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Building a Portfolio

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I'm a computer science student with aspirations of working as a game developer.  I live in the Seattle area and the industry is booming here.  So is the competition!  While I'm studying, I want to start developing my portfolio as I've heard from multiple sources that one of the best ways to impress recruiters is to actually complete and release a game.  My question is whether it might be better to work on one ambitious project (having gotten the typical tutorial type games out of the way: tic-tac-toe, guessing games, space invaders, etc), or perhaps a few smaller projects that highlight various features?  For example, my gaming passion is RPGs.  Should I work on a full story-driven RPG with a couple of neat features that show off my skills, or a couple of games with smaller scopes to display my adaptability and variety?

 

Additionally, would it be beneficial to utilize an existing engine such as Unreal or Unity to create a 3D environment (which would force me to rely more heavily on commercial art assets) and be able to focus more on the neat features than on game state machines and other engine type programming?  As I would be interested in a career as a programmer, I would think it would be good to show off my ability to create a 2D game from scratch than a pretty 3D game using Unreal.  Can anyone offer their input on this?  I've got two years of school left and I'd like to pack as much experience as I can into those two years.

 

Thanks much!

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As a programmer, the value of your portfolio comes from the challenges you face completing those projects, and specifically from the interest technical conversations you are able to have about how you approached those challenges. One-versus-many projects is less important than one-versus-many challenges, although all else being equal I'd focus on one project instead of many because you'll be able to produce something more complete, cohesive and polished. "Fitting everything together" like you need to in a finished project is an important skill, and one that doesn't get exercised as much when you make many smaller projects, as you'll just skimp on that aspect.

 

I'd caution against a story-driven RPG though. "Story driven" implies a lot of time building content, and when you apply as a programmer the focus is not going to be on your storytelling skills or your ability to design a bunch of interesting dungeons. These may be advantages, yes, but you have to consider how you want to spend the time on the project. More time solving interesting technical challenges, which you can then discuss at an interview to show off your problem-solving ability and approach to handling new things, is probably better.

 

Most importantly, make something you want to make. Don't make something explicitly to be a "portfolio piece." It will show.

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