board game. Take a typical game play paradigm like territorial acquisition and adjust the mechanics so that three different levels of player can enjoy the game – a 6 year old, a 12 year old and a 30 year old. Create three separate games to illustrate this point. I recently did something similar to Risk so I could play the game with my 6-year-old kid.

In the digital realm, there are many products out there that let you create games for free from Multiverse (MMOs) to Adventure Game Studio. This is just the tip of the iceberg, really. Do your homework and have a look around, but don’t let your lack of technology hold you back. Fact is, if you’re reading this, whether printed or on the web, you have enough technology in your hands right now to make a game.

Consistency Counts

If you’re planning to look for a job as a designer, don’t start in January for your May job search. Start now for the job you want four, five or ten years from now. Seriously. Set up a blog and start writing about games intelligently and regularly. Offer observation instead of empty comments (“The innovative mechanic in the game…” vs. “It was so cool!”).

Travel to blogs of other devs and see what they have to say and how they say it. Read design books and post your thoughts on them. Learn about the different types of designers – level, lead, content, system, UI, narrative, technical, etc. – and be able to talk about designers intelligently. For instance, don’t declare your desire to be lead before you’ve shipped a project, and for the love of all you hold dear, if you really want to be a game designer, know who Dani Berry is. She did so much way before most of you interested in this article were born.

Whatever you do, do it regularly. Post at least weekly. Let people know that making games is something you do, whether or not you’re being paid to. Consistent, directed passion means a lot.

What to Put in Your Portfolio, Then?

In order of importance, here are a bunch of things that would impress me in a student’s design portfolio. Naturally, other designers might have other ideas to contribute to the list or disagree with me outright. Take it all with a grain of salt.

  • Internships in the game industry
  • A few, playable digital games (remember those free game development tools)
  • A digital game or level produced by a team with clear evidence of your contribution
  • A few, playable non-digital games of high quality
  • An intelligent, insightful and obviously updated blog

There are two caveats I’ll reserve for everything in that list above: having just one item isn’t enough, and if it’s not good, don’t show it. Solicit feedback from people who are comfortable giving you honest feedback, and work your butt off.

Bonus Points

Aside from the points I’ve mentioned above, there are other things that would impress me and help to solidify my belief that you are, in fact, serious about this design gig:

  • Evidence of having read the same books most every designer in the industry has like Koster’s Theory of Fun and McCloud’s Understanding Comics for starters.
  • Evidence of having attended a game conference like GDC, AGDC or a local IGDA chapter meeting. While you’re there, network yourself crazy. Darius Kazemi has an excellent series on networking that’s a must-read.
  • Evidence of programming and/or artistic ability, but programming particularly. For game designers, your life will be a whole lot easier if you actually understand how to code at least functionally.

Go Make a Game

You can get a job as a game designer straight out of college. I know people who are hiring them, and I have hired them myself. Truth be told, though, for everyone 100 of you reading this, maybe one of you will get the call.

For some, it will be a case of too little work, too late. You’ll do exactly what’s required in college and no more. That won’t get you a job in many other fields, and it definitely won’t get you into the game industry. Go to GDC sometime and see just how many talented people are wandering around. There are literally 10,000+ people in line ahead of you if they want the job. You really have to work for it.

For others, it will be a case of mistaken identity. They’ll send their resume to Blizzard under the mistaken assumption that they really can do everything required in the Senior Designer position even if they haven’t shipped numerous titles. Things like this happen all the time. It reminds me of the person who leaves home saying they’re going to be a movie star. Some do, I suppose, but the great majority don’t. So, target yourself appropriately. Get in where you can get in. Fight with the smaller dogs for now. A true anecdote – a programmer friend of mine graduated from a great university with a high GPA. He sent out 100 resumes to 100 developers. He received one bite from a geographically isolated, small company. Two years later, that company closed. So, he sent out 10 resumes and had 10 bites. Once he had experience, he had no problem getting a job at all. It’s an important lesson.

Among those looking for a job, there will also be those that have a case of what I’ve come to call “lame syndrome” – the belief that anything that’s not AAA and practically screaming polygons is “lame.” I’ve heard it before. Serious games are lame. Casual games, cell phone games, flash games, ARGs are lame. “Lame.” Give yourself a chance and them, too. If you really believe those games are lame, man, you haven’t looked close enough.

