We've Moved


The blog has been retired - it's up for legacy reasons, but these days I'm blogging at blog.theodox.com. All of the content from this site has been replicated there, and that's where all of the new content will be posted. The new feed is here . I'm experimenting with crossposting from the live site, but if you want to keep up to date use blog.theodox.com or just theodox.com

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Game Artists Resume Guide (Revisited)


I noticed that my recent repost of the old job hunting guide, Read  The Damn Ad, has quickly amassed a lot of views and links. In the interest of completeness, therefore, I thought I'd also repost the bookending article (also from Game Developer)  on the nuts and bolts of applying for a job.  

The whole thing is after the jump...

Note: I've left the original article as is for historical reasons, but annotations in orange are updated advice or notes on how things have changed since 2006

Your resume is is not just a neutral transcript of your past career – it's a precious opportunity to get the full attention of the person who can hire you.  In the business world the rule of thumb is that the resume gets just under  20 seconds of the reader's undivided attention. That is your window for positioning yourself clearly in the reader's mind – and as you can imagine there's not a lot of room for subtlety. A resume bears more resemblance to tightly targeted ad campaign than it does to a biography.

Customize!


The real difference between successful and unsuccessful resumes isn’t the presentation: it’s the content. 

However, as we stressed in Read The Damn Ad, most companies are looking to fill specific slots.  Most of the time and energy in resume creation, therefore, goes into fine-tuning the resume for each specific application. You resume has to tell a story that underlines your fitness for the job on offer. A level designer job, for example, could be described to emphasize its 3-d modelling aspect, game design skills, or the production pipeline management issues. Which description you choose depends on the  job you are seeking. It's unfortunately true that groping for multiple ways to describe your past achievements can become pretty tiresome. After a few applications, though, you'll build up a library of targeted resumes that can be recycled for similar jobs with very little effort.

Of course, you shouldn’t confuse legitimate marketing with dishonesty when adapting your resume. There is a world of difference between selectively highlighting aspects of your real experience and inventing skills, responsibilities and job titles. It's easy to be cynical and believe that "everybody does it," but in fact very few people lie on their resumes – especially in a tight-knit industry like ours, where word gets around quickly and bad reputations are hard to shake. So it's not only wrong to lie, it's also stupid.

Targeting your resume works best if you learn to read job ads very closely. They might sound formulaic, but most ad descriptions offer important clues about how the employer is going to evaluate candidates. Consider this sample ad:

Engulfing Arts Inc., Los Diablos CA.
Environment Artist
We are seeking an environmental artist for a multi-platform game. The artist will use 3DStudio Max to  build and texture architectural, and natural models for a fantasy adventure game with cartoon-style art direction. 2-3 years experience in 3Ds Max and 2 years game experience required.  Ability to work well in a team environment under short deadlines a must. Preference given to candidates with strong organic modeling and texturing skills.

The main point, of course,  is clear: the opening is for an artist with some experience doing cartoon style environments who can handle organic modeling. 

But what other clues can you infer from the wording of the ad?

Because the job is designated as "artist", and the ad makes no mention of game design skills, it's a good guess that the team uses a split art/design pipeline, so that the game design skills implied in a job like "level designer" aren't going to be a priority. A line like "Ability to work well in a team environment" might be pure boilerplate – but it might also mean that previous team-members have had trouble taking direction (it may also mean the company uses a top-down, centralised organization). Finally the description clearly states that the team lumps modeling and texturing together, so it's a good guess that a the job will go to someone who can both model and paint textures.

With this information in hand, you should re-work your basic resume skeleton to  emphasize the key points the employer is looking for. Most resumes contain an "objective line," which describes the job you want,  and a  "Summary” paragraph which highlights the skills and accomplishments of yours which will interest the potential employer. These sections are obvious places for empasizing the experience and skills you want to highlight. In the case of our example ad, something like this would be appropriate:

Objective:  Seeking a position where I can use my experience modeling and texturing with 3D Studio on a team building an expressive fantasy world.

It's often useful to echo the key phrases of the ad itself when describing yourself, in order to emphasize that you fit the job on offer. The obvious drawback to this strategy is that it's eay to end up sounding like a marketing drone.  If you find it hard to jam all of your points into the objective line or summary paragraph, don't forget that the cover letter is a good place to make claims you can't squeeze into the straightjacket of resume convention.

Formatting

Knowing how much rides on your 20 seconds in the sun, it's easy to drive yourself crazy trying to come up with a format for all of your brilliantly targeted resume data. Do you use a chronological or skills-based format? Is it OK to use color paper or graphics? It’s easy to get distracted by the range of trivial choices involved in putting together your life's story – even if you’ve been around the block a few times, the business of condensing your whole career onto a single sheet of paper, a web page, or a pdf  is nerve-wracking.

It probably goes without saying - though that never stops me - that nowadays  your info will be delivered in electronic rather than paper format. That doesn't mean, however, that you don't have to be vigilant about presentation!

