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Learn the Basics of Video Game Design

The popularity of video games consoles like PlayStation and Xbox 360, desktop computer gaming, web-based games accessed through the Internet, and the rise of smartphone gaming apps have fueled a growing interest in the Video Game Design field.  Statistics published by Fortune reveal huge gains in sales within the video game industry, with revenue of $23.5 billion in 2015 alone. While that $23.5 billion represents combined hardware and software sales, at least $16.5 billion was from sales of software, which indicates a very robust industry and increased opportunities for individuals wishing to enter the field as a video game designer.   

And the pay isn’t bad either. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows much faster than average growth in video game design jobs, with a 17 percent increase between 2014 and 2024.  The median annual pay for a video game designer is $100,690, or about $49.00 per hour.  

Becoming a video game designer requires education and a creative mind. It also requires identifying which facet of the industry is most in line with your career goals – working in a small start-up company, a media firm, a software design company, or a multi-million-dollar video game production company.

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Learn Essential Concepts & Build Creative Skills

The Importance of a Formal Education

Over the past several years, many well-known universities, colleges, and private schools across the country have added video game-related degree programs. In the past, game designers might have enrolled in film school or studied computer science to become a video game designer. In fact, some of the industry's most talented designers began their careers with virtually no formal education in video game design. But, that route is virtually impossible today, and a formal education is often required to land that dream job. It's all about choices.

A future video game designer may choose from several learning options – a traditional college or university, a private art school, an accelerated boot camp program, online tutorials, or other self-guided options. Some students will thrive in a traditional college program while others may find the most benefit in an online program that allows them to progress at their own pace. 

Video game design degrees at various schools include game design and game development, as well as traditional computer science degrees with specializations in game design. In addition to the benefit of a degree, study at an accredited school may also offer the student the valuable experience of an internship. 

Theory and Technique​ 

The learning environment a student chooses should offer a curriculum that caters to the student's career goals in video game design. For example, a future video game designer who wishes to create Android smartphone games will concentrate on the programming language Java and Android OS. Development of games for the Apple iOS operating system will require work with Objective-C.  First and foremost, however, video game designers will typically learn the theories of animation, computer science and programming, and intermediate or advanced math/algebra. They will even perform tasks associated with programing language and coding. Designers will construct story plots, and create interesting characters to keep players motivated and challenged.  A good designer will also think out of the box, be original, and inventive. 

Video game designers must also possess certain creative skills to be successful in this field, such as basic drawing and design skills and communicate ideas. Designers are also aware of the various design platforms, and often fluent in 2D and 3D animation and graphics packages, such as NUKE, Maya, and Studio Max. They are computer savvy, able to communicate and work with a team, and have the fortitude to take direction and be open to critique. It also helps to be a avid fan of video games and the industry.

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Build Your Knowledge of Programming Languages

Becoming a video game designer requires finding the right learning environment. However, the path to employment in the gaming industry may also require self-guided study and on-the-job training. Programming is an essential part of the video game designer's toolkit no matter where a video game designer wishes to work within the industry. From roles in creative development to jobs as a programmer, video game designers need to build and maintain working knowledge of popular programming languages. Additionally, learning to use a programming language is like learning a foreign language. It will only remain fresh in a student's mind with regular use and repetition, so on-the-job-training is invaluable.

After completing formal training and embarking on various personal projects, a fledgling computer game designer may elect to find work as a programmer with a company that produces video games. It may take a few years to reach a managerial position or gain the qualifications necessary for a high-ranking, creative role with an established company, but "paying dues" in an entry level position is a common requirement within many industries today.

While employed in an entry level position, a new hire will receive valuable on-the-job training, even if the school program he or she completed offered a current and updated curriculum. The speed at which the industry adopts new programming languages and standards is swift, and there is always more to learn as a programmer of any computer program.

Finding success as a video game designer means building strong working knowledge of current industry trends and practices while also cultivating new skills through independent study and exploration. The best video game designers are always operating at the cutting edge and imagining new stories, games, and characters to fill creative gaming worlds.

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Build a Strong Portfolio

In most any artistic job, but particularly true for creatives like video game designers, a professional portfolio is a must-have. It can mean the difference between getting an internship, landing a job, or building your reputation. Projects that may prove valuable for a designer's personal portfolio include:

  • Mini games for smartphones
  • Scripts & stories for use in computer games
  • Animated shorts that introduce a new gaming world
  • Illustrations of environments and characters
  • Simple web-based games that showcase programming knowledge

A degree or certificate of completion in video game design or a related area may help a student get an interview with a potential employer. However, evidence of independent projects, an internship or past work experience will help a student's resume move to the top of the pile. Not only does self-guided study outside of school ensure a student remains current on newly introduced programming languages, but creating projects outside of class also helps the student build a valuable portfolio.

To learn more about the aspects of a great portfolio, read this article: Getting a Job in Video Game Design – Portfolio Tips 

Get to Know Our Experts

Tom Sloper

  • Title:
    Professor
  • Company:
    University of Southern California
  • Where:
    California
  • Experience:
    12 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Associate Professor & Freelance Video Game Designer
  • Company:
    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Where:
    Stockbridge, MA
  • Experience:
    20 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Consultant
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    San Francisco Bay Area, CA
  • Experience:
    34 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Freelancer and Professor
  • Company:
    Self & The Los Angeles Film School
  • Where:
    Los Angeles, CA
  • Experience:
    34 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Co-owner
  • Company:
    Gamebot School
  • Where:
    Woodland Hills, CA
  • Experience:
    22 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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-ManTony 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.

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