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HOW TO BE A VIDEO GAME DESIGNER OR ARTIST
A job as a video game designer or developer can be a fresh and rewarding career path. If the thought of entering the industry seems appealing and you have spent a lot of time with video games growing up, then that's one thing you already have in your favor. Afterall, you should first and foremost be passionate and knowledgeable about the subject before considering making it a career choice. However, designing and developing games isn't just fun and games, despite what video footage from Naughty Dog or Insomniac might suggest. It requires creativity, daily tenacity, and a healthy appetite for taking on new challenges. Game designers and developers regularly work under tight deadlines and it can be commonplace to do extra hours or weekends during "crunch time" when the game release draws near.
Those things are unlikely to stand in your way though if you are well-suited for the job. These pages aim to help you decide if a career in video game development is right for you, and provide some resources for pursuing that route. Let's start with clarifying what the video game design process entails.
Design & Production Overview
Game design can basically be defined as the conceptual, pre-production, and production stages in video game development during which an idea or concept is used to build a design document from which the content of the game is fleshed out. The initial concept may be based on a previous idea that has proven successful or it may be based on an entirely new idea. From there, a game design document, also called a GDD or design Bible, is produced which contains the vision of the game. In other words, the rules, gameplay, content, and other unique features of the game as decided by the collaborative input of the design team and others involved in the project.
As games have evolved and become very complex, so have the stages of development. Design documents today commonly include a detailed plan for things like gameplay mechanics, user interface/controls, characters, environments, levels, storyline, art style, music, sound, and budget estimates. During production, each of these areas is usually handled by different areas of the design team while the lead designer ensures that the cumulative work remains consistent and true to the design document. Consistency is important, because the design document is often a factor in receiving funding from a publisher who has heavily invested in the project and expects a certain result. The design document is actively updated and adjusted to meet needs as development progresses, sometimes on a daily basis, but the vision must remain unchanged. Failure to stick to the GDD can bring disastrous consequences on the project.
When production stage kicks off, everyone falls into their unique roles to focus on the areas of the design document that apply to their area of expertise. Artists create concept art and 3D models or sprites, programmers write source code, sound artists develop sound effects and music, and game designers continue to manage the design and GDD alongside the progressing game.
Game development requires many job roles, including game designers, game artists, and game programmers. For an overview of what each of those disciplines involves, see our page about video game career path info.
Video Game Job Requirements
Schools are increasingly offering game design classes to prepare for specific areas in video game development, but you don't need a game design degree to qualify for a position in the video game industry. The development requirements for modern games require expertise for a variety of roles, including programmers, concept artists, animators, writers, and sound artists. You may qualify for such roles with traditional degrees like computer science, information technology, graphic design, or engineering. Game companies only care that your degree provides the essential credentials for the job, they could care less if the degree title says "game design degree". If a college in your area offers game design degrees, great! It might simplify things, but don't stress over it. The tools you use in the end are the same. A game artist may use Photoshop and Maya and a game programmer may use C++ and Java. All that matters is that the degree offers training pertinent to the job role. Many game design schools have been offering their courses for years anyway and have simply rebranded them for game design.
If you would like to view a list of schools offering courses related to game design, please see our page for video game design schools.
On the less formal side of things, creating video games requires a wealth of creativity. You may have noticed that is something we try to promote on this website. Creativity isn't the sort of accomplishment that can be given a title or acknowledged on a certificate, but it's going to show in your work and in your portfolio. This applies more to designers and artists than it does to programmers, though creative thinking can still be an asset in dealing with technical issues.
Creativity is a universal human trait and if you feed it you will realize it is there. Formal education may help you learn to harness it, but ultimately you are responsible outside the classroom for feeding it. Humans learn by imitation, and the more you expose yourself to new things the more creative you will be. Artwork, video games, movies, books, photography, and music are all great sources of inspiration, but you also need to diversify within those areas. Don't look only to what is familiar or comfortable to you. If you're an artist who draws people all the time, then throw in a landscape. Use some real photos for reference; nature is the mother of creativity. Take on a new challenge like architectural detail or combine it with everything else—build a city on the shoulders of a mythical giant walking through a Patagonian landscape. Mixing ideas is not only important as an individual, it's important as a team. Good games come from a team of creative people bouncing ideas off each other. It's a group effort. And that leads to the next point.
Show strong ability in working with others. Game design and development is a highly collaborative effort, and while there's certainly no need to be an extrovert, you do need to be a team player and know how to communicate effectively. A positive and cooperative work environment is not only condusive to idea sharing, it is also a projection of the team goal. That is, to produce creative and enjoyable games. You should also enjoy the games you create. It probably goes without saying that thorough knowledge of all types of video games and a strong love for gaming as a whole is, quite reasonably, expected of game developers. Especially those in game design roles. That is probably the easiest requirement to meet though, right?
