For many people, video games 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 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.
It’s an exciting industry, and many are taking notice. Increasingly, college students and professionals are pursuing careers 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 pursuit easier? And how can an applicant stand out from the crowd in this competitive, yet growing field?
What’s the Difference Between a Game Designer and a Game Developer?
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.
What is Video Game Design?
Video game design refers to the many creative aspects of building a video game. Video game designers typically work in teams to tackle elements 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.
What is Video Game Development?
Video game designers often have at least a basic understanding of what can and can’t be done from a technical standpoint, but the actual coding required to produce a video game is done by a video game developer—also called programmers. Developers work to convert the concepts created by a designer into a tangible, playable product through computer code. Just like video game designers, developers often work in teams that are responsible for different components of the game, like character development, setting, and gameplay.
Salary and Career Outlook
As with any other job, people choose to pursue a career in video game design or development for a number of reasons, ranging from a general interest in the industry and medium to a desire for a well-paying job in a growing field.
According to PayScale, video game developers in the U.S. earn an average salary of $64,744 and game designers an average salary of $65,042. Those with higher levels of experience and education often earn more—$72,000 and $73,000 for game developers and game designers, respectively, who have five to nine 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, former associate professor at Northeastern University’s Khoury College of Computer and Information Science and College of Art, Media and Design.
By 2016 the global video game market was a $100 billion business and is now expected to exceed $200 billion by the end of 2023. 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 Starting Your Game Development or Design Career
There are a number of ways individuals interested in game design or development can 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 or coding, these things are certainly easier to learn in the structured setting of a degree program, where you can lean on professors, peers, and coursework to help you grow your skills.
For that reason, video game developers and designers often earn 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 to develop skills specific to the career they’re pursuing.
2. Build a portfolio of projects you can show prospective employers.
More important than a specific 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. For example, demonstrating the ability to code, troubleshoot, and debug in different languages, 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 specifically tailored to video game development or design can open many 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 who go on to work at various companies may also become important contacts later in your career.
4. Consider entering video game design or 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.
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 Advance Your Career
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, you can build the skills you’ll need to kickstart your career.
For aspiring video game developers or programmers, a computer science degree can be a great way to gain advanced knowledge of computing and programming. Some universities, like Northeastern, also offer specializations in game design that allow students to tailor their learning to their career aspirations.
Those interested in becoming game designers may also choose to pursue a degree specifically in game design. These specialized programs focus on the science of game development and provide students the skills to launch successful products in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
Depending on your goals, earning a degree like a Master of Science in Computer Science or Game Science and Design, can help you lay a solid educational foundation, build a portfolio demonstrable of your skills, and begin establishing a professional network that can be leveraged throughout your career.