Let’s go into fatality mode and dive deep, like the TombRaider we all are, into the video game industry. Today, the market is in full swing and opportunities abound like Level Ups in Candy Crush. Video games are enjoyed by all walks of life — folks of all ages, from all demographics, and with all manner of jobs. It’s not just for a selected few. That little magic marvel you carry around in your pocket has driven an adrenaline jolt into the industry’s overworked heart. Thanks to your smartphone, the market is moving at a hundred miles per hour, and the beast needs staff. Why? It’s overworked. It’s as simple as that. It needs creative, efficient, responsive, designers that can create content. That can map out intricate, well, maps. That can build their shiny next cash-cow. Individuals that can imagine complex plots, that know the peculiarities of building code, that can draft their next big-ticket item. In this article we’re going to talk about the video game industry, give you an idea of what you need to become a video game designer, what task the head-honchos will assign you, and the types of work readily available to you. We’ll also talk about the wages of your sins — in other words, how much does a game designer make in a year. Plus, just for kicks, give you a couple of tidbits on how to get your foot in the door and land that sweat cushy gig your 12-year-old self would have given his left kidney for. All this added to the occasional, and highly informative, pop-culture reference that dates this author’s shelf-life.
It’s important to understand the vital differences between these two, often confused and switched about professions. Today, most people use them as umbrella terms, absolutely blind to the fact that they are two wildly divergent concepts with some overlap. They may go hand in hand, as peers, but they do have unique aspects that tell them apart from the other.
A video game designer is a creative - sometimes bonkers - person that is responsible for the narrative of the game. The layout. The script. They may know a thing or two about coding and software, but in most cases, their main function is to create the storyline that drives the game. To bring that concept down to earth, a video game designer is akin to a scriptwriter from Hollywood. They’ll create the characters, the narrative, the mood, draw up muck-ups, play around with the levels, the scenarios, and basically create the beat-by-beat way the game evolves from the moment the title comes up on the screen to the end credits.
A developer brings the designer’s ideas and vision to life. They use coding and software to ground that person’s grand scheme and make it digitally tangible. They are the directors, the software engineers, the animators, the AI specialist, etc.
These two groups work in tandem and closely together, joined at the hip, and you can’t have a game without the other’s interference and input. It is a collaborative effort between both teams.
For the purpose of this article, we’re going to discuss Video Game Designers, but if you’re interested in development, don’t fret, most of the tidbits and nuggets of wisdom we will hand out also work for that profession.
Part of the joy of becoming a video game designer is not only will you be given free rein of some really cool toys, a sandbox full of wonderful trinkets, but that you’ll be expected to play with them and truly knock them about. A designer has to tell a story, invent a world, understand the psychology of the player, and know-how to handle their flights of fancy and their narcotics — That’s a joke by the way. They have to create meaningful and compelling experiences for the players, using multiple skills. Some of these experiences will be over-the-top.
Among the key skill a video game designer will need are:
Finally, there’s the IT factor. A game designer has a magic ingredient no university can instill in them. A passion for making their games come true. All that, plus a massive God Complex.
This whole article is about what you’ll need to make a go inside the industry. It’s a long heavily investigated piece. Nonetheless, we’re aware that most folks nowadays have the attention span of hummingbirds on meth. So, given that, we’ve added a quick flyby of the steps, in case you simply want a rapid resume, if you want more details, stick around.
Not exactly a massive clincher but it helps. You can skip the whole earning diploma step — formal education isn’t the only way to go. Over 15% of designers don’t have a diploma, they just have a lifetime of PTSD parent basement induced trauma sponsored by Red Bull. Anyway, having a high school diploma is extremely important and can make a huge difference. It’s helpful if you take a computer coding and graphic design course while you’re juggling which anti-acne cream to use. If you decide to get a bachelor's degree, try earning a high GPA so you can attend more competitive and Ivy League universities. You might also strive to get high scores on your ACT or SAT.