Don’t waste a lot of time searching for the “official” format – the advice books and websites don’t all agree among themselves. What you do need to shoot for is clarity and a base level of professionalism.. The overworked screener on the other end of the transaction is always looking for a good excuse to move on to the next application. This means you can't afford to look amateurish or lazy – you need to keep that reader in a receptive frame of mind in preparation for the all-important demo viewing. When you complete your resume, make sure to get some friends (preferably more than one) to help you with proofreading and copy editing before you send it out into the cold, cruel world.

As an artist, you’re not completely bound by the draconian rules of a standard business resume (no colored paper, only standard fonts, and so on). However, if you do want to experiment with novel formatting, color, or pictures, remember that your potential reader has a thick stack of resumes to sort through before going home for dinner. Avoid any design decision which is more likely to annoy than to please that reader. Unusual fonts, artsy paper, and idiosyncratic layout  can help your resume stand out from the crowd -- but you have to be really confident in your graphic design skills if you want to travel that route. If you're not dead certain you can create a visually arresting resume without confusing or annoying the reader, err on the side of simplicity and save your artistic statements for the portfolio.

Since this was written in 2006, LinkedIn has become an extremely important aspect of the hiring process.  It's a kind of permanent resume, available to recruiters and possible employers - and also to your coworkers.  It's a good idea to maintain your Linked-In page on a regular basis before you're actively looking for work. In the first place, you may attract attention from potential employers, recruiters or, best of all, old colleagues who are looking to fill a slot informally without a full blown job search.  If you've pondered the lessons of the companion article, you'll know that last one is by far the most important aspect of the whole thing.

Doing your maintenance on a regular basis is also a good idea because a sudden burst of Linked-In postings is a good indication that somebody is feeling restless. If you tweak a line here or there every few months it's just part of the (semi-)social media white noise. If you do a huge update right around the time you get turned down for a promotion you may be attracting the wrong kind of attention.

LinkedIn does pose some interesting problems as a way of describing yourself to potential employers. For one thing, it's generic: you can't cherrypick or massage things the way you can in a targeted resume. Luckily you're not bound by strict formatting requirements of a resume either, so you can be more general than you would be when applying for a formal position and you can include links to more targeted portfolios and demos.  

The Demo


Thus we come at last to the portion of the job application that nobody can complain about. If you are an artist, your portfolio is the core of your job application, the make-or-break opportunity that will (or won't) land you a job. Unfortunately, all the competitive forces that make drafting a resume such a painstaking task are still in play when your reviewer sits down to review your samples. For this reason you need to devote even more energy and time to crafting your portfolio than you do to the details of your resume and cover letter. Finding work is hard work!

The first rule, most important skill you need when assembling a portfolio is ruthlessness. You need to be a pitiless critic of your own work, because any weak samples that find their way into your demo will drag down the perceived value of your better work. The demo, after all, serves a double purpose for your reviewer. It not only shows the quality of your handiwork – it also demonstrates something of your taste and judgement. Allowing weak items into your collection may cause the reviewer to wonder if you can tell the difference between your best and worst efforts, or whether your better efforts are mainly luck. So if you're faced with a choice between fewer samples and a lower average quality, have the courage to cut.

How much?


Of course, it's natural to worry about whether you've got enough material, especially when you're busily culling out the weaker pieces. "Enough" is whatever you need to sell a convincing picture of your professional skills to a complete stranger. For a confident, established illustrator that might be as little as three or four finished paintings. Most of us, though, will want to provide a bit more. How much depends on the medium you're delivering in.

For motion media (animations, slideshows, turntables or in-game movies) you need to provide at least 45 seconds of material. That might not sound like much but it's longer than most television commercials, and plenty of time sell yourself. Four or five minutes is the upper limit -- if your reviewer is still wondering how good you are after five minutes, you haven't been sufficiently ruthless in your selection process. 

For stills (screenshots, renders or drawings) you should try to provide at least a dozen images. If you’re delivering images in bulk (for example a folder full of JPEGs) you shouldn’t send more than forty. If you’re using a webpage you might incude more than that, as long as the viewer won’t be overwhelmed by facing them all at once. Multiple shots of the same subject – for example a profile and a full-face shot of the same character – are fine provided they offer the viewer more insight into your work; if they start to seem like padding. though,  the net result is probably negative. Large, complex pieces should be presented in a way which emphasizes different aspects and makes the breadth of the piece clear to the viewer. For example if you're submitting shots of a complete game level which you've modelled and textured, be sure to select shots which emphasize the variety and detail in the level – too much repetition will make the shots seem monotonous and may feel like padding to the reviewer.

Annotation


When you assemble your list of images and videos, it’s important that the reviewer have access to critical information about the samples. We’d like to think that our work speaks for itself – but often it doesn’t. Make sure that the reviewer can easily find out the following information for each piece:

  • What game is it from, and when?
  • If this is a game shot, what the delivery platform? You don’t want your Nintendo 64 shots to be compared to Half Life II
  • What part of the work is yours? This is particularly critical for cutscenes and in-game shots. This is the number one question the reviewer will be asking him or herself.

