Pt. 2 – Your Resume, Website, and Application
Pt. 5 – Turn That First Gig Into a Career! (Upcoming)
Pt. 6 – Having Hard Conversations (Upcoming)
Note: These guides are provided for free because I don’t believe things like this should be behind a paywall. However, if you’d like to support me continuing to create content which helps people get hired, you can buy me a $3 coffee here.
Table of Contents For This Section
The Short Version Of This (Long) Section:
At the end of the day, any employer looking to hire a junior designer cares only about the following things.
- You have a body of design/narrative work presented in a public, easy-to-digest format. The work looks professional and speaks to your skills as a designer.
- Your body of work also, ideally, consists of one or more pieces which represent the skills required in the specific role this employer is hiring for. (E.g. if that’s level design on a FPS. you’ve created some FPS maps. If that’s narrative design on a mobile game, you have some writing samples showcasing short conversations between two NPCs.)
- You seem like a responsible, friendly person who would work well with a team.
- You’re easy to get in the front door. This speaks to the ‘should I move?’ question from part 1 — this is where local candidates will take precedence over someone the company must interview from afar.
First, Make Something
Following up on what I just wrote: As a designer, all employers want to see is what you’ve made. If the answer is “nothing,” you’ll need to go make some small games before you’re ready to complete the following steps.
There is no entry level game job in the world where you can show up having never made a game before.
This is true for any creative industry. There is no writing job which will teach you how to write if you’ve never written before. There is no illustration job which will hire someone who’s never held a pen to paper. Game making is a creative skill just like any other!
Luckily, making games on your own in 2018 is easier than it’s ever been in the past. If you haven’t made any games, stop reading this guide and check out the below resources instead. Return when you’ve got a couple small things you’re proud of.
- Here’s a fantastic starting guide on Kotaku.
- I also like this guide to making your first game on /r/gamedev, too.
- If videos are more your speed, Extra Credits has addressed this topic really nicely.
Go forth, and create.
Okay. Back now? Ready to show your work to the world? Great. Let’s go.
Your Game/Narrative Design Resume
Since these kinds of things are often hard to parse without context, here’s what my resume looked like one year out of college after a couple internships.
As you can see, it contains a few items:
- My education (degree attained, majors, important honors distinctions)
- My work experience (two internships and a full-time job for a year)
- My relevant unpaid experience (two little games I made during game jams with friends and released online)
- My skills (arranged by category — some of these skills were, in hindsight, pretty silly to list on a resume)
This isn’t the end-all be-all of resumes, and an experienced resume-writer can probably spot at least a couple silly mistakes, but it was successful in getting me a decent response rate from companies at the time. This is more or less the structure I’ve used ever since.
We’ll cover each of these resume areas in a little more detail below so that you can create a comprehensive one-page resume.
Wait, does my resume have to be one page?
Yes. Preferably with 10 or 12 point font. Trust me on this. Remember: A hiring manager will spend, on average, 30 seconds glancing at your resume, probably while exhausted and fiddling with their coffee at 10 in the morning on a Monday. Present the best stuff you’ve got, and only the best.
Arranging Your Resume Sections
I often receive questions like “which section should go at the top, how should I order things?” — The short answer is that in my experience, it doesn’t really matter as long as your resume is otherwise clear and easy to read. If you ask 10 different hiring managers, you’ll get 10 different answers about how to organize your resume sections. My advice is not to stress out about it and just order the sections of your resume based on what you think is most “important” to emphasize for a given role (whatever your subjective assessment of “important” happens to be.)
It’s also totally OK and normal to switch around the ordering of sections depending on the job you’re applying for. In fact, it’s even common to change the wording of your job descriptions to emphasize certain activities! Think of your resume less as a concrete thing you build once, and more as a living, breathing document. I have at least 15 or 20 versions of mine from the last time I was job hunting. This will get you the best response rate.
Styling Your Resume
Avoid doing weird stuff with your resume’s styling. I’ve seen all sorts of strange, gimmicky things: orange text, big curly fonts, giant custom “logos” for someone’s “personal brand,” et cetera. It’s OK to keep your resume plain or just use one or two colors to highlight information as you see fit.