Most game designers have a bachelor’s degree in either graphic design, multimedia design, computer science, or any field that is related to professionally handling that miracle machine we call our PCs. For example, machine learning and AI, right now, are the cat’s meow in the industry, pro-tip of the day. Most universities out there offer a degree specifically for video game design. You’ll get an education in software engineering, 2d and 3d animation, as well as programming languages and computer design.
Another pro-tip to consider, while starting your career as a videogame designer, is to start slinging coffee and learn the ways of the gofer — the Tao of the Intern. Grab whatever internship you can find that’s related to the field. Companies are willing to give you a look behind the curtain just as long as they only have to pay you bus fare money. During your internship, you can get the inside scoop on the industry, build contacts, foster relationships and learn valuable skills. This will allow you to have a foot over the competition and open up a smorgasbord of opportunities once you get your degree. Don’t limit yourself to just video gaming companies. Look for lucky chances and fortuitous job positions in anything related to the tech industry — graphic design, machine learning, data science, software development, tech startups, beta-testing, etc.
The video game industry is a highly competitive field. It’s important to bulk up your XP points and show potential bosses why they should choose you above the riff-raff walking in. It’s important to build a portfolio, one that highlights your skills and your strengths. If you’re a great animator, a primo software developer, a fantastic storyteller, your portfolio should be built around that magic.
Each year the industry does a pivot. Some new bee enters its bonnet and suddenly everyone is racing towards a previously unexplored benchmark. It’s important to learn new skills and, above all, be flexible. In the video game industry everything changes, one minute you're doing a tango, the next it's hip-hop — your dancing shoes must be ready to cut all manner of rugs. For example, right now, machine learning, AI, and neural networks are taking the industry by storm. New jobs are opening and fields, like data science, that hadn’t been explored by the industry are now highly solicited. The same goes for cryptocurrencies, the industry is looking for candidates that can help it exploit that angle. It’s important to remain current on the developments occurring — not only within the framework and station you work in but all around you.
There is no single best game designing school, every one has its pros and cons. Nevertheless, attending one could make all the difference and improve the odds of landing a job with a studio, or successfully launching your own game. Whether it’s a traditional 4-year university curriculum or a smaller specialty course load, game development colleges are now offering flexible schedules, online learning options, and even laser focus classes built around one tiny niche aspect of the industry.
Here are some of the best schools for game design —
Side note: before we continue and spill the beans by giving you the best schools for game designing, it’s important to give you the skinny on our ranking criteria.
USC boasts not one but 4 video game degree programs. Two at the undergraduate level and two at the graduate level. This private research university first opened its gates in 1880 at the hands of Robert M. Widney. It is the oldest, and quite possibly most renowned university in California. This is the birthplace of ARPANET, also where Domain Name Systems were created. Among its many achievements, aside from those two, you can find VoIP, Image compression, DNA computing, and dynamic software. 29 of its alumni are billionaires, 10 are Nobel laureates, six are MacArthur Fellows, one won a Turning Award - to keep up with the 12 days of Christmas analogy - we also have multiple Olympic game-winners, 326 medals in total, and the university also possesses the distinction of having the most alumni to win Academy and Emmy awards compared to other institutions. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Is it any surprise that the University of Southern California has been constantly placed in the number 1 slot when it comes to game development schools?
The biggest benefit of this university is, you guessed it, contacts. Studies have demonstrated that people with at least one contact in a company are 4x more likely to land a job than individuals without one. USC is a school known for its faculty’s connection to Hollywood and the entertainment industry. It offers its students the best hands-on experience in the country by giving them paid gigs in the gaming industry.
Number two with a bullseye, the University of Utah offers video game development programs that are both art-focused and tech-savvy. What exactly does that mean? It’s not just focused on the technical aspects of the industry, like coding, but on what makes a product good from a narrative perspective. This academy is the flagship of the Utah education system and one of the state's oldest and most revered institutions. Within its alumni, you’ll find 3 Turing Award winners, various Pulitzer Prize winners, not one but TWO astronauts, a couple of Rhodes scholars, 4 Noble prize laureates, and multiple MacArthur fellows.
