Tips for GDC and the Career Pavilion (or: basic portfolio and networking tips)


Fiendishly pilfered from the GDC frontpage

GDC is just a few weeks away, and if you’re never been before it can be incredibly overwhelming. As it only happens once a year and, particularly if you aren’t a San Francisco native, doesn’t come cheap, getting the most out of it can be incredibly important. While attending sessions and taking notes may seem fairly straightforward, the networking half can be a little more complicated, especially if you’re there to visit the Career Pavilion and seek jobs or portfolio critiques.

To start off, because I wouldn’t want to leave out non-GDC attendees- there’s a huge amount of excellent free GDC content in GDCVault, and I’ve organized a lot of it in past posts on sessions under the GDC label. These (particularly the Career track) are also wonderful if you’re curious as to what you’ll get out of an three-day Expo or Student/Friday pass compared to the more expensive passes, and the full lists of sessions for each pass are also available on the GDC schedule builder now. (Sorry for writing about something that costs money… But these are questions I see crop up a fair bit, and GDC is a great place for networking or some professional portfolio critiques if that’s what you’re looking for. I’ve always had a great experience.)

So, here are some of the things I’ve learned (via horrible mistakes) over the years about portfolios, websites, business cards, and general networking around GDC.

Portfolio/Website:

Keep it simple! A portfolio doesn’t need to be- and shouldn’t be- your entire body of work. Especially at GDC, where people tend to be running around a lot and don’t have time to browse through a dozen project samples, keeping your portfolio to six pieces or less is fairly essential. Bring just enough high-quality work to show the breadth of what you’re capable of, be it in breadth of style, anatomy, language, or what-have-you. For each piece in your portfolio, make sure to have any relevant breakdowns (for 3D artists, for example, final assets, wireframes and flat textures are all expected, and sculpts/high poly versions are common if they’re particularly impressive). Look at other game developer’s portfolios if you need ideas – there are tons that are easy to find (particularly at this time of year) on the various forums.

As for the website, it doesn’t have to be fancy either. Make sure your portfolio content is easy to get to- ideally the front page- and make sure your name, discipline (environment artist? designer? tech artist?) and perhaps some basic contact info are easily visible. Other than the portfolio itself, all you really need is a contact page with your information and resume (even if you have it in your header as well), but if you want to add a blog of game-relevant work or projects, organize your portfolio into a few more pages (it’s not uncommon for 3D artists and animators to have a separate page of paintings and drawings, for example), or other things that you think will add to the site without making it overwhelming or difficult to navigate, so ahead. Above all, keep it clean and professional.

While there is free wi-fi at GDC, it can be especially iffy in the Career Pavilion (I couldn’t connect there at all last year). If your main method of displaying your portfolio is on your website, make sure you have a folder of your images, with tri counts, texture sizes, etc. included in the images (trust me, it’s really awkward to try and narrate them) on your computer in case you can’t get an internet connection. An iPad or other smaller displays can be great if all you’re bringing are still images and video (or iOS apps), but if you have things that look really great in real-time or actual games to show off, having these accessible can be a huge boost. I’ve heard of this ability to show their work in real-time being what got some people second interviews or jobs on multiple ocassions.

A lot of great portfolio information has been given at past GDCs, including videos and notes from past “Killer Portfolio or Portfolio Killer?” sessions.

If you need a simple website quickly, Muddy Colors author Dan dos Santos did a great article on “How to Make a Free Portfolio Website in Less Than 10 Minutes” a while back. There are also other options such as weebly and carbonmade as well, and if you’re looking to create your own website, Codecademy has a lot of great introductory classes designed specifically to get you up to speed on creating a website. If you can afford to spring for it, having your own domain name is a nice professional touch, but it’s no substitute for a high-quality portfolio. With any of these, make sure when you create a URL/username, it’s a professional one- just your name, if you can manage it.

Business Cards:
Get lots. Get more business cards than you ever think you’ll need. Ideally several hundred. I usually give out 50-100 per GDC, because I spend most of my time either working or taking session notes, but that’s really low and you shouldn’t be like me. If you have any intent at all of networking or job-hunting, and you really should as it’s one of the biggest chances you’re going to get all year, take at least 250 or so.

Get a business card that’s easy to read and easy to write on. No plastic, metal or wood, no shiny black text on matte black backgrounds, no low-contrast cards that make them hunt for your name… Make it easy to find who you are, what you do, where your work is online and how they can get ahold of you. Leave some space on your business cards for people to write notes about you, and get a high-quality (150+ dpi) print- anything at a lower resolution looks sloppy.