Early in my career, I did all sorts of things with my resume and business card which I thought looked cute and unique. It was only later that I realized these gimmicks were actually damaging my attempts to job hunt. In hindsight, they looked really dumb and/or overly cocky.
This is my first ‘business card’ from 2009. “Dreaming?” “Triforcing?” Yeah… It’s a real shock no one wanted to interview me at GDC. I made these mistakes so you don’t have to.
Use a default or common template for your resume. It’s always better to err a little on the safer, cleaner, more standard side than to do something wacky and risk putting people off.
Your Education Section
This section is the simplest and most straightforward. Your education should follow something like the below format. If you don’t have one of the qualifications listed, that’s OK and normal, just skip adding that line.
- [DEGREE] in [SUBJECT] at [COLLEGE], [YEAR SPAN]
- University/College Honors/Summa Cum Laude
- President of the Campus Newspaper / Film Crit Club / Phi Kappa Phi (Note: only include academic clubs or organizations if they put you in a positive, neutral, desirable light and are in some way relevant to game development. If you were the president of the Che Guevara Coalition, the Young Christian Conservatives Club, the Legalize Marijuana Now Society, et cetera, maaaaybe leave those out — these are the sorts of polarizing things which come with baggage/stigmas that might hinder your chances at a job.)
- Capstone Project Game/Paper (If you have a capstone game project because you did a game design specific degree, list it here. Feel free to add a brief sentence or two describing the project’s genre, the team size, your role, and where the project can be played publicly, if at all. E.g. “Capstone Project: Wavering Waters. Served as a designer on a multiplayer jetski racing game within a team of 20. The project was highlighted in the Kotaku article ’10 Great Student Jetski Games’ and can be played on itch.io and Kongregate.” If you wrote a paper, describe that instead.)
- Additional Coursework (If you took any courses which weren’t encapsulated in your degree but which you feel are very relevant to game development, list the course IDs and course titles. A great example is listing any computer science/programming courses taken if you completed your degree in graphic design.)
Put together, it should look something like this:
B.A. in Communications at Florida State University, 2009 – 2013
- College Honors, Cum Laude, Officer of FSU’s Film Crit Club
- Capstone Paper: “LFG: How Strangers In Online Games Communicate To Form Self-Made Groups”
- Additional Coursework: 05-400 “Designing Virtual Worlds”, 88-300 “Advanced Mythology”, 10-999 “Data Structures and Algorithms”
What About My GPA?
One of the perks of game development jobs: no one will ever ask to see your GPA. Leave it out, and stress no more about that Intro to Astronomy class you bombed.
Your Experience Section
If you’re breaking in, this is likely to be the most dread-inducing section of your resume to create. What kinds of things should you put here?
If you have paid experience under your belt, even if it’s not game dev related, that’s awesome, and definitely highlight that at the top of your experience section. Here’s how you should prioritize it:
- First priority: Anything game development related or adjacent. Writing about games for publications or review sites also counts.
- Second priority: Any employment in creative industries/pursuits, or involving skills which could be useful in a game dev environment. For example — working as a database admin/IT for a non-game company, as a manager for a movie theater, as a camp counselor for a kids’ art camp, et cetera. The goal is to demonstrate “Even though I don’t have any game-specific experience, I’m still a creative person who’s done creative things.”
- Third priority: Anything which demonstrates your ability to work in groups or teams. Here, the goal is to demonstrate, “I haven’t worked on any creative projects yet, but I’m good in groups and play well with others.”
- Fourth priority: Any other work experience not described above.
If you have any unpaid experience which might deserve to go on your resume, use the following priority list as a guide and feature those on your resume. Use as many as you can from the first category, second category, etc and only resort to latter categories if you run out of material.
- First priority: Any game development related roles which weren’t compensated. This might be volunteer QA or beta testing for a local game studio, writing a few character conversations for your friend’s free game on Kongregate, a personal game project you’ve been working on for a while, writing free articles for a game review website, creating a piece of concept art for a student game dev team… that kind of thing. Your ideal scenario, if you have no paid game dev work, is to be able to flesh out a resume with these kinds of experiences.
- Second priority: Any non-game creative teams and/or projects you’ve been a part of. Student films, public art pieces, fanfiction pieces you wrote (as long as they aren’t super NSFW), cosplay sites you run, forums you moderate… so on, so forth.
