This is a series of informal blog posts detailing the level design career. With these, I hope to create a collection of practical articles detailing various aspects of the level design career path in the video games industry.
The Level Design Career, Part 3: What
Welcome back to my series on the level design career. Now that we’ve talked about why and how, let’s focus on the what. That is, what should you make in order to prove that you can be an employable designer in the game industry?
*Note: Attaining a job in any competitive field is difficult and has many facets. This article focuses narrowly on portfolio content, but please do not neglect the other parts of getting a job. These include interview skills, resume construction, networking, leveraging social media, etc. Some of these might come up in future articles!
Think Like an Employer
When you submit a portfolio to a video game developer, they are immediately looking at your work. So however you construct a portfolio website, understand first and foremost that the actual work you have done as a level designer matters far more than anything else. Getting to examples of your work should be easy.
The above is taken from my own portfolio website. My goal with a portfolio front page is to create an instant impression of who I am as a professional. The background image, from Bioshock Infinite, is an immediate example of some of my most interesting work (yes, the image is actually from a level I helped create!).
The bottom footer is a brief listing of my primary and sub-specializations. I am level designer first, but I am also a scripter, and I have experience in game design as well.
How I Show My Work
Giving an employer a brief snapshot of who you are is great, but they’ll want to see specific work. Here is how I present my work on one my favorite projects, Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon. The header image is a screen shot of the game, and at the bottom I present a brief overview of the project. Note that tabs near the middle, that say “Photo Gallery, Video, Level Design/Scripting, and Project Details.” Each tab can be clicked, and the highlighted tab displays the appropriate content below.
*Note: Obviously if you are new to the industry you are not going to have commercially released games. However, all the information here can be adapted to personal projects.
**Additional Note: My portfolio website was creating using wordpress templates, which I highly recommend.
Here is an explanation of each tab:
Photo Gallery: A collection of screen shots from the game. These should show levels you have worked on. It can also be a general collection of good looking screen shots from the game, if your work was more in the background (for example, my work on Batman: Arkham Origins mostly concerned the port to the Wii U and a show floor demo build, so the photo section here is meant to remind the viewer of the game in general).
Video: A selection of video clips that, again, preferentially show your direct work. There are many approaches to videos (and this list won’t exhaust all of them). Here are some, in order of importance:
1. Detailed breakdowns of levels. These are not simply just trailers of game play videos. These show precisely what I did and are invaluable to any potential employer. I do this on all of my published games, and you can see an example, from Bioshock Infinite, here.
2. Non-detailed videos that are of your work. In short, gameplay clips that clearly show your work, but aren’t edited in any special way. Just be sure to write a caption somewhere on your portfolio that describes what the video is supposed to be about. For Batman: Arkham Origins, I used a video of the show floor demo I helped produce, gleaned from YouTube.
3. Generic gameplay videos or trailers. The last resort! I wouldn’t advise doing this unless your work on the project is difficult to describe because it isn’t in the foreground. For example, if you did light scripting tasks throughout a whole project, but didn’t necessarily “own” any one thing (certainly possible if working on a large, AAA project as a young developer), it might be more valuable to just generally show the game itself. I would still try to avoid this, though.
A very important tab! This is the part where you describe, in prose, your precise role on the project. Take care to avoid empty statements such as “I did level design on this project.” Too vague! Here is my blurb from Bioshock Infinite:
“I joined the Irrational team in May of 2012, focusing on the Finkton map. One of my main tasks was prototyping combat encounters. This involved scripting waves of enemies, moving around any allied NPC characters to their correct locations, and triggering the correct cinematics, checkpoints, or events during the combat. One thing I focused on during these combat encounters was creating fair, balanced fights that kept the player character abilities, enemy abilities, and level layouts in mind. One fun little detail: I noticed in “Shantytown” that you could stand on barrels, which held fires inside of them, without being damaged. I couldn’t have that, so I sprinkled in some carefully-sized damage volumes over top of them. I was incredibly pleased to find this little detail in the shipped product!”
Notice that I didn’t use the word “level designer” at all!
Simply put, the important high level details of the project. For example:
Developer: Irrational Games
Release Date: 2013
Consoles: Xbox 360, PS3, & PC
How All of This Helps Employers
The way I present information helps employers easily ascertain what I did on a given project. That way, they don’t have to guess, which you definitely don’t want them doing!
What Work Should I Include?
Ah, this question, which I’ve dodged so far (the most common portfolio query). This is actually harder to answer than you’d think, since there are different approaches. Here are some:
1. Pick your very best work, and keep your portfolio pretty light. Maybe three projects or so. Rationale: Employers will have your resume when you apply. So the portfolio shouldn’t be clogged with extra stuff if you don’t think it is the very best work you have.
2. Pick all of your work that is worth showing. Hint: this is my approach.
Method one works better for students. After all, a lot of student work is going to be rudimentary. So it makes sense to limit what you show to the very best examples you have. In fact, you may need to create entirely new work after you graduate (if you went to school!) to have enough examples to show.
Method two is better for someone like myself, that has a longer professional career. Can I really say my work on Despicable Me: The Game is absolutely better than the completely different work I did on Protostar (a tech demo for Samsung devices that I worked on)? Not really. Apples and oranges. Much professional work is like this. So for me, it is better to include a variety of material, including side projects and demos, as long as it meets a certain professional standard.
When I include something on a portfolio, I ask, “what does this say about me?” I currently have an Unreal 4 proof of concept called Agent Jackson on my portfolio. It is pretty rudimentary, but I wanted to include this because it shows I could create a C++ project with simple gameplay created via C++ code. Here is what I wanted to say with this: “I have technical skills that are atypical for a level designer.” I also wanted to say: “I love game making so much, I make small things in my spare time even when employed.” I’m not too worried about the simplicity of this piece, as I have a lot of polished items on my portfolio that prove I can make things from stem to stern.
Finally, Ask For Help!
Creating a portfolio can trip up even an experienced designer. After all, it isn’t really what we “do” for a living, is it? In my case, I needed a fresh portfolio when I decided to look for a new position in 2016. I created a portfolio, and my artist friend Jessica Nida was kind enough to approach me, asking if she could critique and help me with my portfolio presentation. And I’m so thankful she did! It surely played a role in landing my latest job, as Senior World Designer at Cold Iron Studios in San Jose.