What's in an individual piece/section?
  1. Some nice turnarounds/multiple views.
    1. If it has some cool animations or something, a simple gif ​or short looping video can also be awesome here! Especially if it shows off how well your topology deforms. (Just make sure to credit the rigger and/or animator if they aren't you.)
  2. Any rad detail shots (optional)
  3. Sculpts if you have 'em!
  4. Textures
  5. Wireframes
    1. You can put these on the plain mesh, normals, full material, whatever reads clearly and you think looks best. (Personally I like wires over the normal map or halftone color map (for unlit models).)​
  6. Credits​​!
    1. Unless it's *super obviously* not yours, credit other people whose work appears in your reel or cite the parts you did (whichever's easier).​
Is there a "right time" to apply?
​My weirdo superstition is to apply between 10:30am and 11am on a Tuesday. My logic is that the Mondays are out of the way (along with any weekend e-mail backlog), they've probably cleared their Tuesday morning e-mails so my application will be going into a relatively empty inbox, and hopefully they're out of morning meetings but not yet hungry and just waiting for lunch.
Does it actually matter? Probably not, but getting into and staying in game dev is hard and it makes me feel like I did everything I could.
In the broader and more disheartening sense... sometimes applying super early can actually be pretty risky. Especially when I was very new to hiring, I didn't have a super clear sense of what I wanted from the position. In one case we passed on a junior applicant who applied very early and, years later, is still one of the best applicants I ever saw on Hearthstone (he wound up on Diablo, it's okay, they were smarter than me).
The flip side to this is, of course, that a very competitive position will easily get hundreds or even thousands of applicants, and may close unexpectedly early as a result. I don't actually know if there's a right answer here except to take some time to make sure you've got everything ready to go and in the best shape you can, and apply as soon as you can after that.

I want to talk about some of the broad strokes that I look for in a portfolio, that impress me in a portfolio, that make my life easier as the person reviewing the portfolio alongside dozens or hundreds of others, and that are, honestly, pretty frustrating.

For Any Portfolio

  • Put your work in front of me first thing!

For 2D and 3D Art Portfolios

  • 6-12 pieces

  • I like static images more. You can . Do some nice turnarounds, upload your Marmoset preview, I just don't like having to scrub and pause to check things out.

For Animation and VFX Portfolios

  • 1.5-2.2-minute demo reel.

    • This will generally sync up with roughly 6-12 pieces, but it might not, and in my opinion ​

  • For animation:

    • A walk cycle​

    • Some combat animation (cast or melee)

    • A quadruped

  • For VFX:

what qualifies as "a piece"?

This is squishy... Which can be frustrating, because there aren't many clear rules

For any of these examples, there's going to be one very 

For 3D, I would regard this as a single piece. A single character, a hero prop, or a simple tableau/corner scene would all qualify. It gets squirrelly with big environments, and for people starting out I honestly just advise avoiding big sweeping scenes because it's a ton of work with (often) less impact and payoff than a really good smaller or single piece.

Wildstar Probot (March 2014)

1992 tris, 512x512 color+alpha, 256x256 spec+gloss, normal, glow 
Software: Maya, Photoshop, nDo2; rendered in Marmoset 
From Carbine's WildstarOriginal concept here

For VFX it gets weirder, because VFX are generally composite pieces with a wind-up, a missile or an AoE or something, and an impact.

should i include fan art?

Fan art is, I think, a double-edged sword with some REALLY big pros and cons. And at a lot of competitive places, such as Riot or Blizzard, fan art is often the price of consideration: especially for more competitive roles such as concept art and 3D art. (None of the VFX Artists I hired did Hearthstone fanart, but both I and my coworker hired shortly after me had.)

Anecdotally, it's worked out great for me - the Probot helped get me my interview at Carbine and they even stated during it that they interview anyone who submits a solid piece of fan art, and even though my Hearthstone fanart was frankly pretty weak, it was enough for them to appreciate how much I specifically wanted to be working with them.

Pros:

  • I'm genuinely not sure there's a better way to clearly tailor your application to a game

  • A strong enough piece will make you stand out in pretty much the most positive way possible, and conveys that you'll take less ramp-up

  • Many places just genuinely appreciate the effort and care

Cons

  • Takes a lot of time and energy

  • A lower quality piece may do as much to reveal all the hallmark details of their art that you've missed as to show off how much you love the game

  • Having too much fan art in your portfolio can definitely play your hand as far as where you hope to wind up - 

    • You can easily mitigate this one with variant portfolio pages/reels for different applications, and recompile the full portfolio after the fact - but for that application cycle, you're potentially losing a few pieces worth of work ​in each portfolio

​​