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Interviews & Portfolios with XP

November 22, 2007

The challenge of creating a portfolio isn’t owned exclusively by the aspiring designer. It affects people who’ve had a number of years in the industry, too, and the challenges and issues we face are different once we’re on the other side.

My present design portfolio

Here’s what my present portfolio contains:

  • My resume
  • A ludography
  • My blog
  • References (these are like gold to me)

That’s it, and it’s worked for me for a long, long time, but I have been wondering lately if there should be something more… like a demo reel. I am curious to know what fellow experienced designers use when they submit material for new jobs.

Samples, please

When experienced designers interview for a gig, the interviewer almost always asks the same question: “Do you have any samples you can send us?” Every designer moving around the mainstream industry gets this question unless the person doing the interviewing is already familiar with their work. They might also be part of the rockstar elite or recently shipped a very successful project as lead. I suspect Shigeru Miyamoto could actively mock and kick the interviewer and still be hired.

The question may not be phrased in terms of needed samples, though. It might be like this instead:

  • “We’d like you to write a project proposal for us for [insert name of movie] on the [insert name of console].”
  • “Take an existing game, and write me up a pitch for it that uses all the existing mechanics in a new way.”
  • “Here’s a [pretty common mechanic]. Use it and create a game for us.”
  • “Take our character creation system in [this MMO] and write us up a design doc for it.”

I’ve been asked to and have completed all the above tasks. The person offering you the gig is trying to determine that you can, in fact, do what they need you to do regardless of what your resume says. Usually, you get a time limit, too. For the examples I’ve cited above, the time limit was 24 hours. The movie one was an interesting one, too. I hadn’t watched the movie, and had only a tiny bit of experience on the DS which had just been released at the time of the interview. The interviewer knew both of these things, and I thought the exercise was an excellent one to test a designer’s ability to understand an IP and a platform as well as test their performance under strict time limits.

Random tangent: If you’re an artist or a programmer, you’ll get spec requests like these tailored to your specialty. In your job search, be sure to block off time to create these things and schedule yourself appropriately. They know you’ve spent months (or maybe years) polishing your portfolio, so they’ll ask you to do something in a specific time frame to see how good you really are. I’ve known people who excitedly submitted their stuff to 20+ companies only to find themselves buried under spec work for each company. Plan for it.

I’ve also been asked to send in three ideas that I think would make amazing games. There are more than a few designers who’ve publicly mocked this particular request. The most popular retort: “Hire me, and I’ll tell you.” I’ve also had to take a design test that was just silly and obviously intended for the super new designer with absolutely no design experience at all. (“What is a mechanic?”)

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Why not just send them your previous design docs, level designs or big-fat Excel spreadsheets?”

Because of NDA, that’s why.

Non-disclosure agreements and employment agreements prohibit that kind of thing. Usually, you’re shopping for a job when you presently have one. So, sending out the design doc for your product to a competitor could bring you such a world of pain that it would require a new big-fat Excel spreadsheet just to calculate the damage, the collateral damage, the future damage and damage to anyone you might have even walked by that afternoon.

Sometimes this isn’t an absolute. I’ve been at companies as they’re wrapping things up. The doors are closing and everyone’s getting laid off. Artists are encouraged to take some meshes, models, animations, and levels they’ve made to use as portfolio material. Programmers are encouraged to take some code samples. Designers? We shred our stuff and are required not to take a thing. At first glance, it seems unfair, but I get where the powers that be are coming from. If it’s a good doc and a complete doc, you can actually make a game from it, and someone else could tell that you’d done exactly that. Or maybe they couldn’t. The code actually holds all the proverbial secrets, but you have to be a programmer to read it. Any ol’ dude could understand a design doc. It was written that way for exactly that reason. Anyway, and for whatever reason, design docs generally don’t float around. It sucks even more for the designer whose product got canceled. He or she may literally have nothing to show for the work except some docs that they can’t do anything with.

