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  • Sponsored: It's not you. It's your portfolio

    - John Henderson
  • Presented by the Game Design & Development Lab at HOFT Institute in Austin, Texas.

    "How do I get my first job in the game industry?" This is a question spoken aloud often in Austin and in other corners of the game development world. It's usually said much the same way, no matter who's asking the question, using much the same terms. "The game industry," as opposed to a particular studio, mentioned by name, or with a job title in mind.

    I get to meet a lot of people like this. My name's John Henderson, and I've written some short articles on Gamasutra before about Austin and Everything Else. Austin appeals to creative and technical people the way it has for decades -- it's still laid back (maybe not as much as it once was) and inexpensive (compared to other cities with a local entertainment industry) and there's a history of entertainment products made here, over several decades, from music to film to comedy to tabletop games to card games to video games.

    I've recently started work as the program coordinator for the Game Design & Development Lab at HOFT Institute, a family-run private school located within a short walk west from the University of Texas at Austin's west campus. I'm not one of the instructors, but I get to talk to them a lot in the process of enabling them to do their jobs.

    The main thing preventing job candidates from being considered viable, according to our faculty (which the curriculum is largely based on) is this - most student portfolios stink. They might show proficiency in a specific area but they don't show that the applicant can build and ship a game as part of a team. Full stop.

    Here are the top five mistakes they see in prospective employee portfolios:

    1. I need more than playable. I need finished.

    We see lots of work in various stages of polish and completion. The ability to demonstrate you can produce a fully-realized vision is important. So is your ability to articulate how you discovered problems and worked around them.

    2. Be honest about your contribution to a project.

    We're going to ask what role(s) you played in creating the pieces in your portfolio. In some cases you probably made everything on your own -- be prepared to talk about that. Sometimes it was part of a team and be ready and able to talk about your role within that team.

    3. Your portfolio should have a point of view and a goal in mind.

    You are probably very good at something. That should show in the portfolio and in your approach. I'd want it to be very obvious what you are good at. Knowing what the jobs in the market are and what people with those jobs actually do is important. (Good thing you're reading Gamasutra so you can research them!)

    4. Your portfolio doesn't convey a sense of your own worth.

    Confidence can be hard to come by for some, but if a portfolio is a preamble to an introduction, it should be obvious to anyone looking at it that a person is being represented, someone who is serious about the work being presented. Every look at your portfolio should be seen as a chance to draw positive attention, even if it's not from someone ready to hire you right away.

    5. Your portfolio isn't tailored to the job you want.

    This is often the hardest part, especially with online portfolios, but most jobs on the market are not for "I can do everything" people. If a job opening exists, it's either to replace someone who used to do it (in which case the candidate will need to do at least as good a job as that someone) or a need is identified

    So, what's a budding designer, developer or artist to do?

    Ship stuff. Make stuff. Together with other people is better. Chip Sbrogna (Portal 2, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Star Wars Galaxies) said it best at a recent gathering of faculty

    "There is clearly a lot of work put into their portfolios and education but I can't take the risk of hiring someone who hasn't demonstrated they can ship something and be part of a team."

    Find someone to review your portfolio, and really listen

    Occasionally you'll find events where recruiters or other game industry professionals will spend time looking at portfolios and giving constructive criticism. Here in Austin, we've called them Portfolio Posse. Take the time to really listen and be open to the suggestions. Don't get upset or offended -- if it's presented well, it shouldn't be personal. Get to the heart of any advice you are given and put it to work immediately.

    What we've been up to at the Game Lab

    • In early December 2017, HOFT Institute hosted a Portfolio Posse. Borrowing the name from the ACM SIGGRAPH chapter once active in Austin, industry veterans and job seekers took 15-minute one-on-one sessions to review portfolios and resumes.
    • Omar Gallaga, via the Austin-American Statesman and 512 Tech, included quotes from me and several friends and colleagues throughout Austin in his year-end article about Austin's game industry. Conclusion: Some shakeups might be ahead, but right now everything looks very stable.
    • Representing the Game Lab, I took part in a panel discussion at PAX South, "Choose Wisely: Entry Paths for Working in the Game Industry," also known as The Breaking In Panel. (The video has some echo that clears up within the first two minutes.)
    • HOFT Institute was host to the Global Game Jam in Austin, which turned out to be the largest in Texas for 2018, with 121 attending jammers and 17 finished projects.
    • Reached out to schools across Texas and a few high schools in the greater Austin area, to let people know about the opportunity. Some instructors like the idea of having their students receive a facilitated internship, which the Game Lab could provide.

    What we're planning for the near future

    • SXSW Gaming Expo will be from Thursday, March 15 to Saturday, March 17 at the Austin Convention Center. HOFT Institute Game Lab will have a corner booth, 1621, on the expo floor. We'll be there to answer anyone's questions about the program, introduce you to our instructors and have lots of giveaways!
    • Portfolio Posse is coming back Saturday, March 31. Sign up here for the first hour, but be aware that it might fill up and attendees might be asked to come in later in the afternoon.

    You can follow us on Twitter at @HOFTGameLab or the blog at Google+, or just keep watch on the official Game Lab website for updates. Please click Contact Us if you want to know more!

    John Henderson

    John is the program coordinator for the HOFT Institute Game Design and Development Lab in Austin, Texas. The Game Lab is planning secondary cohorts to start later in 2018. The next one is set to begin Monday, April 16. Students interested in the lab or our other events including the Portfolio Posse can read more at


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