Ok you want to be a game designer. Great! But what does that mean?
Game Designer is a very broad term and is today (incorrectly) used to describe almost anyone who works in the game industry.
In reality, there is a difference between a game designer and game developer. We will talk more about different roles later.
This article will focus on how to get a job in the video game industry as either a designer or developer and the different paths you can take in order to succeed.
If you are looking to pick up a hobby as a game developer or want to make your own game and create the next Minecraft I suggest you start with our article How To Make Your First Video Game.
Can Anyone Become A Game Designer?
Absolutely! The video game industry has grown a LOT in the past two decades and is continuing to grow at an incredible rate every year.
In 2018 the global video game industry reached a new peak of $44 billion in revenue!
To put this into perspective, the global box office reached $41.7 billion in 2018. That’s right, the video game industry is officially bigger than the movie industry.
So what does this mean for you? Well, it means that there are countless of studios out there ranging from small to large trying to cash in on this juggernaut train. And they all need employees, and truth be told, while there are many aspiring game artists, you would be surprised at how few good, talented ones are actually out there.
If you are still in doubt, let me put this list in front of you:
- Artistic skills
- Technical skills
- Positive attitude
- Problem solver
- Great team player
- Eager to learn
If ANY of the attributes listed above describe you, even if it’s just one, I have every reason to believe that you can get a job in the game industry.
A positive attitude and a thirst for learning can outweigh someone with mid-high level skills who is difficult to work with and uninterested in learning new things.
Keep in mind, you are going to have to work HARD, especially your first years. If you are not ready for that, you will most likely not succeed.
Hush hush, it’s not about the money, it’s art and passion right?
Well we all need to pay rent and eat, if you have somehow found a way around this I would love to know your secret.
Jokes aside, money is important, it’s just the way it is and you deserve to know how much money you can potentially make before diving head first into a stressful career.
The good news is, you can make quite a good living off making games! As an employee in 2018 you can expect an average entry level salary of $40,000 – $60,000 (USD) annually. The more experienced employees earn around $80,000 – $120,000 annually.
Love For Games is a great resource where you can see how much each role makes broken down by company.
Is the video game industry for you?
This is an important question and you need to consider this before starting your journey.
Making games is not playing games!
While I would love to tell you all to run and chase your dreams, we need to get a few things straight first.
Most people who play video games have probably at some point thought that it would be cool to make games for a living. But you need to realize that making games is NOT the same as playing them.
Making a video is a lengthy process that requires lots of effort and problem solving. I highly recommend that you spend some evenings actually making a simple game before deciding to pursue a career in game design.
Crunch time is not a myth!
You might have heard of people working crazy hours in the game industry. I am sad to tell you that this is not a lie. Especially before delivery, people are expected to put their lives on hold and work 60 – 100 hour weeks for sometimes several weeks in a row.
Now, many of the more experienced developers have started standing their ground and refuse to do crazy over time and are still able to keep their jobs.
Working late nights and spending your weekends in the office is mostly something you will have to put up with early on in your career.
And to be honest, when you are new and learning, you probably won’t even mind. Because you are learning! And that is what you are there for.
But please realize that if you are not able to deal with high pressure and stress, you should think twice about pursuing a career in games.
Do you need a degree?
Despite what the internet is saying. Nope you don’t.
… if you are aiming to become a programmer, most employers will want to see at least a bachelor degree in computer science.
If you want to be an artist or designer, nobody cares about your education. I’m serious, nobody gives a damn.
Nobody looks at your degree, nobody reads your cover letter.
What they want to see is your art and previous work.
That is all that matters, if you can prove that you can get the job done – you have a job. Period.
However, you still need to learn how to get the job done somehow, and the best way to do that is … to go to school. Not only because of you taking classes, but also because you are setting aside a good portion of time for you to learn.
Another great bonus is the networking opportunities you get while attending school. You will have fellow students to talk to and teachers who have been out in the real world working on games (hopefully).
If you are able to learn at home in your free time and build up enough skills to compete with the rest of us, of course you will get a job!
Your first job is the best education!
If you can just land one job, an education no longer matters at all. The only purpose for an education is to provide security to your employer. It gives them a sort of proof that you know how to do the job.
A degree can also come in handy if you need to apply for a work visa outside of your home country.
We will go into further detail about this in the section “How to land your first job” further down.
Choosing your role
Enough with the boring lectures, let’s look at the possibilities you have.
There are many tasks involved in making video games, and this is where you need to identify which part suits you best.
Let’s start with the difference between game design and game developer in broad strokes.
