Early wireframe work on the Inventory Shell Menu for Wasteland 3 (PC, Console – inXile, Microsoft)
Oh hello there, you big beautiful nerd, you! My name is John Burnett, a 20-year UI UX Designer, Art Director and 1-on-1 remote Mentor in the video game industry. One of the most common questions students ask me is how to start a career in video game UI UX Design. In this age of wanting to give back generously, I figured I’d take my notes from my bootcamp and compile a quick guide and a few shorthand rules for all of you with Hoop Dreams™. I’ve also taken the liberty of editing those notes into a Q & A format for easy reading.
Game Portfolio Design, Structure and Standards
Q: What’s the bare minimum I need to start applying as a game UI UX Designer?
A: The 3 keys to the kingdom are: Marketable Projects, A Portfolio to showcase those Projects, and a Resume.
Marketable Projects are the obvious must-haves to start applying, and their quality and relevancy will be the overriding factor in folding you in. Notice I said marketable: tonally and artistically relevant to The Company you’re applying to. We’ll talk about that a little later.
You’ll also need a way to showcase your designs to The Company. A website all your own is an expense, to be sure, but it’s also an incredible platform for any modern Designer to build upon… if your bank account allows.
A Resume is an ancient holdover from the Old World, used to progress through online applications (barely more than a truckstop bathroom key at this point).
Q: How big should I make my game UI UX Portfolio?
A: I always recommend 6-12 pieces with 4-6 media apiece; media meaning a potpourri of final art, icon arrays, sketches, wireframes, video – anything that enshrines your designs and provides authentic proof of a process. I also recommend a paragraph or two for project details and a sentence for project duties (conceptualization, wireframing, iconography, art assets, implementation through Unity/Unreal/Scaleform, etc.).
If this all sounds remarkably lean (but muh War & Peace-long case studies!) it’s supposed to be. Think about it from our perspective: no Art Director is there to hire a writer, and we’ll leapfrog to your images out of necessity or frustration; and you’d better design around the former to stave-off the latter. The dirty truth is most Art Directors have made up their minds about your skills by the time your website loads. No need to belabor the point.
Q: Will non-game related Projects hurt my chances at a game Company?
A: Just make sure there is enough variety in your portfolio for a team to make a judgement call on your shapeshifting abilities. My portfolio that got me into Midway Games was more about the presentation of my Projects, less the Projects themselves, but it worked. My Portfolio that got me into EA and id Software was much more elaborate and stylized, but still showcased a menagerie of work, not just game art – and that seemed to work too.
Irrelevancy won’t hurt their opinion of you, because the idea of your chances being bent by tangential work don’t really exist. You can make a Lovecraftian portfolio that screams, “I’m unhirable, ahhh!” – absolutely. But you can also do everything right and still not get the call. My little Loves, that’s called life.
The truth is that a game company will hire you for one of two reasons. Either your work is hauntingly similar to the project they’re working on now – or they’re looking for a strong generalist with a kaleidoscopic body of work. That being said, your ability to work print, corporate design and websites is incidental to your ability to create game wireframes, game artwork, and implement in a popular engine. Or simply put, make sure the beer you’re pouring isn’t all foam.
Applying and Interviewing
Q: What does the UI UX Design interview process at a Game Company look like?
A: Abandon all Hope, ye who enter here. There are 4 Gates before the burning Hells: The Frontliner, The Art Director, The Test and finally The Team.
The Frontliner can be any number of people: a recruiter, associate producer, outsource manager – their job is to vet if you’re crazy or a liar at a very early stage, as well as field details like salary expectations (you do have an answer for this, right?).
The Second Harrowing is the Art Director who will ask you far more salient questions – mostly about process and past experiences. These are generally soft-ball questions, as most game Art Directors do not specialize in UI UX Design. Unless your process is ruinously bad, you’re likely off to the next round because it’s the only part that counts in the eyes of The Company: The Test.
