How Becoming a Video Game Designer Works

Video games like "Rock Band" offer realistic graphics. Video-game designers need graphics skills and knowledge of computer programming. See more video game system pictures.
© Charley Galley/Getty Images for MTV

"Rock Band," "Wii Fit" and "Madden Football" are all popular video games that people line up to buy upon their release. Designing these video games requires creativity and imagination. With the continuing demand for more action-packed games, careers as video game designers are expected to grow.

For those who not only enjoy playing video games, making video games requires imagination. Video game designers devote themselves to exploring every aspect of a game and to mastering its outcome.

Have you ever wondered how to become a video game designer? Video game design is a challenging, booming business with many specialized jobs and numerous points of entry. Potential video game designers typically are passionate about this highly competitive field.

Video game designers need a variety of skills and innate abilities. The skills largely involve training in computer graphics, animation and software design. Often, the prospective game designer will obtain such training at credentialed programs at technical schools.

While a student of video game design can study hard and learn the required computer skills, another aspect of this career is harder to teach. A successful video game designer needs a powerful imagination in order to construct the alternative world of the game in his mind before creating it in cyberspace.

The need for video game designers and related careers are expected to grow in coming years as consumer demand for such products increase. The U.S. Department of Labor foresees a 32 percent increase in software publishing jobs in the next five years. Meanwhile, consumer demand continues to grow. The market research company NPD Group reported in August 2008 that sales of video game hardware and software increased by 28 percent in July 2008, reaching almost $1.2 billion [source: Fox News].

Do you want to know more about how to become a video game designer? Would you like to learn about the skills you will need and how to gain experience? Do you want to know how much video game designers earn and how it differs from other video game-related fields? Read on to find out.

Required Skills for a Video Game Designer

Designer Mark Ecko holds up his new video game, "Getting Up." Careers in video-game design are growing.
Designer Mark Ecko holds up his new video game, "Getting Up." Careers in video-game design are growing.
© Mat Szwajkos/Getty Images

Being "into" video games is only part of the equation for becoming a game designer. To turn dreams and vision into reality, a prospective game designer needs training and skills.

A video game designer must have a strong set of skills, including programming, video graphics and hardware essentials.

Video games are essentially sophisticated computer software that runs a routine while also accepting commands and data from controllers. Software contains the basic language that brings games to life. To work in the world of video game design, a game designer must be knowledgeable about computer programming and writing software.

Computer animation and graphics also play a huge role in video games, and game designers must have at least some skills in these areas. Graphics is what the player actually sees on the screen, while animation refers to bringing items within a game -- such as characters and background -- to life by putting them in motion. Many players tend to judge the quality of a video game based on realism and creative application of the graphics and animation. If the software program is the "brains" of the game, graphics and animation are its "body."

Video game designers also need a thorough knowledge of the workings of various game consoles like Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Xbox. Each brand operates in its own way using its own operating characteristics. A video game designer must be aware of these characteristics to ensure their software is compatible with the console for which it's meant. This means game designers must have some familiarity with operating systems, chip design and other factors that determine how a console operates.

Many colleges, technical schools and universities offer classes, certificates and advanced degrees in areas such as computer programming, computer engineering, software development, computer animation and computer graphics. Acquiring accredited training in these areas will show a prospective employer you are serious about your chosen field.

Other, so-called "soft skills" required for video game designers include strong interpersonal and written communications ability, organization, teamwork, an analytical mind and an up-to-date knowledge of the history and trends of video game business and markets.

Now that you know what skills video game designers need, how do you gain experience? Read on to find out.

Gaining Experience as a Video Game Designer

Video game players span age demographics like Wii bowling which even seniors enjoy. Video game designers are responsible for creating motion games.
Video game players span age demographics like Wii bowling which even seniors enjoy. Video game designers are responsible for creating motion games.
© Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

So you've looked into how to become a video game designer. Being serious, you've enrolled in and graduated from an accredited program where you learned the ins and outs of computer programming, graphics, animation and computer systems. You've got a killer idea for a new video game. All you need is a chance to develop it.

But as the old adage goes, it may be difficult to get a job without experience, and it can be hard to get experience without a job.

There are other ways to get video game designing experience, however. Some of those ways include landing an internship or apprenticeship with a video game designing company, adding levels to existing games and working on your own games that you can test and share online.

Many video game companies offer internships and apprenticeships for qualified students. Such programs help the company maintain direct contact with its key markets -- serious gamers -- while also providing the company with cheap (sometimes free) labor. You won't get rich as an intern or apprentice, but the experience you gain is a huge step in your career. You also will have the opportunity to make contacts with people already in the industry. Internships and apprenticeships aren't always widely advertised, so it's a good idea to be proactive in searching for them.