What To Study And How To Prepare
With so many very different roles in the game industry it can be challenging to tailor advice in a single article. However, I'm going to try to avoid making generic statements. You know the kind—you're reading an interview with a game developer and nine out of ten times the guy asking the questions ends the interview with a question like "What advice can you give someone who wants to be a game developer?" And in response you get something like "keep trying and never give up" or "try to make some friends in the industry". This isn't the game developer's fault, of course. They were given a poor question that's far too generic to provide a practical answer to.
The question of how to break into the game development industry is indeed one of the most commonly asked. And the reason it is often so generic is because "game development" is generic. It's like asking how to get a job in the movie industry. Well, that depends. Do you want to be an actor? A director? How about a cinematographer, or a costume designer, or an effects artist? Game development is no less diverse and there are many paths that lead to the industry. You needn't follow the path that has worked for others. You need to decide what YOU want to do and then follow a path that will allow you to do what you enjoy on a daily basis. What is your passion? What occupies your mind when you are trying to fall asleep at night? What gives you satisfaction? Some people find the answer very quickly, others take longer. That's okay. Even if you don't settle the question until later, there is plenty you can do to condition yourself for the game industry before you have all the answers or have decided on a study to major in.
Career decisions generally wait until after one's schooling, but it's never too early for preparations. The time to begin preparing for a career in game development is not after your mandatory education years. While that's certainly not too late to start, one shouldn't think that is the time to begin either. Landing a bachelor's degree does not land you a game industry job, it only meets one prerequisite. Game developers are not simply people who are qualified for a specific skill. They prove themselves daily as creative thinkers, idea makers, and problem solvers. That's why it is so important to follow your passions, because you cannot be consistently creative if you don't enjoy your work. Nor can you produce creative work if you don't have experience to draw from. You need to experience your own world before you can create a game world experience for others. Think of everything that goes into a video game. A game world is an altered recreation of our own world. You have people with events and interactions told through stories. There are environments, cities, architecture, and transportation. You've got day and night, weather and seasons, lighting and physics. Game developers must create all of these things.
If you could travel the Earth for the first dozen or so years of your life you would have all kinds of creative potential for making games, but most of us don't have that luxury. However, we can gain similar experience through common school subjects. We can study the knowledge of the world through history, culture, language, arts, literature, religion, and mythology. We can study the rules of the world through physics, biology, and chemistry. And we can apply all of these things to game design and development. Ask a game artist if biology and mythology courses prove useful in creating unique characters and creatures. Ask a game writer if history and literature courses have an influence on writing an engrossing story. Ask a game animator if acting and psychology courses are useful in creating character facial animations and emotions for cut-scenes. Ask a game programmer if mathematics and physics courses are crucial for designing game events or a physics engine. The point is that you need to take school seriously before you can take game development seriously. It doesn't matter so much what you study as long as you enjoy it and study it well. Nearly every type of knowledge will suit some role in the game industry.
It's okay to put games on the study list too. Game developers have a lot of experience with playing games. And that doesn't mean a boastful number of hours. 6,000 hours on World of Warcraft isn't going to do you a lot of favors. This is about diversity and experience. Even playing demos helps. You can get a pretty good idea of a game's style and mechanics from a demo. Beta testing online games is great too. You get to see a lot of poorly implemented features and (hopefully) see them fixed as the game evolves and improves. Don't be afraid to be critical of the games you play. You can post your criticisms and solutions to them on message boards to spark some discussion. You may enrage some fanboys, but producing constructive criticism and putting it in words helps develop your mind to identify problem areas and improve on them; things you will find useful as a game developer. If you want some real hands on experience, give modding a try. In fact, if you have created your own mod for a PC game, that is something you might want to show off if interviewing for a game job. Employers love to see examples of your creativity! The internet contains a wealth of modding tools and level creators to help you.
Finding Game Design & Development Jobs
When looking to get hired as a game designer or developer, anticipate starting out at the bottom. It is not common to be hired directly into a game development position, regardless of what degree you have. The vast majority of job positions are looking for people with prior experience, often years worth, which is quite the catch 22 because you need to get hired to get experience, right? Well, yes, but the key is in recognizing which jobs you are cut out for and which are perhaps a little further down the road. Hint: it's probably not the ones that mention a "senior" position or work on an "AAA title". Many game developers start out just by getting their foot in the door as a game tester or programmer for smaller titles. In other words, entry-level jobs. An excellent resource for finding entry-level game job positions is Game Industry Grunts. You can find both freelance and full-time work here for casual titles, mobile gaming, and game testing. Remember, you want work experience. You can always move up the ladder.
Other great resources to watch for job openings of all levels are Gamasutra, CreativeHeads.net, GameJobs, and GameCareerGuide. It's a good idea to read the listings even if you're not qualified so you can get a feel for what kind of degrees, skill sets, and experience employers are looking for. This is the kind of information you need to keep in mind for a future job. Knowing you have a goal ahead of you is a good motivator. Games have been using it for years.