Creating a Killer Game Design Portfolio: What to Include and Why

Photo of a game controller
Photo by Alexey Savchenko on Unsplash

As a professional game designer, I’ve been asked about portfolio structure dozens of times — by high school students curious about game development, by college juniors and seniors about to start looking for jobs, and by people looking to shift their career into games.

At the end of the day, a game design portfolio has a fairly straightforward purpose: to show that you understand the process of game design and can apply those skills in a team environment. While I’ve heard lots of takes on how best to do this from game designers and hiring managers, there are a few patterns that get repeated more often than others.

While I’ll be focusing on game portfolios for getting hired at a company, the bones of this article can also be used (with some edits) for other applications in the game design field (e.g. grant and grad school applications.)

For professional game design portfolios, these are the key features that I hear repeated the most often:

  • Foolproof navigation

Foolproof Navigation

When you’re building a portfolio, this is an easy place to start. Recruiters and hiring managers are looking through tons of portfolios just like yours. If you make it difficult to find what they’re looking for, they’re gonna skip your application and move on to someone else’s. They’re not being mean, this is just the third portfolio with confusing navigation they’ve seen today, they’re tired, and they’ve just got thirty of these to go through by the end of the week.

Think of your portfolio site like an empty art gallery.

So make things easy for them! Put your work front and center, ideally on the first page of the website. If you’ve got separate pages for each project, put the title of each project and an enticing image for each on the front page of your site. Make both the title and the image a link to the project page.

Make sure your best projects are front and center. Don’t bury them in your site’s menu.

Think of your portfolio site like an empty art gallery. It can have some branding out front to get people excited about the work, but as soon as someone sets foot inside it should be clean, simple, and structured to show off the work. It shouldn’t distract from the work itself.

Don’t bury your portfolio deep in a menu, don’t use fancy carousels/slide shows or other display methods that make it harder to get to see the work, and don’t make your portfolio into a video game. I know it sounds like a fun idea, but it makes the recruiter (sometimes literally) jump through hoops to get to the info they want. Use the time you would’ve spent making a video game version of your resume making a game you’d be excited to include on your site.

1–3 Well-Documented Game Design Projects

Game design’s a really popular field. It’s also extremely small. There are a lot of folks who are interested in getting into game design.

What does that mean for you? It means that if you haven’t got any game design experience or training at all, chances are you’re not going to get hired by a game company to do game design. With few exceptions, game companies hire people with some previous game design experience or, in rare cases, a very compelling pitch about why their background is a good value add to a game company. They’re not going to hire someone with no experience who thinks that they might enjoy working on games. (If you’re not sure if you want to be a game designer, I wrote another article about ways to figure out if you do!)

Find 1–3 projects that best showcase your understanding of the game design process

If you haven’t worked on many game projects yet, game jams and student projects are a good place to start building up a portfolio. As you start building up a body of work, you’ll probably even start taking some of your early experiments out of your portfolio!

It should be noted, though, that while game jam games and student projects are a good place to get your feet wet, unless you’re applying for an internship during college, you’ll usually want to have at least one longer-term game design project in your portfolio. It doesn’t have to be a magnum opus; ideally, it should be some piece of work that shows that you understand the process of making games end-to-end. That can be a passion project, a game jam piece that you kept working on with your team after the jam was finished, or an experiment you did to teach yourself how to build something in a new genre. Whatever it is, this piece should be something that helps you showcase your design skills.

Once you’ve got a few games you’re proud of, pick 1–3 that best represent your skill level and interests, then document them on your site. Be sure to include key information about your project: how long you worked on it, the genre of the game, a description of the gameplay, and any features you think are important for the reader to know about. Finally, if you’re applying for a position that asks for a particular genre or skill set (say, first-person shooters or educational games,) it definitely helps if you can show experience in that space in your portfolio.

A Team Project

Games are rarely made in a vacuum. While there are definitely solo creators out there, game designers at game studios will almost always be working on a team. Game designers often need to be cross-disciplinary and be able to communicate effectively with directors, programmers, artists, producers, clients, higher-ups, and other stakeholders. The team doing the hiring knows that for better or worse, they’re gonna be stuck with whoever they choose to hire for a while, so the more you show that you can work well with others, the better.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The more projects you include that you created as part of a team, the better. If you haven’t worked on a game with a team, find a person or two to do a game jam with! Once you’ve got a team project or two under your belt, write a bit on each project page about what your role was on the team. Talk about pipeline: where your work began and someone else’s began. Talk about how you developed that process together. Talk about issues that came up in vision or communication and how you addressed them (bonus info: this sort of question also comes up a lot in interviews, so having a few good stories about proactively working through problems as a team is a good idea!)

Finally, make sure to clearly credit your teammates and clearly identify which work was your own on each project.

Process Work

A lot of folks involved in the game design hiring process maintain that a project’s process work is more important than the final product.

Include material that succinctly documents your game design process

For each project, talk about the early stages of your design process. Talk about problems you ran into and how you fixed them. Include images of things like early designs, pitch documents, user interaction flows, wireframes, paper prototypes, content creation tools, and any other documentation that you used throughout the game design process. (Check out this design document deep dive if you want some ideas for useful formats). Talk about how you went about playtesting your game, what you learned, what problems your playtesters ran into, and how you incorporated your observations into the next version of the game.

