Video Game Designer Career Information
The video game industry is maturing. Long gone are the days when video games consisted of minimalistic graphics and simple narratives. Now, they involve complex storylines, sophisticated imagery, and entire worlds unto themselves. These changes have created a myriad of dedicated gamers who are passionate about the games they play and the technology that drives them. These individuals are not just fans; they are a crucial part of the gaming subculture.
Plus, the economic power of this industry has increased substantially since its early beginnings. According to one study, sales of video games, hardware, and accessories in the U.S. generated approximately $21.53 billion in 2013.* These earnings are a driving factor in the innovation and technological advances that are attracting creative and tech-savvy individuals to career opportunities that link a strong industry with challenging and exciting work.
You may already have a picture in your mind of an office full of gamers playing their latest creations into the morning hours. However, if you are considering a career within this iconic field, you might want to gain a deeper understanding of it.
First, you must scratch below the popular surface image of a laid-back design studio where designers casually play games with their coworkers. While video game firms do have a reputation for progressive office environments, work still needs to get done. Real settings often involve a team-based approach in which employees constantly pitch ideas, conduct market research, put together budgets, and work to meet hard deadlines.
Second, design is only one component of creating games. Whether the intended platform is social media applications, smart phones, or dedicated game consoles, video game design is the process of developing a game's concept as well as its rules, storylines, characters, environments, and other important elements. Additional aspects of game development occur in conjunction with game design. These include programming, marketing, and illustration.
What the Work Looks Like
The creation of a game is typically broken down into three distinct phases: pre-production, production, and post-production.
In the pre-production phase:
- Game ideas are pitched and chosen for further development.
- A game concept is approved for advancement.
- Design teams are assigned various areas of the game to expand upon.
- A comprehensive design document is created to outline all aspects of the game.
- Programmers take the design document and use it to develop a prototype.
- The prototype is refined to reflect the goals and vision of the design team.
- A completed prototype may be used to obtain further financing and is the basis for the decision of whether or not to go ahead with production.
Once pre-production is complete, the production phase begins. This is when:
- Foundational programming and artwork is completed to support the design document.
- Designers meet with other teams/departments to ensure that game production is in line with the creative vision.
- The game is continually refined through revised versions that add to the depth of the game's content, artwork, and technical dimensions.
- Music and sound effects are added to complete a fully playable game.
During the post-production phrase:
- Game testers and other quality assurance personnel play the game to find errors (called "bugs" in the industry) and recommend areas that need additional improvements and reworking.
- Programmers, designers, and artists polish the game further to eliminate these issues.
- The game is released for sale.
- Additional updates (such as fixes or patches) are often required once the game is on the market.
Video game design requires in-depth skills related to selling, communicating, and advocating ideas, which means that business, writing, and sales skills often provide underestimated advantages when working in this field.
A video game designer is usually part of a team that is responsible for the foundational concepts and planning of a game, as well as the coordination between design and programming teams. Game designers also create master documents outlining all areas of gameplay, structure, and rules, which can include a variety of technical and creative elements such as:
- Levels and environments
- Control schemes
- Target audience
Master documents often include everything from diagrams and charts to screen shots and illustrations. They are the guiding reference throughout the entire production process.
Designers are responsible for planning timelines, budgets, and resource allocation. Plus, they are typically involved in quality control (game playing) and the refining of ideas until a game is deemed complete.
Game Designer vs. Game Programmer
In the beginning of the industry—when technology was much more simple and straightforward—games were often created by small teams or individuals who took on the roles of designer, artist, programmer, and producer. However, as the industry has increased in both size and complexity, these roles have become clearly separate. These days, designers and programmers have distinctly different roles requiring unique skill sets and education.