The Third Labor is the bane of all creatives great and small: the Art Test. Art Tests come in a rainbow-variety of forms and intensities. My Art Test for id Software was a week long and I got marauded by the flu by day 2. Got food poisoning during the interview, too – the point is, love it or loathe it, the Art Test is yet another potent way to vet if you’re crazy or a liar… and to see if your portfolio pieces are actually yours.
If you ice out anywhere, it will be after the Art Test.
The Fourth and Final Hell is… really perfunctory, to be honest. The last thing you’ll do is talk to the game team (or the small Strike Force you’ll be a part of). This is mostly to see if you and the team can acclimate for 30 minutes without somebody getting… oh, let’s call it political.
Barring sudden-onset Tourette’s, if you’re meeting with the team, it’s nothing but daylight between you and gainful nerdployment. (Though I do personally have a 1st-hand account of one gentleman who accepted a game job offer, quit our Company, moved out of his apartment and had the new Company immediately dissolve the position while the ink was still fresh and it STILL makes me laugh.)
Q: It’s been a few days since I applied. How long should I wait before I move on?
A: A week and some change. Game companies are flooded with applications all the time, the majority of which are of a… burgeoning… level of talent. When a Company receives a prospect even remotely qualified, they’ll move on it. Far too much money is at stake to wait for a Super-duper Senior when a whatever-level Designer will do.
Oh, and when a Company lists the job as remote-friendly but they want you to move eventually? That means they’re only hiring local. It’s a bold-ass, brazen-ass lie.
For your own sanity, you should gently ping The Company on the status of your application, if only to get a definitive no and move on psychologically. But if they want you, they won’t let a little thing like five workdays stop them.
Q: I’m not even making it into the first round of talks with a Company! What am I doing wrong?
A: Not going to lie to you, and I say this with all the gentle R&B-style love in the world: it’s all your ugly-ass projects; they ugly! Now, as soul-crushing as that is to hear, there are a few subtle differences between all-ugly and mostly-ugly.
First, is your work modern? Can I see a blending of trends and modular improvements Industry-wide in your work? Do you know concepts like Masonry Menus, Faux-mouse interactions, and opt-in information design? Are you throwing bizarre web 1.0 photoshop filters over panels and adding glows everywhere? You don’t have to be as breathtakingly polished as the screens you drool over on Pinterest, but you know… act like you belong.
Secondly, are you secretly showcasing that you’re actually a terrible engineer? An Art Director might not have an encyclopedic knowledge of what makes UX work, but they will have a jaw-dropping knowledge of technical game development. If they’re reminded of something functionally wrong, confusing, or in error (no button prompts, no back buttons, no highlight states, etc.) it sends a clear message you’ve only been making Portfolio pieces and have no practical follow-through worth risking a project on.
Lastly, the medium is the message. You are a part of a truly bizarre field where the presentation of information is slightly more important than the data itself. If you were a fashion designer, you better believe you wouldn’t rock acid wash jeans and an Nvidia shirt when applying to Banana Republic (apropos of nothing, my work portfolio shows nothing but blank thumbnails right now).
As a UI UX Designer in games, how you present yourself is a reflection of how you’ll present “their baby”. In this way, your Portfolio is the hidden, last Project, and, paradoxically, the first impression they will ever glimpse of you.
Networking, Skills and Growth
Q: How should I network as a very Junior UI UX designer for games?
A: Slowly. Networking is gardening: exceptionally few initial results with lots of maintenance which eventually blossoms into a plentiful harvest (that makes the initial investment finally worth it). The goal isn’t to amass the greatest numbers of followers, likes or resends. The goal is to be in front of a few people who will open doors, build bridges and otherwise sculpt the future with you.
An easy win for a new Designer is to network with other new Designers at around your skill level. You should also have treehouse-like interactions with other Creatives vying for the game industry but not in your specific field: concept, 3D, props, etc. Working on amateur projects with a real (albeit amateur) team is an amazing way to learn on-the-job skills and to imprint yourself on soon-to-be besties. Eventually your contacts will rise through the ranks, and one of them will take the rest of their friends with them on their meteoric rise. You should be that friend, if you can not flatly be that meteoric riser yourself.
