What are some demo ideas for my video game programming portfolio?

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In this episode of Game Industry Career Guide Podcast, I answer a question from Max, who asks “Hello, I don’t miss an episode of your podcast ever since the first one. I have a question: What are some specific examples of demos you could prepare for different game programming positions? Could you provide some specific examples that a hiring manager would like to see for positions such as Gameplay Programmer, Graphics Programmer, or Tools Programmer, to name a few? Thanks a lot and keep up the excellent work.”

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • Some actionable ideas for demos to put in your programming portfolio
  • Where to find inspiration for even more ideas to code
  • The most impactful and rewarding portfolio project you can do over a summer

If you have a question you'd like to get answered on the podcast, leave a comment below or ask me anything here.

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Hello! And welcome to the Game Industry Career Guide Podcast. This is Episode Number 49. I’m Jason W. Bay from gameindustrycareerguide.com, and this is the podcast where I answer your questions about getting a job, and growing your career making video games.

This week’s question is from Max, who left a comment on the blog to ask this, “Hello, I don’t miss an episode of your podcast ever since the first one. I have a question. What are some specific examples of demos you could prepare for different game programming positions? Could you provide some specific examples that a hiring manager would like to see for positions, such as game play programmer, graphics programmer, or tools programmer, to name a few? Thanks a lot, and keep up the excellent work.”

Hey, Max. Thanks for the nice words. I’m glad the podcast and website have been helpful for you. I will definitely keep writing and podcasting, although summer is coming up. So, I might not write and podcast quite as much as usual, since I’ve got some vacation time lined up. But as long as you guys keep sending me questions, I will keep answering them the best I can, even if I’m losing my voice a little bit. So, sorry if this sounds kind of raspy.

Okay, let’s talk about programming portfolios. Now, I did a podcast about the what, why, and how of a programming portfolio a while back. If you want to hear that one, go back, and listen to Episode Number 42, but this question is more specific. Max wants to know which kinds of demos might be good for some of the different programming jobs in the game industry. So, let’s go through them one at a time.

Let’s start with the job of graphics programmer. Graphics programmers do a lot of work with shaders and rendering effects. So, you’ll want to make some demos that show your knowledge of the rendering pipeline and a computer’s rendering hardware. For example, my friend, Brandon is a graphics programmer, and he’s created demos that show off several different procedural GPU shaders that he wrote using GLSL. It’s a shader language.

For instance, he showed how to render a 3D world using just two triangles. He showed how to make a cool animated liquid sphere, and he showed how to make an awesome sci-fi energy field effect, things like that. He hosts his demos on a website called glslsandbox.com, where hiring managers can see his source code and watch the special effects in action at the same time.

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But there’s more to graphics programming than just shaders. Something else you can try is to get your hands on one of the many graphics technology research papers that are published every year, and try to implement some of the algorithms from those papers. A lot of papers are released at the SIGGRAPH Conference every year. So, you can just Google for SIGGRAPH technical papers and you’ll find plenty of interesting challenges that you can work through, and put into your portfolio.

Next, let’s talk about some ideas for a tools programmer portfolio. Tools programmers usually don’t write code that runs as part of the game itself. Instead, they write programs that help the game team’s artists, designers, audio engineers, and other game developers do their jobs faster and easier. Oftentimes, the tools that they write exist inside of other content creation tools, like 3D Studio Max or Maya.

So, a nice portfolio piece might be to write a plugin for one of those programs. For example, you could write a plugin that would allow an artist to add some extra game specific data to a model, and then you could write the code that exports that model along with the extra data to a file on disk. If you were doing that in your own game studio then you would probably later be read by the game engine.

It’s also common for tools programmers to write plugins for game engine editors like Unity 3D or Amazon Lumberyard. So, you could try doing that. If you can’t think of any ideas for new tools or plugins, you could also re-implement an existing plugin. It’s not really all that important that the demos in your portfolio are super clever or super unique. What’s most important is that you designed and coded the plugins from scratch, and you can show potential employers that clean, well-organized service code that you wrote to prove it.

What about a game programmer? What are some good examples of demos for a game programmer portfolio? Well, the job title of game programmer can mean a lot of different things depending on which company, and sometimes even which team you’re working on within a company. But in general, game programmers work with the code for player input and movement, for enemy intelligence, weapons fire, and just any kind of game rules or game play, just in general.

So, for a game programmer portfolio, there’s not much that looks better than making an actual game, something that a hiring manager can really play as well as look at the source code. It’s always fun and impressive to take a simple game, maybe something from the early arcade game era like Space Invaders or Asteroid, or Pac-Man, and rebuild it from scratch. If you can, it’s best to make your demo be playable inside a web browser so that it’s easier for a hiring manager to check it out. One way to do that is to use something like the Unity 3D game engine for your demo and build it as a WebGL project.

So those are a few examples of demos that you could do for the specific jobs of graphics programmer, tools programmer, and gameplay programmer. But the fact is, any demos that show a passion for programming and for game technology would be good to put into your resume, no matter which area of programming you’re most interested in.

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Some of the best programming portfolios that I’ve ever seen, they contained a variety of technology, from rendering to physics, to pathfinding, to full game demos. As a hiring manager when I see that kind of variety, it tells me that this job applicant is really, really into programming. And that she’s curious and that she’s motivated. And of course, maybe I could also play with the demo to see if she has a good feel for player interaction. And I can look at the source code to find out how she architects and organizes her source code.

If you need more inspiration, just get online and Google for game programmer portfolios. You’ll find a good cross section of demos and portfolios from other developers. Some of them are amateurs, some of them will be students, and some of them will be professionals. Just pick out some of the demos that you like and see if you can implement those yourself.

And here’s a bonus tip: If you’re really motivated and if you can find some other motivated friends or classmates to join up with you, try getting them together to form a game team. One of you could play the role of the game programmer, one of you could be the graphics and rendering programmer, one of you could be the tools programmer, and so on. It might take you several months to finish even a smallish game, but you’ve learned so much. It might just be one of the best ways that you could spend your summer.

Okay, there’s some examples and advice on what sorts of demos to put into your video game programmer online portfolio. If it seems like a lot of work, well, it is. But hopefully, it’s work that you’ll have a lot of fun doing. And, it just might land you a job in your dream career. It’s totally, totally worth it.

Thanks to Max for that question, and thank you for hanging out with me today. If you enjoyed the podcast then please help me spread the word by sharing with your friends on social media. Or, come to the website and subscribe to my newsletter. For more information and inspiration on getting a job and growing your career in making video games, visit me at gameindustrycareerguide.com.

I’m Jason W. Bay and I will see you again next week right here on the Game Industry Career Guide Podcast.

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