The biggest benefit of enrolling in the Utes’ playground? The University has a strong relationship with EA Sports which is located just a stone’s throw away in Salt Lake City. Most students have access to valuable internships within this legendary gaming company.
Rolling in on number 3, for the bronze, is none other than the company whose strange bedfellow is Nintendo. DigiPen has a rather cozy relationship with that epic company and most students can intern and rub elbows with the likes of Link and Mario. It has degrees in just about any department the video game industry is hiring from — software development, programming, graphic designer, storytelling, etc. This includes both graduate and undergraduate degrees.
This for- profit university with a campus in Redmond, Washington, was founded by Claude Comair in 1988. FYI, Claude Comer is the co-founder of the Nintendo Software Technology Corporation. The school, unlike others we’ve written about on this list, is focused primarily on computer science, animation, video game development, game design, sound design, and computer engineering. And, as the cherry on top, the school also has campuses in Singapore, and Spain — it offers its student's exchange programs for international experiences.
Rochester’s Interactive Games and Multimedia department has more than 140 classes dedicated to Game-Making and software Development degrees. Located in the heart of Henrietta in the Rochester, New York metropolitan area, the school offers undergraduate degrees and graduate degrees. Founded in 1829, it offers all manner of curriculums. Its biggest claim to fame is the fact that it provides unparalleled educational opportunities to more than 1000 deaf or hard-of-hearing students — one of the only academies of its type. It is internationally known for its science, computer, and arts programs.
It has branches that offer foreign exchange programs in China, Croatia, and the United Arab Emirates (Dubai). The institute college also runs the Global Game Jam program — an initiative that invites students to program their own video games and present them to industry leaders.
This place boasts a truckload of well-earned achievements and is continually ranked heavy in most college-ranking sites. This is a top-tier university that most people overlook, but industry tycoons have their eye on. Founded in 1978, the nonprofit art school operates in two locations in Georgia - Atlanta and Savannah - and one in Lacoste, France. It is one of the most international schools on this list, with more than 17% of its alumni coming over from other countries. SCAD has both graduate and undergraduate B.A. degrees.
These degrees offer students the chance to interact and collaborate with industry leaders and trendsetters. Some of SCAD’s programming games have won multiple E3 College Gaming Competitions.
Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this institute is recognized as one of the best schools when it comes to empowering its students with cutting-edge technology.
Students that have enrolled in its curriculum have gone up to win multiple gaming awards, including the Microsoft Imagine Cup, and the Adobe Achievement Awards. Founded by financier and philanthropist Anthony Joseph Drexel - also known as “The Man Who Made Wall Street” - in 1891, the institute works heavily with what is called “cooperative education.” What exactly is that? Drexel faculty and administrative board believe that a well-rounded student has both book smarts and street smarts. This means that they have to come out of their hallowed halls with some grit in their belly, some job placement experience in the field they want to work in. A prominent aspect of the school’s value system is that all students are offered at the very least 18 months of gainful, full-time work experience in a field that is relevant to their program.
What makes the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute so unique when it comes to a degree in video game design? The fact that it allows its students to major in a second field. Aside from Games and Simulation Arts and Science, students are encouraged to seek out advanced degrees in other subjects, including cognitive science, storytelling, art, writing, psychology, human-computer interaction, AI, etc.
The institute is located in Troy, New York, and is one of the oldest technological universities in the country. One of the best things about it - aside from a faculty and alumni chronology full of National Medal of Science winners, Nobel prize laureates, and dozens of members in almost all types of governments sponsored national committees - is the fact that the institute operates an on-campus business incubator with multiple start-ups including up and coming video game companies.
A classic in the field, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts has a multitude of plans available for its alumni when it comes to graduating as a videogame designer. This includes, but is not limited to, a Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts degree in Game Design, as well as a Minor in in-game Design. NYU was founded by a group of wealthy New Yorkers, including the Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin in 1832. The list of famous alumni is simply too big, we'd need another article. Nonetheless, you’ll find a U.S Supreme Court Justice, a couple of governors, 30 Emmy Awards winners, 12 Grammy winners, 17 billionaires, 26 Pulitzer Prize winners, 3 heads of State, 12 U.S. Senators, 38 Nobel laureates and that’s just the opening salvo. NYU has campuses in Paris, Prague, Sydney, Tel Aviv, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, London, Florence, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai.