All this said, some of you will get that call. So go make a game. Now.

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31 Comments leave one →
  1. ai864 permalink
    October 26, 2007 12:20 pm

    Great article, Brenda. You’re right, I think probably the single best thing a designer can do is to have a game built in a team that has their name as a design credit.

    I still like to tell my students that design jobs are impossible. That way, they have a realistic expectation going in (with a 1 in 100 chance, that means they need a Plan B), and those lucky few who do get a design job fresh out of college truly understand how amazingly lucky they are and what an awesome opportunity they have. I’d rather they realize that right away, rather than only 20 years later in retrospect 🙂

  2. November 7, 2007 2:10 am

    This is a great article, and thanks for the write-up. Lots of valuable information in there and it’s good to see it from the other side.

  3. Tad Leckman permalink
    November 11, 2007 8:59 pm

    Brenda, this is fantastic! I am totally guilty of telling students “No one ever gets hired as a game designer straight out of school,” and this posting will keep me from flippantly doing so in the future.

    I’m also delighted to see you stating the seemingly obvious: do the thing you want a job doing, and show evidence that you have done it. The scale and level of technical sophistication of your work is not always a factor…unless fear of producing something too simple keeps you from doing anything at all! It seems obvious to us, but to a student being pulled in sixteen different directions by friends, professors, hobbies, etc. it bears repeating.

    Just last week I found myself telling a student who wanted to be a storyboard artist “You should be pimping yourself out as a storyboard artist to every film or animation student doing a short. Your portfolio should be full of boards when you leave here. If you want a job as a storyboard artist, you should be storyboarding anything and everything!”

    So, thanks for the awesome article I can link to as validation for my own advice 🙂

    Surprise, you and I agree!

  4. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 11, 2007 9:20 pm

    Thanks, Tad. Glad you liked the article!

  5. November 13, 2007 7:48 pm

    Thanks for the great article Brenda. I am a university undergrad student and my younger sister and I are both aspiring game developers. I think, speaking for the both of us, that we will act upon many of your tips in this article.

    Quite ironically we started our own blog on LiveJournal about a month back. We have been blogging, as much as we can at the moment, about our experiences in learning how to make video games, as we are relatively unexperienced in the field.

    It also happens to be our goal to attend the GDC at some point in the next few years. yet gathering the money to go may be a stretch. We have atleast dipped our toes in the local IGDA chapter (winnipeg,) and have attended one event on getting started with XNA game development.

    Your advice about board games has made me realize it may be a good idea for my sister and I to create one as an exercise in design, rather than crash and burn trying to create a digital game when we aren’t ready.

    Thanks again, and feel free to check out our LiveJournal. I don’t think we’ve really had any visitors yet! I also wouldn’t mind having an email conversation with you, rather than clog up your comments!

  6. Grassroots Gamemaster permalink
    November 14, 2007 8:41 pm

    Your pooh-pooh on the design doc alone is ironic. It reveals how little you know about game design.

    For example, you do know that Dungeons and Dragons is only a design document, right? It’s just a book. That’s all you need to play the game. The rule book, and some pencils and paper and dice.

  7. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 14, 2007 10:44 pm

    Grassroots GM –

    I think you misunderstood my point about the design doc.

    In fact, I _worked_ on a D&D game, so I’m most certainly aware that that book can be considered both design doc and fully functional game all at the same time.

    My point wasn’t that design docs weren’t valuable, but rather this – if you’re trying to get your foot in the door in the video game industry, you’re better off having an actual digital artifact every single time. I spent 26 years in the industry – many of them writing design docs – so I’ve seen what happens behind game company lines. So, my comment isn’t a reflection on game design, but rather a reflection on the game industry.