It’s also a good idea to include a short, pointed discussion of the design, gameplay or technical problems that you tackled to create the image. A picture of a tank is a picture of a tank – but telling the reviewer “I designed this model around a gameplay requirement for a massive vehicle capable of smashing holes in walls to deliver a squad of space marines into a fortified bunker. The huge hydraulic rams serve to emphasize the vehicle’s breaching function and visually underline its unstoppable, bull-like character” helps the reviewer see your professional skills at work. Don’t try to cram too much into the notes, a sentence or two is sufficient -- but very useful.

Media

As you'll see, a lot has happened in this area since the original article was written.  And yet this was less than a decade ago. Wow.

Distributing work is somewhat tricky, because its difficult to know what hardware and software your work will be viewed on. The only hard and fast rule is pay strict attention to any submission guidelines that come with the job ads – don’t send a CD to a company that asks for VHS tapes, or vice versa!

VHS? What's VHS?

It’s a good idea critical to have a well designed, responsive web page. The ability to click through from a resume email directly to the samples is a useful convenience that will endear you to the reviewer. Plus the ease of annotating allows you to include notes with your images easily and painlessly.

As with the resume, don’t knock yourself out on the graphic design of your site unless you’re really trying to showcase your design skills – and certainly don’t take any risks with the navigation or scripts that might leave a visitor stranded and annoyed. It’s also best to keep Flash or Shockwave components to a minimum unless you’re a web specialist and can be confident that your site works well on all browsers and platforms. Vanilla HTML may not be thrilling, but it will be accessible to almost anyone with a computer. The big drawback to using a website as primary vehicle for your portfolio is that bandwidth and storage costs may make it hard to showcase animations, turntables or 3-d models. Anything that takes more than a few seconds to download is in danger of being skipped by the busy screener.

It's pretty astonishing how old fashioned that paragraph seems in light of the last seven or eight years of web history. Nowadays it's easy to find sites to host high quality video and big images with minimal latency.  Of course, today's reviewers and screeners are also much more savvy web consumers: they've been exposed to a lot of very sophisticated and subtle web design and they will be much more critical of the nuances of your presentation than might have been the case back in the day. This puts more stress on your presentation skills - even though there's no reason to assume that every 3-D modeler is also a web designer it's a common perception among less artsy folks who may be the first to check out your work.  

If you don't fancy yourself a web designer, shop around for a site which is image-friendly, stylish, and  doesn't compete with your artwork.  You don't even need to shell out for a custom site hosting arrangements, there are plenty of free make-your-own-site and blogging services that can be used for portfolio hosting.  Sites like Behance and CarbonMade are specifically designed for portfolio hosting and generally help to showcase your work rather than competing with it.

If you're a 3D artist you have also got a very compelling new tool in the form of Unity.  A simple Unity demo app (either downloadable or hosted using the Unity web player) can be a far more effective sales tool than folder of stills: you can not only showcase your modelling skills but many nuances of shading and texturing are much more obvious with a turntable or a walkaround camera than they are in a static shot.

 CD-Roms are cheap to make and easy to mail. They excel distributing large files (for example game levels and 3-d model source files). You can also use them to distribute images either as individual files or a self-contained HTML website. If you use standard image formats (such as JPEG) and HTML or plain text notes, you can burn your CD as ISO-9660 format to make it work on Macs, PCs and Linux. Unfortunately animation and video files which depend on downloadable codecs or rely on system resources can easily cause trouble between different OS’s. MPEG-1 (VCD) and MPEG-2 (DVD) formats are cross platform, but not trivial to author – if you create a VCD or DVD format reel be sure to test it on both computers and consumer DVD players!

Nowadays, If you do have to bring physical media - say, extra ammo for your interview, or a quick demo while you're hitting a job fair booth at GDC - use a flash drive (bring multiples in case somebody asks to keep it!).  Laptops are of course a great demo medium, but for hands on demos a tablet can be more effective: even though the screen is smaller the tactile nature of tablet navigation and the ease of zooming in on a detail make for a much more intimate experience.  Keep an eye out for image or portfolio hosting sites that work well and smoothly with your tablet when you're shopping for a place to host your stuff.

For this reason you may prefer to deliver motion materials (especially animations, but also game footage and turntables) on VHS tape. Until fairly a few years ago VHS was the standard way to distribute demo material, and many companies still demand VHS as the only submission format. It’s is a reliable way to distribute motion media, but it’s a poor way to demonstrate stills, detailed textures, or model wireframes. It’s also unfortunately true that sending a VHS tape to a company without a VCR is a waste of time and postage.

It's kind of sad that I am actually embarrassed to have written about VHS tape in 2006. I mean, it was a long time ago, right? Not my fault! I liked Betamax better anyway.

Wrapup


That pretty much concludes our tour through the battle-scarred wastes of the job search. It might seem like this is a lot to go through for a simple job application, but almost every rule we’ve laid out can be reduced to two simple ideas.

  1. Don’t give the reviewer and excuse to fail you and move on to the next candidate quickly. 
  2. Carefully edit every part of your application, from the cover letter to the notes accompanying your portfolio, in order to reinforce your fitness for the job on offer. 
If you remember those two points, the rest follows logically. There’s no question it can be a lot of work – but if you buckle down to the hard work of job-hunting, you’ll be  at a real job a lot faster than the applicants who skimp on it.