Students that want to study video game design are given valuable resources, such as the Media and Games Network at the NYU Brooklyn campus, Game Center Open Library, and NYU Game Center.
Whether you spell it as two words, per Merriam-Webster or you conjoined them into a compound term, the video game or video game industry is a booming field that is predicted to grow over 12% in the next 5 years (2021-2026) and serves over 2.7 billion gamers worldwide. As of 2018, the industry was valued at $300 billion. It’s a huge industry, that according to Glassdoor, is facing unimaginable skills gab — H.R. Departments take 37% longer to field positions. So, if the question is, whether you can enter the video game design industry without a degree? Then the short answer is: YES. As long as you can prove your worth to them, they don’t care about your diploma.
The truth is that a lot of the best indie game developers and designers started outright from their homes with free education, using the materials readily available to them. Today there are multiple free apps, classes, tutorials, and videos that help you whip up a pretty decent looking game within a couple of months just by putting in the elbow grease every single day. Engines such as GameMaker and Construct 3 have opened up the toolbox for most video game enthusiast that don’t want to go the preconceived academia route of old.
Game logic, all that stuff that makes a game, well a game starts with code. Visual programming languages will only take you so far. Code teaches you how to think logically and solve complex problems.
Python is by far the easiest of the programing languages since its syntax is simpler to understand when compared to the likes of C. You YouTube is a great repository for a crash course. Follow channels like LearnCode.academy, thenewboston, Derek Banas, freeCodeCamp.org, and Programming with Mosh.
Unity, GameMaker, Construct, Unreal, Godot, and dozens more provide great tools to create games. You can use design software, like Photoshop or Lightroom to come up with unique artwork. Game engines provide a great platform for those people that simply don’t know how to code or struggle with it.
Meet and greets are vital. You need to network and smooch and get into the business by meeting up with the players. Game expos and developer meetups are a perfect place to rub elbows with movers and shakers. Seek their guidance, get your face out there.
Don’t just limit yourself to your genre of choice. You need to look at well-designed games from multiple periods, epochs, platforms, countries, and genres. Understand their mechanics and what makes them tick. Get under the skin of their creators — why they decided that particular hue of light, why they choose that menu or HUD screen.
Whether they are free or paid, right now you can get all manner of courses online. Including a particularly legendary and mind-blowing Masterclass by Sims Will Wright — The guru teaching us mortals game design and theory.
Sign up to communities and blogs like GitHub, r/gamedev, UnityForums, Stack Overflow, the Android Development Community, HobbyGameDev.com, Gamasutra, Gamedev.net. It’s important to share ideas with like-minded folks.
Also, follow people like Jonathan Weinberger, Vladimir Limarchenko, and Alexander Zotov are great creators and developers — That’s one of the real functions of Twitter, the ability to get inside an influencer's head.
How do you get a job with a degree? You need a portfolio. You need to show studios that you have the necessary skills. That you built something great out of a hobby.
Don’t stay mired in just one skill set, remember video game design or video game development is really about understanding a world of your making. You need to be able to not only envision the fluffiness of the clouds but how they interact with the winds, how light dances on their surface, what happens when they start to rumble, how their shadows fall on your players. All those aspects, of just one tiny thing you introduce into teh savage world that is your game, need concept art, writing, sketching, a mild understanding of meteorology.
Finally, how much is the median salary for a video game designer in the US?
The average in this great nation is $71k. Nonetheless, according to Glassdoor, a developer or designer with experience can break the bank and not only get a whooping $130k but also other perks like a percentage of revenue from a game the helped construct to stock options from the company.
Never give up. It’s a rocky road with a lot of challenges up ahead, but one filled with rewards and one that lights up your passion. Like the saying goes: “choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life." Nose to the ground, eyes on the prize. That’s our final and most important tip.
PS - If you're looking for Video Game Designer jobs we have you covered here.