    If you are hoping instead to get your foot in the door at another company – like WOTC, say – perhaps a non-digital design module would work just great.

    brenda

  8. November 15, 2007 5:58 am

    Hello, I just read your article through my Game Career Guide newsletter ( Design Portfolios – Is there such a thing?) link. I am an aspiring computer game designer from a table-top game background. I have a great deal of professional experience as a designer, producer, and small business owner, and I have just graduated from college with a programming and game development degree.
    I found this article to be most informative. It gives serious but new designer a bar to shoot for.
    Though we are starting to see it more in some places, the education system is still lagging far behind in the area of game design. Many programs out there teach programming or modeling as a priority, and leave design as an afterthought. I value the education I recieved, but went into it knowing I was in it to learn programming, modeling, and mathmatics. For most would-be designers, it is a constant process of learning and experimenting, with really very little structure, save that which we make ourselves.
    As I said before though this is starting to change. You addressing this is an indication of that. I’m glad to see there is hope for us to get noticed, and to keep pushing for it.

  9. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 20, 2007 5:00 am

    I got an email from a fellow industry developer who wrote a piece for Game Career Guide on portfolios and also added some great advice to his own blog:

    On Game Design: further exploration of the video game designer’s portfolio

    http://www.weezie13.com/2007/06/on-game-design-further-exploration-of.html

    Check out the article linked above.

    Brenda

  10. Grassroots Gamemaster permalink
    November 20, 2007 5:07 am

    Ms. Braithwaite,

    I did get a job at a company based on a non-digital game design document.

    I would also say that tabletop game design is a really hard animal – a lot harder than digital game design. (Why?: Compare the processing power of a computer to that of a human player.) There is a whole lost art there, due to the influence of digital games (where poor fundamental design can be hidden inside the computer’s black box).

    Anyway, thanks for having the guts to respond to my angry comment on your site.

    GRGM

  11. bbrathwaite permalink
    November 20, 2007 5:15 am

    Hi Grassroots GM,

    That must have been some doc! I often asked potential hires to write a game design doc from an existing game as a part of the interview process. For instance, I’d ask them to write up the doc for the character creation screen in WoW to get an idea of how they did their DDs.

    I agree with you on non-digital design. I’m currently designing a game with my daughter (she’s 6). It’s a different animal, and does use a different skill set. That I’m designing it with a kid for a kid adds to that challenge (but also makes it amazingly fun).

    brenda

  12. December 21, 2007 2:26 am

    Dear Miss Brathwaite,
    Thank you for the advice on building our portfolio. I must say that we really need this if we are serious about having a career in the game making industry.

    I’m currently taking a diploma in game design and development in a private school (15 mths crash course) and honestly, I’m actually feeling kind of unsecure about my future as I am 37yrs old this year. Yup, going back to school after 18yrs of finding what am I really want to do in life. @.@”…

    I decided to go into game making for 2 reason:– This is what I like, and there’s now a way to learn how to do it (books, courses). I’ve never thought I can have a chance to do this.

    Looking forward to get more inspiration from your articles.

    Happy Chrismas. ^_^Y

    Sincerely,
    Alexander K B Seow

  13. James Ferris permalink
    January 8, 2008 8:39 am

    Ms Brathwaite,

    Wonderful article! I’m back at school again, in a Multimedia Design program, and your article gives me some good ammunition to show to some of the younger students here.

    The focus of the program is on design first, but many of the students still seem to think they need to rush to something that looks “cool” without fleshing out ideas. Of course, poor design often means the end result isn’t reached in the given time frame.

    The suggestion that they design something outside of the digital realm as a focus on design is an excellent one, as well as the support for “lame” options when considering career options. I think a few of them will get some real value from this, as did I.

    Been a long time,

    Sincerely,

    James Ferris

  14. January 15, 2008 12:29 am

    Very nice article, it made cleared my thoughts on many issues that are lingering inside my head now that I’m looking for a college.
    Tho most of the topics, I think, often appear in my and my friend’s minds, we have never concreted them successfully as you just did. Thank you very much for opening my eyes in this subject.

    Sincerely,

    Ryoku Weil

  15. Victor Jesus permalink
    May 30, 2008 2:00 am

    Hello Brathwaite:

    Thanks to your articule I can see, there’s a lot of work I must do. There are some points I preactice but other don’t. I just discovered your article thanks I registered in Game Career and I feel greatful for your advices and tips I want to work (like everyone) in the Game Industry, for my unluck I’m from a country without a level in game developement, but with this articles you added. I know that I can reach my dream of making great games and working with the best game developers.

    Truly

    Víctor Jesús Arroyo Reyes (Mexico).

