How to Become a Video Game Designer

Possibly every single one of us has played a video game, whether it was Tetris or PacMan, Guitar Hero in our basement, maybe Angry Birds at the airport, or possibly it’s part of our everyday routine. In any case, video games are an extremely popular pastime for millions of people around the world. What we rarely think about is how these come to life and how much creativity is needed to come up with a whole new world of interaction. How do the characters come alive? Where do the ideas for the different puzzles and levels come from? Why do the games draw us in so much? Well, the answer to all of these questions is video game design.

There are professionals behind the ideation, creation, and implementation of games. What do they do exactly? Just about everything, depending on their level of expertise and career focus. They design the world within the game, write the characters and texts, think up the obstacles that will appear on your way, and come up with the general look and feel. While we might associate game designers with computer geeks, this assumption is not entirely true. To become one, you need to be extremely well-rounded. This is something all of our experts agree on. You must know the world around you, understand history, mythology and literature, among many other aspects, since you will need to create worlds that are realistic. In fact, you don’t even have to know how to program (although it is helpful to understand). It is also not an easy job. The biggest complaint that came out in our interviews was the overtime designers have to work when producing games, but they all love the creativity and interaction that goes hand-in-hand with their jobs. Wondering if this is the job for you? Take a look at this infographic for a quick industry outlook.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Tom Sloper

Professor

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  • Tom Sloper
  • California
  • Professor
  • University of Southern California
I teach game design, production, and quality assurance at the University of Southern California. When I went to college video games didn’t exist yet, so I graduated with a degree in Speech & Drama. I got work as an engineering model-maker then moved to California and got a model-making job in a company that made electronic toys. That was my gateway into the game industry; we created electronic toys, and I became a game designer there. I later worked at Sega, Atari, and Activision.Working in games is great because my co-workers are bright, creative, fun people. Teaching is great because I’m giving back by helping bright, creative, young people. My work in games has also given me lots of opportunities for travel. My biggest dislike though is the pressure to work a lot of overtime; I didn’t mind it too much when I was younger.

Remember that game design isn’t the only job in game development; we also need artists, programmers, testers, marketers, finance people, lawyers, customer support people, and project managers. Everybody wants to be the game designer, but most people in the industry fill those other roles.

Follow your passions, write game designs, but there’s more to game development than just design. It’s important to get a degree. But you don’t have to go to an expensive school, and you don’t really need to get a degree in Game Design. If you want to be a game programmer, you should get a Computer Science degree. If you want to be a game artist, you should get an Art degree. If you want to be a producer, you should study management, and you should study business writing and learn how to use Excel to create spreadsheets.

Advice

Keep learning
Education doesn’t end when you graduate. Be an eager learner all your life – just because some new area was never on your radar, doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking into. Live life to the fullest – don’t pass up invitations to go rock-climbing so you can stay home and play that new video game instead. Designers need lots of life experiences.

Maintain your network
Stay in touch with your fellow students after graduation; they are a valuable network that can lead to job opportunities. And network with a variety of people; business, technology, entertainment, the arts.

Always continue to grow
Continue building your portfolio after graduation. The projects you did in college are not your best work; you need masterpieces in your portfolio.

Be in the right place
And of course: location, location, location. If you want to work in the game industry, you need to live near game companies. Nobody’s going to give a high-paying full-time telecommuting job to a raw untested graduate. And if you think it’s hard to get a job, it’s a LOT harder to start a company.

Lee Sheldon

Associate Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute & Freelance Video Game Designer

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  • Lee Sheldon
  • Stockbridge, MA
  • 20
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Higher Education & Freelancer
  • MultiplayerClassroom
I have a BFA from Boston University in Directing for Theatre and an MFA from California Institute of the Arts in Directing for Film. I was a writer/producer in Hollywood and New York for 20 years, before starting a twenty year career as a designer and writer of video games, both commercial and applied, what some call serious games. I am also now in my 9th year of teaching, currently an Associate Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).I’ve done game design work both as a full-time employee and as an independent contractor. Today most developers use a development technique known as Agile. This means, when I’m working in an office, I block out time to work on my own, but still allow time for meeting with my design and/or writing team, as well as presentations. When I’m working at home, I may still participate in meetings and presentations via conferencing software. Again, I block out a specific part of the day for my own contribution to the project.

I enjoy the fact that while I can set aside time to work on my own, I am also part of a team with many talents, building a game together. I also really like playing the games I help create, as well as other games. And they pay me for this! The most satisfaction comes when a game is released and others enjoy it. With applied games there’s even the added satisfaction that you are helping those who play the game by educating, rehabilitating, or empowering them.

