Not long ago, I had the opportunity to talk with numerous potential game designers while I was in Charlotte, NC. Each raised the same issue independent of one another: "How do I create a design portfolio?"
It's a really good question, actually. The usual advice given to wanna-be designers is this: "Don't try it. No one ever gets hired as a game designer straight out of school."
Except, that's not actually true. In fact, in my own career, I've hired two guys straight out of school, and both were undergrads.
Four things are changing this old rule.
1. Language. As practicing game designers, we're both defining and using a grammar of gameplay that allows us to pass this knowledge on from one generation to the next.
2. Education. Seriously good programs are springing up that actually teach game design -- not art-as-design or programming-as-design, but the actual meat-and-potatoes game design stuff that you'll find written about in books like Koster's A Theory of Fun for Game Design or Bjork and Holopainen's Patterns in Game Design. This is not to say that both art and programming aren't valuable. Obviously, they are. So is design, and it is its own thing. It can be taught in conjunction with the others, but not as an afterthought.
3. Team size. A hierarchy of design is becoming more the norm. Instead of the seer dictating how his or her game should be done (or coding it alone), there are usually multiple designers of varying skill and responsibility on a project, from the lead right on down to the design intern.
4. Industry scope. The game industry is a lot bigger than just Blizzard, EA, and Epic. There are hundreds of companies making casual games, cell phone games, serious games, collectable card games, flash games, advergames, tabletop games, pencil and paper games, board games, indie PC games, and so on. These companies need designers, too.
This brings me back to the original question. How does one create a design portfolio, particularly if one doesn't have access to the high-powered software necessary to create games?
Game design students Erika Scipione (left, facing) and Maura Wright try their hands at board games.
Get Some Dice
The answer that I ultimately came up with was this: "Make games. Any kind of games. Flash games, board games, card games, collectible card games. Use whatever you have at your disposal and make a game out of it."
Access to hardware and software shouldn't be and isn't an excuse. After all, how many polygons are in the Risk board game? Of all the many, many games I have on my shelf, from Wii titles to Xbox 360 titles to PlayStation 2 stuff, Risk is the one I've been taking down and playing the most. Next, I'm planning to move on to Settlers of Catan.
Those two guys that I hired straight out of college weren't hired on the basis of their amazing Unreal level or previous work on a triple-A title. The fact is there are a lot of designers working in the industry today who have neither of those on their resume. Rather, these two designers were hired on the strength of the existing non-commercial games they'd actually made, both digital and non-digital, as well as their amazing enthusiasm for games from a design perspective.