I ended up finishing Gravity Assist and releasing it to the public after I got into design. At the start of development, I really wanted to do a Contra-style run 'n gun. I ended up combining this with the gravity flipping from a puzzle game concept I had been kicking around in my head for some time.I was quite happy with the boss battles, and it was great to be able to leverage the code from my previous games to get a basic sandbox up and running quickly.
Never the greatest pixel artist, I was really happy with how some of the art assets turned out. Releasing Gravity Assist post-VVVVVV (although I started work on my game before VVVVVV was announced) and with only two levels didn't do me any favors in terms of getting noticed on the Internet, but the game served its purpose in helping me get a job.
None of these games are perfect examples of game design or what a one-man indie team can do with GameMaker -- far from it. They have bugs and the concepts are admittedly half-baked in places. I could have taken them further, but cut the projects short to ensure they got finished. There are also a lot of mistakes that mark the games as the product of a designer in their infancy. My approach to design now is certainly more holistic and grounded in principles and experience I've picked up. That being said, I'm still very proud of these games.
The intent was never to polish them to perfection, but more to show that I could execute on a concept using solid design principles and methodology, and finish what I started. I always developed them as POC (Proof of Concept) demos and presented them to prospective employers as such. In terms of knowing when to finish up and move on, it was important for me to keep in perspective that I was hunting for a designer position -- not a programmer or an artist job. I think working on a number of small games in different genres kept things fresh and me motivated. I don't know how things would have turned out if I had instead tried to make one single, large project over the course of that year.
Releasing the games and getting feedback was always eye-opening. And in the case of positive coverage, it was very gratifying. In that regard, the pinnacle of this was this was IndieGames.com naming De Toren in its top 10 list of 2009's best indie freeware arcade games.
Nearly two years after having left Next Level Games as a QA tester, I was brought back as a level designer (having worked at two other companies in testing during the interim). The three key factors in getting that job were 1) the impression I left during my time there in QA, 2) ensuring it didn't go to waste by maintaining my connections there during the intervening two years (a whole other story), and 3) my portfolio. I know that without the strength of my portfolio, I would not have gotten the job.
Things have changed since I started in QA, even since I made the jump to design. Schools are graduating more design students than ever, yet job opportunities for new designers with established companies are contracting as AAA studios downsize and small companies don't always have the bandwidth to take on and train a new graduate. That being said, the indie scene is stronger than ever and the availability and openness of new tools and platforms are providing tremendous opportunity for self-starters. Even GameMaker itself has changed a lot since I used it.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't make a portfolio in UnrealEd or whatever tomorrow's set of industry-standard tools and editors are, nor am I saying you should use GameMaker (though it is pretty awesome). The important thing is that whatever your goal is, you have to make something -- anything! -- and have it be something you believe in. Use whatever tool will best help you achieve your goal and differentiate yourself.
Make what you want to make. The desire and passion that you put into it will be readily apparent, and you will represent yourself a lot better than with a chore done strictly for extrinsic rewards.
[Kevin Oke has worked on console, mobile, and social games for over six years in QA and design. He is currently lead designer at Adrian Crook & Associates, a mobile/social game design consultancy. In addition, he is part of a social app startup set to release its first product, and working on an indie game project on mobile. You can find his GameMaker portfolio at editmodegames.com]