- Third priority: Anything which demonstrates leadership or team-organized behavior. Coaching a little league team, being a Girl Scout, playing QB for your school’s football team, serving on the student council, et cetera.
Your Skills Section
Here’s how to prioritize your Skills section:
- Programming Languages: As a designer or writer, any programming languages you know should be front and center. Designate your comfort level with that language with a descriptor: “Intermediate Java.” “Basic C#.” “Fluency in C++.” Be careful with claiming to “know” a language. If someone gave you a whiteboard and marker and told you to write a simple program in that language, could you do it? This is a common method of testing knowledge in technical interviews. If someone suspects you’re not being honest about your proficiency level, they might put you to the test.
- Reference The Job Description: After programming languages, any specific skills referenced in the job description you’re looking at should be mentioned verbatim in your skills section if you have them. (Examples might be “solid knowledge of Excel” or “experience using Unity3D”. Make sure to list “Excel,” not just “Microsoft Office,” and to spell “Unity3D” the same way the job post does.) Often, very big companies will use software which scans resumes for “keywords” and marks them to be pulled out of the pile for review. Guess what happens if your resume contains a lot of skill keywords from the job description? Yep.
- Strongest Skills First: After you’ve listed all of the above skills, dedicate the remainder of space in your Skills section to any software or hardware you’re particularly proficient with — Photoshop, Illustrator, Unity, Maya, Excel, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, 360 VR Film Creation… you get the idea.
- Soft Skills: Don’t bother listing soft skills like “good communicator” or “polite” or “fast learner.” They mean very little and only take up valuable space on your resume. Your interviewers will not be shy about asking you tough questions to determine whether or not you have the soft skills they need for the role in question.
What About Contact Info?
Put your phone, email, and portfolio website link at the top. Nothing else is required. Listing your address is not necessary in 2018 and serves only to hurt you if you’re applying for a role which is non-local.
Your Portfolio Website
As a newbie game or narrative designer, your portfolio is the way you’ll communicate your work to the world. Portfolios don’t have to be big or complex, but they do have to do a few things:
- Introduce you (hello!)
- Showcase the best things you’ve made in an easy-to-parse way
- Tell employers how to follow up with you
There are lots of great free options for this!
- You can start a WordPress blog. (That’s what I’m using for this site, in fact.)
- Squarespace also has some nice free templates and will host a site for you.
- Heck, you can even make a Tumblr account, though it’s not the easiest to update and read.
- If you’re really fancy, you can even make your own site. If you know how to do this already and you’re excited, go for it. Here’s what my very first portfolio looked like. Kind of silly, but hey, it worked, and employers seemed to like it.
On the front page or top post of your blog/site, write a quick blurb describing yourself. Include a nice, professional photo if you feel comfortable doing so. Keep your tone lightweight and friendly. This is a first handshake. Say hello and tell the world who you are!
I’m going to use my friend Duncan’s website as an example. Here’s his intro.
Introduce Your Work
The very next thing after your intro should be a big ol’ page which lists your projects all-in-all. This allows employers to quickly hone in on a project which catches their eye or might look like a fit for the skillset they’re looking for. Don’t forget to include a screenshot from the game.
If you have a portfolio piece which doesn’t have very interesting screenshots (e.g. an un-themed Twine creation or a board game), you can choose an open-source image online which represents your piece, commission someone off DeviantArt or Twitter to create a little ‘promo’ image for you to use, or get creative in some other way. Visuals are important!
Detail Your Work
Ideally, employers should be able to click “into” each project and see some artifacts from that project — for example, photos, video clips of the gameplay, a link to a place where someone can play the game online (like Kongregate) or download a game build in a .zip format, et cetera.
I’ll use my friend Connor’s website as a good reference here. As you can see, each game has a link to view a trailer for the game, go to an associated website, or pursue more information about the way it looks and plays. As with Duncan’s project page, you’ll see Connor also describes his role on the team and project and clearly communicates which portions of each game he was responsible for designing.
Narrative Design-Specific Addendum
If you’re specifically seeking narrative design roles, it’s good to have some writing-focused samples on your portfolio. I usually recommend the following, although it’s good to cross-reference with other game writing advice online to see what others say:
- At least a couple pieces in Twine with interactive branching and decisionmaking involved. This will demonstrate your ability to write for an interactive format. Ideally, the more game writing you can showcase, the better.