Q: Should I have a LinkedIn Profile?
A: Oh my fu- YES! 3 of the 4 in-house jobs I’ve had (EA, id Software, Glu Mobile) were all the result of some wayfaring Recruiter on LinkedIn. Those were just the job offers that I took, there were dozens more because game UI UX Designers are ludicrously difficult to recruit. If you make it into the Industry, you are staffed like a unicorn; a triple-horned albino unicorn if you can evolve into a Senior. Why make it harder for people to give you a new job title and a 25% raise? In the words of the poet-laureate Tim Heidecker, “Psst… it’s free real estate.”
Q: What’s the best way to boost my skills while I wait?
A: Make tons of personal projects. This is the method I used to build up my skills and portfolio, back in the 2000’s when we thought you had to save the life of a game designer to become one. Deconstruct okay-ish game screens you know and redesign them slightly better (or at least functionally different). Take an intellectual property that has no game and try to make one, capturing its mood and tone. Grab Unity or Unreal and learn implementation at the same time. Blog about your experiences – see one, do one, teach one. No matter what, just refuse to sit still and your skills will rise ambiently. Having them rise exponentially is… trickier (see: Mentorship below).
Q: What books can I read to improve my UI UX skills specifically for game design?
A: Nothing! Not a god-damn thing! There’s virtually nothing out there by way of standards, practices or process for formal video game interface design (aside from the material I’m writing since very few are volunteering). Naturally, there are resources on generic, over-the-counter UI UX Design for apps and websites. But those are blunted, padded affairs compared to the zero-point-of-failure lethality of video game development.
In fact, I would argue vanilla UI UX Design is like flying a cargo plane. Game UI UX is like flying an F-14 Tomcat. Maverick could definitely fly a cargo plane and keep it steady for hours. I seriously doubt a cargo plane pilot could hop into an F-14 and somehow just make it happen. Some skills translate – but not nearly enough to make you competitive, and definitely not enough to get your ass into Top Gun.
Game UI UX Design is its own intense, unique thing. You absolutely must treat it as such.
Q: What classes can I take to improve my skills?
A: I haven’t taken any personally, and as such, I can’t in good conscience vouch for them. All my training is either self-taught or on-the-job… and that totally worked for me.
That being said, your time would be infinitely better spent with 1-on-1 over-the-shoulder mentorship than with something cold and distant – especially these days. Nobody is working under ideal circumstances anymore so, dear God, don’t go out in the middle of the eel-infested waters and try to do this alone. Get a damn swim-partner.
Q: What kind of 1-on1 Mentorships can I take to improve my UI UX game design skills
A: Okay now we’re talking. I broke into the game’s Industry through focus, commitment and sheer (lucking) will. But I would have much rather flourished with a warm and nurturing guide by my side. I would’ve adored some tapestry of, “No, not that red, try the maroon – it doesn’t clash with the navy background. Why not get rid of those three buttons on the side and fit them under one menu button? Your font has these razor thin lines, see? That’s going to disappear on mobile – big mistake.”
Frankly, that would’ve been amazing.
So I highly recommend, in the absence of any real material on the subject, to learn from the people who are internalizing and redefining those materials every day. Grab a mentor and commit to a few months of lightspeed study. Come with project ideas, Industry questions and what you consider your own weaknesses. Independent mentors (cough cough) tend to be better in quality since they’re working professionals teaching practical skills for the love of the game, but larger mentorship programs (Springboard, IDF, RookieUp, etc.) are also chocked full of warm, generous people, too.
In the end, your Time is the only resource you will never, ever get back. A Mentorship, at its core, is a DeLorean.
Thank you so much for making it this far in what hopefully hit the balance between a Cracked.com article and a TED talk. Like I said up top, nobody’s been writing about any of these things recently, so I’m doing my best. If you have a subject on the Industry you’d like to know more about, let me know. Love to hear what you all think. Stay safe and stay inspired.
-John “The Wingless” Burnett