Advice

Knowledge is power
If you want your games to mean something, you must know the entire world, not just a tiny corner of it. Read books you might not ordinarily choose; play games that aren’t in your favorite type or genre; see movies, plays. Learn all you can about every aspect of game development. You do not have to be a programmer, but you need to know how to work with programmers. Learn how teams work and how to make yourself a valuable part of that team. Keep up on the daily press from sites like Game Business International, Polygon, Kotaku, and not just sites that review games.

Consolidate your portfolio
Mod existing games. The thing you’ll need most is a portfolio of games you’ve worked on. Enter competitions and game jams. Put your portfolio online. Go to conferences. Even the expensive ones like GDC have volunteers, and organizations such as the IGDA provide scholarships.

Be ready for a tough road
Finally, know what you’re getting into. I’ve had too many friends that the game industry has worn down. They’ve left the industry, their dreams shattered. You can realize your dreams, but it won’t all be fun getting there. Making games that people want to play is work.

Garry Kitchen

Consultant

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  • Garry Kitchen
  • San Francisco Bay Area, CA
  • 34
  • Consultant
  • @kitchengarry
I was an early game designer on the first successful video game console, the Atari 2600. I have designed over 80 video games for play on everything from Nintendo NES to the current Apple iPhone and iPad. Most recently, I was the Vice President of Game Publishing for Nickelodeon, a division of Viacom. I am now an independent consultant in the game industry.When I’m working on a game, my workday varies depending on which part of the project I’m working on. A game project is generally broken up into a number of phases; for example, (1) concept, (2) design, (3) implementation/art development/programming, (4) testing/tweaking/more programming, (5) final testing, (6) product release. If I’m in the concept phase, I’m spending a lot of time playing games, listening to music, watching films, strolling through an arcade, fiddling with computer code, and looking for that spark of inspiration. The design phase involves a lot of sketching of ideas and thinking about things like the player’s perspective or viewpoint when they’re playing the game. A lot of thought also goes into game mechanics, level layout, and design. The implementation phase is a lot of blood, sweat and long hours, sitting in front of a computer from morning until evening writing complex code.

I love the creativity. I love writing computer code, creating a self-contained world where things happen purely based on the rules that you decide and program. And there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a product that you conceived and developed sitting on a store shelf or selling in the Apple App store.

While games are great fun to make, they are tough to finish. You won’t find a game developer who hasn’t been through some truly horrible schedules and project “crunches”. That’s the only real downside for me, and the good certainly outshines the bad.

Advice

Make something
The most important thing is to create. Come up with game ideas, sketch them, develop characters. Learn the industry tools, starting with Adobe Photoshop, moving on to more sophisticated software like 3D Studio/Maya and Unity. There are plenty of tutorials online to help beginners learn the tools. Also, try to spend time with brilliant creative people, even if they aren’t working in your chosen profession.

Learn the tools
There are many tools out there that allow you to make a game with little or no programming knowledge. Minecraft (the game) allows players to build 3D worlds. GameSalad is easy enough that anyone can use it. Torque 2D/3D gives you a huge head start on building a game from scratch through a relatively simple scripting language. Unity is the tool of professionals and is certainly worth learning.

David Mullich

Freelancer and Professor at The Los Angeles Film School

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  • David Mullich
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • 30+
  • Freelancer & Professor
  • Self & The Los Angeles Film School
  • @David_Mullich
I consult on game design, including assisting the Boy Scouts of America to create their new Game Design Merit Badge, and teach game production at The Los Angeles Film School. My first games job was with Edu-Ware Services, but in 1987 I joined The Walt Disney Company, as its very first video game producer, and eventually went on to serve similar positions at other companies.The most fun part of my job is working with so many creative people! I’ve worked with some famous names like author Harlan Ellison and artist H.R. Giger, but I feel especially lucky to have worked with so many talented game industry designers, artists, and programmers over the years. However, the worst part of being in the game industry is the long hours I sometimes have to work to meet a deadline, or the amount of time I’m out of work because the game industry is such a volatile business.

Advice

Don’t forget it’s hard work
Remember that game design is not just about playing games. It’s a demanding job in a very competitive industry. You need devotion, perseverance, and most of all, good communication skills.

It’s all about the portfolio
Generally speaking, the video game industry cares less about where you attended school or what you majored in, and more about what your talents and skills are, regardless of how or where you learned them. That being said, I strongly recommend getting a college degree in a subject you are passionate about before seeking a job in the game industry.

Get your foot in the door
Once you’ve built up a portfolio of projects you’ve worked on, whether in school or on your own, then you’ll be in a good position to start looking for jobs in the game industry. Visit game studio websites and go to the “jobs” page to see what positions are open. Also try to attend any local game development meet ups in your city, or, if possible, big game industry events like E3 or the Game Developers Conference where you can meet people who might have job leads for you.

