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Breaking into game design: Part 4 - write your resume

In the fourth article in a series on landing your first job in game design, veteran designer Levy explains the many use cases for your resume and gives specific guidelines on how to write it.

Ethan Levy, Blogger

July 7, 2013

10 Min Read

This article is the fourth in a series on how to land a job as a game designer. Check out previous posts for details on setting your career goal, building your portfolio and learning how to sell your experiences.

Now that I’m devoting my energies to Enhanced Wars, I do not see nearly the quantity of resumes as when I was part of the hiring process at BioWare’s San Francisco office. But I still review the occasional resume for someone who has reached out on Reddit or forums, or for a former colleague asking me to pass it on to someone in my network. If you have read my earlier post about how to build your portfolio, you should have plenty of meaningful material to put on your resume even if you are trying to land your first full time job (or internship) in game design. But learning how to write that resume is a skill unto itself.

The 4 hurdles

Before writing a resume, it is important to understand the purpose of the document beyond the high level goal of getting hired. A resume passes through many hands and must be targeted at a number of different audiences within a single team or organization. For the purposes of this post, imagine that you are applying for a job at a larger company like EA or Ubisoft that will have a dedicated HR department. Although each studio’s processes are different, the general principles outlined below will be a rough guide regardless of if you are trying to join the Battlefield 4 team or a 3 man start up like Quarter Spiral making its first hire.

When you apply for a job your resume will be screened by someone on the HR side. This person has probably had a conversation with the hiring manager or members of the team about what they are looking for in the position and in team members in general. This screener probably does not have hands on game development experience and will be reviewing you at a “keyword” level. If you look like a good prospect, the screener may call you up to verify your potential, or may pass you directly on to the hiring manager to ask “would you like to phone screen this person?” This is your first hurdle.

The next step will be convincing the hiring manager (who is probably your prospective boss) that you are worth talking to. She will review your resume and portfolio to determine if your skills match the position. She will almost definitely look at your LinkedIn profile, and if you have any common contacts may do preliminary checkups on you. Assuming you seem like a good prospect, she will set up a phone interview. This is your second hurdle.

Once you get on the phone, your resume will frame the conversation with the person on the other end. She will likely ask a mixture of questions about your experiences, as well as hypothetical questions about various job scenarios, to get a feel for your working style and thought processes. You may have one phone interview or several, depending on geography, seniority of position and dev team process.

All steps up till now have been fairly low cost for the company, but from here on out it will get more expensive. In the phone interview your resume must help guide a conversation that convinces the interviewer you are worth bringing in for a half to full day worth of interviews. This may or may not involve flying you in and putting you up in hotel depending on geography. In-person interviews will definitely involve diverting the attention of a number of team members which is very expensive from a development perspective. Convincing the interviewer she should bring you in to the studio for a full interview is the third hurdle.

Once you get to the studio, you will interview a range people on the team. This will probably include the hiring manager who was the first to phone screen you, peers of hers in leadership roles in other departments, people on the team who report to her and potentially the people she reports to. In most instances these interviewers will have spent 5 minutes or less looking at your resume and portfolio before stepping in to the room. It is safe to assume that they have not read the job description you are applying for. It is likely that these interviewers will simply pick a bullet point or position on your resume and ask you to tell them about it.

This series of interviews are to determine if you are the right candidate for the job. The team is trying to determine not only if you have the skills and experience to fulfill the role, but also if your personality and temperament will be a good fit for the team. If you have the skills to do the job but no one wants to work with you because of the attitude you give off in the interview, you will not get the job. This is the fourth hurdle.

In all these instances, your resume guides a conversation with an interviewer who has varying degrees of knowledge about you, the position you are trying to fill, the team and the project. The resume is a conversation starter.

The razor

Your goal with a resume is to have a single page which frames a conversation around why you are the best candidate for the job. There is no need to clutter it with details of summer jobs in unrelated industries, leadership positions in social clubs from college or lists of obscure programming languages you kind of used for one semester. With each element you put on the resume you should consider if you can talk about it in a meaningful way. If not, cut it.

