Tips & Tricks: A Guide to Portfolios
With the opportunities for GDC, E3, and summer internships fast approaching, I’ve been receiving a lot of questions about game development portfolios. I created my portfolio site in the fall of last year, and while I am far from happy with it (You are your worst critic, after all), I have received many compliments on it. As I conjure up new ideas to renovate my site, I decided to put together a guide to help other game development students create awesome portfolios.
Keep reading for the full guide to portfolios!
Before We Begin…
While traditional portfolios have their place, those going into the game industry should lean towards a digital portfolio. Because you will most likely be working with computers, it’s a good idea to show that you are capable of doing the job. Speaking of show, you always want to show rather than tell. I can claim I’m a great level designer, but without any physical proof, it’s just another claim. If you’re an artist, show examples of your work, everything from models, to concept art, to animation. If you’re a programmer, show snippets of code, or even engines you’ve built. Game designers should try to show off important pieces of game documents, but not the whole thing since that’s a bit overwhelming. If you are focusing on a specific area of design, i.e. systems design, you want to showcase that you can actually make working systems. No matter what area of game development you are going for, you need to show exactly what you are capable of. This is your portfolio; make it shine.
Just like with everything else, researching portfolios is extremely important. To clarify, by research, I mean to research and look at other portfolio sites, both from your area of expertise and from other professions. When you look through other portfolio sites, as well as when you go to build your own, here are some things to look for:
- Content: What kind of information is displayed on the site? Is there any downloadable content or examples of work? Do you have to download any programs just to see examples of work? Do they have a resume that’s easily viewable? Do they explain any of the process that it took to complete any work they show? Is there a lot of detail accompanying examples of work, such as poly count, hours worked on, etc.? Were they on any projects, and if so, do they clearly explain their role and what they did? Do they have a nice balance of text, pictures, and videos (if applicable)? Do they give credit where due, or do they try to claim they did everything where they did not? Do all of the links, pictures, videos, and downloadables actually work? Is everything up to date?
- Design: Does the site catch your attention right away? Is the site simple and clean, or is it cluttered with lots of information? Is it nice to look at, or is more of an eyesore? Does the web site flow well? Is there too much or too little text and/or pictures?
- Ease of Use: Is it easy to navigate through the different pages? How are things organized? Are there too many pages, or is it easy to get lost? Where there is text, is it kept short and to the point, or does it drag on? Do you have to move the mouse all over the screen to get around, or are important links grouped close together? Does the site work properly in many different browsers? Are there any ads or pop-ups?
- Personal: Can you tell what the personality of the site owner is? Does the site owner seem too overbearing or self-centered, or do they come across as shy and uncaring? Do they effectively relay their skill set, or is it hard to tell what exactly they are good at? Do they demonstrate a passion for what they do? Is it clear what exactly they want to do, or do they come across as a jack-of-all-trades? Do they identify any strengths and/or weaknesses? Try looking at the site owner as if you were thinking of hiring them.
Designing and Building the Site
Remember when I explained how research was so important? This is where that comes into play. Use what you learned from researching other portfolio sites and apply it to your own design. Make a list of the different pages you want and how much content you want to have available. I recommend starting with the basic aspects that will make up the menu and go from there (on my site, my menu currently consists of links to the home page, game design, level design, about me, and contact). You also want to make sure that you mention any projects you are currently working on somewhere on the site, but don’t make it hard to find. If you have an idea of what you want the site to look like, sketch out a quick example or make a mock-up page. This doesn’t need to be perfect since it’s only an idea, but remember to label things. Think about how different projects or areas will be broken up, and how text, pictures, videos, and more will be laid out. If you have or want a logo, start thinking about what it will look like and where it will be placed.
Not everyone is an amazing web designer, and no one expects you to be. These days, there are plenty of other options out there. If you are going to build your own, kudos! I built my own because I know how and it was a better choice for me to get exactly what I want. However, there are alternatives, such as using templates and even hiring someone to build it for you. No matter which method you choose, don’t feel like you’re at a disadvantage. After all, your future employers are looking at what you can do as pertaining to your field, not your web design skills. Although a nice looking web site is great, if you have nothing to showcase, there’s really no point.
Domains and Hosts
I’m not going to go too far into domains and hosts, since it is entirely up to you, but I will throw out some guidelines. When looking for a host, you want to make sure there are no ads included; after all, no one wants pop-ups spamming them while trying to find out more about you. You also want to make sure the host will provide enough space for all of your files and any future things you might upload. I’d recommend putting all of your web site files into a folder and looking at how much space it takes up. This number should give you a good idea of how much space you need, but be sure to take into account the fact that you will be adding more later. If you have a lot of image files, you probably want to host them on a separate site to free up space. Just make sure that the site you use to host images does not spam the viewer with ads, and that you don’t navigate the viewer away from your site unless necessary. This goes for other forms of media as well, including Word documents, code snippets, and videos. If you can, I’d recommend finding a site that offers a domain and web hosting package, as these can be not only convenient, but oftentimes cheaper as well.
When it comes time to find a domain, try for a .com site. This is easy to remember and keeps things simple, but if you’d rather go for a different extension, that’s up to you. Whatever extension you get, make sure it isn’t too long or complicated so as not to confuse people. You can name the domain of your site whatever you like, but I suggest keeping it short and professional, and that it actually have something to do with you. If I were to have the domain http://www.kaocleyra.com, everyone other than my close friends would wonder what the heck a “kaocleyra” is. If the domain you want is already taken (not everyone can have http://www.johnsmith.com), choose something that is still “you.”