Alan Flores

Co-owner of Gamebot School with Allen Freese

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  • Alan Flores
  • Woodland Hills, CA
  • 22
  • Gamebot School
I have a bachelor’s degree in Physics from UCLA. Professionally, I have worked in video games for about 20 years. 12 of those years were spent as a lead designer/designer at Neversoft Entertainment where I worked on a number of game franchises such as Spider-Man, Tony Hawk, and Guitar HeroNow I co-own the Gamebot School to teach people of all ages how to design their own games. The program that we run at Gamebot School is great for young students. Young students usually get to a point where they get stuck on implementation or understanding, and the best way to get unstuck is to have someone knowledgeable on hand who’s been through this before. For older students, colleges are now starting to embrace the field of game design and offering courses and degrees. I do think it is important to look for programs that are ran by people who have experience making games. A purely academic program will most likely not be as helpful.

Advice

Start making games
This first thing is to get out there and start making games. There are more resources out there than ever before, especially free and easy to use engines such as Unity, GameMaker, and Love2D. The best thing you can do is learn by doing. Pick an engine and try to make a game. Make a bad game, learn from it, make another one, and another. Eventually your skills will have progressed enough to match your taste, and lo and behold, you have become an awesome video game designer.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Video Game Designer?

Featured Schools:

Online Schools

Programs available:
  • See Areas of study Game Design, Bachelor of Science (Online)
  • See Areas of study Game Art, Bachelor of Science (Online)

Programs available:
  • See Areas of study Game Art & Design (BFA)
  • See Areas of study Graphic Design (AS)
The reality is, there is no set rule on what you need to study to be a game designer. Experts say, learn everything you can and it will make you better. The industry wants you to be great, and if you can get there, you can make games that will sell. On the other hand, the general advice is to get a degree, if not specifically in game design, then either in computer science or the arts. Today, there are hundreds of universities and colleges in the US that offer programs focused on game design, but experts say that it is very important to really do your research. While technical courses are of course that basic knowledge you will require, the program should be well-rounded and provide enough fundamentals that will allow you to start thinking outside the box and create game worlds that others want to play in. This being said, you will also need to do some self-learning. There are a variety of platforms that allow you to create games.  They are a great way to begin building your portfolio as well as to get some practice. Additionally, reading, watching films, going to the theater, getting out there and trying new activities, are all recommended to those who want to become game designers. Of course, you also have the option of skipping the formal education altogether and learning everything yourself through online tutorials, maybe a couple of college courses, and lots of hard work and long hours. At the end of the day, you are the one to know your learning style best, and this is a career where you can make this type of choice.

WHAT IF I WANT A VIDEO GAME DESIGN DEGREE?

  • University of Southern California Consistently named the #1 program in the US for game design, USC offers an inter-disciplinary curriculum between the Media & Games Division and the Department of Computer Sciences for well-rounded technical and artistic content. Degrees vary, including a BA, a BS, an MFA and MS level studies. Tuition currently stands at $23,781 per semester for undergrads.
  • University of Utah Also an inter-disciplinary program, here you can choose between focusing your Entertainment Arts and Engineering Studies within the faculty of Film and Media Arts or at the school of Computer Science, with either a BFA or a BS. You can also obtain a Master Game Studio degree here. As a state university, tuition fees will be quite friendly for resident students.
  • DigiPen Institute of Technology Located in Redmond, WA, DigiPen specializes exclusively in computer science related degrees and offers a variety of specializations for Bachelor and Master level studies. This includes video game design but also digital art and animation, and real-time interactive stimulation to name a couple. Tuition is an estimated $13,600 for US citizens.
  • Rochester Institute of Technology Another specialized college, RIT offers Bachelor of Science degrees in Game Design & Development, and New Media Interactive Development, as well as an MS in Game Design & Development, at its Interactive Games and Media School, located in Rochester, New York. Full-time undergraduate tuition is $35,256 per year, plus additional charges.
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute With classes in Troy, New York, RPI offers students a major in Games and Interactive Arts and Sciences, with the possibility of taking multidisciplinary studies across the variety of faculties on offer here. Average tuition for undergrads is $34,900 per year.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Just like most creative careers, one of the most important things to have to get a job as a game designer is a portfolio. How to build this without first getting a job? In your spare time! Play around with the different platforms that are out there and just create. Of course, if you get a degree in game design, you will also be building a portfolio through your classes. Another important thing to remember is, no different from other professions, you’ll need to network. Knowing the right people is key to success. Whether it’s to work in a team with fellow students and design games for your portfolios, or meeting people who are higher up the ladder and have hiring power, no one should be off your list. Meet people from different industries. Game designers are not the only people who can give you a green light into the industry. Apparently, your chances are getting good if you are a woman within the industry. According to Garry Kitchen: “There are tremendous opportunities right now for women in game design. Game companies are working diligently to diversify their work forces, as it’s clear that the female market is woefully under-served.” Finally, be prepared for hard work and perseverance. Game design is an art, and just as any art career, it’s not always easy to get in but can be extremely rewarding in the long run.