Another way of getting experience involves being hired as a freelance designer to invent new aspects of games. You can also design your own games using the wide array of readily available software for this task. Developing your own game is like building a portfolio -- it gives an employer a chance to evaluate your past work and future potential.

Another way to gain experience and make connections is finding a job as a video game tester. While the roles of game designers and testers are separate and unique, they do work in the same arena.

Now that you know how to gain experience as a video game designer, how much can you make? Check out the next page to find out.

Video Game Designer's Salary

Careers in video game design can play a good wage especially for those at the top. Here, Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo America, plays Wii against Cammie Dunaway, executive vide president.
Careers in video game design can play a good wage especially for those at the top. Here, Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo America, plays Wii against Cammie Dunaway, executive vide president.
© Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Here's something you should consider when learning about how to become a video game designer. Video game design pays a good wage. But the salary depends on a variety of factors, including where you work, for whom you work and what type or level of designer you are.

For instance, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) lists four types of game designers, including basic game designers, lead designers, level designers and fiction/screen writers. Each plays a different role in the ultimate design of a video game, and each type pays accordingly.

IGDA reports entry level video game designers make between $50,000 and $80,000 annually, averaging $57,500. The highest reported salary was $200,000.

LearnDirect career advice puts the starting salary for video game artists and programmers at about $37,000 a year, while experienced designers and lead programmers and producers earn around $85,000. Companies also typically offer bonuses for project work, as well.

Animationarena.com, a site that tracks animation news and provides links to animation education, also offers salary ranges for various game design positions. Three-D animators, for instance, make between $50,000 and $60,000 annually, while programmers with 3-D skills make up to $55,000. Lead game developers make $150,000 to $250,000 and project managers and producers with experience makes between $80,000 and $100,000. An executive producer makes up to $130,000.

Like other industries, pressure on wages ebbs and flows. When a new console is introduced, for instance, it may increase pressure on wages while companies rush to expand the number of game titles available for that system.

One thing that, so far, does not appear to impact wages is the state of the overall economy. A recent news report showed continued growth of video game sales despite a weak national economy [Fox News]. Even during tougher times, people like to play!

How are careers as video game designers different from a job as video game testers? Read on to find out.

Video Game Designers vs. Video Game Testers

Video-game testers check out video games before their wide release. Here fairgoers test the new Xbox "Halo 3."
Video-game testers check out video games before their wide release. Here fairgoers test the new Xbox "Halo 3."
© Carsten Koall/Getty Images

As we’ve seen, there’s a lot to learn when you decide to find out how to become a video game designer. Doing so takes desire, imagination, training and skill, but the rewards are many. Still, even with all these elements, it can take time to break into this competitive field.

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Many video game designers must work their way into a company, and many choose to take that first step by becoming video game testers. Becoming a video game tester allows a prospective video game designer to make industry contacts and learn the ropes while sharpening analytic skills.

There are important differences between video game designers and video game testers. One is salary: Testers typically don’t make near what designers make. But many successful video game designers will tell you they started out as interns or apprentices and used a video game testing job as a stepping stone to becoming a designer [source: IGDA].

Video game testers play an important role in the industry. They are the ones who put new games through the wringer, looking for bugs and flaws and testing new features before the game's market release, where a problem can mean disaster. Video game testers need to be methodical and organized and have great communication skills so they can easily share their findings with their employers. Great skills with the controller also can come in handy.

By working as a video game tester, a video game designer learns the business from the bottom up. He will learn how to spot flaws and how to work with the creators to fix them. A good tester will try to learn something from every game, both in terms of what works well and what causes problems. At the same time, the video game tester will have the opportunity to work in a professional environment and gain valuable experience that ultimately will help him snag his first job as a video game designer.

For lots more information about careers as a video game designer, video game tester or related topics, use the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • "Break into the Games Industry." FabJob. (http://www.fabjob.com/video.html)
  • "Computer Games Developer." Learn Direct. (http://www.learndirect-advice.co.uk/helpwithyourcareer/jobprofiles/profiles/profile1255/)
  • "Game Design Salaries." Animation Arena. (http://www.animationarena.com/game-design-salaries.html)
  • "How to Become a Video Game Designer." Animation Arena. (http://www.animationarena.com/how-to-become-a-video-game-designer.html)
  • "Preparing for your Career in Games." International Game Developers Association. (http://www.igda.org/breakingin/profiles.htm#design)
  • "Video-Game Sales Soar Despite Weak Economy." Fox News. Aug. 15, 2008. (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,404602,00.html)