The Art of Self-Promotion
This is your portfolio, so show off! A portfolio is essentially a form of self-promotion, as employers will be looking at it and evaluating whether or not they think you will be a good fit for the job. You want to attract future employers, not scare them away, so don’t make yourself sound arrogant, shy, or careless. The about me section of your site is going to include the most, well, about you, but there are bits of you all over your site. When describing projects, don’t take credit for things you didn’t do, and never talk bad about your team. When it comes to your own examples of work, you don’t want to make it sound like you’ve created the greatest thing known to man. Instead, you want to briefly explain what went right, what went wrong, and what could have been improved upon. No one wants to hire someone who thinks they’re the most talented person, but the person who doesn’t think anything they do is even remotely good isn’t a prime candidate either. You’ll need to find that middle ground if you want the job, and being able to identify strengths and weaknesses in both your projects and yourself is key to that.
People Like Visuals
This one is pretty straight-forward: people like visuals. All right, so that was really straight-forward, but it’s true. While text is still very important, people want to see rather than be told. If you can, provide screenshots, mock-up images, walkthrough videos, gameplay videos, etc. The better the visual representation of what you can do, the better idea of your skill set your future employer has. While adding visuals to game design, modeling, animation, level design, and other visual-based portfolios seems natural, those pursuing not-so visual careers, such as sound design, programming, artificial intelligence, producing, and marketing, can still add graphics to their portfolios. If you worked on a game project, show it off, but remember to give credit to the rest of the team. If you have sound files, maybe show off the actual sound wave visual or the environment where the sound would be implemented. If you are a programmer or AI programmer, visually show how and where your code was used, and if you have some cool programmer art, show it off as well. If you are aspiring to produce or market games, show some examples of how you helped to produce or market game projects, or even show a few mock-ups. The point is to draw the viewer in, and visuals do exactly that.
Too Long, Didn’t Read
Text is both a gift and a curse: on one hand, it helps to show your skill set, personality, passion, proficiency, and more; on the other hand, it can often be boring and drawn out. You want to find the perfect medium, and the key to that is to not get overly wordy! You want to use text to explain the application of skills, the process undergone, and even what went wrong, what went right, and how you could have improved it. Keep your texts short, simple, and straight to the point. If you have a lot of text, try to break it up with pictures. Remember: you don’t need to describe everything; you still need things to talk about if you have an interview!
Include a Resume
Unless you are still a student who is nowhere near graduating, you need to include a resume on your portfolio site. If a prospective employer looks at your site and likes what they see, they may want an in-depth look at who you are, your skill set, and what you have done. This is where the resume comes in, as it details everything from your skills to education and previous employment, and so much more. When including a resume, try to put it in a .PDF or .doc format, and always make sure it’s easy to find.
To Blog or Not to Blog
First off, never make your portfolio site a blog. Blogs are great, but they aren’t very effective as portfolios, and oftentimes, they can be difficult to navigate through. That aside, you are currently reading my blog, and yes, I do have a link to it on my portfolio site. But the big question still remains: to blog, or not to blog, or rather, to feature blog, or not to feature. There are a lot of blogs out there, and let’s face it, most of them are crap (not that I think mine is amazing or anything). On my portfolio site, the link to my blog is found only under the about me section, and I think I do a good job of not trying to make everyone look at it. If a viewer of my portfolio wants to look at it, great, if not, oh well. I’ve seen a handful of sites where people try to force feed you their blog, which can be very aggravating, considering future employers are looking at the site, and they might not care or have time to read through your ramblings. My blog is very specific to my career, as I post about my process for various levels, game ideas, and projects, as well as try to share my knowledge on various subjects pertaining to game development. If you have a blog that pertains to your field, go ahead and link to it, but again, don’t try to force people to read it. If you have a personal blog, don’t post it; your future employers don’t want to read all about your daily life. If you have a video game review blog, this is a bit of a tough choice. If you’re applying for a job where you will review games, by all means link it, but if you’re applying to make games at a company, and they see that you rated all of their games horribly, I’d leave it out. Another thing to watch out for when it comes to blogs is your spelling and grammar! If you don’t use proper spelling and grammar in your blog, then you definitely need to watch out. You don’t need to be amazing at it, but if you are constantly misspelling words or typing in “1337-speak,” an employer may see that and get turned away. If you do link your blog on your portfolio site, keep the blog up to date. If you haven’t posted in months, an employer may wonder if you’ll be able to keep on task in the workplace. Blogs are such an iffy subject, but when in doubt, I say just leave it out.
Keep it Professional
This is the most important part of this entire post: no matter what you do with your portfolio site, you need to keep it professional! Future employers will be looking through all of your site, and they don’t want to hire someone who can’t even take a portfolio seriously. Here is a list of a few do’s and don’ts on keeping things professional:
- Do use proper grammar and spelling.
- Do promote yourself and your skills.
- Do use your first and last name.
- Do give credit where credit is due.
- Do use words other than “awesome,” “fantastic,” “amazing,” etc. to describe your work.
- Do link to your LinkedIn account, if you have one. Put a small link in the contact or about me section.
- Don’t make yourself sound arrogant.
- Don’t beg for a job.
- Don’t link to a personal blog, or any blog that doesn’t have anything to do with the job you are applying for.
- Don’t link to your Facebook page unless it is entirely professional.
- Don’t have ads on your site.
- Don’t use inappropriate language.
- Don’t claim things you didn’t make as your own.
- Don’t describe every person who’ve worked with as a “wonderful, hardworking individual.”
- Don’t use a nickname unless that’s the name you go by. With that said, don’t put something like “n00bpwner1337’s Portfolio.”
- Don’t talk bad about anyone in the industry, any students (or other people), or any games. It’s a small industry; word gets around fast.
Despite the length of this post, I do hope that it will help some people out. As always, if you have any questions, comments, critiques, or anything you’d like to add, feel free to let me know!