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Game Programming vs. Game Design

What are the differences between game programming and game design?
game programmer typing on keyboard

To an industry outsider, the distinction between game design and game programming might seem negligible, but if you plan to make a career out of one or the other, you need to know what's different. It's not quite night vs. day, but you could definitely call it concept vs. execution.

While there is little overlap between the two careers, they do go hand in hand. A game can't be created without both the designer and programmer working closely together from start to finish.

Game designers are responsible for the overall creative vision of the game while programmers have the technological know-how to implement the game designers' ideas and bring them to life using computer code. That's only the surface of what these jobs cover within a company, however.

What Is Game Programming?

Game programming involves taking the design specifications of the game designers, integrating the art and sound, and translating it all into a playable game. Doing this requires a lot of mathematics, logic and computer skills, particularly in the area of programming languages like C/C++, scripting languages and application programming interfaces or APIs.

The programming of a game is a complex endeavor and includes the following:

  • Mapping the terrain of the game environment
  • Implementing artificial intelligence for non-player characters
  • Connecting player input via the controller to the events happening onscreen

It's no wonder that programmers account for a huge proportion of employees at any given game studio. There are also a number of sub-specialties within game programming, which may include these (among others):

  • Graphics programming
  • Network programming
  • AI programming

Becoming a Game Programmer

Like other software engineers, game programmers usually hold a bachelor's degree or higher in a discipline such as computer science or software engineering. Essentially, the most important prerequisite to the job is proficiency with at least one of the major programming languages used in gaming. Familiarity with the game industry is also a plus.

What Does a Game Designer Do?

A game designer differs from a programmer in that this is a much more holistic and creative career than a programming career. Game designers have an innate knowledge of what gamers want in a game, and they possess the ability to see the "big picture" as far as a particular game goes. They study how the game will work and flow from start to finish. Some designers have experience as programmers or as software developers, but not all have knowledge of graphic design. On the job game designers accomplish the following:

  • Create the structure of the game, how it will be played and what its rules will be
  • Collaborate with all members of the team to successfully bring the game to market
  • Develop the game's layout, concept and gameplay
  • Create and manage product documentation
  • Entry-level designers may focus on simpler tasks, such as level design or object placement in the game

Becoming a Game Designer

Traditionally game designers earn a bachelor's degree in game production or game art and design in order to enter the field. Game developers usually look for candidates with a genuine passion for gaming, good problem-solving abilities, analytical skills, and willingness to work well within a team when they hire game designer roles.

Salaries

Because it is a technically skilled occupation, game programmers earn competitive salaries and are often among the highest-paid professionals in the game production industry. Game programmers are part of the larger field of software developers. Game designers work closely with developers and may report to them on the job.