Here is a look at some of the differences:
A video game designer:
- Is responsible for the creative direction of a game
- Develops creative documents outlining all aspects of a video game's design
- Works on a conceptual level, looking at the big picture of a game
- Is someone who possesses comprehensive art, design, business, communication, and computer skills
- Aligns the project's goals with the most appropriate platform, genre, and target market
A video game programmer:
- Is responsible for implementing the design team's creative vision
- Uses programming languages to code a video game from the ground up
- Works on the technical aspects of a game, from difficulty level to game engines
- Is someone who possesses a solid understanding of video game platforms, programming languages, operating systems, advanced mathematics, and engineering
- Chooses the programming languages and technologies that suit the project's platform, target market, and genre
Within the field of programming, there are a number of specific types of programmers, such as:
- Lead—Typically responsible for supervision, coordination, high-level programming, and inter-team collaboration
- Artificial intelligence (AI) programmer—Works with computer-controlled technologies that are programmed to react to a game player's actions
- Graphics—Helps to implement the art designed for a game using a variety of tools and algorithms
- Network—Writes the necessary code to allow games to be played online and to address cheating or security concerns
- Physics—Ensures that games appear to mirror real-world actions, such as how gravity would impact player movements or how an explosion would actually occur
- Tools—Creates specialized, automated tools to suit a game's unique requirements
- User interface—Develops user control menus, displays, and other items in a way that makes a game player-friendly
Typical Daily Tasks
Here is what the day-to-day tasks might include:
- Brainstorming game concepts using new ideas as well as existing game models, films, books, and other sources of inspiration
- Visualizing the basic creative aspects, such as the plot, characters, and settings
- Collaborating with other designers to expand and develop ideas
- Generating storyboards and primitive graphics to depict game design elements
- Pitching game ideas to executives or investors in order to secure funding or gain approval to create a prototype
- Forging a solid plan for character biographies, missions, outcomes, menu displays, levels, and other elements
- Performing in-depth research to ensure that the creative vision for a game is accurately and realistically portrayed
- Meeting with programmers, producers, and artists to communicate design ideas, receive feedback, and keep creative vision on track
- Managing and reviewing production schedules, milestone deadlines, and budgeting issues
- Refining and revising the game design plan as production is carried out and designs are materialized
- Troubleshooting elements of a game that have technical problems or don't fit with the overall vision
- Supervising or contributing to game dialogue and audio (music and sound effects)
- Conducting competitive research (by playing other companies' games) to make sure a project is up to industry standards
Of course, the above tasks will not necessarily apply to all roles. The scope of responsibilities for individual positions can depend on factors such as:
- The size of the organization
- The available funding and technology
- The complexity of the project
- The project's expected timeline
Under the umbrella of video game design, a number of special roles can exist, such as:
- Lead designer—Responsible for overall direction and coordination of projects as well as creating top-level design documents and developing the big-picture vision for a game
- Content designer—Responsible for researching and developing game characters and plot within the context of a game's world
- Game mechanic (systems) designer—Responsible for working out the technical aspects of gameplay, including game play systems, rules, and detailed character interactions
- Level (environment) designer—Responsible for creating detailed game environments and determining factors such as a where objects and characters will appear within those environments
- User interface designer—Responsible for developing aspects of a game that affect playability, including menus and displays
- Writer—Responsible for crafting the text and dialogue within a game, including character interactions, instructions, narratives, commentaries, game packaging, menus, and anything else that may require creative or technical writing
Getting Into the Industry
If you want to learn how to become a video game designer, then the following options are the most effective actions you can take to facilitate your career goals:
- Obtain a post-secondary education
- Get on-the-job training
- Acquire amateur experience
Generally, a post-secondary education is recommended. However, there isn't one definitive path for this option. A common choice is to pursue a video game-specific education, such as a game design diploma or degree.
A shorter education that keeps you focused almost exclusively on gaming can certainly come with some valuable benefits. These can include the opportunity to forge connections within the industry, learn alongside others who are as passionate as you are, and receive mentorship as you hone your skills and develop a portfolio/demo reel.
Alternatively, a traditional four-year degree program can allow you to develop the writing, critical thinking, communication, and business skills that are so vital to the profession. Plus, a four-year degree can demonstrate to potential employers that you know how to apply yourself and that you have the capacity to work hard and learn throughout a longer program. Since the field requires continually expanding and refreshing your skills, having the ability to learn is an excellent asset.
Some success stories within the industry involve humble beginnings in the mailroom or as a game tester. But don't let such stories fool you. While it would be amazing to go from handing out mail to designing top-notch games, it is generally not a wise move to rely on that sort of option alone. Even with a solid post-secondary education under your belt, simply getting your foot in the door (any way you can) should be seen as a step in the right direction.
Many would-be game designers begin their careers at smaller start-ups, which can offer opportunities for new designers. Entering the field through a small organization can have some real benefits. For example, it can be a great way to obtain experience and build your portfolio/demo reel. Plus, like any small business, start-ups often have minimal staff. This means that you could get a glimpse of all aspects of game design and production rather than just your own small area at a larger firm.
Most aspiring designers develop a passion for video games through their own recreational gaming experiences. In order to take their passion to the next level, some gamers create user modifications (called "mods" in the industry) of their favorite games. This activity can allow individual players to get a taste of game design, and it is a common way of gaining amateur experience. Documentation of these game mods also serves as a great supplement for a portfolio or demo reel.
If you are one of these avid gamers, begin by checking out the free or low-cost tools that are available online. Then start letting your creativity flow.
Whichever path you decide to follow, it's critical that you document all of your best work within a professional portfolio and demo reel. In fact, it is essential to landing a position and outweighs the value of your resume hands down. (That doesn't mean you can neglect your resume though!)
Your portfolio/demo reel should display your biggest achievements and showcase your skills, talents, and personal design style. Additionally, you should remember that the game companies you submit your portfolio or demo reel to will be seeing hundreds (possibly thousands) of packages from aspiring designers with similar credentials. To make an impact, yours will need to really shine and stand out.
Choosing the Right School
Here are some tips for making the right choice and finding a top video game design school:
- Check to see if the curriculum focuses more on game design than programming.
- Look for programs that include multimedia art components.
- Ensure that general education (i.e., business, writing, and communication) courses are part of the deal.