Regarding actual format, you can get a little creative. I’ve seen (and done) samples of portfolio work printed on the backs of cards (which got a lot of positive responses when I had several different samples and let people choose- it’s a small, fun way of engaging people), but this also means that your cards will become outdated incredibly quickly. Business cards are a great place to show a little bit of personality, and done well this can help you stand out in the sea of business cards ever GDC-goer has overflowing from their pockets by the end of the week.

Finally, for everyone you meet, jot down a few notes on their business card about where you met them, what you talked about, things along those lines as soon as you can after you get their card (some people don’t mind doing this in front of folks- I usually try to wait until they’ve gone). You’ll probably be meeting a huge number of people at GDC and trading a *lot* of business cards, and no one’s memory is good enough to keep track of all those tiny interactions. And even if you think yours is, why risk it?

As someone pointed out to me several years ago, the important thing about having business cards even when you’re starting out isn’t that it means you have a business card to impress people with- it’s that you can now get their business card. So take the little notes on them, and make sure you follow up with people shortly after GDC (wait a week to give people recovery time, but you can use that week to draft e-mails while your memory’s a little fresher too, if you like). And as a final, odd little note- don’t brush off the students just because they aren’t professionals yet. Yes, they’re students now, but by the time you’re happily entrenched in the game industry, they probably will be too, and you’ll have had time to build up relationships with them before they were cool.

If you’re looking for free business cards, Vistaprint has an ongoing deal for 250 free cards that I’ve seen a lot of people use and that seems to be pretty good quality.

Resumes
Does anyone really use paper resumes anymore? Not that I’ve seen, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a dozen or two on-hand just in case. Fancy paper is optional and, honestly, might look a little try-hard if you’re handing it off to an actual developer, although HR might still be impressed.

Notebook:
For much the same reason as you should write notes about people on all your business cards, and leave room them to write notes on all of yours- nobody’s memory is perfect. If you’re getting a portfolio critique, make sure you take notes on everything they say. Even if it seems obvious at the moment (it might not later), even if it’s something you’ve heard a dozen times before (maybe the 13th time you’ll start applying it). In addition to being a great way to remember what were pointed as strong and weak points in your portfolio from an industry professional, taking notes makes you seem more respectful and prepared for the time these folks are taking out of their day to help you out. And of course it’s really, really useful for sessions.

So from there, we segue to the general…

Networking:

If you have anything other than the Friday pass, you’ll have access to the Career Pavilion from the moment it opens. Try to visit mid-morning or mid-afternoon (not at lunchtime) on Wednesday, after everyone’s had a little time to warm up and get into the groove of things.

If you’re getting portfolio critiques (you’ll probably get them if you’re there job-hunting, but it’s always good to ask for one even from the places you aren’t looking for a job), there are a few things to bear in mind, the main one being don’t make excuses. These people are here all day and generally know what they’re doing, and a lot of people who are trying to break into the industry like to claim that a critiquer’s complaints are a matter of difference of style, they simply ran out of time before they got to that, or so on. Don’t do this! As mentioned above, simply write down everything they say, thank them profusely for their time, and perhaps ask for a business card. Critiques generally don’t last very long, booth workers (especially the developers, as opposed to HR) are incredibly busy, and hopefully you’ve whittled down your portfolio to reflect this. As mentioned before, a smaller portfolio of strong pieces is best- not only does it make you look better in general, but the critiques you’ll receive can be much more thorough and focused. Workers at the career pavilion are swamped from the get-go, and simply remembering that they’re people too, who are doing critiques all day, probably skipping their lunch break for someone, etc. Be thankful, be humble, and be nice.:)

In both the career pavilion and with normal attendees, the best rule when networking is to simply talk to everyone! Be friendly, ask relevant questions, trade business cards. These conversations may not last more than a few minutes and that’s fine- that’s plenty of time to make a good impression, and if you have their business card you can (and should) always follow up with them after GDC. Everyone is there to learn and network, so (as difficult as it generally is) there’s not much reason to be nervous. Come well-prepared, remember everyone else there is an (awkward… nerdy…) human too, enjoy yourself, and be ready to learn. Have fun!

Hopefully this has been helpful- if you have any more questions please leave a comment or e-mail me and I’ll do my best to answer!

(And if you want more imformation or in slightly different formats, this Polycount thread and this Reddit thread have some great pointers as well!