Computer Programmers

National data

Median Salary: $93,000

Projected job growth: -9.9%

10th Percentile: $47,560

25th Percentile: $62,840

75th Percentile: $122,600

90th Percentile: $155,240

Projected job growth: -9.9%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alaska $97,030 $61,940 $133,740
Alabama $88,530 $49,090 $126,760
Arkansas $80,290 $49,340 $128,880
Arizona $77,750 $37,680 $127,110
California $105,080 $59,770 $167,810
Colorado $99,340 $38,580 $162,770
Connecticut $80,870 $47,570 $120,300
District of Columbia $101,000 $78,050 $162,940
Delaware $83,380 $61,510 $129,240
Florida $79,430 $47,080 $125,580
Georgia $96,040 $52,890 $167,810
Hawaii $98,650 $58,650 $170,790
Iowa $77,690 $38,340 $120,150
Idaho $62,860 $48,070 $107,370
Illinois $81,320 $47,050 $151,770
Indiana $76,010 $49,030 $127,910
Kansas $72,970 $57,300 $142,120
Kentucky $79,910 $48,820 $128,880
Louisiana $74,400 $43,780 $124,170
Massachusetts $101,910 $75,230 $157,110
Maryland $90,780 $61,580 $131,280
Maine $80,290 $60,680 $120,300
Michigan $77,660 $39,380 $128,880
Minnesota $86,900 $59,620 $140,950
Missouri $71,820 $38,340 $125,180
Mississippi $61,120 $36,990 $98,850
Montana $78,210 $48,790 $132,720
North Carolina $99,060 $56,780 $151,400
North Dakota $80,050 $61,120 $119,990
Nebraska $80,150 $22,950 $126,780
New Hampshire $78,060 $44,500 $127,110
New Jersey $100,810 $62,770 $167,810
New Mexico $62,520 $38,340 $119,990
Nevada $96,670 $39,740 $102,090
New York $80,600 $30,320 $165,500
Ohio $76,070 $40,210 $120,300
Oklahoma $77,540 $47,380 $120,120
Oregon $99,340 $52,840 $162,770
Pennsylvania $80,290 $50,240 $126,250
Rhode Island $80,260 $62,690 $129,780
South Carolina $82,210 $38,140 $150,860
South Dakota $61,120 $47,080 $77,620
Tennessee $80,290 $48,190 $144,870
Texas $77,290 $41,620 $128,870
Utah $94,210 $48,870 $153,570
Virginia $101,330 $60,040 $168,790
Vermont $77,670 $47,570 $126,980
Washington $167,920 $80,290 N/A
Wisconsin $94,820 $59,010 $131,040
West Virginia $74,980 $42,460 $109,830
Wyoming $79,850 $49,080 $102,090

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2030. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Software Developers

National data

Median Salary: $120,730

Projected job growth: N/A

10th Percentile: $64,470

25th Percentile: $90,870

75th Percentile: $151,960

90th Percentile: $168,570

Projected job growth: N/A

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alaska $103,010 $71,880 $158,150
Alabama $99,510 $57,880 $162,350
Arkansas $92,580 $48,550 $127,240
Arizona $102,980 $64,950 $165,470
California $140,510 $80,290 N/A
Colorado $121,130 $78,230 $166,480
Connecticut $104,160 $76,690 $161,210
District of Columbia $129,010 $80,330 $166,490
Delaware $108,440 $79,500 $163,230
Florida $101,140 $60,360 $159,180
Georgia $117,150 $64,260 $163,410
Hawaii $101,990 $74,690 $168,460
Iowa $99,510 $62,940 $132,410
Idaho $96,530 $47,790 $156,370
Illinois $102,990 $61,330 $163,360
Indiana $95,360 $59,520 $131,340
Kansas $99,320 $58,780 $136,520
Kentucky $98,750 $62,020 $132,270
Louisiana $84,620 $59,610 $136,880
Massachusetts $128,160 $79,040 $168,750
Maryland $127,690 $72,840 $207,840
Maine $99,050 $62,310 $157,990
Michigan $98,560 $61,330 $131,650
Minnesota $102,950 $66,660 $163,360
Missouri $99,780 $59,440 $138,760
Mississippi $77,960 $58,140 $127,240
Montana $80,610 $62,330 $131,340
North Carolina $119,090 $72,130 $166,250
North Dakota $78,730 $48,430 $124,570
Nebraska $101,810 $61,080 $131,340
New Hampshire $106,730 $75,300 $166,480
New Jersey $127,100 $77,150 $168,460
New Mexico $98,750 $61,080 $165,470
Nevada $99,510 $61,350 $156,980
New York $127,870 $77,500 $198,690
Ohio $99,880 $61,550 $133,090
Oklahoma $95,360 $59,830 $156,770
Oregon $103,590 $64,910 $163,500
Pennsylvania $100,720 $61,520 $157,380
Rhode Island $105,100 $75,820 N/A
South Carolina $98,510 $51,170 $159,190
South Dakota $78,990 $60,210 $125,010
Tennessee $98,180 $59,300 $131,780
Texas $103,350 $62,940 $163,360
Utah $102,600 $61,090 $162,970
Virginia $127,630 $78,270 $191,620
Vermont $99,210 $62,320 $168,520
Washington $151,960 $94,860 $191,630
Wisconsin $97,550 $61,090 $131,930
West Virginia $78,860 $47,750 $127,240
Wyoming $80,090 $49,080 $103,530

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2030. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

The game industry is highly desirable, though. Competition for jobs can be more intense than in other areas of software programming and designing—so don't bypass any knowledge or education that can give you an edge.