- At least one short screenplay-format piece. The vast majority of game writing is not fiction or poetry, it’s screenwriting. Stick to short pieces like a three-minute scene.
- Ideally, at least one piece within an established world or fanbase. This might be fanfiction, a longer spec script for an existing TV show (mine is Mad Men), or a script you wrote for a mod on a game like Skyrim or Fallout. This will demonstrate your ability to write within the “voice” of someone else’s world, which is likely going to be the majority of your first few gigs.
Workshop the hell out of your pieces. Have critical, writing-savvy people take a look and offer you their blunt, honest feedback. Then incorporate that feedback. Make sure your samples are snappy and feel good. They’re your moneymakers and they’re going to land you a job, so they’d better be your strongest stuff!
Choose Your Work Wisely
If you have a lot of work you might be able to showcase, it’s better to leave out weaker or older portfolio pieces than to have a portfolio which feels sprawling and inconsistent. In other words, any time you add anything to your portfolio, look at what’s there and ask yourself, “Is this all really still my absolute best work? Am I deeply proud of every single thing here?” If the answer is ‘no,’ then cut whatever you feel least proud about to make room for the new addition.
Finding That First Job
Okay, the big day’s here. Your portfolio site is live and full of content you’re proud of, your resume’s good to go, and you’re starting to actually look for roles. Exciting! Congrats!
At this stage, you’ve probably gone to Indeed or Google or maybe even OrcaHQ and typed in “Entry Level Game Designer” and hit enter and seen…
Or — maybe there are one or two job openings, but they seem to ask for a lot of experience. Or there’s one opening that looks right, but it was posted four months ago. Uh oh.
You’ve just stumbled upon the truth of entry level game design positions: These positions do exist, but they (usually) aren’t posted publicly, and they (usually) aren’t labeled as entry level. Sitting on a job search engine hitting the Enter key every week is only going to end in disappointment.
In fact, that’s kind of how the entire game industry works. Employers post jobs, of course — but ordinarily, they only pull candidates in from those job posts when they’re desperate. Here’s how recruiting usually works in games:
- The team realizes they need someone. “Aha!” says our Producer, Jane. “We have lots of little organizational design work items to catch up on, and our designers are swamped. I think we need a junior designer.”
- Jane tells the team. The team agrees. Jane needs to get budget for the role approved, so she has to spend a couple weeks talking to the higher-ups about the role in more detail.
- In the meantime, everyone on the design team is privately posting on Facebook, messaging their friends, sending emails or LinkedIn messages to ex-coworkers… “Hey, anyone know a good junior designer? We’re looking to hire one.”
- Slowly, the team gathers a list of recommendations. By the time Jane comes back with the approved job description, there are already five or six candidates in the pipeline. In fact, they’re candidates which folks on the team (or their previous coworkers) have worked with in the past, meaning in some small way they’ve been “vouched” for already. At this point, the company may decide to not even post the role publicly. They may just bring those candidates in to interview and pick one.
- If for some reason the team isn’t able to source any good candidates or the role is hard to hire for (e.g. Senior Graphics Programmer), then and only then does the role get posted publicly and resumes are sourced.
- If the role is a design or writing role, the resumes pour in like a flood. The recruiter stops looking at any of the new resumes coming in after a few days, grabs some of the more promising candidates, and sends them to the team for review. At that point, the team only looks at more resumes if the first few candidates didn’t interview well.
In other words: in order to hear back after applying to an entry level game development job through a website portal, a small chain of miracles must have occurred in your favor. That’s not to say it’s impossible — it does happen! — but you’re going to have a far easier time finding a job if you learn how to hunt the way most established developers do.
We’ll cover this process specifically in Pt. 3 – Networking. Until then, let’s cover how to apply for jobs through a web portal or email submission “just in case” — because sometimes, it DOES work.
Ah, the dreaded cover letter. They don’t have to be bad! They really don’t! But I see a lot of silly cover letters. Most often, they make one of a few simple mistakes:
- They’re too long. (Three short paragraphs. That’s it. We’ll get there in a sec.)