Game design generally refers to:
- Core Game Mechanics
- Video Game Structure
- Goals in the game
- Level Design
Game developer usually refers to:
- Concept Art
- Asset creation (3D and 2D)
- Sound design & music
Here’s an info graphic I made that you can save for future reference. Please credit me if you share it!
Let’s look a bit closer at the different options you have.
Concept artists are one of the more popular choices in the game industry and is a highly competitive job. If you know in your heart that you cannot draw, don’t bother pursuing this.
You will be tasked with creating concept art of environments, characters, weapons etc.
A brief will be handed to you explaining what the designers are looking for and you will be expected to blast out different ideas, variations and sketches in a very short time frame.
You will be given notes and your work will be criticized. You will then make the requested changes and present your work again. Rinse and repeat this until they are happy with your designs.
I may have sounded harsh saying not to pursue this if you can’t draw, as you might have heard:
Everyone can learn to draw
Sure, that’s true, but you are competing against people who have a natural talent for this with an art degree and years of experience.
If you don’t have a natural talent or aren’t willing to put in thousands of hours practicing, you won’t stand a chance. Sorry.
There are different branches of programming, but for this article, we will take a glance of what it can involve. Once you are down the programming path you can always switch branches and figure out exactly what you want to do a bit later.
Programming requires a technical mind.
In general, programming refers to making things work, through code.
This involves talking to the game designers, understanding what they are looking for and writing up code which will execute what they want.
Making the character jump, move, shoot. Getting the user interface to work, buttons, sliders, what images to show. Physics simulations are very code and math heavy.
It’s basically telling the computer what to do in a language it can understand.
With this I am referring to the people who create the game assets.
This includes 2D sprites, 3D models and FX elements (such as magical effects or explosions).
3D assets also have their own departments such as modeling, texturing, uv mapping, rigging, etc.
You will be handed images from the concept artists and will be expected to turn that into a 3D character ready to be put in the game.
Generally it’s separated into Environment Artists and Character Artists. You can however switch back and forth between the two, assuming you understand both anatomy and architecture.
3D assets in games are very similar to what is used in Visual Effects in the film industry. Many 3D artists switch back and forth between the game and film industry to mix life up a bit.
Animators are tasked with animating the 3D models, or 2D assets. Basically making them move.
You will be expected to make different snippets of animations which will then be implemented in the game by the programmers.
This involves different jumps, running, crouching, etc.
The sound designers are a little more disconnected from the other departments in the sense that their work is not visual.
They bring the images to life through sound.
It is probably exactly what you expect it to be. Recording and mixing sounds that fit the style of the game and creating a cohesive sound library.
This department is very similar to sound design in movies. You will be able to switch back and forth between film and video game jobs if this is your cup of tea.
Very broad term. Someone needs to come up with what the game is about, how it works, how it plays. This is the job of a game designer.
There are different branches of game design. It’s also up to the genre you are interested in. Fantasy games will have quest design, combat mechanics design, inventory design. Shooters will be very heavy on level design and so on.
Generally, if you want to work with core game mechanics, ie how the game should work, you will need to be a jack of all trades. You’ll need to understand basic modeling, basic programming etc, in order to do simple tests and tweaks and then hand it off to the professionals to make a polished version of it.
If you work at a larger company you will have a team under you which will follow your instructions and do what you say. But I still believe that in order to be a good designer you need to sit by the computer and tinker with it yourself as well.
Exactly what it sounds like, writing the story and dialogues for the game.
It’s not as simple as that though, you need to have an understanding for what works in a video game and what makes it fun. Writing a book or a screenplay is not the same as writing for video games.
Working closely with the game designers is a must and ensuring that the game mechanics don’t suffer from your writing is paramount. The story must complement the game mechanics, not limit them.
The game industry in constant evolution and new types of jobs and departments are created all the time. Before 3D was a thing there was no such thing as a 3D artist.
- Movie directors are being hired to create compelling camera work and story telling in games.
- Professional athletes are called upon to help with making the game mechanics feel authentic.
- Psychologists and economists are brought in to figure out how to make people buy more in game items 🙁
It’s an ever changing industry and it’s impossible to foresee what the future holds for video games.
Do you need to move?
Well, it depends on where you live 🙂
But yes, it’s quite common for people to move to different cities or even countries in search of a place to work.
There are a few video game studio hub cities around the world where you will find most larger companies have a studio.
List of cities with the most game dev studios:
- San Francisco (US)
- Los Angeles (US)
- Vancouver (Canada)
- London (UK)
- Austin (US)
- Montreal (Canada)
- Tokyo (Japan)
That said, there are video game studios in almost every city. Especially with mobile games becoming huge, you’ll find small studios in almost every corner of the world.