Bear in mind that this is my experience being a part of a few companies closing, and may not be representative of the industry as a whole. I’ve also been fortunate not to have any projects canceled (yet). Have I mentioned that there are no absolutes in the industry? As usual, take it all with a grain of salt.

Why not just send them a copies of the games you worked on, then?

This seems like the most obvious solution, really, but it’s not entirely practical. When you send something to a company, your contribution needs to be easily and clearly identifiable. If you’re lead designer on a project, this might be less of an issue. However, if it’s a big game and you designed one particular system, how do you show your actual contribution – tell people to play and explore the system you created? Yes, I suppose that’s possible, but it’s also asking a lot of a person who might have 25 other potential candidates to review. Besides, they already know about the quality of the games you’ve worked on. A quick visit to gamerankings.com will take care of that. They might also just be collecting that information for the current lead or producer or whoever it is that’s going to interview you. During the interview process and on my resume, I do my best to explain what I created.

Samples, part 2

The great majority of artists, programmers and game designers will be asked to provide additional samples of their work, no matter what’s in their portfolio – industry experienced or not. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a good reason for this: they want to see what you can do under their constraints and relative to the other candidates. They want to see your solo work, the length of time it took you to do it and your ability to solve the challenges they present.

So why have a portfolio at all?

For me, the desire to create a portfolio is purely based on client or interviewer convenience, and goes back to that “don’t send the design doc” comment I made in my other design portfolio article that targets designers who have yet to enter the industry. If I can show my prospective clients what I do and what I’ve done in a quick and painless DVD versus a large pile of games, I might have a leg up on another designer trying for the same gig. I am influenced here by one of my favorite articles: Jon Jones’ Your portfolio repels jobs.

In Jon’s article, he points out common mistakes artists make in submitting their portfolios. While it’s intended for artists, the points he makes about catering to the audience with simplicity and ease of use are critical.

What to put in that DVD?

Were I to make a demo reel, I’d probably break the DVD up into various sections, each reflective of the work that I’ve done:

  • Lead
  • System design
  • Level design
  • Content design
  • Writing
  • Interface design
  • Prof
  • Miscellaneous stuff

Among experienced designers, I’ve yet to see something like this, however. For the most part, they’ve submitted for jobs just as I did – an emailed resume that lists the games they made.

Maybe a DVD portfolio might be overkill. Maybe the resume and ludography are enough. I am curious to hear what other industry experienced individuals have to say.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 25, 2007 4:29 am

    The jaded cynic inside of me says that in the case where a company is closing its doors permanently, and in the case where a designer sneaks a few design docs out the door covertly as they leave… who exactly is going to sue them if the original company doesn’t exist anymore? Not that I’d want to test this myself, mind you.

    In my case I’ve submitted actual design work twice. In one case I was a freelance programmer who wrote some design docs on the side — for myself and no one else — so that if I had extra time I could work from my own docs later to create some neat new mechanics. Since I did this work on my own time, I owned it, and was able to submit it as a writing sample. This was part of the application package that got me my first design job.

    Later on, for my first teaching gig, I was asked to provide a “work sample” (universities are sometimes quite bureaucratic, and love to ignore the idiosyncracies of specialty fields like game design). I had recently worked on a serious game, and asked (and received) permission to use selected parts of the 30-page doc. I suppose it helps when it’s a small company and you’re dealing directly with a human being rather than a corporate lawyer brigade.

  2. aortiz permalink
    November 26, 2007 4:08 am

    This article is a real eye-opener for people who haven’t ever applied for a real job.

    As a newcomer, I go in with expectations to be shown out, especially since my resumé is painfully indie and not even in physical form. Now that I’ve fully grasped the concept that I have an interview in a few days, as casual as it may be, it only just enters my brain that “Hmm, aside from a basic portfolio, I probably should have a resumé.”

    Thanks for the guidelines. I’m sure it’s probably different for every person, but I think it’s good to have an example to go by.

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