- They’re too gushing. (“Nintendo games CHANGED MY LIFE.”)
- They’re overly stiff. (“Dear Sir or Madam.” Keep in mind the person reading your cover letter probably has about fourteen zillion tattoos, six nose piercings, and some non-standard hair color like bright red or a rainbow undercut.)
Here are some simple rules of thumb to writing a cover letter:
- Use the language of the job description. As much as possible, echo back the job description in your cover letter and speak to specific points.
- Highlight what’s on your resume and go into slightly more detail. The cover letter is a chance to tell your story in your own words. Mention examples from the experiences you reference which aren’t mentioned on your resume, if possible.
- Explain your connection to the studio’s work. Without being overly fan-ish, enumerate what excites you about working with the studio. Do you have some special connection that’s worth sharing?
- Three paragraphs: Introduce, Connect, and Humanize. The first paragraph (2-4 sentences) is your opportunity to reflect the language of the job desc in order to grab the recruiter’s interest, as well as summarize your own skills. In the second paragraph (6-8 sentences), you’ll go into detail on each of those points. And in the third paragraph (2-4 sentences), you’ll briefly explain your personal interest and connection to the company. That’s it!
A Fantasy Cover Letter For A Fantasy Job
GAME DESIGN INTERN: So-and-So Studios is looking for a Game Design Intern. Responsibilities include creating tutorials for free-to-play game titles, modifying them in response to live data, and maintaining the content creation aspect of those tutorials for several titles simultaneously. The ideal candidate is passionate about a variety of free-to-play games and has a data-driven approach to decision-making, with a strong familiarity in Excel and Photoshop. Nice-to-haves include a degree in economics or finance, previous experience building content for free-to-play games, and experience in one or more programming or scripting languages.
Let’s say you have a look at the above job description. Here’s how I would recommend writing a cover letter for the above:
Dear Hiring Manager,
My name is [X], and I’m a game designer with prior experience in mobile game creation and tutorial creation. I try to espouse a strongly data-driven approach in all my design work, am proficient in several scripting languages, and have taken several economics courses during my time at college. I’d love to contribute my past experience to the team at So-and-So as a Game Design Intern.
It’s brief, but see how the first few sentences use specific words and phrases which were called out in the job description? That says, right away, “I’m the person you want. I have all the things you asked for.” It’s not buried or communicated in flowery language. It’s straightforward and clear.
It’s also ideal to mention the job title somewhere in the first paragraph, as well as your name. (Sometimes hiring managers are trying to fill many similar roles at once and it’s nice if they have a reminder of which role you’re looking at.)
I’ve worked on several small game projects, including a PC match-3 game created as part of a student project (“Picky Pandas”) where I was a level designer. I was responsible for creating the introductory levels of the game, which served as the game’s tutorial, and gathering playtest data and feedback to make decisions about the game’s design over time. I’m also developing a personal mobile adventure game of my own in GameMaker for iOS, scripting the project in GML. I’m comfortable working with basic C#, having worked on one indie project in Unity where I was required to script dialog sequences. Lastly, during my time at FSU, I took two advanced economics courses: “Intro to Macroeconomics” and “Behavioral Theory.”
In paragraph 2, you have the chance to expand on each of the points you made in paragraph 1. Then, we’ll close it out with our final paragraph:
I’ve played over 100 levels of So-and-So’s latest game, “Match-3 Madness,” and have really enjoyed my time with the game so far. I also had the opportunity to hear one of your senior engineers, Macy Johnson, speak about her work on live F2P games at FSU last fall. I think the work So-and-So is doing in the F2P space is incredibly interesting and I’d love to be a part of it.
This last paragraph is your opportunity to briefly close out with something short which explains why you, the human being, are interested in the work these other human beings are passionate about (and work on for 40+ hours a week). Be respectful, positive, and finish on a high note. That’s it!
Whew. We’re Done!
In the next section we’ll cover the basics of networking in game development, and you’ll learn how to charm the hat off a Toad. (Wait. Is that a hat or is that his skull? You know what, nevermind.)
Note: These guides are provided for free because I don’t believe things like this should be behind a paywall. However, if you’d like to support me continuing to create content which helps people get hired, you can buy me a $3 coffee here.