For instance, in college I wrote electronic music. I had a DJ show on the college radio. I was the co-president of the swing dance club. One time I (technically) opened for the Black Eyed Peas. If I was applying for a job as a designer at Harmonix, all of these are valid points that help me explain my lifelong love of music and why I am the right mixture of designer and musician for their studio. If I am applying as a multiplayer systems designer on the Enhanced Wars team, these points are meaningless.

In my opinion, you need your name and contact information, a link to your portfolio site and possibly social presence like twitter, a section on education and a section on work. Everything else is optional.

Hero stories

If you read my last post on selling yourself, you should already have a good idea of the content of your resume. Assuming you are trying to get your first full time game job, you may not have “job titles” or company roles to list. But you should have a number of pieces of tangible design work you can list and explain your role on.

Instead of grouping bullet points by job, group them by project or course. Each “job” should have two to three bullet points that highlight a different hero story about your experience. For instance, in college I made a game called Refuse of Space that won a game design competition. If I was applying for my first job, I would list Refuse of Space and dates worked on it as though it were a job on my resume, then include one bullet point highlighting its award and one highlighting that I did all the design, programming and art myself. If I were to rewrite my resume today, I do not think this project would be included in my one pager.

Avoid title inflation

A common effect I have seen on resumes for those early in a career (and one I have been guilty of in the past) is title inflation. On one hand, there is nothing to say that you cannot list yourself as Executive Producer of your semester long game project that resulted in an unpolished demo. On the other hand, when a hiring manager works somewhere like Electronic Arts – with Executive Producers like Casey Hudson who is responsible for all things Mass Effect – it is hard to take this title seriously and may count against you.

Instead of giving yourself lofty titles (or multiple titles per project) go with a more humble approach. Instead of Executive Producer just say Team Lead. Instead of Lead Designer just say Designer. Being aware of the size of your team and the scope of your role within it will go much further than a flashy but ultimately overblown title.  

Miscellaneous sections

Depending on the online template you started with, you may feel the need to include a mission statement, skills section, hobbies & interests, coursework or some other type of section on your resume. In my opinion, more is not always better and you should take a minimalist approach when it comes to your resume. Go back to your razor: is this something you want to be asked about? Does it allow for you to discuss a unique aspect of your past and why you are an ideal candidate? If not, cut it.

When it comes to a mission statement, I generally advise against them. Unless your mission statement is tailored for the specific job you are applying for, it is probably meaningless. The fact that you want to use your wide range of skills to create compelling experiences for players was implied when you sent in your resume.

For skills, do not list them unless you can intelligently answer a question about them. I know I used to list Fortran and Lua on my resume because of some college coursework. If anyone had asked me a meaningful question about either language while I was interviewing, it would have tanked me as a candidate. Remember that the goal of your resume is to frame a positive conversation about yourself, so avoid anything that will detract from the overall impression that you are the best possible candidate for a specific role.

The cover letter

I am a bit torn on cover letters. Speaking from my experience on hiring teams, I can comfortably say that a cover letter has never meaningfully impacted my decision on a candidate. But even if I expect that no one on the other end is reading your cover letter, I still believe it is worth writing.

Part of applying for a job is applying for that specific job, and not just any job with the word designer in the title. So writing a cover letter (or intro email) will force you to take your abstract resume and weave a compelling story about why you are the right candidate for a specific job with a specific company.

With that in mind, I believe it is a worthwhile exercise to write a two to three paragraph “cover letter” style email tailored specifically for each job you apply for.

Exotic portfolios

Since you are a game designer you are likely compelled to create an exotic portfolio or resume. You might think it is a good idea to create a 3d level in Unity that is itself the resume. This is not a good or bad idea, it is an interesting one. If you can build an exotic portfolio that actually goes above and beyond a piece of paper to show why you deserve a job, then by all means go ahead. But too often these exotic portfolios detract from your application. Only invest in an exotic presentation of your resume if it is truly impressive to a professional game designer.

If you take all this into account when crafting your resume, you will likely jump over the first few hurdles and land several interviews. I will cover preparation for these interviews in my next article in the series.

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