Game Design School and Career Guide

Get all the information you'll need to start game design school.

What’s a Game Design Career Like?

“Work isn’t supposed to be all fun and games,” your parents may have told you. Well, times have changed, and one career that is looking for kids-at-heart is computer game design.

Of course, this isn’t to say that a computer game design job won’t challenge you. Games such as “Call of Duty” and “Assassin’s Creed” don’t come together without computer game designers putting in long hours and lots of hard work. To succeed in computer game design, you’ll need to be dedicated. But if you’re passionate about video games, you’ll be happy to know that “being a responsible adult” and being a gamer aren’t mutually exclusive.

Choosing a Video Game Design School

Choosing a video game design school is a matter of priorities. Do you value a convenient location and class schedule? Is cost a major factor? Are you looking for the school with the best reputation? Only you can decide which elements make up your ideal game design college.

Find answers to a few important questions that will help narrow your video game design school search.

Game Designer Skills and Traits

These traits and skills contribute to a successful career as a game designer.

You are … You should have …
Artistic High stress tolerance
Computer savvy Communication skills
Creative Design skills
Detail oriented Math skills
Organized Problem-solving skills
A critical thinker Technology skills
Learn about the curriculum you’ll study when you attend a game design college program—and how the IGDA is informing what you’ll learn.

Keeping Up With Gamer Demand

Video games may be fun to play but the work that goes into making them so enjoyable, immersive and enthralling is detailed, psychologically-driven, and critically determined. The goal is to make the gamer want to come back, and want more. Gamers these days are smarter, tech-savvy, and looking for the biggest transportable adventure available.

To help new game design colleges formulate curricula that covers the most important aspects of design and prepares game design students to meet (and exceed) these tough user demands, and to better transition from game design school to the workplace, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) formed an Education Committee.

Suggested IGDA Curriculum

The IGDA believes that for gaming, and the study of gaming, to reach their fullest potential, the industry and schools must work together to cultivate a deeper understanding of what drives games, what experiences they may offer, and the implication of those ideas and experiences as a significant social and cultural event. Here are their recommendations for a thorough education for game designers:

  • Critical Game Studies: Students learn the history of game design and gain the vocabulary needed to communicate effectively about game design. They analyze games and get insight into what makes them successful or unsuccessful. This includes looking at games as unique entities but also examining what they share with other forms of media and culture.
  • Games and Society: Classes in this category explore games from a sociological, psychological and anthropological perspective, e.g. how games reflect individuals and groups.
  • Game Design: Game design courses teach students about the basics of game theory. Students learn rule design to interactive design to social game interaction and more.
  • Game Programming: In game programming classes, students examine the technical side of game design. They learn about computer science as it applies to the field of game design.
  • Visual Design: Students study how to design the visual elements of video games. Classes in the visual design category may include drawing, painting and sculpting, as well classes in creating 2D and 3D graphics.
  • Audio Design: Classes prepare students to design the audio experience of a game. Classes may cover music theory, composition, recording techniques, 3D sound processing and more.
  • Interactive Storytelling: Students learn the fundamentals of writing, plot, character development, experimental approaches to storytelling in literature, theatre and film. They learn how to incorporate these basics into an interactive environment.
  • Game Production: Classes in the game production category teach students about managing the process of game design, from documentation to budgeting to group dynamics through technical issues and testing.
  • Business of Gaming: Students tackle the practical aspects of funding, legal issues and marketing games. They learn about managing relationships with publishers, distributors, retailers and the impact of piracy.
What are online game design programs really like?

Why an Online Game Design Degree?

Do you love to play video games? Want to get paid for it? Earning an online degree in game design will help you turn your passion into a career. It won’t be all fun and games though—you’ll have to work just as hard as on-campus students.

If you’re thinking of studying online, you’ll be happy to know that online game design programs are continually improving and more are being accredited. Another bonus to studying online? You probably already spend a lot of time at your computer, so learning at home won’t be that different.

What Degrees Are Available Online?

Online game design degrees range from certificates all the way up to master’s degrees. There are also doctorate degrees in game design available; however, you’ll have to attend class in person to earn the right to be called doctor.

For those who want to quickly enter the field, certificate programs can be completed in as little as a year. For those in no hurry, some online game design programs are self-paced and therefore allow students to take as long as they’d like to complete their studies.

Can I Complete My Entire Degree Program Online?

Yes! Unlike before, students can now choose from quality game design programs that are not only offered online but also taught by accredited schools. Of these degree programs, some are available entirely online. However, some schools may still require you to take a few classes or exams on campus.

Will My Online Courses Be the Same as in Person?

Online game design programs offer the same comprehensive coursework as those offered at traditional schools. An advantage to online study is that some courses are designed specifically for off-campus students. Here are some classes you can take at home.

  • Game Scripting
  • Digital Media
  • Programming languages such as C++ and Java
  • 3-D Animation
  • Drawing
Learn what’s going on and what to expect in the video game design industry.

