Portfolios are the only way into jobs in game dev. Your portfolio is only as good as the worst piece of work in it, whatever that is. If in doubt, leave it out. This advice was given to me at the start of my own university studies back in the day. It's pure gold, and I still try to follow it now. The problem is this: If your portfolio contains five pieces of stellar work, and one bad piece, it throws all your work into doubt. The reviewer will wonder if your judgement is poor, and you can't tell a good piece from a bad one. Or they might wonder which the most recent piece of work is, and whether your skills are improving or declining. Or question if the good stuff is all yours, and not just a group project where you could do relatively little damage.
Speaking of group projects: Always cite what you did, and credit others for what they did. This avoids any misunderstandings. Taking credit-or even appearing to-for other people's work is the ultimate no-no in all creative fields and is viewed in much the same way as a turd in the talent pool.
If an applicant's portfolio is bad enough, developers will save the work to a gallerie abominati. When they need cheering up they will gather round to look at it and laugh. Do NOT be that applicant. (Developers save their own mishaps in these gallerie abominati too. And they share them with each other. It's a blooper reel for geeks, it's not personal. Although having said that, no-one gets hired on the back of a blooper reel. See my point?)
"If someone who didn't know me saw this work, would they think I was a serial killer?"
This is a good question to ask yourself when selecting your portfolio content. That doesn't mean that you can't have extreme work in your portfolio, it just means that you need to know when and where to target that work. If you're applying for a job with a company famed for their survival horror, then knock yourself out. If you're creating a generalist reel to show to multiple companies, including ones making family or children's titles, be aware that the people reviewing your portfolio will have made a personal decision not to work with extreme content. They won't be expecting it, and could get the wrong idea about what kind of person you are.
Also, don't assume the developer reviewing your portfolio is male. Or white.Or straight.Avoid the following in your portfolio:
Undressed or under-dressed women.
Infeasibly large or gravity defying breasts (on anyone).
Brutalized or dehumanized women with sexual overtones.
Homicidal 8-year old girls (especially in ghost or AI form).
Any and all over-used, limiting and frankly borderline racist stereotypes of criminal men from non-white racial backgrounds including triads, yakuza, mafia, bloods or crips (especially if they are also rappers), insurgents and/or terrorists, middle-class British villains as voiced by Alan Rickman, working class British villains as voiced by Jason Statham, French mimes as voiced by no-one, impoverished Mexican villagers with strong regional accents and apparent limited access to grooming products, education or any kind of empowerment.
All of the above still apply if the characters are in zombie form.
I add this because just about everything on that list might be offensive to some people for completely valid reasons. I have vivid memories of a portfolio which contained misogynistic pornography. It was clear the applicant had never even considered that the person reviewing it might be female. I had women on my team and thought about what it might be like for them (and me) to work with this guy. He hit the reject pile, fast. I can't even remember what else was in his portfolio.
Content filtering isn't just about team dynamics and considering others. Video games are trying hard to be taken seriously as an art form. As a potential future developer, you have the power to positively or negatively affect how games are perceived and how they grow and mature. All of the above are cliché character stereotypes that are hugely overused in applicant portfolios. Let your portfolio stand out in a positive way as something original, fresh, and worthy of the future of the most powerful, immersive, and lucrative medium on the planet. Who knows, maybe your originality could mark you as destined for greatness?
Everyone wants to be the next Shigeru Miyamoto. Or Notch. Or Cliff Bleszinski. But I'll let you into a secret: The lone, "auteur" game developer is a myth. Even indie games are usually made by more than one person, because they use such diverse skills at such a high level. How many people do you know who can code to a professional level, as well as they can draw, create 2D/3D content, animate it, deliver dialogue convincingly, and write and perform all the music? And who can also live off nothing for two years while they manage the project and get everything finished to the target audience's specific needs, while at the same time developing their business, marketing themselves and getting their product to shops, both physical and digital? The auteur game developer myth comes from the "ideas guy" misconception and belongs in marketing fallacies for consumers. Sorry.
So if you can't be the ideas guy auteur, then you can at least be on the award winning team for the next Biggest Selling Game of All TimeTM right? Well, about that-the chances of getting hired as a graduate without any experience into a household name development studio are small. It's possible, but not likely just on a numbers level: How many world-leading studios are there, and how many development staff do they have? Of those staff, how often will they need to expand their numbers or replace those who leave? And when that happens, where will they get replacements or additional members from? The pool of inexperienced graduates? The truth is that games that are really big require such a huge financial investment that no business will risk that investment on an untested, unproven developer.
So, if you do want to work on BioShock 8 or Assassin's Creed 15, then you will need to work like a demon for a very long time to get the skills and experience needed to prove you are an asset, not a risk, at the highest level. Practically, this will mean making medium- to long-term sacrifices such as rest and relaxation, a personal life, maybe even relationships or starting a family. I wasn't willing to do that, and so worked on smaller, less prestigious games for my development career. And I still found them creative, rewarding and fun to work on. And I still got paid. (Except once, but that's another story.)
On progression and career paths
Bread-and-butter dev studios are much more attainable for graduates and those seeking experience. They tend to be more local than the hyperstudios of legend, and are more willing to take a chance on you. If that's where you start or even stay, don't despair: Love what you do-whatever game it's for. All games are valid games to work on. You can learn just as much working on an advergame for cats as you can on the latest bazillion $£€¥ mega-title. Each title shipped is one step closer to your ultimate goal of dream-game awesomeness. (Of course, if an advergame for cats is your dream-game, then congratulations, you're going to achieve your dreams much quicker than most.) Hell, sign me up for the advergame for cats any day.
This is especially true if you find yourself out of work at any point (and as a developer, you will), or if you're finding it hard to get that first job offer. There is no shame in freelancing. As long as you're working on games, you're a game developer. Even if you're an impoverished freelancer, outsourcer, or an indie developer who isn't exactly living the dream right now. You're still one of us, and we love you.
Learn what you can whatever game you're working on, however you are working, and know that the contacts you make in any industry setting will be useful for you in the future.
Which brings me to this: There is only about one degree of separation between pretty much all game developers worldwide. Network like your life depends on it, because to a degree, it really does. Give a card to get a card. Don't badmouth anyone; it will come back to bite you. Even years down the line. I learned all this from bitter experience. Instead, if you can be honest, funny, up for a challenge, organized-yes, creative people are organized, or at least successful ones are-empathic, motivated, and willing to share your insight, you might just make friends and influence people. You might even end up writing a list of things every game student should know. And that's how development communities are made.
Kaye Elling is a lecturer in computer games at the University of Bradford.