Don’t be afraid to talk through problems that your game ran into early in production. When hiring managers are looking through your portfolio, they’re looking for evidence that you’re good at solving design problems when they come up. In some ways, showing your problem-solving process is more important than showing a beautiful, perfectly-tuned game. Being transparent about problems you encountered and how you fixed them can reflect well on your problem-solving abilities. A good example to include in a project breakdown might be: “We noticed during early playtesting that players never saw the (important thing.) To fix this, we (your solution here.)”

Hiring managers are looking for game designers to help them solve problems on their own projects, so they want to hear about your problem-solving strategies. Show images and videos of the finished product, but use the bulk of your space to talk through your design process. If you used any particular tools or game engines, this is also a great place to talk about them.

Demo videos

It can be hard to tell from a write-up and a series of pictures how a game actually feels to play. Wanna remove some of that ambiguity? Make a gameplay video.

Videos are an excellent way to document game design work for a number of reasons. If shot right, a video makes gameplay much easier to understand. You can capture elements of mood, pacing, audio cues, and hundreds of other little things that you can’t get across using writing or a picture. If someone wants to get an idea of how your game works but doesn’t have time to play it, they can get the general gist from a video. If it’s a physical game or multiplayer experience, you can include captures of people playing the game to better showcase the mechanics or energy of the gameplay. If the video’s high enough quality, you can also grab screenshots for further documentation later.

Finally, digital games become fragile as they age. It doesn’t take that many engine, browser, or operating system updates for your game to break a few years down the road. If you capture a good video (and back it up somewhere safe,) you’ll still have evidence of your hard work long after your old .exe refuses to open.

Download + Store Links

If your portfolio’s caught someone’s eye, they might spend more time digging into your work. If you launched a game on Steam, they might want to take a look at your store page to see if it’s true. If you talk excitedly about how much time you spent on making that combat system feel juicy, they might just click that download link so they can see how you did it.

The front page of itch.io

If you’ve got a published title or two out there, include a link to the store page. If you don’t, consider self-publishing! Itch.io (a self-publishing website for digital games) and Gumroad (a self-publishing site for non-digital games) make it very easy to upload your indie game or small experiment to the internet. There are tons of ways to host and distribute both digital and non-digital games out there.

A Copy of Your Resume

Even if you send in a PDF of your resume and then spend the time to copy out your info into the form on the company’s website, it’s important to have a copy of your resume on your site. For full points:

  • Make it easy to get to from your home page
Image by Nasir Uddin, Seeker Link is licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0

Every company manages hiring in a slightly different way, so make it as easy as possible for anyone who’s looking through your site to see your relevant education and work experience.

Cut Down on Distractions

Everybody’s got something. Figure drawing sketches from an Intro to Drawing class, a few high-res monster sculpts they did in ZBrush, a photography collection. Whatever your work is, I know you’re proud of it and I know you want to document it. And you should! Just not on your game design portfolio.

Photo of an elegant bonsai tree
Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

When hiring managers are looking at portfolios, they’re looking for a lot of things. One of the things they’re looking for is focus. If you want to be a game designer, they want to see your work in game design.

Treat your portfolio like a bonsai tree.

Especially if you’re right out of college, you’ll probably have a large collection of unrelated projects from your coursework. While it’s definitely a good thing to be well-rounded, what you don’t want to seem is unfocused. If you’re not quite sure if you want to be a game designer, an animator, or a concept artist, (which is totally normal, especially for folks who are still just dipping their toes into the industry,) it’ll come through in your portfolio. That’s not a good thing.

Whether you intend it to or not, a portfolio with an unfocused collection of work shows that you’re not quite sure what you want to do yet, and want to keep your options open. From a hiring standpoint, that seriously muddies your message. A hiring manager’s much more likely to interview someone who’s got a strong focus in the space that they’re hiring for.

So if you’ve got a wide breadth of work or multiple focuses, either cut out anything that isn’t related to game design or make multiple portfolios. Not sure if you want to be a game designer or animator yet? Make a game design portfolio and an animation reel. Use one to apply for game design internships and the other to apply for animation internships.

Is this a hard and fast rule? Of course not! If you’ve got a really cool project that helps solidify your brand as a game designer (e.g. a cool interactive theater piece you were involved in, an interaction design startup you did UX for,) by all means include it.

At the end of the day, you should treat your portfolio like a bonsai tree: Make thoughtful and judicious cuts from your body of work to better showcase the very best you have to offer.

Wrap-Up

If you’re making a game design portfolio, what are the big takeaways?

  • Stay focused: use clean web design and thoughtful portfolio pruning to focus your best game design work

One more quick takeaway for game design portfolios here. Don’t just take my advice on this. Look at other people’s portfolios, read more about good portfolio structures, and get advice from other professionals. If you’ve got a stronger idea for how to represent your game design skills, go for it!

Got anything else that you think is important to include in a game design portfolio? Let me know in the comments!

Game Designer & Storyteller. Narrative + XR + location based + emerging tech. Indie game community organizer. Twitter: @marlenaabraham