- Research the school's facilities and available technologies.
- Find out if the school has any valuable industry connections.
- Explore programs that include practicum or internship opportunities.
In addition, it's a good idea to browse online gaming hubs, such as forums and blogs, to find out about the reputation of the specific school or program you are interested in.
How Long it Takes to Become a Video Game Designer
The length of time can vary immensely. Since this is not an entry-level profession, it's very rare for an individual to walk right into a designer position, even with a solid post-secondary education.
Depending on the depth of your training, you can expect it to take a varying amount of additional time after you graduate to work your way up to designer. To help estimate this amount of time, you should factor in how soon you get a job, how well you perform in your job, and how well you are able to show initiative.
When applying for gaming positions, it's important to understand that you should initially be looking at entry-level positions in any department of a video game firm. Such departments can include quality assurance, production, graphics, audio, level design, or even customer support and marketing. The most challenging part of joining this competitive industry is often getting your first job in the field.
It's a good idea to remember that many post-secondary programs include practicum or internship opportunities, which can sometimes even turn into potential jobs.
Video Game Design Salary
Here are some statistics that provide varying snapshots of salaries in the field:
- A study by Economic Incorporated shows that the average salary for video game professionals in 2010 was approximately $90,000. **
- Estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that the median annual wage for multimedia artists and animators—which includes video game designers—was about $61,370 in 2012. ***
- A survey from Game Developer magazine puts the 2011 average for video game designers and writers at a salary of around $73,386. ****
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment within the category of multimedia artists and animators (which includes video game designers) is projected to increase by six percent from 2012 to 2022. †
This growth is expected to be focused in the video game, movie, and television sectors, but it is also predicted to be tempered by a growing number of design jobs being contracted to offshore companies.
Furthermore, the best opportunities are likely to be found in a few particular states, including California, Texas, Washington, New York, and Massachusetts—the top states in the country for video game jobs. Industry reports suggest that almost 71 percent of industry professionals work in these states and nearly 41 percent are employed in California alone. **
Industry organizations also expect that the field will expand in a variety of emerging areas of video game development, such as training, educational, medical, and rehabilitative gaming. From the U.S. Department of Defense to major corporations to educational institutions, video games are becoming increasingly important in educating employees, students, customers, and other individuals. Additional areas of continued growth are anticipated to include mobile gaming and social media gaming.
- Casual work environment—Gaming industry work attire usually consists of casual clothing (jeans and T-shirts are a typical uniform).
- Rewarding work—Most people join this industry because they love playing video games. If this is you, you may find the work to be incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling.
- Company perks—Just like what you may have heard, video game firms tend to treat their employees to perks such as snacks, drinks, lounging areas, or even personal chefs.
- Opportunities for play—Thanks to the nature of the job, video game designers often spend time playing (testing) games, which can be counted as an additional perk.
- Creative atmosphere—Designing video games requires collaboration, brainstorming, and other artistic tasks. This can be an excellent outlet for creative individuals.
Here are some tips to help you prepare to excel in the field:
- Look for a mentor—Develop relationships with instructors, experienced colleagues, and other professionals you can turn to for advice and guidance.
- Document your ideas—Have a notebook, tablet, or voice recorder with you at all times to keep track of ideas that pop into your mind. This can be a great way to ensure all of your ideas are safe, secure, and ready to be pitched.
- Don't lose hope—Like any entertainment business career, the competition is tough. To succeed, you'll need to be persistent and not give up when you don't get a job right off the bat.
- Maintain your passion—If you are a gamer at heart, keep that alive. Make sure you continue to play recreationally and not just in the genre(s) that you specialize in.
- Gain specialized skills—Don't stop learning, especially in areas that you're interested in or that are in-demand within the industry. Specialized training in emerging technologies and other niches can help open the door to additional opportunities in the game design field.
- Write and draw—These are skills that will benefit you in the video game design profession. Continually hone your ability to communicate through written and visual communication.
- Network (and then network some more)—Take advantage of any opportunity to network. From game launches to game design forums, you should be getting your name out in important industry circles.
- Stay tuned in to the industry—This unique industry evolves at a very fast pace. In order to maintain skills and knowledge that reflect what's needed, you'll need to keep up on new gaming technologies, new game concepts, and other important topics.
Where Do I Go from Here?
Are you eager to take the next step in your career journey by researching the available education options? If so, begin by finding a video game design school near you!
* Entertainment Software Association (ESA), Games: Improving the Economy, 2014, website last accessed April 16, 2015.
** Economists Incorporated, Video Games in the 21st Century, 2014, website last accessed on April 16, 2015.
*** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014, website last accessed April 16, 2015.
**** Game Developer magazine, "Game Industry Salary Survey Results," 2011, website last accessed April 16, 2015.
† Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, website last accessed on April 16, 2015.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Work for play: Careers in the video game development, Fall 2011, website last accessed April 16, 2015.
International Game Developers Association (IGDA), website last accessed on November 1, 2012.
The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), website last accessed on April 16, 2015.