  16. Lehi Briscoe permalink
    June 23, 2008 7:50 am

    Hidey-ho Brathwaite 🙂

    This article is absolutely amazing and I am hoping to print it soon so that I can go over and over it (I study for fun lol) this will surely help me to understand much more fully what I will need to do to build up a portfolio and have a chance of getting into the industry.

    I am currently awaiting my 2 year Game Development course that will be starting in september and I am anxious to learn all I need to make it into the industry, thrive in the industry and make great games ^^

    I’m in a way rather lucky as I’m only 16 but I’d still like to get ahead on this starting from now hehe, hopefully you or anyone else can get back to me on my email leetree@hotmail.co.uk

    sorry that the comment is so long >.< it’s just I have so much to say 🙂

  17. kayleigholiver permalink
    May 29, 2009 6:19 am

    Hi Brenda, I love this article and keep it in mind constantly as I create new work to put into my design portfolio. What I wanted to know is this article was written 2 years and because the games industry is evolving at a increasingly fast rate I was wondering is there anything you’d add or change from the advice above? Would you say that digital demos are more effective than non-digital ones? Would you suggest developing a range of demos covering different genres and then tailor the portfolios you send out to different companies? Or just send your best work regardless of what types of games that company may be currently producing (because they may go with a different type of game in the future)?

    • May 30, 2009 7:20 pm

      Interesting. I think it still holds. What I might add to it is that companies seem to be increasingly interested in hiring people with multiple skills who can pinch hit if necessary. So, if you can also model or draw, that’s something important to put in there.

  18. January 31, 2010 5:21 pm

    This was a great read Brenda. I totally agree about simply making a game. Seems so obvious now, considering film directors generally loved to make films as children. Having said that, I feel your conclusion contradicts the beginning. You talk about the concept of being hired straight out of college as an incredible opportunity for that one lucky person out of 100. What is the point in having a good, well-taught course if only a tiny fraction of the students are going to benefit from it? It would be like having a film studies course that claims to be able to churn out only famous film directors. But what are your thoughts on getting into design if you aren’t hired out of college? There must be other ways for a plethora of potentially great designers who are just unlucky with job applications! Why is there no obvious career progression, within the industry? From my personal experience, that awful ‘e’ word I feel is tearing job opportunities apart. I have a good degree in Maths (albeit not diretly game related), a portfolio (inspired by your article incidently!), and a host of other extra-curricular activities on my resume. I am now an experienced tester and have worked on some great titles, but even for junior design opportunities which are now beginning to show up for me, I am being denied design experience for … lack of design experience. Catch 22! I was told that testing was a great first rung on the ladder, but it is increasingly tough to progress from QA in any way, considering short zero hours contracts, hiring testers as effective slaves and then throwing them away when they’ve done the supposed donkey work.
    Sorry to rant on, but the lack of trainee positions, and exploitation really has to stop otherwise potentially good workers will desert the industry in droves. I’d be interested in your thoughts considering your experience. How about a postgraduate course to go with a first degree and QA experience? Or is that only postponing the inevitable?

    PS. I agree with ‘lame’ syndrome, although it is understandable when you find yourself testing a bug ridden, third rate, handheld game for 3 months on minimum wage.

    • February 11, 2010 2:48 am

      The most important things you can do are a) make games and b) network with known game designers to let them know your ability and interest. I am now working with an intern who did precisely that. Lots of game designers started in testing, but realistically, I’d take a MFA or a PhD candidate with proven skill (a portfolio with games) over someone without games any day.

  19. May 18, 2010 12:56 pm

    Problem I find is that designers in their thirties/forties – those who are hiring us now – got into the industry at a time when it was much much easier. Tim Schafer I think said ‘I would never hire anybody as unqualified as I was!’ Although you’d never believe it considering his games!
    I guess it’s just a tough time in a changing industry. I’m beginning to see the value of the courses more and more, although there are so many different opinions from current designers.

    Going drinking with the boss is always part of my portfolio!

  20. April 8, 2012 12:20 am

    I have a question regarding non digital games.Is it enough for games that are to be included in the portfolio to just have great game-play (great mechanics etc..) or do they need to have great art, production quality etc too..? Thanks!

    • April 16, 2012 12:39 am

      Good production value is important in board games. First impressions count.

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