The Time Is Right

Video game design represents a vibrant and fast-growing part of the entertainment industry. Who doesn’t want to be involved in an industry that provides amusement and entertainment for 59 percent of the American public? Talk about job stability. And with digital content—including games, add-ons, mobile apps, and social networking games making up 53 percent of games sales in 2013, the industry is solid and thriving. But you’ll need to be at the top of your game to succeed within this competitive, fast-changing field.

Mobile Makes Its Move

With CD-ROMs and computer games going the way of the dodo, mobile and tablets are the top current gaming platforms. In fact the Entertainment Software Association states that 44 percent of gamers play games on their smartphone and another 33 percent play on a wireless device. While these platforms are soaring, don’t count out dedicated game consoles, such as Wii U, Xbox One and PS4. Fifty-one percent of American households own a game console and those that do, often own two.

Salary Averages

Here are median annual salaries for video game industry jobs:

Position Median Annual Salary*
Programmer $74,280
Artist/Animator $61,370
Video Game Designer $58,950
Producer $71,350
Quality Assurance Tester $34,460
Sound Designer $41,200
Business Marketer $119,480

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15; Computer Programmers; Multimedia Artists and Animators; Graphic Designer; Producers and Directors; Quality Control Inspectors; Broadcast and Sound Engineering Technicians; Marketing Managers.

*The salary information listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.

So here’s what can expect to earn and some things that may affect your salary if you’ve decided upon a career as a video game designer.

Things That Affect Video Game Design Salaries

Here are just a few of the issues that will come into play when you are looking for jobs and hoping for that big paycheck:

  • Geographic Location – If you live in a large city instead of a rural area, chances are good that your video game designer salary will be higher to account for cost of living differences.
  • Job Experience –The longer you’ve worked in the field the more valuable you’ll be to your employer. You’ll have expertise and an understanding of how to get things done in a real-world work environment.
  • Education Level – While a degree is not the be-all-end-all key to success, it certainly can’t hurt you—especially when it comes time to negotiate your video game designer salary.
  • Job Title – While paying your dues is often an inescapable part of starting a new career, it never hurts to be thinking about your job path and how you might like your career to evolve over time.
  • Employer – If you work for a large company, you may make more than if you work for a small startup. There can be clear advantages to either, so it’s really a matter of determining which employer is the best fit for you.

Where Are the Career Opportunities?

In the U.S., five states account for nearly 75 percent of the video game industry. If you’re serious about a video game design career, you may want to consider relocating to one of the following states:

Rank State Percentage of Video Number of Game Design Employees
1 California 52,996
2 Texas 13,613
3 Washington 11,225
4 New York 5,474
5 Massachusetts 4,692

Source: Entertainment Software Association Industry Report 2013.

Find out what a game design job is really like.

A game design job isn’t exactly play time; it requires some serious skills and hard work. Legendary games such as “Grand Theft Auto” and “Halo” would have never seen the light of day without video game designers putting in long hours. You have to be committed to creating a successful game; poorly received games could result in financial difficulties for a company. Being able to handle that additional pressure is a must.

It may not be a good career fit for casual gamers. However, if video games are your passion, you’ll be happy to know that “being a responsible adult” and being a gamer aren’t mutually exclusive.

Everyday Game Design Tasks

Your daily work in a game design job will depend largely on the specific job path you take. You can choose to focus your work on any phase of the computer game design process, from the initial planning, to designing characters and environments, to programming. The following tasks are all part of producing an enjoyable video game:

  • Brainstorming, collaborating and making revisions with teammates (writers, programmers, testers, artists, musicians)
  • Designing elements such as characters, levels and puzzles
  • Compiling game design document that describes game in detail
  • Working with artists and programmers to lay out the game
  • Focusing on user experience and game interface
  • Creating art and animation
  • Coding and programming
  • Managing projects (budgeting, time management, and communicating with other departments)
  • Testing and QA

Skills Needed

  • Enthusiasm and Knowledge – Just by playing video games, you’ve probably already absorbed more than you think about good game design. You’ve experienced first-hand which things frustrate users and which excite them. Experience and enthusiasm are definite assets for a game designer. You’ll need both as you embark on a video game design career—which can require long hours and a commitment to staying on top of new developments in the game industry.
  • Computer Skills – Technology is an integral part of the computer game design industry. Whether you’re writing code or creating graphics, you’ll definitely need technical knowledge and an aptitude for learning new software.
  • Artistic Ability – Graphics, animation and story are crucial components of computer game design. They can make or break a user experience. Video game characters and virtual environments are more complex than ever, which means that artistic people are in demand in the video game industry.
  • Teamwork – In a computer game design job, the odds that you’ll work in isolation are extremely slim. There are a lot of moving parts in a game design project. You’ll be cooperating with many people to meet goals and deadlines, and you’ll need to communicate your ideas clearly and effectively, both verbally and in writing.

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