Video games mean a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, they are a nostalgic reminder of their youth. For others, they offer an immersive storyline and plot, or represent a piece of visual art—with graphics that are beginning to push the boundaries of reality. Video games can also be educational and functional, providing an interactive way for players to learn new concepts and ideas.
With so much to offer, it’s little wonder that many college students and working professionals aspire to pursue a career in video game development and design.
But how exactly does a person break into video game development and design? What kind of education makes this easier? And how can an applicant stand out from the crowd in this competitive, yet growing field?
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Whether you have a technical or non-technical background, here’s what you need to know.
An Important Distinction: What’s the Difference Between Video Game Developers and Designers?
Though the terms “video game design” and “video game development” are often used interchangeably—especially by those outside the industry—they do, in fact, mean very different things. If you’re trying to establish a career in the video game industry, it’s important for you to have a clear understanding of what these differences are.
Video game design refers to the many creative aspects of building a video game. Video game designers typically work in teams to tackle issues such as setting, character, and object design; animation; and the overall mood, style, and mechanics of a game. Really, any work related to the visual or creative vision and design of a video game will come from a designer, typically in the form of sketches, concept art, animations, or storyboards.
Though video game designers will often have at least a basic understanding of what can and can’t be done from a technical standpoint, the actual programming involved in producing a video game will be done by a video game developer—also called programmers. Developers work to convert the concepts created by a designer into an actual, playable product through computer code. Just like video game designers, developers will often work in teams who are responsible for different components of the game, like character development, setting, and gameplay.
Why Do People Become Video Game Developers and Designers?
Just as with any other job, people choose to pursue a career in video game design or development for a number of reasons, ranging from having general interest in the industry and medium to a desire for a well-paying job in a growing field.
According to an industry-wide salary survey conducted by video game news site Gamasutra, video game developers in the U.S. can expect to earn an average salary of $93,251 and game designers an average salary of $73,864. Those with higher levels of experience and education often earn more—$113,177 and $86,563 for game developers and game designers, respectively, who have six or more years of experience.
Though the video game industry is a competitive industry to break into, it has experienced consistent growth in the past few years and is projected to see continued growth, says Magy Seif El-Nasr, associate professor at Northeastern University’s Colleges of Computer and Information Science and Art, Media and Design.
In 2016, the global video game market became a $100 billion business, and is expected to hit $132 billion by 2021. This growth has allowed the industry to attract greater and more diverse talent that may have, in the past, been drawn to other kinds of technology companies and startups.
“The market and the industry have begun to mature, which has stabilized the industry,” Seif El-Nasr says. “New technologies like virtual and augmented reality have opened new mediums for experimentation, and new outlets like web and mobile have opened the market to more players. All of these have spurred hiring.”
It’s a given that salary and job prospects likely play at least some role for individuals who become video game designers and developers. But the primary motivation for seeking one of these careers is, according to Seif El-Nasr, simply a passion for the industry.
“The people who are most successful in creating a career for themselves in the video game industry are those who pursue it out of a passion for the industry and medium,” Seif El-Nasr says. “They likely grew up playing video games. They relate to the stories and the artwork and the gameplay on a personal level. It’s the same reason many book lovers want to go into publishing.”
Tips for Breaking into Game Development
Though the video game industry can be challenging to break into, there are a number of things that individuals interested in game design or development can do to increase the likelihood of landing one of these coveted jobs.
1. Lay the Groundwork with a Related Degree
According to Seif El-Nasr, most employers in the video game industry do not place a lot of weight on specific college degrees. What’s more important is that you can demonstrate you’re able to do the work.
But while it may be possible for you to teach yourself the basics of design and/or coding, these things are certainly easier to learn in the structured setting of specific degree programs, where you can lean on professors, peers, and coursework to help you grow your skills.
For that reason, video game developers and designers will often have earned an undergraduate or graduate degree in computer science. Degrees that offer specializations or concentrations specific to video game design can also help give future applicants a leg up on the competition by allowing them develop skills specific to the career that they will be seeking.
2. Build a Portfolio of Projects You Can Show Prospective Employers
More important than a particular degree, Seif El-Nasr says, is that applicants can demonstrate proficiency in programming or design. The best way to do this, she says, is to build a portfolio of projects that prospective employers can evaluate.
Whether your portfolio consists of projects done out of personal interest, as a part of degree coursework, or for commercial gain doesn’t really matter. What matters is the quality of the product, and also the diversity in the portfolio. Demonstrating an ability to code, troubleshoot, and debug in different languages, for example, or design in multiple mediums and artistic styles, may help to differentiate job applicants.
Of course, students will often use their undergraduate and graduate studies as a means to an end in creating a portfolio of finished projects that can be shown to future employers. Degrees like those offered by Northeastern University, which prioritize experiential, hands-on learning can be especially helpful in this regard.
3. Leverage Industry Connections to Get Your Foot in the Door
As with any career, the best way to break into an industry is to leverage your network and connections. Knowing someone who works at, or has worked at, a specific company means that you may be able to land an interview or earn a well-respected recommendation.
Because professional networks usually grow out of work experience, this can be difficult for many recent college graduates who have not yet worked in the industry. For this reason, choosing a degree program with experiential learning opportunities that’s specifically tailored to video game development and/or design can open a lot of doors for graduates. In addition to allowing students to build experience and a portfolio of projects, it comes with a built-in network of faculty and peers.
These degree programs are typically staffed by faculty who have worked in the industry, meaning that they have industry contacts that students can leverage when they are applying for jobs. Classmates, too, who are hired by different companies may become important contacts later in your career.
4. Consider Entering Video Game Design/Development Competitions
Taking part in industry competitions focused on video game design or development is another way that applicants can stand out from the crowd, Seif El-Nasr says, for a number of reasons.
The first is that competing gives applicants the incentive to finish and fine tune the projects in their portfolio; after all, you can’t compete without a finished project to submit. But beyond this, participating in competitions offers applicants a way of getting in front of potential future employers, and is an important part of building a professional network.
“In addition to demonstrating passion and initiative, participating in a competition will also allow you to show the ability to take criticism and hopefully incorporate it into a stronger end project,” Seif El-Nasr says. “This is an important part of working on a team, and a skill that hiring managers look for.”
Leveraging Education to Get Your Foot in the Door
The video game industry can be a challenging one to break into for designers and developers. But by choosing the right degree program, preferably one focused on experiential learning like a Master of Science in Computer Science or Game Science and Design, students can lay a solid educational foundation, build a portfolio demonstrable of their skills, and begin establishing a professional network that can be leveraged throughout their careers.