CD Projekt Red, creators of The Witcher series and the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 as an example, are located in Warsaw, Poland.
A good place to look for studios all over the world is gamedevmap.
Building a portfolio
No matter what area you choose to focus on, you will need a portfolio.
The best way to build up a solid portfolio is to go to school.
If you would like to go down the College/University route, here’s a great list of the top video game design schools in the US.
If you want to avoid school and learn in your free time, there are a few options for you. But the most important step is:
In order to figure out what department suits you best, make games! Make your own small games to figure out which part of the process is right for you!
Figure out what you want to do, and focus on that!
If you decide that you want to become a texture artist, do a lot of it, get good at it. ONLY ever showcase your BEST work.
A smaller but good portfolio us MUCH better than a huge mediocre portfolio.
If you are new to game development and would like to try it out, I highly recommend this course by Ben Tristem at Udemy. It’s a great course for beginners and will teach you the basics of Unity and C# (coding language). It’s usually on sale for between $10-$20 so make sure to wait for a sale.
Landing your first job
If you HAVE a degree:
An education is a great start, but you still have a long road ahead of you. Hopefully during your time at school you were able to network with fellow students and hopefully some industry people as well.
Focus on building a strong portfolio really showcasing what you can do. Make sure to send out LOTS of applications and be prepared for a lot of “NO“s.
If your portfolio is solid, you keep sending out applications, you will eventually get a job. If for some reason you are struggling with this, consider taking an internship just to get some experience.
Also, talk to your fellow students, perhaps they got a job somewhere and might be willing to vouch for you. Don’t be afraid to ask, it happens all the time.
If you DON’T have a degree:
Options if you want to avoid the university route, follow these steps:
- Decide what role you are interested in
- Watch online tutorials, take courses, LEARN!
- Make your own small games
- Build a portfolio with the best of your work
- Apply as an intern (no pay) to small companies.
If you learn enough that you can put together your own game, you can show this along with 3D models, concept art etc to companies as proof of your knowledge.
Apply as an intern without pay, I know it sounds stupid, but by doing this, you are eliminating risk for your employer and your chances for being given a shot are a LOT higher.
This will provide you with an opportunity to show what you are made of, and more importantly, to learn!
All you need is a foot in the door, you can then use that company as reference for your next application (this time it should be with pay).
Real life example: 10 years back my wife started her career in production by spending 5 months as an unpaid intern (Production Assistant). She was hired immediately after her internship was finished by the same company.
The amount of stuff you will learn on your first experience working on a real product is invaluable compared to doing tutorials or attending class.
You will get a taste of what delivering an actual product really is about.
If you do well as an intern, chances are the company will offer you an entry level job. If not, you can start applying to other companies using your internship as reference.
Big VS Small Companies
To round this well overdue post up, let’s briefly talk about the difference between working at a big studio vs a small one.
At large studios you will generally have a very specific role and you will keep doing that over and over. If you are really good at modeling hands, well, that’s what you’ll do. Ok that is exaggerating a bit 🙂 But you get the idea.
Working for smaller studios can be a great deal of fun as you will be tasked with many different things. Smaller studios cannot afford huge crews and therefore needs their employees to be able to do a bit of everything.
Starting out at a smaller company is great for learning as you will get to do all kinds of stuff and experiment a bit. However, you will not be working on Battlefield or Fifa. Most likely you will be working with mobile games which might not seem too appealing, but, remember, it can still be fun and you will learn so much doing it!
Hopefully you found this article useful and please consider sharing with your friends if you did. 🙂
I will keep updating this post with fresh numbers and information so do come back and check for updates.
I want to say a big GOOD LUCK on your adventure and do let me know how it goes!
Up next: How To Make Your First Video Game
i just wanted to tell you that i really appreciate your article and your whole work here. First of all i was searching for how to make good low poly 3d model and then i found this article ”how to start a career in video games”. It’s my main problem right now what i’m solving and this helped me so much to organize thoughts in my head and hope i will be part of game industry someday.
Ah thank you for reading! I’m so glad the article were of help to you! 🙂 I wish you the best of luck in your game dev endeavors!
Marcos Morales says
I will not lie… This is a wonderful article!
My thoughts are pushing me to follow a Game Designer path – Including my Marketing master.
Not even in the Health industry I’ve seen such Mental triggers and so many wonderful structures to hook someone into emotion.
If I would like to start this Exodus, but live in South America (and not possible to travel soon)…
Where I could start learning?
Probably Udemy, or similar course sources?
Any recommended Book? Or author into it?
Hi Marcos, yes I recommend Ben tristem’s courses on Udemy, and there are tons of good tutorials on youtube as well. I like the book ”The theory of fun”